Picard is getting ready to take a ride on an Arabian horse in the holodeck when Riker summons him to the bridge. A local cluster of planets have all been exploding for some unknown reason. Riker suggests that a team of scientists investigate the cause, with Wesley in charge to give him some command experience in a low-stakes assignment.
The stakes get higher when Data answers a distress call from Sarjenka, a little girl on one of the planets that is about to explode. The problem is that Sarjenka's civilization is a pre-warp society, so the Prime Directive mandates that the Enterprise practice a policy of non-interference. When Data finally admits his actions to Picard, the bridge crew debate whether they should help save the girl.
Meanwhile, Wesley is struggling to take charge of his team of scientists. They are all older and more experienced than him, so when they question his orders, he doubts himself. After a few pep talks from Riker, Wesley takes inspiration from Picard's command style of conferring with his subordinates, making a decision, and living with the consequences. He orders his scientists to make a thorough but potentially wasteful survey of the planet. They eventually come up with a solution to the planet's tectonic problems.
Picard is reluctantly convinced to allow Data to beam down to Sarjenka and bring her back aboard the ship. She watches as the ship enacts Wesley's proposal to save the planet, and it works. Sarjenka thanks Data for her help and wistfully wishes that she could stay with him on his ship, but she knows that's not possible. Before she leaves, Picard orders that all memory of Data and the ship be wiped from her memory to preserve some semblance of the Prime Directive. Data leaves Sarjenka behind with a keepsake that she will no longer understand and must be comforted by the fact that he will remember their time together.
- Condescending Compassion: Ensign Davies sympathizes with the pressure Wesley is feeling during his first command and offers to take over for him if he ever feels unfit to the task. Wesley clearly senses the condescension and stiffly states that he's unlikely to require that service.
- Consummate Professional: Wesley is worried to death that his scientific team will not respect him or follow him, but Riker assures him that they are Starfleet officers who will follow the chain of command. When Wesley initially proposes a time-consuming task unlikely to achieve any results, they advise him against it, but when Wesley finally delivers an order to do the task, they cheerfully comply without issue.
- Creepy Long Fingers: Part of what gives Sarjenka her surprisingly un-cute appearance is her creepily long fingers.
- Early Installment Weirdness: In this episode, Picard says that since Sarjenka's pleas constitute a distress call, it overrides the Prime Directive. Future entries in the franchise would almost always depict the Prime Directive being strictly enforced even in the face of direct pleas for help.
- Ensign Newbie: Wesley is given command of a small science team, to test whether he has command ability and leadership skills.
- From Bad to Worse: First, Data talks to a young girl from a non-warp species. Then, he beams down to that planet. Later on, he beams the young girl from a non-warp species up.O'Brien: There's going to be hell to pay!
- Intergenerational Friendship: Data, an "adult" android, becomes friends with a young girl.
- I Was Never Here: When Riker beams Data down to Drema IV:Riker: O'Brien, take a nap. You didn't see any of this. You're not involved.
O'Brien: Right, sir. I'll just be standing over here dozing off.
- Loophole Abuse: Picard decides to work around the Prime Directive by treating the girl's attempts to send pleas for help into space as a "distress call", which Starfleet generally responds to automatically without first verifying if the beings sending the transmission are warp-capable.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: The theme of the episode. Data breaks the Prime Directive to help a little girl, even though this may have negative repercussions further down the road. Much of the episode is dedicated to debating whether to support his decision.
- What Measureis A Non Cute: Rather than an adorable little girl who will tug at the viewer's heart strings, Sarjenka is a rather creepy-looking alien who is also a sweet little girl.