Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Suddenly Human”

Suddenly Human“Suddenly Human”
Teleplay by John Whelpley & Jeri Taylor
Story by Ralph Phillips
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

Season 3, Episode 4
Original air date: October 15, 1990
Star date: 44143.7

Mission summary

The Enterprise investigates a Talarian distress call and finds an adrift training ship full of injured teens and children (but no Scoutmaster). Radiation is leaking from the propulsion system and Dr. Crusher beams the five survivors to the Enterprise just in time. Among the survivors, however, is a human boy…

The boy, Jono, has been raised by Talarians and considers himself one of them. Unfortunately, this is the equivalent schooling of trolling MRA message boards so he has no respect for women and refuses to interact at all with Dr. Crusher or the various nurses. The only person who seems to be able to get through to him is Captain Picard, paragon of authority and masculinity. Jono says he wants to get back to his “captain,” Endar. But Dr. Crusher is concerned: he’s got a lot of healed-over broken bones and bruises, and she thinks that as a human captive he’s probably been abused. She thinks his desire to return to cruel and brutal captors is just evidence of Stockholm syndrome.

But there’s another wrench in the works. Jono was once Jeremiah Rossa, the grandson of Admiral Rossa. His parents were murdered on their home planet by Talarians, and it appears that the boy was taken captive as a sort of war prize. The Admiral lost her whole family and desperately wants her grandson, the very last Rossa, back. But believing himself a true Talarian, Jono is in no condition to leave his adopted family and rejoin the ranks of humanity. Nobody understands him! You’re not my real dad!

Troi thinks he needs to connect with a father figure and rediscover his true identity as a human boy becoming a man. And who better to do that than Captain Picard? Despite his allergy to children, he reluctantly agrees to do so. But Picard struggles with Jono’s rock music and eyeliner and despairing howls (oh, teenagers). He shows Jono pictures of his dead family to see if he remembers anything, because that’s not traumatic or anything. Soon enough, he begins recalling his parents’ dying screams and cries for help. Nothing like getting in touch with your human side—the side with all the dead people in it.

Worse, Jono’s adopted father, Endar, really wants him back. They rendezvous and Endar explains that Jono is his son—he was fulfilling a Talarian custom that allows him to capture the child of a slain enemy in recompense for the death of his son. He seems like he’s been a good father, and explains away the various injuries Dr. Crusher found as the usual consequences of a wild youth. But Picard is firm that the boy cannot be returned to the Talarians. Endar, for his part, is willing to go to war for his son.

Troi mentions a possible trump card: Jono is at the “age of decision,” meaning if that he chooses to return to the humans, Endar must respect that choice. So all they have to do is convince this kid that humanity is awesome! And we all know the best way to do that: racquetball and spending time with Wesley Crusher.

Picard takes Jono to space racquetball, but it turns out racquetball is a horrible trigger for the traumatic memories of his family dying. Man, this human stuff is awesome! Every time you start to have fun, BAM, paralyzing PTSD! After a total breakdown in which Jono recalls cradling his dead mom, Picard decides to cheer him up and they go to Ten Forward where Wesley shows him a banana split. Only he splatters it all on Wesley (tooootally on accident, he claims). Oh the hilarity! Being human is so goofy and wonderful! Forget all that dead mom stuff!

But I guess Jono doesn’t really like slapstick because hours later, he stabs a sleeping Captain Picard in the chest. Probably for setting up that playdate with Wesley.

In sickbay, Picard demands an explanation.

PICARD: What I want to know is why? You seemed so happy just a few hours ago.
JONO: I was. Then I thought about my father. I felt I had betrayed him. I’d be throwing away all that he’s given me, all that I’d learned from him. My home, running along the river, playing in the games, sharing victory with my brothers. All the things that are part of my life. As I grew closer and closer to you, I knew that meant leaving more and more of that life behind. Forgive me, Captain, but I could not allow myself to do that.

