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Star Trek: The Next Generation – When the Bough Breaks (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

When the Bough Breaks and Home Soil are an interesting two episodes of the first season of The Next Generation, if only because they seem to contrast each other so well. I’ve complained before about how the first season of The Next Generation had a great deal of trouble finding its own identity, and When The Bough Breaks feels like a conscious attempt to do a story in the style of the original Star Trek, even if most of the elements are fairly original.

In contrast, Home Soil starts with a premise that owes a considerable debt to a very specific episode of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark, but finds a way to approach it that emphasises the differences between the two shows. You can probably guess which one of the two episodes I preferred, and while When the Bough Breaks is never as bad as it could be (a story focusing on Wesley and other child actors?) it’s not necessarily good, either.

The lost world...

The lost world…

When the Bough Breaks doesn’t really have a direct progenitor in the Star Trek mythos. Indeed, the central premise of the story (the kidnapping of the children from the Enterprise) would have been impossible on Kirk’s ship. After all, Kirk captained a ship manned by military staff – the closest Kirk came to allowing a family on board was officiating a wedding at the start of Balance of Terror, as set-up for the predictable (if no less effective) dramatic blow at the end of the episode. However, things are different in The Next Generation, and the ship is more of a floating city than a warship.

While episodes like When the Bough Breaks might emphasis why it is a silly idea to allow children on a ship probing the deepest recesses of space, I quite like the idea. For one thing, The Next Generation has a very different fundamental aesthetic than the origin Star Trek. It’s very clearly meant to be a lot cleaner and a lot safer. Indeed, the first season all but acknowledges this in its refusal to provide a consistent Chief Engineer. The show didn’t feel that it needed Scotty cobbling together the inside of the ship.

You gotta be kidding me...

You gotta be kidding me…

More than that, though, The Next Generation doesn’t take place in the same wilderness that we say in the original Star Trek. The fact it’s a television show demands a weekly adventure, but it seems like the ship isn’t so much taming the great expanse of space as it is delving into the mysteries of the universe. The galaxy, it seems, is a far friendlier place. We haven’t encountered the Romulans or the Klingons yet (though Q implied the Federation “defeated” them while goading Worf in Hide & Q and that Romulans did threaten the Federation during Angel One).

The depiction of space as an inherently hostile environment at the start of The Naked Now and throughout The Battle are very much outliers as far as The Next Generation is concerned. It seems like the ship is generally always close enough to stream a live conversation with Starfleet, and only a few days away from the nearest starbase. There’s never quite the same sense that Picard and his crew are as isolated as Kirk and Spock seemed to be, and very few of these early episodes revolve around first contact. Sure, we met the Ferengi for the first time in The Last Outpost, but the worlds of Code of Honour and Angel One, were clearly known to the Federation. (And even the Ferengi were the subject of gossip and whispers to the point where Data knew enough to label them “Yankee Traders.”)

Into the void...

Into the void…

There might be the odd hint of a potential skirmish (the Romulans providing a nice ambiguous threat in the background of Angel One), but the most dangerous adversary the ship has faced to date has been the Ferengi. Even the show doesn’t threat them as a credible threat. The Borg would be introduced the following year, but – even then – Picard’s Enterprise seems far safer than Kirk’s ever did. Given the length of time people would be serving away from home, I can understand why it makes sense to have kids on board, even if crazy stuff like this occasionally goes down.

And yet, despite the fact that When the Bough Breaks could never have been told on the original Star Trek, it still feels very familiar. It might be the depiction of Aldea. The notion of a society existing in myth, hidden away from the outside world, seems like a relic of the original Star Trek, as opposed to the more controlled and regulated universe of The Next Generation. Riker explicitly compares it to Atlantis when providing early episode exposition:

Tasha, I’m surprised you haven’t heard the stories about Aldea, the wondrous mythical world. Like Atlantis of ancient Earth or Neinman of Xerxes Seven. Advanced culture, centuries old. Self-contained, peaceful. Incredible technical sophistication providing the daily needs for all the citizens, so that they could turn themselves over to art and culture.

