I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. I can and have spent hours discussing my favorite episodes and interesting aspects of the setting with friends and family. And like everything we love, there are some things about it that drive me absolutely crazy.
Star Trek as a whole has developed a reputation, deservedly or no, for being willing to tackle issues other programs won't touch. I'm not going to get too deep into the behind the scenes aspects and decision making process, because my approach to fiction is very much in the Death of the Author camp. I am far more interested in the in-universe claims of utopia and having gotten beyond primitive ideas like prejudice than I am in the real world conflicts between writers, show runners, and network censors.
And it is through that lens that I see the episode Rascals, which shows quite plainly that even in the utopian 24th century, ageism is apparently alive and well.
The premise of this episode is that through a transporter mishap, Captain Picard, Ro Laren, Guinan and Keiko O'Brien are physically transformed into children while retaining their adult minds.
One of the first things that happens after the transformation is that Picard faces prejudice from his crew. Despite the medical staff confirming that he is the same person, and that his mind was unaffected, his crew is hesitant to follow the orders of a man who looks like he's twelve.
While initially confident he can get through the initial discomfort his subordinates feel, his friends and confidants manage to convince him that his career is, if not over, absolutely going to need to be put on hold until he looks the right age again. He could possibly retain his rank in an honorary fassion so long as he goes and sequesters himself away back in school, but he won't be able to command a ship.
By the episode's end, Picard agrees to a risky procedure with a not insignificant chance of scattering his molecules across three lightyears for the chance to return to normal. Let's go over what that means, because it isn't immediately obvious. Not only was the procedure itself risky, but even if it worked perfectly we need to remember what the intended outcome was.
The medical staff had confirmed early on that if they did nothing, everyone who had been transformed would age normally from that point and would be perfectly healthy if they went that route. The procedure to return them to their normal ages by design takes years off their potential lifespans. Picard's case in particular is significant because he actually has a physical disability in his older form. A finicky artificial heart that nearly kills him twice in the series.
So, to reiterate, the man would rather lose decades of life, reacquire a preventable physical disability, and risk dying in an experimental medical procedure to bring all this about, rather than continue to live under the restrictions and prejudices he would face as a result of looking like he was a child.
Keiko O'Brien's struggles during this were more personal, but no less telling. Her husband Miles is deeply uncomfortable at the transformation, and pulls away both physically and emotionally when Keiko needs support. By the end of the one scene this conflict is allowed, the characters are already mourning the loss of their marriage.
For context, the marriage of the O'Briens has survived multiple instances of demonic possession, losing their daughter in a timewarp, two decades of false imprisonment and a subsequent suicide attempt, the entire Dominion War, and the most severe demotion in observed Starfleet history. They survive all that, but Miles can't bring himself to stand by his perfectly rational, mentally adult partner just because she's currently inhabiting a prepubescent body.
This all needs to be looked at in context. The Enterprise is an interstellar starship with a mandate to seek out new life and new civilizations, dispatched from a government encompassing a diverse array of species with radically differing biology and social customs. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the weirdest thing that has happened to these people. None of this can really be put down to shock when they've reacted with professionalism in the face of godlike beings summoning Mariachi bands, crew members mutating into spiders, and the entire concept of cause and effect breaking down before their eyes.
Now, so there are no misunderstandings, these two scenes are my favorite part of the episode. I adore the emotional impact of those scenes and the way this utterly-insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme transformation threatens to destroy Picard and Keiko's lives in ways they couldn't have imagined previously.
What bothers me about this episode is that those two scenes were all we got addressing these issues, and so much about the context of the situation that I discussed up above was nowhere to be seen in the episode itself. The episode wastes time on wacky hijinks while ignoring both the emotional core of the story and social commentary it was right on the edge of.