I never did well in science class. I got by, and it wasn't until I took Physics my senior year of high school that my grades started to truly suck, but I've always been more of a broad strokes kind of guy. Science requires patience, logic, and a meticulous attention to detail, while I'm hyper, intuitive (which means I jump to conclusions and never show my work), and lucky if I spell "meticulous" right, as anyone who's read these self-edited recaps can tell you. What I'm getting at is, while I love reading science fiction, I'm not clever enough to be able to tell you if a concept is absurd or practical. If it works in the context of the story, that's good enough for me.
I think "Home Soil" works, and works well, and it's a terrific example of a kind of story that the TOS never really delved into: hard sci-fi. It's called "hard" (heh) because it takes existing knowledge and projects only slightly outwards from it, instead of just throwing in a few words like "space" and "lasers" to make it all seem technological. Kirk's Enterprise ran into all sorts of aliens and oddities, but while it did make overtures to more grounded writing, you never got the impression any of the writers on the show did serious research before putting plots together. (That sounds like an insult, but it isn't. There were a lot of very smart writers on TOS; it's more that the direction of the series meant stressing emotional highs over intellectual ones.) Take "Devil In The Dark," "Home Soil"'s closest TOS analog. The silicon-based life-form, the miners, and the development that the "monster" is just trying to protect its young are all things that fit into our concept of how life works. The "devil" is designed to look dangerous and frightening, and apart from its ability to consume rock, it's still identifiably animal. The miners didn't realize they were murdering its young, but they did know they were looking at a living creature when they stumbled across Mama.
"Home Soil"'s crystal behaves in much the same way as the horta did, attacking invading human's in response to an unintentional threat, and that threat once again stems from a human difficulty in conceiving of life that isn't immediately comparable to ourselves. The difference here is that "Soil" goes to greater lengths than "Dark" to make the "monster" as striking as possible without sacrificing the plausibility of its design. This makes it less exciting as a creature, but more intriguing as an idea, and gives TNG yet another route to distinguish from its predecessor.
Picard and company pay a visit to Velara III, a planet currently inhabited by a small group of terraformers (really, really small; either the process is largely automated, or the Enterprise caught them around break week). Kurt Mandl, head of the group, is polite but brusque, and Troi senses "deliberate concealment" from him as to events on the planet. Once we find out the situation later in the episode, this "concealment" seems like an attempt at injecting mystery that doesn't really pan out. While Mandl has some suspicions about the real natives of Velara, he doesn't seem to know enough to be as paranoid as he clearly is here.
Picard sends down an away team, and everybody gets a lecture on the terraforming process from Luisa Kim, the group's lone female scientist and the one who doesn't have a strong grasp of "numbers," I guess because she's a girl and all. (It's a small thing, but when you have a group of four people working on a what must be a costly and important project, why not just hire somebody who gets the big picture and understands fractions?) The lecture is a bit like walking through an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science, so I had trouble paying attention and my feet hurt after a couple minutes. Even in its best episodes, TNG still has a problem staying on topic. Again, though, there's that grounding in fact that means when things get weird, we've got a foundation to stand on.
The weirdness first hits when a hydraulic laser kills a member of the terraforming crew. There's a great scene here when Data and Geordi investigate the problem, and Data has to outwit the laser on his own, and because he's a bad-ass robot and everything, he manages it just fine. While investigating, the pair discovers a shiny Thing that's giving off strange light patterns. They beam Thing 1 up to the Enterprise for study, and that's when the situation becomes even more complicated. Thing 1 is a non-carbon-based lifeform. In the process of making the planet habitable for humans, the terraformers have been inadvertently creating great swaths of destruction through locals they didn't realize where there.
While Thing 1 multiplies and eventually manages to communicate with Picard (the Things are not pleased, and refer to humans as "ugly giant bags of mostly water"), up until the actual communication, this is the sort of escalating threat you'd expect to see in an early Michael Crichton novel like The Andromeda Strain. It's not what you'd call "sexy," in that the threat is basically a bunch of small shiny objects that eventually coalesce into a medium-sized glowing crystal you could probably pick up at Spencer's Gifts. But it's thoughtful, and the tension comes not from smart people making stupid decisions, but from a situation that escalates in unpredictable ways.
