Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.7: The Day He Didn’t Die


Star Trek TNG Justice

“Only a fool stands in defiance of the JUSTICE NIPPLES!”

Eesh. Punishment zone is right.

“Eternal Sign Of Barbarism”

Let’s start with the good news: “Justice” isn’t actually as bad as I remember it being. My decades-old memory of this episode suggested it revolved around one of those ridiculous Prime Directive quandaries. You know the ones I mean.  A story where the obviously correct decision is declared off-limits by slavish devotion to a rule which, while generally sensible, would on this occasion lead to a ridiculous result.

In fact, “Justice” is very much about the opposite. It takes Picard a while to state it – he’s a very busy man with a terrifying star god to worry about – but the moment he gets the chance to express an opinion outside an Edo’s hearing he’s unequivocal. Wesley will not be executed. Non-intervention is non-viable. And while Picard would rather persuade the Edo of the wisdom of his position if possible, getting them to admit that murdering a teenager for leaf-disruption is a trifle excessive isn’t actually necessary. It’s only the transluscent tripod of rage hovering above the world that makes him think twice about just taking Wesley and leaving, and eventually he tries to do just that.

So this isn’t one of those interminable stories about how the Prime Directive is a noble idea which can be difficult to live up to. It’s about how even the most fundamental and vital laws cannot be interpreted without empathy.  “Justice” is explicitly calling out many other Prime Directive stories, past and future, as being morally outrageous. Picard even says “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute”, and he’s specifically referencing the Prime Directive as well as the Edo’s own system when he does so.

And that comparison seems very much part of the point. There are obvious similarities between the civilisation of Edo III and the Earth of the Federation. Both societies are considered paradises – I’m not sure this Earth has been explicitly called such at this point, but it’s a reasonable implication from all the dialogue about leaving behind destructive urges and moving past all those petty squabbles over economics and nationality. We’ll learn soon enough in “Haven” (broadcast after this episode but filmed before it) that the 24th century approach to romantic/sexual relationships is far less rigidly structured than that of American society as a whole, moving humanity closer to the Edo. Most pertinently, neither Edo nor Federation society has crime levels that rise above the negligible (again, I’m not sure if this is explicit yet, but it’s certainly implied by Picard here).

Put all this together, and it’s quite possible Picard and his crew would feel more at home on Edo III than they would in the America of the late eighties, or even now. Humanity has come a long way. And yet the franchise to this point (and afterward, really) has always been fairly hazy on just how we pulled it off.

This isn’t particularly surprising, of course. First of all, it would probably be difficult to do convincingly. It would also risk dating the show more quickly (and remember this episode was broadcast just five years before the Eugenic Wars of the original series were due to kick off). Lastly, and probably most importantly, it would be of questionable interest to most viewers. Who wants to tune in to a sci-fi show to be given a history lecture, and one that’s a pack of lies at that?

We can still gather up the occasional clue, though, and we get a rather nice one here. “Justice” tells us that whatever has allowed humanity to reach its (ostensibly) enlightened state by the 24th century, it wasn’t the death penalty. The argument put forward by some that crime could be wiped out immediately were we just willing to be far more draconian with our punishments is comprehensively rejected here. Indeed, the idea that this could possibly work is portrayed as backward, even childlike. Picard tries to be as diplomatic as possible when telling the Edo that humanity long ago realised this set-up is a terrible idea, but that’s still what he tells them.

And he’s right. I mean, I’m not thrilled about this being a show in which humanity jets around the universe explaining to other cultures that they’re just not as smart as we are, but he’s right. The idea that a society can be rid of crime more or less entirely by simply dialing up the severity of punishment is both morally appalling and totally incorrect. In my post on “Phage” I talked (in admittedly vague and shallow terms) about the multitude of different objectives a criminal justice system is reaching for. Those objectives are not necessarily parallel to each other, and most of them would be rendered impossible by a program of mass executions. In particular, the decision to kill everyone who commits any form of crime jettisons any concern for rehabilitation completely. Indeed, the only way to justify so outrageously immoral a system is to insist criminality is a kind of idiopathic condition, one that cannot be understood or cured or alleviated or vaccinated against, but merely destroyed. Quite frankly, this is a view of the world too simple to be acceptable in a Saturday morning cartoon. Even Skeletor eventually started doing ads for price comparison websites instead of trying to enslave Eternia.

