“Who Watches the Watchers” – TNG 3X4

The Enterprise is en route to Mintaka III, where a group of Federation anthropologists are studying the Mintakans, a group of “proto-Vulcan humanoids”, from behind a holographic duck blind. The anthropologists need help keeping their cover as they’re running out of batteries, but before the Enterprise arrives, an explosion occurs in the field station and the duck blind comes down. Picard is faced with a dilemma: either let the Mintakans believe they have seen gods, or try to explain the truth.

There are two parts of this episode I want to look at in particular: the time Troi spends undercover, and the depiction of the Mintakans’ matriarchy (after the jump due to length).

1. Undercover Troi

Troi undercover as a Mintakan

I feel like this is one of the earliest episodes to start exploring Troi’s potential and transitioning her character into the more clearly competent, confident and fun character we see in later seasons. 

When Troi and Riker go down to the Mintakan colony in disguise, they joke with each other on the walk there. And she gets to take the lead in their initial discussions with the leader, Nuria, and the father and daughter who saw the archaological station. This might be because of the Mintakans’ social structure (more on that later).

Troi: We are visitors. We’ve come to trade our cloth. May we speak?

Nuria: Please do. We welcome outsiders. I am Nuria.

Troi: I am Troi and this is Riker. You’ve had a very interesting dream.

Liko (father): Dream? It was real!

Oji (daughter): My father and I both witnessed these beings.

Troi: If you are father and daughter, you may well have shared the same dream.

This is the kind of smooth role-playing we see from Troi in Season 6’s “Face of the Enemy“, and it shows her to be able to keep it together under pressure.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much space to showcase her skills for the rest of the episode. She creates a diversion for Riker to rescue one of the anthropologists, but gets taken prisoner once the Mintakans find out what’s happened. From that point on she mostly just sits there and waits for Picard to figure out what to do.

Troi as a Mintakan, sitting

It’s not very exciting for us watching Troi, but at least her behaviour makes sense, plot wise – it’s a pretty sensitive situation re: the Prime Directive so it is probably the smart choice to avoid saying too much. 

2. Mintakan Matriarchy

Nuria, the Matriarch

This is a topic The Valkyrie Directive flagged for me and I need to give a little intro.

Feminism is about gender equality, not supremacy for women. But we can’t get to equality while there exists a belief that women can’t be trusted in positions of power. Unfortunately, writers who create fictional matriarchies often end up reinforcing sexism against women by portraying them as evil, manipulative, and/or overly emotional, even if the intent is to show patriarchy to be equally problematic (see “Angel One”).

TV Tropes talks about the portrayal of a “straw matriarchy”: “this is how early philosophers portrayed matriarchies, as a warning to allowing women in power. Women were shown to be fundamentally incapable of governing or utterly evil and castrating in their power-wielding.”

I’d argue that’s what we see in “Angel One”. In DS9’s “Sanctuary” we get a “patriarchy flip”, which draws stereotypes about patriarchy and flips them almost directly onto the Skrreeans. Because it’s so over-the-top I don’t think it really prompts the audience to take real gender inequality seriously.

The other kind of matriarchy we get to see in Star Trek is the “sexy matriarchy” of the Orions in Enterprise. Again, according to TV Tropes, a “sexy matriarchy” is “a fantasy where the women in power are attractive and often scantily clad, with strong overtones of domination (often of the Romanticized Abuse kind), lesbianism or both.” I’ll get into this more when I get to reviewing “Bound”.

Patriarchies in real life or fiction are rarely so cookie-cutter. So it’s nice to see the writers get a little more imaginative and original in envisioning the matriarchy in “Who Watches the Watchers”.

Nuria talks to Oji as Troi looks on

Pretty much the only commentary we get on the Mintakans’ social structure is at the beginning when Troi and Riker are walking to the village:

Troi: Mintakan emotions are quite interesting. Like the Vulcans, they have highly ordered minds. A very sensible people. For example, Mintakan women precede their mates. It’s a signal to other women.

Riker: This man’s taken, get your own? 

Troi: Not precisely. More like, if you want his services, I’m the one you have to negotiate with.

Riker: What kind of services?

Troi: All kinds.

Riker: They are a sensible race.

In spite of this, the men in Mintakan society do seem to have respect and voice in the community. The first Mintakan man we meet is Liko, who witnesses the explosion at the anthropological station with his daughter, Oji. It’s clear Oji looks up to him, and everyone in the town listens when he tells them of “The Picard”. 

We also meet Fento, an elder whom the community turns to for his knowledge of ancient legends. This is definitely not a slave society like we see in “Angel One”.

Nuria, the community leader, is wise, thoughtful, and measured in her actions. Faced with the unimaginable when she’s beamed on board the Enterprise, she’s shaken and confused but she doesn’t crack. 

Nuria and Picard on the Enterprise

Nuria: You do have limits. You are not masters of life and death.

Picard: No, we are not. We can cure many diseases and we can repair injuries, we can even extend life. But for all our knowledge, all our advances, we are just as mortal as you are. We’re just as powerless to prevent the inevitable.

Nuria: You are a remarkable people, but you are not superior beings. My people must be made to understand that.

So the Mintakans come out as a more or less original concept of a matriarchy, one that doesn’t rely heavily on and therefore doesn’t reinforce gender stereotypes. It’s just there, as you’d expect to see once in a while among all the many different alien species in the universe.

Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Troi introduces herself and Riker to Nuria and asks if they can stay.

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I’d love to talk about the…brown/red face of this episode? Was genuinely surprised at how well-rated this episode was and thought that aspect was really jarring!

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