"The Neutral Zone" is the finale of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is episode #26, production #126, and originally aired on May 16, 1988. It was written by Maurice Hurley, based on a story by Deborah McIntyre and Mona Glee, and directed by James L. Conway.
On stardate 41986.0, The Enterprise awaits the return of Captain Picard from an emergency Federation conference. On the Enterprise bridge, an ancient space capsule is detected drifting nearby which appears to originate from Earth. Commander Riker initially dismisses the derelict, but Lieutenant Commander Data persuades Riker to let him explore the capsule. Data and Worf beam aboard and discover it holds twelve cryonic freezing chambers. Some are empty, some hold decomposed bodies due to broken chamber seals, but three of the occupants, two men and a woman, appear viable. Data recovers a decaying information disk, hoping its contents can still be accessed. Riker hesitantly allows Data to return with the three.
Picard returns and immediately orders La Forge to take the ship toward the Neutral Zone at warp eight. Picard reports to the senior staff that Starfleet has recently lost contact with several outposts bordering the Neutral Zone. The Romulans have remained secluded from the Federation for over fifty years and it is speculated that they might be testing Federation defenses. Picard states that violence against the Romulans remains a measure of last resort.
Dr. Crusher tells Picard of the humans returned with Data from the capsule. Not sure what to do with them, Crusher has had them thawed. According to the recovered information, all the individuals had perished during the late 20th century, then were immediately frozen in the hopes that advances in medical technology might someday allow them to be revived. Healed of their injuries by Dr. Crusher, the three are now alive and recovering in sickbay. Picard calls Data to sickbay where he admonishes him for bringing over the patients at such an inopportune time.
Later, Data retrieves more information about the three. The woman, named Claire Raymond, was a homemaker who died at 35 of an embolism. Ralph Offenhouse was a financier who died at 63 of advanced cardiomyopathy. L. Q. "Sonny" Clemmons was a musician who died from heavy substance abuse. Picard returns to the bridge and orders Riker to look after the patients until there is time to figure out what is to be done with them.
In the meantime, Picard asks Counselor Troi what to expect of the Romulans. She calls them "creatures of extremes", noting their capacity for cruel violence as well as great tenderness. Troi continues that the Romulans are a naturally curious race who believe in their superiority over others, emphasizing their "wait-and-see" approach to dealing with conflicts.
In the guest quarters, Riker and Data counsel the three revived capsule survivors trying to help ease them into 24th century life. Raymond is surprised to be aboard the Enterprise, surmising that her husband arranged to have her frozen without her knowledge. Offenhouse is concerned with his financial situation, demanding to use a telephone or see a Wall Street Journal. Clemmons makes himself right at home, requesting an alcoholic beverage and a cigar. Data explains to him such things can be synthesized from the ship's replicators, albeit with their "lethal qualities" eliminated. Clemmons is pleased at the high quality of the replicator, but is very disappointed when he learns of the obsolescence of television circa 2040. Clemmons tells Data "Why don't you come back later on and you and me will find us a couple low mileage 'pit woofies' (sic?) and help em build a memory." Picard calls Riker and asks him and Data to report back to the bridge. Offenhouse requests that Riker allow him to speak with the Captain immediately and Raymond inquires as to her group's ultimate fate. Riker tells the two that both decisions will have to be made by the Captain.
Six hours from the Neutral Zone, the Enterprise is still unable to establish contact with any of the nine silent outposts. Joining Picard on the bridge, Riker posits that if the Romulans are responsible it would fit a historical pattern of violence, to which Data replies that Starfleet's information on the Romulans is 53 years out of date. Riker points out that the Romulans' information on the Federation is similarly outdated. Still, Riker believes that the Romulans are stirring trouble so that Starfleet will send their best starship to investigate, thus allowing the Romulans "a perfect chance to see firsthand how far the Federation has advanced, both in technology and in technique." Riker and Worf feel the Enterprise should take an offensive stance. Data says that he agrees only if it can be determined that the Romulans' intentions are hostile.
