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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Child (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 (and a tiny bit of the second), episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

Let’s play make believe for a second here. Let’s imagine you are producing a television show that had a very rocky first season, but seemed to be making steps in the right direction. This was a show already respected for its depiction of social issues like racism or drug use…

However, despite that, the first year of the show had some major gender issues. Your writers and actors had been pointing out that some of the episodes in that first year could be considered sexist. Of the three actresses in you regular cast, two left. One became the first regular on a Star Trek show to die in the middle of the season, and you had to write the first episode of the second season to write out the other actress who had been having some trouble with a male producer.

Now, keeping all that in mind, let’s carefully consider what to do with the remaining female lead character. If you are producing the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you choose to have an alien impregnate that character without consent, use her body as incubation chamber, exploit her maternal instincts and then make her watch what she believes to be her own child die. More than that, you make sure that the female character is completely superfluous to the script itself, and that nobody seems to care particularly about her.

Don't worry, Troi. Face of the Enemy is less than half a decade away...

Don’t worry, Troi. Face of the Enemy is less than half a decade away…

I’m one hour into the second season of The Next Generation, and I’m already regretting all the praise I’ve heaped on the second year of the show during my reviews of the first season. I still think that the second year of The Next Generation is a much stronger year of Star Trek than the show’s very first run of episodes, but there’s no denying that this stretch of episodes contains its share of stinkers. Although the overall quality is considerably higher, episodes like The Child, The Outrageous Okonda, Up the Long Ladder and Shades of Grey can be measured among crap like Justice, Angel One and Code of Honour.

To be fair, there are excuses that can be offered. The second season of the show only runs to twenty-two episodes, rather than the standard twenty-six episode Star Trek season. This was, in large part, due to the Writers’ Guild strike of 1988. The strike had already caused a bit of damage to the climax of the first season, with both We’ll Always Have Paris and The Neutral Zone seeming to emerge from the oven half baked. The damaged spilled over into the start of the following year (and even rippled through to the end), with The Child essentially a hasty adaptation of a script for Gene Roddenberry’s aborted Star Trek: Phase II television show.

Baby on board...

Baby on board…

Phase II has become something of a legend among Star Trek fans. It was developed by Roddenberry during the seventies as a means of resurrecting Star Trek in live action. It never quite developed because Paramount ultimately opted against returning Kirk and company to the small screen. The success of Star Wars demonstrated that cinema audiences were devouring science fiction, and Paramount allowed Roddenberry to push ahead with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which reused quite a few elements from Phase II, including some design work and several of the additional characters. (Indeed, one cast member carried over in a much smaller role.)

Elements of Phase II bled into quite a few later productions, and the influence of the unproduced series on The Next Generation can be quite keenly felt. Consider, for example, the character of Xon. Leonard Nimoy was, at the time, uninterested in returning as Spock. So a new Vulcan character was created to fill the hole in the ensemble. It’s not the most creative way of dealing with the problem, but Xon was designed to be similar to Spock, while at the same time being distinct.

That'll put hairs on your face...

That’ll put hairs on your face…

He would be a logic character, but – unlike Spock – he would not hide from emotion. Indeed, surrounded by humans, he would try to embrace it. According to the series bible:

Xon realizes that the reason that Spock performed so well in his tasks on board the Enterprise was that he was half Human and therefore could understand emotional Human nature. In order to perform as well as Spock, he knows he is going to have to eliminate his Vulcan revulsion at emotional displays. He is, in fact, going to have to reach down within himself and find the emotions that his society has repressed for thousands of years so that he will have some basis for fully understanding his Human associates.

That should sound quite familiar to any Star Trek fan. Not only does it play into the “humans are the best-est” subtext that we heard a lot of in the first season (in The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us, for example), it also offers a neat prototype for Data as a character. Data, like Xon, is arguably the Spock archetype on The Next Generation, and Data, like Xon, is also defined for trying to embrace humanity rather than resisting it – and both plan to do so through emotions.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

More relevant to the matter at hand, there’s also the character of Ilia, who did ultimately appear in The Motion Picture. The aborted show’s bible describes Ilia:

Ilia’s intelligence level is second only to the Science Officer, and she has also the esper abilities common on her planet. Unlike the mind-meld of Vulcans, it simply is the ability to sense images in other minds. Never words or emotions, only images… shapes, sizes, textures. On her planet, sexual foreplay consists largely of lovers placing images in each other’s minds.

