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Recap / Star Trek: The Next Generation S1 E25 "The Neutral Zone"

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Welcome to the 24th century."
Captain Picard
"Alright, it's been 400 years, so you'll be seated for a while."

Original air date: May 16, 1988

Picard is away, so Riker gets the Cool Chair, and the Enterprise has encountered an old space capsule from Earth. Data pushes to investigate it with Worf, and they find three Human Popsicles whom they beam back aboard the Enterprise. When Picard returns, he immediately orders Geordi to plot a course for the Romulan Neutral Zone. At a staff meeting, we learn that the Romulans have not had any contact with The Federation for decades. Picard explains that the Federation has lost contact with its outposts along the Neutral Zone, and Starfleet is sending the Enterprise to investigate. Their orders are to avoid a military confrontation if possible.

Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher has the people from the capsule asleep in Sickbay. She explains to Picard that they were placed in cryogenic freeze after dying of then-terminal illnesses, but now they have been easily saved by modern medicine. Picard is less than enthusiastic to have to deal with three 20th century yokels on his ship during such a critical mission. He delegates Riker to handle them. They are Sonny Clemonds, Ralph Offenhouse, and Clare Raymond. Ralph is eager to reconnect with his 20th century fortune, Sonny is curious about what you do for fun in this modern age, and Clare grapples with the fact that everyone she ever knew is dead.


Meanwhile, Picard is trying to decide what approach to take with the Romulans when they arrive at the Neutral Zone. Troi tells him that the Romulans will make no first move and will look to react to the Federation's action, a species of "counterpunchers." The other officers advise a range of postures to take, from aggressive to diplomatic. But as they confer, an impatient Ralph commandeers a communication panel to make demands directly to Picard, forcing the captain to deal with his unwanted guests directly. Picard dresses down Ralph for his obsession with wealth, though Ralph notes that his wealth did, in fact, save his life. Their argument is interrupted by Clare bursting into tears, so Picard has Troi visit her. Troi cheers her up by looking up her family tree and finding her descendants, one of whom looks exactly like her husband. Through it all, Sonny is quite content to drink replicated martinis and strum on the guitar that Data had made for him.


The Enterprise makes it to the Neutral Zone and finds that not a single trace of their outposts remains. When a Romulan warbird begins to decloak within Federation space, Worf urges Picard to exploit this one and only moment of weakness and blow them up before they can attack, but Picard refuses. The Romulans hail them and insist that their outposts have suffered the same fate as the Federation's. Both sides bicker over the Romulans' unwelcome presence in the Neutral Zone, and things start to look bad. But then Ralph pipes up, having found his way to the bridge. He notes that the Romulans are just as clueless about what's going on as the Federation and are simply posturing to try to see if the Federation has any clue. Although angered by Ralph's presence, Picard recognizes the truth in his observation. He suggests that both sides cooperate to investigate what has happened to their outposts. The Romulans make no promises, but leave in peace. And so, at the very least, a potential intergalactic war has been averted.

The mystery of the outposts will go unsolved, though a throwaway line in "Q Who" will suggest that the as-yet-unmet Borg were behind the attacks.

Picard then arranges for their three passengers to head back to Earth on the USS Charleston but then Geordi informs the Captain that the Charleston will be making an extended stop during her journey back to Earth. Geordi suggests the Enterprise take their passengers to a nearby starbase which will allow for faster transport back to Earth. Picard decides to dump them on the Charleston as planned so the Enterprise doesn't need to backtrack, justifying that the extra time will give them a chance to acclimate before arriving on Earth. He stares out into the vast reaches of space and notes that that there's still so much to do. He sets a new course, and the Enterprise whisks away to its next adventure.

This episode contains examples of:

