Aug. 24, 2021

034: TNG: Code of Honor

Leadership shines through in this infamous episode.

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, Code of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard.

Let's be honest, this is probably the worst episode in all of Star Trek. Despite all of that, there are very valuable leadership lessons in this one.

Picard creates an environment on the bridge where he leans on the collective expertise of the people of his team. He's not interested in being the hero, he just wants the best possible outcome and by listening to those around him, he's able to do that.

What does it mean to be coachable? We hear about coaching all the time, but what about getting coached; being coachable? Picard demonstrates what that looks like with extreme grace, especially given the terrible situation he finds himself in.

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Welcome, everyone! Thanks for joining me today. This is it. This is the one I’ve dreaded since I started this podcast, but you have got to stay tuned! I was pleasantly surprised, even amazed, and I think you will be to, at what I was able to get out of this infamous episode. So let’s do it, episode 4 of the 1st season of the Next Generation, Code of Honor.


The Enterprise is headed to a planet called Ligon 2 to pick up a vaccine that is needed for a plague on Styris IV. They’ll need to sign a treaty to get their hands on the vaccine, so it’s a full on diplomatic mission. They’ve done their homework and feel confident in what they know about this culture and society. “They are very structured and exceedingly proud.”

They beam the Ligonian delegation to the cargo bay that will receive the vaccine. Lt. Yar has set up all the logistics. They arrive and…and, well, ok let’s talk about it now.

We’ll learn a lot about this society as the episode goes on. There is, in fact a scene that says the Ligonian culture mirrored the development of the Chinese Dynasties. But, every single actor portraying a Ligonian is not only black, but also dressed in a sparkly, shiny version of stereotypical, air quotes, African tribal garb, un air quotes. It’s uncomfortable just how blatantly they lean into stereotypes in this. 

I want to acknowledge this right up front, and will try not to bring it up again. At least not until I talk about what I thought about the episode. But this single fact really makes it difficult to watch through the episode. 

Ok, now that we’ve addressed that, let’s get to the next super awesome thing about this episode. Ligonians are also weirdly super misogynist! They are shocked that Yar is in charge of security, “A woman??” Oh, it gets better!

They present a sample of the vaccine to show good faith. Yar steps in to examine, stating it’s her duty. The Ligonian pushes her off, “out of my way, woman,” so she takes him down to the ground using Aikido, and even creating Ma Ai after dropping him. 

Tensions are high, but Picard cuts through it. “Would you allow us to entertain?” They accept, and then we get a hint of what’s to come. “The female may be exactly what I’ve needed.” 

They host a social gathering in the observation lounge and Picard presents some gifts. This is the scene the clapping Picard meme comes from! Another awesome moment as Lutan, the lead Ligonian asks to check out the holodeck. He says he’s heard that it’s used to train Starfleet personnel. Then Picard outs Riker, “It’s used for many things. Riker, show them.” Whoa, Picard…gotta have Number One’s back. Yikes!

We learn that in Ligonian society, women own the land and any wealth, but men protect and rule it. An interesting approach that basically turns the women into commodities – having a woman gives you access to her land and wealth and that secures your status as a man. 

They agree to take Lutan to the holodeck where Yar demonstrates her Aikido training program. They do an admirable job trying to hide her stunt double…an A for effort! But, no dice. She rolls the hologram masterfully and explains it’s adaptive and learns to defeat you. The Ligonian that Yar took down, Hagon, gives it a try and is beaten by the hologram immediately. He’s a diplomat and hides it well, but he is feeling great shame. 

They head back to the cargo bay to see the Ligonians off. As they beam away, Lutan grabs Yar and kidnaps her. “Picard to bridge, red alert.” 

They try communicating with them, but they don’t return their hails. 

Troi shares that she felt all of the Ligonian men were attracted to Yar but, “with Lutan I felt avarice or ambition.” 

And then Picard shines, like an angel coming down from heaven, a bright light in the darkness of this episode. He asks, “other comments?” Other comments. Cadets, we have it!! A leadership lesson! I knew it could be done! We’ll talk about why those two words are so powerful when we get to the command codes. Ultimately, he leans on the crew’s knowledge of the culture of the Ligonians and decides to wait them out. Patience is valued in their society.

