One of the more underappreciated Star Trek episodes ever was The Next Generation #22, titled Symbiosis.  When it ran, the criticisms ranged from poorly written to heavy-handed to a dull polemic. Having watched it for the first time recently, I admit I can see the critics ‘ point.

Nevertheless, the episode struck me as a very accurate portrayal of the relationship (symbiotic) that develops between the victims of addiction and those that supply them with the substances on which they have come to depend.

Here’s the plot: it’s the 24th Century. The Enterprise is trying to mediate a dispute between two planets. One, Omara, is afflicted with a terrible (and fatal) plague that can be treated with daily maintenance doses of a medication that, ironically, can only be produced on the other planet, Brekka.

A freight-bearing transport ship flounders and eventually crashes, but before its end, the occupants manage to beam over four survivors plus a few cargo barrels. Two of the survivors are healthy-looking and well-groomed, while the other two seem underfed and desperate. All four are elated that the barrels made it across, despite the loss of life. They almost immediately begin quarreling over the cargo. Captain Picard, confused, demands they explain their conflict. Here it is:

The Brekkans – represented by the prosperous pair – are the only source of the medicine, felicium, that keeps the plague-ridden Omarans alive. But the Brekkans won’t release the medicine without payment, which they believe is only fair. “That’s the long standing agreement between our two peoples,” they insist.

Problem: The Omarans are broke,  what money they had lost with the transport ship. And soon enough, the two Omarans begin to fall seriously ill, deteriorate, and are sent to sick bay.

But once the ship’s medical officer examines them, she realizes that they don’t actually have a fatal illness at all. In fact, they’re surprisingly healthy. She concludes that what they really suffer from is an addiction to felicium, and the withdrawal symptoms that go along with it.

More investigation ensues, and the Captain learns that the Brekkans have been aware of this sad fact for a very long time. But they fear their own planet’s economy would collapse without the steady flow of income they get from pushing felicium to the Omarans.

Yes, it’s a metaphor for the symbiotic relationship between certain corporations and some pain patients. Definitely unsubtle. Heavy-handed even.

But inaccurate? Hardly.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the plot, except to say it involves the Prime Directive plus a forced detox for the Omarans and economic troubles for the Brekkans. What interested me most was that this episode was first broadcast in 1988 – around the beginning of the prescription opioid epidemic. I couldn’t help thinking of Purdue Pharma and the early waves of patients who appeared before Congress to plead to maintain their access to high doses of opioids — which they were convinced they couldn’t live without.

A glimpse into the future, I suppose. Wish America had been paying more attention at the time.