Tue
Jan 29 2013 4:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Force of Nature”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature“Force of Nature”
Written by Naren Shankar
Directed by Robert Lederman
Season 7, Episode 9
Production episode 40276-261
Original air date: November 15, 1993
Stardate: 47310.2

Captain’s Log: La Forge has borrowed Spot, Data’s cat, to see if he wants a cat of his own. It proves something of a disaster, as Spot breaks a vase, ruins a chair by using it as a scratching post, and coughs hairballs all over the carpet. Data points out, rightly, that this is normal cat behavior. La Forge feels that Data should consider trying to train the cat, which proves he’s never had one....

The Enterprise is searching for the Fleming, a medical transport that was lost in a region of space littered with tetryons. The only way to navigate the region is through the Hekaras Corridor—a narrow band of space free of tetryons. The Hekarans have reported only a Ferengi ship in the region. Since the Fleming was carrying bio-mimetic gel—which is valuable—it’s possible the Ferengi are engaged in some piracy.

Sensor efficiency is off, so La Forge and Data start crawling around Jefferies Tubes to figure out the problem. They also discuss cat-training methods, ranging from a phaser on stun to a piece of tuna in a shirt.

The Enterprise comes across the same Ferengi ship the Hekarans reported, but their engines and communications are down. However, they were playing possum, and fire on the Enterprise when it gets close enough. The DaiMon claims to have been defending himself; they encountered a Federation buoy in the corridor that damaged their ship with a verteron pulse. Picard agrees to send a damage control team over to assist with repairs, in exchange for information the Ferengi might have about the Fleming, which the DaiMon says he encountered days earlier.

La Forge interrupts one of Data’s cat-training sessions—which isn’t going as well as one might hope—to ask for help with the power conversion rates on the ship. La Forge is in competition with his Academy-mate, Commander Kaplan of the Intrepid, to see who can get their conversion rate highest.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature

The Enterprise finds a debris field that might be all that is left of the Fleming. While investigating, a small object emits a verteron pulse, just like what the Ferengi reported. Picard raises shields, but it doesn’t help—the pulse kills shields, warp engines, and all subspace systems. A small ship approaches and beams its two inhabitants into engineering.

Rabal and Serova are two Hekaran scientists who insist that the constant use of warp fields is destroying their homeworld. The Federation Science Council rejected their findings years ago, but Serova says that was a preliminary report. They’ve been mining the corridor with verteron pulses that only disable ships without harming anybody. They agree to assist La Forge in repairing the ship—since it was their mine, they know exactly how to fix it and can cut a day off the repair time—and remove the mines, and also aid in trying to locate the Fleming (apparently the debris field wasn’t that ship). In exchange for that, Picard agrees to have Data look over their report.

Serova’s studies show that constant creation of warp fields are damaging space in the region. Picard analogizes is to pacing over the same bit of carpet—eventually you wear it down. In this case, the fraying carpet will cause subspace to extrude into normal space, which would be bad.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature

However, Data says that there’s insufficient evidence to prove the theory. Picard and Data are both willing to get the Science Council to send a ship to do more detailed research. Rabal is grateful, but Serova just sees this as yet another delay. She returns to her ship and leaves without Rabal. She causes a warp core breach, which creates the very subspace rift she predicted—and also kills her. To make matters worse, the Fleming is now trapped inside the rift. It’s safe for now, but the Enterprise needs to figure out a way to rescue it without using warp drive, which would just expand the rift. Unfortunately, the rift is far enough away that it would take weeks to get there at impulse. Rabal works with Data and La Forge to try to figure out a way to get to the Fleming.

Data comes up with a solution involving a warp pulse and then coasting into the rift without actually using the warp engines. While he sets that up, La Forge talks to Rabal. La Forge wonders if he missed something, but Rabal assures him that he didn’t—what they needed was time, and Serova wasn’t willing to wait.

