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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Family (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.

He’s still out there. Dreaming about starships and adventures. It’s getting late.

Yes. But let him dream.

– Robert and Marie try to figure out what all this “Star Trek” milarky is about

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

The Best of Both Worlds is pretty important to what Star Trek became in the nineties. It was the first season-ending cliffhanger, which become part of the franchise’s basic season structure, but its influence was greater than that. Although Michael Piller abhors space opera epics, there’s no denying that The Best of Both Worlds was really a major shift in how the franchise approached these larger-than-life stories.

In Homefront, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a supporting character compares the Dominion threat to the “Borg scare”, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the large scale interstellar conflict in The Best of Both Worlds paved the way for stories like the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine, the Federation-Klingon conflict in Way of the Warrior and beyond, and even the Klingon Civil War that begins with Redemption at the end of the fourth season. The Best of Both Worlds made those stories possible.

Family portraits...

Family portraits…

However, Family was just as important in the evolution of this new era of Star Trek. It was really the point at which Michael Piller’s character-driven approach was acknowledged as strong enough to carry an entire episode on its own terms. It really established Star Trek: The Next Generation as a show that could support stories entirely about people, without the set dressing of alien phenomenon or interstellar mysteries. It also demonstrated that you could do quieter and more intimate stories in Star Trek, to complement the bombastic space epics.

So, while nowhere near as lauded as The Best of Both Worlds, Family got to be quietly influential in its own way. It’s worth noting that two of the three post-Next Generation did the “quiet breather episode set on Earth following a status-quo-shifting multi-part adventure” early in their fourth seasons. Star Trek: Enterprise‘s Home is a pretty overt homage to Family, right down to the “split the cast and tell several smaller stories” format, but Deep Space Nine‘s beautiful fourth season episode The Visitor probably wouldn’t exist without Family.

Star Trek also invented USB sticks!

Star Trek also invented USB sticks!

(You could also push it a bit further and suggest that Star Trek: Voyager‘s The Gift also fit the mold of Family, albeit loosely. The episode was structured to allow character arcs to push ahead of the “adventure-of-the-week” format in and basically do some nice house-keeping to deal with the aftermath of the epic Scorpion. Of course, that episode was also mandated by the practical concerns of introducing Jeri Ryan and writing out Jennifer Lien.)

It’s telling that the production of Family was a contentious issue for the production staff on The Next Generation. The notion of spending an entire episode with the crew addressing their emotional baggage in the wake of The Best of Both Worlds was a radical decision for the show. Indeed, Family was the second episode of the fourth season to air, but the fourth produced. On the commentary for The Best of Both Worlds, Mike Okuda notes that “Piller wanted to take his time on the writing of it, so we actually shot some episodes between it.”

It takes real time to look this good...

It takes real time to look this good…

Gene Roddenberry came into direct conflict with writer Ronald D. Moore over the story, arguing that it conflicted with his vision of Star Trek. This is was nothing new. Late in the third season, Roddenberry had still held enough sway to scuttle Ira Steven Behr’s character-driven pitch for Captain’s Holiday, forcing a complete re-working of the episode. Family went through unscathed. In conversation with Behr, Moore has suggested this was indicative of a behind-the-scenes shift in the power behind The Next Generation:

And what a difference a year makes, because the next season, I wrote a show called Family. Picard goes back home to Earth, with his brother and so on. Same kind of setup, I wrote this story; he goes home and has this fight with his brother, it’s an old family animosity and bitterness that boils to the surface of these two brothers. 

Gene HATES it. I had my version of this meeting, not by myself; it’s with me and Rick Berman and Michael Piller, we all go into Gene’s office. Gene goes through this whole thing about how much he hates this script. “It says terrible things about Picard’s parents; these brothers don’t exist in the twenty-fourth century; they have such profound personal animosities; this would never happen. I don’t buy any of this, this is not a Star Trek episode. There’s no action in this; there’s no jeopardy. We can’t do this show.” 

I was like, shell-shocked. We walked out of the office, and I remember going into that hallway of the Hart Building with Rick and Mike and saying, “What do I do?” At that point, Rick and Mike just looked at each other and said, “Don’t worry about it; we’ll take care of it. Go write your script.” I went, “Okay…” and I went off and wrote it, and never heard another word. Somehow, they were then dealing with Gene in a different way and that script just went through after that point. He just stopped kind of throwing out scripts and changing things from that point forward, and just started slowly to change.

