“What the devil happened to you up there?”: Family (TNG) vs. Home (Enterprise)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Family” (season 4, episode 2)

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Written by Ronald D. Moore; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1990

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In the aftermath of the epic two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Enterprise is docked in Earth orbit for repairs after its battle with the Borg, and we follow some of the crew as they get the chance to catch up with family. Lieutenant Worf’s adoptive human parents, Helena and Sergey, beam up to visit him, so Sergey, a former enlisted man, can fawn over the Enterprise … and so they can offer Worf some emotional support following his recent discommendation from the Klingon Empire. Doctor Crusher retrieves some of her late husband Jack’s effects from storage on Earth, and worries how Wesley will react to the holo-message his father had recorded for him shortly after he was born. And Captain Picard visits his home town in France to spend some time with his resentful luddite of a brother, Robert, and Robert’s much-more-welcoming wife Marie and son Rene, on the Picard family vineyard. Counselor Troi finds the captain’s choice to visit family after all these years “interesting,” and clearly isn’t convinced that the captain is as fully recovered from his horrific assimilation by the Borg as he claims to be. Which he isn’t – not emotionally, at least – and when an old friend offers Picard a position on the project to raise a new subcontinent from Earth’s ocean floor, he considers leaving Starfleet to take it. It’s only after the simmering tension between Jean-Luc and Robert boils over into full-on fisticuffs that the captain can finally let out some of the overwhelming guilt and grief he feels at having been used by the Borg to kill so many people. Robert opens up, too, and sympathizes with his brother, reminding him that he has no choice but to live with what happened, and can only choose whether he lives with it under the ocean, or out in space with Starfleet. Spoiler: he chooses space.

VS.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “Home” (season 4, episode 3)

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Written by Michael Sussman; directed by Allan Kroeker; first aired in 2004

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In the aftermath of their season-long mission into the Delphic Expanse to avenge a horrific attack on humankind by the Xindi, and to stop them from coming back to finish the job, the crew of the Enterprise are given a hero’s welcome upon returning to Earth, and get the long-overdue chance for some downtime. T’Pol brings Trip along on her visit to Vulcan, where she learns that her mother, T’Les, has been forced to resign from her position at the Science Academy, as punishment for T’Pol’s own actions in defiance of the Vulcan High Command. Koss, the arranged fiancé T’Pol doesn’t want to marry, offers to use his family’s influence to get T’Les reinstated, as long as T’Pol finally agrees to marry him … which puts Trip in the awkward position of attending his girlfriend’s wedding. Meanwhile, on Earth, Captain Archer is debriefed by Starfleet and the Vulcan High Command, and runs into an old girlfriend of his own, Captain Hernandez of the brand new starship Columbia, Starfleet’s second Warp 5-capable ship. Hernandez invites herself along on Archer’s mountain-climbing trip, eager to pick his brain about her choice of crew, but Archer is preoccupied and angry, still struggling with questionable choices he made in the Expanse, and Hernandez’s optimism at the start of her mission is a painful reminder of how much more cynical he has become over the course of his own. And while accompanying Mayweather and Reed for a night out on Earth, Dr. Phlox is harassed by xenophobic humans. After being forced to use his species’ blowfish-like defense mechanism to stop the ensuing bar fight, Phlox decides it’s best if he stays off Earth in its current political climate, despite Hoshi’s urging that he not let the xenophobes win.

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“Family” is a surprisingly important episode of The Next Generation, and of Star Trek in general. It’s an easy episode to overlook; as the epilogue to the two-part blockbuster “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Family” follows two of the most obviously important episodes in Trek’s long history. “The Best of Both Worlds” marked a number of milestones for Star Trek: it was among the first few two-part episodes – and the first real season-ending cliff-hanger – of the franchise, and it firmly established that The Next Generation (and Trek TV in general, going forward) could be both an anthology of philosophical sci-fi allegories, as The Original Series had been, and high-stakes space opera, in the vein of Trek films like The Wrath of Khan. Following Captain Picard’s tragic assimilation by the Borg in Part 1 of “The Best of Both Worlds,” and his dramatic rescue in Part 2, “Family” is jarring for just how small and intimate it feels, how conspicuously devoid it is of both the action and the high-concept sci-fi that made “Both Worlds” so exciting. But that, I think, is exactly what makes “Family” important in its own right.

