Aug 21 2012 4:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Imaginary Friend"

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend“Imaginary Friend”
Written by Jean Louise Matthias & Ronald Wilkerson and Richard Fliegel and Edithe Swenson and Brannon Braga
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont
Season 5, Episode 22
Production episode 40275-222
Original air date: May 4, 1992
Stardate: 45832.1

Captain’s Log: Troi has a session with Clara Sutter, the daughter of Ensign Daniel Sutter, a new engineer on board the ship. Clara has an imaginary friend named Isabella, which concerns Sutter. Troi theorizes that Sutter’s ship-hopping as part of his Starfleet career has led Clara to create Isabella as the one constant in her chaotic life. Troi’s confident that once she makes friends on the Enterprise, she won’t need Isabella anymore.

The Enterprise has arrived at FGC 47, a nebula surrounding a neutron star, which they plan to investigate. When they arrive, a glowy thing comes on board the ship unnoticed. It passes Data and La Forge discussing how to ration the sensors among the various science teams, then Crusher giving Ogawa a friendly grilling about a date she had, and finally the arboretum. Clara is there, planting nasturtiums and explaining to Isabella what she’s doing, and the glowy thing transforms itself into Isabella. In the fine tradition of best friends everywhere, Isabella convinces Clara to stop this boring planting of seeds and go off and explore the ship. Clara endeavors mightily to be responsible, but Isabella talks her out of it.

The ship shakes, and the shields register an impact, but they can’t find anything. In addition, the ship is slowing down—something’s affecting the Enterprise’s drag coefficient. While Data, La Forge, and Sutter try to figure out what happened, Clara comes into engineering, but Isabella won’t let herself be seen by the grown-ups. She also disappears for a moment, at which point the drag coefficient stabilizes and the ship’s fine. Isabella then takes Clara’s hands, and wanders off to explore some more.

Clara talks to Isabella, confirming Troi’s earlier notion that she created Isabella as a way of coping with Sutter’s constant moving around. They race down the hall and literally bump into Worf.

La Forge sets about to take some samples from the nebula to see if they can figure out what happened. While doing so, Sutter asks La Forge what it was like growing up as a Starfleet brat—both his parents, it turns out, are Starfleet officers.

In Ten-Forward, Guinan and Data discuss what the nebula clouds look like when Clara walks in to show Isabella Ten-Forward—Isabella’s back to being invisible. Guinan fixes her juice and tells Clara about her own imaginary friend: A razorbeast.

Troi enters, then, and takes Clara (and Isabella) for a walk, and explains that Ten-Forward’s off-limits to unsupervised kids. Clara insists that she didn’t want to, but Isabella made her. Troi then talks to the space next to Clara to explain that it’s not nice for Isabella to get Clara in trouble. Clara then points to another part of the turbolift and says she’s there. Troi finishes her statement, and then Clara tells Troi that Isabella said Troi better leave them alone.

Concerned, Troi talks to Sutter. She figures that Clara’s using Isabella as an excuse to act out a bit, and suggests putting Clara with kids her own age—there’s a ceramics class that afternoon. (This raises the question—isn’t she attending the ship’s school?)

In their quarters, Isabella apologizes for getting Clara in trouble, but then tries to get her in trouble again by asking to go back to engineering, and giving her the “I thought you were my best friend” guilt speech when Clara refuses. Troi then shows up and offers to take her to the ceramics class—but just her. They can take Isabella another time. Perhaps still annoyed at Isabella for trying to get her in trouble again, Clara agrees. Isabella is pissed, which we know because her eyes turn red (since asking Shay Astar to change her facial expression is apparently asking too much).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

Troi partners her up with Alexander, who’s making a cup for Worf. (Naturally, like any good Klingon cup, it’s decorated with spikes.) Isabella, while still invisible, messes up Alexander’s cup, which makes him angry, since he thinks Clara did it. Clara runs away. Isabella also messes with Troi’s hot chocolate.

The Enterprise goes deeper into the nebula, and the shields are hit again, and they start losing speed. La Forge and Sutter have a theory: When they exposed the nebula matter to a warp field, they were able to detect a strand of energy, one that is attracted to the shields. They run a warp field through the deflectors, and discover that those strands are everywhere. Picard orders Felton to come about and leave the nebula, carefully.

Clara runs to the arboretum to cry. Isabella is pissed at being left alone and tells Clara that, when the others come, Clara will die with them.

