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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Offspring (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 Offspring is an absolutely wonderful piece of Star Trek. In many ways, it is a spiritual successor to The Measure of a Man, the breakout show of the second season. (This similarity was one of the factors that led writer and script editor Melinda Snodgrass to harshly dismiss it as “fairly obvious and tired and stupid” in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages.) Sitting between two of the more epic and sweeping stories in the third season, The Offspring is a touching little story about parenting and childhood, and a nice character episode for Data.

It remains one of the most touching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced, and a fitting debut for both future staff writer René Echevarria and soon-to-be-prolific Star Trek director Jonathan Frakes.

Building a loving family...

Building a loving family…

Speaking on the documentaries issued with the third season of The Next Generation blu ray, Echevarria suggests that outside factors made The Offspring more appealing than it might otherwise be:

It was definitely late in the season, and they were up naturally against it, behind schedule and over budget. And one of the reasons that Michael responded to The Offspring was because he thought, “Wow… this show could save us… you know, this is a bottle show with one guest star and almost no special effects. This show is a money saver. We could probably even shoot it in seven days instead of eight, or maybe even six days instead of eight.” And they needed that at the time.

It’s worth noting that this is quite similar to how Ronald D. Moore’s described his sale of The Bonding earlier in the same season. Moore’s script just happened to be the right script at the right time.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Unlike Moore, Echevarria wasn’t brought on to staff immediately. He had a bit of difficulty with the second draft of the script, after he got notes from Piller and the other writers, which he talks about quite candidly in the episode’s commentary:

They gave me two weeks to go off and write a draft – which didn’t come in as well as they would have liked. I did get a call from Michael saying, “Well, okay. Thank you for your work. We’re going to take it from here because it starts shooting in five days.” Or something. So a lot of very fine work was done by Michael and also by Melinda Snodgrass.

That gives a sense of the tremendous time pressure that The Next Generation was under during the third season. The turnover was just incredible. While Moore seemed to find his feet quite quickly, the similarly inexperience Echevarria was a little thrown out by the demands and turnover.

Picard broaches the awkward issue of whether he gets to be "Cool Uncle Jean-Luc."

Picard broaches the awkward issue of whether he gets to be “Cool Uncle Jean-Luc.”

Of course, Echevarria’s story has a happy ending. He was drafted in as a freelancer to tidy up Transfigurations, a later episode of the third season that had some very serious problems. He worked on another couple of stories over the next couple of years. In the show’s fifth season, he sold I, Borg as another speculative script. He was recruited to work on the show’s writing staff in the sixth season, as the franchise was expanding with the spin-off in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Like Ronald D. Moore, Echevarria transferred from The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine at the end of the former, were he was a staff writer for the rest of that show’s run. Along the way, Echevarria produced a number of truly classic hours of Star Trek and helped to shape and mould the franchise into the late nineties. While Moore went on to have a very high cult profile running Battlestar Galactica, Behr got to run Deep Space Nine and Brannon Braga got to drive Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, Echevarria remains something of an under-appreciated staff writer on the franchise.

Lal's got her head on straight...

Lal’s got her head on straight…

While quite a lot of The Offspring changed from his initial draft, the core idea and the first half of the story is true to Echevarria’s original pitch. His original story had a radically different climax – involving lots of high concepts like the Ferengi and a computer virus and all these sorts of plot complications. The finished version of The Offspring runs a lot smoother and a lot simpler, and it’s arguably a lot stronger for that simplicity.

The Offspring is surrounded by two mammoth mythology-building Star Trek episodes. Yesterday’s Enterprise featured the Enterprise’s direct predecessor, a complete alternate history and (unwittingly) set up the entire Sela arc for later in the show. Sins of the Father introduced the whole concept of Klingon culture and set in motion a recurring plotline that would only really be resolved in the final season of Deep Space Nine. Those are two truly monumental episodes, in terms of plotting, in terms of world-building, in terms of production.

Topping to smell the roses...

Topping to smell the roses…

The Offspring nestles rather snugly between the two. It’s an intimate character-driven drama, which is really where Echevarria’s strength came to lie in writing Star Trek. In light of his later work, it’s weird to think that Echevarria’s original pitches were these high concept plot-driven ideas  – the original Ferengi virus resolution to The Offspring; on the commentary, he mentions a convoluted tribute to The Enterprise Incident that eventually evolved into Ship in a Bottle.

There’s very little of world-building importance here. No large “fate of the universe/Empire/Federation” plot threads dangling. It’s just a story about Data continuing explore his humanity. He chooses to do that in one of the most logical manners possible – he chooses to have a child, to perpetuate himself, to create something that adds to the fabric of the universe in a substantive way, to build a legacy for himself.

A wave of enthusiasm...

