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Recap / Star Trek: The Next Generation S2E21 "Peak Performance"

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The Enterprise has agreed to take part in a training exercise using the run-down USS Hathaway as its opponent. Joining the crew to oversee the exercise is a supposed strategic mastermind named Kolrami. Worf calls that reputation into question pretty fast, pointing out that because Kolrami’s race is seen as a race of brilliant strategists, no one ever dares fight them, which means they might be terrible at it for all anyone knows. Kolrami outlines the plan: Riker will take command of the Hathaway, and he will have forty-eight hours to prepare it before the exercise begins. Each ship’s weapons systems will be temporarily disconnected and replaced with harmless lasers, which the computers will read as damage, shutting down systems that would be affected by a real attack. Picard and Riker both state that they have reservations about the exercise, since Starfleet is meant to explore, not fight, but they concede that with the Borg threat hanging over them it is wise to have options.
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Picard gives Riker the freedom to choose anyone for his crew save for Lieutenant Commander Data, and he chooses, among others, Worf, Geordi, and Wesley. Kolrami says that he expected Picard to choose Riker’s team, because it’s always a fair fight when you get to choose your own opponents, right? Pulaski finds Kolrami’s smug, self-assured attitude intolerable (not that she’s one to talk), but Data replies that Kolrami can be as big an ass as he wants because he’s awesome at a game called Stratagema. Stratagema is a computer game played by waggling one’s fingers randomly, which somehow controls dots on the (for some reason, spinning) screen to move around and enclose areas for each player until one player captures the entire screen. Riker challenges Kolrami to a game, just for a challenge, and Kolrami predictably kicks his ass.

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Riker and his team beam over to the Hathaway and begin fixing her up, but they don’t have much to work with. Geordi looks over the engines and deems the ship incapable of warp drive, since even if he got it running, he doesn’t have any antimatter to fuel it with. On the plus side, Worf has a little scheme cooked up. Because of his knowledge of the Enterprise’s computers (make note of that, because he says that specifically) he can fool the Enterprise’s sensors into picking up an enemy ship that isn’t there. Wesley suddenly says he needs to return to the Enterprise, because he left an experiment running and needs to shut it down. Picard allows it, on the condition that he be escorted and not allowed to do anything but shut down the experiment. And if the officer Picard tasked with watching him were in any way competent at his job, this would have worked and Wesley wouldn’t have gotten away with what he got away with, but of course this is Wesley Crusher we’re talking about; anyone around him magically becomes an idiot just so he can look good. And thus, with his escort paying absolutely no attention to him, he’s able to swipe some antimatter and beam it to the Hathaway, under the excuse that the experiment is ruined and needs to be beamed into space. With that, the Hathaway will have warp drive after all... for two seconds, at warp 1. It’s not much, but Riker thinks it may be useful as a surprise tactic.

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Pulaski urges Data to challenge Kolrami to Stratagema, to deflate his ego a bit. To everyone’s surprise, although he does better than Riker, even Data loses pretty quickly. Pulaski in particular is stunned, and it leaves him in something of an existential crisis: if someone beats him at something, he must be malfunctioning. This causes him to withdraw from the bridge to run diagnostics on himself, and also raises some questions about Pulaski’s bedside manner.

Kolrami continues talking smack about Riker, until Picard pulls him aside and asks what his problem is. Kolrami says that Riker could never be a good leader because he doesn’t take things seriously. Picard rightly calls Kolrami an idiot, and points out that Riker’s jovial attitude is how he gains loyalty from his men. Again, you wouldn’t think a strategic mastermind would have to be told that, but there you go. Picard then confronts Data, and tells him that yes, he might make mistakes, and even if he doesn’t he might still lose, but this doesn’t mean he’s malfunctioning. It’s just a part of life. Data takes his words to heart, and returns to his post.

The battle begins. Worf uses his trick to make the Enterprise see a Romulan warbird, and the Hathaway attacks during the distraction. Picard orders a counterattack while Riker prepares to make his warp jump. But at that moment a Ferengi ship appears, and this one isn’t Worf’s doing. With weapons offline, both ships are at the Ferengi’s mercy. Kolrami immediately tells Picard to abandon the Hathaway without considering any other options (truly a brilliant mind at work), but Picard prefers to actually, you know, strategize and stuff. He hails the Ferengi, who want to know why two Federation ships were fighting each other. They assume the Hathaway has something valuable aboard. Picard doesn’t mention the training exercise, because... that just wouldn’t sound plausible, I guess?

