The Enterprise-D faces its most dangerous enemy yet: killer dirt!
The ship is just milling around in space, as you do, when the Federation asks if the flagship of Starfleet wouldn't mind popping by a terraforming operation on Velara III to knock on their door and check they're doing okay. The boss of the ground crew looks awfully suspicious and Troi, who never misses an opportunity to state the obvious, tells us he's hiding something. This is pretty much the only thing her empathic powers have done in the entire first season: confirm that the people who are acting evasive and anxious are hiding something. Anyway, Picard gets pushy and sends down an away team to meet the locals. We are treated to a sales pitch for the terraforming process, and then one of the team is sent to the naughty step where he is zapped to death by a mining laser. Nasty!
Data investigates and dances a merry dance to avoid being blasted with the laser before comprehensively smashing it, making another of the terraforming team rather sad. Really, don't you think he could have just pulled out the power cord...?! LaForge and Data turn detective and poke around until they find something. Could it be life...? Let's spend a good part of the middle of the show debating this question while staring at a glowing dot inside a bell jar. Oh look! It duplicated itself. It must be alive (apparently). And now it has formed a microbrain and taken control of the ship. The crew make peace with it by trying to kill it, and then send it home, where it invites the ugly bags of mostly water to visit in three centuries time. I guess they were trying to be polite.
I can't help but think of this as a reworking of the classic Trek episode "Devil in the Dark", even though they really have little in common other than the idea of a silicon-based life-form. The acrobat Janos Prohaska, who both made and performed the Horta, gave us one of the great monster performances in the television era, and sadly there's nothing quite as cool in this story. But really, this comparison is rather unfair, and I'm sure it's only because season one reworked so many classic Trek episodes that I find myself drawn to make that connection at all.
There is a legitimate connection to the original series, though. Robert Sabaroff, who wrote the screenplay for this episode, was a veteran of classic Trek, having written "The Immunity Syndrome". The idea for this story came from two other writers, both of who had their greatest success with children's television shows: Karl Guers won two Daytime Emmy Awards a few years after this episode for The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, while Ralph Sanchez was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 1993 for Raw Toonage. I can't seem to find out much about how this strange set of contributors ended up working on the same episode, but I assume that Guers and Sanchez submitted a rough draft, and Sabaroff was brought in to make it filmable. By all accounts, this did not go smoothly, and the script was being rewritten during shooting, which is never a good sign. Regardless, it mostly works as a science fiction story, even if it falls rather flat as a character drama, and fans tend to regard it as one of the better episodes in season one.
'Terraforming' is one of two major load-bearing concepts in the script, and I love the amount of explication the idea is given. In her pitch for the process, Luisa, quips that "Terraforming makes you feel a little godlike"... In the original screenplay, she then pauses and adds "Is that a terribly arrogant thing to say?" to which Data replies: "Not at all. It is accurate." This exchange was cut from the final episode, and frankly I'm glad as nobody should mistake a massive engineering project for being a deity, least of all Data.
The other concept is 'life'. This is always dangerous ground for science fiction writers, to be honest. Data states at one point: "Only life can replicate itself, Doctor. Inorganic or not, it is alive." That's preposterous. Fire replicates itself under suitable conditions, and both crystals and clays have self-replicating structures. This is a widely held metaphysical view on life, I'll admit, but Data should not be leaping from 'made a copy of itself' to 'life' here... it's a stretch. That said, the assumption of a required relationship between organic chemistry and life is also a stretch, and that's something this story takes apart quite decisively.
In that regard, I love the exchange between the Enterprise Computer, Data, LaForge, and Worf, which appears in the script as follows:
DATA Please show me the spectral analysis. Magnification twelve K.
Now Geordi is operating the console. With each entry he makes, the computer voice responds. The following should play very FAST.
COMPUTER VOICE: Silicon... Germanium... DATA: Transistor material.
COMPUTER VOICE: Gallium arsenide... GEORDI: Emits light when charged.
COMPUTER VOICE: Cadmium selenide... sulfide... DATA: Emits charge when lit.
COMPUTER VOICE: Water... impurities... Sodium salts... WORF: Conductor.
WORF: But is it alive?!
COMPUTER VOICE: Probability positive...
WORF (to computer): I wasn't asking you.
This script features the second appearance of the term 'microbrain' this season, albeit it in radically different context (we last came across it when Q was insulting Worf in "Hide and Q"). It’s a clunky term, but it does fine work in the story.
And who doesn't love that phrase "Ugly Bag of Mostly Water", so memorable it made it into the lyrics of the Dream Warriors song "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Theme" three years later!
The role of Kurt Mandl is played by an actor you may recognise even if you don't know his name: Walter Gotell.
He played the head of the KGB, General Gogol, in six Bond films between 1977 and 1987, all but one of them with Roger Moore. Indeed, he had only just finished filming on his last Bond movie, The Living Daylights, in February of 1987, ten months before the footage for this episode was shot. It was his first TV appearance since his role as Gogol ended, but it was by no means his last. Sci-fi fans may have seen him as Victor Klemper in The X-Files episode "Paper Clip", which was directed by Rob Bowman, a key director in the early years of TNG. That was the second-to-last performance of his career.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
There's a wonderful behind-the-scenes moment when the lab contains what I at first assumed to be not only a planetary model, but also the same one used to shoot the orbital footage at the start of the episode.
But after extensive digging, I’m really not sure that is what this is, and it doesn’t actually match what we see from space (even allowing for it to be tinted red). I still have to suspect that this is a studio miniature which was used for something, but quite what rather eludes me, and none of the knowledgeable Trek fans I’ve hit up seem to have a solution. I consider this to be the great season one production mystery, and I welcome everything from constructive ideas to wild conspiracy theories regarding the origin and role of this planet model!
Oh, and look at this awesome studio miniature of the terraforming base…
…But wait, that’s not what we’re looking at at all, since this is actually a matte painting by Syd Dutton (see “Angel One” if you don’t know who he is!). Here’s what the full original painting looks like for context:
Allegedly, Andrew Probert worked on a matte painting of the planet's surface for this episode, but it was either never finished, never used, or both. Either way, I'm seriously impressed with Dutton's painting, which completely fooled me - and as someone who spends a great deal of time spotting matte paintings, that came as quite a surprise!
Finally, let's meet TNG's lesser known Crystalline Entity AKA 'microbrain'. It's hardly the most memorable alien species in Trek history, but as a prop it does its job in this episode perfectly adequately. You do wonder about the logic of keeping a potentially dangerous specimen in a glass container, but I guess you can't afford to keep wracking up expenses with forcefield SFX when there's a perfectly serviceable bell jar available.
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Geode on a cake stand would make a lovely lamp, I bet you can buy one at Spencer's. But the acrobat under a rug is genius! I've often heard of fire being referred to as alive. And plants are alive. Why was there so much time spent even considering whether it could be alive and so much shock that it might be. Isn't that the whole mission statement - to seek out new life? Shouldn't it be alive until proven not, rather than the other way around?