Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Imaginary Friend"


Air date: 5/4/1992
Teleplay by Edith Swensen and Brannon Braga
Story by Jean Louise Matthias & Ronald Wilkerson and Richard Fliegel
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Clara Sutter (Noley Thornton), a young child whose father's career has moved her from ship to ship and not allowed her to have friends for any length of time, has an imaginary friend named Isabella. Counselor Troi doesn't think this is cause for alarm. But during the ship's exploration of a nebula, a mysterious alien presence probes Clara's mind and then appears physically in the form of Isabella (Shay Astar). Isabella the alien can appear and vanish at will.

What follows is predictable: Because Isabella was previously established as Clara's imaginary friend, of course all the adults are slow to believe her when Clara says that Isabella is now real, and that Isabella is doing things that she shouldn't be doing (actions which are naturally blamed on Clara). Considering all these people are in Starfleet and have seen some pretty spectacularly incredible things in the past, you wouldn't think it would be that much of a leap to consider that an alien presence could maybe appear in the form of an 11-year-old girl. But because we have a child talking to adults, it takes too long for everyone to catch on to what's going on here.

"Imaginary Friend" is tedious, obvious, and unimaginative. The episode shows us the alien presence taking Isabella's form in the opening scenes, so it certainly can't be called a mystery. The motivation of the alien presence is hard to account for, especially when it starts making threats and telling Clara that it's going to kill everyone on the ship. Naturally, Isabella's eyes glow red when she says this, because, y'know, red-glowing eyes are scary — and certainly not subtle.

Finally, after all the tedium, we get a scene where Picard talks to Isabella to try to negotiate peace with the mysterious aliens — in a scene of equal tediousness, as Picard attempts to explain the human reasons for why adults must be parents to children (which the alien has mistaken for some sort of oppression or something, hence its hostility). What isn't clear is why the alien perceives everything through the mentality of a child. Doesn't it have an intelligence of its own? Why couldn't it simply probe an adult to get an adult perspective on humanity? Such questions are almost beside the point, since the aliens are simply a means to an end — to set up simpleminded scenes involving Clara and Isabella (and the really-wearing-out-his-welcome Alexander) that mostly just sit on the screen, flail about for awhile, and then die.

Previous episode: The Perfect Mate
Next episode: I, Borg

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21 comments on this review

Ian Whitcombe - Thu, May 12, 2011 - 8:41pm (USA Central)
Kudos to Tim Lynch for discovering two of the most redundant lines of dialogue in Trek history:

Picard: "This certainly appears to be a unique phenomenon...one that's never been seen before."

I did love Data's "bunny rabbit" line. That is a true gem.
pviateur - Mon, Aug 22, 2011 - 2:04pm (USA Central)
This episode is a good place to call into question the givens of children aboard the Enterprise...which has never made any sense. For instance, who babysits children like Clara and Alexander when their single parents are on duty? There is no sugestion of any day care going on aboard ship but plenty of examples of very young children expected to take care of themselves in their quarters. Also, what are children as young as Clara allowed to roam the ship at will? And as we've seen this episode (and countless times in the past), the ship is in imminent threat of destruction every week. How can a people who claim, as Picard states to the alien entity this episode, that humans care for the safety of their children while taking them along on military/exploratory vessels that encounter obviously dangerous situations as occurs here? The whole notion of children/families aboard ships like the Enterprise is absurd.
Elliott - Thu, Aug 25, 2011 - 6:20pm (USA Central)
@pviateur :

The children on ships debate is interesting and has certainly been tackled but,

1) In our own time, putting children in cars is among the most dangerous things we can do

2) Starfleet is not military

3) The Enterprise has schools and daycare centres aplenty

4) It's not as though she's roaming engineering or the torpedo bays, just the freaking hallways--how is that particularly dangerous?
Captain Tripps - Wed, Oct 19, 2011 - 8:37am (USA Central)
This very episode mentions the children's center, and shows a ceramics class being held for kids, not to mention numerous previous mentions of schools and care centers - perhaps you missed all those "suggestions"? The Enterprise is basically a moving small town, which seems natural in the evolution of the Federation.

