Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “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 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 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 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 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 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 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.


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