Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Cost of Living”

“Cost of Living”
Written by Peter Allan Fields
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Season 5, Episode 20
Production episode 40275-220
Original air date: April 20, 1992
Stardate: 45733.6

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise shatters an asteroid that’s about to collide with Tessen III. However, some sparkly stuff sprinkles onto the saucer section…

Worf and Alexander have a session with Troi. Both of them are having trouble, with Alexander not performing his chores, and Worf being extra belligerent. Troi suggests they draw up a contract that spells out what both Worf and Alexander are responsible for, and how it must be done.

Before they leave, Troi tells Alexander that some day he’ll be grateful that his father cares this much about him, and that children often don’t appreciate their parents until they’re much older. The irony fairy then plunks Troi on the head, as her mother comes on board, and announces that she’s getting married, and wishes to have the ceremony on the Enterprise.

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Troi wants to know who her prospective stepfather is—his name is Campio, and he’s the third minister to the Conference of Judges on Kostolain—and is rather surprised to realize that they haven’t actually met yet. Lwaxana brushes off the concern (surprisingly making no mention of the fact that Troi was all set to marry someone she’d never met back in “Haven,” nor generally that that seems to be a Betazoid tradition), and then is interrupted by Worf and Alexander, who are having difficulty drawing up the contract. That difficulty is magnified a thousandfold by Lwaxana, who sabotages all of Troi’s work by declaring the contract to be ghastly. She does, however, get Alexander to smile.

Picard is cranky on the subject of Lwaxana treating the Enterprise like her personal yacht, though he relents when Riker informs him that she wishes Picard to give away the bride, a notion he finds irresistible.

And again we fade to commercial with an image of the sparkly stuff from the teaser moving about the deckplates.

Lwaxana arrives at Troi’s office to find Alexander there. He’s early for his session with Troi because it got him out of his quarters before his father got back. Lwaxana decides to break a few rules, and takes Alexander to a holodeck simulation of the Parallax colony, a place filled with free spirits and fun and very few rules. There’s a wind-dancer, a fire-sculptor, a juggler, a pair of friends who constantly argue with each other (“Who else are you going to fight with if not your friends?”), and a pompous windbag. Alexander quotes the windbag’s droning as a way to get the two arguing friends to stop arguing. Then they all get into a mudbath, and a woman then dances for them—but it’s interrupted by Worf and Troi, who are both seriously pissed off.

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In Lwaxana’s quarters, Troi berates her mother, saying that she’s trying to teach Alexander responsibility, and Lwaxana’s not helping by sending him mixed messages. (Lwaxana’s response: “I exposed you to all kinds of mixed messages when you were that age, and you still turned out deadly dull. What are you so worried about?”) Troi is also stunned that Lwaxana has time to go to the holodeck with Alexander when her wedding’s in three days. But she’s got Mr. Homn handling the piddly details, like altering Campio’s mother’s wedding dress.

That gets Troi’s jaw to drop—she’s not going to have a traditional Betazoid wedding (wherein the participants are all naked)? Lwaxana brushes off her concern—and then is confused by the replicator putting large sausages in her tea.

That turns out to be a shipwide problem, as there are two hundred reports of food replicator malfunctions. Data and La Forge look into it, and find an energy fluctuation. La Forge says they’d better fix it before the captain orders dinner. They crawl into the Jefferies tubes, and find some negative ion charging—and a bunch of brown liquid goo.

Alexander visits Lwaxana as Mr. Homn is working on her wedding dress (she’s also wearing a hideous white wig) and apologizes for getting her in trouble. They talk a bit about her wedding in particular and marriage in general, and Lwaxana admits that she’s compromising because she’s getting older, and she’s afraid to be alone.

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Data and La Forge report on the replicator problem, and in the middle of that, several other systems start malfunctioning, losing attitude control and inertial dampeners. Something is changing transfer conduits into the brown goo.

Campio arrives, and he and Lwaxana greet each other. However, when Lwaxana attempts to kiss him, his protocol master, Erko, puts a hand between their faces. They can’t be too familiar before the wedding takes place, apparently.

Lwaxana is surprised at the presence of a protocol master, but Campio would find it unpardonable to abandon oneself to the moment. Lwaxana agrees, to Picard and Troi’s surprise.

