Sutter’s Cloud

The place where fabulism overshadows science fiction

“Imaginary Friend” (1992) is an obscure episode from season 5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“TNG”), prestigious US SF TV. In this article I argue that it exemplifies a useful distinction between science fiction and fabulism.

Your appearance cannot leave any question as to your name, nor can your name fail to identify your appearance; unquestionably, señor, you are the real Don Quixote of La Mancha…
Cervantes

Contents

Introduction

The setting of the series is developed to a standard higher than the norm for 1990s SF TV. It takes place aboard a spaceship exploring the Milky Way in the far future. “Imaginary Friend”, specifically, takes place in the year 2368 CE.

Nominally, the series shows a future world that is possibly the viewer’s own, in the weak sense that scientific progress could result in humans exploring more of space in the far future. However, the series is episodic. Fan wiki Memory Alpha lists a total of 147 writers on TNG’s 178 episodes alone, not including its predecessor, Star Trek (1966). These various writers contradicted one another. Many of them added premises of soft SF and arbitrary inventions, so that in 1992, only an extremely naïve viewer could have imagined that the specific events of TNG would occur, or were as likely as the events of non-SF TV drama.

Producers and head writers generally agreed on the limits of the shared fictional world and tried to keep that world cohesive to the extent that it was lucrative to the production company, Paramount Domestic Television. Inside this envelope, some of the show’s writers engaged in extrapolative SF, e.g. “Evolution” (1989). Others wrote larger and more speculative or symbolic thought experiments like “Darmok” (1991). Still others wrote whimsical pageants like “Qpid” (1991), allegories like “The Outcast” (1992), and horror stories like “Violations” (1992).

“Imaginary Friend” tries to do something different. It was written by Edithe Swensen (teleplay), Brannon Braga (teleplay), Jean Louise Matthias (story), Ronald Wilkerson (story) and Richard Fliegel (story).

Plot

In the episode, Clara Sutter is a child on the spaceship. Her father consults the ship’s psychologist because Clara has an imaginary friend called Isabella, instead of playing with other children. The psychologist dismisses the father’s concerns. Later, an extraterrestrial creature appears and takes the role of Isabella, exploring the ship to harvest energy from it. The name of this article, “Sutter’s Cloud”, is a name proposed in the episode for the region of space where the extraterrestrial creature has its home.

Noley Thornton and Shay Astar in “Imaginary Friend” (1992).
Isabella on the left, Clara on the right

Clara believes that the alien creature is the Isabella of her imagination. It tries to hide from people other than Clara and adopts Clara’s perspective on some things, but becomes increasingly rebellious. Clara’s father and the psychologist are concerned that Clara is blaming her own bad behaviour on Isabella, until they confirm Isabella’s existence by independent observation.

Past that point, the ship’s captain deals directly with Isabella, who accuses the humans of treating their children poorly. She threatens to kill all the humans and seems able to do it. In the end, Clara still insists that the alien was the real Isabella “for a while”.

Clara’s age is not stated. She was played by a nine-year-old actor. Isabella’s age is given as 12 years. Isabella’s appearance matches Clara’s description throughout.

Authorial intent

Executive producer Rick Berman, who supported the development of the script, evidently thought that Clara’s relationship to Isabella was its central feature. Memory Alpha quotes him from Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 245:

Where else but in science fiction could you do an idea about an imaginary friend who turns out not to be imaginary? It’s a story about an alien who takes the form of a little girl’s imaginary friend and begins to perceive our world through the eyes of a child.

Clearly, Berman’s interest was in the theme of imagination, and especially imagination as it pertains to science fiction, or at least vice versa. He had more creative control than the writers or even the director, so I take his word to signify authorial intent. With this in mind, let’s take a look at part of the script.

The meeting

Here is the dialogue of Isabella’s first appearance, which introduces the central motif of the imaginary friend apparently becoming real. Clara is sitting in the ship’s arboretum, talking to herself as if talking to Isabella.

Clara: See, Isabella? You have to push your finger into the soil as far as it can go. I’m making a hole for the seeds. Now they need to be watered. But the baby seeds are very small, so we mustn’t give them too much to drink.

