May 18, 2021

027: TNG: Up The Long Ladder

Bringloidi means "dream." And I dream of effective problem solving!

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, Up the Long Ladder (Season 2, Episode 18). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard and Dr. Pulaski.

Dr. Pulaski shows us what it looks like to stand up for and defend the dignity of a co-worker or a team member, while Picard demonstrates the value of just laughing at something when there isn't anything more you can do about it.

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Welcome, everyone! Thanks for joining me today. In this episode, Picard shows the value of just laughing with your team while Dr. Pulaski demonstrates what it looks like to stand up for them. We’re also going to explore a strategy for building trust with your teams that you can apply right away. All of this in the 18th episode of the second season of The Next Generation, Up The Long Ladder. 


Some have called this the most boring opening in all of Star Trek. Personally, I love it! There are two things going on here: Worf is not feeling well, and Picard is meeting with Riker about a weird distress signal that was received; using an ancient almost unknown code. All they know is where it is and that it’s from Earth. Apparently, from the European Hegemony. <pause for Computer > Hegemony? <pause for Riker> Hegemony.

What I love about this, is there are so many moments in Star Trek where they’re just headed out, after a mysterious distress call “Investigate the source of mysterious distress signal” (right after open credits). This scene shows what goes on before they head out to help. My issue with it, though, is why is it the Captain and First Officer that are doing this work?? Don’t they have science and communications experts that should be doing this work? Well, I guess they don’t have featured spots in the opening credits, so we get these two doing it. 

But, hey, here’s a hot take. Maybe it should be the science experts, communications experts and other crew that are featured in the credits. I mean, they really are the stars of the operation. I know this is TV but, for most of you, you’re not on TV. So, hear me out. 

Does your organization have opening credits of some kind? A way of showing interested people who is responsible for what and who’s work should be recognized? For most organization, this is the About page on their website. There’s a row or a grid of pictures with titles and short bios under them. Usually these are your C levels and other executive leaders. 

Now, while I’m sure that’s important from a shareholder perspective, or for media contacts, but does that really reflect who is doing the work, who is really responsible for the perception of the organization? No!! It’s the front line works, the subject matter experts and operational leadership that are responsible for that!

You can have a CEO, with a perfectly photoshopped headshot and bio on the About page that says all kinds of great things about your product and commitment to customer service, but if the front line staff don’t buy into it, don’t follow the processes or implement the quality controls the CEO talks about, the company is going to produce a second-rate product and that’s going to directly impact the reputation of the company and people’s perception of it. 

Now, I doubt this tangent is going to change how company’s position their key players – their stars – but it’s something to consider and think about. As we’ve talked about before on this podcast, as a leader, you should always be actively searching for opportunities to bring attention to the great work your teams are doing. Be specific in describing the work, use their names, and talk them up like they have the Starring credit on the show’s open. 

And just before we cut to the opening credits, Data calls a medical emergency as Worf collapses to the deck. 

Dr Pulaski is examining him and is handling this with extreme grace. “Klingons do not faint.” He is wildly insulted and embarrassed; turns out he has a childhood illness, “Rapack’Ingor.” Picard calls down to check in on him. Pulaski covers for him and makes up a story on the fly about Worf fasting. Super cool move by the doctor here!

Data meets with Picard and they go over information he’s found on the distress call. He’s found the cargo manifest of the ship that they believe sent the distress call. They believe it’s a group of colonists that left Earth in the early 22nd century. Data thinks they are a group of utopians that left to return to a simpler lifestyle. 

Worf visits Pulaski in her office. He’s more impressed with Pulaski than I am! He’s brought a tea service to thank her. “No one has ever performed the tea ceremony for me.” She shows tremendous respect to his culture and knows the ceremony well. Worf tells her the tea is deadly to humans, but she knows what a big deal this is, so she takes an antidote and drinks the tea. What happens next is really up to you and your imagination, but I think she gives a hint: “Quote me a little of that poetry.” 

