Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Bonding"

**

Air date: 10/23/1989
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

During a routine archeological mission commanded by Worf, Lt. Aster (Susan Powell) is killed by a land mine from a long-forgotten war. She leaves behind a 12-year-old son on the Enterprise, Jeremy (Gabriel Damon), whose father is also dead. The command staff must break the news to Jeremy and deal with the aftermath.

"The Bonding" is the episode that Ronald D. Moore famously sold as a spec script, which ultimately led to him being hired as a writer on TNG. It's got some of the hallmarks of Moore in it (real-world military issues, Klingon customs), but it's also got a number of Trek cliches (fantasy versus reality, aliens with remarkable powers). As these things go, the episode is on the upper end of mediocrity.

The show is best when it confronts head-on the fact that a starship can be a dangerous place where people die. It also confronts the issue of children being on board the ship. At one point, Picard says flat-out that he has always had his doubts about it. The best scenes involve Worf, who must deal with the fact that someone has died under his command. His scene at the end with Jeremy, where they undergo the Klingon bonding ritual, has a mildly intriguing resonance. Other reasonable scenes feature the inclusion of Wesley in Jeremy's grieving process; Wesley approaches the situation from personal experience.

But the show is worst when it's (too frequently) documenting the mysterious alien presence, which appears to Jeremy as his mother and supplies him with a fantasy that re-creates a pleasant memory. You can feel the air going out of the story when Jeremy's dead mother suddenly returns, as if she were a ghost. (Aliens as dead people = silly and boring. Susan Powell's performance = wooden and ineffective.) Fortunately, this premise is somewhat redeemed by its dialog. When it comes to exploring the human condition via long-winded philosophy, no one does it better than Picard, who has a decent speech about facing the realities that life deals us. But it's not enough to elevate a frequently lackluster hour.

Previous episode: Who Watches the Watchers
Next episode: Booby Trap

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7 comments on this review

Corey - Thu, Mar 14, 2013 - 3:33pm (USA Central)
This episode isn't particularly bad, nor is it particularly good, so 2/4 rating seems right to me too. One point brought up by the episode though - why are children left alone in their quarters? Shouldn't they always be with an adult? And certainly a child that essentially just lost his entire family? Jeremy had no family left on the Enterprise. I have to second Picard's doubts about the wisdom of having children aboard a starship that may have to be sent to dangerous situations, like the Neutral Zone border.

One idea that would make this more palatable would a medium sized craft that attached/detached from the Enterprise hull. Whenever Picard knew the Enterprise would be in a possibly dangerous situation, he can put the children in the "Child Care" craft, which would be self-sufficient, and after the dangerous mission has passed, pick the children. Then the Starfleet crew could still have their families close without their children having to share the same risks.
Grumpy - Thu, Mar 14, 2013 - 6:38pm (USA Central)
Corey, you just explained the premise behind "saucer separation." They had intended that to be a regular part of the show, but the FX were some cumbersome (photographically and narratively) that it was only repeated once after the pliot. (Not counting BoBW2 and Generations, when saucer sep was done for different reasons.) It was always easier to pretend families weren't aboard when the plot didn't require them.

Hypothetically, in which stories should the saucer have been left safely behind?
Paul - Fri, Mar 15, 2013 - 9:19am (USA Central)
@Grumpy: You're absolutely right. Separation is only even mentioned a handful of other times in the series, even though it would have been useful in a lot of episodes ("The Pegasus" comes to mind).

I'd add that there was a sort of branding issue, as well. If viewers tuned in randomly and saw the star drive of the Enterprise, that would throw them for a loop. Also, the star drive by itself kind of looked dumb.

Last point: The fact that the saucer section didn't have warp engines was a major problem. It couldn't really escape quickly, so Picard and Riker would have had to know well in advance that they were encountering something dangerous.
Corey - Fri, Mar 15, 2013 - 5:35pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy: There's quite a few episodes where leaving the kids behind so to speak would have been reasonable: "Angel One" (Enterprise was due to go to an outpost, possibly coming under Romulan attack, not where you want your kids), "The Defector", "The Enemy", BOBW, "Where Silence has Lease" (remember Picard did self-destruct that episode!), I'm sure there are others. And you are right, my description fits the saucer section perfectly. Paul you are right too, the ship minus saucer section is not aesthetically pleasing at all.