The alien, in an incorporeal form, passes through Clara without her noticing, then appears as Isabella, humming along with Clara. Clara looks around.

Clara: Hello? Is anybody there?

Isabella: Hello.

Clara: Isabella?

Isabella: Hello, Clara.

Clara: Isabella, how come I can see you?

Isabella: Is something wrong with the way I look?

Clara: No. I’ve just never seen you before. Not for real.

Isabella: Well, now you can see me for real. Doesn’t that make you happy?

Clara: Yes, it’s wonderful.

Isabella: Can we go now?

In between the line “Hello, Clara” and Clara’s question, the show’s opening credits play, so there is a cut, but there is no implication of anything else having been said in the interim.

A close reading

Although the alien has passed through Clara’s head, there is no indication throughout the episode that it exercises direct control over her mind. The scene instead purports to describe Clara’s spontaneous reaction. I see this happening in five stages:

  1. Clara’s normal life, playing alone, in the far-future setting.
  2. Clara hears Isabella humming and is confused, not sure whether she is alone.
  3. Seeing Isabella, Clara is skeptical and interrogates her.
  4. Without an answer, Clara is satisfied and concedes that seeing Isabella is “wonderful”.
  5. Mere seconds after her appearance, Isabella changes the subject.

Let’s think about each of these in turn.

Stage 1: Classical realism — “See, Isabella?”

At the start of the scene, the television camera catches an adult tending to another part of the arboretum, but Clara evidently feels alone. Notice how she relates to Isabella at this stage. Clara’s first line apparently repeats what an adult has told her off camera, so that Clara is putting herself in the place of the adult authority. Clara serves her own psychological needs for security and power by instructing and softly commanding Isabella, simulating a friendship that is actually self-serving, very much like imaginary friendships in real life.

This is a somewhat sophisticated bit of mimesis in the mode of classical realism. As I expect from professional writers, they appear to have had no trouble conceptualizing or phrasing it. In the shooting script, they successfully portrayed Clara’s imagination at this stage, guided by experience of children behaving this way.

Science fiction does not enter into Clara’s first line. This specific detail of the far-future setting, viewed as if under a microscope, is perfectly compatible with classical realism. There is nothing on the spaceship that would make it implausible for Clara to have an imaginary friend, to speak to her this way, or to plant seeds.

Stage 2: The departure — “Is anybody there?”

From hearing Isabella humming, Clara suddenly suspects that she is not alone. She does not look toward the extra in the background, who could have been humming. Instead, she asks “Is anybody there?” This is telling.

Clara’s question shows that she does not believe in Isabella. Like all sane children who retain imaginary friends to Clara’s apparent age, she is aware that she is using her imagination and that she was alone at least until this point. She does not merely think that Isabella is invisible. Instead she knows Isabella is not “there” at all, and will not be planting seeds. She wasn’t literally speaking to Isabella in her first line, but to herself.

This stage of the transition remains within the territory of classical realism, reinforcing that Clara’s psychology is of a type familiar from the real world. A real child, playing alone with an imaginary friend and startled by a noise, will plausibly react the same way. Again, the writers demonstrate their command of the subject matter.

What separates this stage from the previous one is the addition of the humming Clara heard. That sound, by itself, is potentially explainable within the established framework of classical realism, but has not yet been explained in that framework or any other. The viewer, who has already seen the alien in its incorporeal form, is ahead of Clara and already expects a marvelous resolution to the ontological tension.

Stage 3: The investigation — “… how come I can see you?”

The creature appears in the flesh and Clara sees it. The visual presentation of this event is as straightforward as the script. There are no special effects, just the actors on set. However, the writers do not take the route of The Fantastic (1970). A clear break with realism has occurred. Nonetheless, the writers are seasoned and do not launch straight into chaos or banality.

