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[TNG] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Emergence"

WARNING: Spoilers for TNG's "Emergence" are definitely going to emerge if you read this article any further.

In brief: not bad at all. Not top-notch, but pretty nicely strange.

I still had bits of "yes, and?" coming out of this show to me, but far fewer than usual for the last several episodes, which is a nice change of pace. More after the synopsis:

Data's practice as Prospero in "The Tempest" is interrupted when a holodeck version of the Orient Express roars through his program, nearly causing Picard serious injury. The holodecks are shut down as a safety precaution, and Picard talks to Beverly about the Express, as it's her program. Bev says that she's not interested in the train for its own sake, but more for the experience: "you never know who you'll meet on the Orient Express."

Meanwhile, a survey gets underway for new colony sites, but is going poorly. Picard decides to try a new sector -- but suddenly, the ship goes into warp without any order being given, and cannot be shut down. However, just as Geordi prepares to do an emergency shutdown of the warp core, the engines close down themselves. All are mystified, and the situation only gets stranger when they discover that a "theta-flux distortion", normally undetectable, was building up on the ship to lethal proportions, and that had the ship not gone into warp when it did, the ship would have blown to bits less than two seconds later.

Geordi and Data investigate in a Jeffries tube, trying to figure out how this seeming coincidence occurred. The only theory Data can come up with is that the sensors picked up the threat and triggered a safety feature, but Geordi objects that there's no link between the sensors and the engines. However, there is now -- when they open up a panel, they find an exotic-looking circuit node that interconnects many systems, those two included. What's more, it has a forcefield protecting it -- and later investigations reveal that there are nodes like it all over the ship.

As much of the circuitry intersects in the holodeck, Riker, Data, and Worf head there to try to disconnect the nodes before they endanger the ship. They find the holodeck activated (despite Data's earlier action) and several programs running. They enter, and find themselves on board the Orient Express, complete with a wide assortment of characters from other programs.

Data tries to access the holodeck systems, but is stopped by the conductor, recently arrived and demanding to see the trio's tickets. While they stall, the engineer rushes in and tells everyone to leave Data and company alone: "they're only trying to help!" However, the conductor tells him to go back to the engine, and when the engineer protests that everyone is hijacking the train, a gangster shoots him in the back. The conductor then pulls a cord, turning the train -- and simultaneously, the ship goes into warp again, this time with no chance of shutdown. "Now we're on the *right* track," says the conductor confidently, and orders Data and company off the train. As the holodeck safeties are off-line, they leave with all deliberate speed.

Returning to engineering, Data notices that the nodes have expanded their influence, now connecting most of the ship's systems independently of the main computer -- and he also notes that the structure of the system forming bears an apt resemblance to a primitive neural network. From this, he deduces that the Enterprise is somehow forming an intelligence of its own! Although the concept of an "emergent property" (something greater than the sum of its parts) lets them justify the possibility, no one knows exactly what this intelligence might want. However, the key to understanding it seems to be in the holodeck, the consciousness's "imagination". Troi goes in to gather information, taking Data and Worf along.

While Data attempts to gain access to the circuitry once more, Troi talks to the gangster, who now holds a brick he took from the dead engineer. He tells her that he has to get the brick to Keystone City, "where everything begins." The conductor again enters and again orders the crew off at the next stop -- Keystone City. The gangster gets off the train as well, and Troi and Worf follow him while Data tries to access the circuits through a manhole in the city street, triggering a cab that tries to run him down in the process. The gangster proceeds to a brick wall with one brick missing, and puts the brick in, telling Troi and Worf that he is "layin' the foundation." At that moment, a power surge kicks in in a cargo bay -- and when Geordi goes to investigate, he finds an object in the process of forming.

Data, literally holding the cab at bay, proceeds to depolarize the circuits he has gained access to, but the ship and holodeck begin shaking, dropping bricks down on Troi in the process. Data stops, and the situation stabilizes. The trio then leave the holodeck to compare notes with those outside.

When everyone meets, Troi cites the themes of creation she witnessed (the brick, a puzzle being put together, and so forth), and Geordi points out that the object in the bay is being made atom by atom. Troi believes that the characters on the holodeck are not fully aware of what they are, and as such *cannot* be reasoned with. Picard suggests playing the scenario through their way, and allows Troi to go back into the holodeck.

The same trio as before boards the train, and this time answers the conductor by displaying three tickets to Vertiform City (the train's eventual destination). What's more, when the conductor mentions engine trouble, they volunteer to have Worf help in the engine room, which he does. Meanwhile, a passenger tells Troi that Vertiform City has a restaurant with unlimited and good food.

The Enterprise reaches a white dwarf star (at a much faster speed than before, thanks to Worf's coal-shoveling skills) and begins extracting vertion particles from it via tractor beam. The object in the bay begins growing very quickly and becoming more complex -- but then, suddenly, the star runs completely out of vertions, and the object begins to have difficulty maintaining its energy output. The conductor is shocked: "We've been on the wrong track all along!", he cries, as he pulls the emergency brake...

The brake not only derails the train, but also causes a shipwide shutdown on the Enterprise. As Geordi tells Picard that the object was beginning to emit energy in ways that would suggest it's a *lifeform*, the systems come back up -- but Geordi says that without more vertions soon, the lifeform will die. The train heads to New Vertiform City, moving the ship at warp 9. All well and good, but the ship has deactivated life support to funnel more energy into propulsion -- and within two hours, the oxygen supply will run out.

