So, about … three years ago? I started reviewing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and rating them all by how bobbins they were. Being me, I stopped doing this more or less without warning, more or less for no reason at the end of the first season. I have, however, been undated by two requests to continue the series.
So here it is!
What a way to start. Because Star Trek was a very issuesy series and I try to take issuesy things seriously I’m going to be spending a lot of this post talking about things that are massively outside my lane.
Content warnings for non-graphic but I hope frank discussion of rape and forced pregnancy which I seem more bothered about than the actual episode is.
Which, thinking about it is, is kind of the main point I want to make here. One of the lowkey weird things about content warnings is that sometimes the warning itself is, to an extent, the content you’re warning about.
So yeah. In this episode, the Enterprise encounters a weird energy surge thing in space which visits Troi while she’s asleep and then she wakes up pregnant. Everybody reacts to this exactly the way you expect people to react to it in a television show made in 1988. Which is to say everyone is either pleased or sexually jealous. All the women immediately get misty-eyed because another woman is pregnant, even though this pregnancy is non-consensual. Riker starts acting very very threatened and Picard, as ever the lone voice of reason on the Enterprise (except when he’s getting possessed or being consumed by melancholy) occasionally raises questions about whether the magic energy being space pregnancy might be a problem.
The thing is, there is weird trend on TV where shows that wouldn’t go near rape for all the Nielsen Ratings in the world seem happy to throw in a forced pregnancy plot as a completely innocuous magic / sci-fi issue of the week. And (again, I’m out my lane here) I feel this is grounded in some really problematic misunderstandings of, um, why rape is bad? Because surely if you think rape is bad because it involves violating another person’s bodily autonomy then you kind have to accept that literally making a woman pregnant without asking her also counts. The only way it wouldn’t count is if you instead subscribe to an incredibly strict, incredibly literal version of the commodity model of sex (in which sex is essentially see as a commodity that women have and men acquire from women) and therefore think rape is bad because it’s essentially acquiring sex you haven’t earned. Rather than because it, y’know, harms a human being?
All of which makes it very hard to judge the episode because I kind of feel I see its core conflict very differently from the people who wrote it. The Child is mostly presented as a sort of sweet mystery in which Deanna Troi has a baby and is happy about it, but the baby is a bit mysterious and turns out to be an alien superintelligence. For my perspective it’s essentially a horror premise where a powerful energy strips someone we care about of her bodily autonomy and then mind controls her.
Where Silence Has Lease
Oh God, Season 2 did not get off to a good start. This episode is bobbins for very different reasons to The Child but it is still very, very bobbins.
While watching this episode I arrived at two slightly different explanations of where it came from. The first was that they just had no budget. The second was that it was a tabletop RPG run by a GM who’d forgotten they were supposed to be doing a game that night and was desperately stalling for time while they a thought of a plot. Spoilers, I may have done this on more than one occasion.
The Enterprise encounters a space anomaly. The anomaly is literally nothing. It is a black squiggle on the viewscreen. There is an extended sequence where they view the black squiggle at higher and higher magnifications and it does not change. Everybody acts shocked that it’s not changing but it also means that they didn’t have to pay to animate two different black squiggles.
Then, suddenly, the Enterprise is inside the nothing thing. It’s not really explained how they got there. It, like, just grew and, like, consumed them somehow? And then they encounter stock footage of a Romulan warbird that immediately explodes (I’m 90% certain this is taken directly from The Neutral Zone, the last episode of the previous season) followed by a ship that is identical in design and layout to the Enterprise. “Oh look,” they cry. “Our sister ship. How convenient.”
Picard orders Riker to beam over to the new ship, taking a “minimal complement” which seems to be code for “no extras we might have to pay” and then there’s a really long sequence of Riker and Worf (“minimal complement”) walking around sets that are also used in this episode just with slightly different lighting and growing increasingly distressed at the fact that they don’t seem to line up sensibly. Almost as if they’re in some kind of TV studio.