Clara’s question, “how come I can see you?”, is an important concession to internal consistency. It must be intended to ground Clara’s reaction in the established character and setting. This is how science fiction normally maintains the viewer’s interest: Although strange things happen, they happen mainly through cause and effect, which is a higher form of realism than the mere familiarity of the previous stages. Isabella’s unexplained appearance has the effect of Clara’s confusion, which makes sense. However, Isabella offers no explanation and Clara does not press the issue.

Stage 4: Acceptance — “Well, now you can see me”

At this point in the dialogue, it is apparent that Clara has accepted Isabella’s “wonderful” appearance on the premise that Isabella, whom Clara knew to be imaginary, is no longer imaginary. In other words, Clara now believes that there has been a fundamental shift in Isabella’s ontological status: A wonder indeed!

There is no sign of Clara thinking that this wonder, or miracle, has been technologically mediated or caused by some agent outside the pair of children. What she accepts is the direct transposition of Isabella, under some undefined power of the imagination, without Clara even knowing that it was happening.

Stage 5: A new normal — “Can we go now?”

The scene ends with Isabella beginning to pursue the alien’s science-fictional agenda and Clara tagging along. By changing the subject in the last line of the excerpt, Isabella prevents the investigation from being resumed. The question of her status is not brought up again at this terminal stage of the conversation. Clara’s personal sense of wonder lasted only for a second.

On one level, Clara’s now-settled belief is false. Although the alien has created Isabella, its agenda reminds the viewer that it is not purely the Isabella of Clara’s imagination but an amalgam of that character and the alien’s own identity. The writers thus continue to juggle perspectives in the manner of realistic 19th-century novels. On this level they have only moved from a situation where Clara plays realistically with an imaginary friend (stage 1), to a situation where Clara plays with a character (stage 5), mistakenly thinking the two are one and the same. Science fiction is relevant here only to the extent that it permits the impostor to be non-human.

What to believe

Clara’s belief that Isabella has become “real” can be called the miracle hypothesis. This hypothetical explanation for the surprising event of Isabella’s arrival is incorrect in the diegesis, that is the internal context of “Imaginary Friend” as fiction, wherein Clara herself is real and the physical Isabella is an alien impostor.

Incidentally, Clara’s belief in the miracle hypothesis is also incorrect in a different context. That is the context of writing “Imaginary Friend” for consistency with the rest of TNG. In this external or extradiegetic context, wherein Clara herself is fictional, it is not plausible that Clara would believe Isabella is real.

Clara’s belief is implausible because better explanations are more readily available to her. The following list is not exhaustive. It excludes, for example, the possibility that Clara is dreaming or has gone mad.

The human impostor hypothesis

At the most basic level, Clara could suppose that another child has dressed up according to her description of Isabella, in a blond wig and blue dress. The reason for this might be a prank, an incompetent effort by the psychologist to get Isabella to engage more with other children, or an attempt by the human impostor herself to befriend Clara.

None of those explanations would be good, but all of them would lie inside the domain of classical realism, requiring minimal use of the imagination on the part of the writers or the viewers. Even if Clara has not personally experienced such deceit, she would have heard of it, just like the audience.

The hologram hypothesis

Clara likely knows that the spaceship she’s on can generate tangible, perfectly convincing holograms. These have been a feature of previous episodes in the series. She could have entertained the hypothesis that Isabella is such a technologically mediated illusion. Unlike human impostors, this explanation lies outside of real human experience, but it’s inside Clara’s fictional human experience.

Under this hypothesis, Clara might suppose that the psychologist, or her father, have ordered the hologram to be created from Clara’s description, whether for some therapeutic purpose, tutelage, or entertainment. This would have been extraordinary, partly because the arboretum is not one of the designated areas where holograms normally appear.

The synthesis hypothesis

Even if Clara were to believe that Isabella has been physically instantiated as a real person, this would not require a miracle. The spaceship has both teleporters and matter synthesizers that could plausibly create synthetic people more easily than Frankenstein’s science. It is apparently illegal, unethical and technically difficult to do so, but being a child, Clara could probably picture it happening. Virtually all of her food is synthetic, including all meat. To her, it cannot possibly make any difference that the ship’s technology is soft SF and effectively miraculous to the viewer. It is not miraculous to Clara.

