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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ménage à Troi (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.

So, here we are again. We almost made it. Two episodes away from the series finalé and… boom! Lwaxana Troi episode. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break.

Still, this is the point where we reflect on how far the show has come in a season. Ménage à Troi is hardly the best episode of the season, but then Lwaxana episodes rarely are. We need to compare like with like, to get a sense of how far the show has come along. It’s not enough to say that Star Trek: The Next Generation is a better show when it made Ménage à Troi than it was when it made Manhunt or Haven, but it’s close.

Ménage à Troi is a problematic episode, much like Manhunt and Haven are both problematic episodes. There’s a weird awkward dated quality to the show’s attempts to do relationship humour – a vaguely unsettling sexist undertone about how confident older women are inherently hilarious and its great fun to see them involved in embarrassing relationships. Unfortunately, Ménage à Troi continues that trend.

Two Ferengi walk into a bar...

Two Ferengi walk into a bar…

There is a rather uncomfortable subtext to Ménage à Troi. It’s the story about how a Ferengi DaiMon finds Lwaxana Troi attractive. The audience is supposed to find this hilarious on multiple levels. We’re supposed to find it funny that any man could be interested in such a shrewish and domineering older woman, laughing at how little DaiMon Tog knows what he has let himself in for. We’re also meant to laugh at Lwaxana, being romantically pursued by the Star Trek equivalent of a troll. (Waking up in captivity, Riker deduces, “From the smell of things, I’d say we’re aboard a Ferengi vessel.” Which is, y’know, hella space racist.)

It goes without saying that these are very sexist starting points. There’s a sense that the audience is supposed to find Lwaxana’s predicament amusing in the same way that we were supposed to find her holodeck romance in Manhunt amusing – it’s meant to be an embarrassing sequence that puts a bossy middle-aged woman in her proper place. It feels more than a little mean-spirited and reflects gender stereotypes and sexist storytelling conventions that were already dated by 1990.

This is probably the least likely way I ever expected an episode of The Next Generation to end...

This is probably the least likely way I ever expected an episode of The Next Generation to end…

It’s not as if television (or media in general) has come as far as it should in the years since Ménage à Troi was broadcast. However, we should probably be thankful for that fact that we’ve come far enough that Ménage à Troi does seem like something of a dated sexist relic, an uncomfortable throwback to a much earlier and less progressive time. We certainly haven’t come as far as we need to, but there’s at least some hope of more diverse roles for women of middle-age.

Ménage à Troi‘s datedness is reflected in the script, which portrays the Ferengi in the style of a fifties space opera adventure villains – Ferenginar needs women! The Ferengi kidnap two women and their rugged masculine companion. They fight over the women as objects. (“Give her to me!” one insists.) They strip the women naked, because of course they do. “Females do not deserve the honour of clothing,” one helpfully explains. There’s sinister torture involved. As our male lead engages in an escape and rescue plan, one of the women is subjected to the horror of the “mind probe.”

A well-played game of chess...

A well-played game of chess…

While it’s perhaps a bit too much to describe this as a cute throwback on paper, you can almost see how this might work. If written cleverly, it could be delivered in the style of a parody of those sorts of fifties science-fiction narratives. That sounds like the sort of approach that Manny Coto adopted when writing Bound for the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise. The problem is that the franchise has seldom been strong enough to pull off that sort of parody. (As Coto demonstrated when writing Bound.)

And that’s quite clear in Ménage à Troi. It’s Riker, Wesley and Picard who get the trio rescued. Lwaxana does manage to convince Tog to return Riker and Troi to the Enterprise, but she’s hardly the most proactive of characters. However, Deanna is treated as driftwood in the episode’s plotting. She gets a big confrontation with her mother at the start of the hour, and her name is in the title, but she spends most of the episode following Riker around and eavesdropping on her mother’s attempts to keep Tog docile.

Stopping to smell the muktok...

Stopping to smell the muktok…

The show has never really figured out how to make Deanna work as a character. Her last character-focused episode, The Price, is the weakest episode of the season – and Ménage à Troi ranks pretty near the bottom of the third season’s quality rankings as well. Troi fares better when shuffled into the middle ground, as in Tin Man, but there’s a sense that The Next Generation still hasn’t figured out who Deanna Troi is and what she is about.

Even Lwaxana seems to have a bit of trouble with that at the climax, while trying to convince Tog to let Troi and Riker go. “Let me be candid, DaiMon Tog,” she explains. “Deanna’s of no use to you. She’s only half Betazoid. And if you keep Riker, Starfleet will never stop chasing for you.” Lwaxana defines her daughter as “useless.” In contrast, Riker is a dynamic character who is so important that Starfleet simply won’t let him go without a fight – the curious implication is that Lwaxana seems to suspect they’d simply shrug off Deanna Troi’s disappearance completely. It’s an awful, awkward moment.

