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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Bonding (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Bonding is a pretty pivotal and momentous episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation. On one hand, it’s the first episode overseen by incoming executive producer Michael Piller. Piller would go on to become one of the most influential producers to work on Star Trek. Aside from steering The Next Generation towards success, he also created Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, as well as overseeing the production of the first three Next Generation films.

However, The Bonding is also the first script written by Ronald D. Moore. Obviously, the version that made it to screen had been revised and tweaked by Melinda Snodgrass and Michael Piller, but The Bonding still feels like a Moore script. Ronald D. Moore would go on to be one of the more influential writers on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He also worked (very) briefly on Voyager, before departing and heading up his own reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

So The Bonding is the beginning of something new, an original direction for The Next Generation. Featuring a powerful and wonderful opening half, The Bonding suffers a bit from falling into conventional Star Trek tropes towards the end of the episode. However, it’s still a clever and powerful piece of television.

A bit of shadow...

A bit of shadowplay…

When Michael Piller came in, he had very little prepared. Quoted in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, Piller explained:

I came in without any shows to shoot. There were no stories and no scripts in the works, which is the greatest nightmare you can imagine. There’s nothing to fall back on and the appetite of any weekly show is voracious, because as soon as you’ve got a script done you have to have another one right behind it and it continues that way. I went through every scrap of paper to see what was here from past administrations that I could develop. The first thing that came to my attention, the first thing I saw that had any value, was a speculative script that had been sitting around called The Bonding. It appealed to me enormously. It needed a little work and hadn’t tied the alien story in the other story quite right.

It’s worth reflecting on the circumstances of Piller’s arrival. He was a last-minute replacement for Michael Wagner. Wagner had replaced Maurice Hurley, but had only been around for four episodes of the third season. Stepping into the job without the summer hiatus to insulate him, and with nothing ready for the production block ahead, he needed material fast.

She's not even a proper red shirt...

She’s not even a proper red shirt…

Moore himself has suggested that The Bonding was really “the right script at the right time.” With the assistance of Richard Arnold, Moore had managed to get his script near the top of the “slush” pile of unused scripts, and it happened to fit Piller’s aesthetic pretty well. As Moore argues on the commentary:

Piller was looking for more character-driven pieces. He was trying to shift the focus of the show from a plot-driven alien-of-the-week type series to one that was more focused on the Enterprise characters. This was a Worf story, and it was all about our characters dealing with something that was a very emotional topic.

Michael Piller really wanted to transform The Next Generation into a show driven by the characters, and so Moore’s focus on grief and loss fit that mould pretty perfectly. It’s a story about loss and grief, and it does offer a bit of a showcase for Worf, a character who really hadn’t received a lot of development up to that point.

Getting to the (computer) core of the matter...

Getting to the (computer) core of the matter…

Interestingly, though, The Bonding really is a quintessentially Ronald D. Moore script. It’s a show with a decidedly military slant. Worf is defined as a character whose job it is to keep people safe. It’s about the day-to-day realities of a starship facing these sorts of life-and-death scenarios. The planet featured on the episode is a world that is still scarred by the consequences of a long war – Lieutenant Aster is killed by the detonation of a mine left over from an ancient conflict.

In terms of Moore’s other writing tropes, The Bonding is also an episode that features an angel character, albeit one who exists within the framework of science-fiction rather than out-and-out fantasy. That said, the being is powerful and vaguely-defined enough that there’s no real or substantial difference. To Moore’s credit, he does create a refreshing sense of ambiguity around ghost!Aster. She’s not one of the aliens in a flesh suit, she appears to be a construct or avatar, but is never really defined as such.

Riker's closet alcoholism strikes again!

Riker’s closet alcoholism strikes again!

“So, they have made this possible,” she explains. “They have made me possible.” It recalls a lot of the vaguely unseetling existential weirdness of The Royale, which was notable for creating the sense that those aliens were so alien that they couldn’t even interact with humanity, or just didn’t want to. There’s something vaguely and unsettlingly Lovecraftian about that idea. Aliens so alien that they have to dream up people in order for us to perceive them.

There’s also a very slight hint of cynicism in Moore’s writing here, as if he’s deconstructing the perfect future imagined by Gene Roddenberry in the same way that Melinda Snodgrass did with The Measure of a Man. The Bonding is very clearly the work of a Star Trek fan, somebody who cares about the show and has put a lot of thought into it. After all, it’s really a rather skewed look at one of the franchise’s most well-loved tropes. It’s a story built around the death of a red shirt, only explored with a lot more depth and weight than such matters are usually afforded.