Other civilizations in the setting can make adult human clones from DNA (“Up the Long Ladder”) or indeed synthesize humans from human thoughts by technological means (e.g. “Shore Leave”), though again, those technologies would not be permitted on Clara’s ship.

The non-human impostor hypothesis

Finally, it would be plausible for Clara to entertain the correct hypothesis that Isabella is an extraterrestrial impostor with near-magical powers. Humans in the setting have encountered such creatures before, and Clara would have heard of them because she is in communication with witnesses, including the psychologist. The truth would therefore seem plausible to Clara within the boundaries of the setting.

Comparing the explanations

We can compare the various hypotheses I have outlined by the perceived availability of their requirements.

Human impostor Hologram Synthesis Non-human impostor Miracle
Within real-world human experience? Yes No No No No
Within Clara’s experience? Yes Yes Perhaps Perhaps No
Within any human experience shown in TNG? Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Socially acceptable in TNG? Perhaps Perhaps No No N/A
Minimal preconditions A deceiver, stalking, a costume A deceiver, electricity, computer-assisted design work, protocol violation A lot of hard work and criminal liability if done by humans; likely expensive Existence of an extraterrestrial species with the requisite properties, in the right time and place New cosmology

We can also compare the hypotheses by the ease with which Clara would or could have rejected them if she had gone beyond her initial question. For example, unlike the hologram hypothesis, both the synthesis hypothesis and the human impostor hypothesis would necessarily have been rejected upon seing Clara make herself invisible to adults. An unskilled or unlucky human impostor would have been rejected if she did not resemble Clara’s idea of Isabella, though it is never clear just how detailed the mental picture was. Clara is therefore able to test different possible explanations, but does not.

Overall, the miracle hypothesis is the least attractive of them all. It is the furthest removed from Clara’s life experience, it requires the most extraordinary premise, and because of its apparently intimate nature, it would be difficult to reject if false, which makes it even less likely to be true.

Psychology

I would not expect a child in this situation to launch into a scientific experiment, but Clara is capable of reason, as shown by her question, “how come I can see you?” She has also lived her entire life in the setting of TNG. Though the various hypotheses outlined above may seem abstruse to the viewer, they must be familiar to Clara. Considering them would not require unusual intellectual capacity or inclination. Conversely, there is no reason to believe that Clara’s upbringing or personality have made the miracle hypothesis more available to her than its merits would suggest.

There is reason to believe that Clara accepts the miracle hypothesis in part because Isabella offers it to her. She does so obliquely, by saying “Well, now you can see me for real. Doesn’t that make you happy?” In the latter sentence, Isabella invites irrational motivated reasoning: If Clara wants to be happy, then she should accept the miracle hypothesis. This is a nice bit of psychological manipulation, but it does not explain why Clara trusts the manipulator in the first place.

In addition to alternative intellectual reactions, writers with different skills and ambitions would also have considered different emotional reactions. A nine-year-old presented with an apparently physical manifestation of an imaginary friend as a 12-year-old would probably be frightened before doing any thinking. Recall that Clara patronizes the imaginary version of Isabella and is aware that she does not exist. Suddenly having to face any version of her, with a loss of control, would scare most children. This is especially salient here because Isabella looks grumpy, not friendly.

Choosing contradiction

Some writers on TNG played to the strengths of science fiction as a non-anthropocentric genre, as in “The Ensigns of Command” (1989), while others went the opposite way into fantasy, e.g. “Where No One Has Gone Before” (1987). By omitting reasonable hypotheses and emotions from the script, the writers of “Imaginary Friend” effectively took the fantasy route, but they didn’t just go with fantasy. They also let the narrative contradict itself, most especially in the transition from Clara playing alone in a realistic framework to Clara accepting the physical Isabella as a product of her imagination.

This internal contradiction is no mere plot hole. It is so large and so central to Berman’s vision that it cannot be accidental.

