Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Quality Of Life"/"Chain Of Command, Part One"

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Quality Of Life"/"Chain Of Command, Part One"

"The Quality of Life" (season 6, episode 9, first aired: 11/14/1992)

Or The One Where Data Nearly Breaks The First Rule of Robotics 

It's easy to sympathize with Data for much of this episode. Fiction teaches us to support anyone trying to protect life, and right up till the moment when Data demonstrates he's willing to let Geordi and Picard die to save a handful of jumped up shop-vacs, that support isn't all that difficult to maintain. After all, Data is such a nice, reassuring presence, and he has the benefit of being nearly always right. Plus, Dr. Farallon, the scientist responsible for the machines that cause all this confusion, is single-minded and self-righteous enough to make it fun to side against her. Really, though, she does have a point. Imagine if your microwave started getting uppity or if your computer deleted programs without consulting you. You'd assume the machines were malfunctioning, right? You certainly wouldn't think you were witnessing the birth of new life. 

Or maybe you would; I'm not privy to what goes on in your sordid little apartment, anyway. Still, even if you are somehow gifted with insight above and beyond the capacity of normal men, it's rare for the rest of us to see what we don't expect to see. "Quality of Life" deals with questions the show has dealt with before, and for most of its running time, it does its best to show just how difficult those questions can be. I said it's easy to sympathize with Data for most of the episode, and it is, but that's because we in the audience have a certain edge; while there's always a chance that the exocomps (the jumped up shop-vacs I mentioned before) really will be glitching as Dr. Farallon believes, we know from experience that's probably not the case. From the characters' perspective, though, "Quality" doesn't make things easy. The exocomps look about as far from living as possible. If your career was on the line, would you want to throw aside your dreams to see if the calculator was crying?

The Enterprise is visiting the Tyran System, where Geordi is assessing a new mining system devised by the ambitious, driven Dr. Farallon. The system (which uses an orbital laser to mine material from the planet below, and there's also a lot of science goobledy-gook involved) has had its fair share of problems, and Geordi isn't completely sold on it. He thinks the doctor has made some amazing leaps forward, but he's not convinced the equipment is ready for wide-spread use. Farallon believes otherwise, and one of the reasons she's so confident is that she's invented a new robot that can quickly and efficiently perform the kind of elaborate repairs the system demands. She demonstrates one of these robots, an exocomp (which sounds like it should be a Japanese mecha anime series from the '80s, but never mind that), to Geordi, who is suitably impressed. Only, when she tries to use the exocomp to fix another problem, the machine returns without having fixed anything, right before the entire station is rocked by explosions.

When Geordi checks the seemingly faulty exocomp, he and Data discover numerous new circuit pathways inside the machine's "brain." Farallon designed the exocomps so that they could learn as they progressed and form new connections on their own with each new problem they solved, but she says that after a certain point, the machine starts creating connections apparently at random, for no purpose she can determine. Once that happens, the exocomp becomes worthless, and she has to erase its systems and start over again. She explains this casually, as if it's not anything to be that impressed by, but Data is intrigued. And quite frankly, Farallon's nonchalant dismissal of her own machine's odd behavior doesn't speak too well of her. (At most, she's exasperated by the whole thing.) For someone with the technical know-how to design this kind of robot, especially someone so well-versed and fascinated by Data's neural pathways, to not even consider the ramifications of what's happening right before her eyes is, quite frankly, embarrassing. The point of the episode is that she's so committed to her mining work, she doesn't realize what she's inadvertently accomplished on the sidelines, but as with many guest TNG characters, her blindness seems more plot-dictated than organic. 

This becomes a problem later in the episode, once Data determines that there is good cause to believe that the exocomps are alive (I'm half-convinced this episode was written after someone made a bet that they could make the cast say a very stupid word in very serious tones a dozen or more times without laughing) and sets about trying to prove his case to the others. Farallon, after being portrayed as largely sympathetic (if somewhat blindered) for the early part of the episode turns more openly antagonistic here. And it's frustrating, because it sets her up to fail. She's clearly making her decision based on emotion: she's completely invested in making sure her mining system succeeds, and the idea that the tools which are crucial to her efforts might have rights or needs throws a wrench into everything. "Quality" obviously needs some conflict, but if Farallon had just been a little less angry about the whole thing, a little less quick to ignore the conclusions of someone she claims to respect, it might've played better.