Troi-ing to reach the boy...

Troi-ing to reach the boy…

The “red shirt” phenomenon – the murder of red-shirted security officers to demonstrate how credible a threat to Kirk is – has become something of a pop culture joke. In 2013, writer John Scalzi won the Hugo Award for his novel Red Shirts, exploring the tradition. Even Star Trek Into Darkness plays affectionately with it – check out the look of horror on Chekov’s face when he’s ordered to put on a red shirt. It is an aspect of Star Trek that even non-Trekker pop culture aficionados will recognise.

So the beauty of The Bonding is how it turns that concept on its head. It is an episode about the death of a red shirt, but in the most subversive of ways. The away team isn’t even seen – it’s simply heard over an open comm channel, the visual spectacle of Aster’s death reduced to the haunting sound of a tragedy unfolding beyond the safety of the Enterprise. Far from a way for the episode to raise dramatic tension, Aster’s death becomes a time for reflection and consideration for the crew of the Enterprise.

All fired up...

All fired up…

This isn’t something that should be normal, or taken for granted. “How do you get used to it?” Wesley asks Riker at one point as Picard prepares to visit Aster’s son, Jeremy. “Telling them?” Riker responds, “You hope you never do.” And yet while Aster’s death lingers over the episode, it isn’t portrayed as anything that brings the Enterprise to a halt. Life goes on. It’s a risk that comes with the territory, even if it is a loss that is felt.

In a wonderful sort sequence between Data and Riker, Moore examines the idea that these deaths somehow matter less because they aren’t major characters, or people that the audience recognise. When Data explains that several people have asked him how well he knew Aster, he asks, “Does the question of familiarity have some bearing on death?” Riker doesn’t answer directly, instead responding with a question. “Do you remember how we all felt when Tasha died?” he asks. “I do not sense the same feelings of absence that I associate with Lieutenant Yar, although I cannot say precisely why,” Data replies, honestly.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

“We feel a loss more intensely when it’s a friend,” Riker concedes, as if confessing that the death of Aster is something that, by its very nature, can’t be given the weight it deserves. “But should not the feelings run as deep regardless of who has died?” Data asks innocently. It’s a rather subversive twist on the whole “red shirt” phenomenon, effectively taking the show’s occasionally casual handling of such losses to task on the matter.

Killing off random crew members to raise the dramatic stakes is often just television short-hand to establish a credible threat, but – used too readily – it can become numbing, with the audience becoming jaded towards the technique. Turning the death of red shirt as a pop culture joke overlooks the fact that it should be something shocking and harrowing, something that the Enterprise deals with, but not something occurring so regularly that it’s a matter of course.

The long walk home...

The long walk home…

Moore was inspired to write The Bonding by a piece of set up established in Encounter at Farpoint, but something that the show had glossed over in subsequent shows. According to the commentary, Moore wanted to explore what having families on a starship would be like:

There were things about the Enterprise and Star Trek at that point which I thought were interesting and hadn’t been explored yet. The primary thing was that, of course, there were these families on board. I remember watching the first and second season and felling that it’s kinda crazy there’s all these kids on the Enterprise. Good grief! This ship could get blown up at any moment and think of all these families! But they weren’t utilising them very much.

Again, there’s a sense that Moore is teasing out something that Roddenberry’s idealistic future tended to overlook. The Bonding dares to question whether having families on a ship like the Enterprise is ever a good idea.

Dagger of the... er... literal variety...

Dagger of the… er… literal variety…

Picard says as much on his way to visit to Jeremy Aster. “I really wonder,” he muses in the turbolift. “I’ve always believed that carrying children on a starship is a very questionable policy. Serving on a starship means accepting certain risks, certain dangers. Did Jeremy Aster make that choice?” Troi tries to play devil’s advocate. “Leaving him on Earth would not have protected him.” Picard responds, “No, but Earth isn’t likely to be ordered to the Neutral Zone, or to repel a Romulan attack.”

