You Jingle Trek to Me? – “Family”

Star Trek: The Next GenerationSeason 4, Episode 2

“The holidays” are largely synonymous with “awkward family encounters.” Familial relationships can be fraught with difficulty for any number of reasons, ranging from simple social discomfort to deep pain stretching back for many years. Star Trek does not spend a lot of time emphasizing traditional family relations – try to count how many Trek characters have two living parents! – but “Family” manages to give us several diverse and startlingly intimate portraits of its characters’ uncomfortable relationships with their own families.

The “Best of Both Worlds” two-part cliffhanger that linked Seasons 3 and 4 was a landmark achievement in Trek, a dramatic and cinematic adventure that kept its fans on the edges of their seats (and began a franchise tradition of season finale climaxes). Following up that action-packed thrill ride with a low key story of family drama is genius – there was no way to top the outing with the Borg that almost saw the ending of humanity, so going in the exact opposite direction was the right move. This is also a thing that Star Trek has wisely done several times since – after the epic “Way of the Warrior,” Deep Space Nine followed with Trek’s best and most emotional episode “The Visitor.” And after the even more epic six-parter that opened Season 6, DS9 centered itself with Worf and Dax’s lighthearted wedding.

“Sir, the station commander wanted us to know that she has us now my pretties, and can’t wait to eat us. Yes, I double-checked and she did say that she does want to consume and digest us like food.”

It’s a logical decision in the context of a TV show, but in-universe it also makes a great deal of sense. The Borg assimilated Picard, ravaged Starfleet in a horrifying massacre, almost conquered Earth, and nearly destroyed the Enterprise in the process. You don’t just immediately jump back into business as usual after all of that. “Family” sees healing in a number of ways – most outwardly and literally as the Enterprise is docked at Earth Station McKinley for the significant repairs it requires. The intriguing design of the station borders on creepy with its spider-like armature that grips the vessel – but it’s also interestingly nurturing and protective from a visual perspective. The Enterprise-D and its crew have just been through some serious shit, and the ship is essentially wearing a gigantic back brace as it recovers from its injuries. With nothing to do and nowhere to warp off to (notably, there are no scenes on the bridge at all here), the episode looks within for its dramatic meat. Deep Space Nine would take this idea and expand upon it in marvelous ways, and “Family” shows how much can happen if you stay in one place. It also reflects the nature of the holidays, where you’re stuck visiting somewhere or entertaining visitors. There’s no escape!

The episode has three storylines and they’re all great in their own way. Picard decides to return to his family’s home in France, Worf receives his adoptive Russian parents as visitors aboard the ship, and Wesley struggles with a message from his deceased father. The Next Generation has featured both visiting family members and familial angst several times with varying degrees of success/silliness. But “Family” is an impressively thoughtful and mature look at its’ characters familial awkwardness.

“Nice to see you too, Brozo the Clown.”

Picard packs for his trip when he receives an intrusive visit from Troi. She seems almost critical of his decision to return to his home (the first time in 20 years for him), and it reflects the general awkwardness of Troi’s character. Picard mentions how invaluable her assistance has been in his recovery from being assimilated, but her stance here is more meddling than helpful. It’s kind of a sour spot in an otherwise impeccable episode, and we can just chalk it up to the writers’ general clumsiness with her character and the topic of mental health work. Anyway.

On Earth, Picard walks to his home and the natural, non-futuristic surroundings set the tone for the storyline and inform some of its themes. Picard’s family of course has a long tradition of winemaking and their home is a vast vineyard. As we learn, Jean-Luc always had his sights set on the future and space while his brother followed his father’s lead and stubbornly clung to the traditions of the past. It’s an interesting dichotomy and gives some color and interest to humanity of the 24th century setting. It makes sense that even in the future utopia of Star Trek, there would still be Luddites who have little interest in the modern ways (like kooky cultists who maroon their followers on alien planets). The difficult relationship Jean-Luc has to his brother Robert is an archetype Trek has mined several other times, notably with Data’s and Worf’s respective siblings. It adds a twinge of tragedy to Jean-Luc that though he went after his dreams and excelled at his calling, it came at the expense of his family and a loving, traditional life.

“Guess I’ll catch ya later, Teddy Bro-osevelt.”

