“The Drumhead”. Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 4, episode 21: the discovery of a spy aboard the Enterprise, along with possible sabotage of the ship’s engines, triggers an investigation led by retired Rear Admiral Norah Satie (played by veteran British actress Jean Simmons) which quickly turns into a witch hunt.
“The Drumhead” is one of those iconic TNG episodes. There’s an ethical dilemma which serves as a metaphor for real world issues, external forces trigger polite disagreement between members of the main cast, Patrick Stewart gives an inspirational speech, and then it’s never spoken of again.
I don’t say this as faint praise. TNG was a great series, which suffers now because its episodic storytelling style is no longer fashionable. And this is one of the best episodes, representing the series at its peak. Though it was conceived as an allegory for McCarthyism, “The Drumhead”‘s exploration of justice, paranoia and the value of civil liberties is particularly relevant in the hellscape of the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Nevertheless. I have a lot of feelings about Norah Satie, the way she was written, and her treatment in-universe.
Obviously, suspending civil liberties and leading a show trial is bad. There’s no defending Satie’s actions, and I’d like to make it clear that I’m not here as a Satie apologist.
What troubles me is that (in-universe) Starfleet seems to have effectively thrown Satie under a bus years before this episode takes place; and (in the real world) there’s more than a dash of sexism in the way she is written. It’s the latter which is particularly aggravating, because … you know why.
The in-universe problem
Four years prior to “The Drumhead”, we’re told, Satie played a role in uncovering a conspiracy at the highest levels of Starfleet.
(See, for details, the season 1 episode “Conspiracy”, which was considered a huge misstep at the time — too dark, too violent, not in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision — but now stands up as the closest early TNG comes to being good. The episode’s greatest weakness is that it set up an arc — yes, in 1988! — that never got any follow through.)
After Picard saved the Federation — I mean, technically it was Beverly who saved the Federation by turning up with a phaser set to kill and rescuing Picard and Riker from a grotesque fate, but anyway — we learn that Satie was called out of retirement and essentially dispatched to clean up.
Or, to quote the actual shooting script:
She circles toward him, speaking gently, as though
talking to a child.
Captain… do you know how I have
spent the last four years?
Traveling from planet to Starbase
She moves away again, into her restless pacing.
I have no home… I live on
starships and shuttlecraft… I
haven’t seen a family member in
years… I have no friends.
Apparently, Starfleet’s internal investigations department consists solely of one woman and her two aides. And they’ve been working without a break for four years.
That’s … not great. Ethical standards and internal investigations are fields were people are especially prone to burnout, not to mention the psychological effects of being effectively excluded from your professional peer group. Best practice, I’ve read, is to have steady rotation in and out, regular debriefs, and adequate leave provisions.
Constantly working, in a field where paranoia is particularly rampant, for four years, with no stable home and no support network beyond her two equally-overworked aides, is it any wonder that Satie has lost perspective?
So it’s frustrating that, when it’s all over and Satie has been stood down, Picard regards her, not as a fellow officer who was overworked, denied support and ultimately left to do terrible things with the best of intentions — a figure deserving of empathy, if nothing else — he dismisses her:
Villains who wear black hats are
easy to spot. Those who clothe
themselves in good deeds are well
Maybe. But it won’t stop her.
She — someone like her — will
always be with us… waiting for
the right climate to flourish…
spreading disease in the name of
Vigilance, Worf. That is the
price we must continually pay.
I dunno, dude, I feel like this whole thing could have been avoided with better workplace practices. The “right climate” didn’t just happen by accident, it was created through inattention and complacency. There but for the grace of God, and so forth.
But this is all speculation about the fictional management policies of a fictional organisation. What’s really more frustrating is the sexism in the writing.
The writing problem
“The Drumhead” was written by Jeri Taylor, one of the most prominent women to write for any Star Trek, and the franchise’s first female showrunner.
Unfortunately, Taylor was extremely prone to using sexist and regressive stereotypes in her writing. The classic example is Mosaic, the Voyager tie-in novel she wrote about Janeway’s life, which was meant to serve as “canon” for future episodes. Janeway had been conceived as the daughter of an admiral and a mathematician; in Taylor’s hands, her mother became a stay-at-home mom who cooked, cleaned and spent most of her time in her kitchen, worrying about the adult daughters who had long left home.
Satie is defined to a great extent by her relationship with her late father, a judge and civil libertarian. Here’s a really delightful bit of shade from Memory Alpha:
Nothing was ever stated about Aaron Satie’s wife, Norah’s mother, in the episode. Whether she was sympathetic to her husband’s civil libertarian philosophies or diametrically opposed to them has thus never been canonically revealed.
Mmmmmmmmm. *thinky face emoji*
Judge Satie is one of Picard’s heroes. Here’s his daughter’s take:
My father taught me to avoid
partnerships… most of them are
That sounds like Judge Aaron
You knew my father?
Through his writing. His judicial
decisions were required reading
at the Academy.
He was an extraordinary man.
Every night at the dinner table…
he’d pose a question for debate.
My big brothers and I would
wrangle it around, from one side
and the other… my father would
referee… he kept a stopwatch
on us so we’d have to learn
brevity… and he wouldn’t let
us leave until he thought we had
completely explored the issue…
I’m willing to wager you trounced
your brothers in those debates…
She laughs delightedly.
More than once. Father would love
it when I nailed one of them on
some subtle point of logic…
Honestly, Judge Satie sounds like a bit of an asshole. But more importantly, Admiral Satie’s background is immensely dudecentric. It borders on the I Have Brothers trope:
The tendency of female characters displaying skills in something that is traditionally viewed as being more of a male thing to explain it as being the result of having a number of (usually older) brothers.
Or maybe it’s just lazy writing and the masculine as default. Imagine how much more interesting that whole conversation would be if Satie’s mother was the iconic jurist.
This would be merely irritating, except … I mentioned above that this is one of those episodes where Patrick Stewart delivers an inspirational speech?
He defeats Satie by quoting her father at her. And she falls apart, launching into a passionate tirade which prompts the fellow admiral, whom she has called in to witness her kangaroo court, to walk out, while she threatens, “I’ve brought down bigger men than you, Picard!”
Leaving us with an interesting, complicated female antagonist, undone by daddy issues. In her sixties.
It’s not just insulting, it’s lazy. Satie isn’t brought down by the logic she used to win arguments with her brothers, but by emotion. And, yes, paranoia and fear are very emotional, and McCarthyist with hunts play on those feelings in order to succeed.
But Picard’s final speech isn’t “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” It’s essentially “Your daddy would be ashamed”, which is a strategy men still use to criticise and silence women.
(If you had told me this morning I’d be comparing Jean-Luc Picard to Alan Jones, I would have … okay, probably nodded and assumed I had a good reason.)
“The Drumhead” is still a great piece of television, but like a lot of quality progressive media from the ’90s, it has become dated. And that’s good! It means we have higher expectations and a reasonable assumption that they’ll be met — at least some of the time.
But these days, I often watch older Star Trek with the new fan in mind, asking myself, “Would I recommend this episode to a friend who has only seen Discovery, if she’s seen Star Trek at all?” And the answer is now “Yes, but…”
- Many, many thanks to Tansy Rayner-Roberts for coming up with the answer when I asked, “What do you call that trope where a woman grew up with a tough dad and a bunch of brothers, and had to compete with them to prove she was as good as/better than the boys?”
- You can support my work via Ko-Fi.