At the Brink

Sub Rosa: The Secret that Should Have Remained a Secret

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Sub Rosa” is one of TNG’s most infamously terrible offerings, and this episode earns every bit of hate that has ever been directed its way and then some. Season seven suffers from incredibly uneven writing, and “Sub Rosa,” while not the worst of the episodes, certainly belongs at the bottom of the list. I will include a content warning here for those who might need it. “Sub Rosa” deals with sexually explicit themes and material, including problematic consent, in as much as cable television in the nineties would allow, so if that’s not of interest to you, you might wish to skip this article.

Plot Ahoy!

Her grandmother’s death brings Dr. Crusher to Caldos, one of the first terraforming projects in the Federation, and after delivering the eulogy at Felisa Howard’s funeral, Crusher and Deanna Troi retire to Howard’s erstwhile residence. Troi comments on the beauty of an antique candle before leaving to afford Crusher some moments alone. Crusher notices her grandmother’s journal and takes it with her upstairs. Ned Quint lets himself into the house, frightening Crusher, and when she confronts him, he informs Crusher that the candle has been a curse on her family for generations. Rattled, Crusher asks him to leave, and Quint washes his hands of the matter. Aboard the Enterprise, the colony governor, Maturin, asks Data and LaForge to investigate the colony’s weather systems as they’ve been experiencing tremors for the last several months. LaForge notes a power fluctuation in one of the weather control stations, which is remarkable as it’s the first the systems have experienced in twenty-two years.

Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard discuss the surprisingly racy contents of Felisa Howard’s journal. Apparently, Howard had taken a much younger lover named Ronin in her twilight years. Picard informs Crusher that the Enterprise will remain in orbit above Caldos for some time yet. Once Crusher’s doors close, Picard expresses a certain amount of shock. Dr. Crusher retires for the night in her quarters, and the candle, which she has brought with her to the Enterprise flickers. The next day, Crusher confesses to Troi that she had a truly spectacular sex dream the night before, so Troi recommends that she read two chapters that night. Back on Caldos, Crusher brings flowers to her grandmother’s grave where she encounters Quint again. She asks if he will watch over Howard’s home while she’s gone, but he refuses her request. Quint warns her again about the candle and even blames the storm on the spirit haunting the Howard residence. As the storm worsens, Crusher hurries to the house while Lieutenant Worf monitors the storm’s development from the Enterprise. Data notes that the weather systems’ power grid continues to fluctuate, so LaForge suggests using an energy transfer beam from the Enterprise to provide the weather grid enough power to stabilize the storm.

Dr. Crusher rushes back to the home from the cemetery, and there, she encounters Ronin for the first time. Ronin explains that he is a ghost from 1647 Glasgow who bonded with female members of the Howard family. He promises to love her the way he has loved each of her foremothers, but Crusher, feeling a strange sensation, asks him to stop. The scene then shifts to the Enterprise, where Crusher tells Troi that she met Ronin, though she keeps his supernatural nature to herself. Troi warns her against pursuing something with Ronin. Elsewhere, a dense fog settles over the bridge floor. LaForge and Data explain that the fog results from a malfunction in the ship’s environmental controls tied to the power transfer. A feedback loop prevents the Enterprise from shutting down the beam. LaForge then notices a power failure in those same environmental systems, so he and Data beam down to Caldos to investigate. There, they find Quint dismantling a power conduit in the affected weather station. They ask him to stop, and a wisp of green energy whips out of the conduit and kills Quint.

Crusher examines Quint’s body and finds that he was killed not by a plasma discharge as expected but by a different kind of energy altogether. Crusher leaves further investigation to Dr. Selar and rushes back to the Howard residence where she meets with Ronin. Ronin explains to her that he lives in the candle, and she must light the candle for him to survive. Crusher beams back to the Enterprise and rushes to light the candle, displaying signs of extreme agitation. After using the power transfer beam to reach the ship, Ronin appears and, reverting to his energy-based form, merges with her. Just as she prepares to beam back down to the colony post-merge, Captain Picard demands to know why she submitted her resignation. Crusher tells him that she intends to serve the colony as a healer just as Felisa Howard did before her.

Picard suspects something isn’t quite right with Crusher, so he questions Troi who divulges Crusher’s romance with Ronin to him. Picard beams to the Howard house to talk to Crusher, and she admits that she plans to stay for Ronin. Picard wants to know if Ronin really exists, so Ronin manifests. Picard questions Ronin and is interrupted by a request from LaForge and Data to exhume Felisa Howard’s body because they’ve detected an energy signature similar to the one they found on Quint’s body in her grave. He grants permission, horrifying Ronin who then attacks Picard. Dr. Crusher grabs a medkit and proceeds to treat Picard, and Ronin apologizes to Crusher before leaving to go to the cemetery. After beaming the coffin out of the ground, LaForge and Data open Howard’s coffin, and Howard sits up, striking them with energy as she does. Crusher having rushed to the cemetery screams at Ronin to stop, but Ronin, in the body of her grandmother, insists that he loves her and asks for her trust. Crusher refuses and discovers that Ronin is not a ghost but an anaphasic lifeform who has used the Howard women as hosts to maintain his molecular cohesion for generations. He asks for the candle, which Crusher has brought with her, and even threatens LaForge and Data if she refuses. Crusher destroys the candle, and when Ronin attempts to fling himself at her, she fires the phaser at him, killing Ronin in the process. Later, she reflects to Troi that whatever else Ronin may have done, he did make Felisa Howard very happy.

