I watched “The Perfect Mate” Friday morning before work and it left me vaguely unsettled all day. Usually I feel like an episode is either great, good but with some minor issues, terrible, or just fine. If it’s terrible, I rant out my frustrations, laugh at the ridiculousness, and move on.
I finally realized what makes “The Perfect Mate” different. Often the episodes with a terrible concept also have issues with the execution (e.g. “Angel One”, “Profit and Lace” or “Unexpected”) or the concept had potential but the execution wrecked it (e.g. “Up the Long Ladder”).
The concept for “The Perfect Mate” is terrible and offensive, but the execution is excellent, so excellent that it’s hard to help feeling carried along by the story.
When I was talking to my coworker and I said, “It’s such a bad episode,” I felt like I was lying. “The Perfect Mate” is a rare example of a close examination of Picard’s emotions, and Patrick Stewart’s performance is deeply moving. Famke Janssen also does an excellent job getting us to buy in to her character, in a role that could’ve easily come across as ridiculous in performance as well as concept.
It’s more true to say I wish “The Perfect Mate” had never been made. But it was, so let’s take a look, shall we?
Meet Ambassador Briam. His job is to deliver a woman into an arranged marriage in order arrange a peace between two warring planets. You might recognize the same character from the very similar episode “Elaan of Troyius,”:
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. We don’t actually know he’s transporting a woman yet. Here’s what we know:
Briam: Until we reach the rendezvous with the Valtese, may I ask that the cargo bay be declared off-limits to all but the most essential personnel?
Picard: I trust, Ambassador, that this cargo is in no way dangerous?
Briam: Oh, no, nothing of the sort. I’m cautious because it’s quite fragile, and quite irreplaceable.
(And here I was hoping “Mudd’s Women” was going to be the only time in Trek we’d hear women referred to as “cargo”.)
Picard and LaForge show Briam a temple they’ve designed on the holodeck and Briam explains this temple will be the site of the peace treaty. Its historical significance:
It is the ancient Temple of Akadar. It is this temple that bonds Krios and Valt, gentlemen. Two brothers ruled a vast empire from this site until they were torn apart by their love for an extraordinary woman. This is where the wars began. And this is where they shall end.
Picard and LaForge still don’t really know what’s going on, because surprisingly few questions have been asked, despite the amount of work the Enterprise crew has had to put in. Then two Ferengi troublemakers have an accident trying to steal the “cargo”, which looks like a giant, golden cocoon on a tripod.
As the crew arrives to find out what’s going on, the cocoon shimmers and disappears and a beautiful woman emerges, walks up to Picard, and says: “I am for you, Alrik of Valt.”
Naturally, Picard and Riker are all like WTF, Ambassador? Riker asks Briam why he’d think it was cool to transport a sentient being as property.
“Not as property, as a gift!” Briam replies, truly the master of political spin.
Picard says he’s angry because the Federation constitution protects a human’s fundamental rights, but the woman, Kamala, jumps in: “You’re coming to my rescue. What a kind and generous purpose. But Captain, I do not need to be rescued.”
She explains her role is to bring peace between the two worlds. Like the woman at the centre of the love triangle that initially tore the worlds apart, Kamala is an “empathic metamorph”:
Kamala: …with the ability to sense what a potential mate wants, what he needs, what gives him the greatest pleasure and then to become that for him.
Riker: You mean you change according to whatever man you’re with?
Kamala: Until I reach the stage of bonding, when I must imprint upon myself the requirements of one man, to serve as his perfect partner in life.
Picard asks her if she’s for sure cool with going into an arranged marriage and changing herself to suit her future mate’s needs, and she says, “It is my sole purpose in life.”
But when Riker escorts her to her quarters, we find her unique nature might be an issue:
“Metamorphs have a long and complex sexual maturing process. I am in the Finiis’ral, the third and final stage. It can be an uncomfortable transition Not only for me, but for the men around me..My body is producing an unusually elevated level of what you would call pheromones. The effect can be quite provocative. Perhaps you sense it?”
Yup, he senses it.
But he manages to resist, noting, “I make it a policy never to open another man’s gift.”
Uggggghhhh. Seriously, Riker? Why do even your refusals sound like bad pick-up lines?
Either Kamala is another man’s property that you can’t access (and a “gift” is still property, of the giver, and then the receiver), which is wrong because she’s a sentient being; or she’s choosing this, which is messed up because what other options has she ever had?
Crusher makes that point quite astutely over croissants and tea with Jean-Luc the next day:
Crusher: How can you simply deliver her like a courier into a life of virtual prostitution?
Picard: Beverly! Arranged marriages have been the basis of political alliances in many cultures, including our own.
Crusher: I’m surprised at you.
Picard: She knows exactly what she’s doing.
Crusher: She has been conditioned since the day she was born to believe it’s perfectly acceptable to exist only to please men.
Picard: She was born to do this.
Crusher: And bred by those people to seal a treaty with a seductive coup de grace.
Picard totally dismisses her arguments, citing the Prime Directive. No matter how you interpret the Prime Directive, it seems pretty absurd to argue that non-interference means you can’t stop this transaction from happening, but you can actively enable it. Maybe if Picard had started asking questions sooner, he could have truly not interfered and left Briam and his “cargo” to figure out someone subject to the Federation constitution who could transport him and spend hours on a custom holographic simulation of the temple for him.
Crusher at least succeeds in getting Picard to allow Kamala more freedom of movement on the ship. And that means he has to go talk with her.
Sensing her changing to try to connect with him, Picard asks her not to.
