Jul 7 2011 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Home Soil”

microbrain“Home Soil”
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
Stardate: 41463.9

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.

Director Mandl 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.

Data is attacked by a laser drill

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.”

The terraformers show offWelcome 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?”

“Probability positive.”

“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.

Christopher Orr
1. Daedalus
I have a fondness for any lifeform that has a pet name for humans:

The silicon lifeform: "Ugly bags of mostly water"

HK-47 (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic): "...Meatbag"

It takes the humans in the narative down a peg, and they can generally use it.
Evan Langlinais
2. Skwid
Yep, the "Ugly Bags of Mostly Water" line will forever elevate this episode in my memory.
Stefan Jones
3. Stefan Jones
I remember thinking, "Oh, finally!" when I saw this episode. As in, finally something remotely like late-20th-century science fiction.

So few of TNG's episodes were actually about exploration, new life forms, strange worlds, etc. And the very last episode seemed like a final betrayal.

Episodes like this one really stand out.
Stefan Jones
4. John R. Ellis
Not only have they forgotten the Horta, but the dozens nigh omnipotent energy beings Starfleet has encountered by this point alone you'd think would be enough to make everybody a bit leery of accidentally enraging a strange inorganic life form.

That's a problem with the Star Trek franchise as a whole, though. So little of the amazing stuff discovered in one episode will have any impact on the next. And if they do, then it's usually via retcon.

(Note how the symbiotic nature of the Trill went from this big, shocking reveal in TNG to "ho-hum, everyone knows that!" in DS9.)
Stefan Jones
5. John R. Ellis
"I remember thinking, "Oh, finally!" when I saw this episode. As in, finally something remotely like late-20th-century science fiction."

To be fair, the Star Trek paradigm you describe of "exploration, new life forms, strange worlds," is more "early 20th century" Science Fiction, the 1930s style stuff the original show so often did. But the literary form of SF had changed a lot by the late 80s and early 90s. Is it so surprising that the televised form had shifted focus as well?
Stefan Jones
6. Chessara
Keith, I couldn't agree with you more! This is a pretty good episode, one of the best of the first season.

I remember, being a kid when I first saw it, feeling somewhat excited that the things we were learning in science class actually would be of some use when we grew up! You know, seeing Dr. Crusher list the basic characteristics attributed to life, and following the scientific method... it was cool! Grownups actually using in daily life what we learned in school! :O No way! :P

Yep, I'll also have a warm place in my heart for this episode :)
Stefan Jones
7. Mike S.
One thing leaped to mind while I rewatched this. This was one of the few Star Trek episodes (maybe the only one from TNG) to end with a Captain's Log Entry. Usually they throw in a "recap" scene after the log is recorded. I kind of liked it this way, no preachy, moral scene at the end, just a quick recap.

The only other one I can remember ending with a log entry was DS9: "In the Cards." I'm not gonna count "In the Pale Moonlight," because Sisko deletes the log at the end.

I suppose there were others that ended like this, but they are not leaping to mind right now (certainly nothing from TNG).
Todd Otto
8. indianatrekker26
Another TNG episode that I recall ending with a Captain's Log was Season 3 episode "The Survivors." Picard's entry was about leaving the Doud alien alone.
Stefan Jones
9. Christopher L. Bennett
As far as the science goes, this episode had a problem that bugged me, a problem that's fairly pervasive in movies and TV about this sort of thing. The silicon lifeform is sitting in an isolation chamber in a lab, right? Nothing around it but air, at most. And yet it's able to replicate itself and grow to multiple times its original mass. Where the hell is the material coming from??? I had the same problem (among others) with the macrovirus in Voyager's "Macrocosm," that magical ability to grow to gazillions of times its original mass while sitting inside a containment field with no access to any kind of food to build a larger body from. It's a pervasive trope in a lot of sci-fi, just about any story involving creatures that grow out of control or age from infancy to maturity in minutes without ever eating (with such rare exceptions as "The Trouble With Tribbles" -- the fact that they needed to eat was a big part of the problem -- and the recent Futurama episode "Benderama," where the duplicator device needed a source of matter to create its duplicates from). A minor detail in this episode, but it's so widespread and so fundamental (how hard can it be to understand that matter doesn't come out of nowhere?) that it always bugs me.
Stefan Jones
10. stormist
Ugly bags of mostly water. I use that all the time with changes to the adjective, like in the case of the cats, it's furry bags of mostly water. This episode, and the one where the society communicates completely in metaphores from their cultural myths and therefore cannot be understood are some of my favorite episodes of any tv show or book. They make you think and the're entertaining.
Stefan Jones
11. stormist
forgot the "y" in they're entertaining
Stefan Jones
12. Chessara
That ep is "Darmok" and is one of my favorite TNG eps! :D
Stefan Jones
13. anony
Wasn't the "ugly" bag of mostly water specifically Picard?
Keith DeCandido
14. krad
anony: No, the "ugly bags of mostly water" was a general reference to humanity.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Nicky Kay
15. NickyKV2
I think for it to refer to Picard, it would have to be "Ugly Shakespearian actor-bag of mostly water"!

I hadn't realized Mandl was General Gogol! Thanks for that!
Justin Devlin
16. EnsignJayburd
Agree that this is one of their better pure science-fiction episodes, flawed as it may be.

I thought the voice of the microbrain was a bit goofy, though. Reminded me of Nomad.
Stefan Jones
17. Electone
Definitely in the top-10 of the first season episodes. It follows the first season formula of visiting a planet each week and getting involved in an issue or problem. Now, my memory may be faulty, but was the Horta considered an inorganic lifeform, or was its inability to be recognized on life sensors because it was silicon-based life, rather than carbon?
Stefan Jones
18. DPC
It's a great story, and the Data/Geordi/Worf scene where they analyze the life form is wonderful. The terraforming aspect is a sci-fi natural, and given how uneven TNG season 1 is, much kudos that this story was given serious treatment.

Even if this is not the first time the Federation has encountered silicon-based life forms (Horta), but that's a minor nitpick...

And it's a shame some of the acting comes across wooden when jubilance was needed...

"ugly bags of mostly water" = wonderful perspective, and a technical truism.
Stefan Jones
19. Ashcom
Rewatching all the TNG episodes at the moment, and realising how bad some of them are, so I very much enjoyed this one. But while you are discussing Horta and various energy lifeforms, the first thing that occurred to me was, everyone is expressing surprise at a crystalline lifeform, yet they already encountered a massive one just six episodes earlier in the Datalore episode.

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