When the Bough Breaks (TNG Rewatch: Season 1, Episode 16)

Rewatching ST:TNG after a 20-year break.

Advanced aliens from a mythical civilization kidnap children from the Enterprise to repopulate their dying world.

The premise sounds pretty schlocky, and the script is full of familiar Trek cliches, such as the utopia with a dark secret, arrogant aliens who tsk-tsk at the very weaknesses that make humans special, and a society run by an all-powerful computer.

Having said that, I enjoyed the episode, which had some fun exploring how an advanced civilization devoted to culture  might justify the barbaric act of kidnapping.

I never saw this whole episode before, but it draws on so many familiar Trek tropes that I felt like I had. None of the plot twists really surprised me, other than the early sequence showing children disappearing from their classrooms and living quarters. The young actors, including Wil Wheaton as Wesley, did a good job, and tiny little redheaded Alexandra (played by twins Jessica and Vanessa Bova) was just adorable.

Troi mentioned that she sensed “thousands of minds,” but other than a glimpse of a generic purple-sky backdrop through the windows and maybe 10 Aldeans, this episode doesn’t show us much of this mythical ancient civilization — not even a matte painting. However, what with the 10 Aldeans, the 6 guest children, their parents back on the Enterprise, and extras in the hallways, a classroom, and on the bridge, I guess they put their budget into casting rather than world-building.

The muted browns and oranges of the Aldeans nicely contrasted with the brighter colors of the Enterprise children.  The design of the master computer control console looked pretty good (I’m a sucker for hexagons), even though most of the light-up displays were obviously static stencils. And a final scene, which revealed a massive glowing shield generator core, was visually impressive, with its hints of walkways and girders. I was surprised to learn it was just a creatively-lit model hung close to the camera. So, while the presentation is underwhelming, I see a lot of attention to details that helped me to believe I was watching Enterprise children being made to feel at home in a different culture.

This episode includes a medical puzzle for Dr. Crusher (in addition to scenes with the other parents and scenes with Wes), a technical puzzle for LaForge and Data, the usual first-contact away mission for Riker, and the usual ethical debate that requires Picard to show up on the planet and deliver a speech.  Yar and Worf don’t have much to do beyond reporting scanner readings on the bridge, and this week the writers don’t give Troi any meaningful empathetic insights to report.

We briefly saw children during the long saucer-evacuation sequence in Encounter at Farpoint, we saw some children evacuating the ship in 11001001, we briefly saw some children leaving toys in the briefing room in The Last Outpost, and we’ve occasionally seen Wes interacting with kids his age. In Too Short a Season, the wife of an elderly admiral remarks on how their lives might have been different if his postings had permitted families. And we have seen Dr. Crusher struggle to balance her professional obligations with her devotion to her son in Justice.  But this is the first time we really see how the culture of the Enterprise incorporates families that include children.

I think the episode could have done without establishing Aldea as a mythical utopia that’s not only known across the galaxy (except to Yar, who requires an explanation), but Picard also knows this myth is particularly important to Riker. An early scene on the bridge establishes that Aldea has been “monitoring your ship’s communications” and thus already knows who Riker is, but this plot thread goes nowhere. I suppose the writers were trying to establish the superiority and grandeur of this hidden and mythical civilization. Yet according to a computer graphic Wes calls up, it looks like everyone on the planet was living within a short walk from each other, on the same floor of a single building. Troi mentions “thousands of minds,” so while the civilization is in decline, I don’t think it’s supposed to be as small as the staging makes it appear.

Given that classic Trek was famous for having a culturally and racially diverse vision of the future, I was a little surprised that all the Aldeans we meet and all the children they kidnapped were white.

While Riker introduces Aldea with a glowing-eyed story about how the citizens used technology to meet all their daily needs so they could devote themselves to culture, the moral of this story seems to be that it’s not such a good idea for a civilization to ignore STEM education and let its citizens just play music and make sculptures. However, it’s an interesting twist that this episode shows a civilization of arrogant artists who have turned their back on their obligation to learn technology, so that they can’t recognize or deal with the radiation sickness that has been killing their civilization, and that a society supposedly devoted to culture would do such a barbaric thing as kidnap someone else’s children.