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The Enterprise proceeds through the Epsilon Mynos system in search of a legendary world of fantastic technology known as Aldea. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), in particular, is fascinated by the myth.
Miraculously, Aldea suddenly de-cloaks in the Enterprise’s path. The mysterious planet is visible, but protected by a highly-advanced defense shield which can repel all attacks, and block transporter beams.
The leader of Aldea, Radue (Jerry Hardin) reveals to the command crew of the Enterprise that the people of Aldea can no longer bear their own children, and that to preserve the legacy of their world, they must have children from the Enterprise. The people have become sterile, and aren’t certain why.
The Aldeans abduct Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) and six other “gifted” children from the starship, and give them to Aldean families.
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) must now negotiate with the Aldeans for compensation for the stolen children, even as he, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), and the entire crew surreptitiously search for a way to overcome the powerful Aldean shield and transport the abducted children home.
It is soon learned that a computer called “The Custodian” runs Aldea, and that the Aldeans no longer understand, even, how it operates. Worse, Dr. Crusher learns that the all-mighty cloak/defense shield has been causing the sterility affecting Aldea, and nearly destroyed the humanoid society.
With Wesley’s covert assistance from the planet surface, Captain Picard must convince the Aldeans that the Federation can help them with their problems, if only they are willing to give up their shield; their tactical advantage, and the source of the legends.
First and foremost, “When the Bough Breaks” is an environmental story. It’s about what happens when people deny-- or forget -- science, and are unwilling to see how their own actions impact not only the world, but their own destinies.
The Earth’s ozone layer is often brought up in relation to this Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) story, which is even more timely today, with so many climate change deniers holding positions of power.. In 2018 It’s always easier to do nothing than to address a serious problem (especially one that affects the pocket book, or wallet), and “When the Bough Breaks” is all about this issue of sustainability and cost.
Specifically, the Aldeans must give up a part of their lifestyle -- a world of leisure and security -- if they wish to undo the physical damage their people have incurred through a damaging technology. In other words, the Aldeans must make a tough choice, and one that so many people in power are unwilling to make. They must put aside personal comfort (or in the case of oil company executives…wealth) for the well-being not just of the world, but the people. After all, what use is it to be rich, if the Earth can’t sustain us? If the planet can’t support us? It’s not just short-sightedness that dominates the thinking of these individuals; it’s cynicism. It’s the idea, “I might as well enjoy the party while it lasts,” without considering that small tweaks could allow the party to continue longer…for everyone.
Star Trek has always been a vehicle for social commentary, and “When the Bough Breaks” clearly comes from this noble tradition. The previous episode was a commentary on the Iran-Contra weapons-for-hostages deal sponsored by the Reagan Administration. This week’s episode is about coming together, globally, for the well-being of the environment that sustains an entire people.
However, as I always tell my students in film class (and Public Speaking, for that matter), the real test of quality is not what a story is about, but “how” it is about it. In this case, “When the Bough Breaks” doesn’t emerge as a particularly stirring or memorable tale in the Trek canon.
In fact, despite the best efforts of a great director (Kim Manners), this episode by Hannah Louise Shearer suffers from opposite approaches. Manners brings great style and drama to some scenes on the bridge of the Enterprise, for instance, when Wesley is scanned by the Aldeans, with dramatic, slightly off-kilter close-ups.
However, the drama of this situation is lost in the planetary scenes, where the children grapple with new parents and family issues. The musical score, while beautiful and memorable, is gentle and sweet
So, though the act of stealing children is harmful, the scenes on Aldea make it all feel harmless. The children are never in any real danger, or threatened, so the episode never feels that urgent or important. We get a scene of parents in the briefing room angry and upset about losing their children, but Picard does such a good job soothing them that viewers never believe for a moment that a reunion is impossible, or that the issue won’t be resolved.
It all feels…inconsequential.
A much more fascinating and compelling take on this material (children taken from their families) is seen in Torchwood (2006-2011), particularly the season-long tale called “Children of Earth.” There, the possibility of reunion between parents and children is distant, and the fate of children captured by aliens is absolutely horrifying. “Children of Earth” is urgent, tragic and unforgettable. “When the Bough Breaks” seems downright toothless by comparison.
The episode’s reliance on an old TV-trope, the culture-running computer, doesn’t help “When the Bough Breaks” feel any fresher. In the original series, the idea of a computer-run humanoid society was run into the ground, but the variations were fascinating, commenting specifically on organized religion (“The Return of the Archons”), the Vietnam War (“A Taste of Armageddon”) and more (“The Apple,” “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”) It is rewarding that the trope is utilized here for reasons of environmentalism, but the whole story feels milquetoast.
Next week: “Home Soil.”