Eventually, Picard beams them back and the ship they’ve just been wandering around pointlessly disappears. At which point something something maybe an illusion something something rats in a maze. And then a giant floaty alien head shows up, says it’s been experimenting on them and now it needs to kill half the crew so it can understand death.
Picard, in an uncharacteristically kirk-like maneuver, essentially says “I won’t let you kill half my crew, I’m going to kill all my crew” and then he and Riker go down to the self-destruct room to initiate the self-destruct sequence.
This leads to my favourite scene, definitely in the episode, possibly in all of Star Trek. The conversation between Picard and Riker goes something like this:
Picard: But how long should we set the timer? Should we make it happen quickly or give the crew time to prepare themselves?
Riker: Prepare themselves? How can they prepare themselves? How much time could ever be enough to confront the cold enormity of your inevitable death?[Pause]
Riker: About twenty minutes?
Picard: Yeah, that sounds about right.
So they set the timer for twenty minutes. During which time the entity who has captured the Enterprise politely refrains from killing any more crew members, even though he completely could. He seems to be omnipotent. And it’s not like setting the self-destruct timer means he can’t kill half the crew in order to learn about death. It just puts him on a clock.
But, anyway. Apparently game recognises game and the mysterious woobly face things is all like “fair play Jean-Luc, y’all can go now.”
So they go. The end.
Five bobbins. Honestly, if I was giving one bobbin for every bobbins thing that happened in this episode this would be at least twelve bobbins.
Elementary Dear Data
Ah, this is a classic. Although, in retrospect, it does say not great things about Star Trek TNG that so many of its best episode are the ones in which the characters essentially just pretend to be in a different TV show.
In Elementary Dear Data, Data and Geordi take advantage of a three-day window in which the Enterprise isn’t doing anything (this is established in the cold open) to indulge the popular 23rd century hobby of really serious cosplay.
They start out by trying to re-enact a classic Holmes adventure but Data spoils it by using his knowledge of the original story to jump straight of the ending where the villain is unmasked. With my Holmes nerd hat on, I have a very picky complaint about this. Which is that the story is clearly supposed to be A Scandal in Bohemia but the plot that Data foils is not, in fact, the plot of A Scandal in Bohemia. It’s sort of a generic Holmesian mishmash that happens to reference Bohemia. Maybe the computer was working from a fanfic that Data had also read.
Anyway, Geordi teams up with noted robot racist, Dr Kate Pulaksi to challenge Data to actually solve a Holmes mystery instead of just remembering the solution to a Holmes mystery. They have a couple of false starts and then Geordi—a guy who has grown up in a world with access to advanced computing technology, who works with computers and programmes computers as part of his dayjob that he is good at—instructs the Enterprise’s computer to “create an adversary capable of defeating Data” with no other parameters or limitations.
Thus the computer creates a fully sentient AI that is able to seize control of the Enterprise.
Leading to perhaps my second favourite scene in all of Star Trek where Geordi and Data have to go to their actual boss and say “Hi Captain, we LARPed so hard we might have destroyed the ship.”
Whereupon Picard, now in full stern dad mode, has to get dressed up as a Victorian, go into the holodeck and have a conversation with Moriarty about the nature of matter, energy, existence and consciousness. All while he was meant to be having a day off.
The thing is, for an episode with a fundamentally ludicrous premise there’s a tonne of stuff here that I unironically love. Any episode that is Data and Geordi at play is just incredibly charming from the outset—and, actually, the development of Data and Geordi’s friendship is one of TNG’s emotional keystones for me. And, frankly, for anybody with a soul. Or, for that matter, a positronic brain.
Also, despite only coming in at the very end to send everyone to bed without any supper, this is actually a really good Picard being Picard episode. Because, let’s be clear, if any of this had happened on Kirk’s ship, he’d have gone in there, made out with a problematic hologram of a Victorian prostitute, then smacked Moriarty in the teeth (or more likely in the small of the back with that two-handed chop thing that he always did). But while everyone else is sitting around discussing how best to blow up the holodeck with killing Noted Robot Racist Dr Kate Pulaski Picard is just like, “okay, I’ll go talk to him.” And perhaps I’m just sentimental about artificial intelligence (I like to hope that if I was on TNG Data would be my best friend too) but the conversation between Picard and Moriarty—as they sort of meet as two educated sentient beings who share the same curiosities, hopes and aspirations—is quietly very sad. Because Moriarty essentially has to come to terms with the fact that his own existence is impossible.
