"The Perfect Mate"
Let's get this out of the way first: there are Ferengi in this episode. They're on screen for less than ten minutes total, and they're really only here as a clumsy way to move the plot, but they're still as awful as ever. On a show that goes out of its way to treat different cultures with dignity and respect, the Ferengi remain a sore spot, a group of cringingly unfunny schemers who haven't developed much beyond their debut appearance in the first season's "The Last Outpost." Elmer Fudd is better defined than these morons, and far, far more entertaining to watch. I suppose the point is to show that greed for wealth is comically pathetic, unlike greed for power, which is scary and, let's be honest here, kind of cool. But it represents an irritating and persistent laziness on the writers, as the show keeps bringing them back for no good reason. It's like if Gargamel did guest spots on The Wire, only, y'know, awful.
But apart from that, this is actually a very interesting ep, one that takes on a plot with all kinds of potential for heavy-handedness or wish-fulfillment, and tries to deal with it with the seriousness and tact it deserves. (Again, apart from the Ferengi.) Even better, while there are definite ways to connect this to real life, the metaphor here is never all that specific. We're not dealing with rape or homosexuality or any of the other serious issues that Trek shows sometimes try and lecture on. This is more about characters and relationships through the filter of science fiction, and, for the most part, it lets us draw our own conclusions.
The Enterprise is once again doing chauffeur service, this time ferrying Ambassador Briam from Krios to a meeting with Chancellor Alrik of Valt Minor, for a negotiation of peace accords which will hopefully finally bring an end to a lot of fighting. Briam has a special gift for Alrik which he keeps stored in the Enterprise's cargo bay, even going so far as to request that Picard make that bay off limits to everyone else on the ship—and for good reason. After the Ferengi trick their way on board the ship (the sabotage their own craft to make it look like they're in need of rescue), one of them breaks into the cargo bay, and starts fiddling with the "gift," which looks sort of like a glowing amber egg. He knocks the egg over by accident, and just as Picard and Briam arrive to survey the damage, the egg flashes out of existence, leaving behind a stunningly beautiful woman. Who immediately says to Picard, "I am for you, Alrik of Valt," which is about as good a reason for changing your name as I've ever heard.
The woman is Kamala, played by a young Famke Janssen, and it's on her that the episode hinges. She's the metamorph I mentioned above, and she's culturally and genetically hardwired to please whatever man she's closest to, by sensing his feelings and desires and then tailoring her personality to suit them. Which is a tricky notion, to say the least, but even trickier is the fact that she's on the ship so that she can marry Alrik as part of the peace accords, to seal the deal, so to speak. When she bonds with someone for life, she sets herself in whatever personality that mate prefers the most, which makes this, from a certain light, a pervasive and inescapable form of slavery. Picard does his best to play the non-interference card (most likely because he's as attracted to Kamala as anyone, and can't trust his own impartiality), but Beverly tells him that the whole set-up is wrong, and that he needs to do something about it. Which is he doesn't—but does—but doesn't. It's complicated.
What do we want in romantic partners? And, more importantly for this episode, what do we want our romantic partners to want out of us? There's a lot of conversation here about Kamala's needs, about just how much she can truly be expected to make her own decisions (she says that she has no problems with marrying Alrik, believing that this was what she's essentially "made" for), and just how susceptible the men of the Enterprise are to her charms. Riker, unsurprisingly, gets a couple of kisses; around him, Kamala is aggressive, playful, and, ahem, educated. Around some miners the Enterprise rescued, she's rowdy, and nearly starts a fight. Around Worf, she growls. And around Picard, she's… intrigued. Unlike the others, Picard is largely resistant to her seductions, which of course rouses her interest, and she starts trying to spend more time with him. Picard keeps resisting, but this becomes even more difficult when the Ferengi inadvertently injure Briam, and Picard is forced to handle the upcoming ceremonies himself.
There's obviously a certain amount of fantasy in here, and just how much fantasy is left up to the individual viewer to decide. Everyone at some point or another has imagined themselves with the perfect lover, with someone who would sense your innermost yearnings, the ones you could barely articulate yourself, and then act on them in ways that left you satisfied like no one else ever could hope to satisfy you. This is called "being 15." Although maybe younger for girls? Anyway, it's a teenage fantasy, is my point, because when you're a teenager, when you're just figured out that your genitals are like biological transformers, and the thing you've been using as a "car" for your whole life is also a totally bitchin' robot. So you don't really know what you want, and you dream of someone who'll come in and know all there is to know about you, all the things you don't really understand yet, and even better, they recognize your real self, that self nobody else gets, the self that in your deepest darkest heart, you worry may not really be there. Which isn't to say that older people don't occasionally pine for this very specific concept of perfection, but as you get more mature, and come into your own, you realize how silly the whole idea is, how a relationship based on one person subsuming themselves entirely to the other's needs is deeply unhealthy for both parties. Or maybe you just realize it's impossible, and so the fantasy becomes an occasional idle daydream.