It's the reverse of the dilemma faced by the scientist in Silicon Avatar, who left her son in the care of friends while she pursued her career aboard various Starfleet vessels, only to have the colony he was at attacked and destroyed by the Crystalline Entity. More importantly, she had to maintain a long distance relationship, and missed a lot of important milestones in his life.
Jay - Fri, Nov 4, 2011 - 12:26pm (USA Central)
In DS9's "Rapture", ADmiral Watley states that one step of Bajor joining the Federation is incorporating Bajor's militia into Starfleet. That certainly suggests that Starfleet is indeed intended to be the military.
TH - Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - 4:55pm (USA Central)
"Starfleet is not military"

It's one thing to say "we're explorers" and grab a map, a backpack and trek into an allegedly empty jungle only to have a native tribe attack you and kill you.

It's another thing to say "we're explorers". Now, let's take our shields, our rifles, our machetes and lots of ammo and go explore the jungle which is full of who-knows-what.

Picard can claim all he wants that Starfleet is an exploratory body, but he does so on the most advanced ship in the fleet with weapons and shields that can dwarf almost all other vessels it runs into (including klingon military ships, and nearly equal to romulan WARbirds). As mentioned, nearly every third week, the ship comes under attack or into an otherwise dangerous situation. You don't arm a ship to the teeth and then claim that kids are safe there because the ship doesn't expect to be in military situations.

In any event, if Starfleet is not military, what is? Does the Federation have no military? When there's a Neutral Zone infraction, Starfleet is there. During the conflict in Redemption, Starfleet is there. When the Borg attack? Starfleet is there. During the entire second half of DS9? Seems like Starfleet was the one fighting the dominion for the Federation.

If Starfleet isn't the military, then the Federation doesn't have a military and Starfleet is indeed the de facto military.
TH - Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - 5:03pm (USA Central)
@Elliott: "4) It's not as though she's roaming engineering or the torpedo bays, just the freaking hallways--how is that particularly dangerous? "

She did, in fact, wander into Engineering, did she not?

One's quarters on a ship are akin to one's home in a city. Walking the corridors alone is somewhat akin to walking the streets alone. Or at least to wandering around an apartment building or maybe wandering alone on a cruise ship.

Granted on the Enterprise, there ought not be strangers with ill intentions as there would be in our world, but there are still dangerous places on the ship that don't seem restricted (e.g. engineering) which it appears to be on an honour system not to go to. I could understand if kids had access to the corridors on their own deck, and if the turbos didn't respond for them, or else only took them to decks where kids activities were (holodeck or the school), but that does not seem to be the case.
TH - Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - 5:30pm (USA Central)
PPPS: I'm not going to say I know this for a scientific fact, but I'm pretty sure Columbus didn't have any women and children on his non-military exploration ships.

I'm curious if there is any historical precedent for non-working family to be brought along on an exploring vessel (be it aerial, naval, or.... land-based).

The only thing I can think of is when Americans moved West, but this was because they were looking for somewhere to live and didn't intend to return home (and if I'm not mistaken, some did in fact go west alone to find land and then returned for their families.)
grumpy_otter - Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - 7:44pm (USA Central)
TH asked: I'm curious if there is any historical precedent for non-working family to be brought along on an exploring vessel (be it aerial, naval, or.... land-based).

Yes. The British Navy permitted wives on board through the 19th century. Though it was against official Navy policy, Captains could do as they liked and often let their officers bring their wives along--sometimes even on battleships.

I originally encountered this claim in the work of Jane Austen, was curious, and researched it to find it true.

But you are right about Columbus--no women on board those ships!
Paul - Mon, Apr 9, 2012 - 1:24pm (USA Central)
Ah, the Is-Starfleet-Military Game.

Starfleet is most definitely military -- it's just that it's not totally military.

TOS-era Star Trek didn't pull punches on this point. Kirk calls himself a soldier on multiple occasions, Starfleet is referred to as "the service", etc. Kirk usually tried his best to resolve things in non-violent ways, but he was never above a fistfight or firing phasers.

TNG was the least military, but it really couldn't sustain that in the movies. TNG would often use previous conflicts as backstory for new shows (the Cardassians, the Romulans, etc.) without really showing the conflict.

Other than a few charting missions in the early seasons, I can't think of too many scientific episodes of DS9. The one that comes to mind is the infamous shrinking runabout show. Voyager, the most disappointing series, could have been more about exploration (or it could have been a sort of BSG in the Star Trek universe). It picked neither course and really suffered as a result.