A wave of enthusiasm…

It’s a wonderful piece of character drama, and Michael Piller seems to have honed in on that, as quoted in Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Continuing Mission:

The Offspring was a great spec script, except it was, at first, barely about our people. It was really about a very brand-new, exciting female android that Data created out of his own image, and it was all about her. And I said, ‘That’s great. But it can’t be about the guest star. It’s got to be about one of our people. It’s got to be about Data. It’s not about Data’s child as much as it is about how Data deals with being a parent. Everybody will be able to relate to that and empathize with the problems he has as a parent of a new child. Especially when that child is threatened by all sorts of outside forces.

The final version of The Offspring is an absolutely beautiful piece of Star Trek that does offer some wonderful insights into Data as a character.

Picard had enough of Kirk being voted "Sexiest Enterprise Captain" and took the matter into his own hands...

Picard had enough of Kirk being voted “Sexiest Enterprise Captain” and took the matter into his own hands…

Again, we get that same ambiguity about Data’s humanity. Is it simply that Data lacks the self-awareness to appreciate his own apparent humanity? When Crusher suggests that Data needs to offer Lal love and attention, Data is quick to point out, “I can give her attention, Doctor. But I am incapable of giving her love.” After Data leave, Crusher wonders out loud to herself, “Now why do I find that so hard to believe?” It’s a beautiful little moment that really underscores the paradox at the heart of Data and his quest to be human, just like Q’s observations in Déjà Q.

That’s part of why Data works so well as a character. Many of the Data moments in the show might feel a little manipulative or a little cynical, if it weren’t for Data’s complete earnestness and innocence – both due to the writing and due to Brent Spiner’s wonderful performance. Here, the conversations between Lal and Data could easily seem overly sentimental or cloying, but they are just written and performed so earnestly and so sincerely that they are impossible to resist.

She hasn't got a leg to stand on...

She hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

There’s an elegant universality to Data’s experience, and moments where Data has to explain the difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with” tap into all sorts of parental fears or insecurities. For all that this is a science-fiction show about androids, it’s also about a man learning how to be a parent. “Data!” Picard objects at one point. “I’m not talking about parenting. I am talking about the extraordinary consequences of creating new life.” Data innocently replies, “Does that not describe becoming a parent, sir?”

The Offspring is also an effective showcase for our cast of characters. Troi even gets to do some counselling, although it feels a bit weird that she’s the ultimate arbiter of Lal’s emotional awareness. Crusher gets a lovely conversation with Data about parenting, which underscores just how poorly the show explored Beverly’s relationship with her son. And, through that conversation, we get a more human look at Wesley, in line with the portrayal of Wesley in Evolution as an academic genius with some social difficulties.

Third iconic face palm in as many days!

Third iconic face palm in as many days!

“When Wesley was growing up,” Crusher tells Data, “he was an extraordinarily bright boy, but he had a hard time making friends. I think the other children were a little intimidated by him.” It’s a nice way of humanising Wesley, a character who often seemed a little too perfect, a little too well-adjusted – without any of the rough edges one expects with adolescence. The third season’s suggestion that Wesley’s overly-well-adjusted nature is a form of dysfunction is a nice way to ground the character a bit, to make him seem a bit more real than he might otherwise.

However, Picard is the most interesting supporting character here, because we get the same very slight suggestion that he is a little uncomfortable with androids. It’s a nice bit of character continuity and growth. In Datalore, Picard was so uncomfortable with androids that he was willing to allow Yar to publicly question Data’s ability to function properly. In The Measure of a Man, Picard’s first instinct was to encourage Data to submit to a potentially risk scientific procedure to appease Starfleet, although Picard eventually came to stand for his science officer.

Speaking of which, chin palm!

Speaking of which, chin palm!

The Offspring continues this development. There’s a sense of Picard’s palpable discomfort with Lal, despite the fact that he would not feel as uncomfortable with a human or Klingon child. “Data, I would like to have been consulted,” he remarks. Data politely calls Picard’s double-standard out. “I have not observed anyone else on board consulting you about their procreation, Captain.” Picard reiterates his concern later, “What you have done will have serious ramifications. I am truly dismayed that you told no one of what you were doing.”

At the same time, Picard is a lot more willing to stand up for Data here than he was in Datalore. Even in The Measure of a Man, it was only a conversation with Data that convinced Picard to champion the android’s cause. Here, Picard is unwilling to go along with a direct order that Data appears to be willing to comply with. Picard has gone from a man willing to allow others to gossip about Data, to a reliable supporter, to a proud advocate. It’s a very clear example of character growth, and his refusal to go along with Haftel’s request is a reminder of just how far The Measure of a Man pushed The Next Generation.

He's a droid, and Picard's annoyed...

