In this episode, delicate First Contact proceedings between the Federation and a new civilization on the verge of developing interstellar warp travel are disrupted when a member of the USS Enterprise crew is detained on the planet.
The humanoid race of Malcor III is preparing to venture into becoming a warp-capable species. Science Minister Mirasta Yale, lead researcher on their warp experiments, is suddenly visited by Picard and Deanna Troi as they transport into her laboratory. After calming her down and stating they come in peace, they explain they are there to make First Contact but events have progressed unexpectedly, as Riker, disguised as a Malcorian to verify the level of society prior to First Contact, has been injured and is now missing. After touring the USS Enterprise, Mirasta agrees to help and arranges a private meeting with Chancellor Durken. After meeting on the planet, Picard returns with Durken to the Enterprise and explains the benefits of joining with the Federation, but Durken remains concerned and requests time to think about it.
Meanwhile, Riker remains barely conscious in a hospital. The hospital administrator seeing to Riker's care tells him of his suspicions that Riker is an alien, and has guards monitor Riker's room, both for his protection and to prevent Riker from leaving. Riker attempts escape with the help of a nurse who reveals to Riker her longing to "make love" with an alien. Riker accepts her offer, but the escape attempt fails as guards catch and beat Riker, worsening his condition. Riker's presence at the hospital is reported to Security Minister Krola, who in turn accuses Durken of attempting to hide the truth, forcing Durken to reveal the contact with the Federation. When Picard next visits Durken, the Chancellor expresses his concerns on the Federation's covert operations to observe the planet, but continues to deliberate on going forward with First Contact. Krola, fearing hostile intentions from the Federation, works against Mirasta and the hospital administrators to inject drugs to revive Riker despite the chance they may kill him, and then attempts to set Riker up as a murderer by shooting himself with Riker's phaser while held in his hand. The Enterprise crew, able to locate Riker with Mirasta's help, arrive in time to bring both Riker and Krola back to the ship; they discover that Riker's phaser was only set to stun, and Krola was in no real danger.
After Krola is returned to the planet, Durken tells Picard that he feels Malcor is not ready for First Contact, fearing his people are not mature enough to handle the startling announcement that they are not alone in the galaxy, and requests the Enterprise leave the planet, though they may be able to return at a later time. Mirasta, with the warp project being put on hold, asks Picard if she could go with them, a request Picard agrees to.