“The sensation you are doing something you have done before”: Deja Q


A lovely effects shot and an apt visual allegory.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation goes wrong, it's almost never due to incompetence or sloppiness (“The Price” would seem to be an exception). It's almost always due to creative decisions that, while they may have seemed like good ideas in the moment (or were the only option on the table), in hindsight turn out to have been particularly ill-advised and regrettable.

And boy does it ever go wrong here.

There are bad creative calls, and then there are crushingly poor ones that manage to cripple the show's entire ethos, dynamic and sensibilities. That's what we're looking at today. “Deja Q” is an episode that finally takes the metatextual voice of the universe who challenges us to justify our utopias, reminding us to constantly better ourselves and never settle for complacency in the process, and turns him into a complete mockery. Yes “Hide and Q” had already done serious damage to Q's efficacy, but “Q Who” had managed to make significant inroads for the better in restoring a lot of that while also going some way towards restoring his original edge. “Deja Q” undoes all of that in one fell swoop by stripping Q of his powers to tell a hackneyed, hackish story about sacrifices and “inner humanity”. “Deja Q” is unquestionably near the top of the list of episodes I most dreaded having to cover, and it remains one of my least favourite episodes in the entire franchise. This is Star Trek: The Next Generation at its absolute most cloyingly unwatchable, from its sappy milquetoast humanism to its unbearably forced, tuneless, shockingly out-of-touch cornball “zaniness” and its dangerously slipshod grasp of utopianism.

The fact that this is the exact same story that we saw in DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation miniseries three years ago is concerning enough without the fact the licensed comic book tie-in, while histrionic and fluffy, actually handles the brief with far more nuance, tact and maturity than the offering from the professional group of television veterans. At least I can point to a definitive reason for why this episode turned out the way it did, as opposed to the inexplicable clusterfuck of “The Price”: Simply put, Gene Roddenberry was wrong. The original draft for this episode, according to Michael Piller, would have had Q pulling an elabourate feint on the Enterprise crew, *pretending* to have lost his powers to get himself onto the ship and acclimated with the crew so he could prove his worth to them during an imaginary standoff with the Klingons. The point of the story was going to be that Q was trying to show the crew why they needed him and the kinds of talents and skills he could contribute to their betterment, with or without his powers. It was a really cool sounding pitch, and would have built nicely off of the themes of “Q Who”, where Q was, at least on some level, trying to get the Enterprise crew to trust him.

This though feels like someone looked at “Q Who” and said “Hey, you know how Q said he'd even give up his powers to join the crew? Why don't we literally do that? And then make it a comedy so we can have John de Lancie grovel at Whoopi Goldberg's feet?”. The fact that this wasn't actually the story's impetus is precious little reassurance, especially knowing that a great many pitches from here on are going to go exactly that way.

What actually happened was that Gene Roddenberry took the staff aside and said that the story should really be about what happens when someone who has everything loses it all and discovers his “true humanity”. Instead of pointing out how that's completely not at all what the story was about, for some reason, this was the episode they decided to capitulate to Roddenberry on instead of taking a stand, rather than listening to the actually good advice he'd been giving them throughout the season already. I won't go too far with this because there's two other episodes this season where Roddenberry makes even worse calls than this, but I have to question the reasoning here. Roddenberry *created* Q; he of all people should have known where the strength of his narrative role lay. If you kick him to the curb and turn him into a laughingstock, there's no way you can effectively reclaim that power if you want to tap it again later on. That Q does have one or two more episodes left where he actually does work well is a testament to how bloody commanding John de Lancie is and the miracles some of the show's writers could weave, considering Q doesn't escape for lack of the team trying to essentially ruin him as a character.

What this gets at is a difference of opinion as to who exactly Q is and what he's supposed to do. In the context of this episode, the outgoing Melinda Snodgrass said that she feels Q is basically like Loki, a trickster god who only exists to cause chaos and mischief. She contrasts her view with that of Maurice Hurley, who thought that Q's job was to guide and teach the crew. The current team, meanwhile, seems to have no real opinion on the matter, which is a problem. Obviously I'm more inclined to side with Hurley's camp (and it's surprising to hear that Gene Roddenberry, who was very close to Hurley and also, you know, wrote Q's scenes in “Encounter at Farpoint”, doesn't seem to be), but the thing is that no matter which version of Q you pick you can't have both. You *need* to make a decision one way or the other, and Star Trek never really does.

