Written by Hilary J. Bader, Alan J. Adler, and Vanessa Greene
Directed by Chip Chalmers
Season 4, Episode 10
Production episode 40274-184
Original air date: December 31, 1990
Captain’s Log: Troi is having a session with Ensign Janet Brooks, who lost her husband to an accident. It would have been her husband’s birthday, and she woke up that morning wanting to hold something that belonged to him—but she had gotten rid of everything of his after the funeral. Troi then walks over to a closet and pulls out a music box, which she had held behind for when Brooks would need it.
When the session ends, Troi starts getting wonky, eventually passing out at the exact same time that the Enterprise encounters weird sensor echoes. They come to a full stop and check it out, but there is no reoccurrence of it. So Picard orders them to go to warp, at which point the ship lurches—according to La Forge, the warp field collapsed. Meanwhile, Allenby reports that the ship is moving despite being at all stop, being pulled along at sublight speeds. All attempts to move fail, even though the engines are fine. There’s no indication of a tractor beam, sensor readings are indeterminate, and they have no idea what’s going on. To make matters worse, Troi’s empathic abilities have simply stopped. She can’t sense anything. Crusher finds some minor brain damage, and will try to figure out what’s going on.
Riker goes to see Troi, and she’s startled by the door chime ringing, since she didn’t sense anyone coming, and she immediately goes on the defensive when all Riker wants to do is help.
Troi sees Brooks again, who says she feels like a new woman after spending all night having a good cry. She finally has accepted the loss of her husband. Troi cautions that one night of crying can’t make up for months of denial, but Brooks insists that Troi is wrong and that she’s fine now, really.
Data and La Forge launch a probe, which takes a while to find anything—but then when Data searches for virtual particle trajectories, they find the Enterprise surrounded by a huge field of tiny objects. Scans reveal that they are beings that are only in two dimensions. They couldn’t see the beings clearly because they can only be observed straight on—on edge, they become invisible.
Speaking of being on edge, Troi snaps at La Forge when he comments that they can’t tell if the beings are sentient, and then walks out of the meeting before being dismissed. She runs to sickbay, where Crusher says that she hasn’t figured out a way to cure her, and Troi tears her a new one. She realizes that she can’t do her job, indeed, can barely function. She offers Picard her resignation as ship’s counselor. Picard resists—empathic abilities aren’t exactly a requirement for the position of counselor—but she insists, self-righteously snapping at him, too.
The Enterprise tries to break free of the 2D beings and fails, but Data detected an odd movement in response to their attempt, which Picard theorizes might be an attempt at communication. Unfortunately, they are being caught in the gravitational field of a cosmic string fragment, which makes their situation far more urgent.
They try firing photon torpedoes in the 2D beings’ path to try to get them to alter course, and when that fails, they fire into the field—which also fails.
As Troi is packing up her office, Brooks comes in and informs Troi that she was completely right about her, that her night of crying was just a band-aid on a bullet wound. Picard then calls her into his ready room—they only have five hours before they collide with the cosmic string fragment, and he has to insist that Troi help Data try to communicate with the 2D beings. Even crippled as she is, she’s the most qualified person on the ship to figure out how to communicate with the beings. (A thousand people on a ship whose mission is to seek out new life, and they don’t have any linguists? Really?)
Troi suggests trying to figure out what their instincts are, what stimulus they would respond to. She hypothesizes that they’re heading to the string for the same reason that a moth goes for a flame or a horse runs into a burning building. Data suggests they use the Enterprise to impersonate the cosmic string fragment by matching the vibration of the string.
That works, the Enterprise pulls free, and Troi gets her groove back. With the return of her empathy comes answers: the beings live in the cosmic string, and they were just going home.
Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: While cosmic strings are hypothetical, the use of them here matches with current scientific theory about them, a refreshing use of real science—though the stuff about 2D beings, graviton fields, warp fields, subspace vibrations, and other nonsense are as made-up as ever.
Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi makes the world’s worst patient, basically being mean to everyone. Without her empathy, she sees only surfaces with no depth—it’s as if she’s stuck on the holodeck with all fictional characters.