Jean-Luc doesn’t really feel at home in his home, and there’s an immediate awkwardness that fills the air as he approaches. He encounters his nephew Rene (who mistakes Jean-Luc for his nephew for some reason) who seems friendly enough. As well as Robert’s wife Marie, who welcomes Jean-Luc with open arms. Jean-Luc immediately backpedals and offers to stay elsewhere so as not to put them out – he’s nervous and even a little scared of being there. Which makes sense, once he meets his icy brother Robert (“Welcome home, captain,” he says mockingly). The tension is palpable and Jean-Luc’s well-meaning demeanor is not returned one bit by his sibling, who simply tells him what time dinner is and excuses himself to tend to the vines. Yikes!

The awkwardness deepens that evening at a tense family dinner. One of Jean-Luc’s old friends Louis wants to get in touch with him, who is working on creating an Atlantis sub-continent on Earth. It’s a fascinating world-building detail (literally) that gets tossed out, but it only highlights the diametrically opposed mindsets of Jean-Luc and Robert – our captain is of course intrigued by the possibility of exploring new land on Earth, but his brother is immediately dismissive of it – why does the Earth need another subcontinent? Robert drips with contempt and jealousy throughout the dinner, exacerbated when Marie mentions that the mayor of their town wants to honor Jean-Luc with a parade and give him the keys to the city. Jean-Luc is of course horrified by the notion (and the attention from) such an ordeal. They have a toast, and Jean-Luc tries to identify the vintage of the wine. He’s a year off, and Robert of course lets him know and gets in a dig that his palate has been ruined from drinking that dreaded “synthehol” crap. Again, I love these little bits of world-building details that are woven into the character beats and are in service of the drama. There’s something lived-in and believable about it all.

“Damn, this is the good stuff, Francis Ford Broppola.”

Jean-Luc uses all of his diplomatic skills to no avail here, claiming that synthehol only heightens one’s appreciation for the real thing. He compliments the food (cooked by hand by Marie), and Robert can’t help but again insult Jean-Luc by ranting about how replicators are ruining the art of cooking. In another nice detail (and not taking the bait), Jean-Luc recalls their parents having an argument over getting a replicator in their youth (similar to the resistance to microwave ovens IRL way back when), and says he doesn’t understand why a minor convenience is such a bad thing.

Rene interrupts to mention that he wrote a report on starships and won an award for it. Jean-Luc replies that he also wrote one as a child. Rene asks if he won a ribbon for it too, and Jean-Luc claims to not remember. Robert replies that of course he did, he always did. When Rene leaves the table, Robert chides his brother for encouraging his interests in all this new-fangled shit, and an exhausted Jean-Luc accuses him of being close-minded and trying to stifle his growth. It’s all marvelously written and acted. Family drama in entertainment can be so operatic and over-the-top, but the dinner scene nails the more realistically subdued nature of that angst. During the holidays many people find themselves seated at tables with people they can’t agree with on the the most basic things, and Jean-Luc and Robert’s tension illustrates that perfectly.

Meanwhile, Worf’s adoptive parents beam aboard the Enterprise. They’re both super gregarious and friendly Russians, which is absolutely delightful. Worf is of course crawling out of his skin with embarrassment, which is also absolutely delightful. The storyline is generally more lighthearted than Picard’s but not in a cloying or tedious way, which is remarkable given Trek’s spotty track record with comedy. Sergey and Helena Rozhenko are very likable people so Worf’s discomfort is inherently funny. They can’t help but immediately embarrass him by commenting on his weight gain (but it looks good!), and Sergey goes maximum dorky dad when he mentions his old posting on the USS Intrepid and geeks out over the top of the line Galaxy-class ship Worf serves on (“I have all the specs and diagrams at home!”). Michael Dorn is great here and modulates his regular stone-faced performance with more softness and emotion than we normally see. Having his parents around pushes him out of his comfort zone and Dorn emotes every inch of that to great effect.

During a tour of Engineering with La Forge, Sergey recounts when their seven-year-old Klingon son beat up several teenagers at school, which Geordi finds hilarious. Helena stops Sergey from telling another embarrassing story and leaves with Worf as Sergey continues the tour. He stops Geordi for a second to ask him something about his son with concern in his eyes.