Kamala: I’m afraid my premature emergence from stasis has left me a little vulnerable to the desires I sense from men. Nevertheless, this is who I am, Captain. You might as well ask a Vulcan to forgo logic, or a Klingon to be nonviolent. I cannot change, and I don’t want to until the time has come for me to bond with my permanent mate. Why does it bother you?
Picard: Frankly, it’s difficult for me, for many of us, to easily accept that a sentient being can live only to be what someone else wants them to be.
Kamala: But that’s what gives a metamorph pleasure.
Picard: But what about your wishes, your needs?
Kamala: They are fulfilled by what I give to others.
Picard: And what about when there are no others, when you are alone?
Kamala: I’m incomplete.
Let’s just put aside for one minute Crusher’s argument that Kamala can’t truly know what she wants or needs because she’s only ever been raised to be one thing. Let’s for a minute just pretend Kamala isn’t exhibiting signs of Stockholm Syndrome.
What’s disturbing is that this is not a sci-fi narrative; women are regularly told that it’s normal and desirable to find fulfillment in pleasing a man, and to feel incomplete without a man.
There are a raft of self-help authors who argue that women need to lower their standards and just get married, because even at its worst, it’s supposed to be better than unending, sad, spinster nights with only cats for company.
Hit it, Vic Fontaine! I mean, James Darren!
Back to the Enterprise. Data is assigned as Kamala’s chaperone since he will be unaffected by her pheromones. But he finds himself unable to control a group of miners in Ten Forward when Kamala starts flirting back to them.
Side note: I would love Data to be my chaperone at events where I didn’t want to be hassled by creepsters. The way he chastises one miner for “extremely rude behaviour” is priceless.
Kamala agrees to remain in her quarters if Picard will come visit her. He’s reluctant but finds her difficult to resist, especially when she starts showing him her knowledge of archaeology.
Picard: Why are you doing this, Kamala?
Kamala: There can be only one reason. Because some part of you wants me to.
It’s nice to know that what Picard is looking for in a woman is someone who is: “independent, forceful, brilliant, and adventurous.” But a good relationship should be about what both partners want and need, and in this case it’s really impossible to know that for Kamala. It’s not clear how one can be simultaneously “independent” and everything someone else wants them to be.
After Ambassador Briam is knocked unconscious and Picard is forced to take over his position in the ceremony, he learns more about Kamala and there’s a hint that maybe she’s starting to realize she doesn’t want to be “for” Alrik of Valt.
Kamala: My mother never even heard me play. I was taken from her when I was four and sequestered in a royal village where I was prepared to fulfill my destiny.
Picard: It sounds as if it were a very lonely time for you.
Kamala: On the contrary, I had servants and tutors at my side constantly. You once asked me what I’m like when I’m alone. I’ve never been. There was always somebody there to educate me in literature, history, art, sex. But I have been alone on this journey, and I’ve found myself thinking about all the curious questions you asked. You wanted to know who I am. And as I continue to ask myself, the only answer that comes to me is, I am for you, Alrik of Valt. Because that’s the truth. In a day, I will bond with a man I’ve never met. and I will turn myself into what he wants me to be, for the rest of my life.
Picard: I also once asked you if you were doing this of your own accord.
Kamala: I’m honoured to be chosen to serve my people as an emissary of peace. But I find it ironic on the eve of this ceremony, which I have spent my entire life preparing for, that I should meet a man like you.
When we meet Alrik, it turns out he cares more about the treaty and trade negotiations than Kamala. While it increases our pity for Kamala, it also takes away from the argument that without this arranged marriage, the two societies would necessarily start slaughtering each other again. But Picard never bothers asking Alrik whether he might be willing to settle the treaty without his “gift”, allowing Kamala to be independent and explore her own identity.
Instead he reluctantly goes for his last visit with Kamala. She speculates that maybe she is attracted to him because he wouldn’t just use her “like other men”, but isn’t he? He didn’t agree to a relationship but he’s certainly not doing anything to prevent her being used by Briam and Alrik.
In the morning Crusher finds him brooding and decides to drop all her silly objections about Kamala’s right to bodily autonomy and shit, because Jean-Luc needs a friend right now.
“I wish I knew how to help,” she shrugs.
Picard goes to Kamala’s quarters and finds her in her wedding dress. And then we find out as close as we ever will, what she wants:
Kamala: It no longer matters. I wish I could convey to you what it’s like to be a metamorph. To feel the inner strength of someone. To realise that being with him is opening your mind and heart to endless new possibilities. To hear yourself say, I like myself when I’m with him…For a metamorph there’s no greater pleasure and no greater wish than to bond with that kind of mate at the end of the Finiis’ral, as I’ve bonded with you…Who I am today, I will be forever.
Picard tries to get her to call off the ceremony, but she says she can’t because of the war (hope she doesn’t find out Alrik wants to end it as much as Briam, maybe regardless of the wedding!):
Would you ask me to stay and ask two armies to keep fighting? Having bonded with you, I’ve learned the meaning of duty. He’ll never know. I’m still empathic. I will be able to please him. I only hope he likes Shakespeare.
And that’s pretty much the end. Picard leads her into a strangely human-feeling wedding, complete with a white dress and veil and ending with a kiss. Briam wakes up later and congratulates Picard for not falling for Kamala. Picard doesn’t directly answer. Roll credits.
To recap, basically there’s this beautiful woman who wants to bond with this guy and change to become everything he wants in a mate. Except we’re not sure that’s really what she wants and even if it is, it’s a little messed up.
Then she decides she wants to bond with this other, taller guy, but she has to end up with the first guy, even though she will always be unhappy and he looks kind of like a weasel. Because otherwise there might be a war…except it doesn’t really feel like it, and second guy has to observe the Prime Directive, but not the Federation constitution.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail