While Picard is giving a frank critique of Data's performance as Ebenezer Scrooge during his A Christmas Carol holoplay, the Enterprise receives a distress signal from a Federation science station on Ventax II. They contact the station's director, Dr. Clark, who explains that the station is being attacked by the planet's populace, which has erupted into chaos over a belief that their world is about to end. Once the Enterprise arrives at the planet, the Ventaxians break into the station and Dr. Clark is beamed aboard in the nick of time. Unfortunately, the rest of the scientists are taken by the mob and the Enterprise can't get a lock on them.
In the ready room, Dr. Clark explains that the Ventaxians were a highly advanced civilization until 1000 years ago, when they suddenly turned their backs on technology and reverted to an agrarian society. Despite their low tech level, Clark describes their society as idyllic—until a few months ago, when the Ventaxian head of state, Acost Jared, became increasingly obsessed with the legend of Ardra, the Ventaxian Devil figure. According to the legends, 1000 years ago, during a time of great strife and suffering, Ardra promised the Ventaxians 1000 years of peace and prosperity in return for her eventual return and subsequent enslavement of the population. The Enterprise is eventually contacted by Jared himself, who reveals the scientists were taken hostage and that the planet has been plagued with the omens of Ardra's return, including earthquakes and several appearances of her in person. The crew beams down to speak with Jared, hoping that they might dissuade fears of a myth among the populace and secure the hostages' release. Jared simply babbles nervously about Ardra... and then suddenly states, "She's here!" On cue, a woman suddenly appears in a flash of blinding light, saying, "Time's up."
The woman starts talking and walking around like she literally owns the place, demanding a full census of the population with emphasis on productivity and economic forecasts. She also inquires about the identity of the Enterprise crew, prompting them to introduce themselves, and Data to ask if she is indeed the mythological Ardra. She replies it is but one of her names, and that she is the truth behind countless Devil myths, such as the Klingon Fek'lhr. Worf scoffs at this, and Ardra responds by turning into Fek'lhr right before his eyes and then changing back. In response to Picard's skepticism, Ardra points out that he must have seen many fantastic beings in his travels, and Picard replies that indeed he has—including several with a more credible claim of being the devil than her. Picard demands to see the contract Ardra has made with the planet so that Data can examine it. When he offhandedly mentions the hostages, Ardra demands that Jared have them released. Despite Picard thus no longer having a reason to remain on the planet, he remains adamant to examine the contracts, which Ardra teasingly claims is because he's obsessed with her. Picard vows to "not abandon this planet to that woman."
In the conference room, the crew discusses the possibility that Ardra is a member of the Q continuum—or even Q himself, disguised as a woman for kicks. Picard points out that Q wouldn't care about contracts or economic forecasts; he is convinced that the woman is a simple Con Artist, with tricks that can be easily accomplished via technology, seeking to take advantage of the legend of Ardra to take over the planet. Returning to the bridge, Picard orders a search for a possible base of operations, but stops short when he sees Ardra herself, sitting in Picard's chair. Worf tries to remove her, but (predictably) ends up bouncing off a force field. Ardra claims the contract also gives her claim over everything in the planet's airspace and orbit—including the Enterprise.
While Ardra makes herself at home on the bridge, Picard orders Data to study the contract and the Ventaxian legal system for some sort of loophole. At one point Ardra even tries to seduce Picard, changing into various forms, including Troi, but Picard rejects her advances. She retaliates by transporting him to the science station on the planet in his bedclothes (surprising Geordi and Clark) and disabling the transporters, forcing Data to pick him up in a shuttle with a spare uniform. En route back to the ship, Data relates that he found a legal precedent involving a contract dispute between a Ventaxian and a Klingon craftsman, where it was decided that due to one of the parties being alien, it was a matter for arbitration and not the courts. Picard notes that this is just what they need and that they will be able to lure Ardra into it by playing a con of their own... Unfortunately, as they're discussing this, the Enterprise suddenly vanishes.
Geordi tries to locate the ship but can't find it anywhere within one light-year. However, he did notice a jump of Technobabble Particles and claims that if they can get Ardra to do some more of her tricks, they might pinpoint her power source. Picard then goes to Ardra and explains the arbitration precedent. Ardra doesn't see why she should agree to this, prompting Picard to promise her a legendary priceless jewel if she wins. Ardra isn't interested and proposes a different offer: Picard himself, "heart, mind and soul." Picard reluctantly agrees, leaving only the matter of who should be the arbiter: Ardra chooses Data, under the rationale that as an android he is incapable of bias. Data takes Picard aside and asks that he refuse since he will not guarantee Picard's victory, but Picard abides by the choice since Data is the only person on the planet whom Ardra cannot intimidate.