Even though the Saucer section didn't have warp drive, presumably it had communications and could call for help if necessary from Starfleet. Ironically, a cloaking device would have been the perfect solution - Federation really shot itself in the foot with its Treaty of Algernon I think it's called that bans cloaking devices for Federation only.
William B - Tue, Apr 30, 2013 - 3:45am (USA Central)
Slight BSG spoilers: I told my girlfriend, who has seen BSG, that Ron Moore's first episode featured militarism and an angel. She thought I was joking. ;)

Admittedly, part of the reason it took so long for me to continue my TNG rewatch after the strong "Who Watches the Watchers?" is, er, this episode. The Ghost Of Marla Aster doesn't appear until (on the DVD) time 21:40 out of 45:32; up until that point while not thrilling or exceptional the episode was certainly solid. And then, um, well....

Using a sci-fi concept to explore an idea is pretty much what a Trek episode should do, and the idea of examining a child's reaction to a parent's unexpected death by having an alien indulge the child's understandable desire to not have said parent really be dead to them is a fairly good one. The idea that the alien is trying to help rather than harm the child helps, too, particularly since it helps get at the idea that a child’s desires run counter to what is actually good for the child. As Picard says, living with the alien Marla Aster would essentially be living in a memory rather than continuing his life, which would certainly be a temptation for the Jeremy (and Troi points out that moving on with his life and forming other quasi-familial attachments too quickly, such as that proposed by Worf, would make him feel guilty) but is no substitute for his life, which will continue.

The problem is really the execution. The premise could have worked, but because the emotional core of this story lies pretty much entirely with Jeremy Aster and his relationship with his mother, the characterization in both writing and acting for both Jeremy and for alien/ghost Marla really needs to work well to sell a) the depth of Jeremy’s pain, b) the depth of the bond between a mother and son as each other’s only family, c) the impossibility of the illusion of Marla Aster being able to make up for the real thing, d) the temptation for Jeremy to take what he can get nonetheless. Frankly, none of these are particularly sold. Jammer notes how weak the acting is for alien/ghost Marla is; the acting on the boy is unconvincing too. I am sympathetic to the problem of finding good child actors and playing the devastation of losing a parent is a particularly difficult task. Still, the way Jeremy is portrayed—both in writing and in acting—is essentially as a blank, passive, frozen child, who half-heartedly goes along with the woman claiming to be his mother and half-heartedly accepts it when she turns out not to be that woman, until finally he yells at Worf exactly on cue when the story needs him to express “anger.” For a child to be emotionally numb after a parent’s death, especially when they’ve experienced a parent’s death before, is realistic, but on some level if Jeremy is to be the core of the story it has to be possible for us in the audience to know at least some of what he is thinking and feeling or to sense that he at least cares what is happening to him; his reaction to his mother being back/going down to the planet/oh his mother’s not real/now his mother is clearly outlining in dull exposition why she, as an alien, is interested in making his life better are basically all the same.

The episode works best when it’s about the main cast (more on that in a bit), but incorporating the main cast actually hobbles the Asters story even more when it gets to the climax. There, in which Picard carts Wesley on screen to tell Picard that he used to be angry at Picard for having led the mission, so that Jeremy can get his catharsis by yelling at Worf so that Worf can now ask Jeremy to join in the bonding, so that alien-Marla can leave. It's an attempt to pull together all the threads of the episode -- the perspectives of Worf, Wesley, Picard, Troi, Jeremy, and alien-Marla -- into one scene. But the effect just falls flat because these perspectives don't flow seamlessly into one another. The scene seems to suggest that the only reason Jeremy is willing to accept an alien posing as his mother is that he hasn’t been able to express his anger at Worf, and that once he has expressed his anger at Worf (in one line) all that is required is for Worf to accept him into his family for that anger to dissipate and move into a healthy place. This display is also all that’s required for the alien Marla to recognize that she is not wanted or needed and to walk away. In case it’s not obvious, though, while no doubt Jeremy does have anger at Worf (and probably undifferentiated anger in all directions), surely the idea of his mother being alive again would be attractive not just because he is suffering from bottling that anger at specific people but because his single mother is dead and that is terrible.

The climactic scene has Wesley talking almost exclusively to Picard rather than Jeremy, which is a good choice for the series overall—the moment adds depth to Wesley’s admiration for and anxiety around Picard, and Picard represents both what his father stood for and what lost him his father—but feels out of place within the scene about Jeremy. Worf’s jumping from Jeremy’s declaration of anger to his offer of the bonding ritual also makes Worf look self-centered rather than like he is actually listening. To be clear, I don’t think this is Worf or Wesley’s “fault” (whatever that means), but the contrivance of attempting to resolve all these plot threads at once makes none of them work as well as they might have otherwise.