Picard and Riker cook up a plan: the Enterprise will fire at the Hathaway, and the Hathaway will use its warp drive at just the right time to make it look like they were destroyed. So far so good. Next, Worf will fool the Ferengi’s sensors into seeing another fake ship, and wait, wait, time out. Remember back when Worf was talking about this trick and he specifically said he could only do it because he was familiar with the Enterprise’s computers? What happened to that? Yeah, it’s a big plot hole, but somehow he can do it to the Ferengi now, too. So they put their plan into action and it all goes just as planned. The Ferengi ship withdraws after picking up another Federation ship nearby that wasn’t there. In the episode’s closing scene, Data challenges Kolrami to a Stratagema rematch. Instead of trying to win, he purposely keeps the game going for so long that Kolrami eventually loses patience and quits. So the moral seems to be: if all else fails, troll your way to victory.


Tropes in this episode:

  • Achilles in His Tent: Dr. Pulaski references this trope by name when she tries to talk Data out of his Heroic BSoD.
  • Attack Pattern Alpha: The Kumeh and Talupian maneuvers are used during the simulated battle.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Granted, we never learn enough about Zakdorn culture to say whether or not Kolrami's behavior is normal for his species, but by Human standards he's a real oddball.
  • Conflict Ball: The crew raise several objections to the whole idea, Picard because Starfleet is supposed to be about exploration, not conflict, and Worf because a victory with no chance of death would have no honor. But it's ridiculous to think that the ship would not engage in regular training exercises (even if this particular one has some unconventional rules).
  • Crying Wolf: Riker gets Worf to use the Enterprise’s sensor codes to feed them a fake image of a decloaking Romulan ship, startling Picard into trying to cancel the exercise and letting the Hathaway get some shots in. Picard orders the codes changed, only for a Ferengi ship to appear. He wonders how Worf managed to circumvent the changed codes but resolves not to fall for it this time—and it turns out to be a real Ferengi ship that attacks them.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle:
    • Kolrami whups Riker at Stratagema. Then again, Riker has no delusions of winning.
    • Kolrami then deals one against Data, triggering his Heroic BSoD.
    • Defied the third time when Data stalls, creating an Endless Game until Kolrami pulls a Rage Quit.
  • David vs. Goliath: The Hathaway vs the Enterprise. Discussed by Riker and Kolrami.
    Riker: What's the Zakdornian word for "mismatch"?
    Kolrami: Challenge! We do not whine about the inequities of life, and how you perform in a mismatch is precisely what is of interest to Starfleet. After all, when one is in the superior position, one is expected to win.
  • Death Glare: Picard has this look on his face whenever Kolrami annoys him, which is often.
  • Do Well, but Not Perfect: Data's winning solution for Stratagema: ignore openings that might lead to a win (but which are, in fact, ploys by Kolrami to defeat him) and consistently play for the tie. His opponent cannot understand why Data isn't falling for his gambits and eventually Rage Quits.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Actually more of a case of an outright Retcon, but even while everyone is insisting that Starfleet is not about fighting wars, according to "The Wounded" two seasons later, the Federation is at war with the Cardassians during this episode!
  • Endless Game: Data can keep Kolrami playing Stratagema forever by continually playing for a stalemate instead of playing to win.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Discussed. While talking about Zakdorn history, it's noted that they've been renowned for their strategic prowess for centuries, which is why the Federation is seeking their advice now. However, they've never once had to prove their skills in battle. Worf believes that makes the reputation worthless.
  • Fictional Sport: Stratagema provides an example of TNG's typically incomprehensible games.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The purpose of the exercise is to plan for an attack by the Borg by acknowledging how outmatched Starfleet would be. It sets up the idea of Riker in command being forced to come up with innovative tactics against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, which he indeed goes on to do when the Borg actually do invade.
      • In the drill, Riker goes up against Picard, with Picard having clear advantages in strength, firepower, and personnel numbers, and Riker relying on his wits to overcome that advantage. A year later, the same dynamic plays out for real.
    • Also, early in the episode Worf notes that everybody is so intimidated by the alleged strategic brilliance of Kolrami's people that nobody will risk attacking them, thus leaving their actual military competence untested. Sure enough, Kolrami is mostly useless when the Ferengi attack, and his people seem to play no role in Federation conflicts with the Borg, the Cardassians, or the Dominion.