And on top of all that, it simply wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. People don’t stop committing crimes because the punishment for them is death; that simply couldn’t be more obviously and trivially true. We can go back and forth on whether execution has some effect as a deterrent, but it transparently doesn’t stamp out any crime it is used to punish. Yes, making jaywalking punishable by death would probably have a larger effect on the crime statistics than doing the same thing with murder, but that’s because a) murder happens much more rarely than jaywalking and b) murderers expect to gain far more from murdering than jaywalkers do from crossing when they’re not supposed to. That means you’d massively reduce the number of trivial crimes without impacting the most serious ones to nearly the same extent. You end up with a justice system with a single deterrent that is only actually effective in direct proportion to how perverse its application is.

(Plus, too, you’d end up with an unstoppable pandemic of stress disorders as people spent their entire lives fretting about accidentally stepping on the wrong bit of grass or mis-remembering the meaning of an uncommon road sign. You’d actually have to read the spiel that’s thrown up at the end of a DVD, no matter how rubbish and long the credit sequence. Imagine having to sit through the credits of Return of the King every time you watched it. Damn things are longer than the movie, which is the longest movie ever. But you’d have to do it, to check whether you’ve inadvertently broken copyright law and will need to go into hiding to keep yourself alive. “Three men were executed yesterday for watching Roman Holiday on an oil-rig”. This is terrifying on every conceivable level. Everyone would need a law degree as a matter of survival. Could a purer vision of Hell exist?)

And all of that is without even approaching the question as to whether this system could be reliably and equitably enforced. It certainly couldn’t be in our own world, where social division and the high price of decent legal counsel would mean certain kinds of people would always be more likely to end up dead than others (as the data on US executions makes inescapably clear).  And that’s just the trial. What about the process of catching criminals in the first place? No police force is going to have enough officers to patrol everywhere at all times. Who makes the call on where to focus, and on what basis? Because under this new system, a community you prioritise is a community from which you will be taking people and killing them, whilst other places are enjoying an easier ride.

This isn’t a recipe for justice. It’s a recipe for furious resentment.

It’s possible that these are issues that do not apply to the Edo.  The use of randomised punishment zones deals with the problem of cracking down harder on some areas than others. There still might be a workforce issue – if the mediators are a visible presence they need to be visible everywhere so as not to clue people in on which zone is currently active – but for all we know their god sorts all that out, transporting the mediators in to deal with any crime immediately after it happens. And whilst the issue of whether everyone receives a fair trial is still an interesting one, it doesn’t apply here. As the mediators say, they have both multiple witnesses and a freely-given confession. The fact the Edo don’t think to warn visitors of their draconian legal system is astonishing (and holy sky-tripod, did Yar drop the ball this week; she should be stripped of her commission for this), but these two mediators have most certainly got their man.

But this is what makes the underlying point here so solid. Both Wesley’s specific case and the more general (implied) efficiency of the Edo system means “Justice” is presenting the strongest possible form of the argument that the harshest punishments lead to the happiest societies. Not so much a steel man so much as a titanium one. And yet the moral of the episode is still that this is a terrible idea, and that society should be looking to understand the root causes of crime rather than thinking up ever more extreme ways to punish criminals [1]. In a country which did and still does execute people, often on shaky evidence and through a process that is nakedly unfair, this is an extremely important stance to take.

