I don’t think any of the characters on the cover here actually appear in the issue. Certainly not that lady Romulan Commander: Davoros is male, I think.
So there’s recap. About a page and a half of it, but that’s to be expected. What’s not to be expected, or at least Team Beardy didn’t expect it, is that Geordi and the crew knew all about their betrayal ahead of time, which allowed them to alter the frequency of their own phasers so they wouldn’t be affected when the alternate universe crew reversed the polarity or whatever. This allows our heroes to subdue their counterparts and curtail their little hijacking attempt. How did they know this? Quite simply, and naturally, we underestimated Deanna Troi. Being empathic, she could immediately sense when Team Beardy started to plot against the crew, and spied on them to learn the details of their plan. However, as Bearded Geordi points out, this still leaves them with the dilemma of what to do about the rogue sun threatening the Beta Argotha system in his universe, or indeed how to tell which universe everyone is in. We get some more recap about why this is a problem, before Haspan announces that he might have figured it out.
Back with the Enterprise half of the story, we seem to have gone back in time a bit as the Ferengi Marauder hasn’t warped out of the Neutral Zone yet. But then it does, and Captain Picard has a conversation with Worf about why they shouldn’t chase after it before he suddenly comes to a realisation. Cutting off his train of thought, he has Worf call up Commander Riker to tell him he and his away team can come back because the mystery has just been solved. While on Beta Argotha One, Haspan explains why he thinks Team Beardy is actually in the right, and that they are in their universe. After some mildly ageist ribbing from Smithers and Gillette, Haspan explains that he’s been idly making some scans of the local flora and fauna when the other team members were busy trying to kill each other, and discovered evidence of recapitulation.
And here’s where I start to cringe, to be honest. This is a good story arc, but this plot point right here is straight up bad science. Worse still, it reminds me of one of Star Trek’s most egregious nadirs, “The Child”. For those who mercifully blocked all evidence of that episode from your memory banks, the initial pitch for that trainwreck was based on recapitulation theory, the widely discredited notion that embryos go through all the “previous stages” of evolution during development. So, for example, a human embryo would go through reptile, amphibian, rodent, primate and early hominid before reaching its “final form”. This theory rests on a dangerously inaccurate teleological conception *and* shoddy observational skills both, and that’s not touching on the political ramifications of discourse surrounding reproductive biology.
To his credit, writer Michael Jan Friedman doesn’t *entirely* throw this. He has Haspan state that only “some” organisms in the galaxy exhibit recapitulation, such as Benzites. He specifically does not mention humans, which is Kind of OK I Guess, but even if we do grant that recapitulation is some form of bizarre alien biology not rooted in real-world human reproduction, the fact remains it’s still rooted in evolutionary teleology. Even as a throwaway bit of technobabble to explain how Haspan deduced everyone is in the Beardy Universe (because the creatures that live in our Beta Argotha One would evolve too quickly to go through recapitulation, apparently), which is all Friedman invokes it for (and like I said, even he seems to know it’s wrong), those implications are still present, disquieting and unavoidable.
Either way, after the crap biology lesson, Bearded Geordi expresses his thanks and relief that the situation could have been resolved peacefully, and we cut back to the Enterprise, where naturally, everyone wants to know how Captain Picard solved the Romulan and Cardassian mystery. In the observation lounge, he explains: Jean-Luc realised that the Ferengi Marauder had shown up to escort Tavorok, and furthermore, the Ferengi would not have risked sending a Maurader to pick up a murderer or an operative in a Romulan plot to conquer the Cardassians. No, the only thing that would have been profitable enough for the Ferengi to skirt the Neutral Zone would be something suitably huge: Like, say, a dilithium-eating virus. With that settled, Captain Picard calls up both Commander Davoros and Gul Erak and boldly tells them off, which must be suitably cathartic.
The Romulans and the Cardassians follow the Ferengi and high-tail it out of there, and Captain Picard tells Commander Riker to set course to pick up Geordi, Deanna and the team while he goes to have a chat with Tavorok, Because, it would seem, even though his story about why he was being chased was broadly accurate, even he wasn’t being entirely truthful. On Beta Argotha One, the survey team helps Team Beardy get the Yutcan ready for their dangerous mission to destroy the rogue star, and, after some thanks and mutual respect, they depart, leaving our people the task of repairing the alternate Yutcan in time to escape the planet. Because, as Geordi points out, if they don’t get out before the magnetic anomalies die down, they run the risk of being trapped in this universe forever. Although Haspan’s youth saved the crew before, now it paralyzes him with fear, terrified at the prospect of never being able to return home. Again, it is Deanna who comes to his aid, reassuring him that while anything is possible, Geordi has worked miracles before, and “if anyone can get us home again, he can”.
