Star Trek: The Next Generation: When the Bough Breaks   Rewatch 
May 29, 2020 1:42 PM - Season 1, Episode 17 - Subscribe

MA: “Wesley Crusher must protect a group of kidnapped Enterprise-D children while Captain Picard fights for their release.”

The Enterprise arrives at the Epsilon Mynos system, according to legend the location of the mythical planetary Aldea. According to Riker, Aldea home to a culture with a similar standing to Atlantis in Federation lore. Naturally, the entire planet uncloaks just then, and the Enterprise enters into communications with the more-advanced Aldeans.

It transpires that the Aldeans want to trade knowledge and technology for some of the children aboard the Enterprise, and this is strongly dismissed by the Federation people. On encountering this resistance, the Aldeans simply take seven kids, including Wesley Crusher. Wes organizes the kids into a hunger strike.

Picard stalls for time, seeking to keep the Aldeans talking until an Enterprise away team can locate and retrieve the children. It transpires that the reason they want the kids is that they have become unable to procreate.

Eventually the Enterprise people figure out how to defeat the planetary shielding and beam down at the same time that the reason for the Aldeans’ sterility is identified - the planetary defense and cloaking system has been radiation poisoning the inhabitants, and would also have affected the kidnapped kids in time. Dr. Crusher indicates that the illness is treatable and reversible and the Aldeans return the children and eschew the cloaking device.

Memory Alpha inexplicably refers to the plush toy that one of the Enterprise children carries as being a tribble; it is clearly not a tribble, as it has a tail.

Two of Wil Wheaton’s siblings, Amy and Jeremy, portray two of the kidnapped children. The character of Alexandra is played by twins Jessica and Vanessa Bova.

Brenda Strong, who portrays Rashella, went on to a long career in television but is best known for her role as the voice of Mary Alice Young, the deceased narrator on Desperate Housewives.

The male guest lead, Radue, is portrayed by Jerry Hardin, who will return as Samuel Clemens in the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow” and in one episode of VOY.

The episode was written by Hannah Lousie Shearer, who was hired as a story editor for the rest of the season and went on to write a total of six TNG episodes and one DS9 episode.

The episode was directed by Kim Manners, who went on to be a primary director and producer on The X-Files.

Poster’s Log:

I very much enjoyed the opening sequence I felt it absolutely nailed the sense of discovery and wonder that TNG sought to evoke.

When Wesley organizes the kids I was amused. Direct action gets the goods!

I also thought I saw Wil move out of the stiffness he often projects in his role and into a maturer acting style with the kids, it’s pretty great.

Finally, a personal note. As I have previously remarked, I have come to adoption and disrupted parenting as a major continuing theme of Star Trek in all incarnations. This is the first time, with the exception of Wesley’s backstory, that the theme is a primary plot element. It was really fascinating to me that while the Aldeans are presented as enacting a wrong that the Enterprise people will redress, the Aldeans are also shown to be strongly motivated and open to reason once the underlying issue has been addressed.

The separation of the kids from their parents on the Enterprise was reminiscent, however, of two things in our contemporary global economy: boarding schools, and international adoption. As I have noted many times here in these Trek threads, I am an adoptee and so I see the show through the lens of that experience. In my coming to better understand myself as an adoptee, I have sought out other adoptees in order to listen to their experiences and their families’ experiences, and a particular aspect of the experience of many international adoptees is the inherent power imbalance between the relinquishing parents overseas and the adopting parents here in the US or elsewhere in more-prosperous countries. It’s absolutely normal for relinquishing parents to describe coercive or deceptive practices leading to the relinquishment, and can be deeply upsetting for international adoptees as it becomes clear that this coercive structure is a foundational aspect of international adoption.

With that in mind, I had a very hard time seeing the Adleans as especially different from adoptive parents who seek out internationally-sourced children. I especially appreciated that they are not demonized by the script; they see their actions as necessary and justified.

I’m reasonably sure this is an unintended subtext of the script, but I definitely see it.

Overall, a pretty good episode, I thought. Possibly an example of unintended current events and concerns making their way into the script.
posted by mwhybark (13 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I liked the subplot of the little boy who was really an artist, and of course the strongly hammered idea that it's bad to turn all your intellectual tasks over to a computer, because it might decide that its programming says it's ok to kill your world slowly with radiation so long as you stay hidden.
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on May 29, 2020

I too noticed Wheaton's acting here on this rewatch. I've seen this one many many times and it's got to be ranked pretty high up there on the list of TNG Installments Where You Actually Like Wesley. That's both due to his acting and a script that's meaty for him.

On rewatch, the wrap-up feels a little tidy, but by no means unearned, dramatically-speaking. Throughout, we get the crew firing on all cylinders, getting the job done. Picard in particular shows some savvy here.

With that in mind, I had a very hard time seeing the Adleans as especially different from adoptive parents who seek out internationally-sourced children. I especially appreciated that they are not demonized by the script; they see their actions as necessary and justified.

I'd thought about the adoption correlation to this story, and I knew about some of those systemic issues, but I never made that exact connection before, so thanks for that POV. It is indeed so nice and refreshing to take in some TV that's respectful to all involved parties. I noticed, for instance, that nobody even asks about the planet's defensive capabilities against photon torpedoes or whatever.

