Monday, September 12, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: Half A Life

The Next Generation, Season 4
"Half A Life"
Airdate: May 6, 1991
95 of 176 produced
95 of 176 aired


The Enterprise visits the reclusive world of Kaelon II in order to help one of its pre-eminent scienctists in an attempt to re-ignite the planet's dying sun. The visiting Lwaxana Troi complicates matters when she begins to romance the scientist, and uncovers his planet's deadly secret - all of its citizens must voluntarily commit suicide when they reach the age of 60.

Even at 60, a woman can look fabulous enough not to execute!


Matthew: It seems to me there are three story strains at work here. The science story is one of big ideas, like re-igniting a sun, and what a species might be able to do in order to stave off extinction. The character story is another Lwaxana tale, how the crew reacts to her, how she grows. The ethical story is an allegory about euthanasia and elderly health care. I'll start with the character story - this is easily the best Lwaxana episode. Her character comes off as less shrill and desperate, and more of a real person with strengths and vulnerabilities. Her romance with Timicin, though perhaps a bit quick, ends up being believable and involving. Her eventual acceptance of the Resolution ritual shows growth and mellowing on her part, which was quite welcome.

Kevin: I think the core to the success of this part of the episode is that Lwaxana is treated with a respect that is sorely lacking in previous outing. Manhunt presents her as an object of pity and ridicule in her inane sexual escapades. Here, the rapport with Timicin is genuine and her romance appears warm and vital. It serves the overall plot by showing the viewer that life after 50 can be full of...let's call it "fun" and leave it at that. I think the scene of her picking out a dress to where and talking to Deana about how he's not right for telepathy but right for everything else is the perfect example. The scene is organic and the banter charming, rather than obnoxious and abrasive. It serves the character by nudging her from insufferable to actually vivacious. Even the introductory snippet with Picard worked better. It played like she was enjoying, and therefore consciously aware, that she was tweaking Picard for the sake of amusement, rather than because she was too oblivious to know the difference. Even the one-liner about diplomacy and everyone dressing so well is worth a chuckle and fits the character.

Matthew: The ethical story is the star for me here. I do wish we had been given a bit more than one line of dialogue to justify the Resolution idea. The line we're given is interesting, to be sure - this culture has chosen, as a unit, to have people exit in their primes, never to diminish with senility and infirmity. OK, fine. But I can't quite imagine JUST an elder care crisis leading to a mass assisted suicide movement. I would have liked some talk of a Malthusian population crisis. Anyway, that's not really the point. The way the story was executed, especially the scene with Michelle Forbes as Dara, made this one of the best "cultural relativism" stories TNG has done. Can we harshly judge what seems to us a drastic curtailing of choice and happiness in the Resolution, when there is an equal and perhaps countervailing amount of preference satisfaction for members of that culture in maintaining the practice? Lwaxana's ethical stance seems to shift, which makes sense for her character. First she is appalled by the loss of individual sovereignty. Then she offers grand utilitarian objections - what if the person hitting 60 is going to cure cancer, or save the sun? Finally, smaller utilitarian concerns seem to come into play - the happiness of individuals and families ends up trumping further off concerns such as species survival. The Prime Directive is developed a bit more, giving us an instance in which a post-warp culture cannot be interfered with, despite any ethical qualms.

Kevin: Unlike in "The Drumhead," where Satie became a bit of a straw man, the opposing viewpoint was treated with gravity and real depth. In the end, I still disagree with the practice, but I certainly empathize with how it came to be, and how important it is to individual people. Lwaxana came out better for this episode because she got both the range of a raw emotional reaction, and seeing her actually try to engage the logic of Timicin's position. The scenes with Timicin's daughter were gold. With almost no back story, I bought both the cultural practice and the familial interaction. The story worked at every moment on both the personal level and the philosophical one. Neither was sacrificed for the sake of the other, and it makes the episode sing. I would have liked a little more exploration of how other individuals may have approached the Resolution. If an individual refuses to comply, does the society murder him, or just shun him? If someone on the planet asked Picard to take him with them because he did not want to participate, how would he have reacted? That's less a criticism, and more acknowledging, the set-up is ripe for more development than a 43-minute show allows.

