Jun 30 2011 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “When the Bough Breaks”

Wesley and the kids“When the Bough Breaks”
Written by Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Kim Manners
Season 1, Episode 16
Production episode 40271-118
Original air date: February 15, 1988
Stardate: 41509.1

Captain’s Log: While Riker is en route to the bridge, one of the children literally bumps into him — and falls to the floor. Harry apologizes, then tells his father, Dr. Bernard, that he hates calculus. I was thinking he’s way too young to be studying calculus, but whatever.

When the first officer arrives on the bridge, Picard tells them that they’ve been finding hints of Aldea, a mythical planet of philosophers and scientists that is filled with wondrous technology. The planet has supposedly remained hidden from the outside world for millennia.

Said planet suddenly appears out of nowhere and greets them warmly, asking to meet. Their leaders beam on board — their shield prevents all but Aldean transporters from working — but prove sensitive to the bright lights of the Enterprise. Shortly thereafter, Riker, Troi, and Crusher are beamed suddenly to the planet.

The Aldeans have a modest proposal: they can no longer reproduce, so they would like to take some of the Enterprise children. Riker, Troi, and Crusher make it abundantly clear that this is not acceptable — so the Aldeans send the three back and just go ahead and take the kids they want anyhow.

They insist on providing compensation for the children, but the parents (understandably) just want their kids back. However, returning the children is non-negotiable, but the Aldeans have information and technology far beyond that of the Federation, and they’re offering it.

Radue During negotiations, Crusher insists on seeing Wes. She palms him a medical scanner, and he surreptitiously scans one of the Aldeans. After they’re beamed back, the Aldeans drop the other shoe: they send the Enterprise three days away at warp nine, making it clear that yes, they are bullies and kidnappers, and the whole polite thing was just a front.

Crusher’s scan reveals that they have radiation poisoning due to gaps in their planet’s ozone layer caused by their shield. They not only have chromosomal damage that prevents them from reproducing (and causes their sensitivity to light), but they’re dying. Riker and Data beam through a fluctuation in the Aldean shield (an earlier conversation between Wes and an Aldean revealed that they haven’t even maintained their equipment in ages), and are able to neutralize the Aldeans’ computer. While Picard beams the children back, Crusher explains that the children will suffer the same as the Aldeans if they remain on Aldea.

With the Enterprise’s help, the ozone layer is re-seeded, the Aldeans undergo therapy to cure the radiation poisoning, and Harry reluctantly agrees to continue studying calculus.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: “And we know they’ll make good parents.” Troi says this at the end, even though most of the evidence presented in the episode shows that they, in fact, make lousy parents....

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Data tells Wes that the cloak around Aldea bends light waves. Two problems there: One, if light waves are bent around Aldea, how can the Aldeans see? Two, sensors are supposed to be more sophisticated than visuals. If it’s just bending light, radar and sonar would detect Aldea easily, much less super-duper 24th-century sensors, so there has to be more to it than that. This is a rare case where more technobabble would’ve been useful.

If I Only Had a Brain…: Apparently Data has never before been exposed to the notion of lying about a Starfleet regulation to someone who wouldn’t know better as an excuse to bring someone else onto an away team (in this case, Crusher, to represent the parents). As with many things Data learns about on the show, you wonder how incredibly boring his pre-Enterprise assignments must have been for him to miss all these bits of human behavior..

Wes and the Custodian

The Boy!?: Due to his being the oldest, the tallest, and the only one listed in the opening credits, Wes emerges as the leader of the kidnapped children. He organizes a hunger strike and other bits of passive resistance among them to protest their being taken from their families.

He also apparently sleeps in his clothes (all the way down to the boots), which is just weird....

Welcome Aboard. Jerry Hardin makes his first of two appearances on TNG — he would return as Mark Twain in the season-bridging two-parter “Time’s Arrow.” The children do fairly well, particularly Jessica and Vanessa Bova, who were just adorable as Alexandra.

But this episode’s Robert Knepper moment was when I saw Brenda Strong, whom I had forgotten was in this. Strong is probably best known now as the voice of the deceased narrator of Desperate Housewives, though she’ll always have a warm place in my heart for her recurring role as Sally Sasser on Sports Night.

