On the one hand: science fiction at last! On the other hand: an episode about Dr. Pulaski’s personality-related informed attributes that ends in treknobabbly.
What to say? I’m so starved for real science fiction at this point that I give this one a pass. If you feel like me, here’s the method I applied to enjoy this one more than it really deserves:
(1) Treat it as a howdunit. This is Star Trek, so of course the plot is going to be clumsy and lame. In this one, we encounter a ship where everyone has prematurely died of old age (and, in keeping with Next Generation tradition, this is treated as a novel occurrence, the logs from the Enterprise NCC-1701 covering the events of The Deadly Years having apparently been erased?). The ship was recently at a nearby scientific research station where, wouldnchyaknowit, everyone is (more slowly) dying of premature old age. The research outpost is doing genetic engineering experiments, and the subjects, having been isolated, are not affected by the strange rapid aging disease. There is a lot of heavy-handed insistence that the genetic test subjects cannot possibly be the cause of the disease. Therefore, we in the audience know that they are the cause of the disease. Mercifully, the writers don’t put much effort into misdirection – so you are free to enjoy this one as a howdunit. We know the genetic test subjects are the source of the problem, it’s just a question of how. And it’s actually clever.
(2) Remind yourself that the deck was stacked against Pulaski. I’m not a Dr. Pulaski fan – but my opinion of her has mellowed over the years. Yes, she’s a lame McCoy ripoff. Yes, she’s the kind of annoying “strong matriarch” type that feminists were in love with in the early 90s. She’s pretty clearly on the ship to be to Picard what Rosalin was to Adama on the reimagined Battlestar: Galactica: the equally strong differently-gendered personality that slyly proves to the audience that women are stronger than men. Yes, she’s kind of an ugly bully to Data, to no good effect. But it’s also true that the deck was stacked against a really good actress here. If you can get past how annoying her character was, you’ll see that Diana Muldaur is head and shoulders above Gates McFadden in the acting skills department. It’s not her fault she had to come in in the second season just as the rest of the cast was learning to work together, replace a reasonably popular character, and be given some pretty crumby characteristics besides. Katherine Pulaski as written just doesn’t fit in with this crew, and the actress didn’t have the first season to improvise. So, I guess I have a kind of strange protective feeling about Pulaski, even though I really don’t like the character and do think that bringing Dr. Crusher back for season 3 was a good choice. If you can think of it that way too, it helps.
But of course it’s not enough. Cool as the origin and method of transmission of the disease turns out to be, the treknobabble solution is pure, unalloyed nonsense of the kind only Star Trek can deliver with a straight face. And no matter how good the actress, Pulaski is not good character. And even the good actress doesn’t do such a hot job in this episode. And despite some moments where she softens toward Data, the bullying is still here and still annoying. So I get why people don’t like this episode.
Indeed, if you wanted to pick an episode to highlight the superiority of the original show, you can’t do much better than this. Consider…
Pulaski is a kind of stand-in for McCoy, but the character doesn’t work on this show. We liked McCoy because he was basically kind-hearted. Sure, he was mean to Spock, but that wasn’t because he disliked Spock so much as that he thought that Spock was full of shit – and it’s hard to say he was wrong about that. Also, picking on Spock was fairer game because Spock gave as good as he got. He’s Charles Winchester to Data’s Frank Burns. And McCoy’s stubborn streak was also easier to take because, first and foremost, it wasn’t an Informed Attribute (we actually got to see it in action before anyone described the good Doctor as stubborn), and second, he was on friendly terms with Jim Kirk, who was a more lenient commander than Picard to begin with. Pulaski barely knows her commander, and her commander isn’t the type to put up with this kind of behavior in the first place, so her stubbornness comes across as borderline insubordination, and not in a justified way.
The Deadly Years was more about the characters than the scientific premise; this episode is about nothing. Star Trek operated firmly in the Twilight Zone tradition of telling stories that worked as entertainment but were also about something deeper. So, in The Deadly Years, we had what on the surface seemed like an interesting scientific mystery – but in reality it was about the horror of growing old. This worked naturally quite well with Jim Kirk, since the character’s youthful energy and virility were its most endearing traits! And it was a stroke of genius that the youngest character and the one most fearful of dying (Chekov) turns out to be immune, and so holds the secret to the cure. Plot form and thematic function were one – and that was true of so many of the original series’ outings. The Next Generation is stiff and clumsy by contrast. They have a character who’s a new kid on the block that they have to introduce to the audience. They’ve decided in a meeting what kind of person she is. They contrive a situation in which she can exhibit these assigned characteristics. What the situation is scarcely matters, and it shows. Yes, the solution was scientifically clever, but so what? Nothing about the disease means anything. It could have been leprosy, for all we care. Dr. Pulaski is not a character we think of as young or spry, so where’s the pathos in watching her youth be stolen from her? It’s empty. And it’s empty not just for Pulaski but for this whole show, which styles itself as a more “adult” retooling of the original series anyway. Whatever else Next Generation may be, it is neither youthful nor energetic, and so a rapid aging disease is just another disease.
Treknobabble. It was already a problem in the original show, and Next Generation just dials it up to 11. It says something really pretty terrible about humanity that providing convincing special effects to go along with deus ex machina solutions seems to work for most audiences. Come on, people, the transporter can’t just rewire DNA. It just can’t. If it could, human society would scarcely be recognizeable. And that is in general the problem with this show. The society we see has the technology to be Gods, and instead all the characters are recognizeable as any number of competent professionals we’ve met at work. Accuse me of hyperbole if you like, but there’s something vaguely fradulent about calling Next Generation science fiction at all. It certainly takes place in a science fictional universe, but for that it is one of the most conventional, politically correct, stiff, unimaginative, and, yes, scientifically unconvincing shows I’ve seen. The characters talk like stereotypical scientists, and they certainly have a lot of high-tech instruments, but this is all fetish. When you look to the actual science they give you, it’s empty babble at best, hugely implausible at worst. The original show, while not entirely innocent of these sins, at least knows to be about something besides big words and correct opinions. If the science isn’t always plausible in the original, either, at least we get the feeling that it’s serving a thematic purpose. When I watch an episode of the 1960s series, I feel like I can learn something about myself, or about society. Watching Next Generation feels more like a chore. There’s 45min. of plot, and then it’s over.
If there’s anything interesting to say about this episode, it’s that it continues Star Trek‘s weird opposition to genetic engineering. Really, there’s something freudian at work here, as though the writers (probably actually Gene Roddenberry personally, enforcing his prejudices on the writers) are deliberately stacking the deck against genetic engineering in the hopes of steering human viewers in the real world to irrational fear of it. Everything genetic scientists touch in Star Trek – starting with the original series’ Space Seed and continuing right up through at least Deep Sleep Nine (I haven’t really seen much of Enterprise) – turns to shit. Weird.
All that said, I’m going to be a bit irrational about this one – and for spiteful and vindictive reasons. I liked this one better than I should because it really was a science fiction story, and because I think Dr. Pulaski deserves some minor reevaluation in the eyes of fans. Sue me, I’m human.
Overall Rating: C+