Friday, July 23, 2021

Star Trek: Half a Life

Episode: "Half a Life"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 4, Episode 22
Original Air Date: May 6, 1991

"Counselor Deanna Troi, personal log, stardate 44805.3. My mother is on board."

That might be the single greatest log entry of the entire franchise.

Yes, indeed, the generally intolerable Lwaxanna Troi is paying a visit.  But this is different from all previous Lwaxanna episodes in that it's not about Deanna, the eternally suffering daughter.  In fact, it's not about any of the principals.  Lwaxanna falls in love with Timcin (David Ogden Stiers), a visiting scientist from a dying world.  The trial run on an experiment to save his planet doesn't go well but that's not even the story's deepest tragedy.  Timcin is 60 years old, the age at which those in his culture must submit to ritual suicide.

Lwaxanna is crushed by the revelation but Picard won't do anything about it as it would violate the Prime Directive.  Timcin, wanting more time with Lwaxanna and also to continue his work, asks for asylum.  Picard grants it but, naturally, that leads to further issues.  An appeal from his daughter (Michelle Forbes, the future Ensign Ro) turns the tide.

"Half a Life" is a deeply sad episode, a new emotional note for the franchise.  It fleshes out Lwaxanna, too, and she desperately needed that.  The affection between her and Timcin is entirely believable and there's something satisfying, from a narrative perspective, in how things work out.  The tough choice is made and the loss is real.  Trek doesn't usually take us to that edge.  It's refreshing.

And of course, Stiers is wonderful.

Acting Notes

David Ogden Stiers... just thinking the name makes me smile.

Stiers was born October 31, 1942 in Peoria, Illinois.  As with so many in this space, the theater work came first.  He got his start in San Francisco, then moved to New York to study at Julliard.  He made his Broadway debut in 1974 as Feldman in The Magic Show.

The big break came in 1977 when he was cast as Charles Emerson Winchester III in M*A*S*H, replacing Frank Burns.  M*A*S*H was a masterful show for so many reasons, not least for the fact that whenever they replaced principal characters - and they did it three times - the series actually improved.  Each replacement brought new dimension.  Charles was not Frank just as Potter was not Blake and BJ was not Trapper.  They were never intended to be carbon copies of the originals.  Not only was Charles a more worthy foil for Hawkeye.  He had more range than Frank, by a long shot.  As arrogant and obnoxious as he certainly was, Charles was also compassionate, elegant and occasionally even vulnerable.  The character brought Stiers two Emmy nominations.  It's a shame he never won.

Right, this is a Star Trek post...

Later, Stiers played a recurring character on Perry Mason TV movies and a principal in The Dead Zone.  A third Emmy nomination came with his work in The First Olympics: Athens 1896.  There was ample film work over the years, too, most memorably for me as the father in Better Off Dead (read here).  His voice resume is impressive.  In fact, after Charles, his best known role is probably Cogsworth in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Stiers came out as gay in 2009.  Huzzah!

He passed away in 2018 from complications due to bladder cancer.


  1. Well, now, I want to watch Better Off Dead again. :P

    I have a vague memory of this episode.
    Still no where near going back to watching these again.
    We did recently watch the first season of Lower Decks, though. It's a great Trek series.

    1. I am curious about Lower Decks. So much good TV on these days!

  2. This is like a preview of the Lwaxana who would appear in DS9. Her relationship with Odo was great. And that time she gave Molly too much candy…

    1. This is definitely a turning point for the character. They finally gave her some dimension. There's a Season 6 episode I like, too, and for similar reasons.

  3. Every so often I get into the mistaken mindset that TNG was way too shallow, that its episodes never really pushed deep into the human/humanoid condition.

    Then I get reminded of this type of episode.

    1. And yet, you're not entirely wrong. TNG touches on important issues but, for the most part, pulls away before things get too sticky.

      Get ready for my broken record comment...

      This is one of so many reasons why DS9 is better. In the beginning, the faithful were worried about a Trek show that stays in one place. But it's the one series, so far, in which the principals sit in the stew with the locals and as such, they have to deal with the sticky issues over the long term. The resulting storytelling possibilities are rich and varied - depth along with breadth.

  4. This was a very sad episode and one, for me, hard to grasp because I can not understand dying at 60 especially when one has so much more to offer. It brings many questions and debates but this episode was touching, if not frustrating. Davis Ogden Stiers is one of my favourite actors and he brought such depth and pathos to this role. He was great as Charles and became one of my favourite characters on MASH. When he died, I was greatly saddened and still am.

    1. Yes, this one's tough. However, I appreciate the fact that they rolled with the difficult choice this time. They usually don't.