The discussion is interrupted when Offenhouse calls Captain Picard from the communications console in the guest quarters, demanding an audience with him. In doing so, he negatively compares the Enterprise to the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2. Before Offenhouse can complete his tirade, Picard arrives in guest quarters and tells him to refrain from using the com panel. Offenhouse states that his own situation is far more important than Picard's and demands that he be put in contact with the law firm that represented him in the 20th century. Picard attempts to explain the irrelevance of money and possessions in modern society; however, Raymond starts crying, wondering aloud at the fate of her children. Picard calls Counselor Troi to help resolve the situation. Raymond discusses her situation with Troi and mentions wanting to know what happened to her family. Troi offers to help her retrieve that information through the library computer. Meanwhile, a bored Clemmons has replicated a fancy acoustic guitar and invites Data to throw a party with him.
The Enterprise reaches the Neutral Zone but finds the first outpost's host planet mysteriously wiped clean with no evidence of a conventional attack. As the Enterprise attempts to locate the next outpost, Offenhouse informs his comrades that he thinks something very serious is happening to the ship and sets off to determine what it is. The ship arrives at the second outpost, and it too is missing from its planet.
Riker and Worf suggest raising Red Alert and manning battle stations. Picard says he does not wish to act rashly, so Yellow Alert is raised instead. Offenhouse finds his way to a turbolift and heads to the bridge. Worf's scanners indicate a disturbance in space that could be a cloaked Romulan vessel. Riker advises arming photon torpedoes and sending power to the phasers, but Picard decides against it, as it would alert the Romulans of their intentions and force them to take similar actions. The sensors indicate a decloaking Romulan vessel, but the ship recloaks after a moment.
Offenhouse enters the bridge and after glimpsing the Romulan ship, he asks aloud "Who the hell are 'they?'", alerting the bridge crew to his presence. Riker orders two security officers to remove Offenhouse from the bridge, but he refuses to budge. Suddenly, a large Romulan warbird decloaks before them. The Enterprise hails the vessel. After a few tense moments, the Romulans respond. Captain Picard informs the Romulan commander that his vessel has crossed the Neutral Zone into Federation territory. The Romulans counter that the intrusion was necessary as outposts on the Romulan side of the Neutral Zone have also been destroyed, although they do not believe the Federation to be responsible.
Picard asks who they think is responsible for the attacks. Before the Romulans have a chance to reply, Offenhouse blurts out (quite astutely, which even Picard acknowledges), "They haven’t got a clue! They’re hoping you know, but they’re too arrogant to ask." Picard proposes a cooperation with the Romulans, an agreement to share the results of their respective investigations on the matter; the Romulans grudgingly agree. Before departing, the Romulan commander ominously informs Picard that the Romulans "are back".
At a computer console with Raymond, Troi finds a living descendant of Raymond’s on Earth, a great-great-great-great-great-grandson named Thomas. Raymond remarks at the similarity of his appearance to that of her husband. Later, in the observation lounge, Picard informs the three that the Enterprise will soon rendezvous with another ship which will take them to Earth. Offenhouse asks what he will do now that his money and office are gone. Picard points out that material needs do not exist in the 24th Century. Offenhouse then wonders; "What's the challenge?" where Picard responds; "The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich your life. Enjoy it."
Back on the bridge, Riker laments that the three are leaving soon, as it would have been nice to get to know more about them and they are a living window into what people were like in the 20th century. Picard assures everyone that it would have been good to get to know more about them, but that would be looking back to the past. The future is where they're going, and the crew has quite a bit more to see and do.
This episode is the first episode to establish a year in the Gregorian calendar (2364) in addition to a stardate (41986.0), allowing fans to reconstruct the history of the Star Trek universe in relation to modern times: see Timeline of Star Trek.
The attacks in this episode were later revealed to have been caused by the Borg, at that time an unknown species. Originally, the Borg were to be brought into the series as a race of cybernetic insectoids to replace the Ferengi (thought to be a failure as an ongoing threat). However the Writer’s Strike of 1988 caused this incarnation of the Borg to be pushed back, and budget restrictions later made the species humanoid/cybernetic.
Ralph Offenhouse appears in several novels set both before his appearance here (such as Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars Volume 1, in which Claire Raymond also receives a mention) and after (in which he becomes a Federation ambassador to the Ferengi).