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TNG 7-14

TNG 7x14
"Sub Rosa"

Original airdate: 1/31/1994
Rewatch date: 12/30/2012


Dr. Crusher is seduced by a ghost who has been a secret part of her family for generations.

Spoiler-free notes:

Fair warning: If you like this episode, you might want to skip these notes. I say this because, to be blunt, this is the worst episode of TNG since at least the second season, and I intend to dissect it now to explain what went wrong. It is instructive, I believe, in demonstrating some of the problems Season 7 is having.

First of all, the writers obviously had a goal in mind. They wanted to explore Crusher's family and heritage the way they've been exploring the families of other crew members. Crusher has mentioned her Nana before, and using Nana's death as a starting point is a good idea, even though I've been getting pretty tired of extended family stories this season. They also clearly wanted to play with genre--to see how the Trek formula can translate to something we haven't seen before--and they chose gothic horror/romance. Such a genre could probably only work in a show as large as TNG if it's done in an off-kilter, unique, or tongue-in-cheek way, because trying to play it straight will go against the characters and universe that have been established.

Unfortunately, what they came up with feels like fan fiction written by a thirteen-year-old girl who just read Anne Rice's The Witching Hour. The plot unfolds in an extremely cliché way, from the groundskeeper who warns Crusher, "Dunna light tha' candle," and delivers the least subtle line in Trek history, "You got your grandmother's fire, 'at's fer sure," to the erotic dreams and "mysterious" secret romance contained in the dead woman's journal. Speaking of the groundskeeper, the unfortunate Scottish stereotypes are especially painful. The idea of a Scottish villiage built on an alien world is salvageable and potentially interesting, but by filling it with the most one-dimensional charicatures of the kinds of people you might find at EPCOT's World Showcase wearing the same costumey outfits and speaking in the same cartoonish accents, you turn it into an overly staged and ludicrous setting that would be laughable if it weren't so offensive.

Then there's the ghost. Again, the idea probably started well, with the writers attempting to inject a skeptical theme into the episode, to approach ghosts from a scientific point of view. However, as with the other ideas, the execution fails in the most spectacular way. TNG has been able to tackle skeptical themes in the past, and do them well, as in "Devil's Due" and "Clues." It's even been able to deal with a popular psuedoscientific mythos, as in "Schisms," which took a Trek approach to alien abduction, and there is no reason to believe that ghost mythology couldn't be handled in a similar way. While I would hardly call "Imaginary Friend" a good episode, it at least manages to convey the kinds of things this episode is going for (and to be clear, I'm saying that "Sub Rosa" is trying and failing to live up to "Imaginary Friend," which is a pretty low bar).

The problem is that the narrative utilizes the most overused tropes, like the ghost appearing suddenly in the mirror, the trees rattling against the windows, Crusher saying she'll call for security (the cops) if he doesn't show himself, the ethereal whispering, the door shutting on its own, etc., etc., etc. By the time fog appears on the bridge, there's no turning back from the terrible, not that digging up Crusher's grandmother and having the corpse spring to life because she is possessed by a vengeful spirit is any better. On top of that, the plot is delivered almost entirely by exposition. Crusher is so busy explaining things out loud that she never has time to actually show the audience anything interesting, aside from the occasional softcore fake orgasm. We know the writers are capable of delivering something great, but I seriously doubt this script could get anything higher than a "D" in Screenwriting 101.

How this episode approaches Crusher is also a problem in and of itself. Beverly Crusher has been one of the most frustrating main characters on the show, because she has refused to truly develop. While things have happened to her, she's never had a true character arc of her own, and she often only appears in episodes to deliver exposition or treat the wounded. A lot of this has to do with her absence in the second season, where almost every other main character begins a major arc. Crusher-heavy episodes, then, have to exist in a vacuum, where she ends in the same place she starts. There was potential to develop her character in a meaningful way following the departure of Wesley, but the writers never seized the opportunity. Instead, all hopes for her character's growth have been pinned on her relationship with Picard, a relationship that only managed to take a baby step forward a few episodes ago, in "Attached." In a sense, Crusher is a character who is treated as though the show is purely episodic, even though all the characters around her exist in a more serialized universe.

However, even setting that aside, an episode like "Sub Rosa" is a grave warning to the creators of a television show like TNG that the end is near. Characters go from changing organically to being stubbornly static, and writers start clutching at straws to find new ways to explore them (like introducing Worf's adoptive brother in "Homeward"). The show's formula has nearly become a parody of itself, but when the writers attempt to step out of their comfort zone and break conventions, they wind up delivering stories that feel awkward, amateurish, or inconsistent. Season 7 of TNG is hardly a failure so far--there have been some diamonds in the rough and the rough, until "Sub Rosa," hasn't been unbearable--but if TNG had continued into an eighth season, I think a lot of these endemic problems would have gotten worse and the show would have suffered. If that had happened, people might have looked back at "Sub Rosa" as the point at which TNG "jumped the shark."

Number of episodes in which a member of the crew is subverted by an alien lifeforce: 29.





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