  • Funny Background Event: Kolrami is constantly doing odd things in the background. At one point he seems to be flirting with a random Gold Shirt on the bridge, or at least engaging in some inappropriate touching.
  • Guile Hero: Riker proves to be a master in this episode. He even discusses it with Worf.
    Riker: You're outmanned, you're outgunned, you're out-equipped. What else have you got?
    Worf: Guile!
    Riker: Join me.
    Worf: The honour is to serve.
  • Heroic BSoD: Data goes through one when Kolrami beats him at Stratagema in their first match. Data cannot fathom that he could have lost after making no errors whatsoever in the game, and concludes that he is somehow damaged or deficient and thus cannot function competently as a Starfleet officer. It takes Picard shaking him out of it by telling Data that it is possible to make no mistakes and still fail.
  • Hyperspeed Escape: The Hathaway pulls this off during her faked destruction. The Ferengi then do this when it looks like The Cavalry has arrived.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Data begins a potentially endless chain of this when analyzing Riker's probable tactics, but Troi talks him out of it by telling him to focus on Riker's personality.
  • Informed Attribute: Kolrami's "arrogance", except Picard, Riker, and everyone else on the Enterprise come off as being so pretentious, it's hard to notice that Kolrami is being arrogant. That said, Kolrami does not have much to offer in the way of useful strategic suggestions when the Ferengi attack. To be fair, Riker actually agrees with his advice of "Know When to Fold 'Em" until they gain new information.
  • Insistent Terminology: Wesley didn't cheat; he improvised, like Riker told him to.
  • Insufferable Genius: Kolrami is confident to the point of arrogance and has the strategic knowledge and skill to back it up (or so everyone says).
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Kolrami's advice to abandon the Hathaway. The crew on the Hathaway are in no way expendable (there's several key officers on that ship) but staying would put more than a thousand lives on the Enterprise at greater risk. Even Riker admits that Kolrami may be right, until they Take a Third Option.
  • Mildly Military: Picard describes Starfleet as a non-military organization whose primary mission is exploration, but still wants to engage in the tactical simulation for the sake of preparedness against the Borg.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Picard refuses to leave a single member of his crew at the mercy of the Ferengi.
  • Not So Above It All: Despite being a total dick regarding Riker, Kolrami can't help laughing when Riker and Worf pull the sensor trick against the Enterprise.
  • Paintball Episode: A sci-fi Space Navy version — the Enterprise and the Hathaway use low-power laser weapons to simulate phasers, with "damage" recorded by computer.
  • Planet of Hats: We are introduced to the Zakdorn race, whose hat is strategic thinking. Apparently they are so unbeatable that no other race has dared to challenge them for a very long time. Worf points out some Fridge Logic here; the reputation is meaningless if they never have to prove it.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Kolrami's humiliation in the second game of Stratagema against Data, which becomes an eternal stalemate. Kolrami is not pleased at being made a fool of.
  • Rage Quit: Kolrami is practically unbeatable in a straight match of Stratagema, so long as his opponent is playing to win like he is. After Data alters his goal in the game to preventing Kolrami from winning by playing for a perpetual stalemate, Kolrami stops the game in a tantrum and accuses Data of making a mockery of him.
  • Take a Third Option:
    • The plot does this—the arrival of the Ferengi seems to happen solely to avoid having to answer the question of who would win the war game exercise.
    • Picard has the choice of fighting to protect the Hathaway and risking the destruction of the Enterprise, or retreating and sacrificing the Hathaway to save the Enterprise. He instead fakes the destruction of the Hathaway.
  • A Taste of Defeat: Pulaski persuades Data to play Stratagema against Kolrami with the intention of taking the haughty Zakdorn down a peg. It doesn't work the first time, but it does in their rematch.
  • The Alleged Car: The U.S.S. Hathaway is chosen as the ship to engage in combat simulations with the Enterprise. The Hathaway is a decommissioned old broken-down rustbucket of a ship that barely works. Fortunately, Geordi and Wesley are there to give it a sorely needed tune-up...
  • The Strategist: Kolrami, and his entire race as a whole.
  • Worthy Opponent: Picard is most impressed after the Hathaway crew pull the sensor trick—referring to Riker as "the best."

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