The Enterprise responds to a distress call from the starship Lantree, only to find the entire crew dead of rapid aging. Backtracking the other ship's final days, the crew visits a genetic research facility, finding that their scientists are also undergoing a sudden, unexplained acceleration of the aging process. The genetically engineered children they're developing show no signs of this disease, but may in fact be the cause -- which begins to become apparent when Dr. Pulaski herself contracts the aging virus.
As I mentioned, the "old age virus" gimmick was done first on the original series, and done better too. There, most of the bridge crew contracted the disease, and the drama came from showing the heroes in a suddenly vulnerable position -- particularly Captain Kirk. Here, Pulaski is the sole victim among the regular characters. The episode is trying to use this as a way of humanizing her, but it manages only to feel like some kind of bizarre come-uppance for thoroughly prickly and off-putting behavior.
Even in this episode, before contracting the disease, Pulaski displays no endearing traits. She butts heads with Picard throughout, showing such enthusiasm for the act of arguing itself (as opposed to the topic of the argument) that she doesn't even hear Picard at first when he agrees to one of her requests. In one scene, Troi graciously tries to characterize their personality conflict as a clash of "well-established personalities." That seems to be code for "stubbornness," but there's absolutely no history of Picard ignoring the opinions of his crew and barging ahead unreasonably with whatever he wants to do. (That's an unlikeable trait that the writers of Voyager and Enterprise would end up giving to Janeway and Archer.) It seems that the only way the writers can attempt to make Pulaski likeable is to try and convince us that the other characters we already know are in fact not like what we know them to be. That extends even to Beverly Crusher, not even around to defend herself, when Troi says of Pulaski: "I've never met a more dedicated physician."
All the bad traits of Pulaski already established in previous episodes continue in full force here. When Data helps her out by agreeing to pilot a shuttle for her, she uses the trip to insult him a few more times, speechifying about what it is to be human, and assigning to him a selfishness he has never demonstrated. She continues to steal personality quirks from the original series' Dr. McCoy; here, she picks up his distaste for using the transporter. And she adds outright lying to her repertoire this time too: when Data asks point blank whether Picard approved his piloting of her shuttlecraft, she says he did when in fact Picard approved her putting only herself at risk.
I feel sorry for Diana Muldaur in all this, because I don't think she was comfortable with the direction of her character either. The director of this episode, Paul Lynch, claimed in a later interview that Muldaur had a particularly hard time learning her lines in his episode. It was so bad, he said, that they ended up writing her dialogue on cue cards at times. There's even a scene between Troi and Pulaski where this is boldly apparent; Troi engages Pulaski repeatedly as hey walk down a corridor, while Pulaski just stares straight ahead into space without ever looking back. In my own limited experience, the number one reason an actor struggles with lines is that they aren't connecting with the material. They can't remember what to say, because what they have to say makes no sense to them.
Another Pulaski folly by the writers was giving her an old age story to begin with. Technically speaking, an authentic appearance of old age is one of the most difficult makeup effects to achieve. It's virtually impossible on a television budget and schedule, as demonstrated by the horrible "Too Short a Season." And even when done well, it's usually to make a very young actor appear impossibly old. Here, the story called for making someone of middle age appear elderly. That's an even more difficult effect to achieve, and the results here are silly.
Oddly, while the writers were putting all this push behind developing Pulaski, they did a better job of developing a different character in this episode. For the first time, Colm Meaney gets guest star billing, and his transporter chief gets his name: O'Brien. Given the significance of all this, it's little wonder Colm Meaney once said in an interview how much he liked this episode. But he actually explained his affection in non-selfish terms, saying: "It was a marvelous sort of detective story in a way, while at the same time it was making a statement about the dangers of these wonderful scientific developments that can be used for great benefit. It also said something deeper about the dangers of them, and in a sense it begged the question should we really be trying this?" Wow... that does sound like a good episode! Too bad Meaney was more articulate about the message in two sentences that the episode itself was in 45 minutes.
Just a few episodes into the season, and the series was again trying to save money. The genetically engineered superchildren are all telepaths, an obvious cheat so that it wouldn't be necessary to pay any of the actors to speak. In one scene, Geordi rigs up a special force field, and it's operated by this ridiculously huge piece of machinery that looks nothing like other Starfleet technology -- almost certainly some found item in Paramount's prop storage. Also, the crew suddenly gets the idea to remote access the starship Lantree rather than beam over, to save on the need for an extensive bridge set and space suits to protect from the disease. (Though it is appropriate that the last time we saw a Federation ship accessed by "remote control" was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; the Lantree here is a reuse of the Reliant starship model.)
- The names of the planetary system and scientific research station in this episode are nice shout-outs to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and scientist Charles Darwin.
- Picard lays the most awesome smackdown on Pulaski when he exits Sickbay with the line: "Doctor, God knows I'm not one to discourage input, but I would appreciate it if you'd let me finish my sentences once in a while."
- I don't think Pulaski needed to put Data at risk by having him pilot her shuttle. Couldn't anyone have piloted the shuttle out to a stationary position, then beamed off before she began her experiments?
- This episode sets a terrible precedent (that was wisely ignored in the future) that the transporter could be used to essentially undo any disease by utilizing an untainted DNA sample from the subject. That was definitely too much power for our characters to wield.
- Speaking of precedents, a later episode would establish that genetic engineering of humans, as depicted here, is in fact illegal in the Federation. (And later, it became a major plot point for the character of Dr. Bashir on Deep Space Nine.)
- The doctor running the research station has weirdly white-tipped fingers for reasons that are never acknowledged. They're so white that I thought at first she was wearing rubber gloves, but nope, that's not it. Is it super-bad "bad old age makeup?"
- The Enterprise abandons the Lantree under quarantine early in the episode, only to come back at the end to destroy it. There's a nice ceremonial aspect to the destruction that's effective, but why they didn't do that in the first place makes no sense to me.