Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “When the Bough Breaks”

“When the Bough Breaks”
Written by Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Kim Manners

Season 1, Episode 17
Original air date: February 15, 1988
Star date: 41509.1

Mission summary

Enterprise follows a trail of energy readings to the Epsilon Mynos system, the legendary location of the hidden world Aldea, which turns out to be more than a myth. The planet drops its sophisticated cloaking shield and they are welcomed by a young woman, Rashella, who soon transports to the ship’s bridge with a much older man, Radue, First Appointee to Aldea. They have an intriguing, but ambiguous deal to offer the Federation crew.

The Aldeans transport Riker, Crusher, and Troi through their shield to the planet for negotiations. They confide that they are all sterile and propose trading some extra children from Enterprise in exchange for advanced information about areas of space that are still centuries out of the Federation’s reach. In fact, they’ve already picked out their favorite rugrats and taken the liberty of helping themselves, even though Riker and the others are vehemently opposed to this bizarre arrangement. On the upside, one of the kids the Aldeans takes is Wesley, which they will soon regret.

But of course, no child gets left behind on Picard’s watch. While the captain keeps the Aldeans talking about “compensation,” Data and Geordi search for ways to sneak through the Aldeans’ aging defensive systems, and Wesley discovers that the Aldeans are entirely dependent on a computer set up by their Progenitors called the Custodian—technology they don’t understand and are unable to maintain. Wesley must have seen Star Trek episodes like this before, because he immediately asks about the machine’s power source. There’s a good chance it’s behind that locked door that no one has ever bothered opening. Oh that? It’s just a maintenance closet.

Radue resorts to barely veiled threats and shows off his planet’s superior strength to get Picard to agree to the completely reasonable offer on the table. Dr. Crusher discovers that everyone on Aldea is suffering from radiation poisoning; the very machine they rely on is destroying their atmosphere, allowing their sun to slowly kill them. The Enterprise kids will suffer the same fate after prolonged exposure. Wesley forces Radue’s hand by arranging a little strike among the kidnapped children, and Data and Riker exploit fluctuations in the planetary shield to beam down and disable the Custodian.

Radue quickly changes his tune once he loses his leverage; he gratefully accepts their generous offer of help. Dr. Crusher patches the Aldeans up and the ship restores the planet’s ozone layer, but they can never use their shields again.


I was mightily confused when this episode began, because I had somehow mixed it up with “Coming of Age,” but there was nary a Benzite to be seen. Once I realized this was a different Wesley-centric episode, I was surprised that the things I’d expected to be annoying weren’t that bad.

Specifically, Wesley ended up being far more mature and believably precocious than we’ve seen him. He assumes his protective role over the other, younger kids easily and shows them great kindness. He is curious and suspicious about the Custodian but doesn’t pull any whiz kid shenanigans to save the day. His solution, to stage passive resistance, is clever and just the right thing to do under the circumstances. And when his mother employs his help to scan one of the Aldeans, he is typically awkward and obtuse. “Oh!” he exclaims as she slips him the medical scanner. Then he gets the readings she needs so subtly that it’s a good thing the Aldean is old and probably blinded by radiation sickness. But that’s it. Incredibly, Wesley is one of the better aspects of this one, and you heard it here first.

This is the second episode in the series where the ship encounters a legendary planet from an advanced civilization, and it won’t be the last. Not by a long shot. It makes sense that this would happen in their explorations, but it’s quickly becoming a new trope of the franchise, while they simultaneously borrow some old ones from the original series: the Custodian and the idea of a race of Progenitors. Who are these guys and why do they think they’re helping people? Picard’s reasons for getting involved are different and necessary, but the end result is the same as if Kirk had visited Aldea: a planet “freed” of the computer that controls it and a change to a completely different way of life.

I liked that Picard and Riker were so excited over discovering Aldea. These are the attitudes I expect explorers to have. I also appreciated their multipronged approach to solving a seemingly impossible situation, and how their efforts dovetailed with Wesley’s on the planet below. But I wondered why Picard didn’t attempt to intimidate or threaten the Aldeans at all. Surely if Starfleet got wind that a planet had kidnapped Federation citizens, especially kids, war would be upon them. It wasn’t until we saw how powerful Aldea is—through a nifty special effect snapping Enterprise light years away, which gave me an odd feeling of déjà  Q (the effect is reused in the following season in “Q Who”)—that we understand the Federation is significantly outgunned.

I also didn’t get why Radue was so insistent on forcing Picard to go along with their trade. They have a perverted moral code, where they must give something of “like value” in exchange for the children, but bullying someone into accepting your offer seems rather pointless.

The hardest thing to accept is that a supposedly civilized people would commit such a blatant act of what Picard calls “barbarity.” My favorite moment of the episode is when Radue claims they won’t harm the children and Picard points out they already have, by snatching them away from their families and home. The Aldeans are weirdly inconsistent, and their lack of awareness that they’re in the wrong is too unbelievable. At one point, Radue tells Picard, “You are a stubborn people.” Hello, pot. Meet kettle.

The other element that doesn’t work, really at all, is that these kids accepted their new families so readily. They don’t freak out much at all, and it isn’t until a few days later that they start getting a little mopey. It doesn’t speak well of the kids, or their parents. Wesley’s the only one who realizes how screwed up this all is and almost has to twist their arms to reject the new paradise they’ve been offered. Aldea is far from the Neverland of Peter Pan or Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, a break from their oh so terrible lives on Enterprise. Look, I hate calculus too, but I’m not going to be happy with a strange couple that forces me to make little statues for them either or play happy songs.

The Aldeans are painted as kind of sympathetic, but they’re horrible monsters. I could understand their actions if the radiation has affected their judgment, but they’re fully accountable if they’re driven to kidnap children out of desperation. It might even have been enough if they were a tad regretful instead of acting like their behavior was perfectly justified. Troi inexplicably says, “We know they’ll make good parents,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Slap a quarantine on the planet and get the hell out of there!

There’s a fair bit of moralizing here too, again from Dr. Crusher: How ironic! The very technology the planet depends on is destroying its atmosphere, dooming them all. Hmm. She also makes an effort to throw out some helpful platitudes, like, “Don’t give in to fear!” Thanks, don’t quit your day job, Doc. At least I still find Picard’s discomfort around children amusing, and the last shot of the episode elicited a much-needed laugh to make it all better.

Ultimately, this episode is simultaneously needlessly complicated and oversimplified, not nearly as thoughtful or provocative as it thinks it is. It tries too hard to turn something that shouldn’t be much of a problem into a major, drawn-out conflict, and is just generally creepy and wrong. On the other hand, guest star Jerry Hardin is awesome in every role he plays…

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

Thread Alert: Star Trek continues its trend of dressing children in the most outlandish outfits. Wesley’s fashion sense is not even the worst of this ensemble. This should count as child abuse.

Best Line: PICARD: “Things are only impossible until they’re not.”

Trivia/Other Notes: This is Jerry Hardin’s first appearance on TNG. He will return in the 2-part episode “Time’s Arrow” as Samuel Clemens.

Wil Wheaton’s brother Jeremy (Mason) and sister Amy (Tara) are uncredited guest stars in this episode, along with Michael Westmore’s daughter Mackenzie (R0se).

The music that Katie “plays” might sound familiar: It was used as the Traveler’s theme in “Where No One Has Gone Before.” Both episodes were scored, composed, and conducted by Ron Jones.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 16 – “Too Short a Season.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 18 – “Home Soil.”

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.