It is that time again that I rate five episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation by how bobbins they are. That’s it. No more introduction. Let’s go.
The Schizoid Man
There are two things that are unfortunate about this title. The first is that it’s, um, not the most sensitive title in the world for an episode of a TV show or, I think, the most accurate in its use of mental health terminology. The second is that it’s also the title of a classic episode of the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. And, particularly in nerd circles, that’s not a comparison you want to invite.
Anyway, this is a “someone wants to steal Data” episode. The someone in this case is pervy narcissist Ira Graves who, like, grooms Data by claiming to be his grandfather and then steals his body in order to evade death. And haven’t we all been there?
The thing I like most about this episode is how little effort pervy narcissist Ira Graves makes to act in any way like Data. He keeps it up for all of five minutes before backtalking Picard and hitting on his hot younger assistant (who, possibly, might be up for it, were it not for the fact he wants to turn her into a robot too). It’s also the episode that contains the “to know him is to love him is to know him” speech, which for some reason has been burned into my memory since I first saw this episode when it aired in … I want to say 1987? That is perfectly good brain space I could have used for literally anything else. Except obviously not because that’s not how brains work.
This episode also gets points for being another episode where Picard defeats the villain by just kind of having a conversation with him. I guess when all you’ve got is a classically trained actor every problem begins to look like a nail with insufficient gravitas.
This feels like quite a standard Star Trek episode so I think that makes it three bobbins by default.
In this episode, noted robot racist Dr Pulaski becomes infected with a mysterious aging sickness that has already killed the entire crew of a federation starship. This is entirely her own fault. And I might sympathise more with her scientific hubris (and, genuinely, it was kind of nice, especially in the 1980s, to see that trait in a female character) were it not for the fact she is a giant robot racist. And, to be fair, in this episode she does have some development in her relationship with Data, but I think that’s part of the problem. Because Dr Pulaski’s refusal to accept that Data is a real person is quite deliberately portrayed as a racism parallel it’s hard to root for her and Data to “work out their differences” when their differences are literally “she refuses to acknowledge his humanity.” Something something fine people on both sides something something partisanship.
Anyway, the crew of Enterprise arrive at a genetic research station which is also being afflicted by the very fast aging disease and all the researchers say “we’re dying of very fast aging disease, but it is DEFINITELY NOT caused by our weird, genetically engineered children.”
Spoiler: it is caused by the weird, genetically engineered children.
One of the things I really value about Star Trek, and think it has lost in its more recent incarnations, is its absolute commitment to being optimistic sci-fi. In a post-Black Mirror world it’s really refreshing (or, depending on how you look at it, jarring) to have an episode where the plot basically goes: so we did these genetic experiments to produce a generation of super humans who reach full physical maturity in twelve years, are hyper-intelligent, telepathic and never get sick. Unfortunately their immune systems are so strong that they seem to kill everyone around them. Whoops. The lesson I take away from this is that there is one minor flaw in our otherwise very sensible plan.
And I know phrased that in a flippant way but, genuinely, I kind of like that? Like the Enterprise just flies away cheerfully, leaving these people to continue their incredibly difficult, provably dangerous research into a field, let’s not forget, led to vast genocidal wars in the actual backplot of actual Star Trek. And that’s … bizarrely cool? Because actually trying to use science to make stuff better for people isn’t, whatever Black Mirror might tell you, some doomed or futile endeavour to play in God’s domain. Humans have frequently discovered, and will frequently continue to discover, things that just straight up help people. I mean, yes, without antibiotics we wouldn’t have antibiotic resistant bacteria. But let’s be mega clear: the worst case scenario of antibiotic resistant bacteria is that we wind up no worse off than we were before antibiotics.
Anyway, it’s a Pulaski-heavy episode and I’d dock it a point except I’m not doing points. Assuming you are okay with its weirdly optimistic take on breeding a race of telepathic superhumans it’s a decent sci-fi medical mystery.
A Matter of Honor
Fuck off Klingons are amazing.
In this episode, Riker participates in an exchange programme which means he has to go and be first officer of a Klingon vessel for a bit. And, yes, this makes no sense. And, yes, the core conflict is that there’s some kind of weird space bacteria that eats ships that happens to infect both the Klingon vessel and the Enterprise while they’re doing the transfer, which is one of the most forced plot contrivances I’ve seen in an episode of Star Trek so far. And, just to remind you, this is Star Trek we’re talking about. A show whose forced plot contrivances are so famous there’s a song about it.
But fuck off Klingons are amazing. I will never not celebrate a Klingon episode. Qapla!
The Measure of a Man
This is an all-time favourite for so many reasons. Strong Data focus: check. Captain Picard doing speeches: check. Riker also doing speeches: check. Picard having a slightly age-inappropriate relationship with a female character we never see again: check. Slightly pretentious episode title so you’re not sure isn’t a Babylon 5: check. Unintentional homoerotic undertone: check.
So this is episode where a dude from Star Fleet wants to fuck Data—I mean wants to take Data back to his star base to do experiments on his brain in order to create an army of Datas he can fuck—I mean, for the benefit of the Federation. There is then just forty minutes of Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes giving impassioned speeches about philosophy as they debate whether Data is a person or not in front of a lady who, really, really wants to bang Picard.
The lady who really, really wants to bang Picard is excellent, by the way. She’s all “justice justice justice this isn’t about your feelings this is about the law wanna bang.” Also they definitely had sex in the past, and it’s super unclear whether it’s before or after she court martialled him, and I’m not sure which way round is hotter. It’s like full-on classic D&D lawful neutral versus lawful good sexual tension.