If I Only Had a Brain…: Data provides an ETA down to the minute, prompting Riker to playfully ask, “What, no seconds?” Data explains that he has observed impatience among those to whom he speaks when he provides intervals down to the second, a behavioral adjustment never managed by, say, Spock….
Syntheholics Anonymous: Guinan tells Troi that she’s going to apply for the position of ship’s counselor by way of getting Troi to realize that she is perfectly capable of being counselor without empathy.
No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Riker tries to help Troi, and only partly succeeds. When he hugs her, she asks if this is how he solves all his personnel problems. Riker smiles, and says, “You’d be surprised how far a hug goes with Geordi—or Worf!”
In the Driver’s Seat: Ensign Allenby returns after last week. Given that her position as pilot of a starship requires her to be aware of cosmic phenomena that she might have to navigate around, it makes no sense, none, that she wouldn’t know what a cosmic string was. That’s a spectacular failure of writing, right there. The person at conn is the last person who would stupidly ask, “Cosmic string?”
I Believe I Said That: “Therapists are always the worst patients—except for doctors, of course.”
Crusher speaking truth to Troi once she’s better.
Welcome Aboard: Kim Braden is adequate as Patient Who Is Needed To Move Troi’s Character Arc Along, and Mary Kohnert does okay with her lines as the conn officer of the week.
Trivial Matters: This is the first writing credit for Hilary J. Bader, who would go on to an impressive writing career, contributing to TNG as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager. She would also write the videogames Star Trek: Klingon and Star Trek: Borg, composing the Klingon Anthem for the former (which would later be used on screen in the DS9 episode “Soldiers of the Empire”). She went on to write for a variety of genre shows in both live action and animation—Xena: Warrior Princess, Young Hercules, Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and The Zeta Project—until her death in 2002 of breast cancer.
Bader named the T’illi Beta system after her grandmother Tillie Bader.
This episode is the first mention of the Breen, identified by Data as a species that can’t be sensed empathically (along with the Ferengi, who were formally established as such in “Ménage à Troi“). They will be mentioned several other times on TNG (most notably in “Hero Worship”), and first appear on DS9‘s “Indiscretion.” They become a recurring antagonist during the Dominion War arc on DS9.
Allenby also appears in your humble rewatcher’s Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook novella Many Splendors (reprinted in What’s Past), where it’s established that she resented Wesley Crusher for blocking her ability to advance on the Enterprise.
Make it So: “We have to get two-dimensional.” After a run of episodes that all have family as their central theme (to varying degrees), we get a straight-up science fiction story that theoretically allows for some character development.
Michael Piller said in an interview that they considered making Troi’s loss of empathy permanent, and if that had been done, this episode would’ve meant something. Without it, it just turns into another tiresome problem-of-the-week episode.
Ideally, it would mean a chance to play with Troi’s character a bit, but mostly all it does is give Marina Sirtis an opportunity to be bitchy. And even that gets oversold. Every single scene Troi is in turns into a game of “who will she snap at this time?” The only scenes of that type that work are her ripping into Crusher for not being there right away when she called and her pointed deflections of Picard’s patronizing attempts to be helpful. (Marina Sirtis got a lot of kudos from people with disabilities after this episode aired.) But it gets very tiresome very quickly, and there’s nothing else in the episode to pick up the slack, as the 2D beings aren’t all that interesting once you get past that they’re 2D.
(After this episode aired, folks who were not especially fond of TNG commented that this crew should have no trouble relating to beings who were two-dimensional…)
It is good to see Troi actually being a counselor with Ensign Brooks. That subplot is bog-standard, but it works for all that because it feels real. Brooks’s stages of grief are textbook, but they’re in the book for a reason. (Honestly, with a thousand people on board, it’s far more likely that Troi’s entire day would be spent sitting in that office talking to folks than it would sitting uselessly next to Picard on the bridge.)
And then at the end, the switch is thrown, Troi has her superpowers back, and everything back to normal, leaving us with an episode that feels depressingly inconsequential.
Warp factor rating: 5
Keith R.A. DeCandido wrote Troi being bitchy in his novel A Time for War, a Time for Peace, while she was planning her and Riker’s wedding, one of his many many many many works of Star Trek fiction. Go to his web site for all kinds of KRADish goodness.