It’s a sign of just how much Gene Roddenberry’s grip on the franchise was loosening, due to his on-going health concerns and the success of Michael Piller and Rick Berman’s vision for the show. As much as Gene’s health issues probably made him easier to bench, and meant that he spent less time in the studio, it also seems likely that the team were emboldened by the success of Piller’s approach. At this point, they’d had an entire summer to appraise the third season, and it’s hard to imagine anybody being unsatisfied with Piller’s character-driven approach.

Vintage...

Vintage…

It’s also worth noting that although Berman supported Piller and Moore in their discussions with Roddenberry, he also had misgivings about the episode. Although a lot less fixed in his attitudes towards Star Trek than Roddenberry, at least at this point in time, Berman was still somewhat conservative in his approach to the show, cautious about being experimental or playing against expectations. As The Next Generation Companion notes, Berman originally wanted to graft a science-fiction plot into the character storylines:

At first Berman agreed to it but insisted that a science subplot be used to round out the show. After weeks of trying various story lines that just didn’t work – including a child stowaway, and a paranoid’s nightmare of disappearing crew members, a story line that was used on its own in Remember Me – Berman relented and allowed other family-theme subplots to fill out the hour.

So the fact that Family was produced and aired as it was is a remarkable accomplishment, and a major victory both for Michael Piller as an executive producer and Ronald D. Moore as a writer. This is very much the pure and distilled version of their vision for the show.

Wesley discovers that he doesn't know Jack...

Wesley discovers that he doesn’t know Jack…

Indeed, much like The Bonding, Family is an episode chocked full of Moore’s favourite storytelling conventions and narrative tropes. Although Piller pushed for the story, Family is very clearly a Ronald D. Moore script. It’s an episode that is utterly unconcerned with science-fiction narrative trappings, save a springboard to examine the human condition. The fact that Picard is recovering from an assault that turned him into the face of an evil cybernetic collective is pretty much irrelevant, save as a piece of set-up to get at the heart of Moore’s story.

This is the story of an assault survivor trying to reassess his life in the wake of an event so traumatic that it causes him to question many of the assumptions that ground his existence. Audience member will never have an experience comparable to Borg assimilation, so Moore instead frames Picard’s crisis in terms that the audience can recognise and relate to. Picard’s self-doubt and his insecurity, and the attempts to disguise those and maintain the image of a strong man unbroken, are much more human and much more real than cyborgs or invasions or assimilations.

Riker really is the last person who should dispense family advice...

Riker really is the last person who should dispense family advice…

This is the approach that Moore would take as the cornerstone of his Battlestar Galactica reboot, using the extermination of mankind and the fear of Cylon infiltration as a powerful metaphor for the day-to-day realities of the War on Terror. The science behind the science-fiction is less important to Moore than the people trapped within it, or the way that these trapping make it a lot easier to deal with problems and issues that might otherwise seem uncomfortable or too personal.

This is part of the reason that Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga would make such a fantastic Star Trek writing team, at least when not writing under studio mandate like with Star Trek: Generations. Braga is – as a rule – much more interested in mind-bending high concepts and playing with the “rules” of science-fiction storytelling than Moore, while Moore is – as a rule – much more interested with the people trapped within these larger frameworks.

A window into Picard's home life...

A window into Picard’s home life…

Moore and Braga’s approaches compliment one another, and it’s a shame they split up after The Next Generation, even if their choices said a lot about the respective shows. Moore was the perfect staff writer for Deep Space Nine, and Braga was the perfect staff writer for Voyager. I’d argue that Braga was not mature enough as a writer to move up to the driving creative force on Voyager, but his scripts were often (although not always) pretty solid high-concept adventures.

Although Moore’s approach was controversial at the time, it is worth noting that Moore’s philosophy positions him very squarely in the great tradition of Star Trek writers. So many of classic Star Trek stories are loosely remembered outside of fandom as (somewhat blunt) metaphors on the human condition. This is most obvious with Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, which is the archetypal Star Trek episode, and its only major flaw is that it’s pretty terrible. So Moore continues that grand tradition of using Star Trek as metaphor to explore the human condition.

In a nice touch, the parts of Picard's face least covered with mud were the parts most covered with implants...

