Overall Rating: 8.5
This episode is actually a noble attempt at true multiculturalism, complete with an apparent understanding that when cultures with identifiably contradictory beliefs meet, expecting them to come to a full understanding is naive.
The Federation has entered into an agreement with several non-aligned worlds (allies, but not members) to embark on an officer exchange program in the hopes of learning about other cultures peacefully. The Enterprise receives a Benzite officer (famous for their perfectionism) and Picard encourages Riker to join a Klingon ship - the Pagh (Worf thinks ahead and plants a tracking device on Riker before he goes). When the two ships meet to complete the exchange, Mendon (the Benzite) observes that the Klingon ship is infested with a parasitic organism and begins his analysis without informing the rest of the bridge crew as is his custom.
Meanwhile, Riker joins the Pagh as their first officer and quickly realizes just how different their culture is from his. He finds a number of aspects of their beliefs offensive - though he does an impressive job remaining calm and rational about his disdain for their worship of death - perhaps because the Klingon babes are totally hitting on him. (LOL) More impressively, he learns (fairly quickly) how to manipulate the Klingon hierarchy without compromising his own beliefs...and he'll need that skill as the Pagh's Captain Kargan assumes that the infestation is a Federation weapon and charges after the Enterprise, all based on the note that the Enterprise directed a high intensity scan at the affected area just before they went their separate ways.
On the Enterprise, meanwhile, when Picard realizes that his own ship is infested, he turns to Mendon, who must admit he withheld the information as is his custom...and Picard rightly chastises him for keeping such vital info from him. Contrite, Mendon works with Wesley and the Engineering staff to find a way to neutralize the parasites and succeeds. With Mendon's integration complete, the Enterprise realizes the Pagh is likely to be searching for them under cloak and, cautiously, they raise their shields and sends a message detailing how to clean the organism off their hull. Riker, aboard the Pagh has lost his tracking device (Kargan thinks it's a weapon) but this actually works in Riker's favor. Kargan gets beamed aboard the Enterprise and RIker assumes command of the Pagh. The standoff ended, Riker gets himself punched in the face and ordered off the ship and the Pagh exits.
Unlike some early TNG episodes in which Riker abandons his moral code to do as the Romans do (such as, for example, Angel One); in this one, Riker is still Riker throughout what is obviously a dangerous situation. He talks about why his culture is different...they listen...they don't agree...but no one speaks grandly about why it's important that they become like the other guy...no one gives up their identity to serve a political agenda. And no one goes out of their way to explain why someone they completely disagree with philosophically is absolutely their cultural equal. This episode is not perfect, but it shows both the need for a cultural exchange to remain honest about the strengths and weaknesses of each culture and a fish out of water (Mendon) adapting to a custom that he is willing to accept into his own beliefs, rather than adapting simply to go with the flow. For an early TNG episode, this one at least makes you think...and leaves you not feeling bludgeoned to death by the 2X4 of politically correct chest thumping. And hey...dramatically, the story works well and is well acted!
The plot flows coherently, the technobabble is limited, the dialogue is actually very interesting, and the characterization is honest and multi-faceted, with the possible exception of Captain Kargan...who seems a bit too thick-headed and stupid to be a commander of a Klingon ship. Again...this is far from a perfect outing, but it does the job.
I make fun of Jonathan Frakes a lot, but he does do a good job of "getting into the role" when given something different to play with. Good stuff in this episode as he deals with this very alien, very aggressive culture. Even Wil Wheaton (who is, overall, the worst actor in Star Trek history) does a serviceable job in his minor role this week.
Not a bad effort - see my comments in the Skinny section.