Harry falls downI Believe I Said That: “What’s your hurry, Harry?”

Riker’s inevitable response to Harry running down a corridor and crashing into the first officer.

Trivial Matters: This is the first of five writing credits on TNG for staffer Hannah Louise Shearer, and the only TNG directorial credit for the late Kim Manners, who would go on to acclaim as a producer on The X-Files (on which Hardin would also have a recurring role as “Deep Throat”) and Supernatural, before dying of cancer in 2009.

Make it So: “The legend will die, but the people will live.” A mostly harmless episode that lifts quite a bit from The Cliché Handbook. You’ve got the Mysterious Legendary Aliens who turn out to have a Horrible Secret, and who are Meaner Than Expected. The children fit all the types, including The Really Really Adorable Little One With The Stuffed Animal (which amusingly appears to be a stuffed tribble) and The Kid Whose Last Conversation With His Father Was An Argument (And The Father Regrets It Later). Oh, and the Kidnapper Who Becomes Overly Attached.

Still, the performances are all fairly solid, the ozone-layer message unsubtle but not too sledgehammery (certainly less so than other first-season attempts at pointing out things humanity is currently doing wrong), and the twins playing Alexandra are cute as all heck. Where the episode shines most is (as usual) in the performance of Sir Patrick Stewart. His anger and outrage and justified self-righteousness at the kidnapping of children modulates nicely into diplomacy when negotiating with the Aldeans and amusingly into total discomfort when he has to actually deal directly with the children. That last gives us the episode’s final cliché, the Ending Where Everybody Gets A Chuckle, as Alexandra hugs Picard, leaving her stuffed tribble attached to the back of his uniform without him noticing.

I’m especially forgiving of this episode because it’s the first time since the pilot episode that the show has even acknowledged that there are children on board the Enterprise (beyond a single, brief scene in “The Last Outpost”). With the weight given to that particular aspect of the ship in “Encounter at Farpoint,” it was disappointing for it to take 15 episodes before it was even dealt with, much less made a plot point.


Warp factor rating: 6.


Administrative notes: is taking Independence Day off, so the next Rewatch (“Home Soil”) won’t show up until Thursday the 7th of July. Also, if you’re a Star Trek fan, you might want to consider attending Shore Leave 33 in Hunt Valley, Maryland from the 8th to the 10th of July. I’ll be one of the guests, as will several other Trek authors, as well as actors John deLancie (Q), Gary Lockwood (Gary Mitchell), and Sally Kellerman (Dr. Dehner).

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s latest novel is a high-fantasy police procedural, Unicorn Precinct, and is currently available for the Kindle, and will be available in other eBook formats, as well as trade paperback, from Dark Quest Books in July. It’s the long-awaited sequel to his 2004 novel Dragon Precinct, which will be re-released by DQB later this year. A subplot involves one protagonist, Torin ban Wyvald, being reunited with his father who wants to take him home to Myverin, a distant paradise where they focus on art and philosophy—much like Aldea, only without the technology and radiation poisoning. (Hey, at least I connected the book to Star Trek this time!)

Ashley McGee
1. AshleyMcGee
"Don't mess with the Deep Throat" haha, if the government knew he was actually an Aldean double agent, he'd be executed...oh wait, he was executed for helping Mulder. Arguably, he was far more useful to Mulder.

...X:Files rocked...
2. mordicai

That is all.
3. Idran
To be fair, it's possible they meant all wavelengths of light, so radar might still be ineffective. And I think there might be a different, fairly major problem with using sonar to detect a planet. :P

Still, if nothing else, 20th-21st century techniques like detecting the effect of gravity on Aldea's parent star as Aldea orbits, or even just looking for lensing effects or something, would also work just fine, so I do still agree with your overall point. Just nitpicking your specific examples. :D

Also, wow, I never made the connection that Mark Twain was Deep Throat. That's kind of awesome, I love when I see a character actor from one scifi show pop up in another.
Keith DeCandido
4. krad
Idran: Hey! Stop clouding the issue with facts, dagnabbit!!!!