They engage the rescue, but while they’re en route, the Fleming engages their warp drive, not realizing the damage that would do. The Fleming is badly damaged, and the rift is now larger, so that the Enterprise’s momentum is no longer enough to get out. La Forge suggests riding one of the rift’s distortion waves out of the rift. The first time they try it, it fails, because there’s still time left in the act, but it does work the second time.

The Federation Council decrees that all Federation ships must limit themselves to warp five in order to minimize the potential damage.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Repeated use of greenhouse gases—sorry, warp drive in the Hekaras Corridor is apparently wearing holes in the ozone layer—sorry, subspace fields.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi doesn’t show up until the end, but she points out quite rightly that it is extremely unlikely that the Ferengi and Cardassians will obey this new speed limit.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf disables the Ferengi ship with little difficulty. He also is unrealistically optimistic that the Klingon Empire will obey the new speed limit, and more realistically pessimistic about the likelihood of the Romulan Empire so doing.

If I Only Had a Brain...: Data’s cat Spot suddenly becomes female in this episode. This is never explained, but it is sustained in “Genesis,” when Spot becomes pregnant.

In the Driver’s Seat: Ensign Gates is at conn this episode, though she isn’t named, and all her dialogue happens off-camera so they don’t have to pay the extra playing her for dialogue, instead using prerecorded ADR of a female voice saying, “Aye, sir.”

I Believe I Said That: “How about a phaser? A low stun setting at just the right moment might do the trick.”

“Geordi, I cannot stun my cat.”

La Forge giving perfectly good cat-training advice and Data rejecting it out of hand.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature

Welcome Aboard: Lee Arenberg plays the second of three Ferengi he’ll play on Trek, having been Gral on Deep Space Nine’s “The Nagus.” He’ll return later this season to be the second person to play DaiMon Bok in “Bloodlines,” and he’ll also appear on Voyager (“Juggernaut”) and Enterprise (“Babel One” and “United”) as, respectively, a Malon and a Tellarite. (Lee’s also a friend of your humble rewatcher, and both of us will be guests at Farpoint 2013 next month.)

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on Tor.com: Force of Nature

Michael Corbett and Margaret Reed create no impression whatsoever as Rabal and Serova, which is too bad, as more emotion and personality from either of these two might have made the episode more compelling.

Trivial Matters: The warp speed limit will be referenced twice more, in “The Pegasus” and “Eye of the Beholder” (just long enough for it to be suspended for the episode). It will be totally ignored after that, and never once referenced on either Deep Space Nine or in any of the TNG movies, and only mentioned once on Voyager. The tie-in fiction has more or less completely avoided it, too.

Earlier drafts of this story had La Forge’s sister coming on board, a followup to the disappearance of their mother in “Interface.” All that was left of that was one reference to said sister’s methods of training her cat.

This episode is the first time bio-mimetic gel will be referenced. Coined by science advisor André Bormanis, it will be used in several DS9 episodes, most notably “In the Pale Moonlight,” and a couple of Voyager episodes.

Make it So: “Hey, hey, don’t you spit at me!” It’s always dangerous when a “message” episode has the message as its starting point rather than the plot. It’s painfully obvious that the goal with this episode was to do an environmental piece and—just as “The Chase” was constructed mainly to explain all the humanoid aliens and failed as a story—it doesn’t work in the least.

The basic pitch for this episode had been banging around for a while, originally coming from former staffer Joe Menosky. Co-executive producer Jeri Taylor sent Naren Shankar and Brannon Braga to a breakfast meeting with an environmental watchdog group, and Shankar came back eager to tackle Menosky’s pitch.

Taylor would’ve been better off letting them have breakfast in the office. “Force of Nature” is a mess with no emotional core. We don’t even meet the two Hekaran scientists until halfway through the episode, and we’re never given any reason to give a crap about their crusade. Part of it is a failure of guest casting, but the script doesn’t give us anything, either—and you need one or the other. To make matters worse, there’s absolutely no sense of tension or danger—not to the Hekarans whose planet is supposed to be in danger (which we never actually see, and it’s a species we don’t know or care about), not to the Fleming (which we never actually see nor do we meet any of her crew). It’s all technobabble and images on viewscreens with nothing to connect to.