In a nice touch, the parts of Picard’s face least covered with mud were the parts most covered with implants…

And so exploring Picard’s difficulties living with his assault is very much a part of that heritage and legacy. Picard’s breakdown with Robert in the mud using language associated with sexual assault survivors. “I couldn’t stop them,” Picard confesses. “I should have been able to stop them! I tried. I tried so hard, but I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t good enough. I should have been able to stop them. I should! I should!”

That’s a pretty harrowing scene, and yet it is also a powerful indictment of the culture that exists around such assaults. Victims are frequently blamed (at least partially) for their assaults, both by the public and by public officials who really should know better. There’s a culture of shame that exists around such incidents, creating a sense that being the victim of such an assault is a sign of weakness – physically, morally, personally. It’s something that is internalised by survivors all too often, as they begin to believe that their assault was somehow their own fault.

Sour grapes...

Sour grapes…

On one hand, it’s a pretty bold choice for The Next Generation to give this plot to a male character in late 1990. Rape of men is stigmatised, and notoriously under-reported. (Although rape as a crime is under-reported across the board.) The United Kingdom’s first successful prosecution under male rape laws occurred in 1995. So pushing this idea out there, that the male lead of the show (one repeatedly compared to hyper-masculine stereotype John Wayne by his creator) could be the victim of such an assault, is a strikingly daring move for the show.

On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that Star Trek has a historical tendency to gloss over rape and sexual assault when it happens to female characters. This was most obvious in the classic Star Trek television show in episodes like The Enemy Within or Who Mourns for Adonais?, but it also carried through to The Next Generation. The show’s second season premiere, The Child, was adapted from a seventies Star Trek: Phase II script, featuring an alien life form impregnating Deanna Troi.

Troi-ing to reach him...

Troi-ing to reach him…

You could argue that the issues with The Child were a result of directly adapting an earlier sexist script from the show’s past. This is a bit of a cop-out, which doesn’t hold The Child to account for being horribly sexist no matter the decade in which it was written and also lets Maurice Hurley off the hook for his rushed “adaptation” which found the time to add a Wesley subplot without bothering to weed out any of the troubling ideas deeply rooted in the teleplay.

And the problem never really went away, either. A late third season episode, Ménage à Troi, featured a Ferengi leveraging sex from Lwaxana Troi by threatening her daughter. This was intended as a comedy episode. Deanna’s exaggerated reaction to Lwaxana going to bed with the Ferengi was treated as an act-breaking punchline. It might have been nice to treat any of those plot points with the gravity that is reserved for Picard’s violation at the hands of the Borg.

The mother of all embarrassments...

The mother of all embarrassments…

As effective as it is, it’s hard no to shake the impression that Picard is getting the space to deal with this trauma in a mature and considered manner simply because he’s a male character. There are some rather unfortunate implications to that decision. Still, this is arguably more of a criticism of the show surrounding Family than a criticism of Family itself. At this point in the run of The Next Generation, “Picard as a rape survivor” seems like a storyline the show can handle much better than “Troi as a rape survivor.”

(This is, incidentally, why The Vengeance Factor worked much better than The Price in the third season, despite the fact that it’s essentially the same story. The show’s unfortunate gender issues mean that male characters get to be more dynamic in romance than their female counterparts. So a story where a male lead falls in love is more exciting than an episode where a female lead falls in love, because the show will allow the male lead to be dynamic while making the female lead passive. The show is working hard to rectify this, and the fourth season makes a better attempt at writing its lead female characters, but we’re not quite there yet.)

A dirty business...

A dirty business…

All that aside, Family is just a superbly-written piece of science-fiction drama. The familial relationship between Robert and Jean-Luc Picard is perhaps the most fascinating (and realistic) familial relationship the franchise has crafted since Journey to Babel. Robert and Jean-Luc don’t interact as casual acquaintances, and they don’t conform to what television audiences frequently expect from brothers. They love on another, but in their own nuanced and unique sort of way.

Robert understands his brother. He’s one of the few characters on the show who seems to completely understand how his brother’s mind works. Most of The Next Generation portrays Picard as an ideal – smart, brilliant, considerate and diplomatic. Most of the Enterprise crew see him that way. Beverly Crusher and Guinan probably have the deepest insight into Picard of all the people on the ship, and even they would be hard pressed to recognise any major character flaw beyond occasional stubbornness.

