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The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to Ligon II, the only planet in the galaxy that possesses the vaccine for Anchilles Fever, a sickness which is decimating the people of Styris IV.
But Ligon’s humanoid culture is one possessing an antiquated Code of Honor, and intercultural frissons soon arise when the planet’s powerful leader, Lutan (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) captures Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and withholds the needed vaccine unless she is allowed to fight in a duel to the death with his wife, Yareena (Karole Selmon).
Although Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is acutely aware that the Enterprise crew could simply take the vaccine by force, the Prime Directive prohibits such action.
Accordingly, Picard must execute a plan that satisfies honor, retrieves Yar, and ends with the procurement of the vaccine for Styris IV.
In the vast Star Trek catalog -- which spans decades and more than a half-dozen TV series, and a dozen motion pictures -- one would be hard-pressed to find a more distasteful, less-successful outing than “Code of Honor,” the third episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).
This is so because the episode, via lousy execution, transmits, unfortunately, as racist.
This is a heavy charge, and one that should not be made lightly. First, I should say, I don’t believe the intention was to be racist. Indeed, in a sense, “Code of Honor” could have been a step forward in Star Trek storytelling. In previous eras of Star Trek, the Enterprise discovers parallel Earths, or humanoid cultures all across the galaxy, and virtually all are primarily Caucasian (save for the Native Americans of “The Paradise Syndrome.”)
So, there isn’t inherently anything wrong or racist about suggesting that another parallel Earth or distant world could be inhabited by black humans. If there are planets of white aliens, and green-aliens, why not black ones, right?
However, that not-entirely-terrible notion is dramatically undercut by several points, specific to the particular narrative of “Code of Honor.”
First, Ligon is clearly viewed in the episode as a kind of ‘third world’ planet outside the ‘first world’ of the Federation. Its backward ways and beliefs are viewed as primitive by the smug characters aboard the Enterprise, and so the episode becomes, basically, about how the first world must play along with the third world to acquire its many resources or riches (in this case, a much-needed vaccine).
Series writer Tracy Torme famously commented on the episode’s 1940’s feel, and was correct in doing so. In “Code of Honor,” the U.S.S. Enterprise (of high western civilization) travels to the futuristic equivalent of “darkest Africa” to acquire the vaccine. But the people don’t want to give it up, so the (superior) westerners (and let’s face it, save for Geordi, they are all white…) must trick it away from them, using the people’s own backwards beliefs to do so.
Secondly, the leader Lutan, a dark-skinned male, is overcome with apparent lust (or at least fascination) with the golden-haired, very white Tasha Yar, whom he deems to be more desirable (or at least exotic) than his black wife, Yareena.
There aren’t many tropes more backward or racist than this particular plot point.
Thirdly, although the Ligonians possess a much-needed vaccine and some fascinating technology (the light-up arena pillars that can be re-arranged in any configuration), they hold what the Westerners view as backward or superstitious beliefs.
Lutan and his second, Hagon, view with ignorance the Holodeck characters they see aboard the Enterprise, exclaiming that the Federation can create people “without a soul.” This line of dialogue seems to be a reference to an oft-quoted, but poorly sourced story which indicates that some African tribes, in the early 20th century, believed that cameras could steal the souls of those photographed.
So, it is not merely that “Code of Honor” presents a world of dark-skinned humans, it’s that it depicts that world of dark-skinned in terms of racial tropes and stereotypes related sexuality, intelligence, and “tribal” beliefs. Now, I don’t accuse anyone of trying to make the episode racist, but the result is, on its face, incredibly racist.
“Code of Honor” is a terrible episode of Star Trek for reasons beyond its unflattering portrait of dark-skinned humans as “backward” and primitive. The episode is hobbled by weak writing, in particular its dependence on dull, long-winded exposition. Here, Captain Picard utters a long, boring lecture about the Prime Directive, in front of a captive audience of Data, LaForge, and Troi, and -- as if to apologize -- finally notes that he doesn’t have the right to go on about a topic everybody already is familiar with. The apparent goal of the speech is to reacquaint the audience with the concept of the Prime Directive (and non-interference), but boy is it ham-handed.