Just as Vulcans have a problem with emotions, Ilia has a problem which accompanies her aboard the starship. On 114-Delta V, almost everything in life is sex-oriented; it is a part of every friendship, every social engagement, every profession. It is simply the normal way to relate with others there. Since constant sex is not the pattern of Humans and others board this starship, Ilia has totally repressed this emotion drive and social pattern.

If Xon’s character outline matches Data, then Ilia closely mirrors Deanna Troi. Not only is Ilia empathic, and not only does she come from a relatively sexually liberated culture, but she also shares a similar romantic entanglement with the ship’s First Officer. Both women are linked to men called “Will” – Deanna to William T. Riker, Ilia to Will Decker.

Leavin' on a shuttlecraft...

Leavin’ on a shuttlecraft…

The original draft of The Child, written for Phase II, saw Ilia impregnated by an alien force that would bring her to term quickly as part of a scientific experiment. Here, that happens to Troi. As the character explains, “He is a life force entity. When we passed each other in space, he was curious about us, so he decided the best way to learn was to go through the process. To be born, to live as one of us and in that way to understand us. He never meant any harm.” While that’s a noble sentiment, it doesn’t quite excuse the fact that he treated Troi’s body as a nice place for a stop over.

The episode tries to gloss over that part of the process, because it is essentially uncomfortable. It presents the whole “making Troi pregnant and emerging from inside her body” in a disarmingly tasteful manner; after all, we might question the creature if it put our lead character through hours of labour, risking her life in the process. “It was effortless for both of them,” Pulaski explains. “She had her baby yesterday. If I were to examine her now, I would not be able to tell she had a baby, or had ever had a baby. It was as if the incident never happened.”

Troi's Ian trouble now...

Troi’s Ian trouble now…

It feels like the episode is deliberately skirting over the fact that an alien put one of the crew through a biological process that they did not consent to. While it’s great that Troi wasn’t physically harmed and only suffered what seems to be the mildest discomfort, it doesn’t excuse the fact that an alien creature got her pregnant without asking. Again, the episode tries to skirt around the issue when Troi insists on keeping the baby. The subtext is an obvious attempt by the script to put us all at ease – Troi clearly can’t be too uncomfortable about what’s happening to her, as she’s happy to carry the baby to term.

Once again, the implication is unnerving. How can we be sure that this is Troi speaking? If the slien life form can get her pregnant, who is to say it can’t influence or affect her mind? It’s nice if Troi seems to be retroactively consenting to the forced occupation of her womb by a creature she never encountered before, but who is to say that she is in a position to offer such consent legitimately?

(Honey)combing the plot for problems...

(Honey)combing the plot for problems…

More disturbing, however, is the way the crew reacts. When Troi’s pregnancy becomes an issue, it seems like the conversation involves the male members of the senior staff. Even Pulaski – supposed to be a headstrong champion for her patients – is awkwardly silent as the crew argue about what to do with Deanna:

Captain, obviously the pregnancy must be terminated for the safety of the ship and crew.

Worf, you can’t assume the intent was belligerent.

That is the safest assumption.

Captain, this is a life form. Not to allow it to develop naturally would deny us the opportunity to study it.

If the foetus is aborted, laboratory analysis is still possible.

Doctor, is there any health risk to Counsellor Troi if the foetus is aborted?

– Worf, Riker and Data

It seems a little weird that the show would go out of the way to acknowledge abortion as a viable option, while still ignoring the woman’s right to choose. The Child is a bit of a mess, and it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Marina Sirtis, who found herself saddled with a run of weak scripts for the first few years of the show. Even when The Next Generation hit its stride, it would still be years before Troi got a decent script.

Hardly off the a stellar start...

Hardly off the a stellar start…

The Child is a terrible story for Troi, which sucks. She was the only lead female character who decided to remain on the show after the first season. Indeed, Sirtis apparent felt she was liable to be fired, having been written out of so many first season instalments like Hide & Q. You’d imagine that this might have sounded alarm bells for the creative team working the show, and perhaps lead them to treat the female cast members better. The Child is hardly proof of such a concept.

Still, outside of Troi, the show does introduce two new female cast members. Katherine Pulaski replaces Beverly Crusher as the Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, and Whoopi Goldberg gets a bar installed at the front of the ship. Goldberg’s casting is a pretty significant step toward legitimacy for The Next Generation, and it’s no surprise that Guinan gets the strongest introduction here. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Guinan makes Troi’s position as ship’s counsellor a little more redundant than it had earlier been. (After all, Roddenberry’s cast is so perfect that they rarely seem to struggle with mental issues.)

