Posted by: rebeccajrobare | June 13, 2017

An Old Civilization: “The Last Outpost”

Mission Summary: The Enterprise pursues a Ferengi vessel that has stolen a piece of technology from a Federation world. As they approach an uninhabited planet, the ship becomes caught in a force field that begins to slowly drain its power. Believing that the Ferengi possess a technology that threatens all the lives on board, Picard prepares to surrender. However, the Ferengi offer to surrender to him. Picard agrees to accept their surrender, and demands visual contact with the Ferengi commander. This is Starfleet’s first look at this species. When the Ferengi realize that the Enterprise is not the source of the disabling force field, Picard suggests that the two crews partner to figure out a way to restore their ships. An away team beams down, only to be separated by whatever energy is disrupting power to the Enterprise. They are attacked by the Ferengi party. Riker, LaForge, Yar, Worf, and Data find each other amid the planet’s strange, misty landscape while fighting off attacks. Then a voice demands an explanation for their presence: A holographic portal, remnant of the civilization whose outpost this planet was, appears to challenge them for their entry into the “Empire.” With difficulty, Riker and Data convince the portal that the Empire it served was destroyed by a supernova 600,000 years before. It is impressed with the Starfleet officers, asking Riker to tell it more about Sun Tzu, and dismissive of the Ferengi, who have shown themselves to be greedy, violent, sexist, and deceptive by Federation standards. The portal releases the ships, the Enterprise recovers the stolen property, and they and the Ferengi go their separate ways.

On Leadership: There are a number of interesting moments during this odd mission. Five in particular stand out for what they tell us about leadership; one of these belongs to Riker, rather than to Picard.

First, Picard allows the Ferengi to believe that the Enterprise has disabled their ship. I find this an interesting choice because in most circumstances we look to leaders for honesty and transparency, even in conflict. Picard seems to make this decision for a couple of reasons. First, he is mindful of two goals. One is to free the Enterprise and save her crew and civilians, but the second is his original mission to recover the stolen device. Allowing the Ferengi to continue under a misapprehension is an understandable decision if it provides some kind of advantage in accomplishing one or both of these goals. In this case, retrieving what the Ferengi have stolen may be possible if the Ferengi believe that returning it will free their ship. Second, Picard does not represent to the Ferengi that he has disabled their ship; he merely allows them to continue believing that he has when they jump to that conclusion — the same conclusion he had jumped to. Picard is merely faster to realize he is wrong. He is taking advantage of their assumptions, rather than lying. In any case, this tactic backfires; the Ferengi are mad at this deception, and it could be concluded that it is why they immediately attack the away team on the planet under the assumption that, having been deceived once, they are being deceived again.

Second, when Data briefs the officers on the civilization to which the planet had once belonged, he is seen fidgeting with a finger trap, and gets stuck in it. Picard commands Data to “get unstuck,” but when Data cannot see the way to release himself, Picard frees him from the toy. This meeting is interesting because Picard offers no objection to Data’s absent fidgeting until it distracts him from his task at hand, and because once aware of Data’s problem, it is Picard who provides a solution to it. In my opinion, this is good management, on both counts, allowing a secondary activity if attention is not distracted from the primary focus and providing solutions to any issues that arise in order to return to that focus. As Data has a greater attentional capacity than any human (as we will learn during a later mission), using the finger trap during the briefing may be analogous to the use of a fidget toy by a businessperson with an attentional disorder; use of the toy paradoxically allows for greater attention to be paid to the task at hand. We can also note here that the crew members in the briefing are giving their full attention to the meeting content. They are not reading their e-mail or doing other work.

Third, while the away team are on the planet and out of contact with the Enterprise, the crew are essentially huddled together for warmth as their oxygen slowly runs out. Picard visits a lounge where Dr. Crusher is distributing blankets. She reveals to him that her son Wesley is in their quarters; she gave him a sedative. He is sleeping through this crisis. Picard tells her that her son “deserves to face death like a man.” Putting aside Crusher’s response to this remark, it is interesting because it reveals both Picard’s attitude toward death, and his increasingly paternal feelings toward Wesley. The idea that “men” face death head on is not uncommon in our culture, and from a leadership perspective, any challenge or desperate situation can only be faced if it is to be resolved. In this case, Picard can do no more to resolve the situation, but he still feels responsible for facing the death that is about to be visited upon all the lives aboard his vessel.

Fourth, Riker displays solid leadership while on the planet. He answers the portal’s challenge with precepts from The Art of War, and denies the Ferengi lies calmly and not defensively. He also restrains Lt. Yar from excess violence against the Ferengi when they remark that allowing “a female” to go clothed in public is an invitation for another man to undress her.

Finally, once they have recovered the stolen technology and are preparing to allow the Ferengi to go on their way, Riker suggests beaming to them a crate of Data’s finger traps. Picard permits this trolling. It’s a very interesting response. It smacks of revenge — “you caused us this trouble, so we will cause some for you” — but the finger trap is essentially harmless (a person could be cut out of it with a scissor if they really couldn’t get free). It’s fundamentally a prank, but do Starfleet captains really prank the crews of opposing vessels? I admit to feeling ambivalent toward this action. I don’t wish to accuse Capt. Picard of a misstep, but it seems like an action that could backfire for Starfleet or the Federation, if the Ferengi consider it a Trojan Horse and an act of war.

What are your opinions about sending finger traps to the Ferengi, or other acts or failures of leadership during this mission?

 

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