The Drumhead: A Star Trek TNG Episode that Speaks to Us Today

Captain Picard being Interrogated

Back in 1991 when I was still in seminary I spent every Saturday evening glued to my television set to watch Star Trek the Next Generation or Star Trek TNG for short.  Even today I enjoy watching the human drama that Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts created on the small screen.  Of all the Star Trek series my favorites are TNG and Deep Space 9 which sometimes called simply DS9.  Those series often touched on very pertinent social, political, medical, and technological and dare I say national security issues such as….oh, there are so many to choose from, let’s try airport security and protection against terrorists since that seems to be in the news a lot.

One of the most chilling episodes is called “The Drumhead.”

The episode is about an investigation that takes place on the Enterprise following an explosion in its engineering spaces.  Suspicion centers on a Klingon exchange officer but the investigator, the retired Starfleet Judge Advocate General a woman named Nora Satie and her Betazed assistant soon casts a wide net which eventually brings charges against a crew member and eventually Captain Picard.

At first Admiral Satie’s investigation seems reasonable. After all the Federation was in danger and there was a possibility that Flagship of Starfleet was sabotaged and there was the possibility that the Klingons or others might be involved.  Thus as she began her investigation she was welcomed by the Captain as well as the Security Chief, Lieutenant Worf, the only Klingon serving as a Starfleet officer.  Satie assisted by the Enterprise officers find how the Klingon scientist was getting information off the Enterprise and Lieutenant Commander LeForge finds that the explosion thought to be “sabotage” was caused by a flaw in a recently replaced dilithium chamber.  Although convinced that the Klingon is not the saboteur Satie is convinced that another saboteur is aboard and she and her assistants trick a young hospital corpsman named Simon Tarsus into lying, not about the sabotage but because his grandfather was a Romulan, which he did mention when he enlisted, instead saying that the grandfather was a Vulcan.

As the investigation widens Picard discusses it with Lieutenant Worf of which I find this dialogue to be quite relevant to today in year ten of the War on Terror and the passage of the Patriot Act.

Lieutenant Worf: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

Picard’s confrontation with Admiral Satie

When Picard objects to the grilling of Crewman Tarsus, Admiral Satie and her chief assistant begin an investigation of Picard.  He confronts the admiral saying:  “Admiral! What you’re doing here is unethical; it’s immoral. I’ll fight it.” And the Admiral replies “Do what you must, Captain. And so will I.”

This brings about the final confrontation where Admiral Satie calls a Senior Admiral from Starfleet to what her interrogate Picard who she has labeled a traitor. The investigation ends with her interrogating him and in the process revealing that she has become so consumed with “defending liberty” that she is willing to trample the rights of anyone that she suspects of disloyalty to the Federation.  The questioning of Picard by the Admiral is fascinating and thought provoking because there are people that think and act just like the Admiral, believing like her that they are defending the United States or in her case the Federation.

Admiral Satie: Tell me, Captain, have you completely recovered from your experience with the Borg?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Yes, I have completely recovered.

Admiral Satie: It must have been awful for you… actually becoming one of them. Being forced to use your vast knowledge of Starfleet operations to aid the Borg. Just how many of our ships were lost? Thirty-nine? And a loss of life, I believe, measured at nearly 11,000. One wonders how you can sleep at night, having caused so much destruction. I question your actions, Captain; I question your choices, I question your loyalty!

Capt. Picard: You know there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today…

Admiral Satie: [stands up in anger and interrupts Picard] How dare you! You who consort with Romulans, invoke my father’s name to support your traitorous arguments! It is an offense to everything I hold dear! And to hear those words used to subvert the United Federation of Planets. My father was a great man! His name stands for integrity and principle. You dirty his name when you speak it! He loved the Federation. But you, Captain, corrupt it. You undermine our very way of life. I will expose you for what you are. I’ve brought down bigger men than you, Picard!
[Admiral Henry gets up and leaves the room]