The trial...er...arbitration of the century then begins. The beginning doesn't go well, since Ardra manages to use a few iffy yet acceptable-under-Ventaxian-law arguments, as well as intimidate Jared (the sole witness) to "prove" that she is indeed Ardra. At one point she demonstrates her powers again (testing Data's patience) and asks Picard if he can explain them. Picard cannot. Meanwhile, Geordi and Clark technobabble their way through tracking Ardra's power source with little success.
Picard decides on a different approach. Unable to prove that she is not Ardra, he disputes her involvement in the bettering of Ventaxian society in the 1000 years that followed the dark days that prompted the deal. By questioning Jared, Picard proves that all of the improvements were made by the Ventaxians themselves without any help from Ardra. However, Ardra responds by asking Jared if the terrible conditions would have continued had she not intervened. Jared replies yes. And this is taken as evidence that the contract was fulfilled.
Things look pretty grim for Picard until Geordi enters the room and Picard asks for a recess, under the guise of Geordi bringing evidence for review. Geordi explains that they have tracked the power source: a ship equipped with a "bad copy" of a Romulan cloaking device parked near the planet's magnetic North Pole. The Enterprise's "disappearance" was accomplished by simply extending the cloaking field over it. Geordi has contacted the ship, and Picard and Geordi hatch a plan...
The arbitration resumes. Picard claims that Ardra has no powers whatsoever and decides to prove it by "stealing" them. Picard then causes some earthquakes of his own, makes Ardra disappear, and assumes the guise of Fek'lhr, all of which Ardra is powerless to stop. Picard explains that the Enterprise has seized control of her ship, where all the technology she used to perform her tricks was held. He also reveals that "Ardra" was telling the truth when she claimed to have many names: her crew revealed she's used 23 aliases in that sector alone. Data declares the contract dissolved and "Ardra" is arrested. She claims Picard would have "more fun" if he had lost and gives an "until we meet again." Picard and Data exit, roll credits.
This episode contains examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: How Picard sees Ardra. Not that she's really ugly... far from it.
- Apocalypse Anarchy: Dr. Clark and his team get caught up in a riot, and Jared mentions that more chaos is going on.
- Arbitrary Skepticism:
- Ardra accuses Picard and company of this, since despite all the incredible and varied things Picard and the crew of the Enterprise have seen over the course of their careers, no-one ever considers the possibility that Ardra is what she claims she is. They briefly consider that she may be Q (or a Q) but dismiss it on the grounds that no Q would be interested in a planet's economics. It may be, however, that it's because of this experience, where all claims of supernatural beings always turn out to be some variety of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, that they doubt her.
- Ardra repeatedly demonstrates a lack of any kind of extrasensory abilities. She did not know about the Federation hostages, requires a census of the population as well as economic forecasts, is unaware that Data is an android until told and just generally asks a lot of questions that one would expect a genuinely godlike being to already know the answers to. This is an obvious tipoff that she is neither the "devil" nor an advanced alien.
- Badass Fingersnap: Picard does this when turning Ardra's "powers" against her. Q would approve.
- Big Red Devil: When Ardra claims that I Have Many Names, she says "Devil" is one she hasn't heard in a long time. Later on (presumably after doing some research on Earth mythology), she transforms into a classic scarlet-skinned devil in an attempt to intimidate Picard.
- Blatant Lies: When Picard asks Ardra to stop the tremors he caused (having confiscated her ship) she claims, "I like the tremors!"
- Bullying a Dragon: One has to wonder what Ardra thought was going to happen when she decided to mess with the Federation's flagship and its most accomplished crew, since she isn't what she claimed to be.
- Clarke's Third Law: Played with. Ardra's tricks are performed using technology, but it turns out to be technology that the Enterprise itself possesses (or at least knows of), dressed up to look more impressive than it is.
- Continuity Nod: Worf isn't fully successful at hiding his nervousness when Ardra takes the form of Fek'lhr—after all, he tortures the dishonored dead in Klingon mythology, and Worf is still suffering under discommendation. By Klingon standards, he's headed straight to Hell if he should die.
- In the TOS episode "Day of the Dove", Kang told Kirk that the Klingons don't have a Devil. In this episode, Fek'lhr is not the Klingon Devil, he is the guardian of Gre'thor, the Klingon Hell, similar to Cerebus from Greek Mythology.
- Courtroom Antic: Several, including a few not in the standard playbook. It later comes back to bite Ardra; when Picard "steals" Ardra's powers, Data decides that Picard has a certain amount of leeway given Ardra's prior actions. Once Picard has replicated all of Ardra's prior tricks, Data promptly declares that said leeway has run out.
