Revisiting Star Trek TNG: When The Bough Breaks

Review James Hunt 25 Jan 2013 - 07:45

The Enterprise's children are abducted by infertile artists in this week's Star Trek: TNG look-back. Here's what James made of it all...

This review contains spoilers.

1.17 When The Bough Breaks

The Enterprise follows a strange "breadcrumb trail" of energy to an apparently abandoned star system. Riker, arriving on the bridge fresh from bumping into some of the ship's many families (heretofore almost entirely unseen) is pleased to learn that they've reached Epsilon Mynos, the home of the ancient, mythical planet of Aldea, a world where computers take care of your every need and leave you to pursue the arts. But spoiler alert! It turns out it's not so mythical after all.

Troi suddently senses the presence of... something -- feelings, or whatever -- which turns out to be the planet Aldea. Because apparently, she's so sensitive she can detect an entire civilisation (of about nine people) from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Aldea decloaks, not because Troi's blown their cover with her super-powered sense of vague unease, but because they've decided to break their silence!

Picard, ever eager to make a date with a new civilisation, invites them on board. "We're ready any time!" he says. Aldea can smell desperation, so they immediately transport onto the bridge. Everyone pretends this isn't a bit rude, except Crusher who gets upset and suggests that they're probably full of lice and parasites and stuff, because they haven't been through decontamination. Luckily, they ignore this, but like any shut-ins, they're a bit upset by bright light, so they go back home taking Riker, Troi and Crusher with them.

Their leader, Radue, explains that the Aldeans have a problem: infertility. So they just want a few of the Enterprise's children to help continue their civilisation. Riker and Crusher get upset by the suggestion, and Troi rather oddly claims that "Humans are very attached to their offspring" as if a) she'd happily turn over her child to these maniacs and b) The Enterprise doesn't have other non-human races on it. Still, the Aldeans push their point. When Riker flat-out refuses, they beam him, Crusher and Troi back, and steal seven children from the Enterprise, including Wesley.

After Radue explains to Picard that the kids are staying with them, they're assigned to different foster families who can help unlock their latent artistic talents (which, for the record, include wood carving, mind-music and manipulation of primitive 3D renderings with a joystick). Rather than accepting the situation, Wesley starts poking around and asking questions about "The Custodian", the computer that runs Aldean society. "Where is the power source?" asks Wesley. "It probably doesn't matter," they reply. "What's behind that strange door?" asks Wesley. "Stop asking difficult questions," they reply.

Flummoxed by the Aldeans' vastly superior technology, Picard stalls by trying to negotiate a fair price for the children (the tenet of fair compensation is one on which Aldean society is built, rather handily). As a demonstration of their power, the Aldeans punt the Enterprise a distance three days away from their planet. Picard sets a course back, but who knows what horrors will be visited upon the children while they're gone?

Over the intervening days, the kids appear to be enjoying their new lives, carving wood, making mind-music, and manipulating 3D renderings. But (surprise!) it turns out, they're all unhappy. Harry carves a wooden Dolphin that reminds him of his dad. Katie makes some sad music. And Alexandra manipulates shapes into a depressed rhombus (probably). Apparently the next generation of Aldeans is going to be a bit emo. Wesley organises some Ghandi-style non-violent resistance and no-one knows what to do, because apparently they're okay abducting children, but not trying to reason with or discipline them.

When the Enterprise returns, Radue asks Picard to help, which is about the stupidest thing anyone does in this episode. It's basically like a farmer asking a fox to convince his chickens they don't want to be eaten by a fox. Predictably, Picard doesn't even try and then announces they're just going to take them home instead. Check! Crusher points out that the reason the Aldeans are infertile is because their shield has destroyed the planet's ozone layer and irradiated them all. Check again! Then Riker and Data disable the Custodian so that Aldean society completely collapses. Check and Mate!

As the Aldeans grimly come to terms with having no planetary cloak and no computer to do all the hard stuff for them, they go and investigate that mysterious room Wesley asked about. Inside is a giant power source that's been running everything for as long as anyone can remember. Radue gives a speech about how they must use this new power for good, rather than child abduction, and the Enterprise crew goes home.

TNG WTF: Okay, I get that TNG doesn't have an infinite budget, but does no-one seem concerned that the entirety of Aldean society appears to consist of about nine people situated in four rooms? The fact that they think stealing seven children will be enough to help breed a new generation when they all die suggests that there's a lot of wasted space down on that planet.

TNG LOL: At one point, Doctor Crusher reminds the parents of the stolen children that as Starfleet officers, they did voluntarily sign up for this mission and "knew the risks". I hate to think what a Starfleet risk assessment looks like, given that over the years, main characters have been mind-controlled, sent into alternate timelines, replaced by their own future selves and occasionally ascended onto another plane of reality.

And, in my head, the moment where Wesley disappears from the bridge plays out like this:

Crusher: "They've taken Wesley!"
Picard: "Plot a course away from Aldea, warp nine!"

Who's That Face? Radua is played by Jerry Hardin, who turned up a couple of times in Star Trek series, most famously as Mark Twain in the TNG episodes Time's Arrow part 1 & 2, and was Deep Throat in The X-Files. Rashella is played by Brenda Strong, who turns up all over US TV shows, but perhaps most famously as Mary Alice, the character in Desperate Housewives who was killed in the first episode and narrated the rest of the show.

Time Until Meeting: 14:03. Picard gathers together the parents of the abducted children to tell them to sit tight.

Captain's Log: As it happens, this is actually a really well-written episode. This might be the first time they've combined a good high concept with a relatively good script. No-one does anything massively stupid or irrational except for Radea, who clearly doesn't recognise a strong bargaining position when he sees one. He's already won, only his insistence on allowing Picard to negotiate a "fair price" means he loses (and they barely get that far – at one point they mention star charts, but that's all.)