Say It Without Style

But. I’m sure you knew from the beginning that there would be a “but” coming, and here is it. The fundamental problem with “Justice” is that it knows what point it wants to make, but has no interest in delivering it effectively. Structurally, the episode is hopeless. Firstly, the inciting incident which kicks off the plot – Wesley disturbing new plants – doesn’t occur until halfway into the episode. Up to that point the episode is one part frowning over the angry ghost of a broken stool to four parts staring at half-naked Aryans oiling and/or feeling each other up.

And I use the word “Aryans” deliberately. There’s something deeply unsettling about a world described as an Eden that’s inhabited only by blonde, able-bodied and conventionally attractive white people. In theory I love the idea that the Edo are clearly a polyamorous society and their Starfleet visitors barely bat an eyelid, but this is overwhelmed in practice by the whole place looking like the Nazi love camp Helga kept wanting to be sent to in ‘Allo ‘Allo. This is an even worse decision here than it was in “The Lorelei Signal”; at least back then we could pretend it was only the alien women’s mind control powers that made everyone think the lithe flaxen-haired look was objectively the sexiest in the galaxy.

Once the story actually bothers to show up, things don’t really get all that much better. I’ve said already that it’s a misreading to think of this as an episode about agonising over the Prime Directive, but “Justice” doesn’t really help itself with how long it takes for Picard to make his position clear.  Yes, the matter of the alien god is pressing, and yes it wouldn’t have been smart to announce in front of Rivan his plan to take Wesley by force, but Picard seems to almost intentionally be keeping Dr Crusher in the dark about the fate of her son.

The late arrival, first of the plot and then of Picard’s position, leaves the ending far too little room to function. I hadn’t paid any attention to the time when I first watched the episode for this post, and so I mistook the realisation that the Edo God was blocking transportation as the end of the third act. Picard’s internal dialogue had been resolved, he’d made his move, and the terrifyingly powerful alien presence above had retaliated by blocking his escape. It was all kicking off, as the kids used to say, maybe.

But no. God moves in mysteriously unenthusiastic ways.  All it takes is Picard explaining the moral of the episode to everybody – I guess in the future humanity has evolved past the need for subtlety – and the Edo God immediately relents. This makes the ending here both anticlimactic and didactic, as well as being a pale re-run of Q’s judgment at the conclusion to “Encounter At Farpoint”. After a frustratingly long and slow taxi out to the runway, “Justice” takes off, immediately runs out of fuel, and then completely fails to stick its landing.

And I’m still not done. This story manages to further frustrate by hinting at all sorts of other tales that could’ve been told instead, and which had far more potential. How much more interesting would it have been to see the Enterprise-D returning to Strnad to tell the colonists they have to evacuate their brand new home because a nearby floaty space-deity vanished and that might have been a signal they have to hit the bricks, for instance? Hell, pretty much any tale of space-pioneers has potential compared to this. Even the story of Yar’s awkward comment of “Any hat” – and why Liator doesn’t need to ask her if she’s into casual sexytimes – could have been interesting; certainly Crosby desperately needed something to work with. Neither of those stories would come without issues of their own, but that’s precisely my point: they’d be problematic and yet still be obviously better.  This episode is stuffed with problems like a fridge bursting with substandard ingredients, and yet it’s easy to see how tastier treats could have been made from them.

Sticking with my exciting new food metaphor, though, let’s bear in mind that this was simply the starter in a three-course meal on the subject of 24th century justice. Next week I’ll be serving the main meal, a delightful stew of Bajoran, Trill and Klaestron legal precendents. TASTY!

[1] I’m assuming this is what Picard means when he talks about “[detecting] the seeds of criminal behaviour”. The alternative reading would be that the Federation has embraced some pretty nasty ideas about there being a genetic predisposition towards crime. That would be terribly unfortunate were it the case, though, so I’m going to assume Picard meant his comment in the more palatable sense. As always here at IDFC, generosity is our watchword. As opposed to our word for watches, which is, um, “watches”.


1. The Infinite Vulcan

2. What Are Little Girls Made Of?

3. Justice

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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