11. Contagion

Portal 63, Automated Salesman, and an Iconian orb walk into a Romulan bar. They get to talking with the bartender, and they learn he has quite a problem. The Starship Enterprise is in orbit above the building, and it’s scaring all the customers away. He promises they can drink all the free ale they want if one of them can just make it go away.

Portal 63 says leave it to me, and up he goes to the roof. But in no time he comes back depressed.

What happened? the bartender asks.

I just had a talk with Commander Riker, and it turns out I basically have no reason to live.

The Iconian orb says, Don’t worry. I know just what to do. He goes up to the roof. But in no time he comes back looking defeated.

What happened? the bartender asks.

I tried to reprogram the Enterprise computer, but they had everything backed up on Time Machine.

Automated Salesman says, I have an idea. He goes up, and comes back wearing a huge grin.

You did it? The bartender asks.

No! BUT I just sold them enough weapons to destroy this entire planet. Drinks are on me!

How to solve a puzzle

as taught by the crew of the Enterprise in Contagion. The crew runs smack dab into a biggie. Systems malfunctions blow up the Yamato. The real Yamato. Not a Nagilum prank. The malfunctions spread like an infection to the Enterprise and a big angry Romulan warbird.

We call Romulan ships “warbirds.” It helps us hate them.

Resolving these issues leads to a string of problem solving situations that comprise the episode. Here’s the process: Encounter question-> use creative thinking to theorize -> confirm or dismiss. To illustrate, here are ten examples arranged in something like summary order.

question theory confirm or dismiss
1. What was the odd reading when they downloaded Yamato logs? Data – might be due to the problems the Yamato is experiencing neither confirmed nor dismissed, so Riker considers another option
Riker – the presence of another ship Dismissed. There are no other ships. The question goes unanswered (though we might assume it was evidence of the ship getting the virus.)
2. Why are the Yamato’s systems malfunctioning? Captain Varley – design flaw in galaxy class starships Dismissed. Geordi finds there are no problems with the design.
3. Did the Romulan ship destroy the Yamato? Worf – must’ve. Romulan captain is anxious because she just blew up a federation ship. Dismissed. Geordi finds that the cause was an uncontrolled matter / anti-matter mix. The Yamato did it to itself.
4. What is the blue sphere launched from the surface of former Iconian home world? Data- a scanner, possibly a transmitter Can’t be confirmed or dismissed, but assuming it’s true facilitates other theories
5.  If not a design flaw, why were the Yamato’s systems malfunctioning? Geordi –  maybe something to do with the probe. Confirmed. The probe sent a computer program that is acting like a virus, rewriting software programs, causing malfunctions.
6. If it’s to do with the probe, why does it affect Enterprise? It hasn’t been probed. No theory Investigation reveals that the program was in the Yamato logs, and when they downloaded it, the Enterprise system was infected.
7. What caused the planet to send the probes? Probably an automated system. Confirmed by away team.
8. How do we get rid of the program? Go down to the planet and find records that’ll help us remove them. Dismissed. They didn’t find anything planetside to help, but they managed to make everything worse by infecting Data. This in turn helps them solve the problem through luck.
9. How do we read the Iconian language? We assume that Iconian is the parent language for several similar languages and then interpret the Iconian symbols. 50/50. It doesn’t help locate the manual override, but it does help them blow everything up.
10. How did Data’s system purge the Iconian program? Geordi – it shut down and erased all the memories that were affected by program. Confirmed. Geordi does the same to the Enterprise and it clears the system.

I know what you’re thinking. There are heaps more examples. In my notes I have 24 instances of this question -> guess -> confirm or dismiss process. For the sake of my own sanity, however, I’m going to wrap up with ten.

Pragmatic Picard

It’s been awhile since we last saw Picard’s pragmatism on display, but in Contagion, he witnesses the death of his friend in an explosion and then in a matter of fact manner calls for the shields to protect his own ship from the debris.

Without a moment to mourn he goes straight into negotiations with the Romulans. Wesley asks him about it, and Picard says it’s training. Training helps you make decisions practically despite the emotional circumstances that surround you.

But then there’s also the fact that he chose to violate intergalactic law by entering the neutral zone. When he learns the Romulans did not destroy the Yamato, he tells Deanna they should stay to make sure there’s no design flaw in the ship that would lead to an Enterprise explosion.

It sounds like rationalization. As if Picard has made the practical decision to stay in the neutral zone and now he’s looking for a good excuse to stay. Why? Maybe he’s thinking it would be hard to legitimate coming back a second time.

In any event, we see a Picard divorced of emotion and working the system rather than appealing to larger ideas.

Preemptive Action

The episode also endorses taking preemptive action. Both Captains Varley and Picard believe that getting to advanced technology before the Romulans is a legitimate reason to violate intergalactic law, and I don’t get the sense the storytellers want us to disagree.

Picard says getting to the technology before the Romulans might prevent a war.

Then he destroys 200,000 year old artifacts to prevent the Romulans from having them.

They’re lost forever! Purely out of fear. Everything was done from fear of what Romulans might do if they had the technology.

Who are the bad guys?

The truth however is that we never see the Romulans act aggressively. They apparently have the right to defend the neutral zone, and by his own admission Captain Varley violated the neutral zone first. His actions brought the Romulans into the neutral zone.

Yet they did nothing to harm the Yamato despite being cloaked nearby when it was vulnerable. They didn’t decloak until after the Yamato was destroyed. Why would they do that? We don’t know. All we know is that the Enterprise crew saw them as a threat right off the bat, and the Romulans were responding to being treated as such.

Protection of the Law

I like the moment when Picard demands of the Romulan captain, what are you doing in the neutral zone. To which she answers, What are YOU doing in the neutral zone?

It’s a nice illustration of the idea that once you act beyond the law, you’re no longer protected by the law.


There is also a positive message. Interestingly, characters trust and help each other. Captain Picard for example, is called into the neutral zone to help his old friend, and he trusts him enough, and wants to help him enough that he violates the treaty with the Romulans.

After the Yamato explodes, he also protects his crew by raising the shields, and it feels a little cold blooded. However, Worf trusts him and is prepared to act as told. The shields go straight up without question.

When Geordi comes flying onto the bridge, shouting for the destruction of the Iconian probe, Picard acts immediately to do so without knowing why. He trust Geordi completely.

The Romulans also displayed a great deal of trust in the Enterprise. When Riker tells them to destroy the Iconian probe, they do. When Riker tells them how to purge their system of Iconian program, they take him at his word, and do as they’re instructed, which saves them.

It also says a lot about the crew. Although they’re afraid of the Romulans, and are acting illegally out of that fear, they try to help this perceived enemy.

Morals, messages, and meanings

  1. Use creative thinking and experimentation to solve problems.
  2. Don’t let emotions interfere with what needs to be done.
  3. Preemptive action is OK.
  4. Success depends on trust and helping others.

Does it hold up?


With the focus on problem solving, this episode reminds me a lot of Where Silence Has Lease, but not as exciting. The tension isn’t convincing, and Picard doesn’t seem right. He’s behaving a bit out of character.

The humor was unexpected, but not bad. It was nice seeing LeVar Burton doing humor with more subtlety. He and Brent Spiner pulled off the scene in which Geordi is zapped, and Data throws him across the room.

Still the episode was bland. I had to watch it three times before I started to retain anything, and I’m sure I’ll forget everything about it soon enough.


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