HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“Thine Own Self” derives its title from Shakespeare, specifically advice Polonius gives his son Laertes in Hamlet. The episode therefore purports to deal with questions of identity. Who are we truly? Who can we be when we’re bereft of all of the experiences and titles around which we’ve shaped our identities? The episode attempts to answer these questions by stripping Data of all the memories that make him Data and dropping him into the middle of a pre-industrial society. The B-story concerns Troi exploring whom she wants to be in the context of her career. The juxtaposition between the two stories should have been truly interesting, but the episode never quite gets where it obviously wants to go. Still, “Thine Own Self” serves as a solid final season entry and worth a re-watch.
Deanna Troi returns to the Enterprise after her class reunion on Starbase 231 with a touch of melancholy regarding the paths taken by her fellow classmates. After discussing Dr. Crusher’s choice to take the Bridge Officer’s Exam and become a Commander, she resolves to take the test herself and seeks out Commander Riker. He offers his support but reminds Troi both that he will be her grader and that he can be a touch judge.
After being dispatched to recover radioactive components of a Federation probe that landed on Barkon IV, Data stumbles into a pseudo-Elizabethan village. A village magistrate, Garvin and his young daughter Gia discover Data and speak to him. Data clearly lacks any memory of his own identity and struggles with language at first. As he gradually regains his ability to communicate, Garvin observes that the case in his hand might shed some light on his identity. Garvin asks what the word on the side of the case means, and Data can identify it as “radioactive” but has no understanding of the word’s meaning. Garvin takes Data home with him where Gia names him “Jayden.” Talur, the village doctor, also examines Data and pronounces him an Ice Man, native to the Vellorian Mountains.
Data and Garvin head into the village where they bargain with Skoran, the blacksmith, for the sale of the metal shards Data had in the case. An anvil falls and pins one of the apprentice blacksmiths by the leg. Data, to the shock of the villagers, lifts the anvil with ease. At supper, Talur opines that Data’s strength is inherent to his people. She explains that Ice Men must be strong in order to evade the ferocious beasts in the mountains. Data asks if anyone has seen these beasts, and Talur brushes him off, asserting that their existence is a well-known fact.
Back on the Enterprise, Troi takes the engineering qualification of her Bridge Officer Exam on the holodeck. The insulation for an antimatter storage pod is breaking down. Though she scrambles to find a solution, the pod explodes and destroys the Enterprise. Riker enters the holodeck and informs her that she has failed this last and most important part of the test. Troi asks him to tell her what she did wrong, and he declines. She accuses the test of being a “no win scenario,” and Riker tells her that there is a solution. She just hasn’t found it yet. Troi resolves to take the test again.
Returning to Barkon IV, Data attends Talur’s school and refutes her assertion that fire, rock, sky, and and water. Talur displays some frustration. Garvin argues with Skoran regarding the price of the fragments, and Skoran cheats him of five units of currency. Data interjects in time to provide physical support to an obviously weakening Garvin. Garvin, Data, and Gia proceed back to Garvin’s home where Talur diagnoses him with a warming of the bodily fluids after some confusion. Data is unconvinced and initiates his own investigation into Garvin’s illness. However, he needs materials to fabricate his tools, so he and Gia go back to the village. In the village square, the villagers, led by Skoran, shout at him to leave because he caused the plague. Eventually, Gia manifests symptoms of the same disease. Data creates a magnifier and primitive Geiger counter, while discussing with Talur how he has conducted his experiments. He notes that Gia has begun wearing a pendant made from his metal fragments and concludes that the metal is emitting dangerous particles.
While Data makes his discoveries, Troi makes a few of her own. In her quarters, Troi studies the Enterprise schematic, searching for a solution. Riker comes in and tells her that he has decided to cancel the test because he does not think she will pass. Riker goes on to explain that he believes she lacks the qualities necessary to be a bridge officer. Incensed, Troi protests, and Riker reminds her that his first duty is to the ship. After he leaves, Troi reflects on his words and comes to a conclusion. She rushes to the Holodeck and loads the exam program. Once again, she finds herself in Engineering, but this time, she orders Geordi La Forge to sacrifice himself to save the ship. Riker bursts into the Holodeck, and a visibly rattled Troi informs him that he may have been right. Riker tells her that she has passed, and she observes that the purpose of the test was to prove that she could order a crew-mate to his death.
On Barkon IV, Data demonstrates his findings to Talur and asks her to collect all of the pieces of the metal and place them in the container he was holding when he entered the village. After she leaves, Skoran bursts in, accompanied by several villagers, and a scuffle ensues. One of the villagers with Skoran strikes Data’s face, ripping his artificial skin, and revealing his underlying circuitry. The villagers flee, terrified. Concealed by a hood, Data creeps into Garvin’s mansion where he meets Gia. He removes the hood at her request, and though frightened, Gia remains stalwart in her affection for Data. He finishes his work and creates a cure for the radiation poisoning, which he administers to Gia and Garvin. He heads to the village well, and as he is about to pour the curative compound into the water, a mob attacks him. He succeeds in pouring the compound into the well, but Skoran stabs him, deactivating Data.
