TNG Rewatch: “Unnatural Selection” (or “The Pulaski Problem”)

TNG Re-Watch: Season 2, Episode 7

Watcher: Mike

“Unnatural Selection” is the first (and maybe the only) real Doctor Pulaski episode.  So when speaking about this episode it’s impossible not to really have a conversation about Dr. Kate Pulaski– maybe the most polarizing character in Star Trek TNG.  I want to get this out of the way up front: I am a Pulaski fan!!  I think she’s no-nonsense, shoots from the hip and she’s a damn good doctor.  That being said, the writers didn’t get it 100% right with her.  Let’s look at this episode to see what I mean.

We are told this is Pulaski episode right up front.  In Picard’s opening captain’s log he says that hopefully their current mission will allow him “further opportunities assess the performance our new Chief Medical Officer”.  We soon learn that he’s on the fence about her.  He’s worried that her dedication to the medical field might interfere with her judgement as CMO.   That seems a little strange to me… but ok.

unnaturalselection_hd_075I think we’ve started off in a bad place here.  Pulaski is supposed to be a female version of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.  She’s a little rough around the edges, she tells it how it is, and she hates to use the transporter (that will come up again later).  I think the writers wanted her and Data to have a McCoy and Spock kind of relationship.  Those two often argued and McCoy would be down-right insulting to Spock calling him “you green-blooding, inhuman…” etc.  But when the writers tried to have Pulaski take that approach to Data- by mispronouncing his name and refusing to acknowledge that he’s alive (and not just a machine) the audience instantly sides with Data.  We think “Who is this bitch who’s being mean to my friend?”  Why do we react that way?  Are we being sexist and reacting negatively to a strong female character?  Maybe that’s part of it.  But really the writers just didn’t set her up well.  To be a McCoy like character she needs to be instantly trusted by Picard.  Kirk needed McCoy– just as much as he needed Spock.  But Picard doesn’t need Pulaski. I’m not even sure he likes her!  If Picard doesn’t need her then neither do we.  The writers didn’t earn that Pulaski/Data adversarial relationship.  They just forced it on us and we hated it.  The same thing with the Pulaski/Picard struggle.  We don’t like seeing this in a main character– a member of our team.

unnaturalselection_hd_184But back to this episode, the good doctor is given quite a problem to solve.  They encounter a ship where everyone has died of rapid aging and a genetic research colony that’s having the same problem.  The only people immune to the rapid aging are the genetically engineered children (the subject of the colony’s the experiments).  Pulaski wants to save the kids so she insists on beaming one of them to the ship to be examined.  They take precautions and proceed to beam him up in stasis.  But that’s not really good enough.  She needs to examine in outside of the stasis.  She and Picard fight about it.  There’s no other way to say it.  The argument ends with Picard saying “Doctor, God knows I’m not one to discourage input, but I would appreciate it if you’d let me finish my sentences once in a while.” before storming out of the room.   Really??  Can’t we just get along?  I’m not sure what the audience is supposed to think at this point.  We side with Picard because he is our hero– the captain.  That leaves the good doctor as hard to like.  But I don’t think it’s her fault. She wants to do a good job and other than her treatment of Data, she doesn’t make any real mistakes here.  Yet, Picard seems to think that she’s not great at her job.  What the heck?  Why did they write that into the show??  I think Picard ends up looking like a jerk.

unnaturalselection_hd_276So, thanks to advice from Geordi she talks Picard into letting her take the child (who looks older than he is) away from the ship in a shuttlecraft so she can examine him outside of stasis and not endanger the rest of the crew.  Great idea right?!  She rather rudely orders Data to pilot the shuttle (sigh).  She puts the plan into motion and takes the kid out of stasis.  Sadly she was wrong about the illness and the kid infects her.

unnaturalselection_hd_420Once she’s infected suddenly Picard decides that he likes her.  He demands that she come back onboard the Enterprise in stasis so she won’t age rapidly and die.   She refuses of course.  She’ll continue to search for a cure on the planet– I mean she is a doctor and a scientist.  She’s not some damsel in distress that needs Picard to save her, right?.  Unfortunately she doesn’t come up with a cure.  It takes the crew back on the ship to create a plan  to save her.  She’s now fully a “damsel in destress” and needs the men to save her (sigh).  But they need her transporter record or a DNA sample.  Since she’s never used the Enterprise transporters, Picard contacts her last commander.  Then he learns that Kate requested an assignment on Picard’s ship and that she’s been following his career.  So– she’s a Picard fan.  Well, why didn’t she just say so!?  Picard quickly overcomes all his doubts about her.  It just seems too convenient.

In the end, they use the transporter to save her- thanks to a DNA sample from her hairbrush. Boom. Done.  So, what did we learn?  I’d like to say that the lesson of this episode is don’t play God with genetics.  But that message doesn’t come thru very clearly.  The whole purpose of the episode seems to be for us to get to know Dr. Pulaski a little better- and to help the relationship between her and Picard.  But I don’t think it does a good job of either goal.

Does it hold up?  I have to say no.  The final solution is a too simple– and if they can use the transporter to cure her- why don’t they just use it to eliminate all disease?  That’s just poor writing right there.  😦

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