Non-iconic face palm!

Non-iconic face palm!

For what it’s worth, the show also has the same problem with Beverly Crusher; that’s why the next episode is a “Crusher falls in love with a patient” episode – because it seems all the show knows about Beverly Crusher is that she is a doctor and she is a woman. But we’ll get to that when we discuss Tranfigurations. At least Crusher has her own distinct voice and gets to play important parts in episodes like Symbiosis and The Enemy. Troi often feels like window-dressing. This is one of the the many indications that The Next Generation is really not a show that should be attempting to do gender-based comedy episodes.

The biggest problem with Ménage à Troi is that it is pretty damn creepy. There’s a fairly unpleasant rape subtext that runs through the episode. Lwaxana publicly rejects Tog at a fancy diplomatic reception, and the Ferengi simply refuses to accept that “no means no.” So he shows up on Betazed with some flowers, and kidnaps her with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. He then has her stripped and beamed to… um, what is that room? it sort of looks a bit like his quarters.

"Not the mind probe!!!"

“Not the mind probe!!!”

While there, Tog makes some pretty heavy threats. When Lwaxana wonders why she would cooperate, Ferek offers, “In order to keep your daughter alive and healthy, for one.” At that point, Lwaxana asks that her daughter be dismissed from the room so that she can talk privately with Tog. “Let us talk,” Tog suggests, pressing a button and causing a bed to appear. Note that nothing even approximating romance appears – no lights are dimmed, no champagne is served, no mood music is provided. None of those elements would make the sequence any better, but the fact that all Tog wants or needs is the bed sends a clear message.

It’s never explicit whether or not Lwaxana sleeps with Tog in order to preserve her daughter’s life. We cut away from what appears to be a make-out scene, and to Deanna in the ship’s brig. Deanna – who has a telepathic connection with her mother and a “live feed” of what’s going on – winces visibly. It’s unclear if Ménage à Troi intends this to be a comedic sequence, or a scene of genuine peril. Either way, it’s uncomfortable.

Knowing meme, knowing you...

Knowing meme, knowing you…

When we cut back to Lwaxana and Tog, the two are fully clothed and talking about Lwaxana’s former lovers. The fact that we are fully clothed means absolutely nothing on The Next Generation; characters seem to put their costumes back on as soon as they have finished. (Well, either that or The Emissary was implying that Worf could get K’Ehleyr pregnant merely by removing his sash. Which we can’t discount.) Sex is so sterile in The Next Generation that it unfolds between act breaks without a hair falling out of place.

Even if Tog did not rape Lwaxana – exhorting her consent through threats to her daughter – there’s still the whole “oo-mox” thing. Although Tog might boast that “there is no translation”, it’s very clearly a sexual act. This is carried to its logical climax (he!he!) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when Quark is revealed as a character who exhorts oo-mox from his female staff members in the dire Profit and Lace. It appears that Star Trek never quite grows out of the “sexual harrassment and rape are funny” stage of its development.

I hear he's a DaiMon in the sack...

I hear he’s a DaiMon in the sack…

So Ménage à Troi is a rather problematic piece of television, and one that happens to fall right within the blind spot of The Next Generation. It’s an episode that doesn’t seem to think of its female characters as anything other than sources of humour – jokes waiting to be made. It’s a rather unfortunate relic from an era that has faded into history, and one that has dated as poorly as an episode of the classic Star Trek.

And, yet, despite that, Ménage à Troi still works better than most Next Generation comedy episodes. Although, to be fair, this is probably more a demonstration of how low the bar is set than any real endorsement of the episode. The climactic sequence involving Picard waxing lyrical in order to recover Lwaxana is one of the best gags in the history of the show. It’s Patrick Stewart’s delivery that really sells the sequence, oscillating between grand Shakespearean monologuing and more banal counting down.

"But, Mr. Data, it's not my birthday!"

“But, Mr. Data, it’s not my birthday!”

There’s also the continually fascinating relationship between Troi and Riker, which is never made explicit throughout the show’s seven seasons, but which heavily implies that the two are intimate without being involved in a relationship. Here, the two take shore leave with one another. Picard even gently nudges Riker to book his vacation. “Counsellor Troi had the good sense to ask for shore leave,” he observes, playing relationship advisor. “I can see I’m going to have to suggest it to you. Have a good time, Number One.”

The two wander around Betazed, holding hands and stopping to smell the local fauna. The two are about to kiss when Lwaxana interrupts them. What’s interesting is that this isn’t a big deal. Lwaxana’s arrival sabotages the mood, but it’s not treated as if she blew their one chance to get back together, or anything like that. Neither Troi nor Riker seem to find the aborted kiss particularly strange or startling, implying that it’s something expected and fairly casual. This makes the relationship between Troi and Riker seem much more interesting than the narrative eventually outlined by Star Trek: Insurrection.