And once more, the writing does the character of Picard absolutely no favors. He comes off in this scene as a lecturing, moralistic pedant. He doesn’t have to be a copy of Kirk. But he certainly doesn’t come across as a strong, or resourceful leader in this episode.
The writing is so bad in “Code of Honor” that it doesn’t even think take advantage of a possible asset in the central scenario: our underutilized bridge officer, Worf. Here is a Starfleet officer who hails from a culture that, much like the Ligonian one, lives by a strict and complex code of honor. Worf would be a perfect ambassador to Ligon II. Instead, he has nothing to do in the episode.
Finally, “Code of Honor” also exposes a key weakness of the first seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is one that goes to the very heart of the sequel series. In the Original Series, there is a “learn as you go”-type feeling in the storytelling, and in terms of character development.
Think of Captain Kirk realizing that he has actually been arguing for war, in “Errand of Mercy,” or overcoming his desire to kill the Gorn captain in “Arena.” In these situations, and in many others, the main characters in the series learn something about themselves from their encounters with aliens. The underlying idea is of a human race that is very much still in development; learning and growing as it heads out into the final frontier.
Even the last Star Trek film to feature the Original Cast, The Undiscovered Country (1991) adopts this technique. Kirk and Spock both overcome their particular prejudices in that tale. Kirk realizes he is afraid of a future in which there is no Neutral Zone, and which he can’t keep hating Klingons. Spock realizes that being a “Vulcan” doesn’t make one a good person, vis-à-vis Lt. Valeris.
Now contrast this “learn as you go” approach with The Next Generation’s approach early on. In the first and second season, the characters are already “fully evolved,” smugly lecturing to the aliens they encounter each week, whom they deem “less evolved” than humanity. Look at the smug, sneering way that Picard and crew contend with the Ligonians here, or the Anticans and Selay in “Lonely Among Us,” or even The Ferengi in “The Last Outpost.”
It’s ugly. It’s arrogant. It’s self-satisfied, and it doesn’t make characters such as Picard, Yar, Riker, or Dr. Crusher likeable in the slightest. They hail from a perfect society, apparently, and look down their nose at those who have not had the same advantages.
This is not what Star Trek is supposed to be about, and the tendency to have the Enterprise characters smugly talk-down to or lecture representatives of other cultures is at its worst in these early shows, and in “Code of Honor” in particular.
Luckily for Star Trek fans (and for the longevity of The Next Generation), this approach changes over the years, so that the main characters come to seem more…human.
“Code of Honor” is fascinating, in at least one sense: the growing pains the episode suggests as the fledgling series tries to discover its own identity. Here, Picard demonstrates a pro-French bias, showing irritation with Data when he fails to acknowledge that country’s historical accomplishments.
And Troi, in this episode, is hard-edged and manipulative, tricking Tasha into revealing her amorous feelings for Lutan.
I actually like this Troi better than the “emotional basket-case”/space-cheerleader version of Troi in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Troi would have to be a brilliant counselor and acute observer of human/alien nature to merit a berth as counselor aboard the Federation flagship, and in “Code of Honor” she displays an almost icy, Machiavellian streak as she attempts to gain the advantage for Picard. I suspect her character would not have been so disliked by fans at the beginning if this approach, rather than the “touchy-feely” one, had been developed.
I have written so much about how bad this episode is, and I have not yet even arrived at the fact that the episode plays, at points, like a derivative version of "Amok Time." In both cases, an Enterprise crew member is forced into ritual combat over an intercultural misunderstanding. Both combats arise, as well, over concepts surrounding marriage. It's important to note "Code of Honor's" derivative nature, because that too is a weakness of this series in its early days. "Encounter at Farpoint" regurgitates aspects of "Squire of Gothos." "The Naked Now" updates "The Naked Time." "Code of Honor" features elements in common with "Amok Time." And "The Last Outpost" is a (deeply inferior" remake of the original series' "Arena."
“Code of Honor” is a terrible episode, but I suspect one that is a result not of intentional racism, but of the series not really knowing yet what it is supposed to be about. I hate to beat a dead horse, but there is no episode of Discovery’s (2017) first season that can compare to the sheer awfulness of this one.
I hope Star Trek fans complaining about the new series remember that Next Generation had to grow a lot before it reached beloved status. Discovery has already found its footing faster than Next Generation did.
Next up: “The Last Outpost.”