Then came Enterprise, which tried the exploration route in the first season or two without much success. The series improved immensely after the Xindi attack and in the fourth season, but very little of the subject material was about exploration (Archer even has a line to that effect, IIRC). There's also a line about Archer in the fourth season of Enterprise that says he was one of the foremost explorers of the 22nd century. That's kind of laughable, in that Archer spent most of his time on the series saving Earth (all of season 3) and/or arbitrating disputes among soon-to-be friendly races.

The sad truth is that very few highlights of any of the series were about exploration (with some exceptions like "The Inner Light"). Studying comets just doesn't make for good TV, I'm afraid -- and a series about friendly contact with aliens every week would be pretty dull.
Yarko - Fri, Jun 8, 2012 - 6:23am (USA Central)
>> In our own time, putting children in cars is among the most dangerous things we can do

Yes, but we don't put kids on military vessels. In our own time, we have military vessels that deal with hazardous situations, and the rest of the vessels are for luxury, transport, cargo, whatever. We have a clearly drawn line. The Enterprise IS used as a military vessel frequently, given that there supposedly is no separate military, and the same line ought to be drawn. As for children on exploration ships in the past: Back then, there was little danger of floating around on the sea, and I suspect that if there had been, first exploration would have been done without families and children. I suspect that most of the time it was, anyway. The early explorers didn't run into ships from other cultures that were equally matched in armament. When that started happening, the line was drawn. The sea-faring military was developed.

It is ridiculous that children and famliies are allowed on the enterprise in TNG.
Petrus - Sun, Sep 16, 2012 - 11:29am (USA Central)
@TH - "I'm curious if there is any historical precedent for non-working family to be brought along on an exploring vessel."

grumpy_otter answered: "Yes. The British Navy permitted wives on board through the 19th century." etc.

I'd like to add that the Portuguese and Spanish noblemen routinely did the same in the 16th and 17th centuries while crossing the Atlantic in the Spanish case or on the outbound journey for India and the homebound journey for Portugal in the former. While not strictly exploring vessels during that period, especially the 6-month journey of the Portuguese Carreira da India could be compared to the voyages of the Enterprise: months at a time without sight of land, freakish storms, pirates, Dutch and English privateers... it isn't all that different from space anomalies and your Klingon/Romulan/etc. encounters.

In fact particularly the Portuguese East Indiamen were very comparable to the Enterprise: they were huge ships with 500-600 people aboard, and sometimes more, who performed theatre plays, concerts, and all sorts of other entertainment while en route - much alike the "moving small town" as Captain Tripps above puts it, talking about the Enterprise.

While not ignoring the large complements of marines they almost always carried, the Iberian ships to America and the Orient, because of the Spanish and Portuguesa colonies there, also always carried numerous civilians with them, who would settle in the colonies or serve there for a period of years. This was totally unlike the ships of the Dutch and English East India companies in the first half of the 17th c., which were sleeker and heavilier armed vessels solely for fighting and trade purposes - the Klingon and Romulan military ships of their day, so to speak.

The presence of noble ladies and their children aboard the Portuguese East Indiamen is part of the Portuguese litterature from the 16th and 17th centuries: several stories of noble ladies and children who chose to go down with their husbands and fathers (or vice versa) during enemy attacks, shipwrecks, etc. rather than be rescued, and tales of long treks along foreign shores following a shipwreck exist. Particularly famous in the story of the wreck of the São João in March 1552: Manuel de Sousa de Sepulveda, his wife and three young children, and some two hundred other Portuguese survivors walked from the Natal coast to Lourenço Marques in Mozambique, where some twenty survivors arrived in May the following year - Manuel, his wife and children all having died along the way.

If you study the history books you'll find many such stories of men, women and children lost at sea, or following shipwreck, since the 16th century. So, with no disrespect, Yarkos statement above that "Back then, there was little danger of floating around on the sea" is simply not true. And the dangers of having women and children on board were many and unexpected: in 1562, a Portuguese sailor, his ship lying at anchor in Mozambique Island, decided to go swimming around the ships in port to catch a glimpse of the ladies on the veranda in the aftercastle. He lost an arm and a leg to the sharks.

