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Retro Review: The Perfect Mate

Posted by Michelle - 06/11/09 at 02:11 pm


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A beautiful, empathic woman sent as a peace offering to an alien leader begins to bond with Picard instead of her intended mate.

Plot Summary: The Enterprise has been chosen to host the final negotiations to end a long war between the peoples of Krios and Valt, who have been at war for centuries. Kriosian Ambassador Briam brings a gift for Alrik of Valt which he insists is very fragile and must not be disturbed, but two Ferengi rescued by the Enterprise when their vessel explodes sneak into the cargo bay and open the “gift” – which turns out to be a Kriosian woman held in stasis until Alrik can claim her. Kamala tells Picard that she is an empathic metamorph, born only once every seven generations, and as such she can sense whatever a mate desires and become his ideal partner. She has been raised to understand her role as a prize in the peace negotiations, but because she was brought out of stasis early, her body is producing pheromones to which the men on the crew begin to react immediately. Briam demands that she be kept isolated, but Crusher is furious that Picard is willing in essence to transport a woman into a life of sexual slavery to a man she has never met. Picard believes the Prime Directive forbids him from stopping Kamala’s impending wedding to Alrik, but he agrees to insist that Kamala be granted more freedom. He asks Data to be Kamala’s escort, but her presence in Ten-Forward nearly sparks a fight, and she agrees to remain isolated if Picard will visit her. Picard is uncomfortable with this arrangement, yet he is forced to agree when the Ferengi knock Briam unconscious while attempting to bribe him to turn Kamala over to them. With Kamala, Picard studies the rituals of Krios and Valt, learning to play their musical instruments and read their language. Kamala says that he has opened her to possibilities she has never imagined, and Picard admits that he can’t help wishing Alrik won’t arrive. Yet Alrik does arrive, more interested in trade negotiations than his bride. Just before the wedding, Kamala confesses that she has already bonded with Picard – she will remain the sort of woman he has taught her to be – yet because of that, she knows she must obey her duty and make peace between her people and Alrik’s by marrying him. Picard turns Kamala over to Alrik in the Ceremony of Reconciliation and is forced to watch as she accepts Alrik as her life mate.

Analysis: It’s been a long time since I received an e-mail from a TrekToday reader calling me a feminist shrike, which I worried might mean that I’d gone soft or something, but I think it’s really that Next Gen in most ways is fairly progressive in its scripting and presentation of storylines about issues of particular concern to women, and when it fails – as with the problematic “Violations” during this same season – the episodes tend to be so poorly constructed in general that I guess no one wants to bother to defend them. “The Perfect Mate,” though, is an episode that I know a lot of people really like. This is particularly true of people who think Famke Janssen is hot, and who can blame anyone for thinking that – she’s a wonderful Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix in The X-Men universe, and does a good job here with a role that another actress might have bungled enough to make the character as loathsome as the script. She also has great chemistry with Patrick Stewart, which probably helped both of them when they were cast in X-Men. And for people who like episodes that reveal Picard’s oft-hidden emotional side, I can see why “The Perfect Mate” might be a nice change from his typical reserve. All that said…this is a terrible episode, an enormous setback in terms of how Next Gen presents women in the 24th century, and the fact that I appreciate several of the performances doesn’t mean I don’t wish it had never been produced.

I think the writers think that because they have Crusher bring up the most obvious feminist objections and Picard dismiss them, they’ve deflected such criticism. They’re wrong. Crusher is as vehement as we ever see her when she first confronts Picard about Kamala – she accuses him of helping to sell Kamala into a life of prostitution, points out that Kamala has been raised her entire life to please men, and calls the ambassador a slave trader. Picard retorts that he can’t violate the Prime Directive and stop a wedding that may itself stop a war, arranged marriages have taken place in many cultures they’ve encountered, and moreover Kamala has been trained since birth to want to mate with Alrik. Picard is not troubled by that last fact and how he uses it to justify the others…at least, not until he has a personal interest in the bride. It’s “Elaan of Troyius” all over again, without the physical abuse and with a woman who rather than wishing to rebel is everything any man could dream of in a compliant, devoted, submissive wife. The fact that Kamala doesn’t know enough to lament her fate is reason enough for Picard to justify being the man who’s going to deliver her up, even though the ambassador himself expected significant moral objections and didn’t tell the captain the nature of the “gift” when he brought Kamala on board.