It’s a very clever point. For all that the Federation is presented as a utopia, the Enterprise is a ship that often finds itself facing hostile threats. Sometimes those threats are alien races. Sometimes those threats are more abstract. Even based on everything the ship was endured over the past two years, it’s hard to argue that the Enterprise is a safe place to raise a child. Barring the so-weird-it-can’t-really-be-as-terrifying-as-it-should planet of the child snatchers in When The Bough Breaks, The Bonding is really the first time we’ve had that hammered home.

Given he's lucky to have a name at this point in the run, O'Brien is probably right to be wary...

Given he’s lucky to have a name at this point in the run, O’Brien is probably right to be wary…

Even Jeremy’s response to the loss of his mother feels like a subversion of Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. Michael Piller has talked about how hard it was to get the script past Roddenberry, who insisted that Jeremy would not grieve for his mother:

Well, Gene said, after he read our description of this, that this show wouldn’t work for him, because children of the 24th century have learned that death is a part of life and, as such, children would not mourn the loss of a parent in that circumstance. 

Well, I came back from that meeting and the staff sort of looked at me with smirking sort of smiles, saying, ‘OK, now you see what we’ve been dealing with.’ 

And I said, ‘Now, wait a minute. Alright, this is what Gene says about it, so how do we deal with this?’ And we talked for a while, and we said, ‘Alright, what if we use Counsellor Troi in this situation, and ultimately we have the kid not mourn the death of the parent. And, in fact, it is the 24th century education of children that has taken away the emotional context of the loss of a parent, and Troi is saying, before this kid can move on with his life, he must learn how to mourn the parent.’ Now we’re dealing with Gene Roddenberry’s 24th century, we’re staying within the rules, but, ultimately, the story’s about getting through that, to get to the heart of our emotional feelings, and that made it a much better story.

Roddenberry’s response to the episode is not atypical. He had objected to Melinda Snodgrass’ pitch for The Measure of a Man by suggesting that Data would quite happily volunteer for a scientific procedure that would most likely kill him.

Star Trek invents the iPad...

Star Trek invents the iPad(d)…

This was, in no uncertain terms, one of the big problems hanging over the first two seasons of The Next Generation. The show was being smothered by Roddenberry’s insistence that the crew be perfectly well-adjusted hyper-evolved and all-round perfect people who always agree on everything. Even on the most basic level, it makes it hard to relate to the characters, as Moore argues in his commentary:

Jeremy’s reaction to his mother’s death was a source of conflict in the writing staff, with Gene at the time. I wasn’t on staff yet, I was a freelancer; so a lot of this was happening “off camera” to me. But, evidently, what Michael Piller told me, Gene’s objections to The Bonding’s story was that he felt that in the 24th century, on the Enterprise, children were prepared for death. They talked about it very frankly at a young age and that when the boy’s mother died he wouldn’t have a big reaction to it. And Michael was sort of taken aback by that. Michael just felt that there’s no drama there, and it makes the boy less than human – you don’t understand that reaction as an audience if the boy doesn’t have any reaction. And you can see in the final episode that they’re walking a fine line.

While it’s patronising to insist that all characters in drama need to be relatable, they do need to be comprehensible. It’s almost impossible to understand and empathise with a child who can’t feel grief over the loss of a parent. It’s psychologically unhealthy and quite creepy. Roddenberry’s response to the episode’s plot creates the impression of a creepy future world where nobody is allowed to be sad or unhappy or to feel blue.

Worf's social skills are a little rusty...

Worf’s social skills are a little rusty…

Interestingly, Moore’s original script for the episode featured a subplot involving Jeremy’s misuse of the holodeck – using the artificial reality simulator to create a replica of his mother to help him cope with grief and loss. That would represent another subversion of the Roddenberry ideal – particularly given Roddenberry’s own fondness for the holodeck as a concept, as discussed by Melinda Snodgrass in the Resistance is Futile documentary.

However, the third season of The Next Generation would explore the possible negative side effects of the holodeck in Hollow Pursuits, while Moore’s original “using the holodeck to avoid coping with loss” idea would be recycled for Deep Space Nine‘s It’s Only a Paper Moon in the show’s final year. Although Moore did not come up with that story idea, he did write the teleplay. Incidentally, that would be Moore’s last full year on the writing staff of a Star Trek production, bringing the writer something a full circle.

The little-ist Klingon...

