When I was finishing my master’s degree, the head of the English Department at North Georgia College related to me that some of my professors were concerned that I was just as apt to quote Star Trek as Shakespeare. To this day, and it is has been more than a score of years since I finished that degree, that complaint brings a half-smile to my face. While it was a matter of concern for the scholarly, I have always viewed my ability to blend modern literature with traditional literature as an asset.
Recently, I was watching a vintage episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, on BBC America. In Suddenly Human the Enterprise rescues some Talarian trainees from a dying ship. The medical staff of the Enterprise is shocked to find that one of the cadets is a human. Dr. Crusher performs DNA tests and finds that the young man is Jeremiah Rossa, the grandson of a star fleet admiral, who was missing and presumed dead after the colony was attacked by Talarian forces. Since the admiral’s only son was killed in the attack, Jeremiah is her only surviving offspring. Even more troubling, Crusher believes the boy might have been abused, since his body has endured several injuries during the time he has been with the Talarians. The young human calls himself Jono, professes to be the son of Captain Endar, and strictly adheres to Talarian traditions, including a total disregard for women in uniform, which causes quite a few problems for the fully integrated crew of the Enterprise, especially female officers Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi. Wisely, Counselor Troi suggests the Picard mentor the boy, since he clearly displays affection for “his captain” and Picard reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Captain Endar shows up, acknowledges that he rescued the boy and adopted him by Talarian custom, and demands his return.
Picard faces a perfect conflict. On the one hand, Jono/Jeremiah is human, is the grandson of a star fleet admiral, and everyone expects him to be welcomed home. After talking with Captain Endar, Picard comes to realize that the young man was not abused, but suffered injuries in an effort to fit into to Talarian society and to make his adoptive father proud. Endar clearly cares deeply for the boy, although he dismisses the rest of humanity as weak alien creatures. Returning Jono would be violating the wishes of a superior officer, the grandmother. Both Troi and Crusher urge Picard to give Jono time to remember his humanity, while Endar threatens war and brings in backup warships to make good his ultimatum. Releasing Jono would defuse the war threat, and Jono clearly prefers his Talarian father to any of the humans, even Picard.
As the audience waits for Picard to come up with a solution to this well-developed conflict, Jono makes a surprise move. During the night, he takes a dagger and plunges it into Picard’s chest. After the requisite commercial break, Crusher performs surgery, and Picard, though weak, asks to have Jono brought to his bedside. Instead of berating him, Picard asks, “Why? Why did you do it?” and Jono replies that he assaulted a superior officer and is prepared to die.
Picard insists on getting dressed and taking Jono to the bridge, where acting captain Commander Riker is ready to go to war for the admiral’s son. Instead, Picard tells Endar that he made a mistake, and that Jono will be returned to him immediately. After Jono’s attempt to have Picard execute him, Picard realizes that nurture does outweigh nature. Jono was reared by a Talarian, so he has fully embraced that culture. And life, unlike a video player, has no rewind button.
The viewer may be left saddened by this episode. The awakening humanity in Jono/Jeremiah is something the viewer wants to see develop. And, as humans, most viewers will sympathize with the grandmother and want to see her have what remains of her family restored, rather than see the gruff Captain Endar win the conflict.
This episode, first shown in 1990, is not especially satisfying, and that is what makes it great. Characters are just pawns, reacting to situations created by authors. Without facing conflict, characters can’t be either cowards or heros. While most “professors” won’t acknowledge it, science fiction can portray human emotions just as well as classic tales from centuries ago, and Suddenly Human is an example of soft science fiction at its very best.