They arrive at the planet the distress signal was coming from. The sun is spewing violent flares and the colony is in extreme danger. Riker heads down to the surface to coordinate evacuation. He calls up saying thing are more complicated than expected but Picard refuses to work. “I’m having a debate. There’s no time.” 

And then the ‘fun’ starts. “Captain you better get someone down here.” O’Brien beams them in; they are a very agrarian group and it all comes up; they straw, the pigs, everything. Picard is shocked and angry and lays right into Riker. 

Seriously?? The dude tried to warn you, Captain! 

The episode takes a sharp and immediate turn into abject racism, leaning into really hurtful stereotypes. “I knew there’d be a good Irishman.” I mean, he’s even red-faced and is carrying a flask when he says this to O’Brien. Much of the episode moving forward from here just plays on these and it is not cool at all. 

These are the utopians Data thought were out there. They’re called the Bringloidi. That’s a play on an Irish word that means dream. The leader, Danilo Odell seems interested in nothing more than marrying off his daughter, Brenna. She seems to be the one running the show. People listen to her and she, almost aggressively, advocates for the Bringloidi. “I have dozens of frightened and hungry children.” 


Picard has a moment of wisdom here, “Sometimes you have to bow to the absurd.” In context, it’s pretty insulting to the already insulting portrayal of the colonists, but there are some lessons to pull out of that statement. We’ll dive into those later on. 

Picard learns that there is a second colony. Just a half light-year further on there is record of them. In the cargo manifest Data found earlier, there was a lot of technology and none of it was present with the Bringloidians, so Picard assumes this second colony took that. 

After a short, and uncomfortable scene of Brenna and Riker, um, getting to know each other, they arrive at the second colony, Mariposa. The prime minister, Wilson Granger reaches out. Data notes that the captain of the colony ship was Walter Granger. He asks if he’s a descendant and Wilson cryptically responds, “not quite a descendant.” He’s eager to connect with Earth and invites them to the surface. Riker, Worf and Pulaski head down but not before Troi warns them that he’s hiding something. She urges caution. 

As they walk through the facility, they notice everyone looks similar. “Triplets?” They arrive at the Prime Minister’s office and Pulaski calls him right out, “Is your population made up of clones?” He doesn’t even try to hide it and admits they are clones, and that they need help. 

29 minutes into the episode and we finally have something interesting!

Turns out most of the original colonists died upon landing due to a hull breach. That left just 5 people, 3 men and 2 women that were all scientists. Deciding that wasn’t enough people to build a gene pool, they figured out how to clone themselves. Pulaski sees their issue, though, it’s the Multiplicity problem!! 

They want fresh DNA, tissue samples, specifically, of members of the crew. Riker freaks out, he wants nothing to do with this. The Mariposans, though, don’t see the big deal. No harm, no foul kind of thing. Whether they give the samples or not, nothing will change for the crewmembers but the colonists will be saved. Or at least refreshed. Pulaski points out that this would just delay the inevitable and in a few generations they’d be in the same position. 

Not one to shy away from a problem, though, she asks to return to the planet to study the issue. The Prime Minister and Picard agree to let her go. 

Picard agrees with Riker and refuses the request for tissue samples. He does agree to send a crew down, though, to help with equipment repairs. 

Now, I’m not gifted with prescience and I doubt any of you are either, but I am pretty sure I see exactly where this is headed. This episode is just rife with subtlety…. 

Pulaksi is wrapping up her research and the repair crews are just about finished. She and Riker check in with the Prime Minister who has them stunned and kidnaps them!! 

Geordi comes in looking for them and the Prime Minister is all, “I’m afraid I haven’t seen them.” And then we get a scene from a horror movie as they put these big ‘ol needles into their stomachs. Yikes!

Back on the Enterprise Geordi finds Riker and Pulaski. Says he couldn’t find them and that no one seemed to know where they were, but Geordi knew they were hiding something. Pulaski takes a scan and can see some tissue was taken from her and Riker, specifically from the stomach lining. Which, apparently, are ideal for cloning purposes. 

