“Force Of Nature” (season 7, episode 9; first aired Nov. 13, 1993)
Or The One Where The Enterprise Should Get Its Exhaust Checked
For an episode which takes aim at one of the Trek franchise’s most long-running assumptions, “Force Of Nature” spends an awful lot of time focused on Data’s cat, Spot. First Geordi borrows Spot because he wants to get an idea of what pet ownership is like; then Geordi freaks out because pet ownership is more demanding (and more potentially destructive) than he realized, and tells Data that he has to train his cat. Then Data attempts to train his cat. Then—well, we never find out what happens next, exactly, because by that point the Enterprise is neck deep in crisis mode, trying to rescue a missing ship and deal with some crazy alien scientists. But those first 20 minutes are, basically, driven by the nutty adventures of Data, Geordi and That Darn Cat. It’s a curious narrative choice, to say the least, especially since these adventures have nothing to do with the episode’s main focus: the potentially dangerous effects of warp drive use on the fabric of space-time. That’s a big a deal, and you’d think it would merit the focus of an entire hour.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t hate The Spot Chronicles. It’s a matter of taste (well, more so than usual, I mean), but watching Geordi and Data chat about feline obedience rituals has a certain fascination to it. La Forge is kind of a jerk about it, assuming that simply because he doesn’t know how to handle a cat, the cat has to change. But the rapport between him and his robot buddy—Geordi as slightly condescending as always, Data as patient as ever—has a laid back affability to it that helps it to go down easy. It’s a hang-out subplot, a storyline which exists primarily to let us enjoy the characters and not get overly concerned with plot. This makes for an oddly structured episode, with a comparatively large amount of time given over to a plot with low stakes and no real drama. We find out about the trouble with Spot, we get a discussion or two about the difficulties of training cats (to wit: you can’t), and then we get a joke about how Spot trained Data better than Data will ever train him—a joke which I didn’t realize till just know is intended as the end beat for the plot. It’s all sort of Reader’s Digest-y, but charming enough.
As for the real meat of “Nature,” well, I respect the ambition; I’m just not sure it’s a choice that works for this show, at this point in the run. The Enterprise is working its way through the Hekaras Corridor, a safe path of space through an area filled with tetryon fields. They’re looking for the Fleming, a missing science ship last seen in the corridor. While on the hunt, our heroes come across a Ferengi ship floating seemingly dead in the water (so to speak). The Ferengi are playing possum, to a certain extent; there’s an exchange of fire, the Enterprise comes out victorious, and when Picard contacts the other ship, the DaiMon accuses him and the rest of Starfleet of setting out a trap. The Ferengi came across a Federation buoy, but when they approached it, the buoy sent out a pulse the disabled the engines of their ship. No one knows what’s going on, but the Fleming is still missing, so the search continues, right up until the Enterprise finds a buoy much like the one the Ferengi described. It’s emitting a distress signal, and when the Enterprise responds, their engines are hit, knocking out their shields. Once the shields are down, another ship appears, and two Hekarans beam aboard. They’re from Hekaras Two, the only planet in the corridor with intelligent life, and they set out the buoys as a way to attract attention. They claim that the continued use of warp drive is disrupting the fabric of space, and, if it continues, it will ultimately destroy their home world.
Have we had activists on TNG before? It feels like we must have, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head. Surely none as a strident as Serova, the genius scientist who demands that others immediately agree with everything she says. Her brother, Rabal, is a little less strident, but he can’t do much to keep Serova from alienating anyone she comes in contact with through her stridency and impatience. Serova eventually gives her life to prove her theories correct, and while it’s hard to feel too bad about seeing her go, it is a fairly abrupt way to make a point. “Force Of Nature” does a decent job of empathizing with the Hekarans’ frustration, and it’s interesting to see the Enterprise on a losing end of this sort of conservationist struggle. So much of the series has been about Picard and the rest of the ensemble stressing at every opportunity the importance of non-interference that it’s a change of pace when Picard starts talking about bringing evidence to the Science Council and so forth. Even coming from Picard, who’s so reasonably and adult about these situations, the response seems insufficient to Serova’s demands. As annoying as she is, if she’s right, her entire planet is in danger, and every ship that passes by traveling at warp speed is going to make the situation worse. Anyone who’s paid any attention to governmental attempts to manage environmental dangers (like, say, the climate change “debate”) will see parallels here. Picard has the best of intentions, but even the most genial, conflict-free bureaucracies are very, very slow. If you’ve spent years trying to get someone to pay attention, it must be next to impossible to maintain perspective when you keep getting forced through the same tired steps.