Troi mopes in Ten-Forward, and Guinan comes to talk to her, telling her about the razorbeast. Sutter then calls Troi to their quarters; Clara is now terrified of Isabella (with reason, though the adults don’t realize that), and won’t go into her room. Troi goes in with her, holding her hand, to make sure Isabella’s not there. When Troi checks the closet, Isabella materializes and zaps Troi with a ray-beam. Because that’s what malevolent aliens do.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

In sickbay, Troi describes Isabella to Picard, Crusher, and Sutter. Picard puts Worf on alert—and Worf recognizes the description of Isabella from their earlier encounter. Another glowy thing hits the ship, draining the shields. Several more show up as well to do the same.

Picard brings Clara, as well as Sutter and Worf, to the arboretum to summon Isabella. She doesn’t appear at first, and then Picard asks if she can only communicate by threatening a small child—at which point she appears. She explains that they’re looking for energy sources. Picard says they can provide energy in ways that won’t destroy the ship, but Isabella wants to destroy the ship because they’re so incredibly cruel.

Realizing that she’s only gotten to see humanity through the eyes of a child, Picard explains that the rules and regulations imposed upon children are for their protection because adults care for them so much. Isabella comes to understand, and calls off the glowy things. As a peace offering, Picard orders La Forge to beam some warp energy at the glowy things before leaving. Isabella apologizes to Clara for frightening her, and hopes they’ll meet again some day.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: It’s not entirely clear how channeling a warp field through the sensors would work, nor how you can turn a warp field into an energy beam as Picard orders at the end. Science!

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi’s attempts to wean Clara off of Isabella probably would work with an imaginary friend that a) is actually imaginary and b) can’t shoot ray beams out of her hands and make her eyes glow red.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: This episode has the first sign that Worf is starting to understand how to deal with kids, as he tells Clara and Isabella to return to their quarters when he finds them outside engineering, “and we will not speak of this.”

If I Only Had a Brain...: When Sutter and La Forge joke about what to name the nebula—the former suggests “Sutter’s Cloud,” while the latter thinks “the La Forge Nebula” has a majestic sound—Data stares at them both and says, “Given the selections, I prefer FGC 47.” Data also gets what may be the single funniest sentence in the entire season with the bunny rabbit line (see below).

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Ogawa talks to Crusher about a date she had, and he apparently wants to take her to Risa. She’s not ready for anything that decadent, so Crusher suggests a cruise.

Syntheholics Anonymous: Guinan proves as adept at handling children as she does adults, putting Clara at ease from jump.

In the Driver’s Seat: This is the final appearance of Ensign Felton, who gets to navigate malevolent energy strands in a nebula.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

I Believe I Said that: “First it was a fish, and now it’s a Mintonian sailing ship.”


“Right there! Don’t you see the two swirls coming together to form the mast?”

“I do not see it. It is interesting that people try to find meaningful patterns in things that are essentially random. I have noticed that the images they perceive sometimes suggest what they are thinking about at that particular moment. [pause] Besides, it is clearly a bunny rabbit.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

Guinan and Data having their version of the Peanuts cloud conversation where Charlie Brown thought he saw a duckie and a horsie.

Welcome Aboard: Both Jeff Allin and Noley Thornton make their first Trek appearances as the Sutter clan—Allin will return as Gedrin in Voyager’s “Dragon’s Teeth,” and Thornton will play Taya in Deep Space Nine’s “Shadowplay.” Shay Astar plays Isabella as pretty much emotionless, which sorta works. Recurring players Sheila Franklin, Patti Yasutake, Brian Bonsall, and Whoopi Goldberg round out the cast, and it’s worth noting that Bonsall is much more compelling when he isn’t forced to share the screen with Dorn.

Trivial Matters: This is the first mention that La Forge’s parents are Starfleet officers. His father’s an exobiologist, his mother a command officer—which tracks with what we see when we meet his parents in the seventh-season “Interface.”

Guinan was not part of the early drafts of the script and was only added in when Goldberg became available. The bunny rabbit scene in Ten-Forward was originally written for Crusher and Troi, then Guinan and Troi, before settling on Guinan and Data.

Ogawa’s date is not identified by name, though it could be Ensign Markson—Ogawa and Markson dating will be the subject of conversation between Picard and Crusher in “Attached.”

