When Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) began its run as a television series, it did so at well below warp speed. The first two seasons of TNG are famously weak, offering only a couple decent installments within dozens of mostly-forgettable episodes. It can be hard to believe that such a fantastic, iconic television show was founded on such murky material.
The series pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” is a drawn-out episode with a script heavy on exposition. It successfully made clear TNG was not The Original Series and allowed Patrick Stewart to impress audiences with his new Captain Picard character (as well as introducing John De Lancie as would-be-recurring villain Q), but pales in comparison to later-season double episodes. The modestly sufficient pilot was followed by “The Naked Now,” an episode wherein everyone aboard the Enterprise gets space-drunk and acts foolish. Someone thought it would be fun to have an episode where the characters act unlike themselves as the second episode of a brand-new series, before audiences had a chance to figure out the characters' natural behaviors. Not only was that bad planning, but “The Naked Now” was a remake of a TOS episode called “The Naked Time,” as if to suggest the decades-later spin-off was already out of original ideas after one episode.
But The Next Generation’s third episode, “Code of Honor,” is pure trash. In the story, the Enterprise travels to a planet called Ligon II in hopes of acquiring a vaccine needed to combat an outbreak of Anchilles fever on Syris IV. Thousands of people will die if the vaccine is not retrieved, and naturally, the vaccine can be found nowhere but Ligon II. The inhabitants of Ligon II follow customs similar to ancient Africa, where men rule society and women rule land. The Ligonians are portrayed as a primitive African race -- a decision completely arbitrary to episode’s plot or the original script -- and speak in thick African accents, dress in stereotypical tribal garb, and are ruled by sexual appetites like ancient barbarians. The Ligonian chief Lutan (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) kidnaps Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) because he is amazed the Enterprise has a female security officer, and wants a strong white woman to be his “First One.” The kidnapping leads to Lutan blackmailing the Enterprise crew for the vaccine, inappropriate and contrived discussions between Yar and Troi (Marina Sirtis) about sexual attraction, and Yar and Lutan’s other wife fighting to the death (in yet another rip-off of the original series - the battle from “Amok Time”).
All the while, the Ligonians maintain a “cultural code of honor” that supposedly dictates their actions. The episode is sexist and racist at once, with a terrible plot beneath. Elksoft says the episode is "a story about primitive black people and their violent tribal mating rituals... perhaps the worst script ever written, by anybody, for any TV show. It is stupid, mindless, racist, sexist, gratuitously violent and ill-conceived from start to finish."
Not only is the episode widely considered the worst of The Next Generation, it has been called “possibly the worst piece of Star Trek ever made.” Certainly the writers of the episode didn’t set out to intentionally produce an overwhelmingly racist or sexist story, but the episode did mark the only instance of writer Katharyn Powers contributing to TNG. (Director Russ Mayberry was also fired halfway through for voicing his sentiments about the episode’s racist illustrations, never to return). Reports indicate the original story was to be based on a reptilian race following a code of honor similar to the Bushido code of the Samurai, and story editor Tracy Tormé shifted it to a 1940s tribal Africa theme ripped straight out of pulp novels.
The cast was unhappy with the episode and almost every member has voiced disapproving sentiments about it over the years. Brent Spiner has said “it was just a racist episode. Maybe not intentionally but it felt that way and looked that way. It was the third episode so it was fortuitous that we did our worst that early on and it never got quite that bad again.”
Jonathan Frakes referred to it as “a racist piece of shit,” saying, “the worst and most embarrassing and one that even Gene [Roddenberry] would have been embarrassed by was that horrible racist episode from the first season… 'Code of Honor,' oh my God in heaven!” Frakes has reportedly tried to get the episode pulled from syndication, finding it detrimental to the overall reputation of the series.
Den of Geek’s interpretation of the episode deems it the worst in Trek history, writing, “As if things weren't bad enough, it isn't even well-made. The racism alone is enough to ruin the episode, but even without that, it would still be unwatchably awful, replete as it is with clunky characterization, plotting and dialogue. One conversation sees Troi 'tricking' Yar into admitting that she finds Lutan (the leader of the Ligonian delegation) sexually attractive. It wouldn't be so bad, but this piece of knowledge doesn't even serve any purpose in the story. It's merely used as some kind of titillation.” That's not to mention the poor direction, horrendous sets, and exquisitely bad costuming.
The episode also marks only one of two TNG episodes where Worf (Michael Dorn) doesn’t appear. Given his character’s respect for honor and dueling, it seems an odd omission. The Klingon honor code is examined deeply in numerous episodes and would have been well-served in “Code of Honor” as a welcome counter-point to the Ligonians' perspective. The characters could have had meaningful discussions about the true nature of honor and its place in society, and less time on Lutan’s jungle fever.
In retrospect, “Code of Honor” isn’t just bad The Next Generation, it’s bad The Original Series. The episode’s subject matter and poor navigation of the material feels like something from decades past, yet aired at the end of the 1980s. The fact that its racist/sexist material was part of a mind-numbingly stupid episode in plot and composition renders it worthy of its title as one of Trek’s poorest episodes. With episodes like these serving as TNG's initiation, it’s amazing the show wasn’t canceled after its first season. Fortunately -- though it took a while -- the show found its stride and went on to become regarded for its creativity, sensitivity, and lasting prominence as one of TV’s great series.