It might also have given us more time to deal with the most interesting aspect of the episode: Data's decision to disobey orders, a decision which directly endangers two of his closest friends. Data tries to prove the exocomp is alive by recreating the initial crisis that caused him to be suspicious of the machine in the first place. The idea being, if the 'comp flees again, that first glitch wasn't a glitch at all, but a clear indication of self-preservation. The tests fail, but Data, with some help from Beverly, eventually discovers that it fails not because the exocomp isn't alive, but because the machine realized it was a test, and thus fixed the problem on its own. So the exocomp is alive, but before Data can gloat to anyone in that calm, non-gloaty manner of his, all hell breaks lose on the mining station, and Picard and Geordi get left behind after everyone else is safely beamed back to the Enterprise. In order to save the captain and the engineer, Farallon proposes using exocomps to disrupt the beam the station is firing at the planet. This would destroy the exocomps, and Data objects, bringing up the whole "They're really alive" thing. Riker, forced to chose between the lives of crew-members and Data's beliefs, opts for Farallon's plan, only for Data to override system controls and lock down the transporters before they can do anything.

This is a big deal. Data's willful insubordination here is, I think, the most rebellious he's ever been in the entire run of the show, and considering the stakes, it's a shock that he does it so quickly. I'm torn here. On the one hand, there's something more than a little artificial (heh) about how this particular catastrophe comes together, how it puts Data in a position where he either has to break ranks or take part in the slaughter of the closest cousins he's ever known; it feels constructed, and while, yes, obviously, all scripted television is constructed, there's a way to build this sort of dilemma to make it take you by surprise. The fact that the exocomps just happen to be the only possible solution and the fact that using them means killing them is too direct. It smacks of writers imagining how powerful such a moment could be, and then trying to work into it and not quite succeeding.

At the same time, it's such a bold, big choice, I can't help but dig it for that reason alone. The crew of the Enterprise sticks together, by and large, and to have one of the show's most trusted heroes stand in the way of an apparently essential rescue mission, creates a level of drama the series rarely aspires to. Admittedly, the fact that there aren't any real consequences to this choice diminish the impact somewhat. Picard and Geordi make it out alive, and the exocomps find a way to save them that means nearly everyone survives. (One exocomp sacrifices itself to allow the others time to escape.) As well, Data isn't court-martialed, shut down, or even formally reprimanded. Picard even compliments Data on his behavior, saying, "It was the most human decision you've ever made." On a show like, say, Battlestar Galactica, this would've been yet another sign that everyone was on their own, that even the characters we loved and trusted the most would betray everyone around them if they believed they had just cause. TNG can't really support that; nor should it try. But it's nice to see them dabble.

"Quality" isn't a great episode—it's no "Measure of a Man," for instance. It's too contrived, and the almost entirely happy ending plays like something of a cheat, especially considering the lack of fallout from Data's actions. Still, it works pretty well, and I'll take from it the same thing I take from nearly every Data-centric episode: He's perhaps the most alien being anyone on the show has ever come across, even though they work with him every day. He's nice enough. But when he makes a choice, he commits to that choice, and nothing—not weakness, not doubt, not confusion—stops him. There is something equal parts terrifying and inspiring in that, and for all his surface politeness and inability to grasp basic English idiom, Data remains one of TNG's most fascinating leads, and it's all the more impressive that the show sometimes doesn't even seem to realize it.

Grade: B+ 

Stray Observations:

  • "You know, I have always been a little suspicious of men in beards."
  • Beverly is something of an unsung MVP in this episode. In addition to the cold open (where her commitment to the premise makes a one-off gag thrown in to explain Levar Burton's continued face moss into something much more entertaining than it has any right to be—and interrupted card game or not, she totally won the argument), her discussion with Data about the nature of life is one of the best scenes in the episode, the sort of fun, impossible to fully resolve conversation that you only really find in science fiction.
  • Riker says he's always wanted to see Beverly as a brunette. Space Bets OF THE FUTURE!