Matthew: The science story is certainly interesting. The underlying science is a bit fuzzy. How does one re-ignite a sun, exactly? Things called "fusion enhancement" and "helium ignition" are mentioned. Hmm. Does this mean using some sort of fission process in order to split the helium back into hydrogen? Simply supercharging the fusion of helium into heavier elements would accelerate the star's death. Either way, it seems like doing so would require more energy than you'd get back out, and if you had that much energy anyway, you wouldn't need the sun. What happens to the planets in this sun's system when such a procedure is undertaken? Wouldn't they get fried? If this is a main cycle star, how did their planet survive its Red Giant phase? If the Kaelonians evolved during the Red Giant phase, how will shrinking the star down to an earlier portion of the cycle affect their planet? Also unmentioned is the fact that this device, in its malfunctioning form, would make one hell of a weapon - a supernova torpedo.

Kevin: I like that they at least tried to include a hard science fiction element, and it was more developed conceptually than "we need a vaccine" or something. The acting by Geordi, Data, and Timicin carry it, but I'll get to that later. Overall, it was neat to think about, and it dovetailed nicely with the philosophical plot when Lwaxana asks Timicin if his planet is dying, why not let it die? It also helped solidify the utilitarian argument for letting Timicin live. So while not the most credible the science has ever been, it gave a nice spring board into the main parts of the episode.

Matthew: Random notes - we have yet another planet that has people referring their own home as Kaelon II, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense for an isolationist people who refuse to leave. Speaking of that refusal, it would have been a bit better to develop more of a reason for them not to simply colonize another world. Timicin talks about how their cultural identity would vanish if they did. Why? What kind of shields get these torpedoes into a stellar core? Apparently, people can lock the transporter. Too bad they don't do that 30 or 40 other times in the series! Is there no revolt at any point in Kaelonian history, out of a population of billions? It might have been interesting to raise the stakes a bit, making the utilitarian conflict (should you kill the guy who could save the world?) stronger - kind of a Jor-El/Krypton situation, in which the world will die next week, not just next century. Without knowing the Kaelonian orbital period, 60 years old doesn't mean as much to us

Kevin: I always thought the planetary name thing was a convention of the UT. To me, it's Germany; to a native speaker, it's Deutschland, but a German speaker being translated would refer to Germany. Unless of course, the drama circuit knew to leave it untranslated, allowing an actor to translate for us. I agree with your other points about developing and raising the stakes of the story. Really, this is one of the most interesting philosophical conundrums the show has done, and there was definitely more they could do with it, given time. Maybe we should go back in time, and have them make a movie length version of this. Instead of, you know, Nemesis.


Matthew: Finally, Majel Barrett gets a worthwhile role to perform. The fact that Lwaxana shows some vulnerability and some of her own complex and realistic desires is a breath of fresh air for the character. This is so much more diverse and deep a portrayal of the character, and Barrett is up to the task. We knew she could do it based on her TOS work. Her crying scene with Deanna is particularly good - it could have gone way too far really easily, but it felt real.

Kevin: It wasn't until I watched TOS for Treknobabble that I really came to appreciate how good an actress she is. It's a shame this one of the few times that she really gets to show her chops. The scene in the transporter room is amazing. It's clearly layered with the characters own history of being older and having lost a husband, along with surely her own relationship with Gene Roddenberry, who was in declining health.

Matthew: Speaking of Deanna, although she wasn't spot-lighted, her scenes were good. Marina Sirtis did a good job of mixing her "counselor" character with her "daughter" character. More crew roles which really worked were Worf, with Dorn playing a great straight man yet again (especially "and it is Worf, madam, not Woof.") Stewart does a good job talking Lwaxana off the ledge and getting her to calm down. He was also very funny peeking around the corner at the beginning.

