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When the Bough Breaks

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at July 13, 2007 - 5:55 PM GMT

See Also: 'When the Bough Breaks' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise is drawn to the region said to hide the mythical planet Aldea, which is said to have technology so advanced that everyone on the planet has everything he or she needs and is free to spend time enjoying the arts. When the planet suddenly appears, Troi warns that the charming Aldeans seem to want something from the crew. After scanning all the children on the ship, the Aldeans abduct those chosen for special abilities, including Wesley Crusher. Aldean leader Radue explains to Picard that the Aldeans have lost the ability to reproduce and need children to pass on their culture, but they would like to compensate the crew materially. To keep Radue talking rather than recloaking the planet, Picard agrees to negotiate while he has Data try to penetrate the planetary shield and Dr. Crusher try to unravel the mystery of why the advanced Aldeans can't have children. She discovers that the Aldeans suffer from radiation poisoning that has rendered them sterile, caused by the very shield that keeps their society sheltered. Down on the planet, Wesley learns about the planet's technology, the key to which is a massive computer called the Custodian, which the current Aldeans no longer know how to operate. Picard sends Riker and Data to shut down the computer and shows the Aldean leaders that their technology has caused their health problems. He agrees to repair the planet's atmosphere and heal the Aldeans using Federation technology once Radue has agreed to return the children.

Analysis: Like its immediate predecessor "Too Short a Season," "When the Bough Breaks" is an issue episode - timely, well-cast and something the original series could not have done because the original series didn't have children on its Enterprise. Unfortunately, it is also tedious, plodding and didactic, with an ending that defies belief not because of some science fiction wizardly but because the psychology of everyone involved seems so preposterous. Even the scenes that should have a ring of realism, like a boy who doesn't want to take math, is inflated into an overly precious allegory of parent-child interaction so that when the father later laments that he yelled at his son, it seems phony rather than moving. As a parent I was not remotely moved by the plight of these adults who had lost their children because I just didn't believe in the story sufficiently.

Next Gen had already dipped into the "planet too good to be true" well once too often in this early part of its television run, which is particularly problematic because this world of art and culture seems about as drab and enclosed as all the other worlds the ship has visited - it's far less interesting, for instance, than Farpoint Station. Where do the Aldeans store all this art they have endless time to create? For that matter, where do they get the wood to carve, since we never get a glimpse of the outside and presumably the entire planetary ecosystem should be suffering because of the ozone depletion, including trees and foodstuffs? If you're going to have a world that's too good to be true, it at least has to look like one. The original series' oft-cheesy "Shore Leave" is much more convincing on this count than "When the Bough Breaks."

And on top of parents stoically waiting for Picard to rescue their children rather than becoming hysterical, trying to beam themselves down or any of the things perfectly normal bereaved parents might try, the Enterprise kids on Aldea behave quite naturally as model citizens. They engage in passive resistance, following Boy Wonder Wesley's example, but they could probably convince the child-free Aldeans to send them back far more easily by doing the things kids have been doing since time immemorial. Finger-painting on the walls with food, tearing apart furniture to see what it's stuffed with, refusing to wear clothes, turning delicate equipment into softballs, throwing tantrums, breaking windows, turning organized rooms into messy forts, using tools and craft equipment as pretend weapons, peeing in planters, sneaking outside in the middle of the night...the point being that children should be far more creative than I am about ways to drive adults crazy, while these kids alternately sit and mope or embrace the lessons offered by their creepy new "families" who can't keep their hands off them. For every adult who desperately wants an heir, there must surely be an adult who really doesn't welcome this kind of disruption at any price. A four-year-old quietly obeying Wesley when he tells her not to eat because they're on strike is not a four-year-old at all, but a robot.

Poor Troi is reduced once more to stating the obvious, making what should be subtext so flagrantly obvious that it's insulting; poor Data is reduced to proving the ka-ching! And having to be told that a make-up regulation is, in fact, made up, for the slower members of the audience who might somehow not have guessed; Crusher once more selflessly puts aside concern for her son to work on the scientific conundrum the ship needs solved, all the while reminding Picard that she is competent, calm and very unhappy. I'm sure Data does lots of clever stuff behind the scenes but mostly we hear him explaining that it will take too long to calculate a way through the shields. So once again Boy Wonder Wesley is the crewmember who makes the biggest impression, while security chief Yar can't come up with a single helpful suggestion. Of course, they all look pretty smart anyway, because the Aldeans apparently can't tie their own shoes without the computer they can no longer operate. One wonders why the wonder-computer didn't happen to inform them that their ozone depletion was poisoning their planet and killing them; you'd think a computer that could throw a starship millions of light years away could also repair an ozone drain.

The environmental parable - atmospheric damage caused by a surfeit of technology - doesn't quite work, because humans not only lack a giant planetary shield, we're also all too aware of what we're doing to our planet even if far too many of us choose to live in denial about it. And that's the biggest problem with "When the Bough Breaks." When Crusher and Picard come with the solution to the Aldeans' problems, they accept them! If the Aldeans are anything like humans, I'd expect at least half of them to hoard away their newly adopted children, put their hands over their ears and tell Starfleet to go away. Rashella becomes so attached to Alexandra that she won't even give up the child to the couple to whom Alexandra has been assigned; are we really expected to believe that in a fit of good-naturedness, Rashella then insisted that the girl be sent back to her mother for her own safety? Without even getting into concerns like how the Aldeans can be so stupid as to believe that eight or nine children will provide sufficient genetic mix for a healthy repopulation, it all reads as contrived and phony. As with so much of the first season: good idea, folks, but terrible execution. I'm so glad we know in hindsight that it gets better.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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