And, actually, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated bit of science fiction storytelling. Because 99 times out of a 100 when somebody accidentally creates a self-aware AI on this kind of show it immediately goes to “therefore I have to destroy all humans.” And so having it instead go to “I have become aware that there is an entire universe outside my direct experience but that also the laws of physics prohibit me from ever interacting with it and I am legit not sure how to feel about that” is both interesting and unusual.
All of which said, as much as I love it, I can’t quite give this episode less than three bobbins. Two of those bobbins come from the sheer fact that it’s a holodeck episode. Worse, a holodeck episode where a major plot point is that Moriarty can’t leave the holodeck but where they physically take items from inside the holodeck out of the holodeck on a semi-regular basis. Come on guys. You’ve got, like, one rule. The other bobbin comes from the fact that, well, you know how Data is the product of this lone genius scientist who invented this thing called the positronic brain allowing him to create a fully self-aware humanoid machine that can learn and think but is still, in some ways, limited, being able to feel emotions or, for some bizarre reason, use contractions? (Pedants in the audience, yes I’m aware that some of that’s deliberate because Lore but bear with me here). Well in this episode Geordi creates a fully sentient AI that is exactly as smart as Data and seems able to feel emotions (to the point of being able to have quite a sophisticated existential crisis) and can probably use contractions just fine (although since he is a Victorian man he does not) all by saying two sentences to a computer.
What was Noonien Soong wasting his time on?
Three loving bobbins.
The Outrageous Okana
Someone decided Han Solo should be in Star Trek. A dashing freighter pilot gets rescued by the Enterprise, seems to have sex with the entire crew (like, seriously, he flirts so hard with Riker, and there’s definitely something going on between him and Wesley), resolves an interplanetary Romeo and Juliet thing, then leaves.
Also Teri Hatcher is in this episode as a sexy transporter chief.
Weirdly, this episode is so forgettable that it’s also not very bobbins because it doesn’t have enough substance to bob adequately. That said, Okana is pretty bobbins all by himself.
Three fairly apathetic bobbins
Loud As A Whisper
This is a very special episode about disability (which is weird when you realise that one of the recurring characters on the show is blind). And I’m going to start off with a quick digression about the language I use to talk about disability issues and why I use it.
In identity politics stuff in general there are sometimes disagreements over whether you should use people first language (people of colour, people with disabilities) in order to highlight the humanity of the people you’re talking about or identity first language (BAME people, disabled people) in order to highlight that you are talking about a coherent identity group that has specific interests and that can be discriminated against. In all demographics there are people who have preferences but, generally, it’s well-accepted that there isn’t a consensus either way. And that’s mostly true of disability issues as well but there seems to be more of a US/UK split on the use of people first versus identity first language. So I, in the UK, am mostly used to people using the term “disabled person” to describe themselves and so that’s the language I use. I am aware that some people in the US think that it is only acceptable to use the term “people with disabilities” but here I feel it’s best for me to guided by the language with which people tend to self-identify in the part of the world I live in. Independently of that, I also personally feel that there is real value in using language which highlights the fact that many of the difficulties disabled people face are not inevitable but are, in fact, a consequence of a type of discrimination so invidious that we often don’t realise it’s discrimination. Ultimately I am no more innately able to get from the ground floor of a building to the first floor than a wheelchair user is. The difference is that staircases effectively discriminate against people who get around differently to me.
Anyway. The premise of this episode is that there is a planet that’s been fighting a war for fifteen hundred years between two factions of problematically characterised aliens and Picard is tasked with escorting a renowned mediator by the name of Riva to negotiate peace between them. And Riva (because this is a very special episode about disability) is deaf.
