If you’re trying to get someone new into Star Trek, I recommend skipping this episode, unless a plot based on overt racial stereotypes and ladies in an unbelievable death match over a man turns their crank.
The aliens in this episode are the code of honor-bound Ligonians, with whom the Enterprise is negotiating for vaccine needed to cure a horrible plague. They are played entirely by African-Americans and are written to embody all the worst Heart of Darkness-y stereotypes you can think of, except their faux-tribal print garments are much shinier.
Ligonian leader Lutan and his secondary, Hagon, beam on board they are shocked to find the Chief of Security (Yar) is a woman.
As Wil Wheaton says in his episode review: “Oh good! We’re going to be racist and sexist in this one.”
As the diplomatic talk continues, we learn that on Ligon the women are totally subservient to the men, except they own all the property. After, Lutan asks Yar to show them combat training on the holodeck.
After Yar demonstrates she can kick the ass of a holographic ninja (one that schools Hagon in a fight), Lutan decides he must have her. As he and his posse are getting ready to leave, he pretends to go to shake Yar’s hand but instead grabs her and they beam down to the planet.
Picard asks Troi whether she sensed anything to make her think they’ll hurt Yar.
I believe not, sir. They seem mainly curious. In the case of Lutan, however, I did feel other needs…Some sexual attraction from all the males. Lieutenant Yar is physically very attractive. But with Lutan I felt something else. Something more like avarice or ambition.
A day later they’ve heard nothing. Crusher is getting quite upset about the devastation the plague is wreaking that they can’t treat because they still don’t have the vaccine.
There’s an unfortunate moment right after this. Crusher asks Picard if Wesley can go on the bridge and he says sure, Wesley can sit at Ops. When Wesley and Geordi both say “Sir?” in response, Picard goes:
“Is the whole ship deaf?”
I know this aired in1987 and there was little mainstream consciousness of ableist language, but watching today I found it jarring.
But back to the racism and sexism…
Having looked more into the Ligonians ‘code of honor, Data says their abduction of Yar was “similar to what certain American Indians once did called counting coup”; essentially winning prestige through committing a dangerous act and then escaping. It’s rather poor form to off-handedly reference and generalize about Native Americans in a comparison to what we’re supposed to see as a savage practice, but I am not surprised at this point.
After a brief chat where Picard has to ask Lutan to give Yar back, Picard and Troi beam down. Lutan says he will return Yar at a banquet that night. He also introduces them to his “first one”, Yareena.
At the banquet Lutan says he can’t let Yar goes. He wants her to replace Yareena as his first one. Yareena is not about to let a prize like Lutan go, so naturally she challenges Yar to a fight to the death.
Picard and Troi visit Yar. Troi displays a stunning lack of professional ethics as she gets Yar to open up about her totally irrelevant feelings about Lutan, in front of their Captain:
Troi: But it was a thrill. Lutan is such, such a basic male image and having him say he wants you…
Yar: Yes, of course it made me feel good when he….Troi, I’m your friend and you tricked me.
Picard gets news the plague is even worse and he makes a last-ditch effort to figure out what Lutan is up to. Picard agrees “she [Yar] is a rather lovely female” (the second crew member to mention it this episode) but doesn’t get the fight-to-the-death thing. Turns out Lutan needs Yareena’s money and if she dies, he gets to keep it, so it’s a win-win.
Before their battle, which will be fought in a futuristic jungle gym with the weapons being gloves covered with instantly-deadly poisonous spikes, Yar tries to reason with Yareena. She warns her she is ready and able to beat Yareena in this fight. But for Yareena, it’s all about Lutan:
“How could you not love him? Every woman loves Lutan.”
Um, maybe because he wants you to be dead so he can have all your money to himself?
Yareena redeems herself a tiny bit by having an amazing, totally ruched, shiny pink bodysuit and headband for the battle:
The ending twist won’t be a surprise for any Trekkie who’s seen “Amok Time”: Yar touches Yareena with the poison spikes so everyone sees her die, then they transport to the Enterprise, where Crusher brings Yareena back to life.
Not knowing this, Lutan finally lets them have the vaccine. Then Picard beams him and Hagon up to the Enterprise to see Yareena. Having died, her marriage is dissolved. She says she now wants Hagon to be her first one and Lutan to be her second one.
What we learned from this episode:
- A lot of people feel the need to say how attractive Yar is (pro tip: we can tell)
- Ligonian culture (and by extension, every Earth culture it’s compared to) is greed-based, savage, irrational, and primitive.
- Troi occasionally uses her Betazoid powers just to get people to spill gossip
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail. Yar talks with Yareena and Troi at different times, but both conversations are about Lutan.