Stars my destination...

Stars my destination…

Guinan’s involvement in Wesley’s B-plot here can be explained by virtue of the fact that Troi is tied up with the episode’s main plotline, but you could make a very strong case that Guinan offers far more counselling advice here than Troi did over the course of the first season. (To be fair, Troi’s main purpose seemed to be to state the obvious.) However, what is really interesting about Guinan and Wesley’s conversation is that it represents a kind of maturity for the show, a realisation that sometimes the world is more complex than we might want.

Roddenberry famously argued that the crew of the Enterprise should be highly-evolved humans, people dedicated to putting the greater good ahead of their own needs. They had transcended greed and selfishness. However, as Guinan argues to Wesley, perhaps it is acceptable to be selfish. “Don’t you always do what’s expected?” Guinan asks Wesley at one point. “Even if it’s not what you really want?” Wesley responds with the more highly-evolved clap-trap we got a lot of in the first season, “Sometimes it’s more important to consider others before yourself.” Guinan replies, “Yes. But sometimes the game is to know when to consider yourself before others. Give yourself permission to be selfish.”

Well, somebody's taking their promotion to heart...

Well, somebody’s taking their promotion to heart…

It’s not an earth-shattering moral, and it really shouldn’t be a cosmic revelation to Wesley. However, Wesley has grown up in this sterile altruistic utopia, so the notion of putting his own wants and desire first feels somehow subversive, somehow against the spirit of what Starfleet is all about. It is a small thing, but The Next Generation giving leave to one of its main characters to be selfish is an important development of a show that has so far refused to allow any hint of depth or nuance in its ensemble.

However, if Guinan gets a solid introduction, Pulaski doesn’t. You could argue that the presence of Whoopi Goldberg bestows a degree of pop culture credibility on the show. After all, she is a recognisable media icon, and a future Oscar winner. However, the presence of Diana Muldaur bestows an entirely different sort of credibility on the show. Muldaur appeared twice on the original Star Trek, and Pulaski is cast in the mold of Dr. McCoy. As such, the actress and the character could be seen to represent a significant tether between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation.

Excelsior!

Excelsior!

I have argued before that The Next Generation really needed to push out from the shadow of the original Star Trek, and I think that the one season experiment with Pulaski could be seen as a literal expression of that. The character is very clearly modelled on a member of the original ensemble, right down to a dislike of transporters, and the actress is a veteran of the classic television show. Drafting Muldaur in to replace McFadden was a miscalculation – and part of the transition to the show’s much stronger third season was realising that this wort of approach simply did not work. So replacing Crusher with Pulaski, and realising that the dynamic did not work, was an essential part of the show’s development.

That said, I don’t dislike Pulaski as much as most commentators do. At the very least, I can acknowledge that the idea was a good one. The introduction of a McCoy archetype into the ensemble is an obvious attempt to generate conflict after what had been a much too sterile first season. In an article for USA Today, Rick Berman was quoted:

Kate’s a strong, confident woman with a crusty edge who can hold her own with Captain Picard. Their relationship is not all that unlike the one between Kirk and McCoy … although from the onset we had no intention of trying to duplicate the original team.

While I’m not sure that Pulaski succeeds at generating the right type of conflict, I do have to recognise that it’s a concession from the production staff that something really needed to be done.

Looking (Ten) Forward to working together...

Looking (Ten) Forward to working together…

The problems with Pulaski are fairly obvious even in her first episode. For one thing, it seems disrespectful to show up on your new ship and not even alert the Captain. I know that she was with Troi, but even a quick note would have been enough. Heading down to Ten Forward to confront her, Picard suggests, “Doctor, protocol may have been lax on your last assignment, but here on the Enterprise…” Pulaski is able to avoid any serious dressing down by raising Troi’s pregnancy. However, her conduct seems rather disrespectful.

However, her conduct with Picard isn’t the biggest problem. The Captain should probably be treated with a bit of respect as a matter of course, but it’s interesting to have a member of the ensemble who isn’t afraid of Picard in the slightest, or intimidated by his presence. (After all, Lonely Among Us saw Picard singlehandedly staring down the lamest mutiny ever.) crusher used to be the only member of the crew who could relate to Picard as something of an equal, as a long-term friend of the Captain, so it makes sense that Pulaski would fill that void. The dynamic needs work, but it is at least interesting.