I actually went into the episode kind of braced for the cringe and, in retrospect, I think that was evidence of a certain cultural arrogance on my part. Obviously there are a lot of things that were much less well-handled by pop culture in 1988 than they are in 2021. But, actually, I’m not sure disability is one of them. Not, I should stress, because I think the 1980s were especially brilliant but because I think we haven’t really come that far since. I should also say, obviously, I am not myself disabled, I do not have any standing whatsoever to judge how well pop culture handles disability except from my own as-informed-as-I-can be (which is not very informed) outsider’s perspective.
Anyway, Riva communicates with the assistance of a “chorus”: three people with whom he’s formed some kind of empathic bond that lets them hear his thoughts and allows him to speak through them. And (again, no standing here) I personally felt the episode did a good job of presenting the way Riva communicates as being meaningfully different but not some kind of magical superpower. (Thinking about it, he even really explicitly states “I have no magic” multiple times in the episode which is a bit on the nose but given that we’re still portraying disabled people as magical even today probably worth saying).
Unfortunately, during the first round of negotiations with the problematic aliens, a rogue alien fires off a phaser and kills Riva’s chorus. This was the bit where I started worrying that it was going to stray into the kind well-intentioned portrayal of disability that is still very much around where assistive technologies are essentially treated like Dumbo’s magic feather. I watched a YouTube video a couple of months ago about Finding Dory and one of the things it pointed out was that, in theory, the film is an interesting exploration of disability and most of the characters in it are disabled in some way. But in almost all of the emotionally or plot significant moments in the film the disabled characters resolve their problems by just … kind of not being disabled for a bit? So Dory has real problems with her memory that are presented as having very strongly impacted her life but when it’s emotionally or narratively important she either remembers or guesses right. And there’s the whale whose whole thing is that he can’t echo locate and his big triumphant moment is that, when it really comes to the crunch and he needs to, he … um … can echo locate all of a sudden?
And maybe I’m wrong but I feel like this is quite a common way for popular media to handle disabilities, especially metaphor disabilities. It starts with the well-intentioned and arguably empowering message that having a disability doesn’t make you less valuable as a person but very frequently falls back on the implication that this is because disabilities somehow magically go away when they’re inconvenient. See very many, but I should say not all, disabled superheroes.
Basically my fear with this episode was that Riva would be required to realise that his chorus were “just a crutch” (and when you think about it, like, that in itself is a problematic phrase—people on crutches tend to need them) and that he can negotiate just as well without them as he can with them. And … no. He is initially very traumatised because he feels responsible for their deaths, believing he got his friends killed through his own arrogance, which is a completely fair thing for a character to feel in that situation. Then, when Data learns the sign language in which he communicates, he explains to Picard that he still can’t do his job as well with Data translating for him because his chorus allowed him to convey nuance and emotion and Data doesn’t. And, yes, it ends with Riva and Troi working out that he use the requirement to teach the problematic aliens sign language so that they can communicate with him as a ploy to get them to communicate with each other. But that’s very much presented as making a virtue of necessity not as evidence that the diplomacy was inside him all along and that the chorus were just some kind of very elaborate placebo.
And thinking about it, this is normally how the series handles Geordi’s visor as well. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché that Geordi’s visor is always the thing that picks up the thing that nothing else can detect (I’ve heard the ‘why don’t they reconfigure the sensors to operate like Geordi’s visor’ joke a million times) but it’s actually quite consistently shown that the way Geordi sees with his visor is different from but neither superior to nor inferior than the way his crewmates see with their eyes. So it’s not blindness that’s a superpower here. It’s, well, diversity? If everyone saw like Geordi they’d miss things aren’t obvious to him but are obvious to people with biological eyes and optic nerves. But if no-one saw like Geordi the whole Enterprise would have been destroyed in multiple episodes.
Two bobbins. This episode is painfully sincere and could really do with using the word “special” about 40% less but, as a very special episode about an issue, I was remarkably impressed. Also it’s a rare occasion of Troi getting to be competent, rather than just saying “I sense great hostility, Captain” while the Klingons are literally shooting the Enterprise in the face.