As Geordi works on a way to generate vertion particles, Data and company convince the conductor and passengers that they know a shorter route to New Vertiform City, and they allow Data access to the engine room. He brings the ship to a nearby nebula, which Geordi then detonates with a modified torpedo to produce vast amounts of vertions. The train passengers celebrate their arrival at New Vertiform City, the nodes deactivate all over the ship (deactivating the Express as well), and the lifeform, complete at last, leaves the ship on its merry way. Everything is restored, and Picard explains to Data that he took the risk of letting the ship complete its task because if the intelligence created was built out of *their* experiences with it, he trusted it would behave as honorably as they do.


That would seem to take care of that. Now, back to the comments.

Despite the rather lengthy synopsis above, I'm not sure there's all that much in the way of *commentary* I have about "Emergence". While I enjoyed it quite a bit (probably the best thing I've seen from TNG since "Thine Own Self", quite a ways ago), it's not a show that sparks a lot of commentary. "I saw it; it was weird; it was mostly good." is about it.

The idea of the Enterprise becoming conscious isn't a bad one, but it's something of a pity that we didn't get to see it really realizing it's a ship; instead, it's almost more like it was possessed and simply developing enough intelligence to carry that mission out. (In fact, our theory in the middle of the show was that the "magnascopic storm" the Enterprise passed through resulted in it being taken over by one of the lifeforms it later created. Come to think of it, there's still no evidence that theory is *wrong*.)

Given the tack Braga and Menosky (the former on story, the latter on script) chose to take, however, this was executed pretty well. As is often the case for *either* writer ("Phantasms", "Birthright, Part I", "Darmok", "Masks", etc.), we had a pretty symbolism-heavy show. Unlike in "Masks", though, I was pleased to see that some elements of the symbolism were not explained to us with a sledgehammer.

For instance, the Data-as-Prospero scene at the start, while referred to as Prospero's final creative act and placed in context of the end of the Renaissance, is also significant in that "The Tempest" was Shakespeare's final play, and was in many ways Shakespeare's final creative act in the face of "a world in which he was no longer needed". Given that this may be Joe Menosky's last work for Trek (I have no idea; I simply know it's not Brannon Braga's), there may have been a deeper meaning in that scene than the one we were explicitly given. I rather like that.

I also like the fact that, as is typical for a lot of Braga's shows, there were some elements of weirdness that just weren't explained at *all*. "Phantasms" had the "with mint frosting" always being appended to Troi as a cake; this had the Western gunslinger tied up while playing poker and the knight cutting out paper dolls. In excess, of course, this technique can be amazingly annoying; but in moderation, it gives shows of this type a little extra flavor.

Plot-wise, there really is very little else that comes to mind. The show didn't have any major plot twists that kept me bouncing around the screen, but neither did it have any plot holes that had me crying foul. It was a fairly straightforward, interesting story -- and that's all it was.

Character-wise, it's mostly a question of whether people were in character rather than new developments, since this was a very plot-driven show. I'd have to say people were, but again, in a show like this that's fairly easy, since a lot of what they did was react to the weirdnesses they saw on the Orient Express. However, major character "moments" were all pretty solid: Picard and Data discussing Prospero worked well, as I said earlier; Data coming up with a relatively unique solution to the cabbie was cute; and generally, everyone seemed to have their own particular take on the situation that was appropriate for them to have. In particular, I noticed that Troi, of course, got into the psychological aspects, Riker had to have everything explained to him :-), and Data was the one who *realized* they had an artificial intelligence developing, which is very much in line with his nature and his past. Just as with the plot, then -- again, it's nothing earth-shattering, but it's solid, capable stuff. (Stewart seemed a little more subdued than usual, but not bad.)

As for the guests, well, it's tough to talk about characterization since they were basically computer projections of various parts of the ship, and as such not exactly well-rounded. However, all three of the major speaking roles worked quite well. David Huddleston in particular had a very solid outing as the conductor, though I for one kept having flashbacks from "The Wonder Years" [where he played Kevin's grandfather] and, of all things, "Blazing Saddles" ["not only was (another character's rant) authentic frontier gibberish..."]. His "go back to your engine" was about the most sinister I've ever seen him get -- but it worked. (That whole scene with the engineer being shot was nicely creepy, in fact.) Both the gangster and the "country hick" were pretty stock characters, but both were fine.

That's honestly about it for the main points on the story. Now, a couple of short takes:

  • One plot goof, or at least plausibility goof. This theta-flux distortion can make a ship explode suddenly, but it's something the sensors aren't designed to detect? This strikes me as being extremely poor planning on the part of the ship's designers; it would have been better to say that it built up far more suddenly than such distortions have ever been known to in the past.
  • Picard says that if they are dealing with a new intelligence, "then we should treat it with the same respect as any other being." Given a few recent occasions on which new intelligences have been blown away with no compunction ("Sub Rosa" comes immediately to mind), I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable with that in the Enterprise's case.  :-)

That would seem to be that. "Emergence" is a pretty sedate story, and I'm not sure how well it's going to age in half a year or longer; but for now, it seemed a rather enjoyable way to spend an hour.

So, to sum up:

Plot: No major twists, but no major holes. Solid, and an interesting idea (perhaps not taken to its best limits).

Plot Handling: Nicely creepy in most cases, fine all 'round.

Characterization: Nothing innovative, writing or acting-wise, but solid again.

OVERALL: 7 or so. Pretty nice.

NEXT WEEK:

Ro returns, only to be sent off against the Maquis. Has she checked what happened to the *last* Bajoran who went on a mission?

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
BITNET:  tlynch@citjulie
INTERNET:  tly...@juliet.caltech.edu
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!tlynch%juliet.caltech....@hamlet.caltech.edu
"What are you doing here?"
"Layin' the foundation."
--
Copyright 1994, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...

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