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La Forge and Data continue their analysis. Whatever’s affecting the ship, it’s consuming and metabolizing the nitrium in the systems, and leaving the goo behind as waste. So yes, the goo is excrement…

Alexander skips out on dinner because he promised Lwaxana that they’d go to the holodeck together. When he gets there, it turns out that this was also when Campio, Erko, and Lwaxana were to discuss wedding plans, and Lwaxana’s trying to duck out on that, as well. Campio and Erko try to get Lwaxana to stay, then Troi and Worf come for Alexander, and it turns into a farce: Lwaxana wants to go with Alexander, Troi and Worf want Alexander to go with Worf, Campio wants Lwaxana to stay and is willing to let Alexander stay, but both Erko and Worf object to Alexander staying, Erko additionally objects to Mr. Homn’s presence, and everyone’s going back and forth leaving Lwaxana and Alexander with the perfect opportunity to sneak out.

While trying to trace the malfunctions, La Forge and Data see the sparkly stuff move out of an access conduit, leaving the goo behind.

On the holodeck, Alexander notices that Lwaxana seems sad for someone about to get married. He also opines that Campio probably wouldn’t take a mudbath, and Lwaxana has to admit that he’s right about that.

Meanwhile, the sparkly stuff is spreading throughout the ship. La Forge and Data have identified it as a metal parasite that was probably feeding on the nitrium in the asteroid they destroyed at Tessen III. Picard orders the Enterprise back to the asteroid field that it came from, hopefully providing it with a better meal than the ship.

Unfortunately, the ship’s falling apart at the seams, with life support giving out at random intervals. By the time they reach the field, the bridge crew has collapsed from carbon dioxide poisoning. Data, though, is unaffected, and he uses the Bussard collectors to emit a particle beam with tons of nitrium in it. The sparkly things follow the beam out, and the ship pulls itself together.

Ten-Forward is redecorated for the wedding. Everyone and everything is ready—except for Lwaxana, who’s late.

And then finally she comes in—naked, as per Betazoid tradition. Erko practically has a heart attack, and insists that they must leave immediately.

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Lwaxana retires to the mudbaths, along with Alexander—whom she thanks for teaching her the lesson that she had intended to impart to him—and Troi and Worf. Troi seems to also be enjoying the mudbath—though not so much that she doesn’t remind both Alexander and Lwaxana that you have to sometimes live in the real world—but Worf doesn’t get it at all. (“You’re just supposed to sit here?”)

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: The asteroid that the Enterprise destroyed had a metal parasite inside it, one that’s undetectable by sensors. Since the ship took away its food source, it moved onto the ship in search of nitrium to munch on. Said munching messes with many of the ship’s systems, including life support.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi attempts to help Worf and Alexander deal with their difficulties by suggesting a contract between the two of them. Lwaxana points out that contracts are for people who don’t trust each other—which is patently false, and it would’ve been nice if someone pointed out that marriage is also a contract. As is typical for a Lwaxana episode, Troi is reduced to being her mother’s “straight man.”

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf’s tenure as the worst parent ever continues unabated as he seems incapable of communicating with Alexander except by yelling. Alexander throws that in his face during the session with Troi by accusing him of yelling all the time, to which Worf loudly says, “I do not—” before catching himself, and then more quietly saying, “I do not yell.” Troi’s sarcastic response is lovely.

Worf also gets the single funniest moment in an episode that has quite a few of them. The wind dancer—a floating head in a bubble—makes funny faces at people as they enter the Parallax colony, and while Lwaxana and Alexander are charmed by it, Worf is singularly unimpressed, and after it continuously blocks Worf’s forward progress into the holodeck, he finally bats at it, bursting the bubble. Troi is unable to contain her amusement.

If I Only Had a Brain…: In the comments for “Cause and Effect,” regular rewatch commenter “JackofMidworld” said, “Without Data, the crew would have died a lot. Like, a lot-a lot.” This episode is a classic example, as he’s the only one who makes it to the asteroid field awake to implement the plan to get the sparkly things off the ship.

What Happens on the Holodeck Stays on the Holodeck: Lwaxana re-creates the Parallax colony on the holodeck, which seems a good place to relax—it’s half carnival, half spa.

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I Believe I Said That: “Nothing would please me more than to give away Mrs. Troi.”

