“Reproductive futurism”: The Offspring
“The Offspring” sees us introduced to another new face who will become a reoccurring figure on Star Trek: The Next Generation and beyond. Not, perhaps controversially, Data’s daughter Lal, but the story’s writer René Echevarria. Like Ron Moore, Echevarria is another success story of the open submissions policy, discovered on the back of his spec script (this one) and then asked to come out to join the writing staff by Michael Piller. It just takes a little bit longer with Echevarria, who doesn’t come on full time until next year, despite having one more submission this season.
Indeed it’s a something of a miracle he managed to last even that long, considering he’s another in a long line of writers who, by his own admission, waltzed into the writer’s room convinced he was going to teach them how to write Star Trek because he was a die-hard Original Series fan unreasonably upset at Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ira Behr jokingly recalls his first impression of his future collaborator being that of a “pretentious” New Yorker whose only experience was in theatre. But, once aboard, Echevarria stays with Star Trek for the next decade, penning some of the franchise’s best and most memorable stories.
It’s somewhat endearing then to learn that his debut story is as much the result of early career jitters as it is his obvious talent: In regards to “The Offspring”, Echevarria recalls how Michael Piller openly called it the single best spec script he’d ever seen in his career to that point, but he was disappointed in the revised version enough to do an uncredited rewrite on it with Gene Roddenberry and the outgoing Melinda Snodgrass. The behind-the-scenes story is especially interesting here, as it reveals a lot about Michael Piller’s philosophy as it pertained to Star Trek: Piller recalls that his big issue with “The Offspring” as originally conceived was that it was all about Lal, her journey and her interiority, and since one of Piller’s big rules is that every story had to be fundamentally about the regulars in some way, it needed to be rewritten to be primarily about Data and his experiences with parenthood.
I both agree and disagree with this. While obviously I think it’s important to have the characters you actually get to see every week be involved in the action to some degree, I also think it’s important to not swing too far to the other side with this and remember that the regulars are ultimately ideals, and a big strength of Star Trek: The Next Generation to date has been its ability to help its guest characters solve their problems and grow in a healthy and constructive way. On the other hand, it’s both noteworthy and praiseworthy that neither Piller, nor Snodgrass nor Roddenberry put their names on the finished product: As Ron Moore would later recall, the attitude was always that the because the writing staff had far more power and money than the freelancers (not to mention better job security), it would be unbecoming to take their credit and residuals as well. So while there was constant rewriting going on backstage, something that remains true even when the show’s production begins to find some measure of stability, the staff would never, ever take credit for it. And, in a particularly succinct case of what goes around coming around, René Echevarria would end up doing plenty of uncredited rewrites of his own once he joined the team proper.
As for “The Offspring” itself…Well, it’s another one of those inimitably ineffable Third Season episodes that are held up by almost everyone as being a classic and a masterpiece and a defining episode in the evolution of the show. Both Michael Dorn and Michael Piller name it among their favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes while Jonathan Frakes somewhat boldly declares it the greatest science fiction television episode ever written (though, as we’ll discuss later on, he may be paying tongue-in-cheek lip service to ulterior motives here), and their sentiments seem to be shared almost universally by cast members, critics and writers alike. And going into this I was all but prepared to agree with them, at least in theory if not to the same degree of exaltation. But then I read about Melinda Snodgrass’ contribution and what she thought of it. In stark contrast to the glowing praise everyone else gives this story, she says she felt “The Offspring” was
“…fairly obvious and tired and stupid and I didn’t want to do it. I did a page one rewrite and Michael did another rewrite. It had a lot to do with ‘The Measure Of A Man’, which I don’t think we needed to do again so soon.”
And, as much as I like René Echevarria and his later work and as many moments of undeniable brilliance as there are here…Yeah, Snodgrass is right. It *is* very close to “The Measure of a Man”, and not especially in a good way. It goes over a lot of the same ground as that episode did in regards to Data’s rights as a sentient being, and indeed, it’s only *because* of Piller’s demands that this story be about Data that it *does* feel so repetitive in this way. This fairly quickly stops being a story about Lal and her personal journey of self-discovery and becomes about Data’s legal rights of custody and the Federation once again refusing to treat androids as sentient persons. Admiral Haftel may as well be Bruce Maddox, just less cartoonishly evil (his climactic scene where he tears up at Lal’s death once he starts to see his own daughter in her really is touching).
