There have been plenty of good Star Trek episodes focused on Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) over the years. The good counselor of the USS Enterprise-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation was always there to help her fellow crewmates or sense that something was afoot, and every now and then an episode would give her the spotlight — “Face of the Enemy” in Season 6 comes to mind as being an excellent one.
Even so, Troi never quite got the showcase she deserved until Star Trek: Picard, which gave her the best episode she's ever had.
You get the feeling every now and then that TNG never really figured out what to do with the character. As far as Season 1 is concerned, there are long stretches where she doesn’t appear at all. Other episodes feature great work from Marina Sirtis but aren’t necessarily favorites (“The Child” in Season 2). Most of our favorite Troi moments come when she’s a supporting character in other stories focused on others — Riker (constantly), Worf (especially in “Ethics”), Barclay (in almost every episode he’s in), etc. Then there are the movies.
The TNG films almost forget that she exists. She takes the helm briefly in Star Trek: Generations, has a hilarious scene of being drunk in Star Trek: First Contact, rekindles with Riker in Star Trek: Insurrection, and then deals with some Shinzon mind invasion in Star Trek: Nemesis. She is never given anything in these movies that would count as an actual subplot, though — that honor goes to Data in every single film.
She’s always there to help and support others in all of her appearances. When she has a crisis of her own, she deals with it, but these episodes are few and far between, and even then, they aren’t necessarily all-time favorites. We always loved Deanna, but it’s our opinion that she never received the proper showcase with which to really shine.
That changed with Star Trek: Picard in the episode “Nepenthe.” It features Deanna Troi at her very best, with Marina Sirtis at the height of her powers.
A great deal of this episode features Troi serving in her vocation — being a counselor. She gives much-needed advice to Picard (as well as some necessary tough love), and she also gives warm counsel to Soji, who at this point in the season is utterly lost. We see her here as a wife and as a parent, and she hasn’t lost a single counseling step.
That's on the surface, though. She is undergoing immense grief of her own, as her first child with her Imzadi died years before. That’s why they are on this planet, and that’s why they’ve stayed. She is processing immense heartache and guilt, and she doesn’t really know how to move past it.
Other characters in crisis can rely on the wise words of Deanna Troi to get them through the tough times, but where does Troi herself go? What happens when the counselor needs a counselor?
She’s had dramatic moments of crisis before. She lost her telepathy in “The Loss,” had and lost a space-child in the aforementioned “The Child,” and so on — but this is a situation with a depth that we’ve never seen her go through before. Not really. We suppose if Guinan (or Beverly Crusher) were around she’d have somewhere to turn, but they aren’t. She has to remain a rock for her family, and for the two runaways that just showed up on her doorstep. No cracks are allowed in her professional veneer.
The most incredible moment of the episode comes when a crack shows itself anyway. She breaks down just a little in front of Jean-Luc, lets it get personal for just a moment, and admits that she’s not as strong as she used to be. Picard tells her that’s because she’s gained wisdom, and he’s not wrong. Wisdom comes through experience, and they’ve all gotten a ship full of that in the years since Data first sang "Blue Skies."
It wasn’t until she said that line to Picard that we realized what strength this character has always had. When not in the midst of a wacky (yet enjoyable, always) sci-fi episodic convention, Troi was always strong and dependable for everyone. She was also warm and trusting. You could rely on her when you could rely on no one else.
When she first appeared on Picard, though, we realized that we’d always taken that warm, reliable trust for granted. She enters toward the middle of the season, and everything is awful. Nobody trusts anyone, everyone is suffering, and it feels like the galaxy is burning. Everyone is turning Picard away like he’s a 50-foot Gorn made of randy trash.
Deanna appears with a warm embrace, says she’ll help however she can, and suddenly we're all OK. Picard is OK, Soji is OK, and we the viewers are OK. Our rock of trust is here. We never fully appreciated her before, but damn did we need her in that moment.
“Nepenthe” continues to be an ensemble affair, with Picard, Riker, and the crew of the La Sirena all getting in their necessary moments. It’s Deanna’s episode, though. We needed her counsel, and we also needed someone to actually take the time to ask if she herself is okay. She’s not okay, but she will be.
This was no “oh no, Mother’s coming on board and I have another random love interest” episode for her. It was no funny toss-off line about breasts firming up, or whatever that was. Without even being the focus of the episode, Deanna Troi proved once and for all that she’s capable of so much more than that, and Sirtis plays notes that she'd never gotten the chance to play before: strong, yet vulnerable; professional, yet personal; stern, yet loving. That's Deanna Troi, and it always has been. It's just never been as clearly depicted.
She proves here to be the embodiment of all the messages of Trek, though, like everyone else on this show, she's still "working on it." She's not perfect, but she has no ego to maintain. She also showcases another superpower, one that’s constantly overlooked in our society. It’s not just because her Betazoid telepathy makes her a natural at it, either.
In the episode, she proves what the power of empathy can do, especially when talking with Soji. A newly activated synth who was just told her entire life is a lie by a lying, abusive Romulan boyfriend? It would challenge any psychiatrist, but Troi is on it. She can't use her telepathic insights with Soji, no more than she could with Data. She doesn't need to, though. She's a natural at it with or without the gifts of her species. Even when Deanna is breaking apart on the inside, her empathy and compassion for others never waivers.
She’s a character that we all could learn a lot from, especially right now... some of us just hadn’t noticed. Star Trek: Picard made us take notice at last.