If Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages is to believed then The High Ground is one of TNG’s most internally lamented episodes. For those who don’t recall this third season story, it’s the one where Doctor Crusher gets kidnapped by space terrorists, who then hold her captive in exchange for aid from the Federation in securing their country’s sovereignty from planet Rutia’s world government.
Ron Moore called the episode “an abomination.” Moore goes on to say,
“We didn’t have anything interesting to say about terrorism except that it’s bad and Beverly gets kidnapped – ho hum. They take her down to the caves and we get to have nice, big preachy speeches about terrorism and freedom, fighting and security forces versus society. It’s a very unsatisfying episode and the staff wasn’t really happy with it.”
Michael Piller, credited as The High Ground’s co-executive producer, questioned the overall statement the story made about terrorism.
“Was it the point where the boy puts down the gun and says, ‘Maybe the end of terrorism is when the first child puts down his gun?’ It was effective in the context of that show, but is certainly not a statement that provides any great revelation.”
Given that the IRA crisis was far from resolved when the episode went to air in 1990, it is understandable why The High Ground was seen as a milquetoast affair in the face of a real social issue. The closest the episode comes to making an actual statement on terrorism is during a conversation between Data and Picard. Data cites Mexican independence from Spain as a precedent in support of violent insurgency as a last resort when attempting to bring about political change. Picard’s reaction to Data’s android innocence is to fall back on the series’ stock answer: “Well that’s just human nature and these are big questions for which there is no easy answer.” No wonder the writers were unhappy with the episode. At least when TNG married the prime directive with the war on drugs it came with the benefit of Lt. Yar admitting to the allure of chemical intoxication; albeit Wesley’s subsequent “I’ll never do drugs” comment was positively stomach churning.
Nearly a quarter of a century after The High Ground went to air, it’s interesting to note how closely the episode’s themes mirror our own contemporary dialogues on terror. Twenty-three years might have given us real world analogues to Star Trek’s PADDs, tricorders, phasers, and even a theoretical model for a warp drive, but clearly our sociology has lagged behind the science.
In the episode’s first act, Alexana Devos (Kerrie Keane), the head of Rutia’s security condemns the Ansata terrorist organization as a group of animals. She further paints the Ansata as “…fanatics who kill without remorse or conscience.” Please to note the othering of terrorists as sub-humans.
Devos’ attempts to ferret out the Ansata portray Rutia as a near police-state. Suspects with even the slightest ties to the Ansata are rounded up in mass arrests and questioned without formal charge or the benefit of legal counsel. Rutian methods extend so far as to arrest children and teenagers as potential Ansata sympathizers. Though nobody comes out and says it, the episode clearly implies that Rutia is a place where the average citizen is either with the government or the Ansata.
Meanwhile the Ansata view themselves as freedom fighters struggling against an oppressive regime. Kyril Finn (Richard Cox), leader of the Ansata, rationalizes himself to Dr. Crusher as a 24th century George Washington. When Crusher reminds Finn that Washington was a general and not a terrorist, Finn retorts that the difference between terrorists and generals is the difference between history’s winners and losers. This leads to an interesting point wherein Finn asks Doctor Crusher how much violence is buried in the Federation’s past? In terms of canon, quite a lot: The Eugenics Wars, World War 3, the Earth-Romulus war, and a century of cold war with the Klingon Empire. Finn throws the idealized world of the Federation in Doctor Crusher’s face to demonstrate the selective memory governments often utilize in the prosecution of terror while simultaneously ignoring their own “legitimate” uses of force.
When Finn takes Captain Picard hostage after a failed attempt to destroy the Enterprise, Doctor Crusher questions the difference between a mad man and a committed man willing to die for his principles. Picard, however, is utterly dismissive of the Doctor’s question. Having witnessed the Ansata murdering members of his crew, he is not inclined to entertain the broader issues of the Ansata conflict. Picard further marginalizes the Ansata position in his suggestion that Doctor Crusher’s entirely conceptual recognition of the Ansata cause is the product of Stockholm Syndrome.
Later in the episode a joint Starfleet-Rutian strike force assaults the Ansata compound. Picard and Crusher are liberated but Finn is assassinated in the process. Picard’s reaction to the kill is somewhere between indifference and tacit approval. Then, as if to wash the Federation’s hands of the entire situation, the Enterprise leaves Rutian security to deal with the aftermath of Finn’s martyrdom. At no point does anybody in a Starfleet uniform acknowledge the fact that the Federation has played an active part in making an unstable situation worse.
Given the way the word has changed over the last twelve years, it’s hard not to look at Rutia and see a blueprint for our world. Combatants turn each other into monsters to legitimize their respective actions. Disagreement is confused with dissent. Empathy is mistaken for sympathy. The High Ground may not have told the story that Melinda Snodgrass intended in 1990, a story which would have seen the Federation on the wrong side of history, but it does offer a clearly unexpected window into our own world.