So Serova gets back in her ship and overloads the warp drive in her engine, destroying the ship, killing herself, but demonstrating that excessive warp can create rifts in space. (The problem I have with this is that part of the discussion was the debate over whether or not warp had a cumulative effect. Sure, Serova has shown that a whole lot of warp all at once does significant damage, but all she’s really done is proven that people shouldn’t blow up their space ships.) Quibbles aside, this convinces a shocked, and somewhat guilty, Enterprise crew, but before they can report their findings to the Federation, they have to rescue the Fleming; and thanks to Serova, the Fleming is now trapped inside a rift. Data comes up with a plan, he and Geordi work out how to implement it, and after a few close calls, the day is saved. Only, there’s still that worrisome possibility that traveling at warp speed can be damaging to the continuity of space-time. The law is handed down: travel through the Hekaras Corridor is restricted to essential personnel only, and from now on, Federation ships can only travel at speeds up to warp five, unless in cases of extreme emergency.
Nothing says fun like restrictive regulation, eh? I respect that TNG was willing to try on an idea this big, and this potentially status-quo shifting. Warp drive has been essential (if understandably magic-seeming) part of Trek lore since the start of the first show, and it’s always been treated as a given, a necessary piece of hand-waving required to justify all this jaunting around the galaxy. To raise the possibility that all of this might have consequences after all is a big deal, and it does fit in well with TNG’s general approach to storytelling. It’s also impressive the way the episode subtly ties in the potential danger of space travel with Geordi’s need to one-up a fellow engineer. He tells Data there’s no real reason he wants to make sure he’s beating the other guy. It’s just a problem he wants to solve, based on his pride and the fact that problem solving is how he defines himself. It’s the pursuit of scientific advancement without any need. While warp drive is a necessity for space travel, the potential consequences of the episode make you wonder how much of all the development and progress was driven by need, and how much of it came from just wanting to one up the next guy.
That said, I’m not sure the show needed this, especially not this late in the run. If TNG was more interested in serialization, the sudden restriction of warp drive might have had an impact, but given we don’t have that many episodes left to get through, it’s hard to imagine this coming up again. As is, it’s going to have a minimal effect, and while we’ve had plenty of TNG episodes that didn’t linger long after the end credits, something this game-changing (dammit, I was trying to avoid that phrase) seems like it should last longer. But even more importantly than that, I don’t know if I really need a show whose primary focus is on hoping from world to world and having adventures and so forth to suddenly get worried about this kind of consequence. Restrictions can help stories come into shape, but this kind of restriction just seems arbitrary to me, and far too depressing. I want Picard traveling the stars, not checking his exhaust fumes.
- At some point in my notes, I wrote “A little too shticky.” I’m assuming this has to do with the Geordi/Data plot, so watch out for that.
- It would be easier to take the Hekarans seriously if I didn’t keep wanting to ask them how difficult it is to feed the mouth on their forehead.
- “Geordi, I cannot stun my cat.” Funny line. Also, Geordi claims he was joking, but I really don’t think he was.
- Serova announces she’s going to “give them proof.” At some point, every mad scientist in the history of mad science has said this.
“Inheritance” (season 7, episode 10; first aired Nov. 20, 1993)
Or The One Where Data Gets His Cradle Rocked
Maybe what’s going on here is that season seven is when the writers decide to start throwing out every story idea they’ve got left, because it’s season seven so why the hell not. So we’ve had a crazy dream story with Data; we’ve uncovered the lost, dead daughter of Lwaxana Troi; we’ve resolved (sort of) the romantic tension between Picard and Beverly Crusher; and now, we’ve got Data meeting his mother. Only she’s not really his mother, she’s actually an exact robot duplicate of his mother. That’s strange enough, but it’s weirder than that, because no one knows that Mom (aka Dr. Juliana Tainer, played by Fionnula Flanagan, better known to most of us as Eloise Hawking from Lost) is a robot. And it’s weirder than that, because Mom doesn’t know she’s a robot. Somehow she’s managed to live a normal life, even get married, without anyone stumbling across her secret. All this time, we’ve assumed that Data was the pinnacle of Dr. Soong’s achievements, a mechanical man who needed to develop his own humanity through patience and careful study. Turns out, he came out with a better model before he died. I guess he figured out that emotion chip.