Ensign Sutter will appear again in the novel Star Trek: Klingon (the novelization of the video game of the same name) by Dean Wesley Smith & Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Thornton and Astar both continued to act throughout their childhoods—Thornton most notably as Erica McKay on Beverly Hills 90210, Astar as August Leffler on 3rd Rock from the Sun—with Thornton moving behind the camera on the production and directing side, and Astar having a career as a singer as they moved on to adulthood.

Make it So: “Good-bye, Isabella.” Yet another fifth-season episode focusing on a child, but this one isn’t anywhere near as painfully awful as “New Ground,” “Hero Worship,” or “Cost of Living.” Partly this is due to a delightful performance by Noley Thornton as Clara, who projects both intelligence, charm, and tremendous adorability.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Imaginary Friend

The script also has a lot of little touches. One of the things that Brannon Braga brought to TNG was adding to the community of the starship. Little touches abound, from Clara mentioning that she was helping Keiko in the arboretum, to Ogawa’s dishing with Crusher about her date, to Worf taking it easy on the little kids, to the nebula-naming scene, to Clara’s description of a purple omelette, to the absolutely delightful conversation between Data and Guinan about what they see in the nebula cloud. (Seriously, when Data declared that it was a bunny rabbit, I snarfed my coffee.)

Having said all that, being better than the other little-kid episodes that seem to litter the fifth season doesn’t actually make it good. Ultimately, it’s a tiresome technobabble story about yet another being of pure energy that threatens the ship, where the solution is for Picard to speechify at it, and do so poorly. Picard’s speeches are sometimes effective (“The Bonding,” e.g.), but this one was out of the same lame catalogue as “Justice.”


Warp factor rating: 4

Keith R.A. DeCandido wonders if the Enterprise ever scanned a nebula that was just, y’know, a nebula.

William Frank
1. scifantasy
little-kid episodes that seem to litter the fifth season

No pun intended, I'm sure...
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
I was never sure if the child actress who played Isabella was just a bad actress/creepy kid, or was being told to act that way since the entity wouldn't really know how to be a child. At any rate, it was not pleasant to watch (but I'm not sure it was supposed to be - she was creepy!).

Also, honestly, why on earth would Clara want to remain friends with her after the whole thing? I get that they are kids and maybe the point is that Isabella reacts with the same irrationality as a child would (you ignored me, so now you'll all die!), but in adult relationships that would just be kind of creepy and abusive.

The scene where Troi and Clara looked around her room kind of struck me as not-very-helpful because if I were Clara, I'd just be assuming that Isabella would reappear the moment Troi left anyway. No way would I go back in that room.

I also think the end might have been just a little more effective if Clara had been the one to explain that she loves the adults in her life, etc. Because seriously, what kid is going to listen to Picard's speech on rules and get it?

Overall...an average episode, but I liked the creepy factor.
3. DrMaturin
I had totally repressed how many really bad season five episodes there were. Maybe because I only remembered the gems scattered here and there. I think there's something to be said for the short seasons that original cable tv shows have. It's really hard to write 25 good scripts a year.
Alyssa Tuma
4. AlyssaT
I thought this episode made a similar mistake to “Cost of Living” (which I actually enjoyed more than most) in that it didn’t quite know what it was trying to be and it didn’t have the guts to just go full force in one direction. Was it more of a family episode that explored the difficulties of raising a child on a starship (as a single dad, no less!), not to mention the difficulties of being that child? Was it a story about Troi and her job? Was it a story about friendship, and how we connect with others? Was it a freaky-deaky red-eyed demon child “horror” ep? Was it a “ship in danger” plot? And while I usually really like those community-building touches, here I felt like it made all things seem even more crowded and schizophrenic (I liked the Worf moment because that seemed to fit in nicely with the larger plot, but why the heck do I care about Ogawa’s sexual hang-ups?). Not that every episode should pick only one box, or use only a few characters, but I hate it when they try and do 47 different things in roughly as many minutes and end up doing none of them all that effectively.