The episode does do a good job of building up the stakes, from Riker's first scene, bumping into Harry, which reminds us that children are a presence on the Enterprise, to the kids' abduction, and even their slowly coming to enjoy their new life on Aldea. We do care what happens to these kids. The reveal that they're unhappy is nicely done, as is Wesley's solution. For most of the episode, the bargaining position of the Enterprise is so hopeless that you can almost believe that Picard might lose this one, and that stops a fairly straightforward story seeming to have an inevitable conclusion.

Even Wesley is used well – as the oldest child, he leads the rest in some passive disobedience, and he doesn't act obnoxiously, complain about "adults", or display genius-level intelligence beyond his years. He's just a bit moody and nosy, like a teenager would be.

The problem is that in the grand scheme of Trek, it's a complete throwaway episode and contains almost nothing unique to the franchise. If they'd done this story as an episode of Stargate: Universe, or even Battlestar Galactica, you probably wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Only in comparison to the rest of season one does it distinguish itself, being both technically well-crafted and executed. A compelling story with good ideas and only a couple of flaws - but it's somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Watch or Skip? Oooh, a tough decision. It's a decent enough story, but not in a way that makes you want to watch it. Most of the time I have a vague impression of an episode from watching TNG growing up, but I literally remembered nothing about this one except that it was their cloak that was making them sterile, and I might have just figured that out because you don't have to be a genius to catch that piece of classic TNG irony. Frankly, there are more Star-Trekky episodes worth watching, even if they're technically worse than this one. Skip.

Read James' look-back at the previous episode, Too Short A Season, here.

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Disqus - noscript

This:

And, in my head, the moment where Wesley disappears from the bridge plays out like this:

Crusher: "They've taken Wesley!"
Picard: "Plot a course away from Aldea, warp nine!"

is hilarious.

Meanwhile, at the Bajoran War Orphanage, manager Kes Brevin turns teary-eyed to the orphans and tells them, "I'm sorry, kids, I was just in the midst of negotiating all of you to have homes on Aldea, where you'll be loved and taught how to make mind music. Unfortunately, some bald guy on the Enterprise has just screwed the pooch for you..."

I agree, and honestly, if I were in Picards position I would get back the other 6 kids and leave Wesley behind.

Agreed. Reminds me of this:

Kryten: "They've taken Mr. Rimmer! Sir, they've taken Mr. Rimmer!"
Cat: "Quick, let's get out of here before they bring him back!"

Awww c'mon, guys. If it wasn't for Wesley the Enterprise would have been defeated on any one of several occasions during season 1. He's their most useful crew member!

I've a soft spot for this episode.

It's maturely handled, deals with adult themes, doesn't make Wes the wonderboy the outrageously pompous hero...

It is simplistic, and conforming to letting the audience just roll with the fact they're only going to show 7 kids for such a small area (though it'd be nice if the abductions scenes made the implication that ALL the children were taken. That might have improved what's a fairly good story.)

Hannah Louise Shearer's contributions to the show were always different, but not in a bad way.

Oh, the Custodian's design and some dialogue make me think "they ripped off Zen from 'Blake's 7'."

In 1988, the CGI was reasonably impressive. It still works, at least for the mindset of a little child who'd squeal with delight over such holographic images.

I loved the 'emo' comment, BTW. The episode does inadvertently show how bad the parents are as well; giving the kids everything. It's a little too saccharine, but for an episode that gets 43 minutes of airtime, something had to be glossed over - it's better to have some atmosphere than to bombard with exposition...

Radue should be lucky he didn't zap the Enterprise the distance he had threatened... imagine 90 years being stuck with a gaggle of unhappy children and not knowing how to raise them, while they rebel against their captors because I doubt anything like "Stockholm Syndrome" will take place...

The most underlying moral - about technology ruining a planet and taking care of everyone to the point they don't have to think - is still as strong today as it was back then. Perhaps stronger. The show is maturely handled and deals with even the "the computer does all our thinking for us" trope with some deftness and not heavy-handedly, but it's still there and technology nowadays is consciously made to dumb down people with. People can't even handle simple instruction forms without getting confused, yet we're told the "consumerization of IT" and other things to reduce the need for support staff is going to save the day. The way things are going, users will be none the wiser, productivity will go down, people who make a living helping each other may as well be thrown under the bus... seems like a big lose-lose proposition, but now I'm reading into things and extrapolating way too much out of a story whose moral is a fairly loose association at best...

I agree, even if the Bajorans weren't created for another 3 years or so.

Even in season 1, the human-centric nature - even if subconscious - is still there. The show was always an allegory for the human condition first and foremost... the theme was too literal, especially as the Enterprise-D did have Klingons and Vulcans aboard -- maybe the only children taken were human, due to having the closest similarities to the Aldeans, but now we're having to make inference over an aspect to the story that should have had the story telling the "why" of that situation in the first place. A little exposition doesn't hurt... I still adore the episode, but it isn't perfect... but it does get the core tenets right, and not made in the same hideous vein as "Justice" was... how can season 1 go from such extremes - it's amazing...

I can't help but to LOL despite it all... unlike Rimmer, Wesley didn't have good writers to define and move the character forward. Wesley wasn't made to be the pompous one, especially as later seasons have writers putting in some proper naivety and fallibility. Amusing yet ironic; Wesley started out the way Rimmer became... :)

Agreed, it was a very schizophrenic season, and the writer's strike that followed didn't help. Having only six kids taken felt like it was on the cheap side for a ship of over a thousand.

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