Oh, you can fudge this some. The reason Juliana (who seems shockingly warm and loving, especially if you’re more familiar with her work as Ms. Hawking) is so warm and effusive while Data struggles to grasp the concept of emotion? That’s because Juliana is based on a real person, the actual Juliana who was once married to Dr. Soong. That Juliana died shortly after the crystalline entity attacked (this was when Data was originally dismantled, before the Federation found him), and, to cope with his grief, Soong built a back-up. As Blade Runner has taught us, robots with human memories have an easier time with feelings and empathy and so forth, so you could say that Juliana is such a leap forward from Data largely due to her cheated past. But this raises still more questions, and none of the answers put Soong in a positive light. The challenge with doing an episode like this one, which attempts to fill in a piece of backstory we didn’t realize was missing, is that the writers need to understand the ramifications of what they’re doing, not just for the episode itself but for the series as a whole. “Inheritance,” while compelling in its way, doesn’t seem to realize its own implications, while at the same time hitting a reset button at its conclusion that prevents any of the potential fallout from ever being questioned again.
It’s a bit late in the game now to start coming up with new catchphrases in these reviews, but I feel like there should be a “[blank] of the Week” term for the regular MacGuffin-like crisis that launches the Enterprise into action with each new episode. These crises need to be important enough to merit the attention of Starfleet’s flagship, but they also need to be straightforward enough that they don’t distract too much from the real story. Bonus points if it’s a crisis that can, when necessary, place certain cast members at risk, giving the writers something to punch up the third act. We’ve had a plethora of missing ships; we’ve had planets worried about asteroids, planets in danger of drying out, populations that need a vaccine to prevent the spread of disease. In “Inheritance,” Atrea 4’s molten core is, essentially, drying out, and the Enterprise shows up to help fix the problem, with some assistance from Dr. Tainer and her husband. (That’s a bit of a coincidence, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that Juliana is a brilliant scientist, but geology is a long way from robotics. There’s nothing to stop her from having a different scientific discipline than Soong, but it’s never mentioned, and it seems more to fall under the “If you’re smart in one thing, you know everything” heading that TNG occasionally indulges in. Even then, this might have worked better if Juliana and Data’s meeting had been more a matter of choice than of chance.) The molten core problem takes up part of the episode, with the expected amount of techno-babble, and it indirectly leads to Data finding proof the Juliana is an android, but it’s not the sort of story element you’ll remember afterwards.
That’s probably because the rest of “Inheritance” is loopy. Juliana admits to Data that she’s his mother, telling him that she was married to Soong when he built his androids, and that she didn’t seek him out earlier because she had too much guilt over abandoning him when the entity attacked. Much is made over the growing rapprochement between Data and his newfound mother, but, while it’s sweet to see him getting positive reinforcement from her (everybody needs unconditional love from someone), there’s something odd going on. Partly it’s that Flanagan’s warmth is so excessive that it invites suspicion, and part of it is that Data questions her legitimacy from the start. We’re conditioned by now to trust Data’s judgment (occasional stabbings aside—and even then, it was a stabbing with the victim’s best interest at heart), and the fact that he immediately doubts her word means we doubt her as well. And yet, his doubt is more human than mechanical; it’s the same doubt anyone would have if a stranger arrived claiming to have a right to a piece of your heart. Plus, his initial doubts are unfounded—there was a Juliana, she was married to Soong, and she was around during Data’s “childhood.”
