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TNG 4-22

TNG 4x22
"Half a Life"

Original airdate: 5/6/1991
Rewatch date: 2/27/2012

An aging alien scientist who finds himself falling in love with Lwaxana Troi conducts an experiment that fails to save his homeworld, but before he can figure out why, his society requires him to commit ritual suicide.

Spoiler-free notes:

Messing with a star is hardcore. Even though there are no life-forms in the system, screwing up the star--indeed, blowing it up as they wind up doing--could have serious ramifications throughout the entire area of the galaxy, not to mention how easily this kind of research could be used to create a horrific weapon.

The dynamic between the two guest stars is pretty interesting. On one hand, you have Lwaxana Troi, an extroverted character we already expect to be frivolous and whimsical, the fluffiest recurring character in the show. On the other hand, you have Timicin, an intensely serious, reclusive character grappling with problems so severe and so personal that it is downright painful to watch his struggle. Putting these two together is a great way to even them out, add dimension to both, and show something deeply human (even though, technically, neither character is human). It manages to turn Lwaxana into a fully realized character that you can feel for, and that is no small accomplishment given her two previous appearances on the show. In retrospect, I have a hard time imagining this episode working without Lwaxana, because if they had used one of the main characters in her place--Deanna or Dr. Crusher--it wouldn't have made as much sense and wouldn't be able to delve into the topic of growing old with any sense of authenticity.

The ethical conundrum in this episode reminds me a little of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her sci-fi tends to be interested in exploring alien sociologies and culture clashes that result from different ways of thinking and behaving. Here, the Kaelons have built their society around a custom that seems perfectly reasonable and logical to them, even though it is horrific to our own ingrained sense of morality. I give props to anything that asks you to get down and dirty with weighty philosophical issues and to consider the possibility that your own value systems are relative. This is something sci-fi can do very well, and though there have been episodes that have taken a stab at it ("Justice" and "Angel One," for example), this is the first time TNG does it well. Sure, it's slightly derivative of Logan's Run, but this story tackles its premise in a completely different way.

Timicin's provocative monologue in which he lays out why his society believes in "the Resolution," transcribed below, is extremely well-written--borderline poetic--and it is delivered (by David Ogden Stiers) beautifully, with a kind of patient passion that is hard to execute properly. Lwaxana's reaction to it is perfect in that it is so opposite; instead of being florid and careful, she is blunt and reactionary, almost crude. It's a good bit of drama that I don't think I ever appreciated before now:

Timicin: I want to explain. I want very much for you to understand. Fifteen to twenty centuries ago, we had no Resolution. We had no such concern for our elders. As people aged, their health failed. They became invalids, and those whose families could no longer care for them were put away into deathwatch facilities where they waited in loneliness for the end to come, sometimes for years. They had meant something, and they were forced to live beyond that into a time of meaning nothing, of knowing that they could now only be the beneficiaries of younger people's patience. We are no longer that cruel, Lwaxana.
Lwaxana: No, no, you're not cruel to them. You just kill them.

When Timicin is trying to figure out what went wrong, he's looking at a display that reads "COMPOSITE SENSOR PLAYBACK 4077." Is the 4077 a subtle reference to the 4077th, from M*A*S*H, David Ogden Stiers' main claim to fame?

I would have named this episode "A Matter of Time," but I suppose that's a little too obvious.

Coincidentally, just four days after this episode aired, an episode of Dinosaurs was first aired that dealt with exactly the same subject, although the Dinosaurs episode, "Hurling Day," played it more for laughs. In the Dinosaurs universe, married men get the privilege of hurling their mothers-in-law off a cliff and into tar pits when they reach seventy-two. However, before Earl gets the pleasure of killing his obnoxious mother-in-law, his daughter convinces the family to buck tradition and change society.

I'll be honest and admit I wasn't looking forward to rewatching this one. My memory of it is that it is dull and boring, but through adult eyes, I see much more going on here. Sure, there are no space battles, monsters, holodecks, or choreographed fight scenes, but the tale being told is touching and instigative. It makes you think about a serious, real world issue (namely, how we treat the elderly) from a completely alien and shocking--though simultaneously understandable--point of view. It's so much more than a Lwaxana puff piece or a low-budget bottle show, and it doesn't shy away from exploring its adult subject matter with complete seriousness. It's also nice to have an episode that cites the Prime Directive but doesn't involve anybody breaking it.

Spoiler section:

Michelle Forbes, who plays Timicin's daughter, Dara, will go on to play Ensign Ro, a recurring character who appears in a total of 8 episodes, most of which are in TNG's fifth season.

TNG 4x21
"The Drumhead"
Star Trek: The Next Generation
TNG 4x23
"The Host"
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