More problematically, this is a really, really sour outing for Captain Picard. I don’t know whose idea it was to put Picard in the position of a taciturn contrarian, but it was a catastrophically poor idea that ruins the entire story for me. Picard was indignant that Starfleet would treat Data as property in “The Measure of a Man”, and yet he spends way, way too much of “The Offspring” treating Lal essentially the same way. He even outright tells Deanna not to think of Lal as Data’s child or a person in her own right because there’s no way a “five-foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of ten men could be called a child”. To me, this is not just appallingly out of character, but it also makes no sense as Picard has spent the better part of three years with Data and even went up against the might of the Federation legal system to prove that a “five-foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of ten men” was entitled to agency and personhood. It astonishes me that absolutely no-one paused their glowing praise of “The Offspring” long enough to have noticed this rather egregiously terminal flaw that not only goes against what the series had previously established about Captain Picard’s character, but actually goes so far as to cast him in opposition to its very stated core values.
I suppose a case could be made that Picard has always been more stolid and set in his ways than other members of the Enterprise crew. Indeed, the extended edition of “The Measure of a Man” even paints him as taking awhile to come around to realising precisely what is wrong with Data submitting to Maddox’s request because he’s just old and reactionary enough to have some difficulty affording Data the same respect he does the rest of the crew. But I don’t like that, not at all! I can’t have anyone in the main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation fail to live up to the ideals they’re supposed to stand for, and certainly not Captain Picard of all people. That goes completely contrary to the way I read and have always read this show and its entire functional status as a work of utopian fiction. Once you start doing that, you set off on a path towards generic scripted drama pathos there’s no way back from.
In spite of its flaws being altogether too numerous and worrying for me to afford it classic status, there are once again some truly outstanding moments in isolation here. Hallie Todd steals the show as Lal from beginning to end, making her journey of emotions and experiences every bit as tragically endearing as it needs to be to distract us from the fact this story isn’t actually about her. There’s a somewhat infamous story about the Ten Forward scene where Lal is talking to Guinan about love that Whoopi Goldberg demanded her line be changed from “when a man and a woman are in love” to “when two people are in love” that would be wonderful if true, but I can only find it attributed to one not-entirely-reliable source. What is certain though is that this episode simply knocks its grasp on gender completely out of the park elsewhere: It’s nothing short of triumphant to hear Data say that he wants his (then-androgynous) child to choose their own gender through research and self-reflection and it’s lovely to hear Deanna say “Congratulations Data, it’s a girl!” when Lal decides to be female after careful study of all the galaxy’s genders in the holodeck. I actually can’t think of a single moment in media that handles this topic better.
As terrific as that all is, perhaps the biggest legacy of “The Offspring” is what it meant for Jonathan Frakes, who makes his directorial debut with this episode. Jonathan had been wanting to try his hand a directing for awhile, partly because it interested him and partly because he was bored of killing time when he wasn’t needed on set. After approaching Rick Berman with his somewhat unorthodox request, getting his go-ahead and spending hundreds of hours shadowing the show’s regular directors, Berman gave him “The Offspring” as his first gig. And it’s already obvious Frakes is going to be one of the show’s best assets behind the camera as much as he already is one of its best assets in front of it: The image of Data and Lal holding hands and the way that shot was framed have stuck with me ever since and comprise my most vivid memories of this episode. Apparently he impressed Berman too, who put him into the show’s pool of regular rotating directors. Jonathan Frakes would go on to helm countless episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager, along with both Star Trek First Contact and Star Trek Insurrection, paving the way for his castmates to break out into directing too. Frakes remains a well-known, respected and in-demand director in Hollywood to this day.
So maybe it’s Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s offspring, not Data’s, who makes up the real story here.
February 25, 2015 @ 1:00 am
Frakes is indeed a.very skilled director, but I still can't sit through more than five minutes of Thunderbirds without my teeth grinding. Admittedly it's a lousy script and maybe I cherish the original too much to view it objectively, but I do wonder how he came to fumble that ball. Anyone know ? Did he have too many studio types breathing down his neck, as Joel Schumacher had with Batman and Robin ?
February 25, 2015 @ 5:31 pm
"I can't have anyone in the main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation fail to live up to the ideals they're supposed to stand for . . ."
You and I are going to have to disagree that this is a bad thing. I think stories can be so much more interesting when they aren't populated by shiny, happy, perfect people. It hardly makes for "generic scripted drama pathos" to see characters either betraying values they claim to hold dear, or behaving inconsistently, or forgetting lessons they've learned, as long as the presented reasons make for a good story. It gives stories about genuine human struggles. I think utopia is best presented in fiction as something strived and fought for.
I love this episode, and I love it more than "Measure of a Man," because I tend to respond more favorably to plots driven by emotions than by philosophy. Maybe that's why I'm not much of a fan of literary SF.
February 25, 2015 @ 10:08 pm
"“The Offspring” as originally conceived was that it was all about Lal, her journey and her interiority"
I do love this episode, and hearing the above comment I would have really enjoyed a lot more of Lal's journey. I understand from the show's perspective that the main characters are the ideals, but sometimes it's interesting to see them from the side or through another's eyes.
And yes, the wonderful thing about this episode is the gender choice the Lal goes through – a moving and beautiful moment for me.