It’s just, as mentioned previously, that Juliana is dead. Watching this episode, I started to suspect that the current Juliana might be a robot somewhere around the 15-minute mark (give or take), but the idea was so ridiculous I did my best to dismiss it. What makes those scenes between Data and Mom pre-reveal so strange is that it seems like there’s going to be another twist coming, but you can’t be sure it’ll happen. So you get stuck, because you aren’t sure if you should be enjoying their interactions, or combing over them for clues. And then when the real answer hits, it’s at once inevitable and a huge reach, because this show doesn’t do impostor robots. It’s had people pretending to be other people, it’s had aliens taking over people’s bodies, but the whole reason Data (and Lore) are so important is that he’s a singularity. He has artificial intelligence, and he looks mostly human. To come up with another robot who can be mistaken—and has been mistaken, many, many times—for a human is, quite frankly, cheating. It doesn’t reduce Data’s value, but it does put a dent in one of the show’s fundamental precepts, in a way that isn’t particularly well thought out at all.
For one thing, it’s difficult to believe that Soong was able to design an android so complex and, on the surface, so biologically indistinguishable from a woman. At one point Beverly mentions that Juliana-bot has a device that feeds false information to medical scanners, and while I’m glad they explained how the machine could go undetected in a universe with transporters and scanners, it’s an explanation that raises its own questions. Like, how easy is to build something like that? Also, wouldn’t Juliana-bot weigh more than a regular human? I guess Soong could’ve equipped her with some sort of weight-reducing anti-grav device. Surely at some point she’s gone to see a doctor. Given that she was built, not born, I can accept that she wouldn’t have to worry about the flu (although you’d think a machine this complex would have an occasional hiccup), but surely at her age, she’d do regular check-ups as a matter of course. Maybe the super high-tech future saves her there; maybe doctors would just wave a tricorder around her and call it good.
All of this is a stretch, and it makes the episode’s big moral decision harder to take seriously. Data (and Beverly and Picard and Troi and god knows who else) discover Juliana’s secret. Then Data alone has to decide whether or not to tell his mother her true nature. It’s an interesting question, although I’m troubled by the way Data’s decision not to tell Juliana seems to serve the show’s needs more than his (or her) own. Yes, there are reasons for keeping it secret—there’s no telling how Juliana would react (and give how upset she was about abandoning Data, I’m guessing she’d freak out quite a lot), and there’s no immediate gain in telling her. Yet keeping it secret also means that TNG doesn’t need to remember Juliana in later episodes, or deal with any sort of fallout from introducing another, significantly more advanced robot into the show’s world. Troi claims that Juliana has achieved what Data has struggled to achieve for so long: humanity. But this isn’t true. Data wants to be himself as a human. It’s hard to know what Juliana-bot is, but she isn’t self-aware, and that means she’ll always just be a copy of someone else’s dream.
About that “someone else”: What I really take away from “Inheritance” is that Dr. Soong is a deeply screwed-up individual, and, what’s worse, no one on the show seems to recognize this. He built a robot copy of his dying wife. Juliana was in a coma at the time, so I doubt he asked her permission. He designed the copy to be as indistinguishable from the real thing as possible. Then, after Juliana died, he went on living with the robot as man and wife. Only, he was so inept as a husband that the robot eventually left him, and instead of realizing maybe that would be a good time to end the charade, Soong lets Juliana-bot go off on her own to marry someone else. She goes by the dead woman’s name, and, since she’s apparently the most prominent scientist on the planet in her chosen field, presumably no one else knows the real Juliana is dead. She mentions a mother—does she have any other family? Have they hung out with a robot and thought it was their own flesh and blood? Soong is doing the worst kind of mad science here, playing God in an arrogant, selfish tribute to his lost love, and no one seems at all bothered by this. Soong even left a holographic recording of himself in Juliana-bot’s head, in case anyone found the truth, and the only guilt to be found on it is his regret at not being a better husband. It’s not so much that Juliana-bot has to be an abomination; it’s more that not a single character in the cast questions the morality or implications of the situation. No one even says, “Wow, that machine has feelings and isn’t insane! Surely this means something.” Thought it’s competent as an hour of television, “Inheritance” is the worst kind of science fiction, using tropes without bothering to wonder what any of them might mean.
- One more bit of creepiness: Soong programmed Juliana to eventually die. Spared no expense!
Next week: Worf has to handle some tricky “Parallels,” and we take a trip on “The Pegasus.”