Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Unnatural Selection”

“Unnatural Selection”
Written by John Mason and Mike Gray
Directed by Paul Lynch

Season 2, Episode 7
Original air date: January 30, 1989
Star date: 42494.8

Mission summary

With Enterprise en route to Star Station India to meet a Starfleet medical courier, Captain Picard is mulling over Dr. Pulaski, who has been on his ship for about seven episodes. He asks Counselor Troi if he should be worried that the irascible doctor is so good at her job that she might be bad at her job, but Troi assuages his concerns about her new BFF. He grudgingly agrees with her, and a timely distress call may provide the means to discover if he was right after all.

The U.S.S. Lantree, a Federation supply ship, sends an ominous transmission:

Can’t hold out any more. People dying. Too many to help.

There is no further communication, so Picard decides to intercept the vessel to render assistance. The Lantree seems undamaged, but there are no life signs aboard. Picard uses remote desktop access to turn on the Lantree’s webcam, which shows a bunch of old people dead at their Bridge stations.

RIKER: Looks like they had a battle with time.
WORF: And lost.

Pulaski confirms that they all died of natural causes: old age. Damn you, Time!

The puzzling thing is that everyone on the crew had been checked out before their mission and were in prime health, and the captain is supposed to be Riker’s age. The ship’s first officer had contracted Thelusian flu, but it seems more likely that their visit to the Darwin Genetic Research Station is somehow involved.

They quarantine the Lantree and take off for Gagarin IV, where Dr. Pulaski is warmly greeted by Dr. Kingsley, who is a big fan of her erotic bestseller, “Linear Models of Viral Propagation.” Kingsley and her staff are all succumbing to “geriatric phenomena,” which begins with a bad case of arthritis. Pulaski suggests that their genetic research is coming back to haunt them, but Kingsley pooh-poohs it away, and she begs Enterprise to save their children. Please, won’t someone think of the children?

Picard hates children, of course, and these are potentially dangerous besides, as they might be carrying the unknown disease. Pulaski’s insubordination convinces him to allow her to beam one up to study under a forcefield and in suspended animation. Instead of a 12-year-old boy, they get a manchild, but at least he’s still shrinkwrapped and in mint condition. In addition to his advanced maturity, Troi senses that the kid is telepathic—the result of Kingsley’s attempts to upgrade humanity to the next level.

Pulaski insists that to properly examine this perfect, nearly naked physical specimen, she has to remove his sterilite containment. She and Picard argue over it; he won’t allow her to proceed unless she can find a foolproof way to isolate him from the ship.

The only way is to study him on a shuttlecraft. She volunteers herself as a guinea pig to test her theory that the boy is not a disease carrier, and she brings her favorite mechanical pal, Data, to pilot the shuttle–theorizing that he won’t be affected if she’s wrong. As soon as she removes the boy from his blister pack, he talks to her telepathically. In a short while, she cries out in pain, clutching her left elbow: sudden and severe arthritis! She is so dead. Or maybe she’s just been playing too much Wii tennis with Troi lately.

They send the kid back where he came from, and since they’re under quarantine, Pulaski and Data take the shuttle to the station as well. Pulaski soon realizes that the kids’ overzealous immune systems created an airborn antibody in response to exposure to the Thelusian flu, which has irrevocably altered the DNA of the normal humans around them. It is irreversible. Irreversible!

On Enterprise, a desperate Picard and Chief O’Brien discuss various improbable scenarios in which the transporter can be used to save Dr. Pulaski, who is aging at an accelerated rate. They hit a setback when they can’t get a hold of a recent transporter trace to serve as a template for their witchcraft, since Pulaski rarely uses the infernal machine. But there might be a way, if they find a DNA sample that will allow them to use the transporter’s biofilters to remove her genetic alterations. After rifling through her sock drawer, they finally locate a hairbrush. Jinkies! That’ll do.

Picard takes over the transporter controls from O’Brien, since if this experimental procedure fails, he’ll have to beam Pulaski’s atoms into space. Following some brief dramatic tension, it works after all. They use the same technique to fix all the scientists and leave them on Gagarin IV, alive but forever separated from their deadly children on the station in orbit. Enterprise then returns to the Lantree to destroy it, while Pulaski gets preachy about scientific achievement coming with a price.


Many of the original series episodes involved an intriguing medical mystery and a race against time to save a planet, a station, a ship, or Enterprise officers from an untimely demise. “Unnatural Selection” is a bit of a throwback to those storylines, and it even “borrows” from one of the best episodes of Star Trek, “The Deadly Years.” But as we saw with “The Naked Now,” TNG just doesn’t excel at these kinds of stories, and the same is true here. Where “The Deadly Years” was grounded in characters we cared about and their personal, emotional struggles with old age and impending death, in this episode the only stakes are a small crew of strangers and a station full of mad scientists, and the script scrambles to try to make us care about Dr. Pulaski in just one episode—cramming several episodes worth of character development into one short teaser. I’m more distressed that they lost a shuttlecraft because of this mess. So long, Sakharov.

