Rewatching ST:TNG after a 20-year break.
On the one hand, this episode dramatizes an alien first contact, so it’s pure Star Trek (“to seek out new life and new civilizations”).
On the other hand, it’s a talky mystery, teasing us with a “closed circle of suspects” premise and giving us some promising scenes of evidence-gathering and suspect-interrogation, but detouring quickly into “hostile intruder” SF.
Yet again Troi’s ability to perceive a stranger’s emotions from orbit (aided by close-ups and music cues) serves to do nothing but heighten the dramatic tension, because the writers decided that this week she will be unable to translate those perceptions into any coherent advice for the crew.
The terraforming “colony” of Velara III seems to consist of four people and two rooms. The set for the main lab is actually very nicely done, and the actress playing the “biosphere designer” Luisa Kim makes the most of her big scene, gesturing at various blinking gizmos like a hostess on The Price is Right while delivering lines like, “We are just about to begin pumping and filtering the water, removing the salt, oxygenating and replacing.”
Moments after the terraforming director tells an underling to stop socializing and get on with his work, we hear the underling screaming, and the door is “jammed.” So far, so good — the Enterprise landing party is too distracted by the emergency to notice, but we notice that it looks rather like the director may have orchestrated that whole scene to get the underling killed. The door opens and we see the underling’s body, and then we cut to a commercial.
And here’s where things get dicey. Riker is still standing in the doorway outside the room where the body lies, but during the commercial break, he’s apparently recorded a log entry (we hear it in voice-over when the scene resumes) and called the Enterprise to update the captain on their plan to shut down the power before they can safely enter and retrieve the body. Shutting down the power apparently involves the efforts of several people, after which Yar and Data finally enter the room. Yar then calls the Enterprise to beam the victim and herself to sickbay.
Star Trek has in the past established that the removable com-badges are helpful for locating people and beaming them around, but they aren’t necessary for the transporting process. From the Trek movies, we know we’re in a future where a relatively small captured 23-century Klingon warship can beam up two whales and enough water for them to swim in, yet some 70 years later the top-of-the-line Enterprise can’t beam up the victim of a presumed industrial accident unless the chief of security steps through a doorway and stands next to him? Of course there was probably some kind of plot contrivance field (PCF) that the writers forgot to mention. That whole scene seemed padded, as did the next scene that presents Data’s encounter with the (apparently malfunctioning) laser drill.
Once the action returns to the Enterprise, the show seems to go to great lengths to demonstrate the scientific process. Dr. Crusher displays her scientific rigor by telling the computer to “recheck analysis, please” and then later orders the computer to “disregard incongruity and theorize.” I give Trek credit for trying to imagine what it would be like to work with a verbal interface, which is fine to help deliver exposition efficiently in a brief scene, but wouldn’t it be terribly distracting if you were in a room of 10 people all barking orders to the computer at the same time? At one point, the computer answers one of Worf’s rhetorical questions, and Worf snaps, “I wasn’t talking to you.”
I liked the hint of character development when Troi, explaining why her empathic powers aren’t helping her figure out the biosphere designer, tells Riker, “She’s possessed of highly abstracted reality. Lovely visions, little data. You might do better than I.” One would think that Troi has described exactly the kind of mind that an empath would understand, but instead it’s an opportunity for Riker to lay on the charm. But because we quickly learn that exploring the motives of the various suspects is a red herring, that scene ended up being pretty pointless.
Given that Troi sensed the underling was in danger before the laser drill got him, we presume she was responding to the emotions of whoever was using the laser drill. Data also says he is confident that the drill was not malfunctioning randomly, but operating under the direction of a master programmer. So, given the fact that the computer theorized the tiny glowing dot of light was a life form, the Enterprise crew seems pretty dense when the computer responds to a “translation request” from an unspecified source, and still the crew seems slow accepting that they are dealing with an inorganic life form.
I rather liked the low-tech way they depicted the glowing life form, simply using an ordinary pinpoint light (and later an array of lights) reflected in a bell jar. I didn’t remember much of this show other the greeting, “Ugly bags of mostly water.” (How would those little crystal things know what a “bag” is? Why would they need a bag, living as inorganic cells in a planet-wide computer mind? What does that mind have to think about? This episode doesn’t tackle those questions.)
The concept was good, and the production values were decent, but because this episode starts out as a murder mystery and spends some time developing the human suspects only to drop them abruptly when the “microbrain” starts growing, this episode is lopsided and disappointing.
Classic Trek did “miners encounter something strange underground” episode better with The Devil in the Dark. And just a few episodes ago, TNG encountered a huge space-faring intelligent crystal entity, so the crew seems very slow to consider a crystal-based life form. Later in the series, Wesley’s nanites and Geordi’s “exocomps” and further episodes focusing on Data will accommodate a more thorough exploration of the hard-science and ethical issues raised by inorganic intelligences.
I did like Troi’s speech: “We see and hear you now. We didn’t know you were there. You are beautiful to us. All life is beautiful.” Yes, it’s corny enough that I couldn’t help but think of the reformed Sour Kangaroo at the end of Seussical. But it captures one of the enduring appeals of Star Trek — it lets us envision what it would be like to be part of a society where idealism and selflessness and intellectual curiosity is mainstream culture.