“The Quality of Life”
Written by Naren Shankar
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Season 6, Episode 9
Production episode 40276-235
Original air date: November 16, 1992
Captain’s Log: Riker, Worf, La Forge, and Crusher are playing poker. La Forge is still growing his beard, which means Crusher is playing with three men with facial hair – something she feels is an affectation. So she raises the stakes. If she wins, all three of them have to shave their beards; she agrees to become a brunette if one of them wins. La Forge and Riker eagerly take the bet, Worf not so much, but then Picard calls senior staff to the bridge.
The Enterprise has arrived at Tyrus VIIa to evaluate a particle fountain that uses radical new technology for mining. La Forge beams to the space station where the project is being developed. They’re behind schedule, and while La Forge is there, there’s a power grid failure. However, the project leader, Dr. Farallon, uses an experimental new device she calls an exocomp to fix it.
The exocomp is a short device about the size of a medium-sized dog. It’s a common repair drone that Farallon has modified and expanded, including a microreplication device that enables them to create tools needed for repair jobs. She and La Forge beam back with an exocomp and she demonstrates how it works. It has an antigrav unit so it can move about unencumbered, and it learns from each repair job.
Farallon wants to use the exocomps to finish work on the fountain. They can finish the work quickly and bring the project from behind schedule to ahead of schedule, if Picard approves the use of them – which he does.
Data assists Farallon in using the exocomps to speed up the completion of the fountain. They send it to seal a plasma junction, but it returns with the job unfinished. The exocomp refuses to go back in, and it sends feedback to Farallon’s hand unit, causing her to drop it.
Then the plasma junction explodes. They take the defective unit back to the Enterprise. It’s forming new circuit pathways seemingly at random. Farallon says this has happened before – the exocomp becomes useless and they have to wipe it and start over. They don’t have time for that if they’re to make the 48-hour deadline, though La Forge does offer extra personnel to help take up the slack.
La Forge also makes an offhand comment that the exocomp got out in the nick of time, like it knew there was a microfracture in the plasma junction and had to get out before it exploded. Data performs a diagnostic and discovers that the exocomp burned out the interface circuitry deliberately and repaired it two hours later.
Data consults Crusher on the subject of what defines life. Crusher goes with the classics: life is what enables plants and animals to consume and derive energy from food, grow, adapt to surroundings, and reproduce. Data and Crusher both poke holes in it – by that definition, both fire and crystals are alive, and Data is not. Ultimately, there’s no solid definition, as that’s been debated and batted around for millennia.
Beaming over to the station, Data requests that Farallon stop using the exocomps, because he believes they are alive.
Picard calls a meeting that includes La Forge, Troi, Crusher, and Data, as well as a very pissed-off Farallon. Data explains his hypothesis that the exocomp disabled the control circuits, waiting until it was in a safer environment on the Enterprise to repair itself, out of a sense of self-preservation. Farallon accuses Data of anthropomorphizing (which is pretty hilarious in and of itself, given who she’s talking to, something Troi points out), but Picard feels they should test the hypothesis.
So they put the exocomp in danger a second time to see if it will continue to err on the side of self-preservation. They simulate what happened last time – and the exocomp fails the test, as it doesn’t read the simulated explosion that La Forge programmed, and doesn’t try to rescue itself.
Data runs the simulation a bunch more times, and discovers that the exocomp didn’t fail the test – it saw through it, as it has not only repaired the damage, but also fixed the signal that was simulating plasma leakage.
Picard tours the station with La Forge, and there’s another malfunction – the fountain is surging. Radiation is increasing to dangerous levels. Most everyone gets off the station before the radiation becomes intense enough to interfere with transport, but La Forge and Picard stay behind to try to rescue one of Farallon’s people, Kenta. Unfortunately, Kenta’s dead, and now the captain and chief engineer are trapped.
They can’t launch a shuttle because it won’t get there in time. (What a pity that they’re not in a ship capable of locomotion under its own power, cough cough, where have I heard this before?) They can shut down the fountain with a low-yield torpedo, but it would take an hour to program it – however, Farallon suggests the exocomps, which can be programmed in a minute.
Data, however, objects, only just now telling Riker that the exocomps may well be alive. Data also believes that the exocomps will refuse to complete the mission. But Riker can’t risk Picard and La Forge’s lives on Data’s belief that the exocomps might be alive, and authorized Farallon to make the adjustments, starting by deactivating their command pathways (basically lobotomizing them). Data then disobeys Riker’s orders by disabling the transporter, as he won’t let the exocomps be murdered. He offers instead to beam himself over to effect the repairs, but Riker refuses, as that would kill him. Data points out that if he sacrifices himself to save his comrades, that’s his choice – the exocomps have no such choice.
