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When the Bough Breaks
What's worse than a season one Wesley episode? A season one Wesley episode with half a dozen extra children!
Riker shows his skills as a Starfleet officer by being knocked down by a small child, then limps off to the bridge where everyone is milling about around the Tactical station. They’re pondering about the legendary planet Aldea… and oh look, it just appeared! Two suspicious-looking Aldeans beam onto the bridge and kidnap Riker, Troi, and Dr Crusher. What does Starfleet's worst ever Security Chief do? Absolutely nothing. Then the Aldeans return the bridge crew but kidnap Wesley and six other kids. Yar's response? Try to hail the planet. There follows some waffling as the Enterprise crew gradually sneak around trying to make a plan for a rescue. Meanwhile, Wesley reveals he isn't as stupid as his cardigans suggest when he orchestrates a campaign of non-violent resistance to try to win everyone’s freedom. Eventually, the Enterprise crew discover that the Aldean's fertility issues are a result of problems with their ozone layer that have been caused by their technology. I'm sure that felt like a very progressive environmental theme for 1987.
This is the first of five TNG stories devised or written by Hannah Louise Shearer, and she also contributed a story idea to DS9. I can't say I'm a big fan of this episode, but her work on Trek overall is really quite respectable. Across her career, she worked on numerous TV shows, including writing episodes for Knight Rider, Street Hawk and MacGuyver. She also acted as Executive Story Editor from this episode through to the end of the first season, but I can't find much about how this came about… She didn’t replace Tracy Tormé in this role, she just seemed to join him. Frankly, I expect the gruelling development schedule of a broadcast TV show made an extra pair of hands on script editing exceptionally welcome.
'Aldea' does a great deal of work in the first couple of acts. The script states it is "like Atlantis on ancient earth... or Neinman on Xerxes Seven... " It's a simple shorthand for establishing the situation, and we'll see this pattern used many times. "X is like Y that you, the audience, will recognise, or Z, that we made up to remind you this is science fiction."
'The Custodian' is a hoary classic Trek concept - a computer that runs the planet - so I suppose this is a good fit to season one where regurgitating the original show was definitely on the table. Unlike the classic shows, however, this computer is less advanced than any that Starfleet possesses, as this scene description in the script makes clear:
Duana and Wesley APPEAR in the Teleporting Arch, which has a DISTINCTIVE SOUND. The room is very simple. It doesn't look as advanced as the Enterprise's computer. Wesley looks around, unimpressed. He notices a massive door at the end of the room that looks as though it's never been opened.
Shearer also makes good use of 'Unit' as a substitute for family, to emphasise that this is a planet with a very different society to what we're all used to. 'Shield', 'fluctuation', and 'hole' do some work setting up the rescue scenario, and as usual its LaForge who conveys the idea to the bridge crew (and thus to us, the audience). You can really feel his destination towards engineering growing in the back end of season one.
All the environmentalist hand-wringing about the ozone layer is clunky and unwelcome, although of course well-intentioned, but I greatly appreciate some of the subtle ethical observations Shearer builds into the script. Picard remarks:
Oh, they'll negotiate, Number One. Or call it that. They took what they wanted, now they'll rationalize it by throwing us some sort of bone.
This is a pithy description of how powerful nations operate on the international stage. Also, that Wesley responds to the kidnapping with a campaign of passive resistance is magnificent - a more contemporary show would have just armed the kids and turned them into terrorists while hand-waving away the terrible morality of this course of action. Non-violent resistance was a hallmark of the great ethical movements of the twentieth century, and I appreciate its appearance here more than anything else in the story.
Jerry Hardin's Radue is central to the episode, and he is primarily paired with Wesley as his foil. Hardin's performance is confident and assured, even if the material he's given to speak doesn't exactly set the galaxy aflame.
We'll see Hardin again as Mark Twain in the season five-to-six two parter, "Time's Arrow", as well as in a one-off role in Voyager, but he is perhaps most familiar to sci-fi fans as the informant, 'Deep Throat' in The X-Files. I also must mention his small role in John Carpenter's chop-socky classic Big Trouble in Little China - do look out for him in this one when you get a chance.
Alas, Patrick Stewart doesn't really sell Picard's discomfort around children very well in this episode... there are later season shows where this comes across much more convincingly, but I fear here he is just overwhelmed with cute and his grump shields collapse.
As for the children themselves, there are seven kids in all playing the six kidnapped roles. There’s a pair of twins for a start - Jessica Bova and Vanessa Bova - one of which appears above with Stewart. These two had already appeared heavily in commercials, since TV has a rapacious need for young twins (it’s like having packed a spare!). But it's the three non-speaking roles among the children that are perhaps most interesting from a production perspective.
McKenzie Westmore, who played Rose (being beamed out, above, and on the right of the image, below), was the daughter of Michael Westmore, who was a make-up artist on the show. Both are related to Pat Westmore, who was a hair stylist on classic Trek, and McKenzie went on to have a small role in a later Voyager episode.
The other two non-speaking roles, Tara and Mason (the two on the left in the shot above), are played by Amy Wheaton (age 9) and Jeremy Wheaton (age 11), who as you may have guessed are Wil Wheaton's younger siblings. In other words, the show hired child performers for the speaking roles, and relatives of the cast and crew to fill the remaining roles. That’s a very practical solution to the tight constraints of a TV production - both in terms of time and money.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
I love the orange planetary matte in this episode, both the original and the remastered version. That said, it's rather odd that Aldea’s sky looks orange from space but from the planet's surface the sky appears to be purple. But this episode is a character drama, and very light on models to enjoy.
The set design on Aldea is quite good, though, with the Custodian's chamber being a stand-out location, albeit very simple one.
There is also one lovely composited shot at the end of the episode: a model of the Aldean power system. This was built by Michael Okuda at the request of VFX coordinators Rob Legato and Gary Hutzel. It's a kitbash made from multiple model sets and children's toys, including a space shuttle launch tower and some left over pieces of the space dock model from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
At the centre of it is a florescent tube inside a clear acrylic casing, and wrapped around the outside is a sheet of high-contrast black and white film stock with a pattern made from a series of hexagons and vertical lines. This dovetails with the signature symbol designs that Okuda populated the sets with. It makes for a striking shot in the final act of the episode, and helps tie it all up with a big visual finish.
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