“A family doesn't need to be related”: The Bonding


This is one of those marquee episodes that gets breathless amounts of critical acclaim, always tops fan lists for best episodes and is always held up as being a decisive sea change for the show. And all that praise is absolutely deserved. Oh yeah, this one is absolutely brilliant. More than that, it's perfect. It's about as perfect a blueprint for how Star Trek: The Next Generation should work and a self-demonstrating example of that structure in action as exists. But why precisely “The Bonding” works as well as it does and its true impact and legacy not just on this show, but on every Star Trek series to come, is actually surprisingly deceptive.

“The Bonding” is the end result of the early intersection of two forces new to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's of course Michael Piller's debut as head writer, and it's also the inaugural offering from the first new bit of creative blood Piller brought onto the show: One Ronald D. Moore, future Dominion War architect and Battlestar Galactica brainchild who, suffice to say, is going to be something of a major figure from here on out. Although, as Moore quite aptly emphasizes, the success of both this story and his subsequent Hollywood career is due to quite a lot of luck: Moore was a die-hard Star Trek fan who practically worshiped the Original Series and, beyond excited about the prospects of Star Trek: The Next Generation, submitted an unsolicited spec script to the writer's office while working as a gas station attendant between jobs after his law career didn't pan out. Thing is, you kind of *don't do* that in Hollywood-Writers need agents and publicity teams; jobbing in Hollywood is not the sort of thing the average guy can just walk in off the street and decide to do some day.

Unless, that is, you happened to want to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.

Part of Moore's self-described good fortune comes from the second of two edicts Michael Piller made upon becoming head writer (the first being his staunch commitment to characterization and character development we talked a bit about in “Evolution”). Piller was at an absolute impasse with Star Trek: The Next Generation's complete, actual, literal lack of material and he knew no matter how talented the writing staff he could pull together, there was simply no physical way he could keep up with the punishingly unforgiving schedule of weekly television on his own. So, after running it by Rick Berman and getting his endorsement for the idea, Piller made a decision so elegantly simple no-one had thought to do it before: He decided to instate Hollywood's first, and to date only, open submissions policy. Thanks to Micheal Piller, Star Trek: The Next Generation became the only show on the block that anyone who was interested could submit a story to *sight unseen* with *no official representation or Hollywood backing*, a tradition that eventually carried over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The ramifications of this are nothing short of monumental. Although the open submissions policy tends to get hailed as an example of Piller recognising that Star Trek is most properly left in the hands of the fans (assuming only Trekkers would be seriously interested enough to write for it at a professional level), that's not strictly the case. Piller opened the gates to *everybody*, not just Trekkers: This was no exclusive club, that was actually the entire point. Piller's open submission policy is really an actually somewhat unheard of example of someone working within the confines of capitalistic media production acknowledging that Soda Pop Art is Western Modernity's version of oral storytelling. This is Star Trek for the first, and sadly probably only, time actually putting its money where its mouth is and wholeheartedly buying into its own rhetoric about being mythology for a modern world. As far as utopian progress in a corporate controlled cultural climate and intellectual discourse goes, at least in terms of capitalistic storytelling, this is quite frankly as good as it gets. This alone is enough to cement Michael Piller's status as probably one of the most important creative figures of the late 20th century: He peered into the future to give us a brief, distorted glimpse of what the future of Soda Pop Art *should* be. And it's now up to us to pick up where he left off and follow his lead.

Without the open submission policy, Ron Moore would never have landed a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation and “The Bonding” would have remained one more unsolicited script sitting ignored in the slush pile marked “Fanfiction: Do Not Read Under Any Circumstances”. And he quite probably wouldn't have had a writing career. But Micheal Piller read it, because he allowed himself to read it, saw how good it was and asked Moore to come out to Hollywood to make it a reality. Apart from the fact it's self-evidently genius, this is why “The Bonding” is typically seen as a classic, it's the first fruit of a popular partnership that will define so much of what Star Trek is going to look like for the next decade. Because of its success, Ron Moore was Piller's first hire for his new writing staff, thus allowing Moore to propel himself as one of Star Trek and science fiction's most important and formative creative figures of recent decades. And yet it's not quite as neat and tidy as we might think based on that particular narrative.