When we see Beverly later, she‘s the one who sounds like she’s been trained to please a man: her only concerns are the feelings of her friend and once-and-future romantic interest Jean-Luc, not the fact that Kamala’s situation hasn’t changed. Thus Kamala loses the only person who had been willing to advocate for her interests without any personal agenda – we all know that Beverly is so heterosexual, she couldn’t love Odan in the body of a woman. Which begs the question: why doesn’t Picard choose Beverly to be Kamala’s escort around the ship, knowing that Beverly won’t respond to Kamala’s pheremones and that Kamala might appreciate some girl talk with a woman who’s been married just when she might be having wedding jitters? Or, if he’s concerned that Beverly will urge Kamala to think like an independent woman rather than a love slave, why not have Keiko O’Brien show her around? There’s no decent explanation anywhere in this episode for Deanna Troi’s absence at a moment when it needs a counselor most – hosting a peace mission between cultures that have been at war for generations – but it’s obvious the writers needed her out of the way as an excuse to throw Kamala and Picard together. If Troi were around, everything might happen differently – she’s also empathic, she’s trained to help people understand what motivates them and what will bring them satisfaction, and being female, she’d also be safe around Kamala’s pheremones, so she’d be able to sit down with Kamala and teach her about chocolate sundaes while helping Kamala see herself not as the object of an exchange dictated by a treaty between men, but the agent who makes peace between their peoples possible.

Yes, the writers needed Troi out of the way, because she’s also practical and impatient with people who wallow in self-indulgence, like with Worf when he wanted to die rather than learn to live with a spinal injury. Troi would agree with Crusher that Kamala needs to get out of her quarters, but she’d be smart enough to suggest not letting her walk into a bar in a see-through negligee-type dress. Troi would make Kamala cut it out as soon as Kamala started playing bad grrl to the naughty miners in Ten Forward (such charming stereotyping, to have drunken working-class men descend on her like wolves spotting Red Riding Hood). Troi would have raised her eyebrows when Picard sent Riker to escort Kamala to her quarters, having intimate knowledge of Riker’s effect even on non-metamorphic empaths, and Troi would have picked up right away on Picard’s growing feelings for Kamala and found ways for him to study Kriosian culture without spending all his time basking in Kamala’s pheremones.

Right, but if Troi had been there, we’d have missed out on all the titillation of Riker getting kissed by Kamala twice! And Kamala purring that an empathic metamorph learns so quickly what stimulates a man! And Riker announcing that he won’t open another man’s virgin bride, I mean gift! And the threat of a gang rape in Ten Forward with a bunch of hooting crewmembers looking on! And Picard protesting that no, he can’t, he shouldn’t, he won’t, while Kamala demurely points out that the only reason she keeps flirting with him is that some part of him wants her to. Apparently we’re supposed to see this storyline not as about the sacrifice of a woman, but the self-restraint and nobility of the captain – Kamala herself announces that even though she belongs to Picard in spirit, she’s going to give herself to that alien who looks like Neelix because she knows that Picard’s sense of duty would demand that he do the same thing. Of course, Kamala has only become independent enough to think about whether she wants to marry Alrik because that’s the kind of woman Picard wants her to be. In fact, he may have destroyed her chance at true happiness by getting her to bond with him before she met the man whose joys could have been hers.

How come no one ever wrote a Star Trek episode where Picard could stop a war and the deaths of millions if only he’d marry a woman who doesn’t appreciate him? (Kirk would have done it – so far as I can tell, there’s no woman in the galaxy too alien, too unattractive, or too forward for Kirk, only too married or too dangerous for him.) What if Kamala had been a man raised to be the perfect mate to a matriarch – would Beverly have asked the same questions about arranged marriages and sexual slavery, would Picard and Riker have been more offended on his behalf from the start? There are all sorts of ways a similar storyline could have broken new ground or at least acknowledged all the hazards of using women as objects of social exchange rather than people in their own right, but “The Perfect Mate” isn’t interested in any of those; it’s interested only in the dignified loneliness of poor Jean-Luc Picard, who has a perfect pliable princess dropped in his lap yet must let her go. On top of all my other disappointments with the storyline, I can’t believe that a man who works with such fantastic women as Crusher and Troi and Ro Laren secretly wants to play Pygmalion.

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