Back to Star Trek: of course the families of the crews of such vessels as the Enterprise would be aboard in Roddenberry's 24th century. How can anyone doubt that?
Yarko - Sat, May 25, 2013 - 2:55am (USA Central)
>> of course the families of the crews of such vessels as the Enterprise would be aboard in Roddenberry's 24th century. How can anyone doubt that?

Here is why it ought to be doubted. There is danger out there. It regularly occurs. In our current day, we have drawn a line. Regardless of families choosing to die at sea in the past, TODAY we draw a line. We do not allow families on vessels that we KNOW will be going into danger. To do so would be absolutely ridiculous.

The Enterprise WILL be going into danger especially in Roddenberry's universe!!! It makes perfect sense to draw a line and disallow families from ships going into uncharted space.
T'Paul - Fri, Jun 14, 2013 - 6:56pm (USA Central)
First, to respond to one of Jammer's comments - "the really wearing out his welcome Alexander", I can't see how he was so offensive on this episode.

As to the children on ships debate... I think it was probably part of what Roddenberry wanted to do with the series but that got left aside along the way for plots with more action. I think the idea was that an enlightened society could roam the galaxy in families.

And, in the end, the children on board certainly provided fodder for more than a few episodes, even if their quality can be debated, which is really why their allowed to wander the corridors or be alone in their rooms, as a plot device. But even if we do insert ourselves into the Star Trek universe I think that it's what I said above... an enlightened society that can take its families on its trek through the stars.

Still, you do have a detachable saucer section, and supposedly humans have advanced sufficiently so as not to pose a danger to children wandering about.

Perhaps too another plot idea that withered away was very long missions where it would by logical to have families come along.
T'Paul - Fri, Jun 14, 2013 - 6:58pm (USA Central)
*they're allowed
dipads - Sun, Jun 23, 2013 - 11:15am (USA Central)
I have no problem with children on spaceships. First of all, it gives more storylines for writers and it is refreshing to see young faces once in a while. Also, I do not think the Enterprise is a military ship, unless when the situation arises, it reverts to one in self defense. But my gripe with children on adult TV shows is their lame acting. It really destroys a scene when a young child has to act believably but is acting juvenile instead (no pun intended).
mephyve - Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - 7:36pm (USA Central)
I think Picard always does Starfleet a disservice when he chalks them up to explorers. They are ambassadors, inventors, defenders, scientists, interplanetary law and whatever else earth needs them to be in any situation. They are trained under and operate under a military system of rank and discipline. They go where they are assigned. If earth is under attack, Starfleet is the only defence. If there is a territorial dispute, Starfleet handles it. The uniform gives them the right to investigate crime, infiltrate enemy camps, interrogate suspects, arbitrate, espionage, carry weapons and they are licensed to kill. They are the fbi, cia, interpol, nasa, nato, armed forces etc... of the 24thC. Columbus was an explorer.
William B - Mon, Jul 29, 2013 - 7:02pm (USA Central)
The one thing this episode has going for it: I actually like Clara. Noley Thornton may not be great in the role, but she is above-average for child actors, certainly better than Brian Bonsall, and she makes Clara's vulnerability and confusion shine through in her scenes. Her scene with Guinan hits the right notes, for example, and I feel like if this were a different story, she might be a nice presence.

As is, well, we know how the episode turned out. I agree with all Jammer's criticisms. Additionally, Shay Astar is terrible as Isabella, though I could imagine the fault lay in the directing -- how do you instruct a girl to perform "alien masquerading as child?" The result is that every scene is flattened into nothingness by her presence. 1.5 stars sounds right.
Psteve - Sat, Feb 15, 2014 - 3:47pm (USA Central)
I like to imagine the Federation referring to its ridiculously heavily-armed totally non-military ships as "science vessels" in a Bill Hicks voice, accompanied by exagerrated finger quotes.
Patrick D - Mon, Feb 17, 2014 - 8:31pm (USA Central)
There's one good thing about "Imaginary Friend" and one thing only: the Guinan scenes. They're superfluous, but they're fun. Whoopi Goldberg really sparkles when she's telling Clara about her imaginary friend, the "razor beast" all with that warmly wise smile of hers. It's one of the best Guinan scenes ever.
Taylor - Sat, Sep 20, 2014 - 1:26pm (USA Central)
I'm with dipads, my only complaint about children on the Enterprise is all the Bad Child Acting it subjected us to.

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