He’s a droid, and Picard’s annoyed…

Whereas the earlier episodes of the show were unquestioning in their respect for the utopia embodied by the Federation, The Next Generation came into its own when it was willing question the right of the state to intervene in the lives of its citizens. Picard’s stand is a beautiful moment; one which reinforces the idea that utopia cannot be built on blind loyalty and unwavering acceptance, something that also plays into Sins of the Father.

“There are times, sir,” Picard quite rightly explains, “when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience, but you ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I am his captain.” It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart knocks it out of the park, and it’s one of Picard’s stand-out moments from the show’s seven season run – the moment when you see that Picard isn’t a man who upholds Federation values because he was raised to believe them; he upholds them because they are right.

The plot really grabbed me...

The plot really grabbed me…

The Offspring is an example of how far The Next Generation has come. What had been the entire point of The Measure of a Man is distilled to a climactic moment of brilliance for Picard. We’ve reached the point where The Next Generation can rather comfortably take those ideas for granted, ideas that would have been incredibly controversial and hostile in the first season. More than that, we’ve reached the point where the show is simply much better at hitting emotional beats than it used to be.

In fact, the entire plot of The Offspring feels like an update of The Child, the show’s troubled second-season premiere. Both stories see a member of the regular cast becoming a single parent; both stories see the child learning what it is to be human; both stories end with the death of the child. The Child is a clunky and sexist piece of nonsense that stumbles through its forty-five minute runtime trying to make the audience feel something, anything. In contrast, The Offspring is a thought-provoking and moving piece of television that hits all the right notes.

Data brings matters to a head...

Data brings matters to a head…

While The Child was a dated and sexist piece of nonsense, The Offspring at least has some clever (and tolerant) ideas about gender and identity in the early nineties. Lal is allowed to choose her own gender, without anybody raising any eyebrows. There were some other nods made towards sexual and gender diversity, although not necessary enough:

According to the script, Guinan was supposed to start telling Lal, ‘When a man and a woman are in love …’ and in the background, there would be men and women sitting at tables, holding hands,” Arnold says. “But Whoopi refused to say that. She said, ‘This show is beyond that. It should be “When two people are in love.”‘ And so it was decided on set that one of the tables in the background should have two men holding hands — or two women, or whatever. But someone ran to a phone and made a call to the production office and that was nixed. [Producer] David Livingston came down and made sure that didn’t happen.

There was a rather staid conservativism to the gender politics of Star Trek in the nineties, and a lot of it was imposed from the top down.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

To be fair to Gene Roddenberry, who does tend to come in for a lot of criticism in how he managed The Next Generation in those early years, he had advocated including same sex couples on the show. Veteran Star Trek writer David Gerrold wrote an episode featuring gay characters, Blood and Fire, that was never produced. Roddenberry asked Ira Steven Behr to add them to Captain’s Holiday, even if Rick Berman asked Behr to ignore Roddenberry’s direction.

For a show that had championed liberal values during the sixties, it wasn’t willing to commit to the equality issues of the late eighties and nineties. There were a few token gestures made during the franchise’s later years – episodes like The Outcast or Rejoined – but there was a palpable reluctance to show gay characters or to explore issues related to modern sexuality. It is one of the more serious failures of the second generation of Star Trek shows.

Reflections...

Reflections…

In an interview with After Elton, future Star Trek writer and producer Brannon Braga tried to explain the reasons for this reluctance:

AE: Do you think 20 years ago there was a reluctance to do it because science fiction, wrongly or rightly, is perceived as being for young straight males? Were you guys concerned about that?

BB: I think it was, not so much a young man’s [issue], it was a syndicated family show, showing at six o’clock, you know, in Salt Lake City, so you had to deal with each separate affiliate rather than one network. And things like that.

It was not a forward thinking decision. Knowing the players involved, knowing the decision makers, knowing it was that they felt reluctant about, you know, we’re not saying “yes,” we’re not saying “no,” we’re not just not going to touch that right now.

Braga is quite right to call the franchise on those decisions.

"Stay away from my daughter!"

“Stay away from my daughter!”

Writer Ronald D. Moore has been a bit more candid about this absence, suggesting in a Fandom interview that the studio wasn’t necessarily the problem:

Tell me why there are no gay characters in Star Trek. This is one of those uncomfortable questions I hate getting when I was working on the show, because there is no good answer for it. There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek, period… That’s one of the great things about Paramount. Paramount left us alone. They always left us alone. They let Next Gen do whatever it wanted. God knows it let Deep Space Nine do whatever we wanted. It lets Voyager do whatever it wants. The studio is not the problem here. The studio is going to let you go wherever you want to go, as long as they believe that this is quality, as long as they believe it’s good work. You’ve just got to come up with something good.

The implication is decidedly uncomfortable – that it was perfectly possible for Star Trek to explore these issues and to offer a more inclusive future, but that the producers themselves who were so hostile to the possibility.

The two seem to see eye to eye...