I know we have a few people that work in science that are regular listeners. Can any of you verify that?? I found that to be a very interesting point. And, if it’s not true or it’s something we don’t know yet, what was the point of even saying that?? Ah, Star Trek.

And remember back when I said Pulaski never shies away from solving a problem? Well, same applies here. She and Riker beam into the cloning labs to destroy the clones and the tissue samples. 

This forces a standoff between them and the Prime Minister. He says they are desperate and defends their actions. 

This leads to Riker and Pulaski meeting with Picard and Troi. Troi tries to help them find common ground, “We do have much in common.” Pulaski reiterates that even with the new DNA it’s just delaying the inevitable. She and Picard land on a possible solution. Bring them together with the Bringloidi. They need a place to live and the Mariposans need, well, breeding stock. “It’s a match made in heaven.” 

They all meet together and they aren’t interested. They insult each other and argue but Picard won’t tolerate it. “I won’t allow posturing and bigotry to destroy this meeting.” They talk through their issues, and after a difficult negotiation, they agree. The Bringloidi will move to Mariposa and the cultures will come together. With hard work, understanding and patience, they will solve both group’s problems. “Send in the clones.” 

<<Red Alert>>

When this episode came up from Computer in the last episode, I said I didn’t remember anything about it. After watching it for this podcast episode, I hope I can forget about it again. 

Ronald D Moore, the genius behind Battlestar Galactica and great Star Trek episodes like Family, The Pegasus, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, and Take Me Out to the Holosuite had some pretty strong feelings on this episode. He’s on the record calling it embarrassing and terrible beyond terrible. 
And, hey! Who am I to argue with Ronald D Moore? 
I think there were two really great episodes buried in this heaping dumpster fire. The relationship between Worf and Pulaski, like diving into her respect for Klingon culture and stuff; and then the concept of a colony made completely of clones. The Worf – Pulaski story was over before the end of the first Act, and we didn’t even get to the concept of the clones till well after the half-way point of the show. 
But I really think there’s a lot in both of those ideas to dive into. We were teased with some cool concepts with the clones: infusions of new DNA, replicative failing and a total aversion to biological reproduction. There are some really deep philosophical and ethical examinations to have on those subjects. But, instead, we got Irish stereotypes trying to find the right booze from the replicator. 

The writer, Melissa Sondgrass has said this was supposed to be a commentary on immigration. Yeah. I think they missed the mark on that one. 

There was even this whole, weird scene where Riker was going to help Brenna ‘wash her feet.’ Which, not surprisingly is a childish euphemism that just gave them an excuse to put her in a half-sweater and have Riker get some smoochy-smoochy on screen.

It’s no secret that TNG was still finding its footing in the 2nd season. While there are some standout episodes, like Q Who and, of course, The Measure of a Man, almost the whole rest of the season is pretty rough. If this one isn’t the worst, it’s certainly one of them. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this is probably one of the worst episodes in all of Star Trek. 

<<Command Codes>>

But being one of the worst episodes of Star Trek doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it! We have some great lessons to dive into on this one. 

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First, let’s talk about how great Pulaski is. She shines in her role as a medical professional and a scientist through this episode, but in her interactions with Worf, she shines as a leader. 

First, she knows Worf and she both honors and celebrates his culture. When she is initially diagnosing him, he pushes back. She doesn’t argue or try to prove her point. She understands that arguing or pushing back will accomplish nothing more than escalating a conflict. She just acknowledges and rolls with it. 

As a leader you can very easily do the same. As we’ve talked about before, it’s not important to argue or prove that you are right. If the person you’re talking to passionately feels a certain way or believes a thing, there isn’t really anything you can say to change their mind. So don’t argue, just acknowledge and roll through it. 

“It wasn’t a mistake, that’s just the way the program works!”
“No it doesn’t! I was on the team that rolled this out and it’s designed to…” <record scratch>

Nope. All that’s going to do is put them in a defensive mode and, best case, you’ll just argue about it. Try this instead:

“It wasn’t a mistake, that’s just the way the program works!”
“Ok. Well, we need to update the data so the PO processes on time. Do you have any ideas on how we can that?”

