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When Star Trek: The Next Generation Was Bad, It Was Truly Horrendous

The crew of the Enterprise meet the Space Irish. Things get much worse from there.
The crew of the Enterprise meet the Space Irish. Things get much worse from there.
Image: CBS

There aren’t just a lot of candidates for the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I would contend there are a lot of worst episodes, period. It’s amazing how much terrible content this show produced while simultaneously reviving the beloved franchise—there’s the racism of “Code of Honor,” the supernatural assault of “Sub Rosa,” the clip show crappiness of “Shades of Gray,” and many more. Everyone has their pick, but “Up the Long Ladder” is my dark horse contender for the title, because it manages to be racist, sexist, and terrible sci-fi, all at once.

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Like seemingly 45 percent of Star Trek episodes across all series, “Up the Long Ladder” begins with the Enterprise picking up a mysterious distress signal from a 22nd-century ship. Because a 22nd-century ship is “old-timey” in TNG’s 24th century, the mysterious signal turns out to be Morse code, a form of communication so old-timey that everyone in Starfleet forgot it existed, although for some reason Riker (Jonathan Frakes) recognizes it in seconds.

The ship was bound for the Ficus sector and carrying two things: a pile of supercomputers and a bunch of farm animals and looms. The episode has a solid explanation for the latter; after World War III, a bunch of people turned to “Neo-Transcendentalism” and decided to return to an agrarian lifestyle once they got off Earth and established new colonies. The Enterprise heads there and finds the colony on Bringloid V, luckily 3.6 hours before solar flares destroy the entire planet. This is a very dumb coincidence that needs to happen solely so the colonists can be beamed aboard the ship without Captain Picard (ol’ Patrick Stewart) learning who they are…so he can be there in person when he discovers he has saved the Space Irish.

The Bringloids are another entry in Trek’s long, not-at-all-proud tradition of entire planets being composed of one ethnic stereotype, this one courtesy of the negative American view of Irish immigrants around the turn of the 19th century. The Bringloids are unwashed and bring their farm animals on board the ship. Their leader, Danilo Odell (Barrie Ingham), loves his booze. His daughter Brenna (Rosalyn Landor) is that classic “shrewish woman” cliché who henpecks all men constantly—she’s even mad at Picard when he comes down to see them for not “driving” the ship like she assumes he’s supposed to. The sole exception is when she decides she needs to fuck Riker immediately.

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“Sole” is a pun in advance. When Riker first talks to Brenna, she’s immediately angry at him for not helping her, uh…well, she seems to be spreading hay around the Enterprise floor for the Bringloids’ farm animals, but on her knees and inexplicably doing it by hand. But then she’s entranced by Riker’s sex-beard and asks if there’s a place to wash her feet, given that somehow the Space Irish managed to bring filth with them, and she’s dirtied her dress and legs while manually moving hay in said dirt. Riker, who has never let a little filth get in the way of getting his space rocks off, happily leads her to his quarters. That’s a definite creep move, but luckily Brenna is on the same page. When Riker doesn’t jump on her immediately, she essentially asks if he’s gay; when he assures her otherwise, she starts stripping and they seduce each other by talking about the best way to clean Brenna’s dirty, dirty feet. (The answer: “You generally start at the top and work your way down.”)

When Odell casually asks Picard if he’d contacted the other colony in the Ficus sector, the captain suddenly realizes what the supercomputers were for. The Enterprise searches for and finds the Mariposa colony, whose inhabitants are all clones as their spaceship had a hull breach while landing, leaving only five survivors; without the necessary amount of genetic code necessary to keep the colony going past the originals, they’ve been cloning themselves for the last few centuries. The problem is that the clones are degrading over time, as clones in sci-fi tend to do.

Actually, the problem is that The Next Generation is obsessed with sex, even—maybe especially—if people aren’t having it. The obvious solution to the Mariposans’ problem is to simply get some fresh DNA to add to the mix, but the Mariposan prime minister Granger (Jon De Vries) couches it in a way to stress how problematic things would have been if the colony’s survivors—three men and two women—had decided to procreate the old-fashioned way. Dr. Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) immediately wants to know how the Marisposans managed to stop fucking each other; the answer is drugs and “punitive laws,” with the result being that sex is now completely taboo for them. But when the clones ask for the Enterprise crew’s choice DNA, Riker gets angry at the very idea of more Rikers running around (which is kind of funny), and Captain Picard tells the Mariposans that everyone upon his ship would feel the same way. For the record, that’s literally over a thousand people, yet Picard decided it’s not even worth sending an email blast to check.

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This is not the last time in this episode Picard will make an enormous blanket decision without consulting the people it affects.

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The Mariposans quickly steal some of Riker and Dr. Pulaski’s cells anyway, but when Geordi helps the pair realize they’re missing some time, they storm into the colony’s cloning labs and destroy the (surprisingly large) proto-Riker and -Pulaski sitting in incubators. Everyone gets upset, but the Mariposans defend their actions by asserting their right to survive, which gets a bit weird when they’re talking about increasingly crappy clones of themselves but is pretty reasonable, old-fashioned sci-fi. Plus, Riker gets a good line in about how people have the right to control their own bodies, which is great.

