Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Perfect Mate [5.21]

The Enterprise transports Kamala, an “empathic metamorph” with the ability to transform her personality to become any man’s perfect woman.  Kamala is meant to be a gift for a planetary leader to help secure a treaty, but her presence on the Enterprise causes havoc amongst the men of the ship.  In particular, she becomes attached to Picard, eventually choosing to permanently “bond” with him, even while she still goes through with the marriage that is required of her.

Written by Gary Perconte and Michael Piller. Story by Rene Echevarria and Reuben Leder.  Directed by Cliff Bole.

Previous Episode: Cost of Living • Next Episode: Imaginary Friend

Comments:
I don’t think I’d ever seen The Perfect Mate before, at least not in its entirety (I keep thinking I’m out of such episodes…will this be the last one?), but I’d certainly heard of it.  First of all, it’s a bit famous because the chief guest star is Famke Janssen, who would in a few years achieve notoriety and fame in GoldenEye and then the X-Men movies.  But of course, at the time, we didn’t know that.  What we did know was that somehow The Perfect Mate was a highly controversial episode.  In those pre-internet message-board days, I only became aware of this by reading the letter pages in Starlog magazine, where the episode seemed to distress a lot of viewers.  If I recall properly, the episode was considered unspeakably sexist.  I guess the issue was not just that it was about a woman who completely re-transforms  herself for any man in her vicinity (certainly a sexist concept, though not one that must be presented in a sexist manner), but because in the end she is able to become an independent and free thinking woman only because that is the kind of woman that a particular man wants her to be.  I guess I can see the argument, though considering the basic premises of the story I find it to be overstated.

We’re dealing with science fiction here, and in that context, the writers present to us a character born and bred to subjugate her own identity and personality to her eventual mate.  Our heroes are shocked at the notion, they try to talk her out of it, and they refer to it as a form of slavery.  None of that seems to me a sexist treatment of the subject matter.  And it doesn’t become so just because Kamala does not agree with their assessment or capitulate to their point of view.  Rather, it simply creates a moral dilemma for the crew to wrestle with, one which I thought was fairly well done.

The ending is particularly interesting as even while we see Kamala willingly allow herself to be led into the “slavery” that her people have intended her for, at least insofar as her body is concerned, it is she herself who chooses what sort of a person that she will be in her mind and spirit.  By choosing to bond with Picard, even without his knowledge, she retains her ultimate autonomy over herself – at least in the confines of the story as presented (eg. she couldn’t just “choose” to stop being a empathic metamorph).  If the story had been about Picard “freeing her” by forcing her in some way to bond with him – or even by offering himself as someone to bond with – than the effect of the episode would have been quite different.  But by leaving that action in Kamala’s hands, the result is a story about a far-fetched science fiction proposition (aren’t they all?) that could have been part of the original series in the 1960’s, but which is treated with a “modern” sensibility that we wouldn’t have seen a generation earlier.

So ultimately, I enjoyed the episode.  Famke Janssen’s ability to re-invent herself over the episode is impressive and it’s easy to see why she became a star not long afterwards.  And watching Kamala’s effect on Picard, Riker, and the others is genuinely unnerving – all the more impressive as this effect is achieved without revealing that she’s evil or anything.  And while the episode doesn’t do much to establish Picard as much of a protagonist (as noted, it’s Kamala who makes the critical decision at the end) it does reveal a side to him we don’t often see, which Patrick Stewart does a typically good job of playing and is always interesting to see.

Guest Cast:
• Famke Janssen plays Kamala.  She became very well known later on as Jean Grey in the first three X-Men movies (as well cameoing in The Wolverine and X-Men: Days of Future Past), where she co-starred with Patrick Stewart.  She also played a crazy psycho Bond-girl in GoldenEye.  She was also in I Spy, Don’t Say a Word, Taken, and Taken 2, as well as a bunch of other stuff.

• Tim O’Connor plays Ambassador Briam.  He is remembered by myself and many others of my generation as Dr. Huer from the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  He was apparently also a regular on Peyton Place.

• Max Grodenchick shows up for the second time as a Ferengi (after Captain’s Holiday)

• Michael Snyder plays Qol.  He only has five acting credits to his name on IMDB – two of them are for Next Generation (here, and Rascals).  Another one is as a communications officer in Star Trek IV, and a fourth one is in Star Trek VI as a “Crewman Dax”.

Observations:
• Troi does not appear in this episode.

• We haven’t seen the Ferengi for a while.  They’re well used here – that effective mix of low-level menace with humor.  Par Lenor is pretty funny with his insane giggling at his own arms merchant joke

• Riker says,”Mister Worf, escort our Ferengi guests to quarters. Not too close to mine.”  Funny.

• Worf responds pretty slowly when the precious cargo is disrupted – he doesn’t call anyone or make some sort of response.  He just stands there and stares.  I blame those kinds of moments on awkward direction.

• Why, inside that glowing ball of light, it’s a beautiful woman!

• Kamala is given some personality from the get-go.  “That explains why you don’t look at all like your holographs,” and “It is not complicated at all, Briam, and the Captain has no tolerance for prevarication.”

• I enjoyed this exchange:

RIKER: You mean you’re using this ship to transport a sentient being as property?
BRIAM: Not as property, as a gift, and I was concerned that you might not entirely understand.
PICARD: Your concern was justified, Ambassador.

• Riker is an obvious foil for Kamala at the start.  “I make it a policy never to open another man’s gift.”

• Famke Janssen’s growling (at Worf) is a bit uncompelling

• I like Picard’s attempts to distance himself.  “Nothing lies beneath. I’m really quite dull. I fall asleep each night with an old book in my hands,” and “I’m just trying to be as dull as possible.”

• Good little bit with the Ferengi and the Ambassador:

BRIAM: Is this some sort of bribe? I am not amused.
QOL: No, Ambassador. Your attitude is quite understandable.
LENOR: This is just a sample.
QOL: The bribe is ten thousand more.

• Kamala orders “Earl Gray Tea – Hot” – but I haven’t noticed Picard say this for a long time.

• I really like Picard and Beverly’s friendship in this episode – the whole “penny for your thoughts chat”, the “take off the uniform” bit, and so on.  Beverly’s indignation at Kamala’s situation is also effective.  “And bred by those people to seal a treaty with a seductive coup de grace.”  It’s a great dynamic, and I can’t help but to feel that for Picard…Beverly is the perfect mate!

• Whoa – that’s some wacky hair at the end of the story, Kamala!

• Effective at the end when Kamala reveals she’s bonded with Picard.  “I wish I could convey to you what it’s like to be a metamorph. To feel the inner strength of someone. To realise that being with him is opening your mind and heart to endless new possibilities. To hear yourself say, I like myself when I’m with him…For a metamorph there’s no greater pleasure and no greater wish than to bond with that kind of mate at the end of the Finiis’ral, as I’ve bonded with you…Who I am today, I will be forever.” (EDITED to add:  Or is that just fuel for the sexism argument?)

Dialogue High Point
There’s a lot of effective stuff here, but I guess in the end I go with Picard’s reply to Kamala’s, “Do you find me unattractive?”

I find you unavailable!

Previous Episode: Cost of Living • Next Episode: Imaginary Friend

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One thought on “Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Perfect Mate [5.21]

  1. I don’t know, I was never able to get into this episode. I never really thought about why. It’s possible I was subconsciously uncomfortable with the whole “woman being defined by a man” thing. But I always found this episode a bit weak.

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