Force of Nature (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 7, Episode 9) A Space Thing leads to an environmental mystery that implicates warp drive technology

Rewatching ST:TNG

In which a comic teaser features LaForge’s misadventures with Data’s cat; we join the search for a missing medical transport; and we meet environmentalists with dire warnings about a ubiquitous Federation technology.

LaForge is tinkering with the engines, trying to beat the performance stats of an academy frenemy. He and his nerd buddy Data have a meandering scene fiddling casually with the sensors, which have been affected by this week’s Plot Contrivance Particle Field.

A disabled Ferengi ship reports being technobabbled by what appeared to be a Federation buoy. Reasoning that the missing medical transport may have been similarly technobabbled, Picard diplomatically secures the cooperation of the suspicious Ferengi.

After more scenes focusing on Data’s cat and LaForge’s frenemy, the Enterprise moves in to investigate a debris field, whereupon plot contrivance particles promptly technobabble all the major systems, and two humanoids board the ship (via engineering, for some reason).

Rabal and Sarova, a brother and sister from a nearby planet, have been disabling passing vessels in order to attract attention. Picard is of course not happy, but when they say that the warp drives from so many ships passing through this corridor are damaging the fabric of space, he’s willing to hear them out. Data is familiar with the theories behind their claims, but notes that their claims have yet to be proven.

The siblings first appear at the close of Act 2 (of 5), so Act 3 has a lot of infodumping to accomplish. There isn’t much time devoted to develop these guest stars, other than establishing Sarova as a passionate, impatient activist who’s disgusted by the skeptical Federation scientific community, and Rabal as a rationalist who was only recently persuaded by his sister’s arguments.

Likewise, there isn’t much time to explore LaForge’s negative response to Sarova, which makes it a bit hard to swallow Sarova’s next desperate action: creating a warp core breech to prove that warp technology damages the fabric of space.

The final showdown is with the titular “force of nature” (which is, surprisingly, not the cat). Because the story arc of the guest stars is over, and there isn’t much for the lead actors to do in the final act other than look at readouts and react to the Space Things that will be added in post. LaForge and Data nerd their way through the plot contrivance particle field, the rescue mission is completed, and the Enterprise-D escapes danger.

Because we so frequently watch LaForge and Data conjuring up never-before-tried ideas that are ready to implemented shortly after the commercial break, it’s hard to accept that all the Federation’s best scientists not only can’t solve the “warp drive damages the fabric of space” problem by the end of a single episode, but that they apparently haven’t even launched a remote-controlled probe with an off-the-shelf shuttlepod warp core and a tricorder to check whether warp core breeches really do cause Bad Swirly Space Things.

Just as we recently saw the Federation scientific community seems to have ignored the sentient Professor Moriarty hologram, and we see the Federation willing to overlook the crimes against the Bajoran people in order to protect a fragile new alliance with the Cardassians, I think I see in this episode an attempt to develop a less-utopian view of the Federation, which certainly leads to more opportunities for the extended, Babylon-5-style series-long plot arcs of Deep Space Nine.

LaForge’s petty competition with the rival engineer establishes warp drive technology as a plaything for the for the privileged, in contrast with the passion that Sarova feels as she faces the destruction of her home planet due to the same technology. LaForge delivers some lines about how arrogant he was, and Picard gives a speech about how limits to warp drive speech but it’s very preachy TELLING, especially after the action sequences that SHOW how the technobabble class can once again flamboyantly innovate their way out of yet another countdown to certain destruction.

According to various nerd websites, LaForge’s sister (mentioned in dialogue) was supposed to visit, so that the B-plot could further explore LaForge’s reaction to his mother’s death, but the writers decided to drop that element, which left the script short, which called for more cat story to fill the time.

As a kid in the 1970s, I remember when the US passed a national law setting a maximum speed limit of 55mph, though I believe it was intended to reduce traffic deaths, rather than protect the environment. So the new Federation speed limit of Warp 5 reminds me of the Energy Crisis scarcity (high gas prices, geopolitical instability in oil-rich regions, environmentalist calls for alternative energy sources, oil barons calling for tax breaks and safety concessions).

The “Drive Warp 5” theme is really only a blip that gets token references in Star Trek, and I remember a voice-over Captain’s Log in ST: Voyager that established Voyager’s new style of engines don’t damage space the way the old ones did. But TNG was episodic TV, and fans didn’t expect the kind of continuity that comes from planning an entire season for fans to binge all at once.