Silicon-based life forms! How original. If you forget that we've already had two of those in TNG
We're orbiting a red giant and Wesley Crusher is asleep. Sadly, Riker wakes him up so he can get to his post on the bridge. Some kind of experiment that we're supposed to take super-seriously is going on involving the red giant and its binary companion, a neutron star. Suddenly there's a malfunction, and the ship begins to careen out of control. Oh no! Fortunately, it's just an attempt to create drama at the end of the teaser. And what's this? New opening credits! And the return of Dr Crusher. There's no doubt we've entered a new season now. But wait... let's not be too hasty, because the plot seems to be weirdly parallel to last season's "Contagion", with the Enterprise dogged with random malfunctions.
Stubbs is grumpy that his oh-so-important experiment is going to be ruined, and gives the Captain a piece of his mind. Troi uses her empathy to provide a detailed but not entirely unexpected character study of Dr Stubbs - her level 3 powers definitely seem improved from the last season. Wesley, on the other hand, is acting shifty and is caught by Guinan setting traps in Ten Forward to catch nanites that he fears may have escaped and caused the malfunctions. But don't worry, the plot isn't just repeating part of season two, we're also going to revisit season one’s “Home Soil”, with a sentient silicon-based life form holding the ship hostage.
Impatient and unwilling to sacrifice his life's work, Stubbs tries to blast the nanites into oblivion, so they respond by trying to choke the crew to death with nitrogen oxide and giving Stubbs a ten thousand volt handshake.
Seems this silicon-based life form has become sentient - bet you didn't see that one coming! Anyway, to speed this story along to a conclusion, Data agrees to liaise with the nanites and act as their voice. Then the nanites are shuffled off to the big holding cell for plot devices, where they will remain for the entirety of the original production run.
This is Michael Piller's first script for TNG. In just four week's time, he's going to promoted to head writer and will effectively be running the show, but there's no sign of that here. On the contrary, this episode is safe to the point of feeling rather too familiar... As noted above, it rather feels like a reworking of season one's “Home Soil“ in many ways, although both the dialogue and the character work here is markedly improved.
Dr Stubbs' commentary on the decline of baseball makes for a nice scene, and now feels oddly prescient in the light of Sisko's love of baseball in DS9. Indeed, Wesley specifically asks Stubbs if he recreates the great games on the holodeck. Piller, it's clear, was a baseball fan.
But the load-bearing concept for this episode is 'nanites', which I never really liked as a term. 'Nanotech' was coming through as a term via the second-tier cyberpunk stories that clumsily riffed off the works of the Movement in the 1980s. (That may have been the last genuine literary movement in science fiction, actually, since after the Movement sci-fi novels became merely another form of genre fiction.)
Another pillar of Piller's plot, however, is the title of the episode 'evolution'. Here, it is used knowledgably, which is not the norm in Trek or science-fiction, to refer to natural selection occurring over generations of reproduction. I note in passing that Darwin never used the word 'evolution', because it was so often used in his time to imply inevitable progress (think 'Manifest Destiny' if you're familiar with US history). Soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, faith in evolution-as-progress swept up Darwin's ideas and never really let it go. When we get to the backend of season three, we'll see Trek falling prey to this too.
One final quick note on the words: 'food slot' isn't a synonym for 'replicator'.
It seems that behind the scenes it was suggested that there are places on the ship where food that is replicated elsewhere is shuffled around by a kind of Dumb Waiter turbolift to arrive at food slots. It's an odd throwback to classic Trek, for although the name doesn't appear on screen anywhere to my knowledge, most of the tie-in novels refer to food slots.
The story revolves around Ken Jenkins as Paul Stubbs, and he acquits himself well in the role.
At the time the show aired, it was unlikely that anyone watching recognised Jenkins, although he had already had some twenty roles, including a bit part in James Cameron's The Abyss. But now, it's almost impossible to watch this episode and not recognise Jenkins as Dr Bob Kelso from the sitcom Scrubs, a role he played with great panache for nine years. Sci-fi fans might also have seen him on Babylon 5, Sliders, The X-Files, and although they might not admit it, as Pastor Neal on Beverly Hills, 90210.
The purpose of Jenkins' character, Dr Stubbs, is to allow the story to focus on the relationship between Wesley and his mother, since of course Gates McFadden returned to the show with this episode (having been ousted by Maurice Hurley, whose departure opened the door for her return). McFadden is never the most inspiring actress, to be honest, but she does have an undeniable charm that works in her favour. I would have preferred a more substantial story for the family Crusher than the one we got in this episode, though.
Finally, hat tip to Brent Spiner as the nanites, which he delivers well. The slightly twitchy touches to his performance work well to distinguish this role from Data.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
The new opening to the credits is striking in its contrast to the simple 'journey through the solar system' of seasons one and two. I confess to not really liking the new sequence, though. I think my problem is the transition as we pan around the ringed planet. Watch closely, because I'm about to ruin this title sequence for you forever. Focus your attention on the starfield inside the lefthand ring of the planet.
Notice how this starfield does not match the stars to the left of it in any way? That's because the footage coming in on the left is from the original sequence and the new footage has been overlaid over the top of it. I just cannot see past this flaw, trivial though it is. It feels sloppy.
The nanites are an interesting special effect. It seems that Rick Sternbach built these as a practical effect, although nobody seems to have a behind-the-scenes image of them. Certainly, when we see them on screen, they have been animated in post-production as well - and rather clunkily, alas. Still, it’s one of the more memorable moments in this episode.
Other than the credits and the nanites, the big special effect moment in this show is right at the start - the shot of a red giant being sucked away into a neutron star.
Was this impressive in 1989? I'm not sure. But it’s hard to be impressed with it today. However, that makes it a perfect metaphor for this episode, which like last year's "The Child", is a somewhat disappointing start to the season.
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