Riker then throws his own argument back in his face: what if they give the exocomps a choice? They reinitialize the command pathways and Data programs the exocomps to simulate a torpedo – instead, they change Data’s commands to something else, and reprogram the transporter coordinates. Data points out that they have more experience with the systems. They beam over and are able to distort the particle stream enough so that the Enterprise can get a pattern lock on Picard and La Forge and rescue them. The exocomps also allow the ship to lock onto two of them—one has to stay behind to continue distorting the stream—to be rescued as well.
The particle fountain has failed, at least in this phase, but Farallon promises not to treat the exocomps as more than tools while she works to rebuild the fountain. Data tells Picard that he did what he did because he felt the need to act as the exocomps’ advocate, just as Picard did for Data.
Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: It’s never made clear how the particle fountain works—it seems to be a beam that goes from a space station onto the surface and then, somehow, mines things—but since it’s just a Macguffin for the exocomp plot, that’s actually okay.
There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf looks nauseated when Riker and La Forge agree to Crusher’s poker bet, but says nothing. He also is apparently giving bat’leth lessons to Crusher.
If I Only Had a Brain…: Data refers to his being alone in the universe and that he can’t reproduce, ignoring the events of “Brothers” (which established that Lore is still alive) and “The Offspring” (in which he created a daughter).
I Believe I Said That: “There is a big difference between Data and a tool.”
“Doctor, there is a big difference between you and a virus, but both are alive.”
Farallon and Data getting all philosophical and stuff.
Welcome Aboard: Ellen Bry is driven and snotty as Farallon, but she doesn’t leave nearly enough of an impression. Like the particle fountain her character has created, she’s just there to move the plot along, to provide a barrier for Data to overcome. J. Downing plays the transporter chief, Kelso.
Trivial Matters: This is the first full script by Naren Shankar (who co-wrote “The First Duty” with Ronald D. Moore), who came on board this season to serve as a science advisor for both TNG and Deep Space Nine. (Shankar has a PhD in applied physics electrical engineering from Cornell University.) He’d be promoted to Story Editor for TNG’s seventh season, before moving on to work on several genre shows—seaQuest DSV, Farscape, The Outer Limits—before joining the staff of CSI as a consulting producer in 2002, moving up to executive producer for six years of the show’s run before departing to become an executive producer of Grimm. One of his stories for CSI was the Star Trek spoof episode “A Space Oddity,” on which Moore guest-starred as himself. (The script for that episode was by Trek alumnae Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, who worked on DS9.)
The exocomps are seen again in Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil, where the immortal Flint from “Requiem for Methuselah” has two exocomps, named Winken and Blinken. That novel dealt with artificial intelligences in the Trek universe.
Make it So: “I have always been a little suspicious of men in beards.” This episode gets points for raising some interesting questions regarding what constitutes life, but then utterly blows it on execution. The fact that the questions aren’t answered—set up by Crusher in her and Data’s talk on the subject, as it’s a question that really can’t be answered—isn’t so much the problem as the wrong question is being asked. Data believes that the exocomps are alive. Well, great – so’s a virus, as Data himself points out. Does this mean he’s going to lock out sickbay’s computers every time Crusher tries to save someone?
The actual issue here, just as the issue was in “The Measure of a Man,” is sentience, and Data does nothing to prove that. And then the episode avoids dealing with it in any depth by having the exocomps themselves come up with a solution that enables Picard and La Forge to be rescued, and two of the three exocomps to survive, with one sacrificing itself.
Plus everything is just so paint-by-numbers. Farallon is too bland a character to serve as anything other than a person in Data’s way, the particle fountain is just a device to give the exocomps a reason to exist, and the climax just seems so incredibly contrived and constructed in order to create the dilemma. Worse, using a shuttle to rescue Picard and La Forge is dismissed as taking too long – yet the time Data and Riker spend arguing about it could’ve been spent sending a shuttle over and hoping they could get there in time to effect a rescue. Options are cut off because the script says they are in order to simulate tension. On top of that, Data’s reasons for being this strident about the exocomps relates, he says, to the fact that he’s unique and alone in the universe, which ignores both Lore and Lal.
Also, Data was completely insubordinate, disobeying a direct order on a hunch. That alone should get him rotated the hell off the flagship. But he’s in the opening credits, so once again there are no consequences (cf. “Brothers”).
There could’ve been a good episode here, but it fails to address its issues as well as it should, and it completely fails as drama. Perhaps the saddest commentary on this episode is that the most interesting element is the teaser, where four characters go on at great length on the subject of facial hair.
Warp factor rating: 3
Keith R.A. DeCandido had a great time at New York Comic-Con. This weekend, he’ll be the Media Guest of Honor at Albacon 2012 in Latham, New York. Come on by and see him! Here’s his schedule.