The episode itself has not much to mention. The script is classically TOS as is the set design and almost everything except the new crew. Lutan is not much of an opponent neither his acting abilities nor his character and Picard and Riker carry the show almost with routine. Troi as usual is the weak spot in the TNG cast and Wesley seems out of place (once again).
The conflict between the prime directive and the need for a vaccine to cure Federation colonists (one of the many Star Trek McGuffins) seems much too artificial, which robs it of the potential of carrying a message. The prime directive of the Federation is a principle quite similar to German philosopher Immanuel Kant's (1724 - 1804) "Kategorischer Imperativ" which in my opinion is characterized by a tremendous lack of flexibility to be applicable. Its intention clearly is to avoid a new colonial age of suppression of other cultures but as to be seen in this episode (rather involuntarily one might guess) its strictness is its greatest weakness. It downright invites other cultures with different moral standards to trick the Federation into a conflict situation to weaken their position. Surely the Federation stresses the importance of diplomacy but diplomacy is a rather uneven ground and every strictly taken principle would ruin it because creativity is the most important point to it. The Prime Directive taken literally would destroy any diplomatic attempts by the Federation because it would make their actions predictable. Whatever Gene Roddenberry may be he is not a philosopher for his concepts aren't thought-ought and with every attempt of making man better he earns so many problems... I mean, what situation is this? Saving hundreds of lives or respecting an archaic culture's code of honor? Would anyone have been harmed if the crew of the Enterprise would have taken the vaccine by force? How many people died which could have been saved, while Picard's hands were bound and the silly fight took place (exposing a crew member to a great risk)? All that doesn't make any sense to me... Conflicts between cultures and different moral systems cannot be solved by one culture always giving in to the other. This would lead to an endless circle of dominance and submission. Tolerance and respect are high values and should be protected whenever possible... But they can't weigh out responsibility for one's own people. Respect has to be earned and should not be mistaken for accepting other people's ways of living. Conflicts only can be solved with decisions which can't always be made by the book. Acceptance and respect, responsibility and tolerance must be weighed out against each other thoroughly but finally the decision has to be made. On a Starfleet vessel it is the Captain's prerogative. He has his staff (all Starfleet academy graduates, trained in Starfleet procedures what includes a set of ethical values) to advise him and his own experience to guide him. That doesn't provide him from making mistakes but that's a different story. If Picard had to be judged on his decisions during this mission his hesitant way of acting surely would not have been highly appreciated. A Captain's responsibility is first of all to his ship and its crew. All other things come second.
The final solution of cheating Lutan could not be called examplary, could it? This would be a much greater sign of disrespect than (for example) having challenged him to fight or threatening him by a demonstration of power. If someone has such a strict and highly regarded code of honor, why not use it against him? In archaic cultures challenge always was an honorable thing to do...
But don't get me wrong, I'm a great fan of Star Trek. Not because I agree with all of its points but because it almost exemplary (and not always voluntarily) shows how complex life, politics and ethics really are. A model society always will be a model society and nothing more. TNG will go on with its naive and often clumsy dealings with highly complex conflict situations for a while and Star Trek in a whole will never really get rid of that. But one thing's clear. You always can learn something from it, even if it means learning how you shouldn't do it. It creates conflicts but the solutions it comes up with were, are and will ever be only few of nearly infinite possibilities. That's my point of Star Trek. It makes people sensitive to philosophical issues and the more Roddenberry got away from responsibility of its execution the more interesting and sometimes even ambivalent it got...
This episode plays out much better than episode 2: the story contains true suspense as we watch Picard go from one failed solution to another, while sticking to the Prime Directive. There are a few stray ends, some good, some bad. Good: Data's attempt to understand human humour; the bad: Wesley.
One glaring flaw that has stuck with me for years is the first act cliffhanger: *spoiler alert* Tasha is kidnapped right in front of Picard, and his reaction is to calmly turn towards the camera and proclaim 'red alert'. It feels like a dry read through that they accidentally had the cameras on for. Wouldn't a close-up with a helpless reaction have been better? That one moment summed up for years one of the problems I always had with TNG: the lack of 'punch' that the original series had.
In any case, a good episode.
It also has a 'Matrix' style martial arts demonstration in the hologram room. We learn briefly that strikes from holograms cause pain. We also learn that hologram fighters can learn Tasha's fighting tactics and find ways to defeat her at higher levels, so it keeps her constantly striving to improve her skills.
The plot is not very entertaining or complex. But it advances some details about Star Trek and key characters. Picard is a proud Frenchman, Wesley takes ops on the bridge, and Geordi uses an electric razor since the one Data set for him is too efficient. Data tries to learn humor and fails miserably; he keeps striving to achieve the human equation to no avail.
This episode seems a bit more mature since it parts ways with the dare devil and luck against improbable odds episode, 'Encounter at Farpoint'. 'Code of Honor' introduces a risk assessment of the situation for the first time. It openly discuss the odds of Tasha succeeding in a fight to the death. Usually the characters ignore probabilities and just do what is right or sympathetic or fantastic. In this episode they go with the odds; if only Spock was their to calculate the numbers for them!