Later in Ten Forward, they both gush to Worf about how much the crew thinks of him. A mortified Worf tells them he wishes they were more reserved, but they can’t help it – they’re proud of their boy! Parents, amiright? Worf is called away, and his parents get into an emotional talk about how worried they are for him. Guinan slides in and has a nice talk with them about Worf (she’s a much better counselor than Troi). She asks them why they never gave him prune juice, which is his favorite drink now (a callback to “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). They laugh and reply that growing up, all he wanted was Klingon food; Helena learned to cook rokeg blood pie really well as a result. Guinan lauds them for what they’ve done as parents. They talk about how they tried to be supportive of his exploration of his heritage, but also hands-off enough to allow him to do it on its own. They both seem like awesome parents, and Guinan remarks that when Worf looks out the window, he’s looking towards them, not the Klingon Empire.

“Yeah, he really digs the prunes. He says they just clean him right out, and then goes on to describe it in detail all the time. I now long for death every single day.”

It’s a wonderful scene, with some heartfelt ideas and elegant writing. I’ve said before that I think of all the TNG characters, Worf’s backstory is potentially the most interesting and the clues we get here are great. Helena would appear once more, but it seems a shame that this episode is basically all we spend with them and the biggest window we get into Worf’s childhood. He’s normally such a gruff stick-in-the-mud (especially so on Deep Space Nine), and his parents soften and humanize his character so much.

Jean-Luc catches up with Louis and after some friendly banter, Louis sees how much interest Picard has in their project and how great a leader he would be for it. Picard hesitantly agrees to a meeting with the directors. Later, Marie sees Jean-Luc staring off into space, and he admits that he is actually considering taking the job. Switching subjects, he thanks her for her letters over the years and for making him feel like part of the family. She incredulously replies that he’s not “like” part of the family, he is part of the family. There’s something really sad and lonely about Jean-Luc not feeling like he’s in his own family, but it’s an experience a lot of people who leave home (and visit only occasionally) have.

Louis arrives and excitedly tells Picard that the Atlantis people want him to lead their project based on his name alone. Picard is taken aback since that’s not what he wanted (?), but hesitantly agrees to meet with them. Robert later underlines the stark symbolism of Jean-Luc running from his trauma in Starfleet with the Borg and plunging into the depths of the ocean. It’s consistent with Jean-Luc’s wide range of interests and the potential career paths he could have taken (such as archaeology). He’s reeling from his Borg experience, so much so that he’s considering taking another job and leaving Starfleet entirely.

Later Jean-Luc broods over a glass of wine as Robert enters, and he again chides his younger brother over the dreaded synthehol stuff – it doesn’t leave one out of control, “but this will,” he notes as he pours himself some. He expresses some reserved curiosity about the horrors Jean-Luc recently endured, who doesn’t seem very forthcoming in talking about them. Robert continues to needle Jean-Luc until he storms out. A step behind him, Robert continues to pester him with his bitter grievances, admitting he was always jealous of his over-achieving younger brother. It’s a common dynamic of having to be the more responsible older child, watching a younger sibling enjoy the privileges you didn’t get. The story’s efficiency in painting a portrait of the family and its internal dynamics is very well done, and the actors flesh it out so well. Robert’s been a huge prick throughout the episode, but I can also imagine how irritating it would be to be Jean-Luc’s overlooked brother. How could you possibly measure up to this guy? Always getting the best grades and winning awards, exceeding in sports, top diplomat commanding the Federation flagship. It seems like it would be maddening to live in that shadow.

“I was always so jealous of you, Brofessor X!”

Robert pushes and pushes until Jean-Luc decks him, and the two have a brief tussle in the mud of the vineyard. The anger and rage immediately melt into silliness as the two start laughing about their immature wrestling. Robert admits that he goaded Jean-Luc so that he would release his pent-up rage, and there’s something oddly sweet about that. Indeed, Jean-Luc’s character has always been such a controlled and disciplined man, never wavering in his duty or responsibility. Robert knows him well enough to see that keeping everything tightly controlled is poisoning him and forces him to unbottle it. “You’ve been terribly hard on yourself, Jean-Luc” he says sympathetically.

