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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Déjà Q (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.

Déjà Q is, in a way, the most quintessential of Star Trek: The Next Generation stories, one of the most perfect embodiments of the show’s philosophy. It’s the story about an alien who engages on a voyage of self-discovery, with the Enterprise crew serving as guides. It’s essentially an episode about what it means to be human, and is built upon the fundamentally assumption that being human allows a person the capacity for altruism and self-sacrifice.

It’s easy to imagine Déjà Q turning out unwatchable. This sort of “humans are brilliant!” storytelling was a staple of the show’s troubled first season, leading to episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us. However, Déjà Q turns out to be quite the treat. It’s helped by the presence of John de Lancie’s superbly sardonic Q and Richard Danus’ decidedly wry script. Both of these help to temper the episode’s earnestness, leading to a show that is endearing rather than irritating.

Watching Déjà Q, there’s a sense that this is very much what Gene Roddenberry wanted the first two seasons of The Next Generation to be, but – at that stage in its young life – the show was never quite capable of producing something this charming.

Well, he knows how to make an entrance...

Well, he knows how to make an entrance…

It’s worth noting that Roddenberry himself deserves a measure of credit for what Déjà Q eventually became. Roddenberry is a figure who tends to attract a lot of criticism, particularly in his later years. And some of this is well-earned. It is very hard to sympathise with a writer who didn’t want to produce The Measure of a Man. Similarly, it’s hard to agree with Roddenberry’s assertion (concerning The Bonding) that orphaned kids should probably just get over the loss of their parents.

However, Déjà Q is an episode undoubtedly enriched by Roddenberry’s input. In a way, it is probably the last significant and positive contribution that Roddenberry made to the mythos, with his declining health and increasing marginalisation. (His only remaining contribution to the third season of any significance is to butcher Ira Steven Behr’s original pitch for Captain’s Holiday, but we’ll get to that.) And it’s a fitting way to wind down Roddenberry’s influence on the series.

Iconic face palm for the win!

Iconic face palm for the win!

According to Michael Piller, the writers were having a great deal of trouble with Déjà Q. The original pitch for the episode would have had Q messing the crew’s heads. He had his powers all along, he was just faking it. Understandably, this was a bit of tough show to break. “He was faking it!” is after all a cop out, a way of ensuring that a lot of what we’ve just watched doesn’t matter in any important way. It’s not unlike the rather cliché “it was all a dream!” twist that you find on network soap operas.

So the writing staff were having a bit of difficulty coming up with a satisfactory conclusion to the story, because there really isn’t a story. It’s very much like Maurice Hurley’s original pitch for Time Squared, which would have been revealed in Q Who? to be a prank on the Enterprise. In a way, it demonstrates how difficult it is to write for a character like Q, because it’s so tempting to use him as a narrative short cut – an excuse for stuff that would be too difficult to explain otherwise.

Q's nightlight began to freak the ship's security out...

Q’s nightlight began to freak the ship’s security out…

According to Piller, it was Roddenberry who suggested that Q should really lose his powers, and that Q’s humanity should be the core of the episode:

One of the great lessons that I learned about Roddenberry’s vision came about three or four weeks after I got on the staff. It was about a Q show called Suddenly Human [eventually Deja Q]. The story was about Q coming aboard The Enterprise and pretending he had lost his powers, and taking The Enterprise on a wild goose chase around the universe.

And we went into Gene, we pitched Gene, I said, ‘And it’s a wild goose chase around the universe and it all turns out to be a Q joke on the crew.’

And Gene says, very simply, ‘Well, yeah, but what’s it about?’

And I said, ‘Well, it’s about a wild goose chase, Gene.’

‘What is it about? If you want to really tell a story about a god who must find out what it’s like to be mortal, then tell that story. But all you’re telling me now,’ he said, ‘is just stuff, it has no theme.’

And there’s your hook. It’s hardly the most original of twists. In fact, the DC comics tie-in published during the first season already did this plot, and you could argue it’s the logical flip side of Hide & Q. Nevertheless, Roddenberry is responsible for the episode that Déjà Q became.

