“Firstborn” (season 7, episode 21; originally aired 4/23/1994)
Or The One Where It’s Your Kid, Worf, Something Has To Be Done About Your Kid
I’m not sure why it is that saddling characters with children is so often a bad idea. I have my suspicions, though. Part of it is being forced to see a formerly beloved hero assume a different, less overtly heroic role—as the next generation (hey!) steps in, the previous generation recedes in importance, and nobody wants to be reminded that they, too, will someday be a footnote in someone else’s journey. More than that, though, a child means a restriction of movement, and I watched a show about people on a spaceship because I want, basically, the opposite of that. Admittedly, it’s not as though the arrival of Alexander back in season four handcuffed Worf to a crib or anything, but we have had a number of episodes focusing on Worf’s struggles with being a single parent, and his difficulties in trying to bond with his son. While the story arc of Worf’s attempts to understand his place in the Klingon Empire have deepened our understanding and appreciation of the character, while also expanding the universe of the show, the Alexander Chronicles found one note and hit that note with varying degrees of intensity: Worf wants Alexander to embrace his warrior heritage, Alexander is more interested in being a regular Federation-raised kid, Worf is emotionally reserved, Alexander is whiny, rinse, repeat.
That covers a good chunk of “Firstborn,” the last TNG episode to focus on Worf’s child-rearing catastrophes, and the first ever to present time travel as the easiest way for father and son to communicate. If that description makes “Firstborn” sound interesting, well, it’s not. Not really, and certainly not for the first two-thirds of its running time, which, for novelty’s sake, combines Alexander issues with intrigue from the Klingon homeworld involving Worf’s brother, certain questions of inheritance, and the villainous Duras sisters. It’s competently done, but there’s not much in the way of spark, because so much of this a retread of old routines. Worf wants Alexander to participate in a ritual that indicates the official beginning of his path towards becoming a warrior, and Alexander isn’t sure he wants to participate. So Worf, at Picard’s urging, takes Alexander to watch a Klingon ritual, and after the ritual, just as Alexander seems to finally be getting excited about pointy things and shouting, a group of assassins attacks, and Worf has to defend himself. He gets some help from a stranger whose been watching him all day, a Klingon named K’mtar who claims to be an important adviser in Worf’s brother’s household. After the attack is defeated, K’mtar sticks around to help Worf discover who tried to kill him, and also to work on convincing Alexander the importance of physical combat in a world of easy phaser access.
Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? K’mtar is not who he claims to be. He is, in fact, Alexander From The Future. Yeah, not kidding at all here, and it’s not a long con, or a dream, or some sort of paradox. I’m not even sure how this works. Old Alexander first proves he is who he says he is by describing what happened the day his mother died (apparently, even though this is the future and science is practically everywhere, which means it’d be the easiest thing in the world to run a DNA test—see next episode—Worf accepts this as sufficient explanation), then tells his sad tale. See, in the future, Alexander refused the warrior’s training Worf wanted for him, and took on the life of an ambassador instead, working to bring peace to the Klingon Empire. He succeeded, for the most part, but when it finally came time to sign the treaty, assassins killed Worf in front of Alexander’s eyes, and because he didn’t know how to fight, he couldn’t defend his father. So now he’s come back in time to convince his younger self to learn how to fight, to save his father’s life a few decades down the line.
This doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Structurally, we don’t get this information till the last 10 minutes of the episode, which means there’s not a lot of time to process its implications; up until that point, there are certain hints that K’mtar might not be who he said he was, but nothing substantial, beyond the curious design of one of the assassin’s daggers. (A symbol on the dagger hilt references the fact that one of the Duras sisters had a child, but when the Enterprise finally tracks down the sisters, they find out the pregnant one just realized she was pregnant a few days ago. Which is an odd coincidence, actually; the reason that the symbol is there is because the knife comes from the future—I guess it probably was the weapon used to kill future Worf—but there’s no reason why Old Alexander would just happen to jump back in time to right at the same moment the sister realizes she’s with child. It would’ve been more plausible for neither sister to be pregnant, and use that to deny their involvement.) I’ve heard accusations that TNG used time travel too casually, but this is the first episode where that accusation really seemed like truth. Even “Time’s Arrow” at least attempted to treat the violation of the laws of causality with some modicum of respect. In “Firstborn,” jumping back 40 years and directly interfering with your past self is presented as a perfectly rational approach to grief, like sleeping too much or crying at Hallmark commercials. We don’t even see K’mtar leave. After he tells Worf his story, and Worf gives him a hug and says everything’s gonna be okay, K’mtar vanishes off screen, leaving room for one last scene in which Worf can tell his present day son that he can be whatever kind of Klingon he wants to be.
That’s a not a bad way to end this, and to its credit, “Firstborn” does do a decent job of playing fair to the values of both the father and the son. While Worf’s Klingon heritage will always look a bit silly to my eyes—here it’s basically a scene of two grown men singing at each other and pretending to fight—it’s not considered ridiculous or pointless within the context of the show; and as shrill as Alexander gets, it’s hard not to understand where he’s coming from when he says he doesn’t particularly want to spent the next 10 years or so of his life getting over his reluctance to murder fallen enemies. When Old Alexander describes the future to Worf, his accomplishments are actually quite impressive, which is one of the reasons why Worf ultimately decides to let his son find his own path. If you squint a little, there’s something rather beautiful in this, and in a real distant way, it marks a kind of conclusion to the arc Worf’s been riding since the first season. He still values the old ways, but he recognizes that the Klingon Empire needs to change if it’s to survive, and he’s proud to learn that his son could be a part of that change. By the end, Worf is optimistic about the future, convinced that his knowledge of what happens next will save him, but you get the impression as well that he doesn’t mind dying if it means Alexander can live the life he chooses. That’s a great message, no question.
Shame, then, that’s in such a goofy, plausibility-straining hour of television. There’s a lot of useless wandering around as the Enterprise tries to track down whoever tried to kill Worf; since K’mtar was the one to stage the assassination attempt, they obviously aren’t going to find anything, although we do get a brief cameo from Deep Space Nine’s Quark. (Actually, there’s a whole string of wheedling, kind of scummy aliens that pops up throughout the episode, as though the show was trying to hit a quota before the end of the run.) Too much time is spent on a distraction when it could’ve been spent dealing with the ramifications of “K’mtar’s” trip. But then, I’m not sure more attention would’ve made his decision to risk the fabric of space time to save his father’s life (who died, let’s not forget, when Alexander was already an adult; a tragedy, sure, but not something so awful that it would merit potentially erasing one’s existence. I get that Old Alexander is driven as much by guilt as by grief, but it’s still a little ridiculous.). Because that would’ve given us time to wonder why Worf never got in touch with his brother directly to see what was going on; doing so would’ve exposed Old Alexander as a liar far too soon. The real problem here is that this is an idea that just doesn’t work. Time travel shouldn’t be a casual plot fixative. There should be a cost involved, and there’s no real cost here. Any time I try and take any part of “Firstborn” seriously, I go back to Old Alexander’s tortured I“ AM YOUR SON,” and I roll my eyes. I can’t help it. This is an episode that needed something extra to make it worth watching, but they overshot the mark, and turned a dull-but-credible hour into a dull-but-absurd one.
- How thrilling was Riker and Quark’s discussing about pressed latinum vouchers? Very! (Although I did love the extra standing at attention in the back of Quark’s set, in case we thought it was just an actor in a room.)
- Credit where it’s due: The scene where Alexander bugs his dad for money so he can hang out with his friends is kind of sweet.
- How Klingons Are Different From Most Of Us: When a child participates in a ceremonial battle and decides to take things very seriously, no one calls the cops.
