Star Trek The Next Generation: Unnatural Selection

"An attempt to control human evolution has resulted in a new species."

An outbreak of death-by-old-age is traced back to a genetic research facility, and Pulaski manages to get herself infected.

I have very vague memories of watching this episode as a child and being really into it. For some reason I really liked episodes about premature aging when I was younger - I can only assume this is was down to some kind of youthful arrogance, and I enjoyed watching characters undergo the ultimate horror of looking older, safe in the knowledge I wasn't even old enough for a paper round yet. Like the similar X-Files episode 'Dod Kalm', I re-watched this episode as an adult and wondered why the younger me had enjoyed it quite so much or remembered it so well (though not perfectly - for some reason I was convinced Picard had been affected by the premature aging, as well as Pulaski. Maybe I dreamed that bit).

That's not to say this episode is terrible by any means. How you feel about it will depend largely on how you feel about Pulaski. This is the first episode devoted mostly to her, and so her character is improved slightly simply by being given something to do other than be rude to Data. Her arrogant streak continues to be felt as she insists she knows best, but to be fair to her, she agrees to carry out her quarantine-threatening activity on a shuttle piloted by an android and immediately removes both herself and her patient once it becomes clear she was wrong, so she really does seem to be doing her job to the best of her ability here.

There are other aspects of Pulaski's characterization that work quite well here. Her relationship with Picard, whom she apparently greatly admires but constantly rubs up the wrong way, is genuinely interesting, as so few of the relationships between members of the Enterprise crew are at all frosty. It is, dare I say it, slightly more interesting than the eternal flirting that never goes anywhere that goes on between him and Crusher. And her transporter phobia, originally thrown in to make her a female Dr McCoy, actually has some bearing on the plot here, which is nice, and goes some way towards compensating for the laziness of transferring character traits from one doctor to another.

Ultimately, though, nothing can really compensate for the fact that she's still frequently intensely irritating and in dire need of some kind of personal quality beyond 'irascible workaholic'. In the end, a Pulaski Episode is unlikely to make anyone's Top 10 in any case, and a Pulaski Episode including seriously dodgy science and late 1980s aging make-up is really onto a loser from the start.

There is one saving grace, though, because we have this episode to thank for the creation of Chief O'Brien as a character. Colm Meaney had made recurring appearances on the show since the pilot as a sort of odd-job crewman who fulfilled various roles around the ship while carefully avoiding going down to any planets, which would of course have meant certain death. Here, however, the solution to the week's crisis requires specialist knowledge of the transporter. Having finally managed to hang on to a Chief Engineer for more than a single episode, it was now time to give the Enterprise a Transporter Chief, a crewman with particular knowledge of how to use the magic of matter transportation to solve complex medical problems. And thus, Transporter Chief O'Brien was born, enriching the world of The Next Generation by fleshing out its secondary characters and unwittingly laying the first real groundwork (following Armin Shimmerman's work as a not-Quark Ferengi in season one) for Deep Space Nine.

Bits and pieces

 - This is just one of many episodes of Star Trek that completely misunderstands the theory of evolution.

 - It also insists, as many science fiction programmes have over the years, that various characters have died of "old age". Science fiction writers are apparently blissfully unaware that human beings always die of something (heart failure, other major organ failure, pneumonia, etc.), not of "old age" itself (the organs may fail due to age, but something specific will always go first).

 - The 'super-evolved' children have to be abandoned on their planet, with no adults, and they can never come into contact with other human beings. That's... horrifying. No one seems too bothered, though.


Picard: Doctor, God knows I'm not one to discourage input, but I would appreciate it if you'd let me finish my sentences once in a while.

Data: What is your condition, Doctor?
Pulaski: Not exactly up to factory specs.

A Pulaski episode. Two out of four fundamental misunderstandings of the theory of evolution.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


drnanamom said...

Such a fun review Juliette - thanks! I agree with all your comments and chuckled through quite a few of them. Thanks for the bit re: enjoying shows about aging as a child. I think I was the opposite and loved the ones about feral children.

Juliette said...

Thanks :) I was weirdly interested in age as a child (Wrath of Khan was one of my favourite movies). The older I get, the less this is the case!

Billie Doux said...

What a terrible example of transporter-super-fixit as well as a sub-par mini-tribute to the original series episode "The Deadly Years". Plus it was just dull. (As you said, it's a Pulaski episode.) But Colm Meaney is finally the transporter chief. That's something.

Loved your review, Juliette. :)