After a day of waiting, Dr Crusher comes to update Picard. She heightens the urgency for the vaccine. “You’ve never had to watch someone die from this disease.” She’s been trying to replicate the vaccine but it can’t be done. They must get it from the Ligonians. 

There’s a quick moment here where Picard allows Wesley Crusher to hang out on the bridge, lets him sit at Ops. After that, we double down on uncomfortable racial commentary, “what certain American Indians did called a counting coup.” Basically, he thinks Lutan took Yar to increase his status in his society. Then they finally return the Enterprise’s calls. Troi, Riker and Data all coach Picard on how to respond to Lutan given his culture’s strict structures. He follows their advice and is invited down to the planet to retrieve Yar and continue negotiations for the vaccine. 

Shockingly, we get to the planet’s surface, and it’s Picard on the away team because of the diplomatic nature of the mission, by the way, but, shockingly, Lutan changes the deal and says Picard now has to ask for Yar back in front of all his guests at a banquet. We meet Lutan’s First One, Yareena who appears to take a lot of pride in belonging to him.

At the banquet, that appears to be shot on the same set as those Original Series episodes with the red sky, Picard makes the humble request and Lutan denies it! He declares Yar to be his and to be his First One. Yareena freaks out and challenges the Right of Supersedence, “a struggle to the death.” Picard outright denies and Lutan proclaims there will be “no vaccine and no Lt. Yar!” 

In her quarters on Ligon 2, Picard and Troi meet with her and we double down on the misogyny, “having him say he wants you…Yes, of course it made me feel good.” Gross.

There’s a lot of talk of the Prime Directive, but nothing specific. I’m guessing it says they can’t just bust in there and take Yar and transport away the vaccine. So, they decide to help Yar prepare for this challenge. Picard thinks this is all ridiculous, but the need for the vaccine is critical. To comply with the Prime Directive and get the vaccine, Yar must fight.

Geordi and Data are visiting on the Enterprise and Data’s trying out his comedy! “A man goes into a shop to buy some kidneys…” A fun reprieve in this episode. This is one of the first episodes of the whole series and they’re already cashing in on the great chemistry between Burton and Spiner. Super fun.

There are a lot more scenes and dialogue, basically people wringing their hands about the fight and talking about the Prime Directive. In fact, in all of the busy-work scenes going on, it gives us a great moment to reflect on what the Prime Directive means here; in Starfleet, the ends do not justify the means. How you do a thing matters. More on that later!

We learn that there will be some kind of jungle-gym constructed for Yar and Yareena to fight in…wait. Yar and Yareena. That’s worse than saying Jeff has to fight Jefferson….really, that’s the name…sorry, back on track….

They’re going to build a structure, “However, joined together, they would…” and the weapons will be poisoned. This is serious business. They bring in the weapon for the fight and offer 3 sizes for Yar to choose from. They’re basically metal sock puppets with bird’s beaks on them and spikes for the hair-do. Geordi confirms they are covered with poison. We see Yareena in the structure flailing around and…haha, and my favorite moment of the whole episode. Some random dude lights a sparkler and just stands there holding it! Wow!! I guess that’s supposed to be all intimidating. But it is hilarious. The music just drives it home! “music.” 

Data, Riker and Crusher meet quickly to discuss a plan that Picard and Yar cooked up. Should be great…

It’s time to get it on!! Yar has a tough-guy headband on and Yareena, well, the actor playing Yareena clearly isn’t a fighting in a jungle-gym kind of person. This is just awkward. In fact, in fact it totally reminds me of watching backyard wrestling back in the late 90’s. Pivotal scene to drive home the import of all of this as Yareena’s weapon flips off of her hand and it hits an audience member who crumples and dies immediately. Oh, this is awesome!

Oh! My next favorite part, I paused the video here to take a note and it’s Yar’s stunt double, just staring at the camera. Top notch!

Well, it’s getting really tense and serious. Hagon, Lutan’s aide stands up, “Yareena!” Hmm, guessing there’s something there we’ll hit on later. 