“Bloodlines” (season 7, episode 22; originally aired 4/30/1994)
Or The One Where Picard Realizes His Whole Life Has Been A Cover Of “Cat’s In The Cradle,” Only Not Really
Did everybody get enough Daddy issues in “Firstborn”? No? Well have I got an episode for you!
I’m not really a television historian. Yes, yes, I realize this may come as a shock, but I’ve never had a good head for dates or trends or important names. In some ways, this limits my usefulness as a critic of classic TV; if I had any real regret over my work on the various Trek series so far, it’s that I’ve never put much effort into trying to contextualize the shows, beyond stating some common knowledge. (I don’t really regret this, honestly, because I think we all have fun anyway, and I do good work in other areas. In fact, the only time this has really bothered me is back when I was doing my write-ups of The Prisoner, which I can’t help feeling was something of a missed opportunity. But I digress.) So when I say that it’s a sign of desperation when a show starts throwing long-lost relatives at its main characters to try and generate new drama, I can’t provide you with a catalog of examples to back up the assertion. But it makes a certain amount of sense. This late in a run, you’ve probably worked through all the major conflicts between the ensemble, and given that TNG generally avoiding the usual bed-hopping that comes from workplace dramas, there’s only so much mileage you can get out of Beverly and Picard occasionally glancing at each other. So its time to start pulling every trick in the book: buried secrets, inter-dimensional prophets, and orgasm-inducing aliens.
And now we can add “long lost son” to the list. (Actually, have we been down this road before? I suppose Alexander sort of counts, and maybe there was something with Riker at some point… nah, I’d remember that.) Picard is having his usual stellar day when he gets a visit from Bok, a Ferengi who blames Picard for the death of his son. This brings us to another classic late-season ploy—the “Hey, let’s bring back stuff from the first season, because we definitely want to remind people how long we’ve been on the air!” game. We went through this with “Journey’s End,” and now we’re getting a call-back to the first season episode “The Battle,” in which then DaiMon Bok attempted to get his revenge on Picard via a mind-control device. At the end of “Battle,” Bok was stripped of his rank for engaging in an unprofitable mission (sigh), but he’s back now, and apparently up to no good, using a variety of probes and transporter techniques to send Picard a simple message: Bok is going to murder the captain’s son.
Only, so far as Picard knew, he doesn’t have a son. So now it’s a race to find this mysterious progeny before Bok does, and prevent the unthinkable. (Er, actually, it’s been thought of, so I guess the unacceptable? Which makes murder sound like a poor test result, but whatever.) If everyone wasn’t so hell-bent on saving the day, they might stop to wonder just why Bok would be so keen on warning Picard of his intentions in advance. We learn later on that it sort of makes sense; Picard doesn’t actually have a son, but he was in a relationship with a woman named Miranda who had a kid named Jason who doesn’t know who his father is, so Bok manipulates Jason’s DNA to match Picard’s, and none of this wouldn’t have been worth it if Picard hadn’t had some time to bond with his fake offspring. Although that still requires a ridiculous amount of planning and good luck, and it’s bizarre that Bok would be so invested in all this. When Bok was originally introduced, Picard’s involvement in his son’s death (which happened while Picard was captain of the Stargazer) made for a decent dynamic; even if Picard didn’t have any reason to be guilty, he could at least feel responsible enough for there to be some tension between wanting to protect himself, and dealing with the past. Plus, this is season one we’re talking about. A lot of crazy shit went down back then, and it was easy to accept anything that even hinted at competence. Now, though, Bok’s two-dimensional obsession makes him look like a sub-par Batman villain.