See, acknowledge it, don’t necessarily agree with it, and roll through. In this case, you move past their defense mechanism and move towards solution. Beautiful!

Second, when Picard calls down to check on Worf, she covers for him. It would have been really easy for her to have told him that Worf basically had the measles, but she understood that that would be humiliating to him. Instead, she told a story that acknowledged he wasn’t well and that he was on the mend. That protected him and his honor. 

We are people. And that might be news to some of us out there!! And the people we work with are also people. You know an incredible thing about people? Yeah, we find ourselves in embarrassing situations sometimes, and sometimes, oh the worst times, people at work, or our supervisors know about those times. 

As a leader, and, really, as a person, you have a choice. Share that embarrassing thing and maybe have a laugh or respect their privacy and dignity and just keep it to yourself! If you choose to have a laugh about it, you’re doing so at their expense, and, at the expense of your trust. 

Hope it was a great laugh. 

Especially as a leader, or a manager, you need to protect the private information your staff and teams share with you. If you don’t, your relationship will suffer. And, here’s the other big thing, it’ll damage the relationship you have with the people you share the situation with. In my experience, no joke or laugh is worth that. 

Here’s my big dose of wisdom for you here. If someone tells you something about someone else I can all but guarantee they are telling another person about you. 

Think on that one. 

Switching to Picard, he has a moment of deep insight in this one. “Sometimes you have to bow to the absurd.” In our lives, a lot of wild and kind of hilarious stuff happens. Sometimes, the hilarious stuff is actually pretty negative, but it can be kind of funny or absurd. 

In this episode, Picard walks in on an agricultural group of manual laborers, surrounded by barnyard animals and stray straw that are trying to figure out why a fire suppression system went off. It’s a mess. It’s wild and chaotic. But Picard stops, and finds humor in the moment. He takes what could have been a frustrating and anxiety inducing situation and creates a moment that allows him, and everyone around him, to shrug it off on move on. 

It makes me think of a situation a client of mine had. They worked for a good-sized, regional non-profit. They spent a lot of their time looking for funding streams and grant opportunities. And they were really good at it. Well, that’s not fair. I mean, they still work there at the time of this recording and they ARE good at it. 

If you’ve ever worked with grants before; applied for them or actually executed them, you know the paperwork and bureaucracy that’s built into them. Add the layers that exist in many non-profits, and you have the set up to a very disappointing story…that can really make you laugh. 

So they get approval from their Board to apply for a grant, $50,000, I think. They work hard through the application and writing process and are awarded the grant. Hooray! Right? Well, not in this case. They took the award to the Board for them to formally accept it. Remember now, they said it was ok to go and get it. Well, now that they had access to the money, they had all kinds of other ideas on how to spend it; and none of them were for what the grant writer said they’d be spending it on! 

Apparently, this was pretty common. In fact, my client said they halfway expected them to do this. But they sure hoped it wouldn’t; I mean, they spent a long time on this and spent some of their political capital with their network to make it happen. And then, a moment of hope! The Board called them back and said they were going to accept the grant. IF, they could redirect like $20k of it. 

Dejected, my client told them they couldn’t do that, it would put the whole award at risk. So the Board refused. This was heartbreaking. It was sad and it was at least a little insulting. 

Now, they could have gotten really upset. They could have called Board Members up and given them a piece of their mind, they could have threatened to quit. They could, they could even write a very sternly worded letter. But none of those things would have made a difference. They would have just driven them further down a path of disappointment and maybe even anger. 

Instead, instead, they just laughed. “Of course we blew this opportunity!” they said to themselves. And immediately, or just about immediately, they were ok with it. 

And here’s where the power of that laughter really comes to light. Because they were ok with what happened and they weren’t disappointed or angry, they were in a clear state to address the problem. They were able to meet with individual board members, showing them objective data about the funding opportunities their inconsistency had cost them. Now, I wish I knew if things changed for that organization or not, but this is actually happening right now! I just spoke with this person the other day about the discussions they are still having. 