I have linked the episode here because it is so compelling to watch each segment is on You Tube and is 9 minutes long.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Of course Admiral Henry ends the investigation then and there and sends Admiral Satie home.  Of course this is fiction but the mindset and attitude of Admiral Satie seems to have been embraced by some in our government and security agencies, especially the TSA.  Rather than actually using police methods that work to identify potential terrorists from the vast amount of they make the entire nation suspects and use methods that in the past would have been declared unconstitutional because they violate Habeas Corpus rights, privacy rights and treat everyone as a potential terrorist without probable cause. Yet 80% of Americans are okay with this because it makes them feel safe without any data to show that it actual does and in over 9 years of existence has yet to catch one terrorist.  People that question or refuse their demands are treated as criminals and subject to arrest and prosecution with potential imprisonment and fines of $11,000 if they decide that when they get to the gate that they don’t want to put up with the nonsense and go home without boarding the aircraft.  The crime is not theirs because they don’t have to have anything in their possession to convict them; just deciding that they have had enough is enough for the TSA under the provisions of the Patriot Act to ruin their lives.  Our founding Fathers are probably spinning in their graves.  But the talk is out there, former Senator and Secretary of Defense William J. Cohen said: “Terrorism is escalating to the point that Americans soon may have to choose between civil liberties and more intrusive means of protection.” Well the choice has been made and I don’t think that there is any going back.  I’m sure that once the Tea Party led Republican Party comes to power in 2012 that they will use every tool available to “protect us because it is necessary” just as President Obama is doing now.

Frederick Douglass once said: “Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” He was right and I do not see any change until enough people object to force a change in how we fight terrorism.

I contend that we must fight this war but in the process not lose who we are as a people and surrender the ideals, principles and freedoms that made us the envy of people everywhere.  The balance has to be found in this effort; right now the pendulum is so far to the security side that it seems freedom is no longer even a concern at least for the vast majority of the population and our political leadership. One only has to look at what politicians on both sides of the political chasm have said about “protecting the homeland” and “safeguarding air travel” to realize that this is only the beginning.

The last lines of “The Drumhead” are interesting. Lieutenant Worf comes to Picard to let him know that Admiral Satie and Admiral Henry have left the Enterprise. Worf is apologetic about his rather overzealous role in the investigation and realizing the danger says: “after yesterday, people will not be so ready to trust her.” To which Picard replies “Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

Eternal vigilance in the face of both terrors from abroad and self imposed tyranny designed to protect us from the terrorists. Yes James Madison, God bless him was absolutely right when he said “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” However I fear that those that warn of such dangers will themselves be labeled the enemy. It as Henry Steele Commanger said “Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” This, my friends is the reality that we live in.


Padre Steve+



Filed under History, national security, philosophy, Political Commentary, star trek

6 responses to “The Drumhead: A Star Trek TNG Episode that Speaks to Us Today

  1. John Erickson

    Padre- I haven’t seen that episode of TNG in a while, but you are spot on choosing it. As so many episodes of both the original series (TOS for us Trekkies) and TNG speak to our world situation even today, I think they should be required viewing – “The Drumhead” being one of the best. “A Taste Of Armageddon” (TOS) is outstanding for showing how two planets can settle comfortably into a war where computers predict casualties and millions are killed by stepping into disintegration booths. My personal favourite is “The Wounded” (TNG), not so much for the main part of the story (where a captain who lost his wife and daughter in a war seeks revenge), but the end, where the enemy-turned-ally Cardassian commander declares his delight that the Federation’s vengeful captain is locked up. Captain Picard ‘s dialogue, ending with a declaration that the Federation will “be watching” to ensure the Cardassians’ compliance with the peace treaty, shows that allies are not the same as friends, that today’s ally can be tomorrow’s enemy, and as an old quote goes, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. Gene Roddenberry was a great man, and those who don’t “get” science fiction should give Trek a chance. Unlike Star Wars “shoot-em-up” feel-good adventure (don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of SW), “Star Trek” in TOS and TNG forms (less so the other incarnations) artfully combined a morals lesson with entertainment. And to you, Padre, “Peace and Long Life.”

    • padresteve

      The wounded is a great episode. I find it even more so after serving in Iraq. I have also found the “the Hunted” to be very moving in regards to the plight of veterans abandoned after the country doesn’t need them and doesn’t want to make the effort to help them re-integrate

  2. Luikart

    Well said. And scary.

  3. John Erickson

    I was thinking of the problems some of our vets are suffering when I mentioned the episode “The Wounded”. While not having lost family, the loss of a “battle buddy” can be just as traumatic. With a number of vets running afoul of the law because they literally cannot “turn it off” (their need to be on guard 24/7, suspicions of strangers, the need for the adrenalin rush), to paraphrase Capt. Picard, “We can pity {them}, but we shall not dismiss {them}”. A warning from over 25 years ago that just because a sheet of paper says a war is over, does not mean it is over for those who fought throughout it. I hope we do far better by our Iraq and Afghanistan vets than we did for those brave souls who made it home from Vietnam.

  4. Pingback: Invasion of the body scanners | Hey, it's Pat Ryan's blog!

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