The point being, this isn't something that could actually happen in any sustainable way, outside a fantasy or science-fiction context. Kamala is a construct, created specifically to give Picard a moral problem to solve, and because of that, she runs the risk of being more idea than character, which, when you combine that with the fact that one of the crucial aspects of what little character she does seem to have is her ability to change herself at will to reflect someone else, makes for a potentially troubling situation in deed. Kamala could've simply ended up a male power trip, and watching Picard resist her charms is sort of like a sensitive male's power trip. (See, he's too good to give in, but she keeps pushing him, and as in all grand romances, eventually, the pushed will fall, and whose fault would that be?) Then there's the fact that we get a few jokes about having men assigned to Kamala specifically because they're resistant to her charms (Briam is too old, and Data is, well, Data), but we never see Kamala hanging out with a woman. This is Dude's Only, ladies. Sorry! (Although apparently, Krios is jammed full of male empathic metamorphs, so now you have a good idea where you should head on your next vacation.)
I think "Mate" works on the whole, though, for a couple key reasons. The first is that Janssen, in addition to being, let's not kid ourselves here, really rather lovely, does a fairly good job of showing how much Kamala enjoys flirting with men. This gives her a certain degree of autonomy; sure, she's hardwired to get pleasure from making others happy, but so is most everybody, and there's nothing malicious or mindless about her, not really. She nearly starts a bar fight in Ten Forward, but it's not that much of a "nearly." The ep could've gone the way of her walking around the Enterprise screwing with every guy's head, throwing everything into chaos. Which would've been fairly painful, I'm guessing. But it doesn't go that way. Instead, we're given a sense of someone coming into their own as a sexually aware, potentially powerful individual.
Which makes the ending (the other reason why I think this works) all the more intriguing. As the episode goes on, and Picard is forced by circumstance (and his own desire) to be closer to Kamala, the question becomes whether or not he'll give in to the temptation, and, more importantly, whether or not he should or can help the lady out of her situation. Now, anyone watching this who thinks Picard will succumb to Kamala's charms hasn't been paying attention. If James "The T is for Libido" Kirk could resist a similar seduction in "Elaan of Troyius", there's no question Picard will do the same, and for much the same reason. But the more he comes to care for her, and the more we see her as a person, the more her proposed marriage to Alrik seems like a bad idea. It's necessary, to ensure the lives of millions, and there really isn't anything else that could happen, but if the episode were to simply end with her doing her duty, and Picard looking pensive, well, that wouldn't be enough.
Although she does do her duty, and we do get a shot of Picard looking pensive (two, in fact), there's a twist here I wasn't expecting. Remember that "permanent bonding" I mentioned earlier, where Kamala sets herself with one person for the rest of her life? It's a dangerous idea, in a way, because it creates an inherent power imbalance—once's she's busted her VHS recording tab (kids, ask your parents), she can't change her mind if the relationship goes sour, even though her partner will have no problems doing so. I thought this was just part of the fantasy, and it sort of is, but it also allows for Kamala to make a decision near the end of the episode that allows her to preserve who she is, while still following her obligations. She bonds with Picard. She's supposed to bond with Alrik, and she still marries him, but Picard is the one she imprints on.
You could read this in different ways. You could say it's a horrible example of a woman needing a man to make her "complete," or that Kamala's choice to bond with Picard wasn't actually her deicision, just the choice that her Picard-focused self made. Those interpretations don't seem entirely unreasonable to me, but I choose to think of it in a more positive light. The perfect fantasy mate is so often a reflection of our own desires because we want to find someone who can show us who we are, who can bring out what's best in ourselves and believe in us in a way that we can't always manage on our own. Kamala does this for others, but I think with Picard, she finds someone who's equally good at reflecting. Picard's job as captain, after all, is to inspire his crew, to drive them to be their greatest selves. The title of this episode, I'd say, has two meanings; it's hard to imagine Kamala finding anything quite like what she experiences with Picard with anyone else. And while the ending isn't a happy one, it's at least one that gives her the respect of making her own decisions.
