Thursday, 20 June 2019

Conspicuous Conflict: How The Next Generation Set the Tone for Discovery with The Pegasus

The Next Generation’s The Pegasus may have been responsible for the annual celebration of Jean-Luc on June 16th corresponding roughly to the story’s star date of 47457.1 yet it also represents a key moment in the development of the franchise in several different - and perhaps unexpected - ways.

While we can easily get caught up in the frivolities of the teaser section and the ensuing additional Star Trek celebration day (which is now only a few days past), The Pegasus is the most significant single episode of the final season of The Next Generation (not counting All Good Things…), blowing character, situation and Star Trek canon clean out of the water...or more accurately the galaxy.

Indeed, The Pegasus is one of The Next Generation’s darker moments, a twist in the tale of which even Gene Roddenberry may not have approved due to one vital element that separates it from the ethos of the Great Bird - conflict. To be more specific conflict between humans and tighter still, the main cast.

Opening up Commander William Riker’s backstory, the Enterprise is in a race against time to beat the Romulans to a starship missing for 12 years and containing a vast array of experimental technology including (spoiler alert) a Federation phasing cloak.

Riker initially chooses to keep the true purpose of the mission secret and follow the line of his former commander now admiral, Eric Pressman (Terry O’Quinn aka Locke in Lost). This places him unusually on the opposite side of the fence to Captain Picard and puts the Enterprise itself in serious jeopardy.

The story brings into question the very transparency and honesty of Starfleet. It had been six years since the aliens of Conspiracy infiltrated the organisation but this time there was no external influence. Starfleet had, at some time, decided to go against the Treaty of Algeron and built a - nearly - fully operational cloaking device. The usually squeaky clean Starfleet is dirtied unexpectedly with the The Pegasus offering a precursor to Eddington’s defection to the Maquis in Deep Space Nine and one might suspect the inclusion of Section 31 pretty soon afterwards. Everything is indeed fallible; everyone is an open book and nothing can be taken at face value and if the Cardassians, Romulans and Klingons have their secrets then surely the Federation must too?

The real heart of this story however is the three way tug of war between Pressman, Picard and Riker. The admiral uses his rank, influence and knowledge of Riker’s past to attempt to manipulate the Enterprise first officer to his cause and keep a terrible secret for just a while longer. However this move means Riker is placed directly against Picard who gets to the point where his demand for answers is rebuked and leaves him with potentially the need to replace his Number One. It's a chilling moment in the show seeing Jean-Luc not even miss a beat when he is considering the safety of the crew and families in his care  nor how this all seems to be going against the best interests of the Federation itself.

In the backstory to the events of the seventh season tale, the mutiny on the Pegasus brings into question who was right at the time of the failed cloaking experiment and for once not everyone is coming to the same conclusion even if they are all apparently on the same side. 

Interestingly this is the only recorded mutiny to have ever taken place on a Federation starship because Burnham and the events of her career are silenced following Discovery's disappearance. Picard himself states that mutiny on a Federation starship is unheard of - so Section 31 definitely did a good clean up job after she disappeared into the future. Anyway...

The crew of the USS Pegasus were split on whether it was right to be playing around with the cloaking technology leading to a handful of them including Riker and Pressman abandoning ship thus leaving the remaining individuals to an unknown fate. Rarely have we seen or heard of Starfleet crews not coming to the same decision or deciding on the greater good by a majority yet here we have a divide between morality and duty which is again played out in Pressman versus Picard 

At its heart The Pegasus demonstrates that the added spice of conflict between main characters can have a beneficial effect on the story although the situation is you would not expect Starfleet to find itself embedded in nor was it replicated that often during the first 50 years of the franchise. It's a testbed for some of Deep Space Nine's grittier moments and could have shown the potential for Voyager to really explore than Maquis versus Starfleet edge but alas it would take another 23 years before a series producer would finally choose to do away with Star Trek's greatest creative barrier.

The Pegasus held up surprisingly well for a 25 year old episode and resonates even more with the arrival of Discovery in which conflict is essential to and drives the story and the development of the characters. Riker’s reputation and ethics are called into question and rarely do we see Starfleet officers - upstanding Starfleet officers - having their actions scrutinised so closely yet here we are brought to an impasse where duty and loyalty collide.

Look at the early episodes of the latest Star Trek series and they’re not too dissimilar with Burnham turning on Georgiou to attempt to pacify the Klingons as well as the ongoing tensions and conflicts between the crew. While the waters on Discovery are a little greyer than those in the 24th Century, the conflict only arises here because of direct orders to keep the secrets of the lost starship just so. It’s one of The Next Generation’s most charged episodes when it comes to the main cast allowing both Stewart and Frakes chance to dabble in a bit of comedy and then almost the polar opposite by the third act.

It also presents more insight into the past of Riker through his time with Pressman, the reason that Picard chose him from the long list of glowing recommendations and that even at this stage, the captain won’t allow things to get in the way of the rest of the crew and the ship however long he’s known his first officer. 

The Pegasus is one of the last, great episodes from the era of The Next Generation and well worth revisiting today of all days. On the surface it might be explaining retroactively why the Federation doesn’t have cloaking technology but below that exterior is a much more intense character piece. If you're looking to find great Star Trek during the first Golden Age, then this is a damn fine place to start.

What other moments of conflict has Star Trek managed to get away with before Alex Kurtzman took the plunge?

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