Thursday, April 23, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Quality of Life

"The Quality of Life" is a fair, if somewhat forgettable, episode from season six of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise has been sent to evaluate a new "particle fountain" mining technique being tested by an engineer named Dr. Farallon. But it's one of her other inventions that proves more compelling. To keep her mining operation running smoothly, she has created a set of adaptive robotic tools she's dubbed "exocomps." When one of these devices appears to exhibit an extinct for self-preservation, Data speculates that the exocomps might have attained sentience. After an accident on the mining station, he is determined to preserve their lives even if it means sacrificing the lives of Picard and LaForge.

If you think the technobabble in this episode is a bit thicker than normal, you're not imagining it. The script was written by Naren Shankar, who would later become a full-fledged member of the writing staff, but who officially at this point was just the staff's science advisor. Showrunner Jeri Taylor had bought this episode's premise from an outsider story pitch. Either for lack of staff time or following a successful lobby by Shankar, she agreed to let him develop a draft of the script on his own.

Fortunately, the script isn't all science and engineering. It ultimately comes down to Data's difficult exploration of life and what defines it. He has a more than one deep conversation with Dr. Crusher on the subject, and ultimately develops an "instinct" that the exocomps qualify. It's a huge moment for Data, because it feels so out of character for him. In an argument in the episode itself, Riker articulates pretty much every reason why: Data doesn't know for certain that he's right, yet he's still willing to see his captain and best friend die for that hunch. It's frankly hard behavior to understand or rationalize, until the final scene where Data explains himself to Picard. When Data's own sentience was questioned, Picard came to his defense. Data basically felt the urge to pay back that support by advocating on behalf of the exocomps.

While this is obviously a "Data episode," Dr. Crusher has almost as good a part in it. Besides the heady discussion of life itself I mentioned before, she gets a couple of nice feminist moments too. There's a fun poker scene in the teaser where she argues that beards on men are just as much an affectation as makeup on women. (And it seems she would have won a bet on that point, but for a timely interruption by Picard.) Later in the episode, we learn that Crusher has been bat'leth training with Worf -- and that she is improving enough to have almost gotten in under his guard. Perhaps because a woman was now running the Next Generation writing staff, things were evolving beyond the point where female characters had to use pottery to fight instead of swords.

But there are also parts of the episode that don't quite work for me. Some are merely production issues. The decision was made to portray the exocomps using rod puppets. The results seem oddly jerky, less smooth than you'd expect a machine to operate. There's also a scene in Engineering where one of the exocomps goes down an "impossible" conduit -- we see a hallway stretch on for hundreds of feet, beyond the point where we know a wall exists (people have been walking into Engineering that way for years).

Other problems are unpolished quirks in the script itself. For example, it seems awfully easy to accidentally create artificial intelligence. Farallon wasn't even trying to do it, but given her statement that she's reformatted several "malfunctioning" exocomps in the past, she's actually done it multiple times! There's also an uncomfortable, quasi-corporate vibe to the way the Enterprise crew interacts with Farallon and the mining operation. Just because the Federation is evaluating the mining process, does that mean they "own" the exocomp technology too? Because our heroes pretty much act like they do, taking control away from Farallon. Plus, it bothers me that Data (whether he was "right" or "wrong") faces no consequences for his indisputable act of insubordination to Commander Riker.

Other observations:
  • Although there are three exocomps in the story, there was only enough money in the budget to build two puppets. Every scene where you see all three is a visual effects composite, such as when Brent Spiner plays both Data and Lore in the same scene. You wouldn't think twice about such a trick today, but I find it interesting that even in 1992, split screening was cheaper than building a puppet.
  • This is the second straight episode where people specifically mention Geordi's beard. LeVar Burton preferred to have one, and in the past had very briefly been allowed to wear one. He argued again this season to have a beard, and this time had a more powerful reason for it on his side: he was getting married, and thought it fair that he be allowed to have a beard at his own wedding. The producers agreed, but then promptly made him shave it off again afterward.
  • Speaking of guys with beards, Jonathan Frakes was again in the director's chair for this episode.
Ultimately, the biggest disappointment of the episode is that the huge importance of Data's actions in it -- his growth as a student of humanity -- aren't acknowledged strongly enough. This episode shouldn't be as unmemorable as it is. Still, it's not "bad" as such. I give it a B.

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