But once again I marvel at how UN-annoying the primary child actor was. Noley Thornton was terribly cute, but not cloying. And if you're a (not-so) closet 9-ner fan, you immediately geek out upon realization that it's Dylan McKay's little sister!!
Lee VanDyke
5. Cloric
My favorite part of this episode is the "slice of life" portion before the actual appearance of Isabella. Well, that and the discussion between Data and Guinan. Other than that it felt like a retread of several earlier episodes. Almost "The Child, Part Duex," but without the emotional tug.
6. StrongDreams
The more I read these re-watches, the more I come to think that the episodes ought to be ranked on a 3 point scale, Wow!, Ick, and Meh. This is a meh, for sure.
Jack Flynn
7. JackofMidworld
I've got a special place in my heart for shows that make an effort at continuity outside of the people they show during the opening credits , so I got a definite kick out of the little touches.
8. Indianatrekker26
a minor tidbit, Krad. Jeff Allin also appeared in the Star Trek Borg cdrom game, but as a different starfleet officer.
Joseph Newton
9. crzydroid
I also wondered whether creepy kid was being told to act that way...
I don't remember the character of August on 3rd Rock from the Son (oh wait...is that the girl that little Robin John Blake was always mackin' on?) but that must be what I know her from...I was trying so hard to think of why she looked so familiar to me.

But the girl doing Clara was awesome! I feel like it's rare to see a child actor like that...and she was cute and fun to watch too!

Also, I'm supposed to believe that Alexander had spent two weeks on that piece of crap cup?
10. Christopher L. Bennett
Nothing to add to the consensus, I guess -- some decent crew-community stuff, a mediocre danger plot, and Noley Thornton was utterly adorable and charming. She was my favorite child actor of that period, but I never saw her in anything beyond this, DS9, and a Quantum Leap episode she did. I'd wondered what happened to her. Too bad she ended up on 90210 instead of a show I would've been interested in.
F Shelley
11. FSS
Here's a question: who thinks Star Trek as a franchise could've/would've been better (and still on TV) if it had done fewer episodes per season (al a Doctor Who, that does 13 episodes a season plus a Christmas special)?

I'm a new Whovian, and even when watching all of the episodes on Netflix the first time through I could see that some episodes of that you could call "filler", and I skip over on re-watches.

I mean, I think there is a tendancy amoung fans to want each episode to be great (naturally), and when you have 20 something shows each year, is that too much to ask? If so, what's the answer? Slower pacing with more multi-episode arcs? Less episodes altogether so the writing and acting doesn't get diluted? What's the sweet spot on scifi and fantasy? Should there be only movies?

Thoughts, anyone?
Alyssa Tuma
12. AlyssaT
@11 - I guess it depends on how you define "filler."

If filler simply means standalone episodes, well, we all know that some of the best episodes in any scifi show are the standalone ones -- ones that don't really contribute to any greater development of the characters or the universe they live in. In some cases, these standalone episodes outshine those with a longer arc and purpose (erm, X-Files anyone?). The problem comes when a standalone/"monster of the week" ep is crap. Then it's really easy to bucket that as "filler" and wonder why in the hell it was even made.

The answer may be shorter seasons (which I've had good experiences with), but then I sometimes feel like you're left with NO standalone episodes and EVERYTHING becomes about the bigger story, and that can be a drag too.

Plus, and I know this is sort of selfish, but when I really fall in love with a show, sometimes I just want to spend TIME in that world. Lots and lots of time. Even if it's with Lwaxana and Alexander in a mud bath.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
13. Lisamarie
@4 - I would guess that it's mostly a freaky-deaky alien plot, who ends up putting the ship in danger.

The stuff with Clara and her family/Troi were an explanation as to why she had an imaginary friend that freaky-deaky alien could then impersonate (although I think that would also be an interesting theme to focus on more in depth).

I actually liked the slice of life bit even if it wasn't directly related to the plot. It's fun to see stuff like that.

I like the 3 pt scale idea :) Most of season 5 has been meh for me - which doesn't mean I was not entertained while watching them or disliked them or that they didn't provoke interesting thought/discussion, just that they didn't completely stand out for me. I actually enjoyed Cost of Living and Perfect Mate more than this one, I'd say, although this one wasn't bad.
14. Lsana

I was having similar thoughts. In my head, TNG started out poorly, but found it's footing towards the end of the third season, really hitting it's stride with BoBW, and then never looking back. Yeah, the writing staff was human, so there were the occasional stinkers mixed in, but for the most part, it was all awesome, all the time.

Yet it seems like the end of the fifth season has been a long stretch of blah. Even the best episodes are just above mediocre, while the worst can compete with Seasons 1 and 2.
15. jlpsquared
Yup, this one is one of the worst of the worst. The only thing I remotely like about this episode is the creepy setting was turned up a notch or 2.

