Over the last six months or so, my boyfriend and I have been watching Star Trek TNG off and on. [Have I given him an astrology-inspired pseudonym yet? Fuck it, he’s Saturn.] I was never a big Trek fan before, I’d seen about half of the original series and aside from a few stellar episodes, I never got into it. My issue with the original series is that, while I love the idea of an optimistic sci-fi inspiring us to new heights, so many of the episodes felt really silly. (Like the one where Spock needs to return to his planet and mate, for example.) The highs justify the existence of the brand but I never felt compelled to watch the whole thing. Saturn, in contrast, is an uber fan of all things Star Trek, and delighted in getting me invested in this iteration of franchise.
The Next Generation, in my opinion, takes everything good about the original and builds upon it. Where I personally could never really relate to Sulu or even remember the other crewmen’s names, I found myself appreciating almost everyone on TNG before long. They have more distinct personalities and the series gives each of them room to breathe where I always felt like the ’60s show relied too heavily on Kirk and Spock to do everything. There are bad episodes of TNG for sure, but when it hits it really lands. In my experience, the Data episodes tend to be the most compelling, however there’s at least one huge exception…
There’s a lot to unpack from this series, and I feel like I would need to do another sweep or two of the best episodes before I’d be ready to offer a more comprehensive blog post in the future. (Or maybe one focused on Picard or Data.) But I just saw this particular episode last night and it left such an impact, I couldn’t wait to share my two cents.
The Emotional Climax of the Series
I thought “Parallels” was the best Star Trek TNG episode and their version of “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In both episodes, the plots are ridiculous and involve time travel or alternate timelines, but they exist to setup these perfect quirky romances which otherwise could not have occurred. With “Forever” it was the idea of a lonely, optimistic woman from a bleak era meeting a man from the utopian future which she alone believed in. The tragedy, of course, is that she had to die for her own sanguine vision to become reality. And with “Parallels” it was the idea of a man, in this case Worf, finally seeing the wonderful woman (Deanna Troi) he’s had in front of him all this time in a new light. (It’s like if you’ve ever had a romantic dream about someone you were never actively interested in before, and then you wake up the next day and suddenly recognize their latent attractiveness.)
The clues had been planted early on, like Deanna always helping Worf out with raising his son and providing emotional support to them both. The writers did a great job keeping the buildup subtle, so neither he nor the audience ever saw it coming. For example, when Worf was injured and considering suicide, Deanna was there to gently remind him of his family and guide them through the trauma. At the time we all assumed she was just acting as ship’s counselor but in hindsight there was clearly a great deal of genuine affection between the three. That past development comes to a head in the beginning of “Parallels,” where Worf asks Deanna to be his son’s godmother. I had not thought much about it before, but this scene is when it hit me for the first time how close the two had become over the past two seasons. I don’t remember exactly when, but later on in the episode, as I noticed their chemistry together, I turned to Saturn and blurted out “You know, I could actually see them being a couple!” Yet even then, I still never actually believed the show would go that route. I assumed the writers would just preserve the status quo since it seemed too unconventional of a match.
As the plot develops, and Worf is transported to an alternate timeline where he and Deanna are married, I was hooked. This was a scenario where, if I had read “Worf marries Deanna” on the page, or if Saturn had told me about it early in our binge, I would have dismissed it as ridiculous. But after the natural buildup of two seasons and an extremely compelling dynamic throughout the episode, I could understand their relationship completely. As Worf’s adventures in the bizarro-universe continued, I kept thinking “Worf should just stay here.” I got the sense that he must be reconsidering every choice he ever made in the original timeline as a result of seeing what his life could be in this one, happy together with Deanna. My favorite moment of the episode was when Worf breaks the news to Deanna, and she says: “I guess it’s just hard for me to accept that there’s a reality out there where you never loved me.” That was TNG‘s version of “He knows, doctor. He knows.”
But still I was worried the writers wouldn’t seize the opportunity to do something so inspired. I expected that the episode would end with Worf returning home to the status quo and his relationship with Deanna would be ignored. I remember preemptively telling Saturn, “well, in my head-cannon they get together.” Upon returning to his own timeline, Worf does come home to the original version of Deanna. This time he takes note of the fact that she understands him, how she canceled the surprise party plans (which had transpired in the other reality) because she knows he wouldn’t enjoy it. She takes care of him: cleans his place, watches his kid, gets him a present, etc. Worf finally understands all that Deanna does which he’d largely taken for granted before, and appreciates the good thing he’s had all along. When he asks her to stay for dinner, pulls out her chair and breaks out the champagne I was so ecstatic the writers had the courage to actually go for it. I remember just beaming at Saturn and saying “oh my god this is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!” This episode not only had the genius to establish a pairing I didn’t even realize I wanted–they also had the courage to follow through with it. The audience is masterfully taken along the same emotional journey as Worf, also recognizing what we had overlooked for years and thankful for the revelation. That is a rare occurrence in TV.
I was surprised then to find out that Deanna-Worf as a couple is hated by large segments of the fan community and even some of the actors. I don’t get the backlash. They were already a pseudo-couple before the episode (we just didn’t realize it for what it was) and they bring out the best in each other. Worf’s the personified macho masculinity, from a ruthless culture and a rough past. Deanna’s the embodiment of femininity, with telepathic insight into emotions and a nurturing disposition. She is the one person whom the stoic Worf can open up to, the one person who sees his gentle side. Just as he is the delicate Deanna’s protector and rock, with his grounded personality a welcome reprieve from her exhausting mother and patients. It’s beauty and the beast, without being too on the nose with it. I think it makes perfect sense, and it’s one of maybe five fictional couples I have enough investment in to ship.
Incidentally, I’ve since learned that canonically Deanna ends up with Riker again after all that. I’m not a fan of that development. I think that’s a boring and predictable “sitcom” ending after their breakup and growth outside of each other throughout the last half of the series. Just to be clear, I have nothing against William Riker as a character either, his plotlines tend to be among my favorite (and he’s really cute!) But this kind of “the two attractive leads get back together after a crazy misunderstanding” retcon feels like the writers caving into outside fan demand. You need to allow the characters you’ve created to grow organically as the plotlines and actor-chemistry take them in wild new directions you never imagined in their conception. Just like real children, you may have had a plan all laid out but the right thing to do is let them go and be their own people. If you don’t, you get ham-fisted, artificial-feeling trite like the Harry Potter epilogue. And that’s exactly what Riker-Troi reeks of, in my opinion.