Picard’s rather emphatic acceptance of the honor of giving away the bride.

Welcome Aboard: Lots and lots of guest stars in this one, starting with recurring characters Majel Barrett as Lwaxana, Carel Struycken in his final appearance as Mr. Homn, and Brian Bonsall as Alexander. There’s also Abie Selznick as the very Vorta-looking juggler (he’ll be back twice on Voyager in “Macrocosm” and “The Voyager Conspiracy,” and will also provide choreography for the Ventu movements in “Natural Law”), the delightful Larry Hankin as the clown-like wind dancer, Patrick Cronin as Erko, Christopher Halsted as the windbag (he’ll return as a Jem’Hadar in the Deep Space Nine finale “What You Leave Behind”), and veteran character actor Tony Jay being sufficiently pompous as Campio.

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Trivial Matters: This episode won two Emmy Awards, for Costume Design and Makeup—both well-earned, as costume and makeup work for the Parallax colony was excellent.

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Lwaxana’s lament that she was alone carried greater weight, as Majel Barrett had recently lost her husband, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died only a few months before this episode filmed.

During filming, the set was visited twice, once by two kids from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, once by Good Morning America, which did a live feed from the set.

Though this is Mr. Homn’s final appearance on screen, he will continue to be mentioned. In your humble rewatcher’s “The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned” in Tales of the Dominion War, the valet is killed during the Dominion’s conquering of Betazed, sacrificing his life to save Lwaxana’s son (who will be born some time after the Deep Space Nine episode “The Muse”).

This is the second of three times that Lwaxana finds herself becoming attached to someone from a repressive society of some sort—first it was Timicin in “Half a Life,” and the next will be Jeyel in “The Muse.”

Make it So: “The higher, the fewer.” I never liked this episode much, and haven’t watched it again in years. So I had forgotten about its excellent pedigree—Peter Allan Fields will go on to write some of the best episodes of Deep Space Nine, and Winrich Kolbe is one of the best television directors in the history of the medium—and feared that this would be another “Up the Long Ladder,” where an excellent writer and director (in this case, the same director) would be wasted on a dopey story.

And—well, it is a dopey story, but it’s actually better than I remember it. For one thing, it’s genuinely funny, particularly in the first half. Majel Barrett and Marina Sirtis have their banter down pretty well at this point, and there are a variety of great lines (some quoted above at various points), plus the Parallax colony is genuinely delightful, from the wind-dancer’s wonderful facial expressions to Abie Selznick’s excellent juggling. The scene where Lwaxana and Alexander try to escape their mutual obligations to Campio and Worf while Campio, Troi, Worf, and Erko all bitch and moan is entertaining as all heck, too.

It’s also nice to see that TNG has evolved to the point where an episode can focus on two recurring characters. The intersection of Alexander and Lwaxana works rather nicely, actually, especially since it gets Alexander away from Worf and the tiresome yelling between the two of them. Worf really is the worst parent ever, and he not only hasn’t gotten any better at it, he shows no signs of the possibility of getting better at it. This makes every scene between father and son repetitive and shouty and tiresome.

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Besides that, though, two other things really kill this episode. One is that, it’s yet another silly sci-fi B-plot that has nothing to do with the rest of the episode. In fact, it’s so completely removed from the A-plot that we never even see how the ship shaking and falling apart and life-support fluctuating for several hours affects Campio or Lwaxana. You would think that Erko would at least complain about it (since he complained about everything else). The B-plot is so lazily tacked on that it doesn’t feel like it’s part of the same episode, a problem that has only gotten worse as the show’s progressed (see also “In Theory” and “The Outcast“), and mostly makes one long for more episodes like “Family,” where the producers trusted the characters enough to let them carry the episode without tiresome technobabble.

The other is that for all that it’s cool to focus on recurring characters like Lwaxana and Alexander, the fact of the matter is that it’s focusing on Lwaxana and Alexander. Lwaxana has only had one good episode up until now, and this story does not add to that total, while Alexander isn’t proving to be much better.

Ultimately, it’s appropriate that the B-plot is about an entity that leaves the Enterprise full of crap…

 

Warp factor rating: 4


Keith R.A. DeCandido has written a surprising amount of Alexander and Lwaxana in his Star Trek fiction, given how little he likes either character. He’s not sure what that means.

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