We open with the passage that gives this issue (and thus the series in general considering I've jacked the phrase for rhetorical purposes) its title as Admiral Rosenstrum confides in Captain Picard in the ready room.
“I owe you an apology, Jean-Luc. As it turns out, you knew exactly what you were doing. If you'd listened to me, the Beta Tarsus colony would have been obliterated – Just like the Nairobi and the Merrimac before it.”
“I appreciate the praise admiral, but you didn't call me in here just to congratulate me, correct?”
“Not entirely, no. As your superior officer, Jean-Luc, it's my duty to quote Starfleet policy at this juncture.”
“That's right. And policy dictates that as long as we have any options at all, we avoid destroying that other ship.”
“I trust you're familiar with Nietzsche?”
“The philosopher? Yes, I am.”
“It was he who said 'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster.'”
“'And when you look long into any abyss, the abyss also looks into you.' I know the quote. What's your point?”
“I don't need any policy to keep me from destroying that other vessel. Not that its crew deserves any mercy – Not by any stretch of the imagination. But if it is in my power to extend it, they will certainly receive it. What nettles me is that you would think me capable of doing otherwise."
Admiral Jan Rosenstrum of Starfleet Command believes authoritarian power structures are necessary to keep people from acting on their instinctual evil natures. Captain Picard doesn't need rules to tell him to be good and virtuous because he is inherently a good and virtuous person. What elevates this above generic Hobbesian social contract thought is what it reveals about the lingering self-doubt lying at the heart of Starfleet and its officers: After all, why would they feel the need to self-consciously quote rules, regulations and procedure at one another if they didn't, at least at some level, distrust themselves? In spite of its utopian rhetoric, when you get right down to it Starfleet simply does not have enough faith and confidence in its own people and its own ideals to trust them to do the right thing. So, when confronted with people like Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, people who truly are trying to better themselves and live up to their own standards, they react with a mix of trepidation and fear. Projecting their own insecurities onto those they've written the very mark of their ideals onto (by virtue of serving on the flagship), they're quick to judge, dismiss and condemn an effigy of themselves rather than own up and come to terms with the unsustainable corruption and xenophobic power fantasies that makes up the foundation of their philosophy.
Echoes of this reverberate throughout the rest of the story. Back on the bridge, the Bogus Enterprise is starting to catch onto Commander Riker's tactical style, just as it was able to predict Captain Picard's before. Data takes over at the conn, but its only a matter of time before he's sorted too. But Worf, meanwhile, has picked up some odd sensor readings during the battle: It seems that under its facade, the Bogus Enterprise isn't a ship at all, but rather a single biological entity comprised of energy. Deanna confirms this, saying that she senses an underlying intelligence, however alien, governing the ship's actions. Furthermore, she says she senses great happiness from the creature, as if it sees everything that's happened throughout the series as a fun and exciting game. Will points out that the creature's ignorance isn't entirely incomparable with that of humans over the course of its history, imploring that it be given the same chance to learn from its mistakes that other people have given humans, to which the rest of the crew emphatically agrees.
Reasoning that the creature likely does cannot comprehend the gravity of its actions and might not even understand the existence of matter-based life, Data and Wesley suggest the crew pilot shuttlecraft in an attempt to communicate face-to-face and show how the crew are actually life-forms separate from the ship. Will, Data and Deanna take three shuttlepods out to the creature, to which the creature responds in turn with three duplicate shuttles complete with their own duplicate Will, Data and Deanna. This sparks a fascinating philosophical debate about the nature of life and its interconnection to the universe: The creature declares, in the form of Bogus Riker “I am exactly like you – A mechanism extruded from the fabric of the greater whole”. Deanna rejects this, claiming she is a “complete and separate lifeform – Capable of independent thought, independent reason.” And yet it should be recalled that she and her shipmates are in separate shuttlecraft...But the six voices speak as if they are part of the same one-on-one dialog, reflected in the framing of Pablo Marcos' artwork.
The Bogus Enterprise is, in a manner of speaking, Starfleet distilled and hyper-condensed. Viewing expansionism, war and institutionalized murder as nothing more than a charming diversion, it is completely oblivious to the very real human cost of its actions. In fact, it can't even view humans as living things.
The debate ultimately goes nowhere, and, once again, it's Deanna who comes up with the solution. By establishing an empathic link with the creature, she hopes to share her pain with it and help it understand the hurt it caused to so many others, in spite of the considerable danger this would pose to the integrity of her own mind. But she does, and Micheal Jan Friedman conveys this with one of the most effective descriptions of the ineffable I've read, and in gloriously bombastic comic book prose to boot:
The first step towards healing and growth begins with empathy. And note how it's left unclear whether the description refers to the creature...or to Deanna.“There are no words that can express it, no language that can adequately convey it. There is only the tidal wave of heartsickness and pain, a reflection of her own feelings magnified a thousand-fold...A burden of guilt that threatens to crush her under its impossible weight...A conflagration of shame, burning through her with unspeakable agony...”
There's a larger truth worth observing here. Although this story is attempting to convey feelings of loss and tragedy, there are transcendentally powerful emotions of all types just like these dwelling within all of us that words (which are, of course, ultimately nothing more than tools, albeit very early and specialized ones) are not designed to fully speak for. There are experiences and visions outside the systems of symbolic logic we have organised our lives around, and this is what the Long 1980s teach us by providing a model, however crude and prototypical, for exploring and engaging these thought-forms and mindscapes at a higher and more nuanced level. It is through ruminating on these, not through rote chasing of technoscience, that we are brought closer to reclaiming our birthright among the stars.
The lesson of this story is that this truth is inseparable one some level from the critique of Starfleet philosophy and jurisdiction it deals with elsewhere. For whoever fights monsters should see to it that she does not become a monster. And who is the monster here? Is it really the Bogus Enterprise? Or is it the Federation starships it did battle with and ultimately took the form of? Perhaps the true message here is to be mindful of just how close we are to Starfleet Command and the weight it still exerts over us. The real Enterprise is in the clear as her and her crew prove time and time again capable of extirpating themselves from the worst of Starfleet's predilections. But remember as well that the Bogus Enterprise wasn't so different from us, and in fact that's what made its actions so heinous and frightening. Were we not strong or empathic enough to stare down the abyss...Perhaps in another reality we might have ended up in the same place. Let's just be glad we don't.
For the time being, however, Star Trek: The Next Generation comes out of the summer emboldened and energized. At long last, it seems to have finally captured the zeitgeist of the moment; the future back in its hands. So don't screw this up – We'll be watching.