Some time later, Dr. Crusher and Commander Riker, having been cosmetically disguised, approach Gia, who stands before a gravestone. They ask her about Data, and she points to the grave, which is situated in the village square. Gia tells the Starfleet officers a bit about her friend “Jayden” and asks for his real name. Riker tells her that it’s Data, and they beam Data and the probe components to the ship. Dr. Crusher brings Data back online. Data confesses that he has no memories of anything after he attempted to download the probe’s data into himself. He fingers the hole in his chest and observes that it must have been an interesting time. A relieved Counselor Troi excuses herself in order to take her watch on the Bridge.
As previously mentioned, the episode takes its title from Hamlet. The actual lines are “This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet, 1.3.78-81) Polonius speaks these lines as part of his massive infodump of advice to his son Laertes as Laertes prepares to leave for Paris to study. The problem, of course, is that while he does give great advice, Polonius is a bit of a windbag, so Laertes certainly discounts this august wisdom. Whether Shakespeare meant for his audience to take the advice seriously, this episode clearly does.
Having removed Data from everything familiar and stripping him of his memory, the implication seems to be that Data becomes a tabula rasa. Everything he does is therefore a function of his innate nature rather than his Starfleet training. The key here is that Data is both inherently good and a true scientist at heart. He accepts his own culpability in the villagers’ illnesses when his empirical data leads him to conclude that he accidentally caused the plague. Not only that, but he also proceeds to cure said plague, even at the cost of his own life. Data very easily could have walked away from the village or even cured only Garvin and Gia, but he does not. That choice proves who he is at his basest nature. Early on, he asks Garvin if he did something wrong when he lifted the anvil, and that question reflects an almost childlike worry about morality. Garvin assures him that he has not.
Skoran serves as Data’s foil. He’s a walking stereotype and a one-dimensional villain, which is exactly what the episode needs. Not every character in every story must be a fully realized personality. Stereotypes exist as shorthand for a certain message, and that’s exactly what Skoran does. He’s a liar and a cheat, and he serves as a perfect antagonist for the episode’s morality play. Michael G. Hagerty’s performance unfortunately leans more toward caricature, emphasizing Skoran’s flatness. Ronnie Claire Edwards, however, delivers a fantastically nuanced Talur. She does a lot with a little, but she gives us a great Talur who has embraced both science and ignorance in equal measure. Talur struggles when Data challenges her, but over the course of the episode, she clearly learns from him. I have no doubt that Talur will adopt some of the methodologies she learned from “Jayden.” Edwards conveys frustration with her fellow villagers and a certain grief for “Jayden” with her expression alone, and it’s a fantastic moment.
Despite Talur’s brilliance, the Barkon IV story struggles under the millstone of its own conceit more often than not. Data’s memory gaps are awfully convenient, and his ability to find a cure for radiation poisoning using Elizabethan-era materials stretches the bounds of even my disbelief. Brent Spiner’s performance makes up for a lot, but even Data at his best can only carry the story of the script so far. Certainly, “Thine Own Self” isn’t going for verisimilitude, but maintaining a bit more realism would have strengthened the episode tremendously. This issue is not limited solely to Data’s renfaire experience either. The Troi B-story creaks under the weight of its own issues as well.
I do like that we get to see Troi decide to take the Bridge Officer Exam, and using her class reunion as a motivating factor feels very real. This move builds on her experiences in “Disaster” as a natural progression, but something gets lost in the execution. Sure, Riker using his trombone to speak to Troi is cute. I even get why we don’t see further iterations of the test itself, but because we don’t see her struggle over and over, Riker’s decision to cancel the test feels as though it’s coming out of left field. I do like the conceit of using familiar faces in the test; despite La Forge being a hologram, there’s a moment during which Troi truly believes that she’s ordering her friend to his death. Sirtis carries the scene well, but ultimately, Troi’s promotion feels a bit too little too late.
Upon rewatch, “Thine Own Self” does not stand up to my love for it from thirty years ago, but it’s a solid entry in TNG’s final season.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch
- Patrick Stewart only has one line in the episode because he had taken time to perform his one-man version of A Christmas Carol in London.
- This episode marks the final appearance of the maroon jumpsuit.
- The title of the episode comes from Shakespeare, so clearly, that means we have to go to the Shakespeare planet. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate very much the costuming in “Thine Own Self,” but setting the planet in more or less the same pseudo-time period is a bit on the nose.
- Having Data’s tombstone situated near the village square is a nice touch. Yes, doing so meant they didn’t have to dress a new set, but I like the idea that the villagers placed Data in a location where they would be constantly reminded of his sacrifice. It’s a good lesson.
- Kimberly Cullum might appear familiar. Aside from bringing Gia to life, she had roles in Quantum Leap, Home Improvement, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She also won two Young Artist awards for her work on Quantum Leap and Home Improvement, and she garnered a total of eight Young Artist Award nominations. She has not acted since 1998.