The fixation with a lost civilisation seems a plot point curiously anchored in the sixties – Donovan recorded Atlantis in 1968, which became an anthem of the hippie movement, while Stephen King used the continent as a metaphor for the decade’s idealism in Hearts in Atlantis.

"Wesley's gone? Quick, let's get out of ehre before they send him back!"

“Wesley’s gone? Quick, let’s get out of here before they send him back!”

There are other plot points that seem to suggest the episode might have worked better as an adventure featuring Kirk in the sixties. For example, we have the familiar dependence on a computer by an advanced society. Although – luckily – the computer doesn’t turn out to be evil or manipulative (or even self-aware), the presence of “the Custodian” seems to call back to the recurring fear in the original Star Trek that computers would someday leave humanity weak and pampered, easy to control and manage.

In a line that could easily have been spoken of any of the super-computers of the classic show, Duana explains the benefits of the Custodian. “It frees us from all burden. It takes care of all our needs. It regulates our lives.” While the Custodian is not directly malicious, the subtext is quite clear. The Custodian is revealed to be (indirectly) the cause of the problems on Aldea, with the civilisation learning that they must find their own way in the universe, and that they can’t depend on some artificial intelligence to live their lives for them. It’s a plot point that could easily come from the original Star Trek, and it’s something that has been beaten into the ground through decades of science-fiction since.

Computer says no.

Custodian says no.

The episode also has a very clear fear of radiation, and the damage it can do to the human body. It is revealed at the climax of the episode that the Aldeans are rendered sterile by radiation, and their little command badges (wrapped around their forearm) seem to call to mind radiation badges that would turn black in the presence of dangerous levels of radiation. Star Trek had centred episodes about the potentially destructive power of radiation before, most notably Wink of an Eye.

To be entirely fair, When the Bough Breaks explains the radiation as the result of environmental damage rather than out-and-out warfare. This twist does serve to make the episode just a little bit more relevent in the era of detenté, but it still seems like a hold-over from the sixties. It’s hard to really quantify the similarity, but – despite the fact it hinges on one crucial difference between The Next Generation and its direct predecessor – When the Bough Breaks feels like an episode of the classic show that arrived twenty years too late.

Totally not creepy at all...

Totally not creepy at all…

However, aside from that, the episode is surprisingly not terrible, which is probably the best thing one could hope to say about a planet inhabited by child-kidnappers. The story keeps the Aldeans reasonably sympathetic, but there’s something disturbingly creepy about the fact that they specifically chose which children to take. (And the fact that they hardly took enough to start a new civilisation.) I can’t help but feel that the episode missed a beat by not portraying the inhabitants of the planet as stolen children themselves – kidnapped by an earlier generation, explaining how they have no idea how to operate anything. It would have made it a bit more tragic, since the Aldeans would have gone through the same process, and the idea of a culture that persists through stolen generations might have had a bit more punch to it.

Instead, the episode winds up flowing relatively predictably. Will Wheaton isn’t terrible as Wesley here. He wasn’t the strongest actor this year, by Wheaton does okay with fairly decent scripting – I actually liked his work in Justice, even if I absolutely hated the episode. It’s interesting to see him effectively forcing Alexandra to join his hunger strike, pulling her hand away from the food. It’s a more forceful move than I expected from Wesley, and I like that it’s included – even if he is coercing a young kid to starve herself.

The less Wesley talks, the more I like him...

The less Wesley talks, the more I like him…

I also like that there’s minimal hand-wringing about the damned Prime Directive. We had enough of that with Justice and Code of Honour. Oddly enough, those episodes also arguably had Picard at a tactical disadvantage forcing him to cooperate with ridiculous cultures. His need for the Ligonian vaccine drove Code of Honour and fear of the Edo god was certainly a factor in Justice. However, despite that, both episodes played the decision to abide by the Prime Directive as entirely morally justifiable – which felt like it was sidestepping the realities of the situation. Here, there’s no dilly-dallying. Picard wants the children back. The Aldeans won’t let him have them. There’s no grand moral principle, just disparity in respective strength.