Kevin: The Trois' scenes really sing. The actresses always do a great job of portraying genuine affection, mixed with the slight butting heads that all parents and adult children can engage it. Even when the plots were at the their worst, Sirtis and Barrett always interacted very well and very believably. 

Matthew: David Ogden Stiers made very specific choices for the Timicin character. He comes off as stuffy and reserved at first. This makes his blossoming with Lwaxana feel interesting and organic, but also justifies his eventual reversal and return to his cultural heritage. Speaking of great choices, Michelle Forbes acts the heck out of her role. I absolutely believed that she was mortified by her father's choice, and that her cultural identity was shaken to its core. Her performance more than most really elevated the episode.

Kevin: Stiers infused the character with gravity and concern, and it elevates the relationship with Troi, because I believe he gave her the same serious consideration he gave his cultural heritage. He was also great at delivering technobabble like a pro. Like the Trois, the Timicins really felt like a real family. Forbes was asked back for Ro Laren on the strength of this show, and it's easy to see why. There was a great blend of philosophical shock and the innate distaste a lot of grown children are going to have for the person they view as replacing a deceased parent.

Production Values

Matthew: This is mostly a bottle show. We see some of our favorite standby sets, such as engineering, crew quarters, and so on. There's really not much going on here. We get a reasonably OK sun to look at, though the explosion was not as awesome as I'd like. Even "Tin Man" had a better one.

Kevin: It was serviceable, but nothing more. The moving bar chart Okudagram was on point, insofar as the movement corresponded to the dialogue. Still, not everything needs explosions to be good (Looking at you, Abrams).

Matthew: The alien makeup and clothes were pretty average. We just get a face birthmark thing, and some funky hair on Dara. The clothes were decent, looking like something real people would wear. Lwaxana's outfits were a lot more tasteful this go-round. She looked like less of a foppish weirdo and more like a real person.


Matthew: In the podcast, I gave this an easy 5. Now, I'm doubting myself. There are so many questions left unanswered. But I think that the avenue of exploration we do get of the central ethical question, combined with the well-above average acting performances, might just justify considering this in the top 10 percent of TNG shows. So I'll stick with the 5, with the rider that it's at the bottom of the top decile.

Kevin: I initially expected to give this a 4 as well, but after watching the episode, everything we saw was great. There wasn't a single wasted scene or line of dialogue, and the performances were amazing and affecting. I think the explorations of the broader philosophical issues could not have been done in the time allotted without jettisoning the emotional core. I remain pleasantly surprised by my 5, but I think the episode merits it. That's a total of 10 from the two of us.



  1. I never understood why Timicin's daughter said she felt "ashamed" of his choice. Why ashamed? Where did that "shame" came from. Angry or disappointed, ok, but shame? I guess I just felt there was a disconnect. I could not identify with that sentiment of "shame" and how his daughter felt so ashamed about it and deeply embarrassed.

    I would have understood other arguments like you are causing society a burden, you will be ending up on "death-watch" facilities, no one will be able to care for you, we will be sad and heartbroken to see you get old and frail and losing it etc. - but why shame?

    Also, since Timicin has requested asylum, none of that would have applied since he wasnt going to live in that society. Of course, when they then started threatening the Enterprise saying they would open fire if they left with Timicin, that seemed shady and wrong, giving me the impression that this was not a very, or even remotely, enlightened and "kinder" society as they made out to be. I mean what, "even if you leave, we STILL insist on coming after you and murdering you"? Why?

    At any rate, while I personally do think euthanasia should be offered to people who seek it - at any age and especially when they suffer from a terminal, painful illness or are 85 years old wearing diapers and losing their minds etc., the idea of just killing anyone who reaches a certain age - regardless of their wishes, seems barbaric and fascist, And 60 is a pretty young age too, at that. This is a great episode and I enjoy it everytime but I just wish they had done a better job with the rationale and why his daughter felt ashamed and so deeply, deeply insulted at the idea that someone did not want to willingly be murdered.

    1. I think the shame element comes into play in terms of going against societal norms - the way someone might be ashamed if a father declared himself an athiest in 18th century Europe or something.