As expected, the head of security of the flagship of the federation is victorious. She gacks Yareena, falls on her and they’re both beamed away!!

On the Enterprise, Crusher records that she’s dead and takes her to sickbay. Looks like Picard’s plan is unfolding. 

Picard is trying to seal the deal and get away with the vaccine. Lutan is pushing to get Yar back but Hagon reminds him, “You have all Yareena’s land now.” Lutan chuckles at this. Riker beams up the vaccine and then beams up Lutan and Hagon too!!

While Picard was up to his shenanigans, his plan came to fruition. Crusher revived Yareena. They split some hairs, Yareena professes her love to Hagon and he assumes Lutan’s position of privilege. “Hagon, I heard you calling out to me.” Joke’s on Lutan!! Starfleet gets the vaccine, Hagon gets the girl and Lutan, well, “I shall take you as my number two.” Yeah! Tell him, Yareena!

With all that unpleasantness done, Picard acknowledges Wesley Crusher’s work at Ops and says he’ll have the chance again. 

<<Red Alert>>

Oh my goodness, is it finally over?? Please…please tell me it’s over!

Quarks – Ads 

Where to start? Well, there was some good in this. The Geordi and Data stuff was quick but it was great. This exact interchange with the two of them and Data trying to be funny lasts all 7 seasons and even into the films. It’s cool to see it this early on. 

Troi played a pretty active role in here, advising Picard on cultural nuances and being a resource for him. That was pretty cool and not necessarily the role she’ll play through the series, unfortunately. 

And, hmm, what else? There were a few endearing Picard moments too, I suppose. They’re still portraying him as kind of a stick in the mud, stodgy old man, though. Oh! But it did have one of my favorite moments of his. “You’re the captain, sir. You’re entitled.” Right!! If only more people in leadership positions would think like this!! I know I’d save a ton of time in meetings! 

Beyond that, just terrible. So bad! I want to share a few quotes from the cast on this one. Brent Spiner said this was the worst episode they ever did and is thankful it was so early in the show’s run. Jonathan Frakes called it a ‘racist piece of sh*t.’ Worf wasn’t in this episode – one of only two that he wasn't in – but Michael Dorn called it the worst episode of Star Trek ever filmed. 

Hard to disagree with any of those thoughts.

But let’s look at a little differently, or at least try to. This was the 3rd or 4th episode, depending on how you count Encounter at Farpoint, of the brand new Star Trek. A total departure from 20 years of Star Trek! We look back on TNG as being such a great series and clearly part of the core canon of the franchise. But that was not the case at all in 1987. No, people wrote letters and picketed saying this wasn’t really Star Trek, or Not MY Star Trek – sound familiar?? Weird how history repeats itself. 

So they were doing this weird thing where they were introducing a lot of new stuff and changing the look and feel of the show, but still writing the same way, essentially, they had been in the Original Series. Everything about this says it was meant to be a TOS episode, from the sets to the music to the plot itself. I mean, take everything about this episode, just swap Yar for Kirk and Lutan for a woman and you’ve got a 3rd season TOS episode. Easy. 

So maybe this is the result of the mixed direction and philosophy of the first few seasons of TNG. Or it’s a piece of television garbage that should never be watched again! Either way, this is it for Jeff Akin. I too have a code of honor and it tells me to forget this one even exists. 

<<Command Codes>>

Despite the atrocity that is this episode, we learn some great things! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but here we are! We’re going to dive into the moment Picard engaged the bridge crew for their opinions, what it looks like to be coachable, and we’ll ask if the ends do indeed justify the means. 

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After Yar was abducted, Picard went straight into problem solving mode. He put the ship on red alert and went right to work trying to get Yar back. This scene was perfect. He knew he was up against something he would need more brainpower than just he could provide, so he engaged his team. He asked, ‘other comments?’ 

He knew others would have different ideas and different approaches to solving this problem. He never tried to be the hero and just start spouting orders to save the day. No, he actively and publicly asked for input. 

The job of a leader is not an easy one. One of the hardest thing leaders often have to do is make a decision and that’s one of the reasons Star Trek is so great. We see leadership in crisis situations, decisions that sometimes have galactic impacts that have to be made in the blink of an eye. In this case, it’s about rescuing a team mate while still being able to secure a critical, life-saving vaccine. 