"I knew it was you, Jean-Luc, and it breaks my heart..."

“I knew it was you, Jean-Luc, and it breaks my heart…”

Robert, on the other hand, sees right through Jean-Luc. He is aware of his brother’s Achilles heal. He knows how important Picard’s self-image is. He knows how much pride matters to Picard, no matter how he might deny it. That’s why his willingness to beg Q to save the Enterprise at the end of Q Who? was so important, and that’s why the other Picard from Time Squared unsettled him so. Picard is one of the best at what he does, but he’s well aware of that. He’s comfortable with that. He takes pride in that.

And Robert recognises that, and isn’t afraid to call him out in a way that nobody else would dare. “I’m not a hero,” Jean-Luc insists during their row. “Of course you are,” Robert replies. “Admit it. You’d never settle for less than that and you never will.” When Jean-Luc insists that he never sought any of the glory or the prestige, Robert responds, “Never sought? Never sought president of the school, valedictorian, athletic hero with your arms raised in victory?”

A taste of life on Earth...

A taste of life on Earth…

Of course, all of this was earned. Anybody who has watched Jean-Luc’s career would admit that his image and his self-confidence is well-deserved. Nobody would dare attack Picard’s self-image in the way that Robert does. “Now there is something I’d like to see,” Robert remarks on hearing the Borg made him lose control. “The gallant captain out of control.” Nobody else on the show would ever be so brash as to question Picard’s right to be proud of his accomplishment.

However, Jean-Luc’s pride and ego are at the root of his guilt. He holds himself responsible because the heroic Jean-Luc Picard should have been stronger, should have been able to resist, should have been able to triumph. Robert punctures his ego as a way of allowing Picard to move past that. That’s what Roddenberry’s criticism doesn’t understand. Robert very clearly loves Jean-Luc. He is trying to help his brother in a way that – for example – Counsellor Troi can’t.

His way or the highway (man)...

His way or the highway (man)…

After pushing Picard to a confrontation that finally allows his restraint to break, that finally allows Jean-Luc to acknowledge what happened to him, Picard tries to excuse his violence. “You were asking for it, you know,” he offers, somewhat playfully. This draws a rare moment of unguarded sentimentality from Robert. “Yes, but you needed it. You have been terribly hard on yourself.” Nobody else understands Jean-Luc like Robert. That’s what family is. The people who understand even that which cannot be understood.

Worf has a similar encounter with his parents on the Enterprise. They reveal that he kept them informed of the events in Sins of the Father, even if they don’t quite appreciate the nuances of Klingon culture and the depth of the shame resting on the House of Mogh. “We don’t exactly understand it all,” Helena admits. Sergei immediately cuts in, “We don’t have to.” That’s perhaps the most succinct and touching expression of the themes that Moore is touching on here – the idea that these characters all have people waiting for them, watching for them, hoping for them. It also underscores the idea that certain ideals are universal.

Aw. Just aw.

Aw. Just aw.

It’s very hard to imagine anybody who can’t empathise with Worf or Picard in this story. While the details differ, these are two characters coping with their own private and undeserved shames. Who hasn’t screwed up? Who hasn’t discovered their own limitations? Who hasn’t ever brushed up against something impossible only to discover that… well, it’s actually really impossible? Disappointment is something that everybody confronts in their life at some point, and most people will inevitably face some form of disappointment in themselves.

And there’s something incredibly powerful about discovering that there are people who will love you no matter what, who will stand by you no matter what you failed to accomplish. There is a place you can go where the people who care about you will reach out, even if they don’t understand that thing that has you so wound up. They might not be able to take that burden or that weakness or that shame, but they can support you in the decisions that you make. They can help give you the strength you need.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

For all that Robert complains about replicators and advanced technology, he seems to appreciate that Picard’s place is on the Enterprise. And he pretty much tells him as much, without sugar-coating it. “This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc,” Robert tells his brother. “A long time. You have to learn to live with it. You have a simple choice now. Live with it below the sea with Louis, or above the clouds with the Enterprise.”

This is a pretty serious shift in Star Trek storytelling. So much of the show has been about pushing outwards, expanding the frontier and exploring strange new worlds. With Family, the show seems to be pushing back inwards. It seems to be suggesting that there’s a fair amount of exploring to be done in the world we already know. Picard is tempted to join a team working to raise Atlantis, a suitably mythic task. It is, as Picard observes, “the potential of exploring a new world on our own planet.”