The whole idea of the prime directive also forces a calming mood on the series. It restricts them from swiftly acting. Picard is not even the leader of away teams up to this episode, but in this episode the customs and emphasis of honor by the Ligonians gives Picard reason to lead the away team.
The Ligonians kidnap Tasha as part of their customs. Picard must play along since he is limited by the prime directive and so he cannot just take Tasha back (Picard also wants the Ligonians to trade a rare vaccine with them and open friendly relations).
Also we get information about the value system of Star Trek. Picard harshly rejects the Ligonian system of honor, but he stops before launching into his reasons.
The prime directive, however, is also an honor code of sorts. I think a better argument is for Picard to attack the unpredictable customs and dangerous taboos of the Ligonians. But this is a very liberal episode and the Ligonians turn out to be quite civilized despite their ways (Star Trek does not define 'civilization' in terms of technology but rather in terms of culture perhaps). Though this is a reasonable concern -- a new species or new civilization may have certain taboos that threaten successful contact with them. So this episode also starts the theme of first contact and its many difficulties.
For example, Picard tricks the Ligonians and saves a death thus violating the conditions of the fight to the death. I'm not convinced this coheres with the prime directive, and it shows that it's probably impossible for Star Trek to refrain from imposing its power over lesser technologically advanced civilizations at least to some extent.
This episode demonstrates that Star Trek is not merely concerned with overcoming impossible odds; it also considers rationality important as well. And it's concerned with cultural respect and not just forcing its own views onto others through the prime directive. But this goal is lofty and rare, usually people just universalize their values and attempt to hold others to them, and Star Trek has major problems faithfully sticking to it.
Desperately needing a vaccine the Enterprise travels to the only world (in the vicinity) that has it and is confronted by the leader of the planet, who is love struck by Yar, kidnaps her, and then allows his first wife to battle her to the death in order to see who truly is the first wife. Picard allows this to happen because of the prime Directive and because he likes Yar's chances. Tar is victorious, her opponent saved by the crew, and the leader of the world gets relegated to the status of second husband.
..........erm.........the concept of the Prime Directive, while horrible inefficient in a whole plethora of possible scenarios is at least cause for discussion and philosophical debate and that's a good thing. There are some small moments with Wesley, Data and LaForge that are pleasant and a first attempt at character development and backstory building. Patrick Stewart is decent as he always is.
Things I despised
Tasha Yar is unlikeable and Denise Crosby plays her over the top and unconvincing. Over the top acting also applies to the entire bunch of guest stars. Yareena, Yar's opponent is uninteresting and the planet's leader is so over the top you wonder where the hell the writers and director were when they shot this. It's clearly a redundant TOS script. The fight to the death is filmed well and scored well but it is between 2 characters you couldn't possibly care any less about. If both were to die you would chug your beer and doze off.
The Prime Directive makes its grand entrance and immediately we see how flawed it is. It would hypothetically call for whole civilizations to perish when the Federation could easily prevent it, and it leaves no room for when a Starfleet vessel encounters a species with a less than honorable code of conduct. Which means that when your officer is meant to fight to the death or someone is about to be executed for falling into flowers (don't worry, we'll get to that in a later episode) the Directive orders you to let it happen, but of course you won't. The Directive seems to be in place to prevent Starfleet from using its usually vastly superior technology to stand in the way of other civilizations' culture or development, but every single time this creates the problem that OTHER cultures DON'T have a similar Diretive, making the no.1 rule of the Federation comforting on paper but usually pointless in the real world. In the episode "The Drumhead" a prosecutor is shocked by the amount of times Picard has violated the PD but that just shows how imperfect it is. It seems to imply that if the Borg were to assimilate a species the Federation would just shrug and call it a vital aspect of Borg culture that we shouldn't condemn because that's arrogant. Right...
A seriously flawed episode that wasn't meant for TNG highlighting the least interesting character and introducing Starfleet's golden rule that is so flawed you wonder why they even bother to bring it up. They are not meant to aid, destroy, disrupt or affront the customs of other cultures and Star Trek went on to do little else for the rest of its existence, no matter what series or movie. The PD seems reasonable until you leave the shipyards and venture out into space. The acting is over the top, the story is boring, the ending is unsatisfying. I love TNG but this is not worth your time. 2/10. Next!
But far worse than any of this is the failure to entertain. This is easily the most lackluster episode I've ever seen from this crew, and that's unacceptable.
This isn't as bad an episode as the dismal current score of 5.2 would imply. It's actually pretty good. However, I do think that some people might be a bit offended by this one, as the tribal folks are all black people and the tone seems a tad patronizing.
UPDATE: By the way, it isn't just me who hated this episode. At the 50th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, this was voted as one of the 10 worst of all episodes from every Trek franchise! That is some ignoble designation! So, perhaps I was too charitable towards this one!