Analysis

“Sub Rosa” is clearly meant to be a gothic romance with a Trek twist. It’s got everything it needs: a desolate landscape, a haunted house, the mysterious caretaker, and a strong undercurrent of sex. I suspect the writers chose to have Caldos mirror the Scottish Highlands because they couldn’t figure out a way to get moors in space without being utterly ridiculous. However, if that was their goal, they very much did not succeed. Caldos as a setting comes off less as charmingly traditional and more as ridiculously contrived in order to give the story the ambience the story required.

The weirdness of Space Scotland aside, “Sub Rosa” is a story about violation and abuse, and it is not a story that fails to handle the topics terribly well. As is immediately obvious to anyone with eyes, the merging going on between Ronin and Crusher is a metaphor for sex, no matter that Ronin insists on calling it love. Thus, when Ronin begins the merging process with Crusher without her consent, what we’re really watching is Gates McFadden play out one half of a rape scene. The scene concludes with her asking him to stop, and the quick cut to the next morning on the Enterprise is both jarring and extremely telling. Crusher’s dialogue with Troi implies that not only did Ronin not stop, he convinces her, via the power of sex, that she should enjoy their merging. Moreover, as evidenced by her overwhelming need to see him after Quint’s death and her mad dash to the Enterprise to light the candle, something about the process is physically addictive as well. McFadden’s choice to demonstrate Crusher’s anxiety and intense need with unusual fidgeting and twitching drives that point home. I’m sticking to the physically addicting theory because I categorically refuse to believe that sex, no matter how amazing that sex might be, would be sufficient to force Dr. Beverly I-Rationally-Think-My-Way-Out-of-A-Pocket-Universe Crusher to take such utter leave of her senses. Crusher was willing to allow herself to be kidnapped rather than shirk her duty as a doctor. There’s no other explanation for her willingness to foist her responsibilities onto Dr. Selar.

Ronin, however, is not merely content with binding Crusher to him via the power of his amazing…er…mist. He then takes a page out of an abuser’s handbook and isolates her from her colleagues and friends. On Caldos, he rages that as soon as “they” are gone, he and Crusher can be together freely. The “they” in question, of course, are those same friends and colleagues. Crusher’s wardrobe undergoes a shift to convey visually the shift in Crusher herself as a result of Ronin’s continued manipulation. On the transporter pad, she wears multiple layers of stout, brown material, that cover her from neck to toe and throws her hair up. The nightgown she wears aboard the Enterprise is almost matronly and suggests the image of a gothic heroine. The nightgown she wears for Ronin is starkly different—a lovely cream satin, and her hair goes from its usually straight style to loose curls, giving her a fragile and almost manic air. While the shift in her eye color Picard notices is likely due to changes wrought by the merging process, taken in context, it becomes yet another way in which Crusher changes to suit Ronin. Significantly, these changes are one-sided; Ronin grooms Crusher to be his perfect receptacle. The parallels with common signs of partner abuse are unmistakable.

Picard’s choice to beam to the colony is also problematic. Despite Troi’s reminder that Crusher has the right to make the choice to remain, Picard refuses to accept that choice. His attitude when he confronts Crusher smacks of a certain possessiveness as though he wants to know exactly what this Ronin is doing with his Beverly. Picard remains steadfast in the face of Crusher’s fury when she defends Ronin and her choices, and the episode casts the moment as one in which Picard’s rationality wins out over Crusher’s addiction. The problem with having him be in the right here is that he also undercuts Crusher’s agency. The line between being a concerned friend and an overbearing one can be a thin one to walk, and Picard does not manage to walk it here.

While the episode does return Crusher’s agency to her by having her kill Ronin, the last lines of the episode undermine it again. Crusher uses the term “seduce” to describe Ronin’s actions. What he did was not a seduction. Seduction requires enticement, and Ronin does not entice Crusher into anything. When Crusher uses the word “seduction,” she implies a level of choice Ronin never afforded her, and the episode closes with Crusher finding some sympathy for him. As a creative choice, that’s a disgusting way to close out this episode but one that is unfortunately typical of TNG.

Rating:

Beverly Crusher’s sex candle bad.

Stray Thoughts From the Couch

  1. I cannot get over Crusher reading the very explicit descriptions of her grandmother’s sex life. That would be a hard, hard pass for me. However, I guess in the 24th century they’re enlightened enough to treat their grandparents’ love lives as titillating? What’s worse, Felisa Howard raised Crusher, so that’s more like getting off to your mom’s sexual escapades. Just. No.
  2. The STSP Facebook group spends a fair amount of time offering great send-ups of this episode.
  3. ”Sub Rosa” literally means “under the rose” and refers to doing something in secret. Roses at one point were symbols of secrecy. However, the flower associated with Ronin is generally a red camellia. Red camellias symbolize passion or deep desire. Subtlety, thy name is not TNG.
  4. Weirdly, Ronin does not take his name from the Japanese word meaning “vagrant person.” Brannon Braga apparently made up the name without being aware of the Japanese term.
  5. McFadden’s performance in this episode is far, far better than the episode deserved and lends the utterly ridiculous premise some believability, but that’s about all that’s believable. Data and LaForge somehow just happen to miss Quint on the floor committing sabotage long enough to get through several lines of dialogue. Neither Brent Spiner nor LeVar Burton convey anything remotely resembling believable surprise. Patrick Stewart’s Picard comes off as either being flat or vaguely cro magnon. Duncan Regehr’s contribution to the episode seems to be limited to soulful brown eyes and a jawline.
  6. Regehr’s turn as Shakaar Edon on DS9 will be much, much better, but that’s not really a high bar.

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