On paper, “The Bonding” reads like a surprisingly simple response to pulp storytelling cliches, most notably the death toll of a lot of genre serials, and in particular that of the Original Star Trek. This is a story about what life would really be like if pseudo-military scientists worked in hazardous environments under constant threat of death every day, and what would happen if they brought their children with them on their missions (no surprises here that Moore would eventually become such an outspoken critic of the idea of having families aboard the Enterprise). Given Moore is such a massive fan of the Original Series, it's entirely to be expected that his perspective would be strongly, if not predominantly, shaped by his reactions to it. Present here also, albeit in very, very prototypical form, is another trait of Moore's that will become a signature of his: A focus on telling “realistic” (read “dark”) stories in a science fiction setting. “The Bonding” is explicitly about how everyday people come to terms with death and loss, and there is vanishingly little in the way of speculative fiction thought experiments to be had here.

But that's not *all* “The Bonding” is. Although it deals with a very somber and weighty subject matter, this remains at its heart an exceptionally utopian bit of storytelling. It's not just a story about how people accept death as part of life, it's also a story about showing us how we can do that positively, healthily and constructively. The whole conflict, such as it is, involves Jeremy having to choose between accepting what happened to his mother and moving on with his life, or retreating into a life of perpetual denial, as the Kloinonians would offer him. Which is why Deanna Troi, wearing her psychologist hat again, is in such sparkling form and why she becomes such a central character: She's the one who facilitates the entire crew, not just Jeremy, being able to talk about the emotions this loss has them grappling with. And when they do, they don't deny their feelings, but articulate them as part of a healing process. There's the textual plot about Worf trying to accept responsibility for Marla's death and his sense of kinship with Jeremy as they're both orphans who lost parents in battle, and the obvious parallels between Jeremy's backstory and Wesley's. It may be Deanna's finest hour in this role. But for me the crowning moment is when Data and Riker talk about familiarity and Will delivers what for me is one of his best lines in the series:
"But should not the feelings run just as deep, regardless of who has died?" 
"Maybe they should, Data. Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody."
Will even brings up Tasha's death two years prior as a point of comparison. Frankly, “The Bonding” is every ounce the story “Skin of Evil” should have been, though it's something of a kick in the gut that the death of one-off Marla Aster is handled with more respect and gravity than that of Tasha Yar.

There are all sorts of other wonderful character bits all throughout as well: This is tremendous outing for Worf, possibly his best since “Heart of Glory”, Bev and Wesley get their best scene together yet and even Wesley himself isn't entirely unlikeable. Furthermore, it's becoming increasingly difficult not to ship Deanna and Captain Picard given how much the show has been throwing them together lately and playing up the idea she's his closest confidant: The scene where Picard halts the turbolift and opens up to Deanna in the ready room are particularly egregious, particularly due to how Patrick Stewart and Marina Sirtis play off of one another. On the other hand, you could also see “The Bonding” as laying the groundwork for Troi's later relationship with Worf, given how much she supports him throughout this episode, especially in forcing him to come out of his shell to talk to her, a dynamic which Sirtis and Michael Dorn are *very* good at.

In short, what “The Bonding” does is reaffirm Star Trek: The Next Generation's guiding ideal. This is a picture-perfect example of what children's television for adults looks like. If someone asks you what such a seemingly paradoxical and contradictory concept like that looks like, just say “this”. Show them this. Because nowhere is that more pronounced or its virtues more clear than when Captain Picard tells a grieving Jeremy Aster “on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone”. That's what it is, that's what it looks like, and that's why we need it. It's only a shame that Geordi doesn't have more prominent of a role, but the other characters more than make up for it in this case.

And yet all of this said...I haven't read the original draft of “The Bonding”, but it's a matter of public record it went through a lengthy and extensive amount of revisions before going into production. And there's no denying the finished product is a total masterpiece. So...I'm honestly not sure how much of what makes “The Bonding” as wonderful as it is I actually want to credit to Moore. I have a very strong suspicion a great deal of it, particularly the more overt utopianism, likely comes far more from Michael Piller, and yes, even Gene Roddenberry, both of whom had a lot of advice to give a young Moore. To be blunt, “The Bonding” has a nuance and elegance about it I'm not entirely confident Moore was capable of delivering, certainly not at this point in his career. The initial spark may have been his, but it was Gene Roddenberry who reminded him of where he needed to be shooting for, and it was Michael Piller who got him there. This is not a knock at Moore's skills in the slightest: History is littered with example of good writers who were allowed to be great by the people around him. I even seem to remember a young, fresh-faced Star Trek fan back in 1967 pitching a weird story to the Original Series about an invasive species of alien fuzzballs and Gene Coon immediately taking him under his wing.