- Courtroom Episode: With Data as the utterly impartial arbitrator. It makes you wonder if any other civilization has thought of using androids for arbitrators or judges.
- Deal with the Devil: The whole situation rests on the claim of a deal with Ardra that the Ventaxians made with her a thousand years ago that she would give them a thousand years of peace and prosperity in exchange for her enslaving the entire populace when the time period expired. The criminal known as Ardra appears at the present time to take advantage of this to make the planet surrender its resources to her.
- The Dreaded: Ardra has an entire planet quivering in fear at her very mention.
- Evil Is Hammy: Ardra relishes her power over the Ventaxians and putting the moves on Picard. She seems to prefer the Cold Ham variety - she comes off soft-spoken and doesn't raise her voice too much, but she definitely carries herself like an Evil Overlord.
- Famous, Famous, Fictional: During the "Christmas Carol" cold open, Data mentions three of his "mentors" in Method acting: Konstantin Stanislavski, Stella Adler and Garnav.
- Foreshadowing: Data's rehearsal of the Jacob Marley scene at the beginning introduces the two main themes of the episode: the power of fear, and how far you should trust what your senses tell you.
- The Ghost: We never see Ardra's ship or the crew helping her pull off the whole flimflam.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: In the courtroom. Ardra is condescendingly sweet and pulls out her tricks, while Picard takes the role of a melodramatic lawyer. When deconstructing how "responsible" Ardra is for the planet's recovery, for example:Picard: [while making this face◊] Did she not pick up even one piece of trash?!
- Holographic Disguise: Some of Ardra's tricks involve this, including temporarily taking over the appearance of an Enterprise bridge crew member. Picard uses this knowledge at the end during the arbitration by taking on the form of Fek'lhr with the same technology.
- Hot as Hell: Ardra wastes no time flaunting what she's got.
- Hypocrite: When Picard "steals" Ardra's powers, Ardra appeals to the judge despite having used the same antics earlier. Data declares that under the circumstances, Picard is allowed some leeway.
- Ignore The Fanservice: Picard isn't even the least bit tempted by Ardra.
- I Have Many Names: Ardra boasts this in her role as The Devil. Interestingly, this turns out to be true, though only in her criminal career.
- Invisibility Cloak: Part of Ardra's bag of tricks. Turns out to be of low enough quality for Geordi to penetrate it.
- Ironic Echo: A visual one: when Picard "steals" Ardra's powers, he replicates a trio of her prior tricks: First, he causes an earthquake (which Ardra can't stop), then he makes Ardra disappear briefly, and finally gives himself the guise of Fek'lhr.
- Loophole Abuse: Heroic variant: "Ardra", after being outed as a con artist, withdraws her claim to the planet. It's for this reason ("the advocate's withdrawal") that Data declares the contract null and void, even though "Ardra" is not the actual advocate as has just been proven. (It's not a loophole so much as an unenforceable contract, since no one else claiming to be Ardra showed up to stake her claim to Ventax II when the time came. Since the sole claimant has been exposed as an impostor, the contract is dissolved.)
- Magic Feather: Picard argues that the original deal with Ardra was a case of this, as there are no records of her actually helping to create the Utopian society the Ventaxians now enjoy, and their history actually indicates the idea of the deal helped the people put in the hard work necessary to create it themselves. Ardra doesn't dispute this, but argues it's irrelevant; the deal never specified how the planet would improve, only that it would.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!:
- Ardra's tricks in the courtroom leave enough of a signature for Geordi and the Federation scientists to track.
- For that matter, Ardra's insistence on messing with the Enterprise rather than sticking with conning the Ventaxians does nothing but reinforce Picard's determination to expose her.
- Satanic Archetype: Ardra proclaims to be several.
- "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: A 24th century version, as all of Ardra's tricks are merely the use of transporters, tractor beams, cloaking fields, and holography.
- Second Coming: Of Ardra, which the criminal posing as her takes advantage of.
- Speak of the Devil: The Ventaxians consider it unlucky to speak Ardra's name aloud.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Picard tells Geordi he has a plan, but they have only one hour to prepare. The scene immediately cuts to an hour forward, and we see their plan being put into action.
- Villainous Crush: Ardra makes it quite clear how attracted to Picard she is. Unfortunately for her, the feeling isn't mutual. Still, she does whatever she can to make him hers.
- We Will Meet Again: Ardra threatens Picard with this as she's taken away. While she never returns in the TV series, she does appear in a three-part story in the comics published by DC and the Star Trek: Prey novel The Hall of Heroes.
- Wrong Assumption: A subtle case as Picard doesn't actually mention anything about it, but Ardra assumes that Troi is the crewmate he's attracted to rather than Dr. Crusher.