In what might be the strangest blurring in the series of what the Prime Directive is supposed to be, the Federation has set up a secret observation station on a primitive Vulcan-like planet named Mintaka III to observe the inhabitants without their knowledge. The Enterprise is delivering supplies to said station when its reactor breaks down and it becomes briefly visible to the outside world. Two of the Mintakans see it within that window of time, and one of them, Liko, is injured while trying to investigate. Doctor Crusher has no choice but to beam him up to the Enterprise to tend to his injuries. Picard is unhappy with her decision, but allows it on the condition that she erase his memories afterwards, as Doctor Pulaski did to Sargenka in Pen Pals. Crusher clearly doesnt like the idea, but agrees.
Liko awakens and sees Picard standing over him in Sickbay, giving orders and being treated like a boss by everyone around him, and comes to the conclusion that Picard is some kind of god that raised him from the dead. Unaware that Crushers memory wipe didnt take, they send him back to where they found him and assume that problems solved. But they still have another problem: one of the workers from the station, Palmer, is missing, and the sensors cant pick him up. In order to find him they need to send an away team, but without interfering with the local civilization. Riker suggests disguising themselves as Mintakans, and beams down with Counselor Troi.
The first thing they see is Liko recounting his tale of the mighty Picard to his friends and neighbors. The others are skeptical, especially a woman known as Nuria, but when the villagers find the unconscious Palmer, who is clearly not of their world, even she is convinced. Riker covertly contacts Picard and tells him that the worst possible scenario, a society believing in God, is about to unfold. Picard tells them to get Palmer someplace out of sight and beam back. Troi creates a distraction, and Riker grabs Palmer, but the Mintakans see him as he escapes and capture Troi as his accomplice. Liko immediately says Troi should be punished to appease the Picard. Nuria says they have no reason to hurt anyone just yet, but they might if they cant find Palmer.
The leader of the research station tells Picard that the only way to contain the chaos is to appear before the Mintakans as a god and give them guidelines for their new religion to follow. Picard refuses, quite correctly pointing out that that would be the absolute worst sort of violation of the Prime Directive, and then going on to deliver a rather uncomfortable tirade about how believing in God is just the worst thing ever. Its really sort of amazing that Q doesnt show up right then and there to mock the hypocrisy of it all. In any case, Picards barely-less-outrageous counterproposal is to bring Nuria onto the ship and show her how their technology works, because the others trust her and she can convince them Picard isnt a god. Though of course, instantly teleporting her from one place to another against her will isnt really the best way to start.
Actually, all kidding aside, Nurias awe at the wonders of the Enterprise and Picards poetic appeals to her sense of reason make for some scenes that are quite moving. Nuria begins to understand that Picard isnt a god, but she still has it in her head that he should be treated like one and still believes he can raise the dead. It isnt until she sees a patient die in Sickbay that it clicks for her. She and Picard return to the village just in time to prevent Liko from killing Troi as a sacrifice. Liko requires some more convincing, however, and attempts to prove that Picard is immortal by aiming a bow at him. Though the others try to stop Liko, Picard prepares to sacrifice his life to convince the Mintakans of his mortality. Liko's daughter throws off his aim, and he hits Picard in the shoulder. The sight of red blood convinces Liko, and of course thanks to Dr. Crusher the injury is merely an annoyance to Picard.
The Enterprise crew dismantles the observation station as Picard explains to the Mintakens what happened. He tells them that its forbidden for him to teach them anything that would interfere with their natural development, but they thank him for showing them what they might achieve in time. Picard promises them that he will never forget them.
Tropes in this episode include:
- Absentee Actor: Wesley doesn't appear.
- Break the Haughty: Picard sticking so stringently to the Prime Directive comes back to haunt him.
- Clarke's Third Law: Invoked by Picard to explain to the Mintakans why he would appear god-like to them. To a Mintakan caveperson, Nuria's ability to hunt from a distance with a bow-and-arrow would be strange and frightening.
- Continuity Nod: The mind-wiping technology used in "Pen Pals" is brought up again here. This time, however, it fails miserably, forcing Picard and company to deal with the consequences.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum: The implanted "subcutaneous communicators" make another appearance in this episode, before being forgotten again in later episodes.
- Foreshadowing: It comes up in Picard's and Crusher's conversation in Sick Bay early on that she's not entirely sure the mind-wipe will work with the Mintakans brain chemistry. Turns out she had every right to worry.
- Hypocrite: The Federation preaches ideas of openness, tolerance, and respect for other cultures, but Picard's speech about how any culture that accepts religion is living in ignorance is surprisingly closed-minded and intolerant. Especially considering a member of his own crew, Worf, practices a religion that to some degree embraces the supernatural. Downplayed in that he's not against religion in general—just the idea that a religion could overtake everything else they believe in, and potentially lead to disasterous results without guidelines (dictating such would be against the Prime Directive, as would posing as a deity). And in this case, such a disaster would be their/the Federation's fault.
- The Main Characters Do Everything: Riker and Troi being altered to pass for Mintakans. Doesn't the Enterprise have Vulcan crew members who could pass more naturally than they would? Although that line of logic leads to Starfleet having hold of the Idiot Ball, since the Mintakans are nearly-identical to a Federation member species with a fondness for scientific inquiry. The "duck blind" probably should have been staffed by Vulcans, rather than humans, in the first place!
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The writer of the episode apparently felt that not only had the entire Federation done this, but that every society should and must do so as early in their development as possible. The natives had actually done this already, and only start to revert to their beliefs for lack of a better explanation of events. The irony being that the Mintakans are a "proto-Vulcan" species, and actual Vulcans do practice a religion—complete with temples and prayer! They also possess Psychic Powers, which are poorly-understood even by Federation science!
- The Federation's stance is justified given the events of the episode. It's more akin to influencing a culture that has not yet matured enough to comprehend the universe in such a way where they can make such a decision. The Vulcan's are already a spacefaring race, so whatever personal beliefs they have are their own so long as they wouldn't take actions that would violate the Federation's policies. Also, the Vulcan's powers are likely accepted as form of science, albeit one the Federation doesn't fully understand yet; it's not treated as pure magic.
- Star Trek fans who are religious can appreciate Picard's tirade as being against superstition, as distinct from religion. The Mintakans are on the verge of re-adopting superstitions they had earlier abandoned, with no real moral code other than "try to please the gods so they don't smite us", which isn't much like modern religion at all.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Took you long enough, Jean-Luc!
- Spell My Name with a "The": The Mintakans refer to Picard as "The Picard."
- Stop Worshipping Me: With little alternative to clean up the awful mess they've made, Picard goes through a lengthy sequence of this with Nuria.
- Unwanted False Faith: Picard to the primitive species on the planet below. The only way he can convince them he is not a god is by proving that he can't raise the dead and by taking an arrow to the shoulder.