Riker's Michael Jackson impression was stunning...

Riker’s Michael Jackson impression was stunning…

The show is fairly explicit that Riker and Troi are not in an exclusive relationship. Both pursue romantic entanglements with exotic aliens of the week, with Troi frequently suffering terribly from generic “bad boyfriend” plots. Ménage à Troi casts Lwaxana Troi as a rather conservative and stereotypical matriarch, the woman desperately waiting for her daughter to settle down and marry somebody so she can start producing grandchildren. At least Ménage à Troi is smart enough to treat this viewpoint as absurd.

Lwaxan is frustrated by the lack of a conventional and conveniently labelled relationship between her daughter and William T. Riker. “What about a family?” Lwaxana asks. “You had your chance with Commander Riker.  Look how you ruined that.” Deanna sharply responds, “I did not ruin anything. We’ve became very good friends.” And it’s to the credit of Ménage à Troi that it never devolves into generic and stereotypical “will they?/won’t they?” plotting. The implication is that they do, quite frequently, and that they remain good friends.

Strange bed fellows...

Strange bed fellows…

This is something that Gene Roddenberry felt quite strongly about on The Next Generation, and it’s one of the things that got brushed aside after his death. Roddenberry never really seemed to get past sixties sexual liberation. Part of that was something great, something that Star Trek sorely needed and never got. One of the great shames of the whole Next Generation era is the fact that there was no representation of LGBT characters, something that Roddenberry had fought to include.

At the same time, Roddenberry’s attitudes towards sexuality often felt like holdovers from the summer of love. For Star Trek: Phase II, he created the Deltans, a race defined by their free-spirited hyper-sexuality. There’s every indication that the Deltans eventually evolved into the sexually liberated Betazoids. However, many early episodes of The Next Generation dealing with sex felt decidedly and uncomfortably retro.

Giving it another Troi?

Giving it another Troi?

Episodes like Justice and Angel One were very much in line with Roddenberry’s perspective on a sexually liberal future – views of sexual liberation that didn’t take into account that world had changed since the sixties. The eighties and nineties were – to a large extent – defined by the high-profile spread of AIDs and other sexually-transmitted diseases. So the sexual paradise of Justice felt quite uncomfortable. The gender politics of Angel One felt like a hold-over from the mindset that gave us The Turnabout Intruder.

There are parts of Roddenberry’s vision of future sexuality that are interesting and clever. It’s nice to suggest that healthy relationships need not conform to what society currently validates. It’s a nice piece of the relativism that was so sorely lacking from the first season of The Next Generation in episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us. It’s also a shame that the studio lacked the courage to show diversity in sexuality, as Roddenberry proposed.

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

At the some time, there is something just a little dated and a little uncomfortable about Roddenberry’s views on sex and families, as outlined in Gene Roddenberry, The Last Conversation:

Marriage in the form that it is now cannot possibly continue into the future. That’s why we have so little of it in Star Trek.

There is no marrying or giving in marriage in Star Trek, as in heaven, as your favorite book says?

Yes. I think if we all lived in my Star Trek world, it would be pretty close to heaven. You see, the studio executives and so on think that our people are single, so that there are romantic possibilities for them. So the audience can identify, with the current love interest, as they call it, each week. But that was not my intention. My idea was to portray a world in which people are developed enough as humans to be sufficient unto themselves, and in which they have a wonderful world of human and alien contact to explore. They don’t remain single, from my point of view, in order to satisfy some romantic need on the part of the audience. And I hope that the people who watch Star Trek may see something in this. We also have many families on board – traditional families and some non-traditional families, which we haven’t had an opportunity to bring out yet. But those are just choices, made out of many possibilities.

On a purely theoretical level, the idea of a future without marriage is an intriguing one that merits discussion and debate. On the other hand, Roddenberry was saying this as a married man with a wife and children.

Massaging his... ahem... ego...

Massaging his… ahem… ego…

It’s worth pausing to consider Roddenberry’s own family circumstances here. After all, the assertion that there is no “marriage in Star Trek, as in heaven” is quite bold. Roddenberry’s first marriage to Eileen-Anita Rexroat fell apart when he cheated on his wife with actress Majel Barrett. Majel Barrett would become his second wife, and a recurring fixture of the franchise. (He was also engaged in a simultaneous affair with Nichelle Nichols.)