I happen to think Q works best as a voice of morality above and beyond what we can comprehend as humans, but regardless of whether or not you agree with me you'll never be satisfied with Q as a character because no matter which flavour of him you like, 50% of the rest of the time he's going to piss you off. From my perspective, this is incredibly frustrating because it means that since Q is basically completely untrustworthy and ineffective he can't actually do the stuff I like the most about his character with enough frequency. I basically only have “Encounter at Farpoint”, “Tapestry” and “All Good Things...”, along with bits of “Q Who” and, if I'm remembering correctly, “True Q”. This means that it's really hard to formulate some argument about Q as a utopian divine agent because half the text is never going to be able to support that (probably more if you want to open this up to Q's appearances in non-Next Generation stories, but one step at a time, here). And, as I said in the context of “Hide and Q”, Q-as-Loki doesn't get me what I want to say about the character.

The one bit of this episode I do quite like is Corbin Bernsen as the second Q, who goes by Q2 in the script. I've always really, really liked his energy and presence: He seems like such an easygoing, casual, likable guy. I'd like to hang out with this Q. But I think I would have preferred it even more if the other Q was played by John de Lancie too, because it would really play up the concept of Q as this incomprehensible omni-entity that would have left enough ambiguity to salvage the reading of him I'm partial to as well. Once again, the comic book did it better.

But this is important, because it means my prevailing memories of and positionality of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it pertains to Q is one of frustration, indecision and lack of closure. As much as I love John de Lancie and I love the idea of his character, I can't honestly say he was able to make as much of an impact on the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation as he should have. As iconic and beloved as he may be and as much as I love him, Q frankly Just Doesn't Work all that well.

And that's probably how the narrative is going to go from now on, honestly.


K. Jones 6 years ago

I loved this episode as a kid but loathe it now. I think I dislike it because it's so watchable. It's not as if De Lancie doesn't sell the material he's given, so this never goes on the skip list.

But yeah, it's essentially character assassination ... particularly distressing because it's one of their sort of "Top Ten" characters or interesting elements.

Bonus points though, to Whoopi Goldberg who actually plays Guinan here as kind of nefarious, right?

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Daru 6 years ago

It's been ages since I saw this, and John De Lancie is wonderful to watch. I agree it's a shame that Roddenberry got in the way of a better script (as we could still have had masses of the humour I mention below), it still bugs me that he is given so much adulation whilst so many other figures in the history of the show are less acknowledged.

I'll be honest, whatever goes on with him I always like Q. I don't really have one way I want him to be, which maybe is easier for me to sit in my place of complacency as I'm not writing a massive blog where he could have been a much more important player if he'd been written more consistently. So yes I do take on board and actually agree with everything you are saying.

Just for me though, Q whatever he's up to is pretty much one of my guilty pleasures.

Whether he is the voice that demands we better ourselves, or the zany trickster I don't really mind. What I like is that whatever form he appears in he upends the tone or seriousness of the show. I'm focussing on the character here as that's what was engaging always for me (as yes some of the episodes like this could be improved as the script you mention would be better), as I love the injection of humour the De Lancie as Q brings to the at times too serious crew.

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Froborr 6 years ago

I like all three versions of Q: the omnipotent trickster, the guy who annoys you into bettering yourself, AND the guy who gets himself into trouble by antagonizing everyone. I see no problem with one character being all three in different stories, because Anansi.

But I think watching this as a Q episode is the wrong approach. It's a DATA episode, shown in a mirror.

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Froborr 6 years ago

Dammit "Notify Me" should be checked by default.

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Stardust 6 years ago

I also see no reason Q can't be someone who annoys you and tricks you into learning something and gets himself into trouble with his own arrogance.

However, I do wish they'd gone with 'Q is just tricking them to try and get what he wants' deal, as that would be a potentially interesting exploration of character and as said give him more menace.

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Daru 6 years ago

"I like all three versions of Q: the omnipotent trickster, the guy who annoys you into bettering yourself, AND the guy who gets himself into trouble by antagonizing everyone. I see no problem with one character being all three in different stories, because Anansi."

I'm with you on this Froborr, as many of the deities of old had many aspects, often too that were apparently contradictory. Anansi is a great example, especially as he believes that all stories are his, which is a nice link to Q as he distorts any TNG narrative he appears in.

Agreed about the Data story idea, maybe Q hijacked that script and inserted himself into it?

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