And here, Picard makes a decision, but he doesn’t do it alone. What he does here is exactly what you and I should do every day as we are faced with decisions. Let me break it down, step-by-step. 

First, then he clearly defines the problem. Second, he identifies any constraints. Third he asks for input. Fourth, he considers and weighs the input and then, fifth, he makes a decision.

What’s the problem? Yar has been abducted and must be rescued. What are the constraints? They need to do so in a way where they can still get the vaccine. He actively and publicly asks for input and comments from the bridge crew. He hears them, considers it and then decides to honor their culture and wait them out. 

In the episode, Elementary, Dear Data, I asked you to define the things that happen in your workplace as being critical, urgent or routine. Critical being something you need to respond to immediately, urgent being things you have a few hours or maybe even a few days to respond to and routine being just that. This is a critical decision Picard is making here. While the decision is to wait, it could have just as easily been to send a small strike team in to extract Yar. Either way, a decision was needed immediately.

But it had to be the right decision. So even in a critical situation like this, Picard took the time; literally about 90 seconds engage with his team and ask for opinions. If Picard can take that moment, so can you. And look what it got him! A special place in one of the worst hours of television Star Trek has ever offered!

But, that’s not all! Picard demonstrates another great quality. He is coachable. Wow, that is a word we use a lot these days, isn’t it? Coaching. I’ve heard it said over and over again, and you likely have too, that managers are coaches. Now, I totally agree, but we almost never talk about the other side to that. Being coachable.

To help define what coachable is, I’m going to give an example of what coachable isn’t. My daughter. At the time of this recording, she’s just finished kindergarten and we’ve enrolled her in activities through the summer, as you do. She spent a week in a soccer camp. It was great. Kids her age and just a little older working with a local, high school coach that has a few championships under their belt. So I drop her off on her first day. She’s immediately playing with the other kids and not shying away from the ball or the field at all.

It’s perfect!

So I pick her up a few hours later and ask how it went. She says they worked on juggling. That’s cool; straight out of the beach scene at Karate Kid is what I’m thinking. So I ask her how many times she was able to juggle the ball. She says she didn’t juggle. Why not, I ask. Because I already know how.

She already knows how. Yeah. This is probably the 4th time in her life she’s even seen a soccer ball let alone juggled, but she already knows how.

So camp goes on for four more days and she had a good time. Made some friends, got super dirty from rolling around on the field and stuff. Is she going to be playing soccer once school starts, though? No. Even after all that, I’m still not convinced she can kick the ball let alone play with the team.

Now is that because she’s lazy or defiant or, and here’s a management word, insubordinate? No! Of course not! It’s because she is not coachable. She already knows it and isn’t going to listen to anyone else that can help her do better.

So if that’s being not coachable, and I can imagine you all have someone in mind from your life that fits that description. And I am 100% certain you can think of at least one person at work that fit it too! But if that’s not coachable, what is coachable? What does that look like?

Picard shows us here. Beautifully. He has ideas on how he wants to approach all of this. He wants to get in Lutan’s face and threaten him with the might of the Enterprise. But he’s got Troi with him. Troi explains the cultural nuances of the Ligonians and suggests behaviors and approaches to Picard. And he does what she suggests.

That’s the part, right there; what being coachable looks like. She said he should do a thing, based on a real reason that she explained, and then he did that thing. It was perfect.

So if you want to influence someone to be more coachable, you need to model what that looks like. You need to run ideas by someone, hear their advice and follow it. Now, of course I’m not saying you should blindly follow someone’s advice. But follow the Picard/Troi model here. They have built a trusting relationship, based very much on their professional expertise at this point, and Troi, as the coach, provides context to her coaching, she doesn’t just tell Picard what to do. She gives the background and cultural context so Picard understands the coaching and apply a level of critical decision making to decide if he’ll follow it or not. 

What I want you take from this discussion here is that you need a coach. We all need a coach! When people describe Picard’s leadership qualities, diplomacy always comes up. But here, had he gone in there without a coach, he would have escalated the conflict and likely not gotten the vaccine. If Picard needs a Troi while operating in his area of expertise, you also need a coach.

