The Enterprise has made a stop at Rutia IV, a non-aligned world that nonetheless maintains an active trade relationship with the Federation. The crew is on alert due to the ongoing terrorist activity of Ansatan separatists in the area they're in. Doctor Crusher is just about to leave the cafe she's dining at when an explosion injures several nearby civilians. In spite of the danger, Crusher insists on staying to help the wounded. Suddenly, a terrorist appears and kidnaps her.
The crew can't locate where the terrorist took Crusher because he was using some unknown technology to teleport. They immediately set to work analyzing the information they have to locate her. Meanwhile, Riker works with Devos, the leader of the Rutian security forces, to question local Ansatans in hopes of getting a lead.
Crusher has been taken to the Ansatan's separatists' underground hideout, where their leader Finn tells her that they need her medical skills. Many of the terrorists are dying because their DNA has been warped. The Ansatans' use of an Inverter to jump through dimensions to teleport without a trace is slowly killing them, but it is a sacrifice they're willing to make for their cause. Though Crusher scorns his tactics, Finn argues that he's using the only means he has at his disposal to achieve freedom. Finn proves to be a talented artist and begins sketching Crusher in his off time.
The Ansatans plan to further exploit the Enterprise's presence by blowing it up. Terrorists use their Inverter to teleport through the ship's shields and plant an explosive device on the engine, but La Forge manages to give the transporter room a signal just in time to beam it off of the ship before it explodes. However, a second wave of terrorists invade the bridge and abduct Picard himself.
Picard refuses to cooperate with Finn, and when Crusher defends Finn's actions, he accuses her of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. However, she shows him Finn's drawings and suspects that Finn has developed a connection to her as well. When Finn arrives, he continues to defend his tactics against Picard's criticism and argues that because the Federation trades with the Ansatans, they are supporting a despotic regime while pretending to stay neutral. By antagonizing the Federation, he wants to force them into abandoning their neutrality and help broker a deal between the Ansatans and Rutians.
When Finn teleports onto the Enterprise again to deliver his demands for Picard's return, Wesley finally manages to lock onto the Inverter's location. Riker, Worf and a team of Rutian soldiers infiltrate the Ansatan terrorist base and seize control. Finn runs to his captives and points a weapon at Picard, but he hesitates just long enough for Devos to shoot him in the back, killing him. One final terrorist, a young boy, points his own weapon at Picard, but Crusher manages to talk him into surrendering. The conflict is at an end, and the crew hope that one boy dropping his weapon may be the first step toward peace on the planet.
This episode provides examples of:
- Artistic License History: When Crusher insists that Washington was a general and not a terrorist, Finn claims that Washington would have been considered a terrorist if he'd lost the war. But rebel generals are not considered terrorists in the annals of history unless they actually used terrorist tactics. For example, Robert E. Lee has always been considered a rebel general rather than a terrorist even though he lost the war.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Just after Crusher and Picard share a romantically charged conversation about Wesley and his "good role models," they start squabbling about whether Picard should have allowed her to remain on the planet after the explosion.
- Bullying a Dragon: Finn eventually schemes to blow up the Enterprise, on the grounds that it would force the Federation to get involved in the conflict and force a favorable settlement from the Rutians. Instead, the Enterprise fights off his attack and turns its attentions on him, resulting in his cell's destruction when the Federation finally takes action.
- Chekhov's Gunman: The camera lingers on a Ansatan waiter in the first act before and after the explosion. He shows back up being interrogated by Riker and Devos and is revealed to have connections to the separatists. It's suspected but never confirmed that he planted the bomb himself.
- Child Soldier: When Riker protests that the Rutian security forces are rounding up teens and children, Devos counters that the Ansatan separatists are not above turning their own children into terrorist bombers.
- Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists: Crusher rubs her wrists after Finn unlocks her shackles so she can start treating his followers.
- Cycle of Revenge: The Ansata kill Rutian civilians, so the Rutians retaliate by killing the Ansata. At the end, Crusher talks a young Ansata boy out of killing Officer Devos after she kills Finn.Crusher: No more killing.