I actually think this one would have been better if it was in season 1. At least they would have went all out bad. As AllysaT (#4) said, they were trying to do way to many things here, and none of them effectively.

@11, I completely agree. BSG had 13-20 episodes a season, and it certainly had stinkers, but far fewer.

@14, I personally think TNG found its stride is season 2, ran at full strength for 3 and 4, and really started a slow swan song early in season 5. I am not sure if the bad music is partly responesable for my feelings. And I know I love season 2 more than most fans here, but I think alot of people just didn't like the early uniforms and Dr. Polasky. I think if they got the season 3 uniforms in 2, everyone would likely agree with me. Seaso5-7 had a couple gems, but for the most part I think the actors starting acting like the actors instead of the characters. For example watch troi from season 2 versus season 7 or the movies. In season 2 she is counselor Deanna Troi, in season 7 she is Marina Sirtis in a spacey uniform.

anyways, i find that the only ones I will actually re-watch are season 1-4.
16. StrongDreams
Unfortunately, US television is still mostly stuck in the "full season" model, where profitability comes from having 100 episodes to package for daily syndication. BBC productions like Dr. Who and Sherlock are, I think, largely supported by tax revenue so the economic pressures are, not eliminated, but completely different in nature.

I think a lot of US shows suffer from creative fatigue, not just genre shows. Writers and producers who have to crank out 24 episodes whether they are good or not, actors who have to work 6 days a week for 10 months straight, etc. Obviously a lot of good television can come from shows designed as limited runs. (Was the first intentional limited run show King's Golden Years? Which suffered because it was cut off a couple episodes early, as I recall.) And there are a few limited-run US shows, but it seems hard to make the economics work. It would be great if producers could figure out how to make the economics work more often than they do now.
Jack Flynn
17. JackofMidworld
AlyyssaT - totally get what you're saying there at the end. Whether it's watching Lwaxana in a mudbath or Teal'c try to move into an apartment or Buffy trying to get a job at the DoubleMeat Palace, it's all good when you're with the one you love :)

StrongDreams is right, too. The last Torchwood may not have been the best example (because it was so Americanized, he asks, eyes narrowed) but Children of Earth totally blew me away and sucked me into the Whoniverse in five episodes.
Alyssa Tuma
18. AlyssaT
@17 - Hah! I just started watching Buffy for the first time a few weeks ago and that is a PERFECT example! I was so thrilled to see that I have big chunk of episodes to work through.
Jack Flynn
19. JackofMidworld
@ AlyssaT - not to cross-pollinate or anything, but A. M. Dellamonica's doing a BtVS rewatch here:


If you're early in the show, be careful of spoilers but I get a real kick out reading those, too (no offense, KRad ;-)
Alyssa Tuma
20. AlyssaT
@19 Jack - I've read a few of the other rewatch threads on Tor. They are good, but I fear Keith's write-ups have seriously spoiled us -- none are as witty, informative, or addictive as this TNG rewatch.

But the Buffy one seems to have similar level of cleverness! Thanks for the tip! Uh-oh... Looks like I've got another show to "formally" follow :)
21. Electone
Definitely on my top 10 list of worst TNG episodes ever. UGH...
22. Bob A
Didn't Shay Astar play Tommy Solomon's girlfriend August in "Third Rock From The Sun"? She was pretty one-dimensional in that show too. Wretched is too kind for this episode. I like "Spocks Brain" better than this festering pile .... at least the former is fun to ridicule.
Dante Hopkins
24. DanteHopkins
Don't know what the problem is. Maybe its watching these episodes through some weird critics/writers lens, maybe. But I really liked this episode, probably for all the continuity touches (and Data's delightful conversation with Guinan about the nebula) that krad mentioned. I also liked "New Ground," "Hero Worship," and "Cost of Living." I can't bring myself to be as overly critical as the rest of you, and I enjoy these episodes on their own. Noley Thornton's performance made the episode a gem, and a trip into a nebula is always fun....unless your on the U.S.S. Enterprise-D that is, and then said nebula will most likely always try to kill you. I'd give this one a solid 6.
25. JohnC
I didn't think the episode was all that bad, and as a parent I was quite taken with Picard's speech. I don't much care for "cute kid" episodes generally but this was well-acted...

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