Roddenberry’s home life was far from happy. His son, Rod Roddenberry, produced a documentary – Trek Nationabout trying to come to terms with his father. Rod has gone on record admitting that he felt somewhat displaced by Wil Wheaton, who enjoyed a much closer father-son relationship with Gene Roddenberry than Rod. “Many occasions, it was said that Wil Wheaton was like a son to my father,” Rod has confessed. “I don’t know if I ever got 100 percent of my father, and I sort of had to deal with this.”

Ensigns of command division...

Ensigns of command division…

It’s worth noting that, according to The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, the filming of Ménage à Troi saw Roddenberry passing his lieutenant bars from the Second World War over to Wil Wheaton as part of a ceremony featuring Colin Powell. When discussing Roddenberry’s sometimes controversial views of family and sexuality, it is worth reflecting on his complicated personal life, rather than accepting them as part of his utopian futurism.

There are some aspects of Roddenberry’s philosophy which are bold and provocative and merit discussion – that would have been the hallmarks of a show more progressive than the one that The Next Generation became. The decisions to abandon David Gerrold’s AIDS allegory Blood and Fire or to scuttle a background shot from The Offspring featuring a homosexual couple set the franchise back years, betraying an unsettling conservatism at the heart of the relaunched television franchise. The suggested “open” relationship between Troi and Riker is something that seemed to slip through the cracks.

This should be a walk in the park...

This should be a walk in the park…

On the other hand, Roddenberry’s some of Roddenberry’s other views on sex and sexuality were decidedly new-age-y, and reflected values rooted in sixties utopianism, failing to understand that society had moved on a bit. There’s also an unsettling voyeuristic subtext to some of this sexual content, as typified by an excerpt Ronald D. Moore read from the script of Ménage à Troi during the Inside the Writers’ Room special feature:

Mrs. Troi reaches into the picnic basket and brings out an oskoid, which is a long cylindrical piece of fruit with veins going down the side and offers it to Riker to take a bite.

That’s a rather cliché and juvenile portrayal of sexual liberation, quite like the Roddenberry’s portrayal of the Deltans in his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where a sexy female character is able to manipulate her male crewmembers through pheromones and has to swear an oath of celibacy before boarding a ship – lest her sexuality prove too much for her fragile male crewmembers to handle.

As intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess...

As intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess…

The only other part of Ménage à Troi that bears discussion is the episode’s subplot involving Wesley. The character is apparently due to leave for the Academy again and, inevitably, he winds up remaining on the ship. It turns out that his genius is necessary to save Riker and the Troi family, so he bounds back to the bridge to save the day. This really has absolutely no impact on the show, save a nice costume change for Wesley – replacing his awkward grey onesy with a red command division uniform.

It feels like we’ve accidentally walked in on Wesley’s fantasies. Picard even gives a little speech, which must sound like every dream Wesley has ever had. “The Academy must make you wait, that’s true,” he tells Wesley. “But, when I review your service to this ship, your crewmates, I cannot in all conscience make you wait for the Academy. You see, Wesley, in my eyes you’re an acting ensign in title only. I hereby grant you field promotion to full Ensign, with all the commensurate responsibilities and privileges of that rank. Congratulations.”

It's to the show's credit that it waited until Troi got involved with Worf before it started making mother-in-law jokes...

It’s to the show’s credit that it waited until Troi got involved with Worf before it started making mother-in-law jokes…

To be entirely fair to Ménage à Troi, the episode is remarkably honest. It never seems like Wesley might actually be leaving. From the outset, it seems clear like the show is looking for an excuse to keep him around, and it’s hard to believe that any viewer would be expecting Wesley to leave at the end of the episode. His conversations with Data and Geordi are about how he doesn’t really want to go. The episode doesn’t devote any real time to his farewells or even his packing.

When Wesley does walk to the transporter room, we’re spared any of the big “goodbye” theatricality that we’d expect for the departure of a main character. (Even Worf gets a nice farewell sequence in Redemption, Part I, and he’s back in the following episode.) We get a goodbye scene between Wesley and his mother in the transporter room, but all this does is just underscore how weird the relationship is between Beverly and Wesley Crusher.

Beware Ferengi bearing gifts...

Beware Ferengi bearing gifts…

Throughout the show’s run, the two have never felt like members of the same nuclear family unit. While this might be Roddenberry’s family philosophy in action, it also adds to the stranger “otherness” of Wesley Crusher, the sense that he’s not at all like a person. The big goodbye for Wesley, as the show realises in The Final Mission, will always be Wesley’s farewell to Captain Picard. Beverly is strangely superfluous to Wesley as a character. And that’s really emphasised when what should be his “goodbye” scene falls flat because only his mother seems to be present.

Ménage à Troi is a pretty crappy episode, and it’s a shame that it comes so close to the end of the season, when the show has been on such a hot streak. Still, while it’s pretty bad, it is not as bad as it could have been, which is something.

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

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