He's got the universe in the palm of his hand...

He’s got the universe in the palm of his hand…

Of course, Roddenberry didn’t actually write the episode, and there’s a sense that Déjà Q is the stronger for it. While it’s undoubtedly a story about how wonderful mankind is, and how mankind teaches Q an important lesson, Danus’ script has quite an edge to it. Most obviously, there’s the rather wonderful idea that Q is simply exploiting the selflessness of the Enterprise for his own ends – that Picard’s humanity could accurately be described as a witness.

“And for all your protestations of friendship, your real reason for being here is protection,” Picard finally grasps as one of Q’s old victims comes to visit the ship. Q is completely unapologetic. He doesn’t even seem too concerned that Picard has figured out his agenda. “You’re very smart, Jean-Luc, but I know human beings,” he explains. “They’re all sopping over with compassion and forgiveness. They can’t wait to absolve almost any offence. It’s an inherent weakness in the breed.”

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

As much as Picard might protest that it is a strength, Déjà Q is at least willing to entertain the possibility that Q’s cynicism is warranted. After all, the compassion and forgiveness of the Enterprise crew means that the millions of inhabitants of Bre’el IV may possibly die because Picard and Geordi have to expend vital energy to keep Q safe from the Calamarain. Picard’s unwillingness to allow even a self-centred and manipulative trickster to come to harm puts millions of lives in jeopardy.

Ultimately, that’s not the case. Déjà Q has the best possible ending. Q learns the importance of compassion and self-sacrifice, venturing off into the darkness alone so that the Enterprise and Bre’el IV might have a chance at survival. His willingness to give up his own life serves as an act of selflessness that redeems him in the eyes of the Q Continuum. With his powers back, and despite insisting that he hasn’t learned a lesson, Q saves the planet and the Enterprise continues on its merry way.

Q is hardly a glowing example of humanity's potential...

Q is hardly a glowing example of humanity’s potential…

It’s the most optimistic ending possible under the circumstances, and a rather beautiful expression of the optimism that many people have come to expect from Star Trek. It suggests that if you put people in the right conditions, they are capable of truly wondrous things. For all the power that he held and all the knowledge he retained, Q only truly became the person that he could be when he was exiled to the Enterprise.

It’s easy to imagine the plot becoming overly sentimental or cloying, but Déjà Q balances itself quite well. A lot of this is down to de Lancie’s performance as the exiled alien. We never believe that Q will ever be entirely selfless or entirely altruistic. He’s still self-interested and arrogant, and he stubbornly refuses to admit that the experience has made him a better person in any significant manner. Instead, Déjà Q lets us see a glimpse of Q’s capacity for decency, without ramming it down our throats. In fact, despite Troi’s confirmation that he is “terrified”, Q remains the stubborn posturing egotist we’ve come to know and love.

Trumpeting Q's return...

Trumpeting Q’s return…

It’s too much to suggest that Déjà Q is subtle. Indeed, the script is occasionally a little too heavy-handed and too on-the-nose. However, there’s a maturity to the story that was lacking in some of the show’s earlier explorations of this theme. There’s an acceptance that life is not about absolutes. The problem with much of the first season was that humanity was presented as inherently perfect and flawless. Here, the implication is that humanity is capable of greatness, but such things are not inherent to the breed.

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. Q does not immediately become selfless on becoming human. At the end of the episode, when Q teases the possibility of granting Data the opportunity to become human, Data declines. (Q then insists he’d never inflict such a punishment anyway.) Still, Data’s quick rejection of Q’s perceived offer indicates that his quest to become human isn’t about the destination so much as the journey. It’s not about his material composition or his biological elements, it’s about embracing bigger concepts and grander ideas.

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

In fact, Déjà Q seizes upon the idea that Data is more human than most of the crew around him. He seems to be the first member of the crew to accept Q at his word, and to embrace the alien as human. When Data offers a defence of Q at the senior staff briefing, Troi rather sarcastically observes, “It seems you have an advocate, Q.” Given that Troi is one of the members of the senior staff most expected to demonstrate compassion and understanding, it’s telling that she seems so cynical of Q. (Doctor Crusher also seems less than forgiving.)