At least some of the writers probably understood that consistency required a different reaction. Compare, for example, the episode “The Inner Light” (1992), which aired later in the same month as “Imaginary Friend”. In it, the ship’s captain is suddenly faced with an unfamiliar scene. His first reaction is to call for all holograms to be turned off, which is to say that he picks the hologram hypothesis before any other.

The prevailing writer of “Imaginary Friend” knowingly abandoned classical realism, science fiction, and internally cohesive fantasy in a TV series that had used them all before. To understand this contradictory choice, it is good to ask “cui bono?” Who benefits from inconsistency?

Wish fulfillment and genre

When Isabella becomes rebellious and turns invisible as if returning to the imagination, the writers play with the idea of having an imaginary friend to blame for one’s own mischief, and the adults react according to that premise, not as the setting would suggest. In order to play this symbolic game, the writers blur the lines, shaping the alien impostor hypothesis to reinforce its symbolic correspondence with real-world social relationships between adults and children. This doesn’t explain Clara’s credulity, but it is part of the answer.

To a fabulist writer like the one who ultimately prevailed, the appeal of the episode lies in its basic concept as Berman described it. The “imaginary friend who turns out not to be imaginary” is a writer’s sales pitch. It is, fundamentally, a fantasy of wish fulfillment, almost literally of a dream come true.

Science fiction writers have done good things with the motif of dreams coming true, as in The Lathe of Heaven (1971), but the motif generally lends itself better to fantasy. I argued for this in Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction. In Fantasy with and without consistency, I identified fabulism, a literature of internal contradiction meaningfully distinct from cohesive fantasy. “Imaginary Friend” illustrates both of these theses.1

Eschewing SF

I believe the main reason for the internal contradiction in “Imaginary Friend” is this: The miracle hypothesis, being both naïve and whimsical, was intended mainly to slip the viewer into a daydream until the next commercial break. Giving Clara a more plausible reaction—that is a skeptical or nervous one—would have distracted the viewer from the core concept of naïve wish fulfillment, because critical thinking punctures narcissism.

I arrived at this interpretation because the strongest internal contradiction happens just at the point of transition from realistic play to fantasy. The material I regard as missing, including the hologram hypothesis, would have been brought into that transition and would have produced internal cohesion. Without it, the transition is almost direct from a life like the viewer’s to the implausible daydream. This directness is meant to sell the concept to a casual or wishful viewer. In this model, internal cohesion would not have been merely difficult to achieve, but counterproductive to the artistic ambition.

Auxiliary explanations

In addition to the above explanation, which comes out of genre theory, the following can explain aspects of the episode’s internal contradiction to a lesser extent.

Conclusion

It would have been impossible to execute the fabulist concept in a mainstream TV drama limited to classical realism without dreams or madness. However, despite Berman’s implication that the concept is quintessential science fiction, “Imaginary Friend” shows the two genres separating like oil and water poured into the same jug. That jug is offered to the viewer. The viewer learns before Clara that the miracle hypothesis is false, yet it remains central not only to Clara but to the entire offering of an hour’s entertainment. The viewer learns before Clara that the alien impostor hypothesis is true, yet it’s more peripheral, even perfunctory.

Clara’s implausible misunderstanding is, essentially, the least inelegant excuse the writers could come up with to sell a fabulist script to a science fiction show. When Berman said that you can only do this sort of thing in science fiction, he may have been referring to that very subterfuge: An internally coherent SF premise is offered, but overshadowed and even contradicted by something more spectacular and dreamy that Berman found more appealing. Science fiction is reduced to a pretext for fabulism, necessary only insofar as the audience expected science fiction from TNG.

It is common to see incompetent writers oversizing the premises of a narrative. For example, in TNG, they often make the alien threat of the week unnecessarily powerful. That is true even here, insofar as Isabella and the rest of her alien species can kill all the humans. What makes “Imaginary Friend” interesting is how it simultaneously does the very opposite, that is to undersize the premises. A completely fabulist text would have required even more extreme departures from reality and no excuses made for them, but the writers abstained. They tried instead to pour a rich emulsion out of a jug filled with a layer of oil and a layer of water.


  1. Note to self: Never use the phrase “these theses” again.