In fact, the only compelling parts of the episode are the bits with Data’s cat and La Forge’s semi-friendly competition with the Intrepid’s chief engineer. Unfortunately, those subplots are all front-loaded as filler while waiting for the plot to kick in, and are abandoned by the time our two scientists show up. And then in the end we get the unsubtle message spoon-fed with the warp speed limit in case we didn’t get the ozone-layer analogy that the script has been sledgehammering us with for the previous half hour.

 

Warp factor rating: 2


Keith R.A. DeCandido has a bunch of short stories currently available in More Tales of Zorro, Tales from the House Band Volumes 1 and 2, Liar Liar, Apocalypse 13, V-Wars, and the new release Defending the Future 5: Best-Laid Plans. He’s also got two short story collections due out this spring: Tales from Dragon Precinct and Ragnarok & Roll: Tales of Cassie Zukav, Weirdness Magnet.

25 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I tend to agree -- they had good intentions but they didn't pay off well. I liked the idea of the Federation having a limit imposed on its technology, discovering a downside to it; consequences and limits often make for good stories. Unfortunately, nothing was really done with it. (Behind the scenes, it was assumed that the way Voyager's nacelles tilted up before going into warp was due to some sort of solution that had been devised to the subspace-erosion problem, handily sweeping it under the rug. Although that didn't explain why they didn't just build the nacelles at that angle to begin with.)

Training cats... yeah, right. They train us.
William Frank
2. scifantasy
As I recall, one of the only mentions of the warp-speed limit in tie-in fiction was from, as you put it, our humble rewatcher (who includes an offhand reference that Starfleet fixed the problem within a year and even civilian ships had it within three).
Alan Courchene
3. Majicou
An environmental message is all very well, in the abstract. This particular message, though, was ill-conceived. "Uh, yeah, so you know the fictional technology that basically has made this entire franchise possible? Well, we want to dial way back on that." Braga said "When you limit warp drive, the rug is being pulled out from under Star Trek," and I have to agree. Of potential future-tech environmental issues, this was the wrong one to pick.

And the scientist who blows up her ship and creates an environmental disaster to prove that such a disaster was in the offing--WTF? That seems akin to a present-day environmentalist firebombing the Amazon forests to demonstrate how well the trees used to sequester carbon.

Memory Alpha says this is the first time Spot was referred to as "she." Another transporter accident, no doubt, after the first one turned him from a Somali into an American shorthair.
Thomas Thatcher
4. StrongDreams
Second.*

Worst.

Idea.

Ever.

*The worst is coming up in about 5 weeks.
Thomas Thatcher
5. StrongDreams
@3,
As there are numerous instances of people who have faked crimes in order to call attention to the problem of crime, I have no difficulty with that part of the story. It's just that a mumbo-jumbo speed limit to the mumbo-jumbo technology was just a terrible idea.

(Additionally, since every planet and star is moving through space, sometimes at substantial velocities relative to each other, is it really possible to "wear out" the space between even two highly traveled destinations? Or is the rip gravitationally tied to the planetary bodies in question? And why are there no potential rips near Earth or Vulcan, some of the planets with warp the longest. Second. Worst. Idea. Ever.)
Mike Kelmachter
6. MikeKelm
I'm with Strong Dreams, and I'm glad that they pretty much immediately dropped it. I get that they were trying to make an environmental story, but don't do this. Do just about anything else than this, but not this... they might as well ban the matter-anti-matter engine or the transporter... these are things which are just too essential to the fictional world you've created.

