Star Trek: TNG on Courage and Moral/Cultural Relativism

I’ve somewhat of a Star Trek casual, as scifi nerds go. Over the years, I’ve watched Voyager and Deep Space Nine all the way through; I’ve seen many episodes of the original series as scattered reruns on TV, and I’ve watched a lot of The Next Generation episodes. But I’ve never gone straight through those older two series. Since Star Trek came to Netflix some years ago, I’ve been trying to slowly fill in some of the gaps.

Recently I watched S5 E16 of TNG, an episode entitled “Ethics.” Some people will tell you that Star Trek has always been kind of preachy, but one of the things I like about it (the older flavors, anyway) is that it usually takes a somewhat balanced approach. Sure, things like treachery and murder can portrayed as flat out bad, but there are more nuanced moral issues that are handled with a bit more circumspection.

“Ethics” tried to have the balance, but Picard’s alignment along with some oversimplifications in this one had me cringing.

In this episode, Worf suffers an accident in the cargo bay that breaks his back and leaves him paralyzed. The first thread here is that this is basically living death for a Klingon, and so Worf asks Riker to help him commit ritual suicide.

The second thread takes the form of a somewhat reckless specialist doctor who’s come to consult with Crusher on Worf’s condition. Dr. Russell recommends a risky, experimental treatment that has about a 33% chance of allowing Worf to make a full recovery, and a 67% chance of killing him. Russell is shown to favor aggressive experimental procedures that don’t always work out for her patients.

Although the writers tried to give voice to both sides of these issues, I felt that in each case one perspective was kind of weakly done.

The first scene that felt off to me was Riker’s conversation with Picard. Riker vents his frustration at being asked to help Worf kill himself as well as the Klingon’s quickness to give up.

It would be one thing to try to accept Worf’s decision, Riker asserts. But to actively participate is another. He also suggests that he might be more willing to help Worf if his friend were suffering and waiting for death. Picard’s response is basically that Worf is suffering and has already died. In a Klingon kind of way, anyway.

Ultimately, Picard tells Riker, Will will have to make his own decision. But he would totally be a lousy friend if he didn’t help Worf commit suicide.

Geez, Picard. We get more of this lazy, flat defense when Dr. Crusher voices her adamance to prevent a crippled Worf from killing himself.

Picard’s advocacy seems to boil down to “it’s not the Klingon way.” Yeah well it’s also not the Klingon way to join Starfleet and serve on science vessels with a bunch of humies. Did Picard even ever consult with Worf on all this? Not that we ever see. He seems to have already written off his Security Chief as dead.

And so it’s left to Riker and Troi to change Worf’s mind. Troi impresses upon Worf how much his son needs him.

Riker then lays down the tough talk. He tells Worf what he really thinks of all this suicide talk.

They’ve both seen a lot of friends and crewmates die, Riker reminds Worf. And none of them gave up like this.

And isn’t it the Klingon way to think first of family and friends? What if they don’t want their loved one to give up and die? Or do one’s own desires come first?

And then the whammy – according to Klingon law, not just anyone can assist with the suicide ritual.

Snap. Doesn’t matter that Alexander is just a boy, Riker reminds Worf. According to Klingon culture, there are no boys, only men.

After processing all this, Worf agrees to live.

The second thread – Crusher’s disgust with Russell for her cavalier approach to medicine, also has its problems. The main blowup comes when the two doctors are dealing with an influx of patients being triaged from an accident on some ship transporting colonists. Russell treats someone in critical condition with an experimental drug she’s previously had successes with, but the patient dies. Crusher then goes off on her for not following the standard treatment.

Now even though this gets lumped in with the risky treatment offered to Worf, it’s a separate issue. Offering a low-success or untested procedure to a patient after explaining the risks to them is very different from a doctor deciding on her own to administer an experimental medicine. If a cancer patient is facing a 5% survival rate, what’s the harm in offering them an untested option? They’re probably going to die without it anyway, and taking the risk should be their call, not the doctor’s.

Ultimately Worf does go through with the risky procedure. He dies, but then his redundant Klingon anatomy kicks in and he comes back. Crusher is still pissy at Russell, despite the success. Worf is shown in physical therapy opening up and asking his son to help him.

This episode was another example for me of how powerful some messages and scenes can be for someone depending on what’s going on in their life. This wasn’t a bad episode, but I didn’t feel the writing was particularly strong. And yet it still hit me with the feels at certain points.

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