Or, to use a super obscure reference almost none of you will get but I’ll be excited I was able to get in: If a Peart needs a Gruber, you too need a coach. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the use of the Prime Directive in this episode. The Prime Directive was established back in The Original Series and basically says Starfleet will not interfere in the development of less advanced cultures. Now, I’m not so sure that it really fits into the context of this episode given the technology we see from the Ligonians, but what they are saying with it is very important. 

As I hear it, they are using the Prime Directive to define the values and principles of the Federation. There’s an easy way to solve their problems in this episode. Lock onto the vaccine and Yar, beam them up and warp away. But those actions are in direct opposition to the values of the Federation. They see themselves as partners, not conquerors, not, well, bullies. 

For me, this really emphasized the age old question: do the ends justify the means. Or, does the end result justify the actions you took to get there. 

There’s a fun sci-fi show that ran awhile ago called the 100. Spoilers ahead of you haven’t seen it yet. There’s an AI named Alie that is programmed to make life better for humankind. She determined that the problem was there were too many humans, so to make life better she was going to kill most people.

Now, the end result could have been great. Abundant resources, a cleaner environment, the eradication of poverty and all kinds of good stuff. But is killing millions or even billions to achieve that ok? Like, do we forgive all the death because the world’s problems are supposedly solved now?

Picard could snag the vaccine and Yar and run but then what does that do for the Ligonians? Is there a fair value exchange for the vaccine? Or did Starfleet just plant the seed for a future enemy because of how they disrespected their culture?

In this episode, Picard insists on doing things in a way that conform with Ligonian society and holds himself and his crew to a high standard to act with professionalism and respect. Is it harder for him to achieve his goals? Yes. Is he taking a risk of losing it all? Absolutely. But he sticks to the values of his organization and leans on the skills and expertise of his team to not only get all of the things they need, but to also stick it to the dirty player in a way that respects Ligonian culture. 

We see a great example of this in the classic Saved by the Bell episode Jessie’s Song where Jessie Spanno takes caffeine pills to giver herself an edge in her studies to get higher grades. For her, for Picard, the ends do not and did not justify the means.

Now I want to be fair, there are those that feel the ends do indeed justify the means. Machiavelli supported it in The Prince. Sergey Nechayev, not Admiral Nechayev who we’ll meet in future TNG episodes, also said the ends justify the means. He was a Russian communist revolutionary in the later 1800’s. Dostoevsky based a character in his book Demons on him. In fact he was an avowed supporter of what he called revolutionary terror; what we call terrorism.

So, being fair, yeah, some people do feel differently than Picard demonstrates in this episode. But I’ll let you decide who you’d rather model yourself after. 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

We did it. We got through one of, if not the worst episode in all of Star Trek. Thank you so much for coming along on this journey with me.

I have some listener shoutouts! Thank you for the reviews!

Reach out, let me know what you thought of this one! I’m on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Terrible, Awful Episode, a k i n. And check out the Starfleet Leadership Academy podcast group on Facebook. The link is in the show notes and you are really missing out on some great interactions if you haven’t joined. 

Computer, what are we going to watch next time…. 

The Original Series, second season, episode 16, A Private Little War. I think this one is most remembered as the one with the big, white ape with a horn sticking out of its head, but it’s also another commentary on the Vietnam War. 

And a quick update on episodes. I’ve explained in the past that I’ve programmed the Computer with all of the possible Star Trek episodes to watch and learn from. Well, I’ve been on the fence about including Lower Decks in that list. On my first watch through it really struck me as being more comedic and just a fun version of Star Trek, a Trek that knows all the same in-jokes that we do. But on my rewatches, I’ve found some great lessons that will be perfect for the podcast, so I’ve plugged Lower Decks in. The way it will work is the first Computer comes up with a Lower Decks episode, regardless of which one, we’ll watch Second Contact; the first episode. That’s what we did for all the other series. From there, we’ll just take the random episodes that come up. I’m looking forward to watching those and sharing my takeaways. 

But until then, Ex Astris Scientia!