Thursday, December 10, 2015

TNG Flashback: Force of Nature

Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode "Force of Nature" went through a long development process. Unfortunately, the finished product suggests that process wasn't nearly long enough.

The Enterprise is attempting to locate a missing medical ship when two Hekarans disable the ship's engines and demand a meeting to present scientific research. They claim that warp travel in this region is eroding the very fabric of space and threatening the climate of their homeworld. Though the Enterprise crew -- and Geordi LaForge in particular -- are initially skeptical, evidence soon emerges that the "environmental damage" caused by warp travel may not just be a local phenomenon.

Staff writer Naren Shankar first pitched this story idea for the sixth season episode that became "Suspicions." Early in season seven, after he and fellow writer Brannon Braga met with an environmental watchdog group, he came back inspired and resurrected the idea under the working title "Limits." In principle, it's a great idea that's quintessential Star Trek: examining a real world issue (in this case, fossil fuel use and climate change) through a science fiction allegory. But that noble idea faced a number of problems.

At first, the episode was conceived as a semi-sequel to "Interface." Geordi's sister was to come aboard to help him deal with the death of his mother, and he'd then be hit with a double whammy by having his faith in technology shaken too. The draft wasn't working, and Shankar wanted to take another crack at it. Instead, with an empty filming slot fast approaching, he was persuaded to instead swap the sister subplot for a personality conflict with another crew member. That fell apart too, and now the deadline was really looming.

The episode was too short to run without a subplot, but there wasn't any time left to come up with one. Thus was born a series of scenes about Geordi in an "engine optimization contest" with another ship's engineer, and Data attempting to train his cat Spot. The engine material at least has minor thematic resonance with the main storyline, depicting the pride Geordi takes in his warp engines. The cat stuff? Shankar, who readily admitted this episode was "not one of my finer moments," half-heartedly suggested that the connection between the eco-disaster story and the Spot scenes "is the notion that you can't control a force of nature like a cat." Riiiiight.

Indeed, none of the series writers were happy with the finished product. Everyone noted that the story didn't even really get going until the beginning of Act Three. (The summary I wrote above begins at that point.) Showrunner Jeri Taylor thought that while Shankar did his best, the premise was "doomed" from the start due to the difficulty in adding emotional and personal stakes into a story about "the ozone hole." Michael Piller, who ran the Deep Space Nine writing staff and also supervised The Next Generation, called this the worst show of the season, saying it spurred a series of meetings where he criticized everyone for letting the final season "slip away."

All that is fair criticism, but I think the biggest problem of this story isn't its lack of personal stakes, but rather its lack of lingering consequences. I like that they're not able to wave a magic wand and fix this environmental damage caused by warp travel; it keeps this a good representation of the real world issues it's trying to dramatize. And yes, Picard tells us that Starfleet is implementing a warp five "speed limit" to limit further damage. That limit even gets mentioned in a couple of future episodes.

But it still feels like lip service. This is the last season of The Next Generation, so they don't have to live long in this "warp limited" world. Deep Space Nine and Voyager never even acknowledge it. (Reportedly, production teams members Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda mentioned in a unpublished Voyager Technical Guide that some technical advancement removed the negative impact of warp travel.) I suppose a follow-up episode wouldn't have helped either -- I mean, if they couldn't get enough drama out of revealing this problem, they probably couldn't get much out of solving it in some technobabbly way. Yet it still feels like a cop-out. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I suppose.

Other observation:

Actually, I have just one this time: Spot is suddenly female in this episode, after being male in all previous appearances. This would actually go on to be a significant plot point in a future episode.

"Force of Nature" does try to tackle an important issue. (An issue we've scarcely made progress on two decades later.) It's even occasionally clever in how it adapts real world aspects of that issue to fiction. Yet it still falls flat... and that's without even considering the time-wasting, unrelated subplots. I give the episode a C+.

1 comment:

Ian said...

My memory of Star Trek is hazy and fading by the year. But wasn't it somewhere in DS9 that they had created a 'clean' warp engine, maybe for the Defiant or something?