  • Acronym Confusion: Downplayed and implied— when Riker tells the three 20th-century people that they're aboard the USS Enterprise, Oppenhouse asks if the ship is American, assuming that "USS" stands for "United States Ship" instead of "United Star Ship". Understandable, as everyone is speaking English, he doesn't yet know about The Federation, and there was an aircraft carrier named USS Enterprise (CVN-65) afloat in his time, and the ship that he's now on carries on the Legacy Vessel Naming tradition.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Picard's final line is obviously a tease of more seasons of space adventure. "Our mission is to go forward, and it's just begun. [...] There's still much to do. There's still so much to learn. Mr. La Forge, engage."
  • Artistic License – Physics: The survivors from the 20th Century are found aboard a cryogenic satellite that was built to remain in Earth orbit. Despite not being designed for long-distance space travel, this satellite somehow broke out of Earth orbit and in less than 400 years drifted all the way out to a star system near the Romulan Neutral Zone. Also, despite being a solar-powered craft that spent hundreds of years in the interstellar void where there isn't exactly a lot of radiant light, it arrived at the end of its journey with all of its most important systems still powered up and functioning. In the original script, Data and Worf state that it must have been moved by some kind of alien influence, an idea revisited in "The Royale". One non-canon novel says that this was the case with the cryonics satellite too.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The Romulan side of the plot is set up similarly to the TOS episode "Balance of Terror". The Enterprise is sent to the Neutral Zone to investigate the disappearances of nearby outposts, with the senior officers discussing how mysterious the Romulans are and how they haven't been encountered for decades. When the confrontation occurs...the Romulans reveal that their outposts have also been destroyed. Instead of a battle between the Federation and the Romulans, both sides decide to collaborate against a whole new threat.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Ironically, the three survivors got exactly what they wanted from the cryogenics (or in Claire's case, what her husband wanted) only to find themselves in a frightening future where they don't fit in.
  • Captain Obvious: Troi's response to a crying woman is to acknowledge, "You're sad." Of course, this is just a prompt to get the woman to express her feelings.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • Picard, later established as a keen amateur historian and archaeologist, is entirely uninterested in the defrostees, despite the unique chance to learn about historic Earth life first hand. It's also strange to hear him lament that his crew could simply have left them dead in their rapidly decaying freezers. Admittedly, they arrive at the worst possible time, when an intergalactic war hangs in the balance.
    • When the Enterprise stumbles upon the cryogenic satellite in the opening, Worf is the one who advocates bringing it aboard for study, while Riker wants to simply blow it away as old space junk, a reverse of their later attitudes toward history.
  • Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit: Ralph figures that after 400 years, his accounts should be loaded beyond measure. Too bad the Federation's post-capitalist economy put the kibosh on that. No one in the crew is brave enough to explicitly break the news to him.
  • Cool Starship: The Romulans arrive back on the scene with a massive and very badass-looking Warbird.
  • Cryonics Failure: Some of the cryo-pods clearly malfunctioned, leading to a Peek-a-Boo Corpse moment when Data wipes off the frost from the first. Also discussed by Ralph, who mentions cryonics companies going bankrupt because of power failures. This was why they were placed in a cryonics satellite that used solar power instead.
  • Cryo Sickness: The storyline is several humans from the '90's get woken up from cryo-stasis. One of them, Claire, is physically weak after she wakes up, so the shock from seeing Worf, an alien, is enough to make her pass out.
  • Early Installment Weirdness:
    • The crew not only seems really stuck up about the superiority of their century, but they even make some weird comments like death not being that big a deal anymore. This is all down to Roddenberry being on his extreme futurism kick, and as soon as Gene had to fade into the background, these elements were pared back substantially.
    • The Romulan uniforms have sashes with the TOS-era Romulan logo on them. Starting with season 2's "Contagion", Romulan uniforms would have harness-like belts with the 24th century Romulan raptor logo.
    • Sonny implies that 20th century popular music had become obscure in the 24th, as does a deleted scene between him and Wesley. Later episodes of TNG and other Star Trek series would show that styles like rock and jazz were remembered just fine by characters like Riker and Miles O'Brien.
  • Faint in Shock: Claire passes out when she sees Worf, because he's an alien and she's never seen one of his species before. Justified, since she's recently been in cryogenic stasis, which has made her a bit weak.
  • Finger-Tenting: The Romulan played by Mark Alaimo poses like this.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: The three revived cryogenic patients.
  • Future Imperfect: Data looks up Clare's occupation as "homemaker" and believes it is "some sort of construction work."
  • Human Popsicle: The medical variety; all three were frozen immediately after death in the hope that they could be revived once medical science had caught up with their ailments. They succeeded, just several hundred years later than they were expecting.
  • I'm Back: As the Romulan Commander says (and the rest of the series would prove), the Romulans certainly are.
  • Identical Grandson: Clare remarks that the computer's image of her great-great-grandson looks exactly like her husband.
  • Innocuously Important Episode:
    • The B-Plot about how outposts on both sides of the Neutral Zone are vanishing, seemingly scooped up? Yeah, despite this episode being not altogether that impressive, this is the first time in Star Trek that the Borg's influence is felt. This episode (and the similarity to how the outposts disappeared) is later talked about in " Q Who".