- Another reason this works: it's Patrick Stewart. The age difference is a little icky, and Picard is basically treated as the ideal man here, but, c'mon. It doesn't really seem implausible, does it?
- "I'm just curious to know what lies beneath." "Nothing. Nothing lies beneath. I'm really quite dull."
- This episode cribs a surprising amount from the TOS ep "Elaan" mentioned above. (Also, I think those early Trek reviews of mine aren't half bad, although I'm amazed at how much more I write these days.)
- Beverly and Picard's chats together are really very charming. And it also gives us this line: "Beverly, may I take off the uniform for a moment?"
- Oh, and Alrik is unsurprisingly something of a bore. He even views his marriage to Kamala as the least interesting part of the negotiations. But he's not actively evil, so hopefully Kamala won't have too unpleasant a life ahead of her.
Or The One Where We Meet A Little Blond Snufflapagus And She Is Pissed
There's a Ray Bradbury short story called "Zero Hour" that I kept thinking of while I watched this episode. The story is in The Illustrated Man, which is a good collection if you're interested in tracking it down, and it's a creepy story to be sure. (I find Bradbury the most enjoyable when he's trying to scare the hell out of me; there's a contrast between his ebullient corniness and horror that hits me very hard.) A bunch of kids start playing with imaginary friends, and the parents don't believe in them, and, well, I won't spoil it or anything, but it's not a very long story, and if you remember "Imaginary Friend" at all, you probably see where I'm coming from here. The problem being that "Friend" isn't five or ten pages long, it's a full forty-five minutes, and while it has some effective scenes, it doesn't really entirely work. The whole thing is pretty ramshackle and clumsily sown together, which is something that tends to happen with shows once they get a little long in the tooth, I've found. Maybe it's because it gets harder to tell new stories, so people just cram a bunch of old ideas together and hope for the best.
The one original idea here is Clara, and her imaginary chum Isabella. Clara has been moving from ship to starbase to ship with her father, Ensign Sutter, and that's not easy on a little kid. So she's seeing Troi now. Apparently her dad is so far in over his head he'll latch on to any potential mother figure for his child; which makes me think of Worf and Alexander (who shows up briefly here, by the way, but is largely unobjectionable), and also makes me wonder how much of Troi's time is spent providing counsel for single fathers. Maybe someone's looking for a replacement mommy. At least that would be a reason for the therapy appointment, because from what we see here, Isabella is a perfectly pleasant little girl, friendly, polite, and, of course, creative. There's a strangely over-protective vibe that runs through all of TNG's episodes about parenting, maybe (although I can't immediately back that up, this is just an impression). Anyway, Clara seems like a cool kid, and as Troi tells Sutter, there's no reason to be concerned that she has an imaginary friend.
Which would be the end of it, except the Enterprise is investigating a nebula, which means of course that something strange happens. (I wonder if Picard allows time for "Weird Shit" whenever he does the Enteprise's weekly schedule.) A red light pops into the ship and starts whizzing around, before finding Clara, hearing her talk to Isabella, and then manifesting as Isabella in the flesh, which kind of freaks Clara out. But hey, when I was little, I talked to Popeye a lot, and if he'd suddenly appeared, I'd've eventually gone along with it. When you're little, you don't realize how many impossible things there are. So Clara shows Isabella around the ship—and of course starts getting in trouble because she's going places she shouldn't be going. The Enterprise starts having engine problems, and Isabella keeps glaring and demanding things, and Clara keeps telling people that it's Isabella's fault, and nobody believes her. Ugh.
I hate this kind of story. I hate watching people refuse to believe someone, and then accusing that (basically innocent) someone of causing all the trouble. It calls up a lot of deeply uncomfortable associations in me; we can idolize our youth all we want, but the truth is, being a kid means being powerless in the face of a whole lot of grown-ups. They're supposed to be the responsible ones, they're supposed to be in charge, but really, they're just bigger and they have cooler cars. We're brought up to believe that if we tell the truth, we're doing the right thing, and things will be okay, especially if we haven't done anything wrong. To watch this girl tell the grown-ups the absolute fact, and see her lectured and ignored anyway, is just off-putting as hell. It violates one of the sacred covenants of childhood: the Grown-ups Are Always Right. Which isn't a bad sort of story to tell, inherently, because the grown-ups aren't always right, and one of the ways we join their ranks is by realizing their fallibility. But Clara is too young and alone for that kind of maturity, so we just see her running into the same problem, and not being able to do anything about it.