The terraformers themselves are broadly drawn. Luisa is pleasant, but very weepy, (hilariously, when Picard is trying to figure out what everyone knows, Troi tells Riker to go James Bond on Luisa because he'd have a better chance getting info out of her) and the biggest impression we get off Bjorn comes from his haircut. The guy looks like he just stepped out of an Italian Road Warrior knock-off. Mandl is an authoritarian ass, which does give us the chance to watch Picard put somebody in their place, but once the actual nature of the threat is discovered, the miners are sidelined.
The only problem with hard sci-fi is that it can end up, well, a little on the dry side. Which makes it ideal for a regular series like TNG, because we already have an emotional investment in the characters. The idea that the new life form would be able to communicate so clearly with humans, universal translator or no, is something of a cheat, and the pacing isn't as tight as it could've been. Still, this one's a winner, because it takes its concept seriously from beginning to end, and because it doesn't shortcut too badly to a resolution. For all the Up With People boosterism the show displays, it's necessary to get the occasional reminder that humans can still screw up big time, and often when they're operating with the best of intentions.
"Coming of Age"
Now here's something you never would've seen on TOS: a stop-and-smell-the-roses episode whose two major plots don't ever connect. Even more surprising, one of those plots is simply there to pique our interest, as it won't be resolved till much later in the season. That's right, "Age" has the first example of that most treacherous and wonderful of television stand-bys: the introduction of the serial narrative. Subtle or not, even if it's only relevant for a couple episodes (which is a let-down we'll discuss at another time), here we have TNG trying to walk on its own, and if the first steps are clumsy ones, there's still cause for excitement.
Admittedly, the clunkiness hits you right out of the gate, as the first scene features Wesley apologizing to a guy named Jake. We'll find out soon enough that Wesley beat Jake out for a chance to apply to Starfleet Academy, but without any context, the scene plays like a terribly polite break-up, with both parties trying to just shoulder through it, with arrangements to be made later as to who gets what out of the china hutch. The Enterprise is in orbit around Relva VII to give Wesley a chance to audition for the school of his dreams. While there, Picard gets in touch with an old friend, Admiral Gregory Quinn, but Quinn has some disturbing news. Something, he tells Picard, is "wrong" on the Enterprise, and an officious investigator named Remmick has been assigned by Quinn to get to the bottom of just what that "wrong" is.
The serialized elements in "Age" rest largely on the second plot. Remmick spends his time questioning crew members about earlier events, and we hear references to other episodes of the season, which is actually a lot more exciting than it sounds. Remmick is the expected irritant, the kind that used to pop on on the original series whenever Kirk had the misfortune of stopping at a starbase, but the simple acknowledgment of the past makes his interrogations easier to bear. Riker's increased indignation is hilarious, but much of what happens here is less like a natural reaction of a well-knit crew to an outsider, and more the following of an expected set of beats. Remmick has to be overly aggressive (despite the fact that he'd be a more effective questioner if he was didn't act like a dick), and Riker has to freak out, even though the Enterprise is currently not really doing much of anything. What is there for Remmick to interrupt?
Oh sure, we do get one crisis, when Jake the Idjit, shamed at his rejection, steals a shuttlecraft so he can run away and join the circus, or some damn fool thing. Remmick interferes until he is yelled at, but I was too distracted by the immense stupidity of Jake's theft to care. A shuttlecraft doesn't go that fast, right? And it's not like people wouldn't notice one was missing. I'm sure it's difficult to find ways to escape a starship, but surely even a distraught, highly stressed teenager would've realized he wasn't going to get far. Ah well, maybe it was cry for help. That still doesn't explain why Picard's first action wasn't to lock on with the tractor beams. By the time the 'craft's engine stalls, it's supposedly too far out of reach for a beam, and Picard has to use some clever science to save the day. But his cleverness is undone by a lack of basic precaution. Shuttlecraft slooooowly zooming away from you? Lock it down first, then ask questions.