Also, what is with the cat stuff? It seems like the later seasons, Data's cat replaced the poker game as the writers way to fill a few minutes of tv time. Data is becoming human and has a cat... yippee!
Christopher Bennett
7. ChristopherLBennett
@5: The rate at which planets and stars move through space is slow enough that the position of a given "space lane" between two star systems wouldn't change too much over the course of a few centuries. For instance, Alpha Centauri is moving rather fast relative to us, but in 100 years, the line between Sol and Alpha Centauri would shift orientation by only about one degree and shorten by about a sixth of a percent. Between two more widely separated stars or ones with more typical relative motion, the angle would shift far more slowly.
RobinM
8. RobinM
I get that the writers were trying to do something enviormental but picking warp drive was a mistake. Warp drive is what makes space travel on Trek . Don't you think other planets or cultures would have noticed the problem before now ? Even the Federation has had warp tech for a substantial amount of time and this is the first we've heard of the problem? I also had no emotional attachment to any of the guest except to note blowing yourself up to prove a point is dumb.
Joseph Newton
9. crzydroid
I find it hard to follow the jump at the end of this episode. The entire episode, I got the impression that the warp rift thing was unique to this region of space...then at the very end, they say it's every where, and we have to limit warp speed. I keep feeling like I missed some important line of dialogue somewhere that made the connection.
RobinM
10. John R. Ellis
When an episode makes Captain Planet look balanced and realistic, you know it has problems.

This one gets the "It was the 90s." The ultimate era for well-intentioned but ultimately tone deaf eco-tainment.
Alan Courchene
11. Majicou
@5: This wasn't so much "faking" a crime as it was actually committing one. From her point of view, it's utterly insane: "In order to prove that your technology will completely ruin space around my planet, I'm going to completely ruin space around my planet." If someone who claims to abhor murder, for instance, actually commits a murder to highlight the problem of homicide in his hometown, you start to wonder if he was really sincere in his moral convictions. It might happen, yes, but it's not helping this story.
Christopher Bennett
12. ChristopherLBennett
@9: The final scene established that this particular sector was unusually susceptible to warp fields, but there might be others as well. The Federation Council's directive read, "areas of space found susceptible to warp fields will be restricted to essential travel only, and effective immediately all Federation vessels will be limited to a speed of warp five, except in cases of extreme emergency." The latter was probably a precaution, given that they might not have identified all the problem regions so it was better to play it safe. Then again, given that it was issued by politicians rather than scientists, it may have just been an overreaction to the perceived threat in order to appease public concerns. Maybe that's part of why it was revoked so quickly -- as further data came in, it became clear that most regions were safe for warp travel and no such blanket restriction was needed. Maybe the instability problem was less widespread than Serova believed.
RobinM
13. Lsana
Yeah, this one was pretty terrible, and I think you hit on the reason why: they started with the message and decided to fill in the story later. The result is an "enviornmental catastrophe" that doesn't make any sense and that no one cares about. It would have been possible to make a great Star Trek episode about the environment, but this wasn't anywhere close to it.

Speaking of the tie-in fiction, I do remember one book that referenced the speed limit: there was some sort of auction with a bunch of super-duper invincible weapons for sale, the Enterprise had to get there to buy the superweapons before the Cardassians did, and the Federation Council wouldn't give them approval to break the speed limit so they could get there before the auction was over. I don't remember the name of it, but it definitely existed.
RobinM
14. critter42
I am embarrassed to admit I didn't make the Warp Drive = Greenhouse Gas connection until a few years later - maybe that's another indication about how much of a mess this episode was?
Alan Courchene
15. Majicou
@13: The novel you're thinking of is probably Balance of Power by Dafydd ab Hugh.
RobinM
16. Dave-El
Perhaps more of an emotional investment in the story would've been possible if LaForge had been to one to make the discovery of the damage caused by warp fields. During La Forge’s semi-friendly competition with the Intrepid’s chief engineer, he discovers some wierd wibbly-wobbly in the space time continuum (or something) while pushing his warp engines just a bit more. Imagine the weight of that discovery on a man whose whole life is built on pushing the limits of techonology...only to find he's reach those limits and there is a real and present danger as a result.
RobinM
17. Randy McDonald
As an aside, I would point out that it _is_ possible to train a cat. Mine, besides being toilet-trained, responds to me when I call him and plays fetch. (My ex trained his to use the toilet.) That said, there are limits.
Mike S2
18. MikeS2
Ensign Gates is at conn this episode, though she isn’t named, and all her dialogue happens off-camera so they don’t have to pay the extra playing her for dialogue, instead using prerecorded ADR of a female voice saying, “Aye, sir.”
Love it. So that's how they save money in Hollywood. Though wasn't there one not too long ago in the rewatch where an extra got paid because the actors pounted out it made no sense for data to respond to a command?

