If you’ve seen “Transfigurations” and know literally anything about me, you know what my feelings on it are going to be.
This is plainly the best episode of the entire third season precisely because it’s so unlike anything else in it, with the exception of perhaps “Tin Man”. This is the moment where the promises and themes Michael Piller hinted at in “Evolution” finally come to fruition: It fulfills the potential the earlier episode could only grasp at and is where Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s new mission statement finally becomes clear. Tellingly, it’s not written by any of the current staff writers, but is a concept fleshed out and fully realised by “The Offspring” scribe René Echevarria at Michael Piller’s personal request, in the pitch that actually got him his staff job. Knowing this, the title of “Transfigurations” becomes particularly apt, as change finally does seem to be in the air. It’s a fleeting burst of clairvoyance, a brief glimpse at what this show could be, should be, and has always had the opportunity to be in the last moments before everything implodes in on itself.
It’s curious that this is a story Piller warmed up to as much as he did (even putting the finishing touches on it himself), considering it’s once again a script that seems to go against his central tenet that everything must fundamentally be about the main characters. That it’s so self-evidently successful and beautiful is also the clearest sign we’ve seen yet that Piller might be wrong about this particular conviction, or at least that he ought to refine it a bit. Because in spite of its origins as a story about “how 24th century medicine works up close and personal”, this episode is absolutely about John Doe and the effect he has on the crew, and critically, the effect theyhave on him.
Doctor Crusher is John’s primary and obvious interlocutor, and yet her actual role in the story is somewhat elusive and deceptive. A number of readings try to interpret this story as her falling in love with him, but that’s not what’s actually going on (indeed, this is a tack even the show itself seems savvy of, given the dinner scene between Bev and Wesley). No, while “Transfigurations” is unquestionably Bev’s best outing so far, what’s happening here is a full realisation of her new role as live sciences mystery solver: John is the ultimate science mystery for her to crack, because in him she (rightly, as it eventually turns out) sees the future of humanoid life, albeit perhaps only unconsciously. The quest for knowledge and understanding, and a hope this will help us know the universe and our place within it even just a tiny bit better, drives and energizes her. And let’s not forget that for all of John’s miraculous and seemingly impossible acts of healing, as both he and Beverly repeat a number of times throughout the episode, it was she who “gave him life”. Which we shouldn’t be at all surprised by, considering Doctor Crusher has previously brought people back from the dead herself: In “The Neutral Zone” which, not coincidentally, offers the clearest explanation of what Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s diegetic utopianism actually is and looks like we’ve seen yet.
There’s also, of course, Geordi. While I’m not necessarily a fan of the awkwardness around women this season’s creative team saddled him with, there’s no denying “Transfigurations” offers terrific payoff for that story. Geordi’s entire subplot is absolutely sublime, and it all comes together in that exchange on the bridge when John tells him “Perhaps I only helped you find something you already had”. What a perfect description of how we can learn from and help each other; of the healing effect we can have on others whom we meet throughout our lives. Maybe we should all strive to help each other understand and discover things about ourselves we couldn’t find on our own. And I can’t help but smile that it’s Geordi, the heart and soul of the Enterprise, who gets the most intimate encounter with John Doe. Not only is his extradiegetic wounding and subsequent healing an apt metaphor for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s identity crisis, but it’s a wonderful fit for a children’s educator who places paramount value on our ability to learn as much through the act of teaching as those we interact with.
And I’m naturally obliged to mention the new laboratory set, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the control room of another famous starship: The TARDIS from Doctor Who. Those glowing roundels on the walls could pass for something one might expect to see on a big(ger) budget relaunch of the Classic Series circa 1990, the central operating table seems to take more than a few cues from the iconic time rotor and you can even see the roof of the TARDIS itself on the ceiling in a few shots. To have this here, only a few weeks after an episode bitter Whovians hold up as a nasty Doctor Who parody and have it be something that can only be the work of an adoring and caring fan is just wonderful, and I’m not even a Doctor Who fan: What I really care about is how this so clearly sends a message of camaraderie and solidarity. For two fanbases that seem to have such animosity towards one another (well, a one-sided animosity at any rate), it’s very moving, and fitting, to see this hand of friendship extended in this of all stories.
(And just who is working those controls? Of course it’s Doctor Crusher, not just a scientist, but arguably the most passionately humanist of the entire crew.)
John Doe is obviously, textually, in fact, a transhuman character; one possible next step in humanoid evolution. Cast aside for a moment Darwinian conceptions of natural selection: While valid, they are not entirely the most efficacious way of reading what’s happening to John in “Transfigurations”. Natural selection is not teleological. There may be no higher species or life-forms, but there perhaps are higher states of being. And that’s what John is transitioning to-His story touches on the notions of the Singularity Archetype, that fictional construct that seeks to convey a time when humanity might reach a deeper understanding of that which binds us to the cosmic oversoul of nature, thus joining with our Glorified Bodies and freeing the gods that live within all of us. His name, “John Doe”, conveys that he is at once everyone and no one. He could be you or me, or nobody, depending on how cynical you want to be.
And yet who are the real spirits here, and who are the shamanic messengers who can merely sit back and try to explain their convocations to their fellow mortals? Can you even make a meaningful distinction between the two of them? John metamorphoses into his Glorified forme, yes, and he helps Geordi, Beverly, O’Brien and, in the climax, the whole crew. But he could never have attained that state had he never met the Enterprise crew. A shaman, as part of her performance, will oftentimes wear the guise of her spirit guides to convey the lessons she’s learned while traversing the heavens through storytelling. Were the Enterprise crew transformed through meeting John, or was he transformed through meeting them? Must the two be mutually exclusive? What is living to an ideal but crudely moulding yourself in the image of a favourite role model? And who’s to say that after a life lived that way you don’t become, in a sense, that role model yourself? The symbol and the object are one and the same. You can choose the aspect of divinity that speaks to you and take it into yourself. Meditate on your Mahavidyas and you will become as they are. And remember to live in the now, and know then how to live as a goddess on Earth.
(What’s the first thing John does upon leaving the Enterprise? Return to his people to share what he’s learned.)
Ascension. Transformation. Transcendence. Regeneration. Behold the event horizon that lies at ego-death and the end point of history. Behold the card of death, which means not death but the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. But know also that any true form of transformative change will by necessity entail shock: The Singularity looks like the apocalypse from below. See also the card of the tower, for one world is about to end so that another may begin.