TNG: S4E04: “Suddenly Human”

In which Picard raises a teenager.

After a while, you start to get a feel for the broad themes that are going to be involved from the title alone. Well, either that or you remember bits and pieces of the episode and try to make sense of them. I remember this episode involving a kid who for some reason or another decides not to be human, in an interesting variation on “The Bonding” situation with Worf and Jeremy Aster. Let’s see how right I am.

The Enterprise has responded to a distress call from a Talarian craft which has been completely disabled and is full of deadly ionizing radiation. That said, Data also reminds us that the Talarians have used the tactic of leaving their ships adrift, booby-trapping them, and sending out a distress call. This paints a not-very-flattering picture of the Talarians and their culture immediately – we don’t know how desperate their fight was with that other species, but we can infer that the other guys would at least pay attention to a distress call (maybe for alienitarian reasons, maybe to take prisoners) and that the Talarians didn’t care about either the safety of their own wounded (an enemy subjected to this tactic would learn to ignore or destroy ‘disabled’ ships with extreme prejudice) or collateral damage to external forces. That one line alone is an example of the kind of implicit worldbuilding I just can’t get enough of.

I always tend to wonder about the utility of things like this. Do the lights  here or in the Enterprise warp core actually provide some sort of diagnostic effect, is it a necessary facet of construction, or did the ship designers just decide it looked cool?

I always tend to wonder about the utility of things like this. Do the lights here or in the Enterprise warp core actually provide some sort of diagnostic effect, is it a necessary facet of construction, or did the ship designers just decide it looked cool?

Anyway, another Talarian warship has also responded, but Troi tells us that there’s life on board the ship and it’s fading, so Picard orders them to swing into action. A small task force goes aboard and finds a bunch of radiation-burned teens, one of whom is human. Seems this was a training ship and someone forgot to press the ‘don’t explode’ button, but – hey wait, did I just say one of them is human? I guess that explains it.

Note to self – double takes don’t really work in text form.

I'm not sure which is better - Picard exasperatedly shouting, Riker in the background going 'really, that's your plan?' or the fact that it works.

I’m not sure which is better – Picard exasperatedly shouting, Riker in the background going ‘really, that’s your plan?’ or the fact that it works.

The human, Jono, remains steadfastly stonefaced in the face of Crusher’s bedside manner, and then all the kids all start howling in terror and rocking back and forth until Picard comes in and yells at them. They appear to respond to command, and once Picard is addressed out loud as Captain, Jono seems willing to speak, and asks to be returned to his own chain of command. Also, Crusher reveals that Jono has a list of injuries which seems like a lot, but also which a few people I know would scoff at as normal teenage hijinx. Crusher’s point of view is that it’s possible he was brutalized by the Talarians as part of their culture of mercilessness.

Everything we’re seeing so far indicates that Talarian culture is pretty terrible, when judged by human standards. He refuses to accept that he is human which is understandable if he spent the last seven of his 14 years among Talarians. However, to complicate matters, he turns out to be the grandson of an admiral. I mean, I guess it would complicate matters if he had any living relatives in the Federation at all, but I guess it seems more important if the relative has clout. Also, Talarian society is rigidly patriarchal and male-dominated, his powerful living relative is a woman, and so Troi suggests that Piacrd mentor Jono in the ways of being human. This is met by exactly the reaction from Picard that you might expect – raw atavistic terror and a warp burst glinting off Picard’s head as he runs from the room. Metaphorically, anyway.

"Thank you, Captain Obvious."

“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

In one of those ‘this is never going to happen jump cut it is happening’ things, Jono get himself bunked with Picard and starts messing with his artifacts. Picard tries, with his usual delecacy around children, to start the process of confronting Jono with his human heritage and fails miserably. He goes to Troi for advice and explains that he is not really good with children. Troi tries not to laugh, and manages to get Picard to open up a little.