    • The Romulans are back on the scene after decades of seclusion. Much intergalactic meddling will ensue.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: When Picard lectures Ralph about the pointlessness of acquiring power through wealth, Ralph points out that his wealth literally saved his life. That shuts Picard up. Later, he's the one who deduces that the Romulans have no idea what happened to their outposts and are just trying to find out if the Federation knows anything. Picard instantly sees the accuracy of this statement.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: With Picard constantly griping about not wanting the throwbacks to distract his staff from their mission, he keeps having the main bridge staff deal with them rather than one of the thousand-or-so other scientists on the ship. You'd think Mr. Whalen from "The Big Goodbye", the self-described expert on the 20th century, would be champing at the bit for the assignment. He also pulls his Chief of Security off the bridge to ensure that the three groggy civilians don't get out of hand, instead of grab one of the many random security officers available.
  • Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: The behaviour of the unfrozen cryogenic survivors falls neatly within gender stereotypes: Offenhouse is a power-hungry rich guy who's extremely concerned about the fate of his vast fortune; Raymond is a housewife who only seems to care about what happened to her kids and their descendants; and Clemonds is a laid-back musician who's not at all fazed by the 24th century, as long as he can score some drugs, have parties, and hit on women.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The exact year that the 20th century people are from is never stated and kept deliberately vague, but implied to be a few years in the future of the show's broadcast date. When asked what her children's birthdays are, Clare only gives the day, not the year.
  • No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: Ralph has this view regarding the 24th century society (what little he knows of it), since he was a financier, a job that the moneyless economy of the Federation has no use for. Picard tells him that the challenge is to "improve yourself" (what this means isn't explained).
  • Noodle Incident: The "Tomed Incident," which was the last time until now that The Federation and the Romulans confronted each other.
  • Obvious Beta: With the writers' strike looming, the crew desperately pulled a first draft script off the pile and filmed it without any of the fine-tuning that usually happens on TV shows. And boy, does it show.
  • Odd Friendship: Sonny, the southern-fried bon vivant, takes a special liking to Data, the emotionless android.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Despite knowing pretty much nothing about the 24th century, Sonny gets an appropriately bad feeling when he hears the term "Neutral Zone".
      Sonny: What's this Neutral Zone?
      Data: It is a buffer between the Romulan Empire and the Federation.
      Sonny: Why does that make me nervous?
      Data: I do not know.
      Sonny: We won't be inviting these Romulans to our party, will we?
      Data: No, that would not be appropriate.
    • This then becomes the reaction of everyone on The Bridge when the Romulan warbird de-cloaks.
      Worf: Captain, they're back!
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Captain Picard dresses down the 20th century business magnate Ralph Offenhouse on the 24th century's new priorities for human existence.
    Ralph Offenhouse: But what's the challenge?
    Picard: The challenge is to improve yourself; enrich yourself. Enjoy it.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: We're meant to share the main cast's rather casual condescension for the priorities of the 20th century throwbacks, recognizing their critiques as brutal commentary on our own failings.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The whole episode is one. Nothing is resolved and there's an awful lot of posturing. The initial base destruction is left hanging, the Romulans are back (but going away for now), and the 20th Century humans are benig shuffled off to be reassimilated. All of these stories can be summed up by the following: Act 1 - Meet new, Act 2 - Mouth off, Act 3 - Go home.
  • Shout-Out: Look closely and you'll see that Clare's descendants include fellows by the names of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and Colin Baker, as well as Kermit T. Frog, Miss Piggy, Mary Richards, and Lou Grant.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Ralph, one of the revived patients, consistently behaves as though he's the most important person on the Enterprise. The crew skirts around the issue of telling him that he's not rich or powerful anymore, though Picard alludes to it, and Ralph denies it.
  • Straw Loser: The three 20th century people exist only to be shown how inferior their society was to the utopia of the Federation. Sonny is a frivolous substance abuser, Ralph is a big-headed blow-hard, and Clare is a milksop. The crew repeatedly comment with bafflement and annoyance at their backwards ways. Each of the three is shown at various points to be a decent person at heart, however. They just need to get rid of their antiquated values and catch up to the 24th century so they can be as awesome as our main cast.
  • Swiss Cheese Security: Everyone on the Enterprise has access to the main bridge and can hail the captain on his communicator. They're just bound by the Federation's code of conduct not to unless there's a reason. Given that the Enterprise is regularly shown having guests, you'd expect there to be some security measures in place.
  • Totally Radical: Sonny's lines are written in a rather intentionally comical patois of country-fried slang. No one ever really talked like that.
  • Unfazed Everyman: As Data mentions, Sonny adapts to his situation much better than Ralph or Claire.
    Data: Inquiry: You do not seem to be having as much difficulty adjusting to your current circumstances as the others.
    Sonny: You mean being here on this tub four hundred years from where I started? Heck, it's the same dance, it's just a different tune.

    Sonny: Well, one good thing is, since everybody's forgotten everything I ever did, it'll all be brand spankin' new. I'll be a bigger hit than I ever was.
    Picard: Perhaps so. Anything is possible.
  • We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: Dr. Crusher notes that the ailments that killed the three 20th century people are easily remedied in the 24th century.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: One of the cryogenic chambers that Data and Worf discover is empty, but we never find out what happened to whoever was inside it. Whether it was always empty or the mummified remains simply crumbled to dust out of view of the window is left unexplored.
  • What Year Is This?: Ralph asks this question, and gets the answer 2364 (quite possibly the first time that an episode of the franchise establishes a Gregorian calendar year).
  • Wham Line: Romulans have been noticeably absent and unmentioned for the entire first season of the show.
    Romulan Commander: We are back!