Being a teenager is hard, you guys.

So Picard feels pretty guilty and decides not to go to war over a kid who’d rather die than hang out with Wesley Crusher (can you blame him?). He agrees to return Jono to Endar, and in the end Jono touches foreheads in a manly expression of tenderness, even taking off his “Ick! Aliens!” gloves to touch Picard, who taught him a little about being human.

Suddenly Human

Analysis

This episode makes absolutely no sense to me thematically or structurally.

Thematically, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be getting out of it. The boy isn’t suddenly human—he’s barely human. I don’t see any reason at all to snatch him from the life he’s known to be raised by absolute strangers. Interestingly, there is no discussion at all about what would be best for the boy. Troi offers him absolutely no counseling throughout this revelation, which includes some serious PTSD flashbacks that culminate in a murder attempt. Instead, the episode cares about a bunch of adults whose interests don’t align with the child’s basically trying to kidnap him because they feel guilty their admiral is childless. Is that really a great reason to uproot this kid and everything he’s ever known? Can you imagine him trying to assimilate into human culture? And more importantly, would anyone at all benefit from trying to make him do so?

I guess the episode of the week Message is that Dr. Crusher’s prejudice against Talarians leads her to assume that the boy is the victim of child abuse and that jumping to such conclusions is Wrong and Prejudiced. But… is that really so unfair? The kid was taken as a war prize. He wasn’t adopted or rescued by these people. They killed his family (on purpose! Not an accident!). Endar makes clear that he didn’t save this baby out of the goodness of his heart, he did it as a form of revenge for the death of his own son. And what is the sweetest revenge but raising your enemy to be your own, taking away his last shred of humanity, so that he’d kill his own blood brother to defend you?

Isn’t that… I dunno, a little fucked up? I treat that situation substantively different from, say, this alien race just adopting a stranded boy out of the goodness of their hearts. (See, e.g., the Rozhenkos.) I don’t think it changes the solution—what’s best for the boy is to stay with the family that has raised him well—but there is something pretty sinister about this setup that goes completely unquestioned that, to me at least, undermines the whole point about not leaping to prejudiced conclusions. The prejudice angle seems especially shallow when the only thing that seems to distinguish the Talarians from humans aside from the standard-issue face ridges is deep-seated misogyny. So, uh, good world-building there.

Moral quandaries aside, I see a bigger structural storytelling flaw: this is really not a good Picard story. There is absolutely nothing that Picard can offer this kid except reinforcement of his existing patriarchal worldview. They have nothing in common and Picard has no wisdom to offer. This seems to me to be an obvious Worf story (possibly because it WAS a Worf story before). Worf has a lot to offer this kid in terms of navigating two distinct, seemingly irreconcilable cultures. He can teach him about being in touch with his true heritage without betraying the loving, adoptive parents that raised him. And more importantly, Worf represents a third option that Joro is never offered: the chance to live among his adoptive people, while being given the freedom to explore his own identity in his own time and on his own terms as he grows older. But the show fails both Jono and Worf here by neglecting to pursue that story (and will continue to fail Worf once he has an actual son to raise).

I have a new theory: any episode that heavily involves children is doomed to fail on this series.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

threadalertThread Alert: This week’s award goes to the space racquetball outfits, which do no one any favors. It’s like a sad lightcycle jumpsuit that’s lost its glow, with bonus paunch highlight box.

Best Line: JONO: I am no more human than you are. I am Talarian.
WORF: You are confused.

Trivia/Other Notes: This was Jeri Taylor’s first Star Trek script (she later became an executive producer for TNG and Voyager). She had no prior knowledge of ST or sci-fi and drew on her own experiences as the mother of teenage boys.

The actor who plays Jono, Chad Allen, was a recognizable teen idol from Our House and My Two Dads. After TNG, he starred for six years as Matthew Cooper on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 3 – “Brothers.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 5 – “Remember Me.”

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.