Wesley probably has a Bev-y of questions for his father...

Wesley probably has a Bev-y of questions for his father…

This is really the first point in the franchise where we get the sense that people might want to return to Earth. The original Enterprise only ever visited a historical Earth in the classic Star Trek show. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk couldn’t wait to get off the planet. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew are returning to face the metaphorical music, with in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, it’s a place to stop while waiting for the ride to be fixed up. Picard only previously returned to Earth in Conspiracy, following an investigative trail.

In Family, there’s a conscious sense that our heroes have actually left something behind to go exploring, and that these abandoned connections might be worth exploring. Picard is returning home for the “first time in almost twenty years.” However, it ends with the character acknowledging how important his family is to him. His time with Robert helps reinforce the sense that he belongs on the Enterprise. “If I should ever doubt that again, I know where to come.”

They're very (Ten) Forward about the whole thing...

They’re very (Ten) Forward about the whole thing…

It’s probably too much to suggest that Voyager as a concept was built from Family, but it’s really very hard to watch the classic Star Trek or the first three seasons of The Next Generation and get a sense about why the cast of a Star Trek spin-off would ever want to go to Earth. Family is really the first point that the franchise acknowledges that the concept of “home” is as important as the “frontier.” It’s a decision that would inform a lot of Voyager and Deep Space Nine.

(And I’ll confess that Family is a story that always resonates with me on a personal level, as a person with a diverse and extended family that do make a point to see each other on a semi-regular basis. In particular, Guinan’s attempts to comfort Worf’s parents are especially affecting. When Helena confesses that she’s worried Worf thinks they don’t understand him, Guinan assuages her fears. “Well, part of him may feel that way, but there’s another part that I’ve seen. A part that comes in and drinks prune juice. A part that looks out the window towards home. He’s not looking toward the Klingon Empire. He’s looking toward you.” Aw.)

The grapes of... mild familial jealousy...

The grapes of… mild familial jealousy…

It is also worth noting that Ronald Moore does slip some of his trademark military detail in under the hood. Moore served in the Navy, attending college as part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. His science-fiction work does tend to play with the military structure and hierarchy. Here, he makes a point to introduce the distinction between officers and enlisted crew members, finally giving Miles Edward O’Brien a rank, and establishing that there’s an entire class of enlisted officers who exist outside of the traditional “attend the academy and become an officer” framework.

“Don’t call me sir, I used to work for a living!” Sergei protests in his wonderful introductory scene. It’s a nice conversation that immediately adds a great deal of texture to the wider Star Trek universe – which is something Moore is very good at. In a few scant sentences, Moore is able to suggest a hint of class conflict within the otherwise harmonious Starfleet structure. “Can you imagine an old enlisted man like me raising a boy to be an officer?” Sergei asks, suggesting that enlisted officers and commissioned officers tend to keep to themselves.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

The Rozhenko family are also just wonderful characters in their own right. Moore’s affection for the original Star Trek seems to shine through in a rather sly way, presenting Worf’s parents as Russian. This works on quite a few levels, in that it’s surprisingly easy to imagine a Klingon growing up in Russia, but it’s also a nice nod to the franchise’s history. After all, Errand of Mercy introduced the Klingons as little more than space!Russians.

As such, it’s fitting that – while Moore works to develop the Klingons beyond basic archetypes – the writer also gives Worf two well-developed non-stereotypically Russian parents. After all, The Next Generation was airing at time when the Cold War was coming to an end. It’s very cool to have a staff member on the ship who grew up in Minsk, without the show treating him as a two-dimensional patriotic stereotype. Worf glorifies his own history and culture just as much as Chekov did on the classic Star Trek, but The Next Generation is more willing to explore the implications of that sort of blind worship of the homeland.

Would you like some whine with that?

Would you like some whine with that?

There’s also a sense that Moore knows how provocative his script for Family is going to be. The episode spends a significant portion of its first act trying to justify itself. “I am confident that the ship and her crew will soon be ready to return to service,” Picard tells us in his introductory log, as if trying to assure the more fickle viewers that this will most definitely be a one-time thing and that the show will get back to business as usual the following week.

