the story: Data has amnesia on an away mission, and Troi takes the command test.
what it's all about: This is a pretty fun little episode. I don't want to say it's a contender for greatness, but you won't feel like you've wasted your time at all if this is somehow your first-ever episode of Star Trek. In fact, in some ways it would be a pretty good one to sample.
In a twist on a classic franchise trope, trying to explain the very alien appearance of a lead character (for instance, Spock's "rice picker accident" from "City on the Edge of Forever"), Data stumbles into a village on a world he's meant to retrieve radioactive material from, but the twist as indicated above is that not only can't he adequately explain himself, he doesn't know anything at all, much less that he's got the aforesaid radioactive material...
Things quickly get out of control. The villagers don't know the rock he brought with him is radioactive, either, and so they quickly set about contaminating themselves by fashioning jewelry out of it...And anyway, Data quickly sets about improving science for them as he investigates the sickness that has suddenly started spreading. Star Trek often depicts these aliens-of-the-week as fairly primitive (otherwise, so it goes, the Federation would probably have already welcomed them into the fold). It's kind of the condescending heart of the franchise. Sometimes you just have to decide to go with it. It's easy when you find yourself rooting for Data, who becomes the monster the villagers are hunting. Eventually half his face is slashed off, exposing his circuitry, and then he's impaled and buried...
Obviously Data doesn't die in "Thine Own Self" (a title cribbed from Polonius's advice in Hamlet). The episode is actually pretty clever. It speaks to the general strength of Star Trek storytelling. A lot of other writers would've concluded that arc with lots of unnecessary drama, when all that happens here is that the crew beams down (properly disguised so as to try and limit further cultural contamination) and brings Data back (remember that in "Time's Arrow" he even survived getting his head blown off!). Sometimes simple really is better.
While that is all well and good, the episode might actually have been better if the b-story had been the lead, because it's basically the first time we get to see the Kobayashi Maru scenario played out in franchise lore. If that means nothing to you, just know that it's a reference to a no-win scenario Kirk famously cheated to win. Later, we'd see in the 2009 movie how he did it, but that was some fifteen years in the future at the point "Thine Own Self" first aired. Instead, we get to see Troi take bold step into the future of her career.
This was something several seasons in the making. She took command of the bridge during "Disaster" in the fifth season. "Chain of Command" famously saw her finally placed into the same uniform style as everyone else. This was all an effort to give her greater depth, so that she could be taken seriously, when sometimes it hadn't been so easy to do so, especially when the series tended to emphasize her tendency to talk about emotions just because that was her defining characteristic (otherwise known as stating the obvious).
Anyway, "Thine Own Self" works extremely well as a culmination point for Troi's development, which makes it slightly disappointment that it was the b-story. Why waste such a huge moment like this? Just two episodes later is "Eye of the Beholder," a Troi spotlight that doesn't feature nearly as strong material for her. I have no idea what that's about.
Watching Troi have such a hard time trying to figure out where she's going wrong in the test, and having Riker be the one to evaluate her, is such a perfect summary of everything that's gone right with the character over the past seven seasons, and what it means to take being in Starfleet seriously. Because that's certainly what Troi, and her relationship with Riker, embodies.
- franchise - This would make a great gateway episode for new fans.
series- Probably the b-story not being the lead hurt its overall series impact.
- character - But it's still a very good Troi episode.
essential- Still, when you think about this episode, you think of Data's amnesia.