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Star Trek’s characters have always been its heart and soul. Sure, the bright colors, cool ships, and alien ears and foreheads are what caught my attention and got me watching The Next Generation and reruns of The Original Series as a kid, but it’s the characters that keep me coming back to those series, and to Trek in general, after all these years. “Family” understands that, and gambles on it in a way I don’t think Trek ever had before this episode, by dispensing almost entirely with the allegorical sci-fi problem-of-the-week, and just simply spending some time with its characters. Yes, the story is peppered with nice little bits of world-building, like the intriguing notion of a project to raise part of Earth’s ocean floor (and we’ll come back to that world-building below). And yes, the sci-fi nightmare of Picard’s assimilation by the Borg in “Both Worlds” looms large over this episode, though it isn’t explained in any detail here, and the episode obviously assumes its audience has seen those previous two episodes and already knows what happened to him – an assumption The Next Generation would rarely make, as weird as that might seem to us today (and we’ll come back to that below, too). But you could tell this story without any of those sci-fi elements, if you wanted to. The Picard A-plot follows a survivor dealing with trauma while reconnecting with family; the Worf B-plot depicts a son’s difficulty expressing his love for his parents, and his parents’ struggle to be supportive while respecting his boundaries; and the Crusher family C-plot (very briefly) explores the relationship between a son and the late father he misses, but doesn’t really remember. These are stories about emotional experiences, and they’re built not on our connection to the Star Trek universe, so much as on our connection to these particular characters.

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And it’s that connection to the characters, and the performances of the actors playing them, that makes these stories compelling, even without any explosions or what have you. Admittedly, the Jack Crusher plot thread is pretty thin, and is the only one of the three that doesn’t entirely land for me. This certainly isn’t the fault of Gates McFadden or Wil Wheaton as Beverly and Wesley, though it probably doesn’t help that I know Wheaton’s time as a regular cast member will end only a few episodes after this, in “Final Mission.” I don’t hate Wesley with the passion of a thousand suns going supernova, as so much of the Internet seems to, but I do have a hard time connecting with the character, even at the best of times. He’s given very little screen time to work with here, and knowing he’ll only make a handful of appearances after this episode anyway, maybe I’d be more invested in this C-story if it kept the focus on Beverly, and her feelings about Jack’s memory. But the episode’s other two stories work very well, I think, precisely because they capitalize on our connection to their characters. While the guest actors here are great – Worf’s parents, and Picard’s brother and sister-in-law, all feel impressively well-realized in such a short time – it’s Worf and Picard, and the performances behind them, that make this episode. I don’t know if Michael Dorn gets enough credit for the work he does as Worf, under all that prosthetic forehead, and his sudden shift from surliness to open excitement when his parents materialize on the transporter pad is charming and very well done, immediately setting the tone for what will be a relatively subtle study of the complex yet loving relationship he has with his parents.

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But of course, it’s Picard who steals the show here, on a number of levels. This wasn’t the first time The Next Generation went out of its way to showcase the now-legendary acting chops of Patrick Stewart; the third season’s “Sarek,” coming just a few episodes before “The Best of Both Worlds” began, has Picard take on the psychic burden of Ambassador Sarek’s out-of-control emotions, in a beautiful, powerful scene which really shows off Stewart’s range. But those were someone else’s emotions, suddenly flooding over Picard’s consciousness. Here in “Family,” Stewart is portraying something much subtler, though that certainly doesn’t make his performance any less impressive. Over the course of the episode, he gradually, carefully hints at the deep-seated grief and guilt Picard has been living with, and trying to hide, since he was assimilated by the Borg and forced to lead their war effort against Starfleet. Which, brilliant acting notwithstanding, is another thing that makes Picard’s story here so effective, and so important.