As for Wesley, well, he gets a really standard "Chosen One goes to Hogwarts" type plot. Sure, he isn't chosen for the Academy (lord knows we couldn't stand to lose his character, as he really holds the show together), but the testing itself hits all the basics, from introducing classmates--the Potential Best Friend, the Potential Crush, the Potential Rival--and then each section unfolds roughly as these things always seem to unfolds, with Wesley showing off his decency and remarkable skills at species profiling. I don't really hate the character anymore, although I still find Wheaton's "Gee whiz!" naiveté grating, so I didn't mind this. Didn't really fill me with excitement, but I didn't mind it.
Actually, I did sort of mind that Wesley is once again proven infallible. Sure, somebody else gets the slot he's trying for, but we never see Wesley actually making the mistake or getting stressed in a way that would indicate poor performance. Instead, he's always polite, always helpful, and always smarter than everybody. During the final test, we even learn that Wesley's greatest fear is having to leave a man behind to die. It's nice to get some backstory here (turns out this is how Wesley's father died, and Picard was the leave-behinder), there's something so flat and generic about his worries and his personality that when he's not grating, he simply ceases to exist as an identifiable person. Plus, for such a supposed super genius, he's an idiot. He falls completely for a psych test so blatantly phony a toddler could've spotted it, and they eat mud.
This one is more interesting for the possibilities it represents than for the actual episode itself. Wesley's storyline is passable, but too much like a preview for a Star Trek Babies spin-off. Remmick's storyline has a pay-off that only leads to more questions, as Quinn explains to Picard that there's some sort of unpleasantness working its way through Starfleet high command, and he wanted to be sure Picard was on the up and up. That will be terribly exciting down the road, but for right now, it's like getting a two-parter with no "To Be Continued..." in the end credits.
"Heart of Glory"
Ever since the first episode, a number of crew-members on the Enterprise have been walking around with question marks over their heads. What's eating Tasha Yar? Where did Data come from? Why's that black guy wearing a vacuum cleaner attachment clipped over his eyes? Whither Worf? Some of these questions have been answered, and some of them have answers that are long enough to unfold whenever the writing staff hits a dry-spell, but until now, the Klingon on the bridge had been largely overlooked. Striking in size and make-up, Worf loomed and growled, but apart from a general aggressive stance, he's largely background. The guy gets a line or two per episode, may get to struggle with somebody, and then one of those jerkwad humans will remind him how civilized we all are compared to Klingons. Joy.
"Heart of Glory" works to correct that, and while the first act suffers from some drag, once the main conflict kicks in, we get a much better idea of where Worf is from, and what's driving him. Even better, the episode treats his concerns, and the concerns of the Klingons the Enterprise rescues off a dying cargo ship, as problems worthy of serious consideration. The Klingon hunger for battle and honor isn't treated dismissively, and given the blandly peaceful tone of so much of what is identified as "good" on the series (I mean good in the moral sense, not the critical one), you'd expect this hunger to be roundly ridiculed and dismissed. But there's a sadness to "Glory," and while it's not exactly a tear-jerker, it allows Worf the dignity the character needs to work.
The Enterprise gets a distress signal from a severely damaged Talarian freighter stuck in The Neutral Zone. Picard goes in for the rescue, which indicates a slightly different approach to the Zone than TOS took. Somebody reports to Starfleet that they're making the move, but nobody waits for confirmation from back home that the move is permitted, so I guess it's a tricky place to be but not an absolutely verboten one? Anyway, they find the ship, and Data, Riker, and Geordi beam aboard. The episode makes a misstep here, because we spend a lot of time dealing with Geordi's visor, time that doesn't connect to anything else in "Glory," and isn't interesting enough in its own right to justify its existence.
Plus, it continues the weird thread of showing Picard some technology and having him be simply astonished at how amazing it all is. Happened in the holodeck episode, and it's happened a few times since, and here we get him being bizarrely impressed by the murky polarization effect that Geordi spends his whole life seeing. Patrick Stewart sells it because, hey, it's Patrick Stewart, and I can understand that the writers want to try and get us excited about visuals which aren't, by themselves, all that effective. Having a cast member we respect be in awe of some chintzy piece of crap forces us to at least play along that it might be cool. Really, though, Picard has gone through this rapturous state too many times to be plausible. I can believe he is a man who would love his job enough to find passion in any aspect of it. I don't believe that he would nearly wet his pants whenever somebody hooks an Atari up to the view screen.
