September 19, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Imaginary Friend"

It is 4 May 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As the Enterprise charts a mysterious red nebula, a young girl's imaginary friend suddenly becomes terrifyingly real. With no one seeing the invisible friend but the girl, time is running out to discover its presence and purpose before the lives on everybody onboard are put at risk.

I have a general dislike of Star Trek episodes that begin with some unseen glowing entity arriving on a starship. It is not a problem with the narrative technique so much that it never seems to herald a worthwhile story. Whether it's "Lonely Among Us", or "The Child", or even Season 5's own "Power Play", stories about invisible alien presences stalking people or taking them over don't seem to have much strength in the Star Trek franchise. "Imaginary Friend" cribs quite a bit from John Wyndham's novel Chocky - either intentionally or by accident - but fails to develop any angle worth watching.

One of the core problems of the episode is that it's based around a guest character. We don't know Clara (Noley Thornton), yet we are expected to engage with her story at the expense of those of the regular cast. It's a lot of pressure to put onto a juvenile actor, and while Thornton is capable enough there really is not enough to her character to sustain audience interest.

There is also the narrative problem of the audience knowing that the imaginary friend Isabella (Shay Astar) is real and malevolent, but the Enterprise crew being almost entirely unaware. It is a difficult technique to employ, and in this case it largely fails. There is precious little tension involved in the episode. Later scenes also low-ball the threat: what could be terrifying sequences in which Clara is at risk of dying at the hands of an enemy only she can see are effectively thrown away.

Whoopi Goldberg makes her first appearance in a while as the bartender Guinan. She gets a nice scene with Clara talking about their respective imaginary friends, but it does not seem to lead anywhere. Guinan is usually used to relay some sort of broader moral message, but here she seems to act mostly as filler. Admittedly she does get a great little moment with Data describing what they see in the nebula through Ten Forward's window, but one funny moment cannot save a whole episode.

Ultimately "Imaginary Friend" just fails to engage with its own premise. It sidelines the regular cast to a large extent but does not replace them with anything better. It is also entirely unmemorable; I did watch this episode back when it was originally airing, but when undertaking this rewatch I could not for the life of me remember a single thing about it. It leaves Season 5 with 13 enjoyable episodes out of 22 thus far, and a quality ratio that slips down to 59 per cent. That really surprises me: I remembered Season 5 being a lot better than this.

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