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The Bonding

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at April 11, 2008 - 9:19 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Bonding' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Archaeologist Marla Aster is killed by a millennia-old explosive buried on a planet by a race destroyed in its final war. Worf blames himself for the tragedy, and Picard is faced with telling Lieutenant Astor's young son that his mother has died. Troi worries both about Worf's internalizing his guilt and Jeremy Astor's inability to express his grief and anger. Worf wishes to perform the Klingon bonding ceremony, the R'uustai, with Jeremy, but both Troi and Crusher think it may be too soon for the child to accept such a step. They suggest that Wesley share his own experiences of having lost a parent in the line of duty; Wesley, however, is reluctant to reopen those old wounds. Meanwhile, an alien presence visits the Enterprise and takes on the form of Marla Aster, who promises Jeremy that they will live on the planet together in their old house from Earth and she will never leave him again. When Worf discovers her presence, Picard orders scientific teams to figure out how the alien is reaching the ship from the planet's surface and sends Troi to try to make Jeremy acknowledge that the presence of this miraculous person who can transform their quarters into their former home cannot possibly be his real mother. Aster admits to Picard that she is an energy being who survived the war on the planet below and vowed that no one else would suffer as a result of that conflict. She wishes to take responsibility for Jeremy's happiness, but Picard insists that part of being human is feeling grief. Wesley helps the younger boy to face his loss by admitting that he hated Picard for a long time because Picard had led the mission that killed Jack Crusher, just as Worf led the mission that killed Marla Aster. Jeremy chooses to stay on the ship and agrees to perform the R'uustai with Worf.

Analysis: There's an awful lot that's rushed in "The Bonding" - all the stages of grief compacted in less than an hour, and from the perspective of an orphaned child, no less. But there's also a lot that's powerful and sad in the episode, which is well-cast and very well acted both by the regulars and the guest stars. The writers make an interesting choice not to introduce the audience to Marla Aster until she is already dead, so that viewers have no attachment to the character in her own right; we see only the snippets of home movies that her son watches before she reappears as a disguised energy being. I'm not sure this is the best approach for exploring themes of grief, leaving the audience out of the visceral feelings - as Riker explains to Data, feeling sorry about the loss of a stranger is very different from the acute pain of losing a loved one - but in a story that would arguably have worked better spread out over several episodes, there's no time for a proper acquaintance with Aster. I couldn't help thinking, though, what a devastating storyline this would be had the protagonists been Samantha and Naomi Wildman on Voyager.

But really, "The Bonding" isn't about Jeremy and Worf so much as it's about the more significant and complicated relationship between Wesley Crusher and Captain Picard, and that's something Voyager couldn't have shared because there was no young person equivalent to Wesley on Janeway's crew. What lurks under the sad story of a little boy who lost his mother is the sad story of an older boy who's terrified of the same thing, who hasn't really come to terms yet with what happened to his own father. Wesley discovered during his Starfleet Academy test that he would have to face situations similar to what happened between Picard and Jack Crusher. We've seen him develop admiration for Picard as a captain and a friend of his mother's, but we've never heard him talk about his own grief and anger and we're given the impression that really his mother and Troi haven't, either. We won't see Jeremy Astor again, but we'll see many of the ripples of Wesley's confession to Picard long after "The Bonding."

So it seems a little petty to ask questions like what could Troi have been thinking, leaving a little boy who feels alone in the universe sitting alone in his quarters watching old movies of his mother - it would have been incredibly stupid of her had it been a conscious decision rather than a plot device to introduce viewers to Jeremy's mother and cat so that when they appear later, we recognize them. And it seems a little petty to wonder why Beverly doesn't ask her son if he wants to talk to her about Jack Crusher's death before she tries to send him off for a chat with Jeremy. Worf is the only one making a real effort, but as Troi points out, his motivations are largely guilt and frustration; the people who built the bomb that killed Aster are long-dead, so there is no one upon whom Worf can take revenge. His honor rituals are no more consolation to him than his words are to Jeremy when he tells the child that every Klingon dreams of dying the way Aster did, in the line of duty. (We won't learn for many more episodes where Worf has hidden his anger over the loss of his own parents - many written by Ron Moore, who wrote "The Bonding" as a spec script and ultimately became a member of the show's production team.)

This bottle show doesn't really pick up steam until the ghost of Marla Aster returns. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Star Trek knows that she's an alien with her own agenda, and even Jeremy seems reluctant to trust the evidence of his own eyes at first, trying to be as mature and stoic as Picard seems to expect of him - there's a lovely moment where Troi tells Picard that Jeremy is being brave, Picard says "Good," and Troi corrects him with all the ways in which this isn't good at all. Ultimately, however, the crew has little to offer that can compete with Jeremy's mother and cat and house on Earth. Troi says repeatedly that it's all a fantasy, but Jeremy knows that from the start. The issue isn't that he's too young to understand, it's that he's young enough that he might choose a life with his mother in full understanding that it isn't real. The presence of the alien Aster forces even Troi to insist that Jeremy behave like an adult, facing a situation from which Wesley and even Worf have flinched.

And it's lovely to get a glimpse of this side of Worf, the wounded man behind the fierce Klingon exterior, raised by humans without for a moment believing he could be like them. Again I wonder where he learned a ritual like the R'uustai. Did he read about it somewhere? Surely he never met a Klingon who offered to perform it with him? He wants the bonding with Jeremy as much for the child he once was as to honor the fallen Lieutenant Astor. We get a glimpse of all the major characters' grieving processes, really - Data trying to understand the human emotions and why he interprets them differently this time than when Tasha Yar died, Riker more comfortable talking to Data and Wesley about their feelings than expressing his own, Troi busying herself helping everyone, Beverly and Wesley recalling their own loss, Picard so invested in behaving like a stoic captain that he projects the feelings onto others when he isn't berating Starfleet over the choice to allow children on his starship - even though, as Troi reminds him, death and loss are integral to human life anywhere. I'm just sorry we don't see a funeral for Aster to give the audience and characters both a bit more closure.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.

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