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Up to this point, Star Trek (in its TV incarnations, at least) had embraced an anthology-like approach which rarely allowed events from one story to overtly impact another. There were exceptions, of course, with the ominous introduction of the Borg threat, a full season before “The Best of Both Worlds,” being one of the biggest of those exceptions. But in the case of these exceptions, what carried over from episode to episode tended to be their events, and not so much the emotional impact of those events on the characters. Even after “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Family,” Picard, as TNG’s lead character, would be repeatedly put through intense trauma – physical and psychological torture in “Chain of Command, Part 2,” experiencing someone else’s entire lifetime in the span of a few seconds in “The Inner Light” – the emotional effects of which would be almost entirely ignored in later episodes; a big part of my excitement for the upcoming Star Trek: Picard series comes from its potential to finally unpack some of the emotional baggage this character must have accumulated over the course of an absolutely bananas career in Starfleet. “Family” is a rare example of TNG doing just that, allowing Stewart to portray, first subtly and then cathartically, the heart-breakingly believable after-effects of an unbelievable previous trauma. In doing so – in showing that the sci-fi weirdness of the Star Trek universe can have a lasting emotional impact on its characters – this episode is an important early step toward the more serialized, more character development-based storytelling of Deep Space Nine, and Discovery, and, yes, Picard, the series.

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And Enterprise, for that matter – a series which would struggle to find its own place in the Star Trek universe until it made the bold move of structuring its entire third season around exactly that sort of storytelling. The resulting season-long storyline would be an ambitious, if imperfect, exploration of long-term consequences: the consequences of a devastating attack on Earth, clearly modeled after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th, 2001; and the consequences for Captain Archer, and his crew, of the actions they end up taking as a result of that attack. Coming shortly after the conclusion of that storyline, I have to believe that the Enterprise episode “Home” was, itself, modeled to some extent after TNG’s “Family.” Captain Archer’s storyline in “Home,” in particular, is an interesting analogue to Captain Picard’s in “Family.” On the surface, they’re very similar stories: a Starfleet captain returns to Earth after a traumatizing mission, receives a hero’s welcome he doesn’t feel he deserves, and works through at least a little of that trauma by reconnecting with a loved one. But Enterprise justifies its retelling of this familiar story by putting an interesting spin on it. “Family” doesn’t instantly cure Picard’s assimilation-induced PTSD, but it does reassure him that the captain’s chair of a starship is exactly where he is meant to be, no matter how he feels, and will continue to feel, about what the Borg made him do. Picard’s brother Robert plainly lays out his choices: live with what happened on Earth, or live with it in Starfleet, but live with it one way or the other. Jean-Luc chooses Starfleet, of course, and “Family” wants us to see this as the unambiguously correct choice; the episode ends with Picard taking obvious pleasure from meeting Worf’s parents, and, by extension, from resuming his role of leadership and guidance to a crew he clearly cares for. “Home,” on the other hand, leaves Archer in a much more ambiguous place. He, too, finds some support by reconnecting with a loved one – his ex-girlfriend and fellow Starfleet captain, Erika Hernandez – but unlike Picard, it’s implied that Archer will continue to question Starfleet’s mission, and his own role in it, after the end of the episode.

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How “Home” handles this complex characterization is, I’d say, a mixed success. I like that it shows Archer having a prolonged and believable reaction to the very strange life of a lead Star Trek character, in a way we’d rarely get to see from the captains of Trek’s more episodic TV series – your Original Series, your Next Generation, your Voyager. And I like that “Home” allows Archer to do something else TOS and TNG and Voyager would virtually never allow from their own lead characters: after he’s seen just how scary a place the galaxy can be, “Home” lets Archer ask fundamental questions about the very mission and nature of Starfleet – questions about humanity’s readiness to seek out new life and new civilizations, and about the wisdom of even aspiring to do those things in the first place (questions which Q was explicitly prompting Picard to ask when he introduced humanity to the Borg, and which you’d think would be weighing heavily on Picard’s mind after “The Best of Both Worlds”). As disappointed as I am that Hernandez and her ship, the Columbia, wouldn’t go on to play a prominent role in later episodes of Enterprise (as I believe they have in the tie-in novels, though I haven’t read those myself), I think it was a clever choice to make her the optimistic, idealistic sort of Starfleet captain we’re more familiar with, in contrast to the disillusioned cynic Archer seems to have become by the time he returns to Earth. It might seem odd for a prequel to the aspirational, utopian TOS and TNG to suggest that the first starship captain’s belief in that utopia was badly shaken in the process of making it possible. But the idea that this might simply be the price that had to be paid for that utopia – that Archer paved the way for captains like Hernandez to be open to the wonders of the galaxy by sacrificing his own sense of wonder – is an interesting one, and is a depth of characterization I don’t feel Enterprise often reaches, particularly when it comes to Archer.