In addition to the belated attempts to make Pulaski interesting or sympathetic, or at least more than an expendable replacement for Dr. Crusher, the script does an impressive job of seeming to make some kind of scientific sense. They speak a lot of big, fancy words with conviction. But once you start talking about airborne antibodies rewriting human DNA, you’ve kind of lost me. (However, there may be some interesting commentary in the fact that the children’s bodies identified their parents as harmful to their health.) I was absolutely floored by the frantic handwaving and unrestrained technobabble cluttering up the script. Surely Colm Meaney deserved an Emmy for delivering lines like this with a straight face:

Well, I’d have to get into the biofilter bus to patch in a molecular matrix reader. That’s no problem. But the waveform modulator will be overloaded without the regeneration limiter in the first stage circuit.

Riiiight… Did you get all that? This is the equivalent of expositional tap dancing, and Meaney is a master. “Make it so,” Captain Picard? I think you mean, “Make it up!”

Though they’re all so uncertain that this is going to work, that maybe it has never been tried, we’ve already seen it many times in the franchise, including the animated series episodes “The Lorelei Signal” and “The Counter-Clock Incident.” (This is not a good thing.) And we will see it again and again and again. Whenever someone gets sick with some rare, deadly, unknown disease, or is inexplicably aged in one direction or the other, the first protocol should be, “Run them through the transporter on fluff cycle.” Which I suppose puts Dr. Pulaski at a bit of a disadvantage, given her mistrust of the technology. Ah, bitter irony. The very device she fears has saved her life!

Her similarity to McCoy’s phobia about the transporters is laid on pretty thick here, and I have a hard time believing that Starfleet would accommodate any officer who refused to use a basic piece of “proven” technology. In Kirk’s day, maybe, but here it’s nearly a century later and the transporters have improved, and she’s still inconveniencing everyone into giving her shuttle rides? Even McCoy rarely tried to get away with that; he used the transporter in practically every episode, he just complained about it a lot.

It’s even harder to accept that Picard would tolerate one of his crewmembers giving him as much attitude as Pulaski does. Even though he calls her on it, he essentially grimaces and bears it, and we’re meant to believe that once he finds out she’s a Picard fangirl, all is forgiven. He even hugs her at the end! How cute that she has the same doubts about Picard’s passion blinding his judgment! Though I appreciate the nearly unprecedented level of interpersonal conflict between the crew, it’s only surface deep and feels much too forced—as well as having a weak payoff, because they’ve only been trying to settle their differences for about forty minutes.

There are also some other stupid things to consider, such as a so-called scientist risking exposure to prove a point, which is frankly a huge cliché. Risk is established as a big theme in this episode, because everyone’s talking about it, but it loses its punch when someone can literally flip a switch at the end and reset everything to the way it was. Speaking of transporters, why did O’Brien have to go watch that kid beam out of Sickbay while his assistant pushed all the buttons?

I did really like one moment in the episode: when Data beams back after being under quarantine and Picard rushes up to ask him a question, the captain pauses to say it’s good to see him again. No matter how busy you are, it’s important to remember your manners.

It seems a waste to deal with a disease that causes old age without taking the opportunity to address the implications of old age, but another episode did it better, and “Unnatural Selection” would rather warn us about messing with nature—a very unexpected message from a show that celebrates human evolution, advancement, and ingenuity.

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

Thread Alert: I’ll just point out that the Star Trek wardrobe department either really hates children, or has no idea how to dress them. Apparently the script originally called for the Darwin children to be nude, which would have been difficult to stage with transparent furniture. So instead someone came up with these delightful ensembles, which remind me of an unfortunate mashup of Old Navy and Fanta commercials. Can’t you just taste the rainbow? Also, these are the laziest kids ever, using telepathy to manipulate chess pieces instead of picking them up with their hands; but then again, they’re obviously germophobes so maybe they don’t want to touch anything.

Best Line: TROI: Let’s just say you both have well established personalities.

Trivia/Other Notes: Maurice Hurley heavily rewrote this script, removing scenes on the Lantree as well as a subplot concerning an attractive assistant/love interest for La Forge whose beauty inadvertently caused her crew mates to suffer amusing accidents. (Seriously?)

Appropriately enough, Diana Muldaur apparently couldn’t remember her lines and required cue cards.

This is the first episode in which Colm Meaney’s character is named O’Brien and designated as Transporter Chief.

This episode also contradicts later episodes (or vice versa) that establish that genetic engineering is outlawed in the Federation. Khaaaaaaaannnnn!!!

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 6 – “The Schizoid Man.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 8 – “A Matter of Honor.”

About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.