I also like that the Aldeans have no idea how to raise children, which is an idea that I think would work better if the sterility were a multi-generational thing and no children had been born on the planet for centuries. Accolan promises Harry, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” Sure, it’s a child’s dream, but it’s hardly the height of parental responsibility. After Mellian teaches Katie how to play an instrument, he seems remarkably intolerant of the fact she feels sorta a little bad over the whole kidnapping dealie. In perhaps the best illustration that a character has no idea how to handle children, Mellian comments, “That was beautiful. Now, play something happier.”

Two minutes with Wesley, and already he ahs the buyer's remorse...

Two minutes with Wesley, and already he has the buyer’s remorse…

In contrast, Picard actually proves quite capable – despite his well-documented discomfort around children. In particular, it’s hard not to smile a little bit during the short interactions between Picard and Alexandra. “Hello Alexandra,” Picard greets her, and it’s perhaps the most human Picard has seemed so far this year. Of course, it makes sense. Picard is distant from children because he may need to order their parents to their deaths, but he’s also something of a father figure to the whole crew.

In what is becoming a recurring theme in these reviews, Patrick Stewart is amazing. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in the past couple of days, but When the Bough Breaks provides Picard with the opportunity to get all morally righteous, and Patrick Stewart relishes the chance to angrily lecture another society in basic morality. It must be like letting off steam after weeks of being tolerant to everything from casual sexism to zero tolerance broken window policing.

His Starfleet training never prepared him for this...

His Starfleet training never prepared him for this…

“Captain, let us begin discussions regarding appropriate compensation,” Radue offers, but Picard is having none of that. “Compensation?” he replies, warming up. “You have stolen our children away from their classrooms, away from their bedrooms and you talk about compensation? You claim to be a civilised world and yet you have just committed an act of utter barbarity!” Patrick Stewart says “utter barbarity!” with such perfect contempt. I love that Radue can only reply with, “Captain, we will continue these discussions when you’ve calmed down.”

There is some of the season’s rather unfortunate hints of human superiority shining through. Indeed, it seems like the half-human Tori has really drank the kool aid. When the Aldeans are perplexed by Picard’s refusal to consider accepting compensation, Troi levels with them, alien-to-alien, “That might be acceptable to some other races, but humans are unusually attached to their offspring.” That’s actually a really creepy line, especially coming from a character with a Betazoid mother.

"Mr. Data, please tell me this isn't one of those computers I have to make love to in order to stop."

“Mr. Data, please tell me this isn’t one of those computers I have to make love to in order to stop.”

I dislike Lwaxana as much as most, but I have a hard time believing she’d happily hand over her child for a reasonable amount of money. The same is true of Worf as well and Data would not hand Lal over to Starfleet in The Offspring. It’s a relatively subtle expression of the prejudice that runs through episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us, but it’s still uncomfortable. It’s particularly uncomfortable because we’ve just had an episode with a human guest star who turned out to anything but highly evolved.

When the Bough Breaks also falls into the same trap that a lot of the episodes in this season struggle to escape. There are no real consequences for anything, and everybody winds up relatively happy. While Too Short a Season lacked any hint of ambiguity, at least there was some measure of loss involved. Here, Beverly happens to be able to completely save Aldean society, meaning that the central conflict in the episode wraps up tidily. Taking the children home no long wipes out a society, not that it was too big a concern to Picard at any point, but it allows everybody to walk away satisfied. This diffuses a lot of the potential conflict and tension, and just feels a little too convenient. (In contrast, the happy ending to 11001001 felt relatively earned.)

Welcome... to the machine...

Welcome… to the machine…

Still, When the Bough Breaks could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. Despite a premise that hardly inspires confidence, it winds up being a fairly average and bland episode in a season that has more than its share of stinkers. In almost any other season of the show, When the Bough Breaks would be a weak point. Here, it’s solidly in the middle of the pack.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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2 Responses

  1. In relation to the text “Two minutes with Wesley, and already he ahs the buyer’s remorse…” the term “ahs” could be the plural of the interjection or perhaps the correct term is “has”. Darren has commented about spell check and grammar check in relation to Robert’s comments.

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