There’s even an early conversation between Picard and Troi that exists to explain why an episode like Family is necessary – why the show (and Picard) can’t just jump back in to adventures of the week quite yet. “Your help has been invaluable during my recovery,” Picard assures Troi. “But look, I’m better. The injuries are healing.” Troi is less than convinced. “Those you can see in the mirror,” she responds. “Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal, after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again.”

Picard tries to assure everybody that he's perfectly vine...

Picard tries to assure everybody that he’s perfectly vine…

Like with Moore’s very first script, The Bonding, there’s a sense that the constraints of episodic Star Trek are not conducive to the characters’ healthy psychology. The Bonding is an episode about how the crew can’t respond so casually to the death of a character who would have been a “red shirt” on the classic Star Trek television show. Family is an episode about how you can’t go straight from The Best of Both Worlds into something like Brothers.

It’s very hard to oversell just how daring Family was at the time. The Next Generation had just gone for broke with a science-fiction epic. The Best of Both Worlds had really hooked an audience. There must have been an incredible temptation to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. It would be easy to rest on the show’s laurels, and just revert to the tried-and-tested storytelling formulas one associated with Star Trek.

"Look, can we both gloss over the fact I'm clearly not wearing anything under this jacket?"

“Look, can we both gloss over the fact I’m clearly not wearing anything under this jacket?”

Instead, as The Next Generation Companion notes, Family was a break from the norm, and a polarising episode of television among both writers and television viewers:

A daring departure for the series, Family is the only installment in Trek’s twenty-five-year history with no scenes on the bridge. Airing right after the season-opening cliff-hanger resolution as an epilogue to the Borg two-parter, Ronald D. Moore’s introspective character story was controversial even among the writing staff. Unfortunately, it was the lowest-rated show of the season, even though it gave a deeper insight into more of the show’s characters than virtually any other segment.

To be fair, later episodes like Liaisons and Dark Page would not feature any scenes set on the bridge, but Family was the first. It was also the only episode of The Next Generation to film without Brent Spiner, who was probably the spin-off’s most popular character.

Heaven scent...

Heaven scent…

Of course, it’s worth conceding that Family isn’t really the success that it deserves to be. As mentioned above, it was something of a ratings flop. It obviously performed less well than the massively hyped cliffhanger conclusion airing the week before, but the ratings were also noticeably weaker than the ratings for the rest of the surrounding episodes. The rec.arts.startrek season poll ranked it the tenth best of the season. Even today, more two decades after it originally aired, Family is somewhat overlooked, which is understandable when you consider that it stands somewhat in the shadow of The Best of Both Worlds.

It didn’t rank on Wired‘s 25th anniversary fan poll, for example, nor on Entertainment Weekly‘s 20th anniversary top ten list. The episode isn’t typically packaged with any of the stand-alone DVD collections for The Next Generation. It was not included on the blu ray special release of The Best of Both Worlds, despite the fact that it arguably offers a conclusion to that particular story arc. Of course, there are nearly two hundred episodes of The Next Generation to choose from, but Family does seem somewhat underrated in the grand scheme of the franchise.

"I knew we left these barrels lying around for a reason!"

“I knew we left these barrels lying around for a reason!”

For the wonderful Next Generation remastered project, Michael and Denise Okuda dragged back all manner of creative personnel from Star Trek to provide commentaries on key episodes. Writer Ronald D. Moore has contributed a few commentaries to each of the seasons when he was on staff – discussing episodes like The Bonding or Yesterday’s Enterprise. Obviously, the time available for these extras is finite, and practical choices have to be made. The fact that the team go to this degree of effort is something that deserves a tremendous amount of praise and recognition.

At the same time, the selections can’t help but feel a little telling. For the fourth season, Moore provides commentary for Reunion and for Redemption. These choice make a great deal of sense, given both are fan-favourite “important” stories that do re-shape the Star Trek universe. At the same time, it’s a shame that Moore and the Okudas didn’t get a chance to discuss Family. Given the episode’s production history, and the importance that it had in defining Michael Piller’s vision of the show (and the fact that it was one of the last major conflicts the writing staff had with Gene Roddenberry), it certainly merits attention.

All hail, Atlantis!

All hail, Atlantis!