And yeah, I agree with everybody the only thing to talk about with this episode is how it manages to be so bad so many ways.
RobinM
19. Ashcom
The main problem here is that this episode would not have been altered in it's main narrative thread had you removed all of the cat training guff, Geordi's rivalry bit, and the entire of the rescue of the Fleming at the end. When you write an episode and then have to add that much filler just to fill out the story time, surely that's the moment at which you should realise that you should be writing a different episode.
RobinM
21. ChrisC
@1 '..the idea of the Federation having a limit imposed on its technology, discovering a downside to it..' You mean -another- downside! What with: anti-matter containment failures; toxic+unstable+explosive trilithium resin; flesh melting warp plasma coolant; unspecified warp coolant (finger-painting, captains for the use of. 100% warp breach success rate); dodgy quality control (the only part of the ship to experience an explosion caused by fatigue); unreliable jettison mechanisms; dangerous to clean baryon particles. Phew! its a wonder anyone would want to work around a warp core. It must have been a relief to the engineering watches, to inflict side-effects on someone else for a change :)
RobinM
22. Heather Dunham
And as of this moment, I'm finally, finally, finally caught up with the rewatch! (I only learned about it a few months ago and ST:TNG only came up onto Netflix Canada shortly after that) This calls for a celebration - bloodwine for everyone!

Shame it had to happen on such a crappy episode, though... I was bored stiff the whole time, even though I remembered being very intrigued by the idea of warp power causing universal spacetime problems. It was like one like dry scene of technobabble. Even the Spot bits were less fun than they should have been.
Brickhouse MacLarge
23. Midnightair
@22... Yes, I was also bored stiff the entire episode, and it did feel like one long scene of teknobabble.
Wow, the science in this episode is garbage. Space is a vacuum, spaceships "coast" anyways. That's how they work in real life. Space is a VACUUUUUUUM. I'm not going to suspend my disbelief for this episode if it insists on hitting me over the head with a boring real-life analogy. The warp disruption was ignored or forgotten for the rest of the series. Wow, someone hire new writers/producers/story editors. This is an example of Fan Discontinuity.
RobinM
24. The Real Scott M
@23, Actually I had the opposite reaction to Data's suggestion. It has always seemed to me that warp drive isn't so much a ship traveling through space as it is space bending around the ship -- that is, the ship is always essentially stationary, so that when the warp field collapses the ship is completely stopped. (Impulse is a completely different matter.) So I don't understand how the ship could sustain any forward momentum after dropping out of warp.

As someone mentioned earlier, I found it confusing as to whether this phenomenon affected only this sector or all of space. I mean, wasn't it mainly a problem because the corridor focused all space travel across a narrow section of space?

Although, speasking of that, the whole thing about the Flemming doesn't make any sense either. Just how wide is that corridor? We aren't specifically told, but it would seem likely that the Enterprise is entering the corridor from the same direction as the Flemming. They then come across a Ferengi vessel that already passed the Flemming -- then shouldn't the Enterprise have passed it, too? Again, how wide is the corridor that they didn't even notice it?

And the Ferengi ship: Not even any communication ability because it has no power...except that it does. But for some reason it never dawns on Picard (read: the writers) that they were only faking their communications being out just like their weapons.

And--

No, I'm forcing myself stop now. Just a mess of an episode.
Christopher Bennett
25. ChristopherLBennett
@24: It was more of a hazard to certain parts of subspace than others, but it wasn't only that single region that was vulnerable.

As for the width of the corridor, space is huge. Something that's a narrow bottleneck in terms of interstellar distances could still be millions of kilometers wide.

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