But the point is, laughing at situation you can’t do anything else about, or, as Picard says, bowing to the absurd, can allow you to focus on the actual problem and look for a solution. 

Hey, look at that! Two very different things – not arguing a point and laughing at negative situations, and they both get you to the same place – a place where you can actively work on solving the problem. Let’s see if this third lesson takes us there too. 

Jean-Luc Picard is a paragon of leadership. In fact, I’m pretty sure his picture is next to the word in more than one online dictionary! But, it took him some time to get there. The Picard we see in seasons one and two is a very different leader than what we know from later seasons. And in this episode he shows that he still has some developing to do. 

Early on, when Riker is in the Bringloidi colony, he calls up and tells Picard he’s having a debate and needs Picard to know about it. Let me say that last part again, because it really is the key part here – he’s asking for help. 

So, of course, Picard being a great leader and all, he pauses and asks Riker what’s going on. Oh, wait no, no, that’s not what happens at all! No, he basically tells him to can it and beam them up. And we know how the rest of the story goes – pandemonium ensues and the poor PAs on set have to bring in, and then clean up all that straw and clean up after the animals. Gross.

So let’s break down what happened here. Riker, the second in command of the ship, Picard’s Number One, reports that things aren’t going great. Remember, Picard and Riker have developed a trusting, supportive relationship at this point. Riker is leaning on that relationship, on that trust, as he asks for help. 

Then, Picard blows him off. Literally cuts him off mid-sentence and gives him a direct order. Which, I’m sure does a lot to really build that trusting relationship… And after that, and this is the part that really gets me, when O’Brien calls for assistance, he heads in and he gets angry! He’s upset that the Transporter Room is a mess when he had an opportunity to do something about it! 

Let me put that a little differently. This is like your toddler trying to tell you they need to use the toilet, you not listening to them and actually telling them to keep playing, and they have an accident in their pants and you get mad at them. Where’s the logic in that?!?

All the mischief and absurdity in this episode could have been handled in a much better way had Picard taken 2 minutes and listened to Riker. His solution was to beam them all to Cargo Bay 7…he could have set that up from go had he just listened.

So, this time, let’s break down what should have happened: Riker says he’s having a debate, Picard asks what he can do. Riker explains the situation and they have a short back-and-forth that results in the colony being transported directly into the Cargo Hold. Counselor Troi and Dr. Pulaski are waiting for them in there so they can be sure they’re healthy and they can help them acclimate to a dramatically different level of technology and a different culture. 

Then they find out about the Mariposans, and, at this point, we’re like 8 minutes into the episode so we can spend more time with Pulaski and Worf and we can explore the ethical and philosophical dilemmas the clones present. 

But that didn’t happen. 

So, think about situations in your workplace, or even in your life as a whole, where you should have listened before moving on to the next step. Then, think about what you can do to ensure you give people the time needed to give you all the important information.

Here’s what I want you to do after you’ve thought on this. Go to facebook and join the SFLA podcast group and share your strategy. This group is a growing community of leaders, managers, and Star Trek fans that share ideas and help each other grow and develop. I look forward to seeing you there!

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

What memories do you have of this episode? Let me know! We’re on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and you can follow me on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Tea Ceremony, a k i n. 

And visit our updated website, jeffakin dot com. In the bottom, right corner there’s a microphone icon; click that and leave me a voicemail! In fact, leave a voicemail and I might include on a future episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy! 

Computer, what are we going to watch next time? 

We’re going back to the Bajoran Wormhole and Deep Space 9! Season 5, episode 6…the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Star Trek, it’s Trials and Tribble-ations!! Cadets, if you have not seen this episode before, watch it now! It was nominated for a Hugo Award and an Emmy and, in my opinion, is one of the most enjoyable episodes in all of Star Trek! I can’t wait to watch it and share the leadership lessons it has with all of you. 

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!