Talk about a bump in the road...

Talk about a bump in the road…

On the other hand, the relationship between Pulaski and Data seems poorly judged. There’s an obvious attempt to replicate the chemistry between Spock and McCoy, where the two passive-aggressive best friends would trade barbs while dealing with the threat of the week. once again, the problem with Pulaski is that this is not the same show as the original series. Most specifically, Data is not Spock. Spock could manage a sarcastic putdown with the best of them, while Data just seems innocent and childlike.

As Troi enters labour, Pulaski suggests getting a colleague down. Troi responds, “Doctor, I think Commander Data will do very nicely.” Pulaski curtly responds, “Your choice.” Later on, she mispronounces Data’s name, the kind of thing that is incredibly offensive. “What’s the difference?” she asks, as if she has been corrected by a talking toaster. Here, we see that Data can’t fight back. His response is polite, rather than sarcastic, “One is my name. The other is not.” Spiner delivers the line in the only way that makes sense for Data. It isn’t a snipe or putdown, but a sincerely-intended correction.

It winds up being a fairly light episode...

It winds up being a fairly light episode…

However, even afterwards, Pulaski is indifferent. “Whatever.” If she pronounced “Worf” as “Woof”, it would be almost racist, so it seems disconcerting that she’s not even respectful of his perceived “hurt feelings.” To be entirely fair to Pulaski, he does deny them, but there’s something unnerving about a medic who can’t see the humanity in Data. Given that Data was already emerging as one of the breakout characters of the show, one wonders about the wisdom of positioning a new character as racist against him.

Still, Pulaski’s troubles are the least of the problems with The Child. I know the Writers’ Strike provides a handy excuse, and the recycled script from Phase II might explain the inherent sexism. Even keeping all that in mind, I can’t help but feel like The Child represents a step in the wrong direction for the show, which is a bit of a shame, as there’s evidence of growth and development here.

Shine on, you crazy non-corporeal lifeform...

Shine on, you crazy non-corporeal lifeform…

In particular, the second season has found a workable niche for both Geordi and Worf, two characters who tended to wander aimlessly through the first year of the show. The stoic Worf makes a much more credible Chief of Security than the high-strung Tasha Yar, while it’s nice to know that the engine room of the Starfleet flagship is not being run by whoever drew the short straw that particular week. There’s signs of growth and development here, and the changes that are taking place under the hood are arguably far greater than anything that The Child chooses to focus on.

I remarked quite a bit in my first season reviews that I think the second year of The Next Generation is generally much stronger than the first, but The Child doesn’t exactly make a convincing case.

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

5 Responses

  1. And let’s not forget the biggest change of all…Riker’s beard!

  2. > the problem with Pulaski is that this is not the same show as the original series. Most specifically, Data is not Spock. Spock could manage a sarcastic putdown with the best of them, while Data just seems innocent and childlike.

    Word. Pulaski as an abrasive, fearless character who didn’t back down from Picard – great idea, worked fine for me. Put a phaser (or knife, heavy stick, what you like) into her hands and I would easily have bought her as an action character – maybe even more so than Tasha Yar. But having her constantly pick on the one main character who doesn’t have a mean bone (or structural element, as the case may be) in his body? Great way to discredit her right from the beginning.

    And Marina Sirtis – oh dear. The only thing that’s worse than the vicious “completely useless” barbs her character gets in almost every review is to see how often that’s mixed with disdainful sexual references to her character (I’m looking at you, SciFi-Debris). It must have been such a drag for the actress. And then along comes a celebrity star and gets to do all the actual counseling that somehow was never written into scripts before when they didn’t have a bartender in modern art hats, just an actual counselor!

    And there’s such an easy way for a writer to avoid this. Just bloody hell write a few scripts the way you’d write them for a male counselor, then exchange “hand-to-hand combat” with “she phasers his lights out” – done. Doesn’t even have to be done for all scripts, you can still write a few where the plot centers, ‘cuse my bluntness, on the fact that she has breast and internal reproductive organs. Only because The Viewers Demand It of course.

    Ah, the glamorous life of an actress.

    • Poor Sirtis. Poor, poor Sirtis. I find myself repeating that quite frequently while re-watching.

      That said, I think the final two seasons were a lot better towards her.

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