Thankfully, this is but a detour for our larger story. There be Klingons aboard this ship--three, in fact, although one is just about dead. The trio beams back to the Enterprise, gives Picard a not-entirely-truthful account of their plight, and then their buddy dies, and we get to see the Klingon death ritual, which is both kind of silly (I think it's hard to yell fiercely wearing make-up and facial appliances, and in such a well-lit room), and effectively otherworldly and intense. A Klingon first stares into the eyes of his dying friend, and then, once the moment has passed, he and all those around him shout a wordless warning to the afterlife that their comrade is coming, and the angels and demons and so forth best be on their guard.
I've talked before about how the Klingons seemed de-evolved from their generally urbane (if villainous) appearances in TOS, and the death ritual is a great example of how that seeming regression can work in the show's favor. With so many disparate alien races to deal with, it's useful to feature strong, identifiable cultures in order to keep everyone apart. This can backfire if the invented culture is too dismissively one note (see: the Ferengi), but the Klingons work here because they're different enough to be distinctive, but those differences aren't simply a lust for violence or constant rage. The Klingons are a classical warrior race, and while such an aggressive approach to life has to adapt over time to survive (as this episode admits), it still has a definite romantic appeal.
We see that appeal when Worf spends time with the two surviving Klingons from the freighter, Korris and Konmel. I was pleasantly surprised by these scenes. I expected that the two "untamed" Klingons would mock Worf for his Federation duds, and they do, but the mocking doesn't last very long, and Worf doesn't seem especially humiliated by it. Korris is more interested in pitching his view of life to Worf, and of winning a new follower to his cause. He explains that he and his two companions were on the run from the Klingon Empire, because they disagreed with the government's attempts at peaceful co-existence. Korris is looking for a place where he and those who felt the same as him could fight and die with honor.
It's a concept that finds a sympathetic ear in Worf, who we learn was orphaned at a young age and raised by humans. (Yeah, he's Superman. Deal.) His whole life, he's struggled with his instincts, without anyone around to explain to him how to cope, which makes him a lot more interesting than the series had ever indicated before. What's even better is that, despite the clear temptation, you never get the impression that Worf seriously considers joining up with Korris. Part of that is basic practicality, since Korris never really comes close to succeeding, but there more important angle is that Worf has committed to his role on the ship. As he explains to Korris in the episode's climax, the true test of the warrior is the battle within, and cheesy or not, it shows him in a new, and very compelling, light.
Oh, there's more plot; a Klingon ship meets the Enterprise and demands that Korris and Konmel be handed over for trial and execution. Yar and a security team arrest the two, and Yar nearly creates a scene when Korris encounters a young child before being taken into custody. Yar assumes a hostage situation (I understand being cautious, but the woman goes into every situation expecting the worst, and she often takes steps to ensure those expectations aren't disappointed), and Worf has to explain to her that Klingons don't take hostages. Again, Korris is a criminal, but he's sympathetic and he has a code of honor to follow. It would've been much easier to just make him an outright psychopath, but this is much more compelling, and it means that when Korris finally dies, and Worf repeats the funeral ritual, the sense of loss feels earned.
- Picard really reads the riot act to Mandl and his team of misfits. "Tell them about the pattern in the sand." "Oh yes, do tell us." (Can't really convey it in text, but it was very funny on screen.)
- I want to start a punk band and I want to name it Ugly Bags Of Mostly Water. Who's with me?
- "It's a good thing you're cute, Wesley, or you could really be obnoxious." Okay, I'm beginning to see my problem with the character, then. (Also, "She thinks I'm cuuuuuuuute!")
- "They are warning the dead, sir. Beware: a Klingon warrior is about to arrive." Hell. Yes.
- Next week, it's "The Arsenal of Freedom," "Symbiosis," "Skin of Evil."