The Perfect Mate (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 5, Episode 21) Picard fails to bore an empath

Rewatching ST:TNG

A fussy ambassador on his way to stop a centuries-old war asks Picard to take special care of his fragile, irreplaceable cargo, but by the end of Act 1, a Ferengi has strolled into the unguarded (and apparently unlocked) cargo bay and knocked over a glowing, floating pod, from which a beautiful woman emerges.

The ambassador intends to give Kamala as a gift to seal a peace deal. She is not only an empath, but it’s in her nature to change her personality based on the desires she senses from men. With Picard, she becomes straightforward and independent; she insists she does not need to be rescued, and asserts that she is participating of her own free will.

As Riker shows her to her quarters, she picks up on his curiosity, chatting candidly about her sexuality, and pretty soon it’s snogging time. Riker reluctantly excuses himself, and, still breathing heavily, tells the bridge, “If you need me, I’ll be in holodeck four.”

The script offers a token critique of the sexist premise in the form of a tounge-lashing from Crusher, who complains that Picard is delivering a sentient being “into a life of virtual prostitution.” When Picard consults Kamala again, her discourse hits all the notes that Picard would find persuasive, convincing him that she’s acting according to her nature. When she goes a bit further (“Are all captains’ lives so solitary?”), a clearly moved Picard asks her to stop working her empathetic magic on him.

A comic interlude features Data (who, as an android, is immune to her pheromones) chaperoning her on a trip to Ten Forward, which happens to be full of rowdy civilian miners who apparently desire her to lean backwards on the bar like an old-timey saloon vamp: “I just want to have a good time like anyone else.” As Data hustles her out the door, she growls seductively at Worf.

Even though Picard ordered a guard outside the Ferengi quarters, that doesn’t prevent them from accidentally smashing the ambassador into a special kind of 24th-century glass table designed to burst dramatically into life-threatening shards.

It’s a shame the ambassador was so unexpectedly tabled (haha), because Kamala is apparently unable to perform the peacemaking ritual herself, and the ambassador didn’t think to bring along a single assistant. All of which is actually good news for the plot, because now circumstances demand that she and Picard spend time together training him for the ceremony, and you can probably guess where this is headed.

The many plot contrivances and the sexist premise both earn facepalms, but guest star Famke Janssen does a tremendous job establishing that Kamala enjoys her amorous adventures just as much as the men do, and also conveying that her interest in Picard is much more serious.

Becoming a woman capable of tempting Picard means Kamala must be independent and duty-minded. What makes this story worth telling is the sad fact that even before Picard has the chance to reject her honorably, his “perfect mate” has reluctantly but decisively chosen a life that does not include him. (And that’s a good evolutionary strategy for a species because…. I’m not sure why.)

Because we never hear of a Kamala again, it’s hard to accept that this sacrifice is really all that meaningful to Picard. But that’s really a feature of episodic tv, and nothing against any of the performances.

I was happy to see, in the role of the ambassador, Tim O’Connor — whom I interviewed as a student journalist when he was a guest actor in the U.Va. theater department’s production of Desire Under the Elms.

On my ST:TNG rewatch I have really come to appreciate the charisma and comic timing and charisma of Gates McFadden, especially in not one but two different “breakfast at Jean-Luc’s” scenes, where we get a few more tantalizing glimpses of their long-standing friendship, as she scolds, teases, and (most important) empathizes.