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Which is, of course, where the mixed success of “Home” becomes more mixed than successful, and where inviting comparisons to “Family” backfires a bit: Archer is, quite simply, no Picard. And I don’t blame that on Scott Bakula’s performance. He’s fully capable of giving the character some much-needed vulnerability and humanity, in those relatively rare moments when the scripts don’t have him playing a tough-as-nails action-hero who feels, to me, very out of place in Star Trek – a surface-level imitation of the “manliness” of a Captain Kirk or a Commander Riker, without much understanding of the depth and nuance that made those characters actually interesting. Sometimes, Enterprise’s compulsion to make Archer the alpha-male manly-man leads to laughable moments, like “Home” using its dream sequence of a Xindi attack to give him a blatantly unnecessary action sequence (echoing a similar scene in the otherwise excellent “Twilight,” which weirdly inserts a patented Archer action scene into a flashback from T’Pol’s point of view – a fistfight she couldn’t have seen and which he doesn’t remember, but which we apparently needed to see, for some reason). Other times, it seriously interferes with the story being told, and with any attempt at consistent, relatable characterization of Archer himself. If Archer is going to admit to Hernandez that he finally understands, and even kind of agrees with, the Vulcan High Command’s argument that humans aren’t yet ready for deep space exploration, then why does “Home” waste valuable screen time on a rehash of the same bull-headed shouting matches he’s been having with Vulcan Ambassador Soval since literally the first episode of the series? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and more revealing of how much his mission has changed him, if a beaten-down Archer didn’t push back against Soval’s questioning of his choices, but instead admitted – as he does to Hernandez – that he’s been questioning his own choices? “Home” asks us to believe that Archer has changed, but it doesn’t show him behaving much differently than he has since square one. The scenes following T’Pol and Trip on Vulcan are more successful, I think, precisely because we can see how T’Pol’s time on the Enterprise has changed her – we can hear it in the un-Vulcan-like emotion in her voice – and can see how Trip’s time with T’Pol has changed him, and softened his prejudice toward Vulcans. Stories like “Family” and “Home” can only really work if they allow their characters to be, and feel, fundamentally vulnerable to forces beyond their control, as Picard clearly is in “Family.” “Home” seemingly wants to go down that road with Archer, but its need to portray him as the manly master of his own destiny prevents it from going far enough.

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But “Home” is, perhaps, more successful than “Family” in its depiction of Earth – or rather, its depiction of an Earth which believably exists in the same fictional universe as everything else that happens in Star Trek. Don’t get me wrong: the Picard family vineyard is a charming and novel place for an episode of Trek to visit. And “Family” deserves credit for acknowledging, as The Next Generation so rarely does, that the famously “perfect” 24th-century Earth is still home to a plurality of world views, contrasting Jean-Luc’s friend’s Louis’s cutting-edge ocean-floor-raising project with his brother Robert’s distrust of futuristic conveniences, like the food replicator, which he believes have made life “too convenient.” But while “Family” was somewhat ahead of its time in exploring Picard’s post-assimilation PTSD, it fails to show how anyone else on Earth was affected by the events of “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which the Borg easily crushed Earth’s defenses, and came very, very close to assimilating everyone on the planet. Worf’s parents don’t even mention it; Robert asks about it only out of concealed concern for his brother; and the local mayor apparently wants to throw a parade for Picard, the man who led that attack as Locutus of Borg, what, a few weeks earlier? I mean, we, the viewers, know that Picard had no control over his actions as Locutus, that he has been completely restored to his former self, and that there are no Borg left in Federation space (for now, anyway) … but does everyone on Earth believe that? Is everyone just calmly going about business as usual, mere weeks after an existential threat to their world was barely averted? No rampant paranoia, no “Borg-gate” conspiracy theories about Picard being a sleeper agent, or about high-profile android Data being a Borg sympathizer? I know, I know – Gene Roddenberry believed 24th-century humans would be better than we are. Well, I sure hope he was right, because the real world today looks a lot more like the 22nd-century humanity of “Home.”