Turns out that Picard pretty much skipped childhood in order to achieve the one thing he really wanted to do – be a Starfleet Captain. So he can’t relate to children, particularly children who think they’re Talarian and listen to heavy alien metal at high volumes while lying in hammocks of their own devising. In fact, I believe that this is the first time we’ve experienced an original piece of performance art that was composed after 1989, and it’s alien. There are reasons for not bothering to try to speculate on the entertainment sensibilities of four hundred years in the future, but it always has this whiff of cultural stagnation. People in the Star Trek future cook, and play ancient classical music and paint in ancient styles and read ancient books, but the only modern media they consume or create is technological treatises and philosophical papers on the ethics of new technologies. Nobody (on the Enterprise, at least) is reading the new urban fantasy series or a thriller about a daring Lieutenant stranded far outside the Federation who has to Stop a Deadly Threat. Heck, Reg Barclay is the closest we’ve seen so far to anyone producing new media, and it’s office co-worker porn.

Picard tries to teach Jono about his origin. There’s a baby picture with his human parents, and we find out that for some reason the Talarians went to war with a Federation colony. Jono gets brief flashes of memory from his human life as Jeremiah.

It's hard to get a sense of scale and I can't find official numbers, but I don't think the Enterprise warp core could even fit on this ship. What are they using for power?

It’s hard to get a sense of scale and I can’t find official numbers, but counting the windows indicates somewhere between 6 and 10 decks maximum. 

Captain Endar of the Talarian warship shows up and seems genuinely relieved that Jono is also alive – he seems to have adopted Jono as his son. So yay, complexity. Picard does not seem willing to negotiate. Endar, on the other hand, talks about repelling the Federation trespassers, and raising a newly orphaned child as his own. And explains the injuries as the exuberance of youth. The two of them stand off – Picard refusing to give over Jeremiah, and Endar threatening to go to war for Jono. Picard does seem to be open to allowing the two of them to at least meet in a supervised environment. And Endar tells Jono that conveniently, he’s old enough to make the choice himself. Jono chooses to go back with Endar, and the decision goes back to Picard whether to uphold Jono’s wishes.

In fact, it turns out that that tiny little ship (which is made, in part, out of a Star Destroyer model) has weapons that Data would describe as laughable, if he could laugh naturally. This is another one of those times where the Enterprise has the raw military might to to just enforce its will, but Picard chooses not to in order to make a decision that’s better in the long term. And this reflects a fundamental change in ethos from TOS. Kirk almost always encountered enemies at the level of his Enterprise or higher, and had to use ingenuity (and you can almost hear the ‘good old American’ prefix tacked on) to win the day against allegories of nuclear superpowers with whom there was unlikely to be any accord. Picard’s position often reflects that of a superpower dealing with lesser powers. He could blow up these ships and the Federation could send a few other Galaxies to wipe out any other warships the Talarians sent and reduce their industrial capacity to rubble. The Federation does not face an existential threat from the Talarians, regardless of what happens to any given colony. But resorting to that would be losing in a fundamental and important way – it would be the Federation losing its way as a leader, as a cultural beacon to others that there is a better way, and the Federation will show you.

"I'm not sure why I thought this was a good idea."

“I’m not sure why I thought this was a good idea.”

Everyone on the bridge is running through any possible option to keep Jeremiah and doesn’t stop to consider that letting him stay with Endar may be the right thing to do. They’re going to try to let him speak with his grandmother so that he can meet his other potential family, but to everyone on the Enterprise, the goal isn’t to let Jono make his own decisions – it’s to find some way to keep Jeremiah. Jono gets very conflicted, and so Picard teaches him to play laser squash. It makes sense in context. The fact that the ball makes energy weapon sounds when it bounces off the walls seems to be triggering his PTSD and unlocking his memories of humanity.

Afterwards, they retire to Ten-Forward, and while Jeremiah is learning to use a spoon, they all teach Data about slapstick humor. Jono learns a little about humanity, and then later that night stabs Picard with a ceremonial Klingon dagger. Picard gets stabbed a lot, as it turns out. Also, Endar’s backup shows up – two other ships armed similarly to the first. In sick bay, Jono and Picard have a heart to stabbed-heart, and Picard finally realizes that actually, giving Jono the choice is kind of the point after all, and that they caused him a lot of anxiety trying to undo in a few days all the cultural assimilation he’d done over the course of years. Picard makes it back to the bridge just in time to stave off war between Riker (following his last known orders) and Endar, neither of whom would have backed down otherwise.

Lots of good stuff in this episode. particularly for, yes, a new take on that same episode, but with Picard as the mentor instead of Worf.

 

 

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