The little-ist Klingon…

In many ways The Bonding feels like an acknowledgement of the limitations of the 24th century. It’s a show about accepting mortality, and coming to terms with loss – about realising that, even in a community with transporters and replicators, people still die. Arguing with ghost!Aster, Picard insists that Jeremy must learn to accept that his mother has passed on. That’s an essential and necessary part of being human.

“I appreciate your motives, but his mother is dead,” Picard tells ghost!Aster. “He must learn to live with that.” Later, he adds, “You see, we are mortal. Our time in this universe is finite. That is one of the truths that all human must learn.” One of the interesting aspects of the third season of The Next Generation is a conscious attempt to mark the limit’s of mankind’s abilities. In both Who Watches the Watchers? and The Bonding, the crew are faced with the fact that people are mortal. In Who Watches the Watchers?, Pulaski’s miracle memory wipe is no longer a convenient cure-all.

Mom's home!

Mom’s home!

For all that Picard and his crew might by hyper-evolved, they are still human. And while Star Trek projects a future with an incredible amount of human potential, there must still be some limits. There are some realities and qualities unique to mankind. To allow Picard and his crew to transgress those limitations is to suggest that they are no longer mortal men; the crew of the Enterprise would be elevated to the status of gods, the worship of the Mintakans in Who Watches the Watchers? justified, the arrogance of first season episodes like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us vindicated.

In Star Trek, Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller suggest, mankind might be better and more optimistic and more hopeful and more honest, but they are still humans. They are still mortal. They must still grieve – for not to grieve would be truly monstrous. As Moore himself alluded, that disconnect would make them inhuman. They would wind up more alien than any of the creatures they encounter on their journeys.

If his uniform had to be damaged, Worf was very disappointed that he never got a sexy midriff tear like Kirk...

If his uniform had to be damaged, Worf was very disappointed that he never got a sexy midriff tear like Kirk…

Roddenberry’s motivations for presenting these 24th century humans as perfect are understandable; Star Trek presents a future that is an inspiration –  a future without nuclear annihilation or war or poverty. However, presenting these character as perfect is also self-defeating. It is hard to aspire to the status of gods. It is enough to wish to be better, to hope that there is a future and that people will move beyond pettiness or avarice or greed.

To be fair, The Bonding falters in its second half, when Moore stops subverting the rules of The Next Generation and falls prey to standard Star Trek plotting conventions. What begins as a poignant study of grief ends with a god-like entity trying to lure a young child down to the planet below. It feels a lot more like a typical episode of Star Trek than the first half of the episode. It’s not bad – in fact, it has some wonderful character moments – but it feels mildly disappointing after such a strong and stunning start.

She is dead to him now...

She is dead to him now…

(Then again, it’s not as if Moore’s script for The Bonding is gleefully and completely deconstructing The Next Generation. The script retains the franchise’s humanism and optimism, just examined from a slightly skewed angle. After all, Riker ends his conversation with Data by suggesting that more empathy is inherently a good thing. And when Jeremy tells Picard that he is all alone, Picard assures him, “Jeremy, on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone. No one.” It is a beautifully heart-warming sentiment, and one that embodies all the optimism of Star Trek.)

ghost!Aster pushes the episode away from the focus on grief and loss and humanity, warping the narrative back into a more convention Star Trek episode. It feels decidedly less ambitious than the first half of the script, and it takes a lot of the focus off Worf and the rest of the cast. (Indeed, there’s a lovely deleted scene featuring Counsellor Troi that was cut from the episode, offering a rare chance for the character to do some counselling on the mostly-well-adjusted Enterprise.) The fact that the aliens (who are hinted at with the recovery of the mines in the first act) only show up at the half-way point throws the pacing off slightly.

Worf lightens up a bit...

Worf lightens up a bit…

It’s not bad by any measure. Indeed, considering that this was Moore’s first professional script, it’s remarkable. In fact, there’s a lovely frank exchange between Picard and Wesley that feels like the conversation we should have seen when the two were trapped in a shuttle together for Samaritan Snare back in the second season. It invites us to see Wesley as a young man without a father who has a complicated relationship with Picard.

The Bonding is a very good episode. It’s a show that pushes the boat out a bit, even if it seems unwilling to quite commit to the promise of its first half. It’s interesting and thoughtful, and cleverly put together. It’s a nice demonstration of how The Next Generation is growing up in its third season, and it welcomes both Ronald D. Moore to the staff as a writer and Michael Piller as an executive producer. The Bonding lays some foundation that will start paying off soon.

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

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