Recap: Star Trek The Next Generation S 4 E 21 The Drumhead

Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Episode: Season 4, Episode 21
Title: The Drumhead
Previous: Qpid
Next: Half A Life
Recapper: Anarquistador

Things are tense aboard the Enterprise. A few days ago, an explosion in the engine room put the warp core out of commission and several crew members in sickbay. Sabotage is suspected, and all signs point to J'Dan, a Klingon scientist currently serving aboard the Enterprise as part of the Federation-Klingon Officer Exchange Program (remember that?). Starfleet Intelligence has discovered that several design specs and schematics of Enterprise systems have fallen into Romulan hands right about the time J'Dan started serving aboard. J'Dan denies the charges, naturally, but his behavior during and immediately after the inquiry raise suspicions. Troi detects that he's hiding something, and as Worf escorts him back to his quarters J'Dan tries to bribe him: he's got powerful friends back on the Klingon homeworld, he claims, and if Worf would help him escape the Enterprise he could see what he could do about that whole family disgrace thing Worf has. Fortunately for him, Worf has enough presence of mind to wait until they've gotten back to his quarters before sucker-punching J'Dan and promising him that he'll expose his spying ways.

A short time later, the Enterprise receives a visitor. Starfleet Command has been watching the situation, and have deemed the threat of espionage significant enough to warrant a formal investigation. To that end they have plucked legendary intelligence expert Admiral Norah Satie out of retirement, and with her arrival the investigation kicks into full gear. LaForge and Data are still waiting to assess the damage to the warp core; the radiation levels inside the engine room are still too high to enter safely. But security footage of the explosion indicates a sudden catastrophic failure of the dilithium chamber's hatch, which could well be the result of sabotage. Furthermore, Worf's investigation has turned up something. J'Dan has a medical condition which requires regular injections. And his personal hypospray has some very interesting modifications to it. He can download information from the Enterprise's computer and onto his sprayer, where the info is then encoded into a chain of biological material. Worf's further investigations reveal that several people who have left the Enterprise while J'Dan has been serving there have since mysteriously disappeared. Basically, J'Dan has been using random people as "data mules", injecting them with the encoded information, and then directing his accomplices to abduct them. Satie is so impressed by Worf's work that she requests that he be part of her investigation team, and that he lead the interrogation of J'Dan.

Confronted with this new evidence, J'Dan cracks, admitting that he's a spy for the Romulans and a traitor to the Empire. However, he still claims to know nothing about the warp core explosion. It's a puzzling thing that he refuses to admit to this in the light of the rest of the evidence against him, but that sets Satie's suspicions off. She finds it hard to believe that J'Dan was acting alone, and if he was in fact telling the truth, then he might not be only spy aboard the Enterprise. She continues her investigation, focusing on the Enterprise medical team as they were the ones with the most frequent contact with J'Dan. Picard is uneasy with the course the investigation is taking, but Satie assures him that it's just a routine inquiry. And that she and he are a team, the Enterprise and her crew are his command, and she will not step on his toes.

...Okay then...

The investigation proceeds, and it soon uncovers a suspect. Simon Tarses, a part-Vulcan medical technician who most often attended to J'Dan when he came into Sickbay for his regular checkups. During his interview Tarses is cooperative, but extremely nervous. And Sabin Genestra, Satie's Betazoid aide, senses that he's hiding a very big secret.

Satie immediately recommends that Tarses be watched and his movements restricted, but Picard disagrees. There is no evidence that Tarses is really a spy; all they've got to go on is a Betazoid's read of his emotions...and well, who wouldn't be nervous in his situation? Before this argument can go much further, LaForge checks in. The engine room is clear, and he and Data have finished their investigation. The explosion was not due to sabotage. The chamber hatch failed due to metal fatigue. It was an accident. The fact that it happened at the same time there was a spy on board was a complete coincidence.

This doesn't stop Satie, however. She's convinced Tarses is hiding something, and is determined to root it out. She calls him back for another inquiry...and this time she makes the hearing open to the public. Genestra tears into Tarses, firing off hostile question after hostile question, until finally he makes his biggest accusation: the secret Tarses has been hiding is that he lied on his Starfleet application. His grandfather wasn't Vulcan; he was Romulan.