Back on the Enterprise, Captain Picard confronts an evasive Tavorok. It seems that Commander Riker found evidence the fugitive took a variant of his dilithium-eating virus with him when he left the Romulan Star Empire, and then used it to cripple the Cardassian transport ship. Tavorok had always intended to sell the virus, or rather the information on how to make it, to the Ferengi. That’s why the Marauder showed up seemingly at random. The Captain then breaks the news to Tavorok that the Ferengi were lying as well: As driven by profit as they are, their ships run on dilithium crystals too, just like the Federation. Any threat to dilithium is also a threat to them, and even the Ferengi wouldn’t let the inventor of something like that get away. Ironically Tavorok doesn’t believe Captain Picard, but Jean-Luc grants him asylum all the same, albeit warning him that next time he’s up against those would would like to see him dead, he will be “without the aid of a starship”.
As the Enterprise enters the Beta Argotha system to rendezvous with the Yutcan, they encounter the same magnetic anomalies that sent the runabout into Beardy Universe, which is also cutting off communication with the team. Commander Riker suggests taking another ship down to find them, but suddenly Worf sees the Yutcan trapped in one of the anomalies, and Captain Picard has Transporter Chief Rodriguez beam them out immediately in spite of the danger, and she pulls them out just in the nick of time as the ship plummets back to the planet’s surface. Haspan and Gillette banter about how though it’s too bad the Runabout couldn’t have been saved, it wasn’t really their Runabout, much to Captain Picard’s confusion. Later on, Geordi and Jean-Luc discuss the uncertain fate of the alternate Geordi. Since the anomalies have begun to dissipate, its possible his mission succeeded, but they may never know if he survived to savour the success he fought so hard to earn.
My snarking and concerns over the recapitulation plot point aside, “The Truth Elusive” is a well-done and satisfying conclusion to a provocative story arc that explores numerous central themes from a variety of different angles. The snowballing gambit pileup on the Enterprise plot is clever and funny, while the Geordi and Deanna plot on Beta Argotha One demonstrates Michael Jan Friedman’s continually growing deftness, skill and comfort with this set of characters. Much of what makes this story good goes unstated, only subtly alluded to in a way that expects the audience to be as comfortable with the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast as Friedman is. This is not meant as a criticism: If the series *weren’t* comfortable and secure with itself seven years on, then we’d have a real problem.
The most obvious example of this is of course Deanna Troi, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Geordi. In taking those two and putting them in a different situation, Friedman shuffled the crew dynamics around a bit to force new storytelling opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible had the ensemble stayed together. But Friedman does not simply remove them from the equation; he transplants them somewhere else to give them unique chances to be in the spotlight of their own. What’s equally as notable, however, is how this story arc *also* relies on us being comfortable with *Friedman’s* version of Star Trek: The Next Generation: From as soon as Haspan, Smithers and Gillette are introduced as the supporting cast, we know the contrast of youth and experience is going to be a big theme later on, and that the brunt of the character work will be in how they interact with Geordi and Deanna.
And so here, Haspan experiences the advantages and disadvantages of youthful energy and zeal both, while it’s Geordi’s battle-hardened seasoning that both creates the conflict and saves the day. Our Geordi’s leadership and sense of patience and empathy saves his crew from first a stalemate and then certain death…And yet his alternate counterpart, who is in almost all respects an appreciably identical person, almost dooms everyone with his ends-justify-the-means grimdark realpolitiking. Geordi can look in a mirror and imagine how he could have gone down a darker path, and he has to believe he has the strength and convictions to be a better person than that. It’s an almost deceptively simplistic way of taking the title Star Trek: The Next Generation literally: Instead of the “next generation” of Star Trek heroes coming into their own adventures, it’s Star Trek itself nurturing its own Next Generation through the persons of the two characters who have played the role of mentor and role model the most clearly.
Perhaps that was the path this series was always destined to take way back in 1987. As Star Trek: The Next Generation (inc. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) enters its twilight years, perhaps its true story arc will be revealed as a sort of mythopoetic relay race of torch-passing. Star Trek: The Next Generation fought long and hard to inherit the mantle of the Original Series, only to discover once it finally did that it had already outgrown it. The great strength of capitalist mass market pop culture storytelling like action adventure science fiction is that it can theoretically reach a vast number of people with a provocative and compelling set of ideas and concepts that have the genuine potential to transform people’s lives in a very positive way. But this approach has limitations and drawbacks, and it will always be inherently compromised. Perhaps the reason Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t last longer is because it actually accomplished all it was meant to do in the life it had.
But it would be horribly cliche and offensive to say the only life we have left is through our metaphorical children. To me, that smacks of reproductive futurism and its banal evil. Real lives don’t work the way the learned patriarchal masculine tradition of history says they do, where we each of us have an epic story that concludes with a dynastic succession. Real life is cyclical and permanent as the seasons ebb and flow and we come into and out of each other’s lives. Perhaps what we’re really meant to do is awaken to the apotheosis of our own personal truths, and do what we can to help others do the same.