Jean-Luc finally breaks down. Stewart has given some incredible performances throughout TNG, but I think this is his best one, it just kills me how good he is here in conveying all the sadness, anger, and self-hatred poisoning him. He weeps in anguish from his wounds of the Borg’s assault and it’s so painful to watch, mainly because he blames himself. “They took everything I was. They used me to kill and to destroy, and I couldn’t stop them!” he sobs. “I should have been able to stop them, but I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t good enough!” He doesn’t even seem mad at the Borg, just himself. A lifetime of victories, achievements, beating the odds, and rising to the challenge have come crashing down because he finally met a force that completely overpowered him and cast aside all his resources and strengths from within. The powerlessness that the Borg inflicted on him has shaken him to his core – as any assault does. Jean-Luc has always tried to be perfect but that bubble has been traumatically punctured and with such horrifying results that have hurt so many. It’s impossible to imagine, but Stewart emotes every bit of that agony. There’s something almost childlike about his outburst of primal, unfettered emotion, and the fact that he sits in a pile of mud visually and thematically communicates this rock bottom moment.

Robert listens and offers some older brother tough love – this pain is always going to be with him, whether he hides under the ocean or continues aboard the Enterprise. Either way, he’s going to have to live with it. It’s about as warm and fuzzy a moment as these two bitter and emotionally distant brothers are capable of, but they both seem better off from the catharsis and help each other up. As much as Troi has been helping Jean-Luc with his recovery, there was still some pent-up pain that needed to be released, and it seems that Robert was the one to help him with it. It doesn’t make anything magically better, but it at least puts Jean-Luc onto a better path of accepting it and moving forward.

Marie discovers a muddy trail of footprints in their house leading to the two brothers drunkenly singing. It’s a genuinely funny moment as they clumsily try to deny the embarrassment of what’s happened. “Have you two been fighting?” she asks in bemused shock. She at least seems glad that they finally got it out of their systems, and indeed Jean-Luc has decided that it’s time for him to be getting a move on back to his ship.

“Don’t look at me, Na-bro-leon Bro-naparte. You’re on your bro-own.”

Worf meets with his parents in his quarters, and his Klingon sash is notably absent from his chest – a nice detail. He admits that he wasn’t happy when he first heard they were visiting, but says that he’s glad they’re here. They’ve been worried about him ever since they heard about his discommendation from the Klingon Empire (even though they don’t quite understand it). Worf is insistent that he bear the burden alone, but they tell him he’s wrong. No matter what, he’s their son and they love him. It’s a lovely scene and is a sadly brief window into a softer side of Worf.

The third subplot concerning Wesley is the briefest of the episode but equally memorable. Wesley of course has the ignominious honor of being a Fan Least Favorite, a sentiment I never really shared. Truth be told (and feel free to judge me for this), but I always identified with him for various reasons. Not the least of which is because I lost my dad at a young age, and there was something all too real about the dynamic between the surviving Crushers. There’s an unspoken sadness that’s always there, something McFadden and Wheaton always captured so well in their scenes together.

“It’s your dad’s mixtape. He wanted you to have it when you were 18. Boston, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, REO Speedwagon. They’re all there, on one 2-hour isolinear cassette.”

In receiving some stuff from storage, Beverly discovers a message her late husband Jack recorded not long after Wesley was born. He intended to record several more, but died before he got the chance. My own dad left behind many photos and recordings of his own, and there’s something surreal about having those still-living pieces to listen to or watch.

Wesley plays the message in the holodeck and his dad stands before him speaking. The writing is great here, and there’s a lot of unintentional tragedy in Jack’s words. He says that the person he is won’t be around when Wesley is an adult, and what’s intended as metaphor would end up being sadly literal. Likewise, he apologizes for any mistakes he will make and not being around as much as he wants to. Oof. Wheaton only has one line during the scene, but he’s great throughout and communicates Wesley’s sadness and longing as he watches. Jack expresses his almost indescribable duty to Starfleet and wonders if his son will want to go that route as Wesley smiles at his own uniform. He tells his son he’s a part of him and that there will always be a connection between them. He apologizes for babbling and promises to do better next time. Those final words hit like a ton of bricks, and Wesley reflexively reaches out to his dad as the message ends and fades away. It’s really, really rough for me given my own life experience, and of all the storylines here it’s by far the most relatable. The pain of a lost parent is such a specific one, especially when they are taken long before their time like mine or Wesley’s. There’s so much you’ll never get to say or hear, and it’s a hole in your life that never quite goes away.