Yet this belief gets immediately thrown out the airlock, and here’s where things get insane and super-gross. When Picard, Troi (Marina Sirtis), Riker, and Pulaski get together to discuss the problem, the doctor explains that even if the Mariposans get new DNA, they’re still going to have the clone fade problem. She says what they need—this is a quote—is “breeding stock.” It’s a disturbing term that gets infinitely more disturbing because it instantly gives Picard an idea: Give the Marisposans the Space Irish.

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There’s so much that’s terrible about this it’s almost impressive. First, it’s a Kirk-worthy moment of “The Enterprise captain is wiser than entire civilizations and thus gets to decide everything” which has always been bad. It’s made worse because Next Generation has gone out of its way to affirm this by presenting the Space Irish as dumb and dirty. Yet the episode makes sure it’s abundantly clear Picard has this idea because he hears the term breeding stock. “Breeding stock. Where can I get breeding stock?” you can practically see Picard ask himself. “Oh, right! I have a bunch of simpletons on my ship who contribute nothing to civilization other than fucking! What luck!”

Illustration for article titled When iStar Trek: The Next Generation/i Was Bad, It Was Truly Horrendous
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It gets worse. Pulaski does the math and discovers that for this plan to work—the plan to literally give a group of human beings to another group of human beings for the sole purpose of making babies—every woman will need to have three children, each by a different man.

Does Picard tell Odell about his idea, and does Odell accept for all of the Space Irish, giving an emphatic yes after discovering he’s going to get to have repeated sex with different women? Oh yeah. Is the Mariposan prime minister perturbed at the idea of having sex, and Picard tells him to get over it and get busy with these people? Uh-huh. Does Brenna complain because she’s a nag but fails to get truly upset about being treated like the aforementioned breeding stock, then acquiesce because the decisions were made by menfolk and she knows she doesn’t get a say? Absolutely. Does the show try to mitigate this nightmare by hinting that Brenna also gets excited by the prospect of having sex with multiple partners, ignoring that fact the purpose of said sex is only for her and the other women to churn out babies for a group of people she never meets by the end of the episode? You know it!

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Bleh. According to Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, episode writer Melinda Snodgrass explained that “It was intended to be a commentary about immigration, because I hate the current American policy. I wanted it to be something that says sometimes those outsiders you think are so smelly and wrong-colored, can bring enormous benefits to your society because they bring life and energy. That’s what I was going for.” In Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Snodgrass admitted this commentary was erased through rewrites and budget issues. (Thanks to Memory-Alpha for this factoid.) She is not wrong. Whatever good intentions there may have been, they are all erased the minute Pulaski says “breeding stock,” if not before.

Even though “Up the Long Ladder” was made more than a quarter of a century ago, the folks making Star Trek: The Next Generation should have known better. I don’t know if it makes things better or worse, but maybe they did. The episode ends when Picard looks around at what the fuck he’s just done, and says, “I must be out of my mind.”

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“Starfleet will probably agree with you,” replies Dr. Pulaski. No kidding, Doc.

“Up the Long Ladder” refers to an Irish rhyme of literal gallows humor, as the line continues “and down the short rope.” Apparently, no one knew why it was called that at the time. In retrospect, it seems ironically appropriate for an episode that deserved to be killed before it started.

Assorted Musings:

  • Besides receiving the signal, the episode also begins when Worf (Michael Dorn) collapses on the bridge. As it turns out, he has Klingon Measles, is embarrassed to have Klingon Measles, and Dr. Pulaski lies to Picard about Worf’s illness so no one knows he has Klingon Measles. This “story” is wisely and completely abandoned after about three scenes, maybe a quarter of the way through the episode, having meant and affecting absolutely nothing.
  • The Space Irish love booze so much Delilo isn’t content with the whiskey produced by the ship’s replicator, so Worf gives him the Klingon booze chech’tluth. He reacts to it as The Honeymooners’ Art Carney or one of the Three Stooges might, two ancient references I suspect maybe a quarter of you readers know at best. Hopefully, the fact that the episode is reusing a joke from the ‘40s and ‘50s is indicative enough of just how hilarious it is.
  • The “Next Time On” preview for the episode doesn’t mention the Space Irish at all, even though they get more screentime than the Mariposans. Huh. Wonder why.
  • If nothing else, at least the episode gave us the Shakespearean bit of dialogue just above. “Clones?” “Clones?” “Clones.”
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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

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DISCUSSION

Yep, TNG’s early seasons were particularly bad. It’s not much of a consolation, but several of the not great early season episodes were reused scripts from either TOS itself or the planned Phase Two sequel that was cancelled when Paramount decided to do the original cast movies instead. The early seasons also had more influence from Roddenberry himself, and while he’s a giant in sci-fi history, by that point he really wasn’t always pushing the new show in the right direction. By the time the show hit Season 3, the most egregiously offensive content was behind them. That’s not to say that they show didn’t have some issues from time to time, or that aspects of the way some episodes handled certain issues haven’t aged badly in the last 30 years, but it got much better. Even towards the end of the show, when the quality took a bit of a dip, the worst episodes were things like Sub Rosa, which isn’t particularly good, but isn’t precisely offensive in the same way episodes like Code of Honor and Up The Long Ladder are.

Also of note, evidently the script for Code of Honor did not establish that the planet on which the story takes place was populated exclusively by black people with a strong quasi-African aesthetic. That all came from the (white) director. Several members of the cast were offended, and it seems like it only happened because by the time things came to a head they were too deep in production. But that director was not brought back after that episode.