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Michael Poteet
5. MikePoteet
Too young to be studying calculus? This is Gene Roddenberry's 24th century we're dealing with, sir, in which, just as in Lake Wobegone, all the children are Above Average!
j p
6. sps49
Yep. Patrick Stewart gets the lion's share of carrying these episodes. And throughout the series, too.

Agree with @5; if you aren't doing calculus before puberty you will never make it to warp theory.
7. Ellynne
I do have to kind of mentally squint to believe the Aldeans have all these techno-goodies but can't shield out damaging radiation (shield out all light, radiation, and evidence of gravity that would show where the planet is, just not gene damaging rays. I soooo wanted to see Crusher hand them a prescription for sun screen to save the day, even if saving the planet is obviously a better solution) and that they can't scan and fix their own genes.

OK, maybe they have lost all information on how their technology works. It happens. But makes you wonder how they meant to trade tech for kids.

But not nearly as much mental squinting as some episodes, so no big.
Evan Langlinais
8. Skwid
Huh. I never once assumed that was a stuffed tribble. I just assumed neutered tribbles were popular pets in the 24th century!
9. John R. Ellis
A harmless episode. It's not unwatchably bad, but it's not exactly entertainingly good, either.

Still, out of the kidcenric episodes, my favorite is "Disaster", mostly due Picard's makeshift crew being so adorably funny.
10. Christopher L. Bennett
Well, given how inefficient our educational system is (with so much time wasted on re-teaching stuff forgotten over summer vacation, along with other problems), I can buy a more sophisticated educational protocol reaching higher math much sooner. Although aside from this episode, we never get any further indication that 24th-century teaching techniques are any better than our own. (Like the eradication of headaches, it's a utopian first-season conceit that was ignored by later showrunners.)

What always frustrated me about this episode is that the crisis only existed because everyone ignored the obvious, ideal solution. Sure, the Aldeans were wrong to abduct kids from the Enterprise crew, but there's a whole Federation out there, and even in a utopian future, there are bound to be children who lose their parents in one way or another. Why didn't Picard think to suggest an arrangement whereby the Aldeans could negotiate to adopt orphans from across the Federation? That way, not only would the story not have required Picard, Deanna, and the rest to be morons for not thinking of that solution, but it would've been a nice way of promoting adoption to the viewing audience. They could've even put in one of those charity PSAs at the end giving people a phone number where they could get more information about adoption or foster parenting -- do some real good rather than just show a fictional utopia. Instead, nobody in the entire episode seemed to be aware that there even was such a thing as adoption. It's a missed opportunity.
11. Chessara
"And I think there might be a different, fairly major problem with using sonar to detect a planet. :P"

Thanks Idran, for making me laugh today!! :D

Overall I liked this episode, and must admit I didn't really remember much about it, but I think it's tolerably good. I also wonder exactly what tech knowledge the Aldeans were going to share, if they were clueless as to how the Custodian worked or where its power source might be...

And yes!!! Sir Patrick Stewart carries the episode!! What a joy it is to see such a great actor in action!
Kristen Templet
12. SF_Fangirl
Oddly enough one of my strongest recollections of a TNG moment is that middle schoolers on the Enterprise were studying calculus. I remember nothing else about this episode. Although Chris@10 has a point, in retrospect I don't think the idea of an average 10/12 year studying calculus really holds water.
matt grafton
13. Savagehenry
Sonar (originally an acronym for SOund Navigation And Ranging) is a technique that uses sound propagation (usually underwater, as in Submarine navigation) to navigate, communicate with or detect other vessels.

Wouldn't work real well in a vacuum.

The Technobabble line writer may have had the Aldivian Flu or something that week.
14. kimu
I just started re-watching TNG thanks to netflix finally getting it on instant streaming. I'm surprised by which episodes I remember and which ones I've totally forgotten. For some reason, this one really stuck with me. I think it was one of the first episodes where I didn't find Wes unbelievably irritating - the whole passive resistance attempt was interesting and with some other kids on screen, he didn't seem quite so precocious.
Justin Devlin
15. EnsignJayburd
One of the few decent Wesley stories. His idea for passive resistance and his rapport with the other children were good progressions for his character.