I think the episode is also just a surprisingly decent stab at really interrogating its underlying philosophical question. Riker, despite not wanting to, makes a pretty compelling argument that, when you get right down to it, Data is a machine. And the bits where he takes off his hand and switches him off are both shocking and weirdly rhetorically effective, although the part where he gets Data to demonstrate his ability to bend a rod of parsteel thus proving that he has capacities well beyond those that a human could possess falls flat because Picard marshals the amazing counter argument: “objection! There are many lifeforms possessed of mega strength!”
I mean, he’s not wrong. But if we still lived in a world where ringtones where a thing, mine would be Patrick Stewart shouting about mega-strength.
The other line in this episode that sits slightly oddly with me is the bit when Wants To Bang Picard Lady is doing her summing up and she phrases the question before the court “does Data have a soul?” And, um, the answer is no. The answer is definitely no. A central tenet of the Star Trek universe (especially in this era, it gets a bit wibbly with the Bajorans) is that there is no religion and everyone is an atheist. The Federation doesn’t believe in souls. Sorry, that bugged me more than it should. Although I suppose, thinking about it, it would pretty on brand if it wasn’t so much strictly atheistic (they’re said to have given up on “superstitions” which seems to include organised religion) as, you know, spiritual but not religious.
Anyway, this episode is amazing. Anyone who says this episode is not amazing is just being a hipster.
Although I do feel bad for Bruce Maddox who is so uncomfortable with his desire to bang data that he concocts this whole thing about to wanting “continuing Noonian Soong’s research” as an elaborate cover. Come on man, just accept who you are. And who you are is someone who fancies Data and that’s okay.
Okay, hear me out. This is Wesley-centric episode in which he gets a crush on a pretty girl, and there’s also an objectively hilarious giant hairy bugsuit monster thing, but it’s actually really sweet and I kind of … genuinely love it?
This episode opens with Wesley doing a thing in engineering with Geordi. Which means you know it’s going to be a Wesley-centric episode. Then, it’s explained that the Enterprise’s mission is to pick up a spurious head of state from a weird inhospitable planet where she (very explicitly she) has been living for the past sixteen years (very explicitly sixteen years). And you realise it’s going to be that kind of Wesley-centric episode.
Needless to say, the spurious head of state is extremely pretty and slightly dorky and incredibly teenage and she’s all “oh I just want to be a normal carbon-based life-form and go on dates and eat chocolate pudding with boys but instead I have to resolve a war between two irreconcilable factions on a tidally locked planet because that is a thing that happens in this universe” and all the adults on the Enterprise are like “yep, that seems like a totally legit thing to be going on” and Wesley is like “but I want to kiss her real bad” and … that’s like the entire plot.
Oh before I forget part of Wesley’s “I want to kiss her real bad” arc involves seeking romantic advice from various unhelpful members of the Enterprise. Which includes Worf demonstrating a Klingon mating roar (leading to the exchange “are you saying I should roar at her?” “no, women roar, then throw heavy objects. Men read love poetry and duck a lot”) and Riker and Guinan trying to teach him chat-up lines but getting way too into it and sort of pulling each other right in front of him. And to give Wesley credit, having had all this patently useless advice, he ignores it and decides to be himself and it works really well.
Wesley Crusher got game. I bet he gets that from his dad. By which I mean his secret real dad, Picard. Not canon. (Also, I don’t actually like that fan theory, because I think “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he got his father killed” is a more nuanced take than “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he nailed his mom.”)
Anyway, what I really like about this episode is that the spurious head of state is basically the protagonist of a YA novel that’s going on in the background while other people are largely ignoring it. She’s got a destiny, an over-protective mentor with whom who she has quite a complex relationship, she has to make a hard choice between her people and a boy, and freedom and duty and stuff. Also dating is difficult when you’re a shape shifting being of pure light who sometimes turns into a giant ant-gorilla. If this episode had been written ten-to-twenty years later they’d have got three novels and a movie series out of it.
Plus Wesley comes out of this episode surprisingly well. It’s 47 minute TV from the 80s so he does quite a lot of emotional whiplashing but he gets a nice “meets girl, falls for girl, is briefly betrayed by girl, says tender emotional farewell to girl” arc. And it ends on a poignant scene with Guinan where Wesley is all sad and Guinan, unusually for a wise mentor character in a TV show from the 80s, gives him advice that’s … not completely obvious and trite? Like Wesley is all “oh, I’ll never feel this way again” and Guinan’s like “you’re right you won’t.” And Wesley’s like “wah?” and Guinan’s like, “That’s the thing about love, it’s kind of different every time and that’s okay.” Which is a much more nuanced take than you would normally get in that kind of story.
I appreciated this take because one of the problems that teen romance dramas often have is that it becomes necessary for the protagonist to have more than one romantic interest. But because they’re ground in this model of love that (and apologies, I stole this from Jenny Nicholson’s Vampire Diaries review but it’s genuinely the best summary I’ve heard) goes “you can love exactly one person and you meet them when you’re a teenager and you can never love any body else ever even if one of you dies” it can get super weird. Buffy, for example, never really reconciled the tension between Angel being Buffy’s One True Forever Love and his fucking off to be on a different TV show really early in the series.
Anyway, yes it’s a Wesley Gets A Girlfriend episode with all that entails. But I really liked it. I mean, it still gets at least three bobbins just for the giant ant-monkey monster thing that everyone tries to act terrified of when it’s clearly just an actor in a suit who isn’t able to move very fast or effectively. And they have to do that kind of fighting where they just grab each other’s arms and sort of rock side-to-side which I assume is a recognised martial art in the 24th century.
So. Three bobbins.