In contrast, Data’s innocence allows him to reach out to Q. Early on, Q sarcastically refers to him as “the robot who teaches the course in humanities.” Data corrects him, “I am an android, not a robot.” Q doesn’t seem too bothered by his mistake. However, it’s Data’s self-sacrifice that inspires Q to leave the ship, not Picard’s monologues or the cutting remarks from the rest of the senior staff. By the time that Q has regained his powers, he singles Data out for special thanks. There’s no sarcasm this time as Q refers to the android as his “professor of the humanities.”

Q's naked now...

Q’s naked now…

That’s an example of Piller’s style at work. Déjà Q might be a story that prominently features a guest character, but it’s still an episode that tells us something about one of lead characters. Although Data is not the narrative’s central character, Déjà Q is a fascinating development in the android’s development. “If it means anything to you,” Q concedes at one point, “you’re a better human than I.” In a way, given his compassion and understanding towards Q, he’s arguably a better human than the rest of the cast.

The only other really notable aspect of Déjà Q is the uncredited guest appearance of Corben Bernsen as a fellow member of the Q continuum. At the time, Bernsen was headlining L.A. Law, which was a pretty important part of the American television landscape in the later eighties and early nineties. It won the 1989 Emmy Award for Best Drama series. Bernsen himself received two nominations for Best Lead Actor (in 1987 and 1988). So Bernsen’s appearance in a one-scene cameo – while something of a historical artefact – was a major coup for the show.

Somebody enjoyed their visit to the set...

Somebody enjoyed their visit to the set…

According to The Next Generation Companion, the uncredited Bernsen wasn’t a life-long fan of the franchise, but to become a part of it:

Best known for his well-regarded performances as divorce attorney Arnie Becker on L.A. Law, Corbin Bernsen has said he took the role of Q2 not so much as a fan of Trek but to be a part of its legacy and its humanistic outlook.

He couldn’t really have picked a better episode from the show’s third season. That’s a surprisingly heartwarming sentiment, and a demonstration of just how much pop culture traction The Next Generation was generating.

Q2...

Q2…

Bersen’s cameo is a bit of an oddity. He’s very clearly swinging for the fences, and having a great deal of fun in the role. It makes sense, given that de Lancie has portrayed Q as this fun-loving mischievous maker. In particular, Bernsen seems to be doing a weird Jack Nicholson impersonation, as if channelling Nicholson’s performance in the contemporaneous Batman. “Ya got ya powers back!” he relents, as if ready to break into a howling laugh at the end of the line.

Bernsen’s delivery involves lots of head movement and grinning, and a decidedly exaggerated accent – as well some very bizarre intonation and pauses. “Actually, I was the one who got you kicked out,” he confesses, with the same sort of delivery that Nicholson used for “I’m glad you’re dead.” Next he offers, “You know, you’re incorrigible, Q. A lost cause. I can’t go to a single solar system without having to apologise for you, and I’m tired of it.” There’s the same sort of snap mood change at the end of a whimsical delivery that Nicholson is fond of using.

Q's (en)core appeal!

Q’s (en)core appeal!

In a way, Bersen’s delivery and style is part of the charm of Déjà Q. It’s an episode that could easily become a little too dreary or self-important, so it’s nice to have these wonderfully exaggerated moments. Any episode that opens with Q appearing naked on Picard’s bridge and closes with a visit from a space!mariachi band is worth a look at least. Using these more bizarre and outlandish elements to help off-set some of the franchise’s occasionally heavy-handed philosophising is an inspired decision that pays off.

Anyway, Déjà Q sees the show finding its footing again after the misstep that was The High Ground. It’s a wonderful piece of Star Trek, and a demonstration that The Next Generation managed to find its feet without abandoning Roddenberry’s humanism and optimism.

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

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