It may also be worth taking a brief moment to talk about Marvin Rush again, if for no other reason than the fact I've been trying to emphasize how Star Trek: The Next Generation draws so much of of its strengths through its aesthetics, images and energy and I've been a bit lax in talking about that. “The Bonding” sees Rush continuing the look he's polishing for the show and is most evident in the lighting, which uses a lot of shadow to draw attention to contrasts. The scenes that stick out to me are, again, when Picard is talking to Troi in the ready room and when Troi is talking to Worf on the holodeck. Worf's scenes in particular are shot in a very dramatic and alien, yet reverential manner. Curiously, the actual blocking, at least as it pertains to the actors positions with respect to one another, remains exceedingly theatrical and classical.

What this all leaves us with then, I think, is an awareness that “The Bonding” was not the work of one man. Quite a lot had to be in place for it to turn out the way it did, and we should rejoice and be forever thankful for that because it's landed us one of the true all-time classics of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek on the whole. But let us remember as well that these circumstances will not be true forever, and you can't artificially capture lightning in a bottle. So let's make a point to enjoy it while it lasts.


Jack Graham 5 years, 11 months ago

Wesley always annoys me in this, when he says to Picard "I was angry at you" he says it angrily, like he's still angry. Could nobody have taken Wheaton aside as one point and said "hey Wil baby, darling, sweetie... did you notice the 'was' in that sentence at all? Hmm? Yes? Past tense. Episode's about healing, you see? Yeah? Okay, great. Let's try it again."

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K. Jones 5 years, 11 months ago

Certainly a transitional episode, this one even has the added benefit of being terrifying to children. Not perfect by highly likable and a near-total ensemble. I remember vividly being terrified by the reappearance of Marla.

And let's not gloss over the fact that this is an episode focused on fairy magic, either. While there was more room in the story to be overt about how the planet could essentially have been a "doomed Earth" where the fairy-races still lived in secret, the parallel remains in the subtext and is secondary to the people involved, anyway.

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Ross 5 years, 11 months ago

It occurs to me a bit now that whenever anyone criticizes having families aboard the Enterprise in this episode, what they're really upset about is it making things harder for themselves: It's not like Jeremy Aster would be any less an orphan if he'd been on earth at the time, it's just that it wouldn't be the Enterprise crew who had to break the news to him or be there to help him grieve. I don't think there's any point where anyone points out that, for better or worse, Jeremy actually got to see his mother the morning before she died, in contrast with, say, Wesley, whose father died in the middle of a mission that had taken him away from his family for years.

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K. Jones 5 years, 11 months ago

What you deal with then is buffers. I'm not sure how much they add or take away from an individual survivor like a kid's reaction to a tragedy like this, but they certainly add more people to the chain of awkwardness and make more people have to at least consider tactfully things like sympathy, empathy, compassion or pity. Things like taking a terse stand or being more of a mentor or guide. Decisions you make when you have to break hard news.

Somewhere down the line somebody is showing up at the person's door with the terrible news.

It puts in my mind Snake Eyes and Hawk. For any who don't know the G.I. Joe reference, in Larry Hama's comic, the whole scenario is flipped as the soldier returns home from Vietnam and waits in the airport, only for a Colonel who he's not even affiliated with to show up hours later and inform him that his family all died in a car wreck on the way to pick him up.

A horrific chain of events for one middle-management desk clerk Colonel to deal with, and yet this is one of the key moments that sets into motion the entire origins of that comic.

I thought it was good of Picard to take the initiative. Noble even. I expect had there not been the unnatural and short-notice "Fairy Entity pretending to be his mother" they'd have probably made some good progress in the next few weeks.

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Daru 5 years, 11 months ago

Great episode and great essay thanks Josh. I had no idea about the open submissions policy. That's why I love this blog, despite being a Start trek fan I have never been as fannish or read into the background with as much as I did with Doctor Who.

"This is a story about what life would really be like if pseudo-military scientists worked in hazardous environments under constant threat of death every day, and what would happen if they brought their children with them on their missions (no surprises here that Moore would eventually become such an outspoken critic of the idea of having families aboard the Enterprise)."

I am currently watching Deep Space Nine (some for the first time as my ability to see it when it aired here was patchy) and we saw the first episode of season 3, where if I'm right the whole Dominion thing really starts seriously. There was a moment when it felt like I was hearing Moore himself speak in the script as Sisko describes the prototype Federation warship they are on as not being meant to hold families and is essentially intended for battle. It was rather jarring.

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