The two seem to see eye to eye…

In light of all this, then, the little gestures wind up counting for a lot – the references and dialogue that snuck past those reactive and conservative elements working on the show. Little moments like Dax’s nonchalance at the possibility that Quark’s business partner might have a gay crush on him in Rules of Acquisition, or Lal’s ability to choose her own gender in The Offspring become a lot more important.

It remains a shame that Star Trek never embraced the issue head-on. After all, despite the quality of the episode itself, Plato’s Stepchildren remains a watershed moment in popular culture. The spin-offs were never really willing to do anything that daring or that provocative. On the commentary, Echevarria seems quite proud of the choice to leave the choice of Lal’s gender to the character herself, and he should be. It’s something that really challenges the viewer, but without being the focal point of the episode – something open-minded and brave that slips in under the radar.

If she only had my brain...

If she only had my brain…

Of course, there are still some minor quibbles with the sequence. As David Greven argues in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, it does touch on some important issues, but remains constrained by some element of normative thought:

Given Lal’s suggested masculinity before his transformation, this scene suggests an allegory of gender-reassignment surgery. Made in the early 1990s, this episode hints at the profound transformation in the public understanding of the varieties of gendered identity that will occur from the ’90s forward, as gay identity transformed into “queer”, and as gay rights movement expanded to include transgendered persons as well as gay and lesbians. But still, it is only a hint – the episode insists squarely on the categories Male and Female as Lal’s only options, though Data does frame gender as a component of one’s appearance, not of one’s essential, core identity. Significantly, that as yet ungendered Lal feels inadequate without a gender; Trek is unable to imagine a post-gender world even in a future several centuries ahead of our own.

It’s a fair point, but it also demonstrates just how far ahead The Offspring is of the surrounding episodes.

An android and his daughter walk into a bar...

An android and his daughter walk into a bar…

Given the very traditional gender roles at play in this season’s “romance” plots (The Price; The Vengeance Factor), The Offsprings off-hand portrayal of gender and sexual identity is positively progressive. It underscores just how nice that little introductory scene is, how important it is for Lal to have the freedom to make that choice, without making it the centre of an episode. It’s a reminder of how casually open-minded and optimistic Star Trek could be, at its best.

The Offspring is also notable as the first episode directed by Jonathan Frakes. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner had already graduated to directing the Star Trek feature films, with somewhat mixed results. However, Frakes became the first Star Trek regular to direct an episode of his own series. He blazed a trail that a whole host of other Star Trek actors would follow. Frakes would go on to direct seven more episodes of The Next Generation, three of Deep Space Nine and three of Voyager. He would also direct Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. He remains an active director in film and television.

The be Lal and end Lal...

The be Lal and end Lal…

According to Frakes, it had been something he had wanted to do for quite some time:

I had been interested in directing since college, and during the first and second seasons I asked Rick Berman – who was in charge of all things Star Trek at that time – about giving me an episode. He was naturally reluctant, but not so reluctant as for me to lose hope.  I had to go to what we refer to as “Paramount University.” I was lucky enough to spend about 300 hours in the editing room with some very generous editors who were also interested in directing. Rick was impressed and took me under his wing. I went to pre-production and casting sessions and story breaking sessions with the writers. I went to post-production sessions when I wasn’t working; I looked at scoring sessions and ADR sessions.  I got to see every aspect of production; my eyes were open wide and thanks to the support of my wonderful wife Genie Francis, I was consistent about going to these things.

Being a bottle show with minimal special effects, The Offspring was a perfect place for Frakes to start. (Although there is a wonderful rotating shot of Lal “trying on” various skins that looks quite complex.) The cast work well under Frakes’ direction, and the episodes flows beautifully.

Hardly a class act...

Hardly a class act…

Incidentally, Frakes’ work behind the camera is why Riker is absent for most of the episode. It’s a little clumsy, but it’s not as if anybody spends the episode wondering where Riker is. (In fact, you could almost omit the reference to Riker’s absence from the script completely.) It pays off with a wonderful comic bit where Riker flirts with Lal, she kisses him, and then Data arrives. Riker, having no context for what is going on, promptly excuses himself. (That said, it is wonderfully in character that the first thing Riker does on meeting a new female crew member is to flirt shamelessly. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”)

Still, The Offspring remains one of the strongest episodes of The Next Generation. It’s a superb demonstration of the show’s capacity to do these incredibly moving character studies, marking it as more introspective and more reflective than its direct predecessor. And yet, it remains Star Trek. When haftel questions Data’s decisions, Picard responds, “This starship’s mission is to seek out new life and that is exactly what Commander Data is doing, under my guidance.” It’s embracing all the philosophical potential that comes with Star Trek.

Data has been working on the... er... father of all secret projects...

Data has been working on the… er… father of all secret projects…

The Offspring is a gem and a masterpiece. The second in a row.

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

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