- Dewey Defeats Truman: The reference to the unification of Ireland in 2024, thanks to a successful terrorist campaign not only instantly dates the episode back to before the Good Friday Agreement, which saw the end of The Troubles and which made it very unlikely to result in the unification of Ireland by 2024, but is also indicative of the sympathetic views that a not-insubstantial portion of the American population had towards the IRA at the time, before events later in the decade (including the Oklahoma City bombing in America, and the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland) eroded that sympathy.
- Don't Create a Martyr: Discussed.
- Officer Devos kills Finn knowing she's going to make a martyr out of him, but sees it as better than leaving him in prison, which will encourage rescue attempts. His death, by contrast, will create a lull in the fighting until someone replaces him.
- Lampshaded earlier by Finn when Crusher warns him he could die using the inverter.Finn: Don't you know? One dead martyr is worth ten posturing leaders.
- Evil Is Petty: Evil is pushing it, but Finn's final act after his cell is raided is to run back and try to murder Picard, even though there is nothing to gain from doing so. He may have figured his plan would play out posthumously.
- Famous, Famous, Fictional: Inverted. Data cites three examples of terrorism bringing about political change, only one of which is historical. In addition to Mexican independence from Spain, he mentions the "Irish Unification of 2024" (the episode aired when The Troubles were still in full swing), as well as a "Kenzie Rebellion."
- Fantastic Terrorists: The Ansata, a violent separatist group on the planet Rutia IV. What makes them particularly dangerous is that they use a special transporter device called an "inverter", which is faster than most transporters on the show, can't be blocked by force fields and (initially) can't be tracked, meaning the Ansata can simply appear, plant bombs, shoot people and vanish without a trace. Repeated use of it kills you, but that's a sacrifice they're willing to make.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum: The dimensional inverter. While the negative side effects make regular use prohibitively unsafe for humans over the long term, it nonetheless could be very useful in emergencies where Teleport Interdiction prevents use of the transporters, either to rescue crew, or perhaps beam some photon torpedoes directly inside of a Borg cube.
- Gone Horribly Right: Finn attacks the Enterprise because he reasons that the Federation will put an end to the conflict if their people are harmed by it. Though he fails to destroy the ship as intended, they do get involved. Against him.
- Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Data clearly has trouble understanding why the terrorists go to such extremes. He's honestly baffled at their use of the dimensional shifting device when they know it could be fatal.Data: To use this constantly is an irrational act.
Picard: We may be dealing with irrational people, Data.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: Data casually mentions that a series of terrorist attacks led to the reunification of Ireland into a single state in 2024. At the point the episode was released (1990), a peace treaty was seen as utterly inconceivable, let alone that it would take effect by the end of that decade. Of course, reunification in full has still not happened, and probably won't for as long as the United Kingdom remains; even if such a decision were made, it is unlikely to occur prior to 2024.
- Grey-and-Grey Morality: The episode establishes early on that the Enterprise has stumbled into a serious situation in which "right" is difficult to judge and both sides are more trouble than they're worth. The Ansata do truly horrible things in the name of their independence, while the government they fight is oppressive—the main thing keeping either side grey is the fact that their leaders are relatively understandable, even if they're not always likable.
- Finn points out the hypocrisy of the Federation doing business with oppressive governments and later insisting they're not really involved in the given struggle.
- Finn criticizes Crusher when she protests the Federation is a more "ideal" culture, saying that a lot of blood was spilled to get them to that point. Crusher doesn't really try to defend herself, perhaps by saying that it wasn't necessarily the blood that was spilled that made them ideal.
- Hollywood Darkness: The attack on the Ansatan base is preceded by cutting off the Ansatans' lights, but the set never gets darker than shadowy.
- Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath: Dr. Crusher won't leave wounded people for the Rutian medics, even as Worf, Data and Picard point out the risks of sticking around a bombing site. She gets captured as a result.