"Chain of Command, Part I" (season 6, episode 10, first aired: 12/12/1992)

Or The One Where The Lights Don't Come Into It Yet 

"You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with 'til you understand who's in ruttin' command here!"

-"The Train Job," Firefly

So we're finally here, are we? This may be the last of the big episodes that I've been waiting to watch ever since starting this project, so many millenniums ago. No, wait, we've got "Tapestry" coming up this season, I keep hearing how amazing that is, and I'll admit to being curious about "Sub Rosa," as it sounds like the Holocaust and the season one finale of The Killing combined. (Too soon?) But the two part "Chain of Command" is definitely a line to be crossed off an ever dwindling list, and while I'm excited to be here (and especially excited about next week's conclusion), I'm a little sad as well. To everything a season, and all that. You realize when you watch a lot of TV that every show has a peak, and that peak is hardly ever the show's final season. Unless it's a series cancelled before its time, like the above quoted Joss Whedon space epic, it's going to hit the heights, and then begin the slow, painful collapse into mediocrity or worse, until the audience dwindles, and it's time for a mercy killing. 

But we're not quite there yet, and even if TNG has passed its best years (I'd put that at roughly season four, or three—just generally in that middle area, which seems a safe enough bet), there's good to come. Good which includes, among other things, the finale (which I remember liking), and, of course, "Chain." Let's dive in, shall we?

About that quote above—Firefly and TNG don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues. In many ways, Whedon's show was intended as a response to the Trek franchise's rose-colored take on unified government and unchecked expansionism; the "Alliance," Firefly's Federation analog, is portrayed as a crushing dictatorship, forcing new systems to join up whether they want to or not. But one thing both shows could readily agree on is that bureaucracy sucks. While Federation officials generally appear to be motivated by a desire to do what's best for the organization and, presumably, the universe, that doesn't make the assholes any easier to deal with. And there are a lot of assholes.

Like, f'r instance, Captain Edward Jellico, the man assigned to take over in the Enterprise when Starfleet assigns Picard to a super-secret, hush-hush, cross your heart and hope to die mission. Jellico seems like a nice enough guy at first. He's played by Ronny Cox, and, sure, Ronny Cox has played some great villains before. He was a creep in Robocop and a slightly smarmier creep in Total Recall, but hey, he was the President in Albert Pyun's Captan America, which ought to count for something. I started watching "Chain" for the first time without looking at any summary or plot info on the episode. I knew that part II had (spoiler!) torture in it, but apart from that, and the "THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS" people have been quoting at me ever since I got this assignment, I didn't have much in the way of expectations. So I actually thought Jellico was going to prove an exception to the rule of assholery. I noted how ridiculous it was not to simply give Riker command of the ship, but when Jellico beamed aboard, he was enthusiastic and friendly. "Which is cool," I wrote.

Ah, how naive I was! I should've realized it would all go to hell soon enough, considering how obnoxious Vice-Admiral Nechayev was when issuing orders to Riker on the transfer of power. Jellico is just another in a long line of self-righteous jerks, so thoroughly convinced in his own ability and insight that he refuses any advice or counsel from anyone else on board the ship. He immediately orders the three-shift rotation of the Enterprise be switched to four-shifts, and when Riker tries to explain to him how all of the shift-leaders agree that such a switch would be disastrous, he simply repeats the order, with more glaring. He runs combat drills, he makes ridiculous demands on the ship's technical teams, and in general, he behaves like a fool. It's an irritating convention of this show that whenever new personnel are brought on board to help deal with a crisis, that person or persons is almost invariably going to make the problem worse. 

The problem here seems bad enough to begin with. Picard, Beverly, and Worf are assigned to create as special ops team, for reasons that only become clear late in the episode: The Cardassians appear to be developing a metagenic weapon, a genetically engineered virus capable of wiping out entire populations in one fell swoop. (It sounds like a bio version of a neutron bomb; all the pesky civilians and soldiers are taken care of, but the buildings and technology remain intact.) Starfleet has detected certain emanations coming off Celtris III, and they believe the Cardassians have been developing their new (and highly illegal) weapon there. Picard, Beverly, and Worf's job is infiltrate the base, find the weapon, and destroy it. 