This is also because, despite the title and the main story hook, this episode isn't really about Clara. We do spend a lot of time with her, but there's this weird shifting sensation about two-thirds of the way through, once it becomes obvious to everyone that Clara hasn't been lying after all. (This is after Isabella takes Troi down, and thankfully, nobody tries to blame the little blond girl with force-lightning powers on Clara.) Picard basically takes over, and its his decisions that resolve the big conflict. It turns out (I swear to god, I try not to use that phrase in every review, but it's so damnably convenient during plot summaries) Isabella was sent over by a group of life forms out in the nebulae who were trying to decide if they should kill everyone on board the Enterprise or not. So Picard makes an impassioned speech about how the importance of proper childrearing techniques (seriously), then fires an energy beam into the cloud of life forms to give them some food to munch on.
What's strange is that this sort of story really should've been told largely through Clara's perspective. She's the one with the special knowledge (although she doesn't understand it) about what's really going on, and she's the one the aliens choose to interact with. She's the one who has our sympathy through most of the episode, and there really should be some sort of cathartic HA! moment when she finally manages to turn the tables and stand up for herself. But there's no moment like that. Picard does all the heavy lifting for her, and the only reason anyone else on the ship realizes what's going on before it's too late is that Isabella decides to reveal herself to Troi. Arguably, this is more realistic, because, hey, Clara really is a little girl, and little girls aren't necessarily going to have a lot of defensive power against strange life forms. By having Picard step in when he does, we avoid having another Wesley situation, where another kid saves the whole ship through a lot of contrivance and exaggerated ability. (It's not that I have a hard time believing Wesley was smart. I just don't believe he was perfectly smart all the time, or that, at fourteen or whatever, he was the biggest genius on a ship full of smart people.)
And yet whether or not this is more realistic, it still leaves us with an episode without a center. Clara is sweet enough, but we've never seen her before, so we don't have all that much invested in her. Her father, Sutter, is a more traditional TNG character, but he's ill-defined here, just sort of generally worried and impatient and bland. (At one point, he touches Picard on the shoulder to get the captain's attention, and I really wanted Picard to snap at him to back the hell off.) And of our main characters, only Troi and Picard get enough screen-time to qualify; Troi is mostly on hand to help introduce us to the Sutter family, to put Clara in situations where Isabella can act up, and then to get zapped. (And again, I have to question Troi's empath abilities. Even if she can't sense if someone is lying, she at least should've been able to tell that Clara was terrified and something more than met the eye was going on.) Picard is hardly even in the episode till the final ten minutes or so. And it's an odd ten minutes.
The whole ep, Isabella has been set up as creepy as all hell. The actress, Shay Astar (who would go on to play Joseph Gordon-Levitt's girlfriend on 3rd Rock From The Sun, among other things), isn't going to set the world on fire, but she is effectively unsettling; there's a definite Bad Seed sullenness going on there. But when Picard confronts her, she explains how it's all some kind of test, and she rails about how awful the adults are to Clara, which means of course everyone deserves to die. Instead of finding a way to defeat Isabella and her sparkly friends, Picard explains why it's necessary to create boundaries for children, and Isabella accepts this, leaving only to return briefly at the end of the episode to apologize to Clara for causing so many problems. The whole finale feels grafted on, because it's not like anyone was questioning the basic role of parents in a child's life, or even that Clara was ever treated that badly. Clara is pushed to the side for most of the end, and really, it's like they got the "imaginary friend" idea, and then tried to through in some science crap to justify it (which I imagine happens with at least half the stories on this show), but couldn't come up with a good way to end it. As is, this is little bit of good idea, some effectively unsettling scenes, and lot of shoulder-shrugging.
- Oh right, Guinan was in this. And her presence made things even more confusing, because I guess she was trying to teach a lesson about the importance of imaginary friends? Or something? It was bizarre. (My roommate also objected strenuously to Guinan lecturing Data about finding shapes in the clouds, because it was "the same old bullshit" about "how science is boring and you need to make up crap to make it beautiful." And he's right, it was dumb.)
- I didn't hate Alexander in this. Although his voice still grates.
Next week: The Borg are back in the appropriately titled, "I, Borg," and Geordi and Ro have adventures in "The Next Phase."