The Quality of Life (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 6, Episode 9) Boxy bots start to skive; Data thinks they’re alive, that’s a-plot twist

Rewatching ST:TNG

During a poker game, Crusher tweaks Riker, Worf and LaForge for wearing beards. 

The bumpy-headed scientist Farallon is super-dedicated to a “particle fountain” mining project, which the Enterprise-D is assigned to evaluate. Along the way she has also had time to tinker with remote-controlled, AI-driven gadgets she calls “exocomps.”

After an exocomp refuses an order in a context that could be interpreted as an act of self-preservation, Data asks Crusher for a definition of “life.”

Testy Farallon lashes out at LaForge when he’s trying to offer not only sympathy, but also a second shift of engineering staff to help her get back on schedule. 

Hypothesizing that the exocomps are sentient, Data asks Farallon to stop using them, which threatens her project. When an exocomp fails a test designed to see whether it will act in self-preservation, she’s so insufferably smarmy, we’re glad that a Bad Thing happens to her facility while Picard is inspecting it. The resulting PCF (Plot Contrivance Field) forces an evacuation, limits the transporter, establishes a countdown to certain destruction, and in a development that almost seems like it was scripted by a Hollywood writer, pins everyone’s hopes on the exocomps.

Riker’s behavior in the crisis seems contrived only to force Data to disobey an oder, an action for which Data doesn’t seem to face any consequences.

Data has some good lines about how his own identity as a sentient machine gives him insight about these machines that biological life forms wouldn’t share, but the exocomp props themselves aren’t that impressive. I get that the story says they’re supposed to be tools, not puppets or costumes that are endowed with personality through a human performer. But most of their purportedly amazing accomplishments we learn about through dialogue.

The space station set and the model of the exterior are both decent, but I guess there wasn’t enough budget left for the exocomps to do more than levitate their way through access tubes, and waggle some little appendages. 

Data references the time when his own sentience was put on trial (s2e9 “The Measure of a Man“), which is a nice bit of continuity. Farallon comes across as a plot contrivance, motivated only by the function she had to play in the story. We have already (s3e1 “Evolution“) seen Wesley accidentally create artificial life forms that in a matter of hours develop a culture that includes language, ethics, and even aesthetics (they call humanoids “ugly”). So this rehashed story doesn’t break any new ground.