So onto the good so I can end this on a positive note. This is an episode with a real sense of history, using Lt. Aster’s death as a springboard from which to examine the way the crew feels about death, especially the senselessness of death and the death of a parent, making use of and bringing into tighter focus the experiences of the main cast. The Riker-Data conversation about how much one’s closeness to the deceased affects one’s feelings about it, eventually talking about Tasha, the Wes-Beverly scene about their memories of Jack Crusher, and Picard and Troi’s conversation about their respective roles in the grieving process (and the benefits that can have). Best of all is the Worf material, where the feelings all swirl together: Klingon/human culture issues, dealing with the responsibilities of command for the first time (and that will continue to be relevant to his story into his DS9 days), his unresolved/semi-resolved feelings about his parents’ death and his salvation by Starfleet and his human family, his difficulty reconciling the pointlessness of Lt. Aster’s death with his warrior code. The Worf/Troi scene is splendidly directed, with the grating keeping their faces separate until Troi convinces Worf to talk to her, and it’s an early scene which suggests the depth of their connection to come (regardless of whether or not the season seven romance is an appropriate exploration of that).

2 stars sounds right.
Rikko - Tue, Sep 3, 2013 - 3:05pm (USA Central)
All I want to add to the families aboard the Enterprise dilemma is that it makes for a more lively ship, and it's a good excuse as to why there always seem to be new Starfleet people you've never seen before or sudden patients for Troi, etc.

Now, I share the general feeling of William B on this one. I think the plot was fairly ok until that point when the ghost appeared. That was just dumb.

Worf was pretty convincing as a guy experiencing some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the boy lacked expressions. I can understand feeling a bit numb, but instead of that it felt like the guy simply wasn't expressing himself enough. That's not good acting.

So, I want to discuss what I think it's the main issue with this: The guest actors don't have enough time to develop their characters. Just one episode doesn't cut it. It's not totally their fault. They only have some 20 to 30 minutes to "shine" and we'll never see those faces again. I doubt the directors and writers give them much attention and orientation.

Just think how much time the main cast needed to feel right in their roles. They spent a good part of two entire seasons experimenting and adjusting their personalities the entire time.

There are a lot of bad actors here and there; after all, John De Lancie's Q is wonderful from the start; but even the worst of them all could get better if TNG didn't have such a "use it once and destroy" mentality.

The standalone nature of most TNG episodes works fine if you want different stories and a sense of wonder each episode at a time, but it has some unwanted effects like this serious problem with guest actors.

Anyway, that's my take on this. What do you guys think?
SkepticalMI - Thu, Oct 10, 2013 - 10:16pm (USA Central)
Alas, it's unfortunate that there was never an episode showing Jeremy and that weird alien from Future Imperfect as college roommates, bitter that their respective adoptive families abandoned them...

It's odd. I see the same problems that other people had, but I didn't really feel them as much. Take, for example, the bad acting by the kid. Yes, bad acting. But did it detract that much? Did we need it to understand the depth of his pain? We can relate to what Jeremy is feeling, we can understand it already. The family structure is well known, it's universal, it's relatable immediately. Yes, it would have been preferable if that actor was better, but Jeremy's pain wasn't really the point of the episode. How everyone deals with death is the theme. So we can deal somewhat with one poor actor.

And the actor for his mom? Well, she's a weird alien being acting as his mom. If it's poorly done, at least it's an excuse.

The pivotal scene, of course, is when everyone gets together and finally convinces ghost mom to leave. Frankly, the scene is a mess. Picard and Wesley have a long talk while ignoring Jeremy, Jeremy's outburst at Worf was blatantly on cue, Worf's response was hardly diplomatic and came out of the blue, but somehow he convinced Jeremy. And then the scene just ended.

Despite being a mess, it was still powerful. I guess because the ghost subplot was weak, we didn't really care about that resolution. And the resolution was a foregone conclusion anyway. So we got some great scenes with Wesley and Picard, we had a great speech by Picard, and we had Worf showing a heart behind his gruff demeanor. So why do we care about the weak plot when it had such good moments?

As a random aside, since the ghost took off without a word, we don't know what actually convinced her. Yes, it seemed odd that Jeremy's outburst would have convinced her, but it could have been a combination of everything.

Another aspect of the show I liked was that the pacing was so good for the silly energy being trying to take over the ship plot aspect. Everyone was acting like professioinals doing their job. More importantly, everyone was acting like professionals who were used to being in positions of authority. So often, everyone just sits around being dumb while one character (Picard, usually) takes over. So I like it when it actually appears realistic (BoBW was another one that did it well). It's a small touch, but I liked it.

So by no means is this a great episode. But perhaps it is at least a slightly good one.

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