This whole situation is now leaving a bad taste in Picard's mouth. First he speaks to Worf about it. But Worf believes that the Admiral has the best interests of the Federation at heart, and he's adamant about working with her to root out these Romulan collaborators. Then he speaks to Simon Tarses privately, to get to know the man a little. He finds that all Simon is really guilty of is being too enthusiastic about joining Starfleet; lying on his application was his way of trying to avoid any questions about his loyalty (ironically, the very thing that's happening right now). And now, Tarses laments, the career he worked so hard to build is done.

Finally, Picard confronts Satie. This has gone on long enough, he says. He will no longer cooperate with her investigation, and if she refuses to stop, he will go to Starfleet Command directly. Satie counters with the fact that Starfleet Command authorized her to do this, and furthermore, the head of Starfleet Security, Admiral Thomas Henry, is on his way to the Enterprise to personally observe the further investigations. The inquiries will continue with Henry in attendance...and Captain Picard himself will be the next one on the stand.

When Picard takes the stand, he's immediately called to account for nearly every black mark on his record, from his occasional bending of the Prime Directive to his assimilation by the Borg. At this point Worf finally realizes this is getting out of hand and tries to defend his captain, but he's smacked down by Genestra, who calls his loyalty into question due to his family's alleged conspirings with the Romulans. Picard responds to these accusations by quoting the words of Aaron Satie, renowned Federation lawmaker and Norah Satie's father, regarding personal freedom and suppression of rights.

Picard quoting her beloved father's words back to her causes Admiral Satie to go berserk, launching to a scathing tirade that exposes her as paranoid tyrant. Everyone, including Satie herself, is shocked; even Admiral Henry gets up and leaves the room in disgust.

The hearings are stopped, Admiral Henry leaves, and Admiral Satie is sent back out to pasture. Worf and Picard discuss the events of the last few days, and Worf beats himself up for allowing himself to be Satie's tool. Picard assures him that he wasn't alone, that those who spread fear in the name of righteousness are not always easy to spot. And that the cost of freedom from tyranny is to be on guard against people like her. "Vigilance," Picard says, "That is the price we must continually pay."

Tropes featured in "The Drumhead" include:

  • Amoral Attorney: Sabin, although even he thinks that Satie's rant at the end is going too far.
  • Ascended Extra: Due to his extreme Woobie-ness, Simon Tarses has a surprisingly large fanbase. He's a recurring character throughout several Expanded Universe novels, and despite a few setbacks brought about by the events of this episode, his career has survived more-or-less intact.
  • Berserk Button: Satie's interrogation of Picard is basically the two of them trying to push each other's Berserk Buttons. Picard does not rise to the bait; Satie does.
    Satie: Tell me, Captain, have you completely recovered from your experience with the Borg?
    • Sabin hits Worf's button by bringing up his father and his (false) collaboration with the Romulans. Picard has to stop Worf from doing something unpleasant.
  • Bottle Episode
  • Break Them by Talking: Picard delivers one of his famous speeches near the end of the hearing, leading to Satie's Villainous Breakdown as she spits back a flurry of invectives, surrendering any credibility.
    Picard: You know, there are some words I've known since I was a schoolboy: "With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured...the first thought forbidden...the first freedom denied—chains us all irrevocably." Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom... and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on, we're all damaged.
  • Bribe Backfire: Not a monetary bribe, but J'Dan offers to have some powerful friends help restore Worf's honor in exchange for Worf's help escaping the Enterprise. Worf responds with an Offhand Backhand.
  • Call Back: "The Drumhead" references events which occurred in other episodes as far back as the first season. Mostly likely a relic from the original concept as a Clip Show.
  • Daddy's Girl: Norah Satie loved her father a great deal. Which goes a long way toward explaining her tirade when Picard quotes him back to her.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Picard mentions to Worf how villains of this sort are easier to spot than the Bitch in Sheep's Clothing, thus providing this episode's Aesop.
  • Directed by Cast Member: By Jonathan Frakes. Which explains Riker's absence from much of the episode.
  • Don't Answer That: When Sabin demands that Tarses admit that his paternal grandfather was a Romulan, rather than a Vulan, Riker tells him not to answer.
  • Everyone Has Standards: When the head of Starfleet Security, the guy whose job it is to be paranoid, thinks you're going too far...
  • Fantastic Racism: Anti-Romulan sentiment plays a significant role in this episode. Satie's suspicions about Tarses are based solely on his ancestry, not his personal feelings or political leanings. Ironically, she proves that he was right to fear discrimination based solely on being one-quarter Romulan.
  • Freudian Excuse: Worf seems to have this going on. The disgrace of his family due to the accusations of his father collaborating with the Romulans drives him to prove his loyalty and hatred of the Romulans even more, falling under Satie's influence very easily. It's when Genestra brings his family history up against him that he finally realizes he's on the wrong side.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: To hear Satie tell it, she and her brothers had a mild version of this: their father would force them to debate current political issues at the dinner table, even timing them and declaring a winner at the end.
  • Hypocrite: Satie accuses Picard of being this, when he refuses to accept Tarses's guilt based on "nothing but Betazoid intuition." Satie promptly points out how much he often relies on Troi's intuition in similar situations...and to Picard's credit he concedes the point, and says he's going to reconsider that going forward.
  • Insane Admiral: Satie turns out to be this. Fortunately, Henry isn't.
  • Iron Lady: Norah Satie is poised, dignified, and unwavering in her convictions, up until her Villainous Breakdown.
  • Kangaroo Court: Satie turns the hearings into this until Henry shuts her down.
  • Knight Templar / Well-Intentioned Extremist: Admiral Satie. She genuinely loves the Federation and has devoted her life to its service. Unfortunately she lets paranoia and a desire for the spotlight get the better of her.
  • Living Lie Detector: Sabin Genestra is used as this. Interestingly, his abilities seem, if anything, even more limited than Troi's in that this is all he is. Other Betazoids, such as Lwaxana Troi and Tam Elbrun, have been shown to be capable of pulling a lot more information out of people's minds without any invasive probing.
    • On the other hand, he does manage to pull out the bit of information that Tarses's grandfather was Romulan instead of Vulcan. In the same situation, Troi wouldn't be able to get more than "he's hiding something".
  • Lying to the Perp: Sabin pulls this on Tarses, claiming that the warp core accident was caused by chemicals that Tarses had access to (even though it was an accident). Tarses refuses to cop to anything.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Worf's reaction at the end.
    Worf: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she truly was.
  • Red Herring: The warp core explosion. Turns out there is such a thing as coincidence.
  • Shutting Up Now: Satie, realizing that she's ruined herself with her Villainous Breakdown: "I have nothing more to say."
  • Stock Legal Phrases: Tarses invokes "The Seventh Guarantee" of the Federation Constitution, which appears to be the Federation equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: protection from self-incrimination.
  • There Are No Coincidences: Subverted. The Klingon spy had nothing to do with the core explosion, which really was an accident. Satie, however, seems to believe in this trope.
  • Uneven Hybrid: Simon Tarses claims to be one-quarter Vulcan, although he is actually one-quarter Romulan. This is more politically than biologically significant, since Vulcans and Romulans are technically the same species. Tarses himself appears to be human except for slightly-pointed ears.
  • Values Resonance: Stylistically, this episode evokes the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's, but really the themes of paranoia versus freedom, and fearmongers who take advantage of political tension to gain power, is applicable to any situation where there is suspicion and the threat of war, all the way up to the War On Terror.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Satie has an epic one at the end of Picard's hearing.
  • The Voiceless: Henry doesn't speak a word on screen, but his face and actions say everything.
  • What Could Have Been: "The Drumhead" was originally envisioned as a budget-saving Clip Show, but the writers rebelled against it. Instead they created one TNG's most compelling episodes...and still brought it in under budget.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of J'Dan's "mules" is never revealed, or for that matter if they were willing accomplices or just unsuspecting victims. Although, considering it's Romulan intelligence doing the abductions, maybe we're better off not knowing.
  • The Woobie: Simon Tarses. Young, eager, Adorkable pointy-eared crewman, career in shambles due to one simple mistake and one person's paranoia...yeah, he's a Woobie.