- Inconvenient Summons: Picard considers just beaming Dr. Crusher up while she's in the middle of triage. Riker quips he wouldn't want to be the one greeting her in the Transporter Room. Picard and Crusher discuss this again, later, with Crusher echoing that sentiment. Even when both of them have been taken captive, they briefly start bickering over whether Picard would dare.
- Limited Wardrobe: The fact that Starfleet personnel wear their standard uniforms in almost every single situation is made particularly obvious in this episode when Riker and Worf are skulking around in the shadows of the Ansatan base, Riker in bright red and Worf with his sparkly sash.
- Might Makes Right: Picard rejects this notion when he says, "I have never subscribed to the idea that political power flows from the barrel of a gun." He is referencing a Mao Zedong quote that asserted the exact reverse.
- Moral Dissonance: While the Prime Directive is invoked to justify not providing support to the Rutian government, there is still the open question of why the Federation has any dealings at all with a planet experiencing such violent social conflict as opposed to simply avoiding them entirely the way they would less advanced civilizations. Even if Rutia IV meets the technological threshold for allowing the Federation to have contact with them, their civil strife is a clear demonstration that technology is an inadequate yardstick for measuring a culture's behavior.
- Never My Fault:
- When Finn decides to attack the Enterprise, he deems Riker's cooperation with the Rutians as sufficient cause to justify his attack, even though they're only doing this because he kidnapped Crusher and flatly refuses any form of negotiation.
- Devos tells Riker of how, early in her post, a bomb blew up a shuttle bus, killing 60 schoolchildren. The Ansata said it was a mistake and they meant to bomb a police transport, with Devos scoffing "as if that made everything all right."
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: While it does temporarily put Picard in danger, Finn's insistence on destroying the Enterprise to make a statement largely fails and instead directly leads to the Enterprise tracking the Ansata down—resulting in his own death and the decimation of his cell.
- Not So Different: Finn and Devos have a number of similarities that help to emphasize the Grey-and-Grey Morality of the episode. Both have witnessed horrible acts from the other side and have responded by doing similarly unethical things. Both wish to use the Federation to win the conflict for their own side. Both want the fighting to stop but for largely selfish reasons and are unwilling to seek compromise.
- No Time to Explain: Once Geordi gets the bomb off, he calls for the transporter room to lock on to his communicator and prepare to transport into space. Troi, horrified, starts to question it but Picard holds up his hand to stop her.
- Not in This for Your Revolution: Even though they're working with the Rutians to get their people back, Riker makes it clear that the Enterprise cares little for the conflict (at least not in comparison to the people who get hurt because of it), and would like nothing more than to get their people and leave the planet without looking back—to the point of being willing to cut a deal (within reason) with the Ansata in order to get that done, much to the shock of his Rutian liaison. Finn's plan even counts on this; he figures that by taking hostages and being as intransigent as possible, the Federation will eventually force the Rutians to give him whatever he wants. However, when Riker does try to cut a deal, Finn deems them allies of Rutians and twists Riker's intentions into cause for an attack, ultimately forcing the Enterprise to take action against the rebels anyway.
- Occupiers Out of Our Country: The Ansata terrorists are trying to force the Rutian occupation forces to leave their half of the planet.
- Police State: The Rutians are extremely heavy-handed in their occupation, arresting people and even children merely for being sympathizers. Devos tells Riker her methods are actually kinder than her predecessor who would make suspects "vanish", which she quickly stopped.Riker: This is no way to live.
Devos: For us or them?
Riker: For both of you.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Devos enforces her nation's control over the Ansatans, but she does it with a measured and principled approach. She has curtailed her predecessors' brutal tactics and is willing to take Riker's advice.
- Relocating the Explosion: After Geordi removes an Ansata bomb from the warp core, he realizes he doesn't have time to disarm it. So he uses his communicator as a transporter tag and has it beamed into space before it detonates.
- Skunk Stripe: All the Rutians have one.