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After devoting its entire previous season to a storyline inspired by the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the so-called “War on Terror” that followed, it would have been an enormous cop-out if Enterprise hadn’t addressed the accompanying rise and normalization of open racism and xenophobia throughout the West (which has left us, two decades later, with a political landscape where a sitting US President can publicly call for American-born people of color to be “sent back where they came from,” and be loudly cheered for it). Still, just as “Family” deserves credit for admitting 24th-century humans still don’t agree on everything, we ought to acknowledge just how bold it is for “Home” to both tell us and show us that xenophobia and racism directed towards non-humans have become commonplace on Earth in the year or so since the original Xindi attack. This is Enterprise taking full advantage of its status as a prequel. Where the series would too often get bogged down in indulgent, Easter-eggy references to future events, “Home” actually uses its 22nd-century setting to tell the sort of story which couldn’t have been told by other series of Trek – in this case, due to Roddenberry’s insistence that 23rd– and especially 24th-century humanity only ever be treated as a perfect utopia. If 22nd-century Earth hasn’t yet achieved that state of utopia, then it can reflect the contemporary real world in a way other Star Trek perhaps can’t, and which is, I think, as important as it’s ever been. Other Trek often tends to deal with racism by having one alien species direct it at another, leaving humans blameless. But however well-intentioned this undoubtedly is, I worry that it can backfire, by reinforcing the circular logic, so prevalent in our real world, that while racism is bad, only bad people do it, and since the people we love or like or relate to can’t possibly be bad people, then nothing they say or do, however obviously racist, can actually be racist, only a mistake or a misunderstanding, something unfairly taken out of context.

(Pedantic aside begins: while I know “racism” wouldn’t technically be the right word for describing prejudice against alien species if we ever encountered any in real life, I think it is accurate when talking about in-universe prejudice towards alien species in Star Trek, since the franchise has a long-established tradition of using its aliens as metaphors for real-world human cultures, or for aspects of the human condition. In short, Star Trek treats all sentient life as “human,” biology aside. Okay, end of pedantic aside.)

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Which is why I appreciate how “Home” handles the racist human bar patrons who hassle Dr. Phlox. They present themselves as reasonable, at first – mimicking concern for his “comfort” – while becoming increasingly forceful in their insistence that he would be “more comfortable” in a Vulcan establishment, despite the fact that Phlox obviously isn’t Vulcan, any more than he’s human. They continue to style themselves as seemingly reasonable, concerned citizens as they call Starfleet “the real problem” for bringing humans into contact with more and more alien species. This all feels eerily like something straight out of a YouTube video designed to send viewers down a white nationalist rabbit-hole today, and it’s clever that “Home” has these humans direct their rhetoric primarily at Phlox, one of Enterprise’s most generally beloved characters, to highlight how ugly it really is. While I don’t agree with Phlox when he later tells Hoshi that he “can’t blame those men for the way they reacted” in the wake of the Xindi attack, I can appreciate it as the view of a marginalized person who views this hateful political climate as a reality to be navigated, and survived, pragmatically, in contrast with Hoshi’s more idealistic and privileged insistence that “the best thing is to show your face and remind people that there are aliens who don’t want to blow up the planet.” Phlox ultimately goes the pragmatic route and avoids visiting Earth again, and Hoshi respects her friend’s decision and kindly agrees to bring him some human take-out food, but I think the episode intentionally leaves the tension between those two views unresolved, because they’re both valid: racism absolutely must be confronted, but the targets of racism also have their own safety to worry about, and shouldn’t be expected to solve a problem they didn’t create. After I’ve so often criticized Enterprise’s clumsy handling of racial dynamics between T’Pol and her human crewmates, I’m impressed with the sensitivity and seriousness “Home” shows in its handling of racism here – and with the fact that Enterprise would return to this topic in two of its final three episodes, “Demons” and “Terra Prime,” which Trek vs. Trek will look at in the near future.

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