Still a little bit of that TOS-reminiscent strangeness at work—are Earthlings truly UNUSUAL, galactically-speaking, in valuing their children more than their lives?! and did we need another dysfunctional society run by a computer?—but the rest is strong enough this time to transcend it.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 2:34 PM on May 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

yeesh, apologies for the lack of editing! I wrote it it in gdocs and polished it prior to posting, obviously insufficiently.
posted by mwhybark at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2020

This was both a very TOS-like episode, with its computer taking care of all the dirty work, and at the same time a deconstruction of same, because it shows both the incredible arrogance of privilege (the Aldeans' plan may be born of desperation, but at the same time they think that the kids will get over their separation from their parents once they get to play with a few fancy toys) and the incredible helplessness and obliviousness born of that privilege (they can't see that the thing that protects them is also killing them, despite their alleged sophistication and learning). TOS often decried the idea of a computer-run utopia because it simply seemed wrong to Kirk and Co. that all these planets didn't have their own Starfleet or something; this give a solid reason for why that sort of steady-state civilization might be a bad idea--to paraphrase a line from Platoon, when the machine breaks down, they all break down.

As for the personal resonance, I wasn't adopted but I was orphaned at an early age, and put under the care of relatives who were both not really up to the job but really wanted to believe that they were, and thought that whatever degree of loss or grief that I was going through could be dealt with simply by their insisting that "we're your parents now", so I can relate.

Also, very good to see Wesley be a Regular Kid again instead of The Chosen One/Nice Rick Sanchez or whatever.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:46 PM on May 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

This is one of the first season eps where you sort of start to see a glimmer of greatness. Just a glimmer though.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:54 PM on May 29, 2020

mwhwybark, these posts are great and I really appreciate them.
posted by skewed at 7:34 AM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I like Wesley as the organizer here. Solidarity, comrades!

They do the thing here where Radue turns on a dime from antagonism to thoughtful soliloquy to wrap the episode. Karnas, in the last episode, did the same thing. It feels very oldrtrek, very stagey.
posted by rodlymight at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2020

You would think that by the 24th century the Aldeans would realize they could just harvest a bunch of eggs and sperm from volunteers on the Enterprise (Okay, a bunch of eggs from volunteers and sperm from Riker: 'That's enough, Number One!') and build some incubators rather than stealing children, but that wouldn't make for much of a show.

Regardless, a very good Wesley episode.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:54 AM on May 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, Alvy, that reminds me of a single line of dialogue that Mrs. Cheeses came up with to resolve the entire conflict during Riker's first beamdown:

"Ya know, Radue, there are these things called orphanages."
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 10:14 AM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had literally no memory at all that this episode even existed! Despite watching every single one multiple times in the original airings, and the whole series at least once or twice in repeats. Wow. I wonder if I blocked it out for Wesley reasons (it took me a loooong time to care about that character) or for the child-stealing.

Thanks for the adoption thoughts, too, mwhybark--I'm also an adoptee, and that's a really interesting perspective to view this through.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 10:15 AM on May 30, 2020

Kitten and others, I am kinda keeping my powder dry on the adoption thing, in part because I can kinda run my mouth on it. I’m also sort of reaching for more-inclusive language that better addresses the panoply of disrupted nurture and identity seen in Star Trek.

Spock’s identity is perpetually in flux, presumably because he was designed that way - his very appearance taps into European myths about pixies, elves, and changelings. In TOS this also gets explored slightly with regard to Kirk, who is on more than one occasion doubled into a good and bad twin. In TOS the theme of disrupted nurture and substitute parenting is less central - it occurs more with regard to guest characters, as in “Charlie X” or “Miri,” or, God help me, “The Changeling” and eventually V’ger.

In TNG, at first we have no less than four primary cast characters with experiences of disrupted nurture and identity - Wesley, a character the series struggles to present despite repeated effort; Data, a Pinocchio analogue also drawn from European changeling myth; Tasha Yar, another character the series struggles to present; and, most centrally for my concerns, Worf, whom we do not yet know is an adoptee.

I have written elsewhere on the site as well that there is a significant and undeniable continuing trope of the adoptee in myth and genre. From Moses to Superman, the gifted outsider borne not of the central culture group but taking the identity thereof is absolutely central to these writing traditions, and I think that’s the storytelling DNA at work in Trek here. That said, the people writing Trek are people that lived and worked in Southern California over decades of rapid social and value changes which coincided with a rising incidence of adoption over the late sixties and into the eighties. So it seems likely that the explicit introduction of the theme in Worf’s arc likely reflects some degree of personal experience within the staff, crew, writers, and performers of the franchise.

I suspect and expect that the degree to which this writing is self-revealing is entirely unintentional. Therefore I hope that attempting to note and unpack it will provide deeper insight into both our contemporary culture and the strengths and weaknesses of Trek per se.
posted by mwhybark at 10:42 AM on May 30, 2020 [9 favorites]

I wonder how many late 80s kids tried using these tactics on their parents.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:26 AM on May 30, 2020

You would think that by the 24th century the Aldeans would realize they could just harvest a bunch of eggs and sperm from volunteers on the Enterprise (Okay, a bunch of eggs from volunteers and sperm from Riker: 'That's enough, Number One!') and build some incubators rather than stealing children, but that wouldn't make for much of a show.

Well, they did kind of go to that well later on in Up the Long Ladder, although it was epithelial cells for cloning the colonists wanted rather than gametes for germination. I doubt the crew would have been any more receptive to the idea at Aldea than they were at Mariposa.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:58 AM on June 1, 2020

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