the story: Troi is conscripted by Romulan agents to help dissidents escape.
similar to: "Second Skin" (Deep Space Nine)
my thoughts: This is, arguably, the best Troi episode of the series, a culmination of the "Chain of Command" and earlier efforts to have the character taken seriously as something other than the empathic counselor as originally conceived.
This is one of those episodes where a main character temporarily becomes a member of an alien species. Most of the time it's voluntary (such as when Picard and Data are disguised as Romulans in "Unification," incidentally the start of the story continued in "Face of the Enemy") or through some quirk-of-the-week (exemplified by "The Inner Light"). Every once and a while, it's done for different impact entirely (Deep Space Nine's "Second Skin" is another good example), such as when Troi wakes up as a Romulan, and is forced to adjust on the fly as she learns what's really going on.
The Romulans were always such a hard species to feature in the franchise. Inherently taciturn, like their Vulcan cousins, they were also decidedly more calculating, which cast them as enemies of the Federation and thus frequent opponents of crews in Starfleet uniforms. Since this is an inherently difficult position to represent, it's not surprising that of all the major Star Trek aliens, Romulans alone have never been represented in an ongoing or even recurring basis (other than the relatively minor Tomalak).
"Face of the Enemy" makes the novel solution of turning a main character into a Romulan, and thus we're given our one direct look into how a Romulan crew functions. Like the Klingons, turmoil reigns, which is no surprise. Like a preview of the Deep Space Nine Cardassians, paranoia is the order of the day as the Romulan CIA, the Tal Shiar, makes Troi's mission exceedingly difficult, although she proves up to the task thanks to the selfless support of her Romulan counterpart.
Helping smooth the story is the fact that two familiar guest-stars are supporting Marina Sirtis: Scott MacDonald, who was a go-to guy for Star Trek aliens, either as a good or bad guy (he really did do both, whether in Deep Space Nine's "Captive Pursuit" or the chief Xindi villain in Enterprise's third season) and Carolyn Seymour. Both contribute their distinctive voices to give life to the frequently enigmatic Romulan species.
While it was hardly unusual for Star Trek to find a sympathetic Romulan (from the original appearance in "Balance of Terror" to Next Generation's best Romulan episode, "The Defector;" both Romulans and Klingons were inspired by the Cold War's Soviet Union, and in their unique ways it shows), "Face of the Enemy" presents a truly unique opportunity, which it nails.
It doesn't hurt that Marina Sirtis absolutely, as she did earlier in the season with "A Fistful of Datas," rises to the occasion. Anyone who wants to figure out how she managed her breakout performance in Star Trek: First Contact ought to look no further to see how it happened.
criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)