The Enterprise rescues a human teenager from a damaged Talarian vessel, and learn that he has been raised by the alien who killed his birth parents when he was just a toddler. Given the Talarians' patriarchal and militaristic society, Counselor Troi urges Captain Picard to help the young man, Jono, acclimate to human customs so that he can be returned to his surviving grandparents. But the adoptive father is willing to risk war with the Federation before giving up his son, and Jono himself seems unwilling to leave the only life he's ever known.
This episode is meant to pose another moral debate in science fiction trappings, Star Trek's bread and butter. But the concept suffers from a weak execution. In a later interview, head writer Michael Piller nailed the problem: the aliens of this episode aren't alien enough. There should be a major culture clash between humans and the adoptive aliens of young Jono. Although the Talarians were conceived of as a savage warrior race, they come off as practically human.
So muddy is the portrayal of the Talarians that the production actually received angry fan letters resulting from the confusion. Dr. Crusher believes that young Jono has been the victim of abuse at the hands of his father Endar; Endar's version of the story is that Jono's injuries were normal for a young boy growing up. Producer Rick Berman has stated emphatically that this was not meant to be an episode about child abuse, so apparently these injuries were simply meant to contrast the hard life of Talarians with the softer life of humans. But what loyal viewer is going to believe some strange alien's claim over the medical opinion of our own Dr. Crusher? Not many, and a number of those wrote the production to complain that our heroes gave a young boy back to his abuser at the end of this episode. Indeed, that would be pretty bad.
But then, if you remove that ambiguity, not only does Dr. Crusher look incompetent, but basically all of our characters look bad too. Because absent any abuse, it's hard not to side with the adoptive parent in this "custody battle." Even though Endar came to be Jono's father through deplorable means, he is the only father Jono has ever truly known. To rip Jono away and give him to strangers would be unconscionable. Picard does fortunately reach this conclusion in the end, but only after an entire episode spent trying to do the wrong thing. Not a shining moment for our heroes.
The script for this episode was co-written by Jeri Taylor, her first effort for the series. She was soon made part of the writing staff, and would ultimately go on to run the writers' room on Star Trek: Voyager. But at this point in time, by her own admission, she knew nothing about Star Trek. She'd later cram in an education by watching every episode of both the original series and The Next Generation, but here I think her lack of familiarity with the characters caused her to miss a beat or two. It's a missed opportunity, for example, not to mention Worf's adoptive parents of an alien race and contrast him with Jono. And Troi's potential role in a story with a big psychological element is really marginalized, confined to essentially a single scene with Picard.
Still, the episode is not a total loss. For one thing, that "single scene" between Troi and Picard is a good one. Her sarcastic "really?" when Picard confesses his discomfort around children is priceless. There's some good work by Patrick Stewart (naturally), including an illuminating back story in which Picard reveals he knew even as a child that he wanted to join Starfleet. Watching Picard try to be a "parent" is also entertaining, even if some of the scenes (like the one where he turns off Jono's music) are a bit on the nose.
- Right at the top of the episode, check out Troi's strange splay-legged pose up next to Worf's station.
- In the future, racquetball comes with a glowing ball and cool sound effects!
- Who makes a banana split with blue ice cream? What flavor is blue ice cream even supposed to be?
- Geordi appears only briefly in this episode, and I have read that even that much is actually stock footage. LeVar Burton was still recovering from his emergency surgery at the start of the season, and was unavailable for filming this episode.