Written by Karl Guers, Ralph Sanchez, and Robert Sabaroff
Directed by Corey Allen
Season 1, Episode 17
Production episode 40271-117
Original air date: February 22, 1988
Captain’s Log: The Enterprise checks up on Velara III, a terraforming project that hasn’t been in touch much lately. When they arrive, Director Mandl is crotchety, cranky, and abrasive. Riker beams down over his objections, where they are given a tour by Luisa Kim, who is younger, prettier, dippier, and a lot more friendly. Kim’s enthusiasm is as infectious as Mandl’s snottiness is off-putting.
Most of the first act is overrun by the Exposition Fairy, but it’s actually really cool stuff, as the team fill the crew in on how they’re turning a lifeless planet into one that can support living beings. However, the end of the act sees the hydraulics engineer performing maintenance on the laser drill only to be attacked by that drill and killed. When Data tries to reconstruct what happened, he is also attacked.
Further investigation reveals a piece of inorganic material that glows in complex rhythms. La Forge sees almost musical patterns in it. They beam it back to the ship, where Crusher, Data, La Forge, and Wes start running tests. It responds to stimulus — humming at different levels depending on whether or not it’s being scanned, or how close people are standing to it.
The theory is that one of the three remaining terraformers killed the engineer, possibly to cover up this new life form, since the existence of life on Velara III would scuttle the entire project.
In the lab, the life form pulses, removes the scan from the screen, glows, and duplicates itself. Self-replication pretty much confirms that it’s alive. It then resists the quarantine field and makes a request of the computer for a translation matrix. Trying to communicate confirms that it’s intelligent life.
The terraformers thought of the energy flashes as being random energy readings, but nothing indicated that it was life, so they dismissed it.
When the translator comes online, the lifeform explains that the humans tried to kill them and refused attempts to communicate, and so they have declared war — it killed the engineer, not one of the other terraformers. The team was siphoning off the salt water that ran just underneath the surface, but that was what the lifeform needed to survive. It has taken over the medical lab and the ship’s computer — but Data and La Forge determine that it’s photoelectric, so they turn off the lights in the lab. The lifeform finally agrees to end the war and they beam it back to the surface.
Picard declares a quarantine on Velara III, and they take the surviving terraformers to a starbase.
Thank you, Counselor Obvious: In the teaser, Troi senses that Mandl is in an absolute panic over the ship’s arrival, but over the course of the episode, that’s never followed up on except as a cheap red herring. For all that Troi protests that there’s more to it than Mandl not wanting them there, ultimately, Mandl just didn’t want them there.
She also sends Riker to flirt with Kim to get information, which is just hilarious.
Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: The science in this episode is actually quite good. We see the scientific method in action, everything we learn about the inorganic lifeform at least sounds convincing, and the crew act like professionals rather than people pulling nonsense out of their asses.
The lifeform refers to humans as “ugly bags of mostly water,” which is just a wonderful (and accurate, as Data points out) description.
If I Only Had a Brain…: Data faces the exact same inorganic-lifeform-controlled drill that killed the hydraulics engineer. However, since he is a super-strong, super-fast android, he handles the encounter far better than a dumpy, bald hydraulics engineer, leaving a mangled drill in his wake.
The Boy!?: Wes may as well not have been in the episode for all that he contributed (two lines: one dumb question about the flashes, and one observation that the lifeform is beautiful), but he looks very serious standing around watching everyone else do all the work.
There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf gets to be all science-y in this episode, right there with La Forge and Data investigating the new lifeform, and pointing out that it is, basically, a computer. The lifeform is also given the nickname “micro-brain,” the exact same nickname Q derisively gave to Worf back in “Hide and Q.”
Welcome aboard. Walter Gotell, best known as General Gogol in the James Bond movies, is suitably aristocratic and obnoxious as Mandl. Elizabeth Lindsey, Gerard Prendergast, and Mario Roccuzzo are remarkably unremarkable as the other 75% of the team.
I Believe I Said That: “But is it alive?”
“I wasn’t asking you.”
Worf expressing curiosity, then slapping down the computer when it sticks its nose in.
Trivial Matters: Picard comments at one point, “It seems we are becoming detectives, Number One,” referring to Picard’s own play-acting at being Dixon Hill in “The Big Goodbye,” not to mention Data’s Sherlock Holmes obsession from “Lonely Among Us.”
They also talk of inorganic life as if it’s never been encountered before, everyone having apparently forgotten the silicon-based Horta in “The Devil in the Dark.”
Make it So: “We were not looking, and therefore we did not see.” A rare instance of the Enterprise actually seeking out new life — well, in this case, stumbling across it by accident — but while this episode has its flaws, it’s a wonderful example of science fiction, one that doesn’t skimp on suspense, action, and Trek’s trademark compassion.
Among the flaws are director Allen’s bizarre insistence on unnatural, stage-y blocking and positioning and obsession with extreme closeups; clumsy handling of the red herring of the murderer being one of the terraformers by overselling Mandl’s annoyance in the teaser; and the amnesia regarding the Horta.
The fact that the Enterprise wins the day by turning the lights down is wonderfully prosaic, and very satisfying — given that they arrived at that notion through deductive reasoning rather than a scientific principle the writer made up. It’s, in many ways, the perfect Star Trek story, even with its imperfections as a Star Trek episode.
I freely admit that I like this one more than most, but it’s always had a warm place in my heart for its intelligence and for the joy taken in exploration, both of the new lifeform and of the planet being terraformed.
Warp factor rating: 7.
Keith R.A. DeCandido’s most recent novels are the high-fantasy police procedural, Unicorn Precinct (currently available for the Kindle, available in other eBook formats and trade paperback later this month, from Dark Quest Books) and the superhero police procedural Super City Police Department: The Case of the Claw (currently available in all eBook formats from Crossroad Press). Yes, he likes police procedurals. Sue him.