Whew. It’s dusty in here.

Wearing his uniform again, Jean-Luc bids adieu to his family. Rene is adamant that he’ll be leaving on his own starship someday (um). Robert gives him a bottle of wine, and implores him not to drink it alone. They embrace, and the look on Robert’s face always gets me.

Arriving on the Enterprise again, Picard briefly runs into Worf as he escorts his parents off the ship. His dad manages to be embarrassing one more time as the doors close on him. LOL. Picard can’t help but smile.

“I hev all the poopy bebe photos at hoem!”

As night falls on Chateu Picard, Rene sits staring at the night sky. Having softened on his outlook, Robert allows him to dream of worlds beyond their little home. It’s a nice final stamp on Robert, who seems to have made peace with not only his brother, but the forward-thinking life he embodies. Our attitudes can be so colored by the people who represent them in our lives. No longer at odds with his younger brother so much, Robert is more charitable to his path and seems open to allowing his son to walk it if he so desires.

Note the fire in the background, which symbolizes future questionable story decisions.
Rene would go on to live a long life and accomplish all of his dreams. THE END.

“Family” is an outstanding episode of The Next Generation, in that it’s a gripping story that meanders outside the bounds of what the series usually was. The differing shades of interpersonal family drama almost make it feel like it’s from another show entirely, and it’s wonderful. Every single main character in Trek seems to have a rocky relationship to their family for some reason or another, and “Family” finds a lot of great material for three of them here. Although there is tons of awkwardness when it comes to relatives, they can also be a source of strength and healing in our weakest moments.


Stray Observations:

  • So of course a lot of what happens in this episode is spoiled by Star Trek Generations, and the horrific way that Robert and Rene are dispatched for the sake of giving Jean-Luc a crisis of mortality. It’s hard to watch the quiet and hopeful ending here knowing that these two will burn to death in a fire offscreen in order to motivate Jean-Luc to… what, exactly? Appreciate life more? Have kids of his own? Definitely not the second one. Is “fridging” solely for female characters? Because that definitely applies to these poor souls and their meaningless deaths. Sigh.
  • Speaking of, the actor here for Rene would be replaced by a different one in Generations. And this one would later play a young-ified Jean-Luc in everybody’s favorite episode “Rascals.” Top-notch decisions all around!
  • The single ridiculous thing about Picard’s character has always been that he’s supposed to be French, despite being played by a very English actor. This episode makes the curious decision of quadrupling down on that by just having the rest of his family played by English actors, too. Like, conspicuously English actors. It’s very nutty, although Trek has a tradition of having actors play against their nationality (Chekov, Scotty, Troi), so bonus points for continuity, I guess. It would have been funny and even thematically significant if Jean-Luc’s family were played by actual French people. He doesn’t fit in so much that he has a totally different accent!
  • As I complained about in “Sons of Mogh,” the particulars of Worf’s family (and Kurn’s) are frustratingly vague. And it seems much of the time the writers wanted to forget that Worf had an adoptive family (including adopted brother Paul Sorvino!). Or even a son. I so wish we could have gotten more of the Rozhenkos. Like, an entire sitcom’s worth. Overall, Trek really doesn’t like any of its characters to have intact and healthy families, and sometimes goes out of its way to fit that narrative in some conspicuous ways.
  • “Synthehol” is a plot point here. Like gold-pressed latinum, the specifics are fuzzy but we can infer the purpose. Obviously, it’s some new-fangled 24th-century version of alcohol that magically has no side effects. But it also doesn’t get you drunk either? Which is all well and good, but non-alcoholic drinks already exist in this day and age (for some reason). I wonder how synthehol differs? Does it get you buzzed but not all the way drunk? Real booze still exists too, of course.
  • I like that the creators bothered to create a display diagram of the proposed Atlantis continent. It’s not pertinent to the story at all, but it’s nice that they went to the trouble. Call me when it’s done!
Lex Luthor would be proud!
  • I love Worf’s big silly chair.
“Mother, father. Allow me to dismount from my Kang’s Bubble Highchair For Warriors.”
  • Presented without context:
“Counselor, if you show me any more CONCERN, you’re going to have to answer to Sir Ian McHittin’ and Dr. Isaiah Murrow Punchworth.”