Which is a little silly, really. Much as I love all three characters, I'm not sure any of them, beyond maybe Worf, are qualified for this kind of mission. Picard has experience with the theta-band waves which are coming off of Celtris III, due to his time on the Stargazer, Beverly is a doctor who can search for signs of the virus, and Worf has fists and is Klingon. These are all technically valid reasons, but Picard isn't a young man anymore, and it has to have been years since he or Beverly engaged in this kind of covert action. Worf, I'll accept, because Worf is awesome. But while I firmly believe that Beverly and Picard are also awesome, their awesomeness doesn't exactly lend itself to them running around in caves dressed like Mummenschanz.

Those caveats out of the way, the more I think about "Chain," the more I appreciate it, and the more excited I get about "Part II." (I haven't watched it yet.) Picard's crack suicide squad is a tad ridiculous, yes, but all three actors do their best with the material, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to get to the episode's conclusion. The scene where Beverly essentially seduces a Ferengi to get transport to Celtris III is clearly padding and silly padding at that, but I do appreciate how stretching this story to two episodes gave us more time to deal with the rigorous training that all three team-members have to participate in before they embark. Seeing Picard bruised and exhausted after a long day running around the holodeck or seeing Beverly complaining to Troi of her own aches and pains goes a fair way to making all of this make some kind of sense. 

As for Jellico, yes, he's abrasive and yes, I don't really understand the logic of Starfleet assigning a new captain to a ship mere days before it engages in a supposedly crucial diplomatic meeting (maybe this is explained better in part 2), but there is something to be said about watching someone rock the boat this determinedly. He does get Troi back into an actual uniform, which, wailing fanboys aside, is really for the best. And the negotiation scenes, where Jellico attempts to strong arm the Cardassian delegation (led by Gul Lemec), are hilariously awkward. I've seen dozens of sequences like this before, where the hero demonstrates his knowledge and will by dominating his opponent through discourtesy and shouting, but here, Jellico's attempts to force Lemec into cowering before his might are a complete shambles. Troi tells Riker midway into the discussions that Jellico isn't at all sure of himself, which tells you nearly everything you know about the character right there; not a bad man, so much as one pushed to a position of stress and authority that he is simply not prepared for. By the end, it appears that the Cardassians are in complete control of the situation, and with a more competent officer running the Enterprise, that might not have been the case.

That control is important, because down on Celtris III, everything goes to hell in an instant. Our heroes find the source of the theta-waves, but it's a trap. There's no metagenics laboratory, no lab at all, and the Cardassians attack almost immediately. Beverly and Worf manage to escape, but Picard does not. Which is another win for the Cardassians, the big win, really, because the trap was designed to catch Picard specifically. Now Picard is in the hands of Gul Madred (David Warner), and Madred has a very specific plan for the days to come. He will ask Picard questions, and if Madred doesn't like the answers, the captain will die. 

"Chain" is padded in spots; I've railed about the two-part structure before, and it's easy to spot the unnecessary scenes here, as most of the episode seems secondary to Picard's mission and the reveal at the end. But that reveal is so excellent, I can't find it in my heart to rag on the episode that much. Irritating though he may be, Jellico's struggle to do a job he can't quite manage does make for some solid drama. Besides, it's hard to imagine the discovery that Picard (and Starfleet) has been played for a fool all along would have the same impact if we'd learned it at the 20 minute mark. So, I'll go with a B+ for now and keep my fingers crossed that next week's installment will deliver on the promises made here.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • My favorite moment of Jellico Brand Jerkwad is when he tells Picard, "And chances are, you won't be coming back from this mission of yours." And I thought "Break a leg!" was harsh. (And really, if that is the expectation, is this the best use of a senior trained officer whose proven himself invaluable time and time again aboard the Enterprise?)
  • "Get it done," sounds suspiciously close to "Get 'r done," which is painful.
  • I'd like to formally request a stoppage of all scenes in which any non-Ferengi successfully seduces a Ferengi. It's just not pleasant. 

Next week: We watch TNG put its money where its mouth is with "Chain of Command, Part II," then spend some time on the holodeck with an old friend in "Ship in a Bottle."

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