Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
The Neutral Zone
Stardate 41986.0 (Earth Calendar Year 2364)
Original Air Date: May 16, 1988
Written by Maurice Hurley
Story by Deborah McIntyre and Mona Glee
Directed by James L. Conway
On stardate 41986.0, the Galaxy-class starship USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) is under the temporary command of First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes). Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is on his way back to the Federation’s new flagship after having been summoned to an emergency conference in Starbase 718. As Riker and the rest of the Enterprise’s crew await their commanding officer’s return, the ship’s sensors detect something unexpected; a very old space capsule launched centuries ago from Earth.
Ops officer Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) receives permission from Commander Riker to beam aboard the derelict capsule; accompanied by acting Security Chief Lt. (j.g.) Worf (Michael Dorn), the inquisitive android discovers that the mysterious craft is a cryogenics satellite which contains several hibernation chambers, two of which, unfortunately, have broken environmental seals and now only contain the decomposing remains of their occupants.
However, three of the chambers hold two men and one woman who can, in theory, be saved, so when Data is told to return to the Enterprise because the captain is due to arrive soon, he asks Riker for permission to bring the three “sleepers" aboard – the cryogenics satellite’s systems are deteriorating and the three “survivors” would more than likely meet the same fate as their other two companions.
Meanwhile, Capt. Picard, now back aboard the Enterprise, informs the senior crew that the starship is to head immediately to the Neutral Zone that separates the Federation from its old nemesis, the Romulan Star Empire. Picard reveals that Starfleet is concerned about the possibility of Romulan involvement in the loss of contact with a Federation outpost near the Neutral Zone.
When Picard is informed that Data and Riker have brought aboard the three “sleepers,” he is not thrilled, chiding Riker for bringing them on board during a potential crisis. However, knowing the deed can’t be undone, the captain reluctantly puts his first officer in charge of the three Earth citizens from the past – financier Ralph Offenhouse (Peter Mark Richman), housewife Claire Raymond (Gracie Harrison) and musician-entertainer L.Q. “Sonny” Clemonds (Leon Rippy) – all of whom had “died” of20th Century-era diseases and placed in a cryonics satellite in the hope that cures would be found in the future.
As the three humans from the past cope with the realization that they are alive in the year 2364 and that there are new technologies, new lifestyles and interstellar relations with other intelligent life-forms, the Enterprise crew heads toward the Neutral Zone to investigate the disappearance of the Federation’s outposts. Hoping that the ship is not heading into an armed confrontation with an old enemy, Capt. Picard and his crew nevertheless brace themselves for the worst.
My Take: Although Gene Roddenberry had made statements – prior to the show’s launch in the fall of 1987 – that Star Trek: The Next Generation would strive to not lean too much on material from the 1960s Star Trek: The Original Series, writers Maurice Hurley, Deborah McIntyre and Mona Glee decided to re-introduce the Romulans as recurring adversaries to the Federation, while at the same time introducing a new, more menacing foe: the Borg.
Even to the new show’s staunchest fans, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s intended “Red Force” – the Ferengi Alliance – turned out to be less than intimidating. Unlike the Klingons from the Original Series or the aforementioned Romulans, the Ferengi were perceived as more of a nuisance than a believable threat to the Enterprise (and Starfleet in general), so the writers – bucking the will of Roddenberry – came up with the notion that the Romulans had cut themselves off from galactic politics and interstellar conflict for two generations, but were now reasserting themselves.
Additionally, Hurley wanted to avoid making Star Trek: The Next Generation into a Romulans-versus-Starfleet show, so he posited the existence of a Cold War between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire, as well as the emergence of the Borg, a relentless and powerful adversary which would endanger the rest of the Alpha Quadrant.
Indeed, Hurley’s grand scheme for The Neutral Zone was for the first season finale to be the start of a Borg-related trilogy that would continue in Season Two. However, the writers’ strike of 1988 wreaked havoc with many movie and TV show productions, and the idea of introducing the Borg would have to wait until Q Who? aired in 1989.
For many fans, The Neutral Zone was a ray of hope for those who were worried that the new series was somehow going to be less adventure-oriented than Roddenberry’s original Kirk-Spock-McCoy oriented Star Trek. In the beginning, it seemed as though Picard’s Enterprise would become a spacefaring Grand Hotel and that all crises would be resolved through negotiation rather than the sometimes-necessary use of phasers and photon torpedoes.
"Your presence is not wanted. Do you understand my meaning, captain? We... are back. - Tebok
Though the episode carefully avoids a violent confrontation between Picard’s Enterprise-D and the Romulan Warbird that eventually enters the story, Hurley, McIntyre and Glee at least inject some badly-needed tension that hints at the possibility of danger and conflict.
Another interesting point about The Neutral Zone is that by “thawing” three 20th Century humans in the year 2364 (the first clear reference in any Star Trek production about when the events in the series take place), the writers use Offenhouse, Sonny Clemonds and Claire as the audience’s surrogates.
After all, the three survivors of what the production crew jokingly referred to as the SS Birdseye satellite were people who supposedly were our contemporaries in the 1980s. Thus, their experiences of being suddenly whisked to the 24th Century, walking aboard the Enterprise and seeing androids, Klingons and Romulans (oh, my) are in essence those that we, the viewers, would have if the universe of Star Trek really existed.
Though it’s far from perfect – I found Ralph Offenhouse to be a most unsympathetic figure – The Neutral Zone is a very good ST-TNG episode. It’s not literally a cliffhanger like so many of the series’ later season finales, but it does foreshadow things to come while at the same time ending the show’s freshman season on a positive note:
"Our mission is to go forward, and it's just begun. [...] There's still much to do. There's still so much to learn." - Picard
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12