That means that our only real hope for any depth here is the connection Picard tried to build between himself and Jason Vigo, the 20something scoundrel who he believes is his son. The Bok problem doesn’t have a lot of surprises, apart from the twist that Jason is a con (who doesn’t realize he’s a con), so a good chunk of the episode is taken up with Picard and Vigo’s tentative attempts at rapprochement. None of it’s revolutionary, but as usual, Patrick Stewart does his best with what he’s given, and there’s a certain dignity in his careful, measured sincerity, unsure of his next step but determined to do the right thing. As Jason, Ken Olandt is fine, in a generically charming-and-good-looking kind of way. (To put it in different terms, the actor wouldn’t look out of place doing a guest spot on a CW show.) The two have one genuinely good scene together on the holodeck, as Picard carefully attempts to explain his reasons behind wanting to establish a relationship. They talk about Jason’s mother, who died years ago, about his troubled past, and various other things, and Picard gets the best line of the episode: “You’ll never look at your hairline in the same way again.”
And yet, too much of this relationship is built on the premise that its a parent’s responsibility to force his way into their child’s life, even if that child is an adult and doesn’t seem to particularly want to meet his dad. (Even if his dad is the freakin’ captain of a starship, I mean come on.) The downside to TNG’s utopian vision is its assumption that meddling in other’s lives is an automatic good if one’s intentions are in the right place. The Prime Directive stops them from doing this with outsiders, but there seems to be no limit to the amount of poking, prodding, and unasked for interrogations you’d be forced to endure if you happened to wander around the Enterprise having a bad day. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but so are boundaries, and time and again, our heroes have shown an inability to grasp this. Beverly tells Picard he should push to get closer to his son, and while Picard initially resists this, he ultimately decides his resistance is based on selfishness; he has responsibilities, and given Jason’s criminal record (mostly just petty theft and an occasional bar fight), it’s his duty to get involved. Commendable motives, and it works out in the end—Because really, who wouldn’t want Captain Picard as a dad?—but I’m not sure I buy the message. Jason isn’t a teenager. He’s an adult, and if he doesn’t want a stranger butting into his life and telling him where he went wrong, that’s his right.
Not that any of this matters, because of course Jason isn’t really Picard’s son. It’s hard to get too worked up over any of this, really. There’s a brief tension when Bok manages to beam Jason off the Enterprise even after Geordi and Data have done all they can to stop the Ferengi’s plans, but being the cartoon villain he is, Bok decides to gloat over Jason for a while before actually stabbing him, giving Picard enough time to bravely beam aboard the Ferengi ship and explain to Bok’s crew just how crazy their new “DaiMon” really is. This is largely one-note material, and since Bok’s issues with Picard aren’t really delved into, there’s no weight to anything that happens. It’s not horrible, but beyond the above mentioned scene, and a few eerie moments when Bok suddenly appears in Picard’s quarters, it’s not really necessary, either. If the grade seems harsh, well, it’s not that I mind episodes like this; it’s just, there’s something sad about coming to the end of a show I love, and realizing I’m more and more eager to be finished with it.
- Jason gets to participate in the Ritual of Hitting On Deanna when the counselor stops by his rooms to say “Hi.” Not sure why this scene exists, but hey, gotta fill the running time somehow.
Next week… and beyond! All right, we’re getting down to the wire here, so let’s start locking in the schedule. Next Thursday, 12/8, we’ll be doing “Emergence” and “Preemptive Strike,” the final two episodes before the finale. On 12/15, we’ll be taking look at Star Trek: Insurrection, the second to last big screen outing for the TNG crew, and on the following Saturday, (12/17), The AV Club will host a live chat-through of Star Trek: Nemesis, the final TNG film. (This will work like the live chat Todd VanDerWerff and I did for X-Files: Fight The Future, although I’m not sure who my co-host will be.) And finally, on 12/22, just in time for Christmas, we’ll close out the Star Trek: The Next Generation reviews with a look at the two part series finale, “All Good Things… ”
So, to sum up:
12/8: “Emergence/Preemptive Strike”
12/15: Star Trek: Insurrection
12/17: Star Trek: Nemesis live chat
12/22: “All Good Things… ”
And then Christmas and New Years and so forth, which should be a nice change of pace for everyone.