- So Proud of You: It's Wesley who gets the crew on the right track towards tracking Finn's cell. Picard admits he's most impressed with how Wes has conducted himself.
- Sticky Bomb: The Ansata slap a bomb on the warp core that is magnetized in some way. Geordi can't pry it loose, so he grabs a tool to try and disconnect it.
- Stockholm Syndrome: Beverly shows signs of this towards Finn. When Picard is captured by the separatists, he's quick to point this out to her.
- Toxic Phlebotinum: The Ansata terrorists resort to using a dimensional inverter to carry out their attacks on the occupying Rutian forces without being tracked, although the downside is that it causes severe cumulative distortions in the cellular chemistry of anyone using it, a process which, with prolonged use, could prove fatal.
- Villain Ball: Finn kidnaps Beverly because he reasons that it will get the Federation to come to the table and settle matters in his favor, since he's the one with the hostages. He's even right about this; Riker quickly loses patience and tells a lackey that they're willing to negotiate with him. Finn's problem is that he's far too greedy and not thinking straight. He gets it in his head that Riker's sided with the Rutians and decides one hostage isn't serious enough, so he tries to blow up the Enterprise to make a point. When that falls through, he grabs Picard as a second hostage, figuring he can hold that over the Federation until they cave completely. He fails to consider that if the Federation decides kicking his ass is a speedier resolution, they'll do it, which is what happens.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist:
- The Ansata want independence, but have been fighting for it for so long that they've become willing to do almost anything for it. Finn is a well-spoken, intelligent man, but every conversation with him indicates he is willing to settle for nothing less than everything he wants, no matter what he has to do to get there. This ultimately ends up being his undoing. (Finn says he's willing to negotiate and compromise, but in the next breath he emphasizes that he'll perpetuate the conflict — in the streets or at the negotiating table — until his side is victorious.)
- The Rutians, meanwhile, have turned the continent into a Police State, which only fuels the Ansata's desire for independence, arresting anyone even sympathetic to their cause. But given the brutality of the Ansata, they can't see any other option to maintain some form of stability.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Picard is abducted during a struggle with the Ansata on the bridge (with Wesley present), right after they had tried and failed to blow up the ship. As Beverly tries to point out how gray the situation is:Picard: Beverly, you are arguing for a man who may have just murdered your son!
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters:
- The episode deals with the "you say terrorists, we say freedom fighters" issue. The Ansata separatists are trying to overthrow their Rutian oppressors "by any means necessary," including suicide bombers (while the government they're fighting makes use of indefinite detention, and in the past simply killed people). During this episode, Data notes the "historical fact" that Ireland was reunified in 2024 after a successful terrorist campaign (which is why this episode wasn't broadcast in its entirety in either Britain or the Republic of Ireland until years after).Data: Then would it be accurate to say that terrorism is acceptable, when all options for peaceful settlement have been foreclosed?
Picard: Data, these are questions that mankind has been struggling with throughout history. Your confusion is...only human.
- The episode is practically about the Irish Republican Army terrorist group, with the Ansata rebels representing the IRA and the Rutians representing the UK government. The civilian bombings and generally evil aspects of the Ansata clearly reflect what the IRA became after the formation of the actual republic (it was only after 1922 the IRA could be undeniably called terrorists, though there's a fair argument for them and related groups earning the label before then as well).
- Finn notes how Crusher is from "the American continent" and compares himself to George Washington.Crusher: Washington was a military general, not a terrorist.
Finn: The difference between terrorists and generals is the difference between winners and losers. You win, you're a general. You lose...
- The episode deals with the "you say terrorists, we say freedom fighters" issue. The Ansata separatists are trying to overthrow their Rutian oppressors "by any means necessary," including suicide bombers (while the government they're fighting makes use of indefinite detention, and in the past simply killed people). During this episode, Data notes the "historical fact" that Ireland was reunified in 2024 after a successful terrorist campaign (which is why this episode wasn't broadcast in its entirety in either Britain or the Republic of Ireland until years after).