Still, even if it is often overlooked and grossly undervalued, Family remains a true classic for The Next Generation. It is every bit as worthy and well-constructed as the two-parter leading into it. I’d argue it’s Moore’s strongest work on the fourth season, and deserves a place in the discussion about Moore’s strongest work on the series as a whole. It’s brave and brilliant and radical and original and daring. It’s also a demonstration that sometimes we don’t have to look beyond the main cast to explore strange new worlds.

The final frontier is no longer just an arbitrary line drawn in outer space, just past Farpoint, to conveniently mark “where no one has gone before” in the most literal of senses. Instead, the final frontier is something altogether more intimate and personal. One of the great ironies of The Next Generation was that Jean-Luc Picard had to be converted into a cyborg before he could become fully human.

So, my brother is a human being after all.

– Robert Picard sums it all up

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

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10 Responses

  1. A wonderful review! It has been a long time since I have seen ‘Family’ but i will certainly have to give a go.

    Perhaps I’m alone in this but the more I hear of Gene Roddenberry’s view of the 24th century the more I find it both fascinating and slightly repellent. The hyper evolved humans Roddenberry envisioned seem so alien, to the point of being a much more benign version of S. M. Stirling’s Draka – human in shape but not in mind or morality (honestly the Federation of ‘The Neutral Zone’ or even ‘The Bonding’ seems quite a emotionally sterile, frightening place from a 21st century mindset.)

    Again that’s a fascinitating concept but also a little creepy and I’m glad we ended up with the people we see in episodes like this.

    • That’s a nice analogy.

      Roddenberry is an interesting figure, because he did a lot of great stuff – but also made some terrible storytelling choices and some ethically questionable creative choices. It’s almost hard to reconcile the fact that he was occasionally brilliant and occasionally terrible, often within moments of each other.

      I much prefer the Piller/Behr/Moore approach to characterisation, because it means we aren’t watching a show about aliens who just happen to look like people.

      • Roddenberry’s vision is creepy, because like all utopians, in the end he always puts The System ahead of the individual. In Stalin’s Russia there was officially no crime, because crime derived from social injustice and there was (officially) no social injustice in Stalin’s USSR. This is a major theme Tom Rob Smith’s novel Child 44, in which a murder investigation is impossible because first it must be acknowledged that there has been a murder. The problem being that the very act of saying someone has been murdered is itself a crime against the State.

        Roddenberry’s Federation is fictional, so he can write it as successfully utopian, and without demolishing millions of lives in furtherance of ‘achieving’ it. Everything works and is wonderful in Roddenberry’s Federation. In the end, though, the individual must cheerfully put the State first, as when Roddenberry argued that Data should nonchalantly elect to sacrifice himself in furtherance of Federation science in Measure of a Man.

        Most of us don’t think of human nature as being as plastic as people like Roddenberry do. You can believe in progress without buying into the notion of perfectibility of the human animal. I thought the Matrix was often pretentious twaddle, but I loved the moment when they said the Matrix tried to create a fantasy paradise for its comatose subjects to live in, but their brains kept rejecting the reality of it. I feel the same way whenever I hear Roddenberry’s views on ST:TNG.

      • That’s a beautiful analogy, Ken. I remember thinking something like that the last time I saw The Matrix. (After I’d begun the Next Generation rewatch.)

        I think that Measure of a Man story is the most beautiful illustration of just how unsettling Roddenberry’s vision is. (And one of the great ironies of Roddenberry’s Next Generation is that this was precisely the sort of utopia that Kirk would routinely tear down during the run of the original Star Trek. I think your USSR analogy is on the nose in quite a few ways.)

  2. A superb, in depth review that I pretty much completely agree with. I cannot believe Family gets so overlooked – it has always been in my top 10 STTNG episodes as I think it is a tour de force for character and for emotion: culminating in Picard’s break down. Sad to see there don’t seem to be reviews of the rest of season 4 onwards. I would love to see what you made of The Inner Light.

    • Hi Calvin! I will be getting back to TNG eventually. At the moment, though, I am working through DS9/VOY.

      • When will you be continuing TNG? I love your analysis.

      • I will be! No idea when, though. Other projects have taken over, and the sixth season of Voyager is pretty much killing me. (The end is in sight, though.)

      • I shall look forward to reading your Voyager reviews – I finished watching it for the first time in February.

      • Thanks. I hope they’re worthwhile. I can come down quite harsh on the series, to give you fair warning.

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