“Sub Rosa” (Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 7, Episode 14)
The Next Generation lasted seven seasons—the first Trek series to do so, and a tradition that would persist with Deep Space Nine and Voyager (until Enterprise was cancelled after four
five seasons). Seasons 3-5 represented the show at its apex with engaging plots, compelling ideas, and tight writing. But by its final season, the show seemed unfortunately well past its prime. The Star Trek Generations film was released shortly after the show ended, and the feature was well into production during the seventh season, which could partially explain the generally lackluster quality of the episodes. The creative minds just seemed to be elsewhere. Additionally, I think the episodic, unserialized nature of the show—once an advantage—had at this point seemed to become a detriment. Without an overarching narrative structure or long-running plot threads, the focus and energy of the show seemed to sag as the crew’s weekly adventures came with diminishing returns. There aren’t many bad episodes, just a lot of boring and listless ones.
To its credit, this episode is definitely not boring or unmemorable. I’ll take something that’s balls-to-the-wall insane and bad over mediocre and workmanlike any day of the week. And “Sub Rosa” definitely delivers in that department.
One of the great things about science fiction is that its nature opens up a universe of possibilities. With the right basic setting and concept, you can pretty much do any kind of story you want. But on the flip side, there is a danger of steering too far away from the property’s core in service of a story that doesn’t fit at all, which is one of the primary sins of this episode.
Basically, someone reeeaaallly wanted to do a Scottish gothic ghost romance horror story (is… that a popular niche genre?). And/or someone already had one written and just shoehorned our intrepid Starfleet heroes into it. The episode goes to some head-scratching lengths to set the table for that – we’re on an offworld colony that was built as a loving tribute to Scotland. OK… In the wake of a family death, our heroine (Beverly Crusher) has very vivid, lustful dreams about a mysterious male presence. Right… He appears to her as a dashing 19th century-styled man, revealing he’s loved every woman in her family lineage for centuries. I see… And he lives in a candle. Naturally! Cue thunder and lightning, an old creaky house, and… oh, there’s even a kooky old guy with a dire warning who gets killed!
Like… what, what, and WHAT?
I would applaud the show for going so far out of its comfort zone, but it’s such a bizarrely specific story that doesn’t jibe with anything about TNG at all. For all its strengths, the show is pretty sterile and sexless, so this story of deranged, unstable passion is very incongruous, and not done well. The sci-fi trappings end up making the story more weird and ridiculous than if it were a straightforwardly supernatural tale of mysterious passion and sexy, dangerous romance.
We’ve seen Crusher in a romance story before in a much better episode (“The Host”) where she was in love with the Trill ambassador Odan. The romance in that story was initially pretty normal, grounded stuff, and the plot throws in a sci-fi complication (he’s not literally the man she thinks she loves) that provides an interesting rumination on the nature of attraction—why do we love the people we love? If you completely remove the physical form of the person, how does that love still function? Can you love what’s basically a brain in a jar? Or that brain in one of our colleagues?
In that episode’s case, there was some deeper, philosophical theme that made the story work. But in this one, it’s a lot of goofy mind/body control stuff that really doesn’t mean anything, character-wise. Beverly doesn’t really love this guy (because he’s not even a guy at first, just an unseen presence) and he’s manipulating her biology like some sort of sci-fi ghost/vampire for his own needs. It’s… problematic, to say the least. Especially as the cultural conversation around consent, power dynamics, grooming, and bluebearding has increased in recent years. Ronin is a criminal creepster that not only preys on Beverly, but has done so to countless women in her family for generations. The scale of this is horrific (and strains credibility, frankly), and the depth of it is not something the episode is that invested in dealing with. Crusher comes to her senses and kills him, so… mission accomplished?
There’s a lot of weird and uncomfortable elements along the way that one could spend pages dissecting and roasting (—The Avocado). McFadden does decently with what she’s given, I suppose. It’s a bonkers story, and she acts bonkers, so… Her performance at times potently suggests the withdrawal of a drug addict when Ronin is away from her. When she abruptly quits Starfleet to live in her nana’s house, Picard pleads with her for some sort of explanation, but is unable to compel one from her. Anyone who has ever lost someone to an abuser or had to watch a friend/family member endure the mistreatment of one knows the gut-wrenching feeling of being powerless to stop it. Picard is Crusher’s closest friend and he knows something is wrong, but initially can only stand idly by as she makes her life choices.
Through his physical/mental manipulation, Ronin isolates Beverly from her support network (and her entire life and career), which is a classic abuser move. Picard swoops in and is able to spook him away and set into motion the events that lead to his defeat and death. Overall, it’s some very dark and real stuff that’s dealt with a little too briskly by the plot.
I guess I’ll take back what I said about the episode not being about anything greater—it suggests some very heavy shit that a lot of women (and men) unfortunately go through. But rather than aiding the story, I think the science fiction details rob it of its power, and the execution is too hammy and operatic to take seriously. And again, a disturbing tale of generational spousal abuse, domination, and isolation is so far beyond what The Next Generation typically deals with. It’s just awkward. But it’s definitely something to behold.
The conclusion unfortunately erases and glosses over the horror of Ronin’s actions. It essentially ends with a shrug as Beverly muses that despite what he did, he made her nana very happy. It’s such a glib and borderline offensive parting thought – no abuser is 100% awful all the time, of course. That’s what makes them such complicated and painful situations. This anaphasic gaslighter may have given his victims the greatest ecstasy they have ever known, but the price was their lives and grip on reality.
- Duncan Regehr would of course go on to play the leader of Kira’s resistance cell Shakaar on Deep Space Nine. He’s actually all right in this episode as a hammy creep, and much better as Shakaar, although that character gets unfortunately wasted pretty quickly.
- Ronin being Nana’s constant companion, but no one in the colony having heard of him except Ned is weird. He freely walks around at the funeral, after all. Ned seems like a pretty determined and aggressive guy (classic Ned!), why hasn’t this come up sooner? I’m sure his meddling would have been quite tiresome, so why didn’t Ronin take him out years ago? Given the chaotic and disruptive effect it has on Beverly, I’m surprised none of Nana’s friends or neighbors noticed?
- I’m no geneticist or family tree-itician, but if Ronin’s scheme is a matter of DNA compatibility, the plot is total B.S. from a scientific standpoint. There’s no way they could all be so genetically similar throughout the generations. Unless the requirements are so broad it could be anyone and Ronin is just B.S.-ing her. Which I wouldn’t put past him. And what if there weren’t any female descendants?
- The plot is pretty heteronormative in that this noncorporeal lifeform only likes tha ladies. If it’s a matter of DNA, the men in Beverly’s family should have been just as decent matches.
- OK, that part with Nana’s corpse? Holy shit. I love Data and Geordi’s nonplussed reactions when she rises from her coffin. Data doesn’t have emotions (at this point) of course, but La Forge is just, “Huh, lookit that. Ouch!”
- And speaking of—reanimating her dead grandmother’s corpse, Ronin? Class act move, buddy. I am SHOCKED that didn’t win her over. Honestly, what was the game plan there?
- The candle thing is dumb. Again, the sci-fi nature of the show makes it sillier than if it was a straight up ghost story. Why this candle? Where’d he get it? Why can’t he make another?
- **WARNING: ACTUAL LINE OF DIALOGUE FROM EPISODE***
“When she died I stayed with her daughter. And her daughter. And on down through the years. Generation after generation.”