I don't think a 10 year old having to take calculus in a 24th century setting is a stretch at all. Especially considering this future that's being portrayed. Heck, my own 12-year old daughter could probably handle calculus if the crappy school system she's in wasn't quite so crappy - or if I had the money to send her to a real school. She's been bored with math since 4th grade and she can accurately do 3 and 4 digit multiplication and division in her head. It's understandable but frustratingall the same to see my child's abilities being restrained by the average-ness of her peers.
16. lorq
Just saw the episode for the first time and wanted to add my voice to those of the last few commenters -- I was struck by how much better Wesley was handled here than in other episodes. Rather than get shoehorned into a "precocious gee-whiz" role, he's given a chance to behave like a sharp and pragmatic teenager.
17. Heather Dunham
Math skills are much more about physiological brain development than about education. While I'm not going to argue about crappy school systems, or that kids could understand math better if schools did a better job, there is a physical limit to what they're able to understand that's not just a matter of getting more information into their brains earlier and faster.

However, that being said, I don't have a problem with 24th century kids doing calculus in middle school. It's not unreasonable to presume that advances in health and nutrition, as well as 'natural selection', have resulted in at least a portion of the elite population (ie, those ending up in starfleet) having brains that are developing for math more quickly. As EnsignJayburd points out, there are some kids today who have these abilities -- they are the outliers, rather than the norm, but they do exist. They have different brains - it's not a product of their education. It's quite feasible that these math-gifted people are more common in the population 300 years from now.
18. SagaraSoske
Calculus is taught in Chinese middle schools, although at 3rd year as China has a 3 year middle school and 3 year high school system. But that's the average. Accelerated classes and students starts calculus one or two years early. So a bright Chinese kid starts Calculus at age 12-13. I think it's similar in Taiwan, Japan and Korea as well.
Matthew Clark
19. clarkbhm
There are also some children present during the evacuation of the Enterprise in 11001001.
20. Sam0
Regarding all of the hubbub about younger kids learning calculus, I think we're making way too much of it. I do imagine that the writers for this episode wanted to get across the idea: "Wow! In the future even little kids will study what we now think of advanced math! How else would they understand the complex tech?"

On the other hand, basic calculus is really not that hard. Many of its principles also can be understood conceptually even by middle school and even elementary students today, if it were taught differently. In most schools, it is taught using a lot of algebra, coming out of the mathematical tradition of analysis, which requires a lot of levels of abstraction.

But really calculus is just about rates of change of things and summing up lots of bits of things... that's it. Most kids implicitly understand how a speedometer relates to the position of a car: if the speedometer goes higher, the car moves its position faster. A tachyometer roughly correlates to acceleration, too, on a level surface (assuming one gear), so just looking at these things a bit and seeing how they relate to a car in motion can instantly give a kid a feel for how derivatives work -- since velocity is the derivative of position, and acceleration is the derivative of velocity.

Yeah, sure, doing all the algebraic stuff is harder, but if you do it using graphs -- which is easy with computers today -- the slope of curves and things gets pretty intuitive. I guarantee that most middle-school kids could develop a very intuitive sense for how differential calculus works, well before they could master the abstract art of algebra.

But we don't teach it that way.

Similarly, there have been a number of proposals to teach integral calculus in relation to various geometric methods, instead of algebraic ones. Some math teacher initiatives have even tried some of these things out on elementary school kids, and they can effectively find areas under curves and such using geometrical methods, rather than complex algebraic calculus.

Ironically, all of this is getting back to the way Newton and Leibniz probably understood this stuff conceptually back in the 17th century, when algebraic notation was still being standardized, but geometrical methods were well-known and intuitive (and frequently used by these founders of calculus in proving their methods).

Even the algebra can be simpler if you allow the use of infinitesimals. For decades, mathematicians regarded teachers who used them as stupid, even though they work and only require basic algebra I level comprehension for a lot of things (rather than complex discussions of limits), but a few decades ago, some mathematicians put the use of infinitesimals back on a rigorous foundation. That's what Leibniz used... it made sense to him.

Anyhow, this is all to say that teaching calculus to middle-school kids, at least on an intuitive level or a basic numerical level is very possible today. It's only if you approach it through the bizarre algebraic sequence we do today that it seems ridiculously hard, but that has more to do with 19th century mathematical formalism than the actual complexity of the concepts.

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