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Star Trek: Phase II (1978) – The Child (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is actually supplementary to the second season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode The Child.

The Child is not one of the strongest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, it’s not even one of the strongest episodes of the show’s troubled second season. There’s a valid argument to be made that the script – hastily cobbled together from a draft originally planned for Star Trek: Phase II back in 1978 in order to get something to air despite the 1988 Writers’ Guild Strike – is one of the weakest ever produced by the franchise. A combination of casual sexism and trite life lessons, wrapped up and presented as an optimistic space-age fable.

To be fair, pulling The Child into production was an act of sheer desperation from the producers of The Next Generation. The writing staff was clearly groping in the darkness and grabbed the first thing they could think to use. In this case, it was a completed script planned for the first season of the aborted 1978 Star Trek spin-off, Phase II. Reading the script, it’s hard not to pity Maurice Hurley the task of reworking the story into something that could be produced for prime time television in 1978. While the finished episode is nothing to be proud of, it still represents a vast improvement on the original script.

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Hurley’s re-write of The Child was more extensive than one might imagine from the myth built up around the episode. Obviously, Hurley had to add all the necessary elements for the second season premiere of The Next Generation – the subplot involving Wesley and the arrival of Pulaski on the Enterprise. However, Hurley’s amendments were more fundamental than all that. He re-structured the episode, inventing the subplot concerning the vaccine being transported by the Enterprise. In the original script for The Child, the Enterprise found itself being stalked by an alien ship populated with life forms not unlike the eponymous infant.

The Child remains a hideously sexist piece of work. It is, in essence, the story of a woman whose womb is occupied by an alien intelligence so it can learn important life lessons by raping her, forcing her to give birth, and then dying in front of her. And, yet, apparently all of this is heartwarming and sweet, because… eh, children, I guess. The Child puts Troi through an emotional wringer, and yet somehow asks the audience to somehow believe that the experience has enriched her life in some surreal manner. (Bonus points for the sequence where the rest of the cast bicker over what to do with her body.)

While there’s no excuse for The Child, it is worth noting that Maurice Hurley did improve the episode substantially. He didn’t turn it into a good episode of television, let alone a passable instalment of Star Trek, but he did make it slightly less offensive. And – to be fair – he also tidied up the episode’s structure, plotting and pacing a bit. Reading the original draft of The Child is almost painful, as writers Jaron Summers and Jon Povill keep finding ways to make the script more uncomfortable and unsettling.

Hurley’s improvements begin with the teaser. It’s worth comparing Hurley’s impregnation sequence…

We HOLD on Troi’s face. After a beat she turns — the restless movements of a tortured dream… sweat beads up on her forehead, SUDDENLY she wakes. For a moment she does not move — then she looks around the room for the “person” (lover) she knows must be there.

… to the version present in the original script…

Her body moves spasmodically, sexually; but she doesn’t wake up. Her writhing continues until it reaches a peak during her entire body seems to glow.

Neither scene is ideal. Hurley refers to the energy being that has decided to plant itself inside Troi (without her consent) as a “lover” rather than a “rapist.” However, at least Hurley minimises the sexualisation of the rape sequence.

Most of the other fixes that Hurley makes to the episode involve the structure of the show. Summers and Povill’s script is decidedly episodic, with the Enterprise facing a new menace in each act. First of all, the air is poisoned, then there’s a radiation leak. Everything is wrapped up very neatly for the next plot point, to the point where even Xon passes comment on the structure of events. “The recent pattern of events indicate that we can expect some new difficulty to follow swiftly upon the solution of this one.”

The entire episode feels a bit surreal, as the crew warm to this strange alien entity too quickly. Chekov is immediately asking for her on the bridge. When Kirk snaps at the child who has appeared on his bridge, the crew act like he is history’s greatest monster. Scotty even takes the time to make her a special headband that she can wear, despite the fact that the Enterprise is in the middle of a strange phenomenon and the Chief Engineer probably has better things to be doing.

The original script sabotages any suspense by telling us that she only has seven days to live ahead of time. “I don’t think she’ll live out the week,” McCoy observes, before telling Kirk that the child has a variant of leukaemia. Which is, you know, a great way to establish that this is going to be a feel-good life-affirming story. This child was born to die, and somehow it is supposed to be wondrous and magical. Not that the ending of the aired episode is any better, but forecasting it ahead of time feels even more manipulative.

There’s also a sense that Hurley has toned down some of the seventies new-age-isms of the original script. For one thing, the child in the aired episode is at least allowed to retain Troi’s species – it is half-human and half-Betazoid. In the original script, the child is born completely human – the implication being that the species isn’t interested in just about any experience of life; there’s something very special about human life in particular. That’s distinctly uncomfortable, treading into the awkward “humans are special” mindset that would burden a lot of the early episodes of The Next Generation.

There’s a bit more focus on Deltan beliefs here than on Betazoid beliefs in the aired episode. The Betazoids on The Next Generation always felt like a bit of revision of Roddenberry’s original concept for the Deltans on Phase II. They were a free-spirited people who lived life according to love. The Deltans were ruled by emotions, while the Betazoids were explicitly empathic. (And telepathic, for that matter.) Betazoid traditions around nudity and sexuality seem like toned down versions of those established for the Deltans.

Which probably explains why Troi always felt so out of place in the early years of The Next Generation. Troi was very clearly modelled after Ilia, just as Will Riker was modelled after Will Decker and Data was a fusion of Xon and some other Roddenberry creations. Ilia and the Deltans were very much a product of the new age culture of the late sixties and early seventies. Here, Ilia explains Deltan religious beliefs to her daughter, “Deltans believe that before we are born and after we die, we exist as pure love.”

Indeed, the episode all but confirms that this is just one stage of the child’s life cycle – it’s caught in a loop of cosmic reincarnation. The trails that the Enterprise endures are designed to help it reach a higher level of spiritual understanding before it can move on. “I had the distinct impression that each of the calamities that befell the ship was designed to teach the child something about life and death and emotions I could not comprehend,” Xon remarks.

There’s a sense that script is trying desperately to tap into the popular contemporary new age beliefs. These new age philosophies were often grounded in cycles of death and rebirth and reincarnation and immortality. There are some unfortunate connotations of some of the shallower attempts at evoking new age spirituality, with various complex Eastern religious philosophies being appropriated and simplified by Western belief systems. Unfortunately, The Child feels like such an effort.

The eponymous creature is forced to life a week as a human with leukaemia, before ascending to a higher plane of existence. Various torments are imposed on the Enterprise, for no greater purpose than to teach this one child important life lessons. And this conduct is never treated as monstrous or barbaric or savage. Instead, it is portrayed as something spiritual and almost enlightened. It feels like we should be thankful that Phase II never went to air, just so we might be spared this.

Although it’s damning with faint praise, at least Maurice Hurley improved it significantly. The problem is that he didn’t get nearly far enough.

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

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