WARNING: The following review contains spoiler information for "The Quality of Life." (The TNG episode, that is, not the concept itself. :-) ) Those not wishing said spoilers are advised to remain calm, avoid panic, and simply skip this message.
Whew. About time we had a really *thought-provoking* show.
While I've certainly had a few shows this season I've really enjoyed, this is probably the first one this year that has left me thinking; and it's long overdue. More after a synopsis:
The Enterprise arrives at the planet of Tyra 7A, where Geordi is inspecting the completion of a "particle fountain," a possible new mining technique. The scheduling and implementation problems of the fountain, however, quickly prove overwhelming, and a disaster is averted only with the help of an exocomp, a tool invented by the station's Dr. Farallon. The exocomp is designed to be a problem solver, and it not only replicates the tools it needs to do its jobs, but adds on new circuits in its own brain when encountering an unfamiliar task. It's a great breakthrough, and Picard agrees to Farallon's request for a 48-hour delay to use her exocomps to finish bringing the particle fountain up to full strength.
Unfortunately, this also falls prey to problems. One of the exocomps leaves a plasma conduit and "refuses" to return, apparently malfunctioning and burning out its command circuits. This proves fortunate for the exocomp, as the conduit exploded very shortly thereafter, but puzzles the examiners, who find large numbers of brain pathways that do not appear to have any impact on job performance. Farallon dismisses it as a malfunction now rendering the exocomp useless and returns to the station. Data, however, continues researching, and finds that approximately two hours after the exocomp burnt out its own control pathways, it rebuilt them once the danger had passed. After some thought, Data concludes that the exocomps may very well be alive, and urges Farallon not to continue using them.
Farallon protests, and at a hastily convened conference no immediate conclusion is reached. However, all parties do agree to test Data's hypothesis by recreating the situation where the "malfunction" occurred and seeing if the exocomp truly has survival instincts. In a test where a simulated disaster is set up for the exocomp to find while conducting a repair, the exocomp fails to flee on cue, thus convincing nearly all parties that it is, in fact, not a living being. Farallon returns to her work, leaving the one "defective" exocomp with Data. Data, however, continues testing, and when a conversation with Dr. Crusher distracts him from bringing the exocomp back after a "failure", he finds that the exocomp didn't fail the test at all. Rather, it saw right through it, realizing the "disaster" was a sensor glitch; and not only did it finish the initial repair, it repaired the sensors to correct the anomaly.
Before he has a chance to inform others of this situation, however, another mishap befalls the station, calling for its evacuation. Unfortunately, both Geordi and Picard are trapped on board it, with radiation levels rising rapidly. With time too short to send a shuttle or properly configure a photon torpedo, the only chance appears to be programming all three exocomps to beam into the particle stream and then detonate, shutting down the fountain. Data strenuously objects to this, but is overruled; and Farallon goes so far as to disconnect their command pathways just in case they malfunction and attempt to shut down.
Data responds to this by locking out the transporter controls, and refuses to release them even under threat of court-martial. In the end, Riker grudgingly agrees to reconnect the pathways and give the exocomps, if they are alive, the choice of whether to act or not on the situation. They choose to help, but not by destroying themselves. Rather, they beam into the station and absorb enough power from the core to open a "window" through which Picard and Geordi can be beamed. Two of three are subsequently saved, with the third remaining behind to hold the window open for the others. Farallon agrees not to exploit her creations any longer, and Picard informs an apologetic Data that risking all to fight for the exocomps' rights was "the most human decision you've ever made."
There we are. (You know, I think that's one of the most densely packed synops I've written in a long time. Why I didn't just expand out to a lengthier one is beyond me. :-) ) Anyway, here's some more thought.
Those familiar with my reviews know that I value any episode or part thereof that will provoke a lot of thought and thoughtful discussion. While I can, and do, enjoy episodes without that trait a great deal -- take a look at "Relics" or "True Q" for two examples this season, perhaps because both brought back old and valued characters -- episodes *with* it start at a decided advantage.
"The Quality of Life" brought on a lot of thought. In spades. Let's face it, Bev was right -- "What is the definition of life?" *is* one of the thorniest questions in the book, and any show that tries to touch on it had better be very careful where it treads. "The Measure of a Man" did it, and so, to a point, did "The Offspring". "The Quality of Life" acknowledged MoaM's legacy and amplified it: "Okay, so Data's alive and sentient, and after Picard fighting for him, everyone's agreed on that. Now, what happens next time, when we get a machine that might be alive and that *doesn't* look as human as Data?" The answer -- only Data realizes it.
(This was driven home to me most when I heard Farallon point out "...and there is a big difference between Data and a tool!" As Lisa said to me just after, "Boy, that's a long way from 'Data is a toaster'...")
The plot (the *single* plot; I realized just today that whatever else has happened this season, TNG has pretty firmly broken with their multi-plot tradition of late) rolled right along towards its eventual resolution. Data's investigation leading to his initial thoughts was both scripted and directed very nicely, evoking a few "2001"ish thoughts from me. (When the circuit pathways were discovered in working order, I hope I wasn't the only one suddenly considering a particular AE-35 antenna unit.:-) ) The exocomp's apparent "failure" of the test, while not much of a surprise to me, was well done, and the subsequent discovery by Data and Bev of just what the real situation was had a lot of great moments.
Yes, that part was somewhat predictable, incidentally; but it was predictable for the *right* reasons, not the wrong ones. Having the exocomp see through the test was dramatically sensible and *internally* sensible, as was having no one really see it until it's pointed out to them. I saw it coming, and I suspect a lot of written-SF fans saw it coming, but that's because it's a worthwhile approach. And even predictability, if presented well, can be great; anyone want to argue that "Star Wars" was a failure because you knew Luke would destroy the Death Star?
About the only plot element that seems perhaps a little weak would be the crisis situation on the fountain. While I acknowledge that it was probably necessary to keep many viewers, I'd have preferred the examination of the exocomps not be forced by outside circumstances. What they did *with* the approach worked extremely well, and I've no problem with that; but thinking back to the legacy of "The Measure of a Man" and "The Offspring", it would have been nice not to have an actual Threat [TM] loom to bring the situation into high gear.
On characterization, I can't find a thing that was disappointing. Farallon was appropriately single-minded on her pet project -- perhaps not quite so much so as Bruce Maddox, or perhaps just in a different arena. Picard was his usual understanding self, which explains in some respect why the station crisis had to have Picard involved; had he been on board ship, I doubt he would have shared Riker's attitude. Riker showed a lot of his usual strengths and weaknesses; quick to judge and hot-headed, perhaps, but deep down a decent guy when he's left with no other choice. :-) Dr. Crusher was surprisingly well done in a way I haven't seen in months, showing just about
everything there is to like about the character (particularly in that opening poker game, which I'll get to later.)
That, of course, leaves Data, who has finally shifted gears again. This Data was a return to the one we saw a few years ago in "The Measure of a Man", "The Offspring", and "The Most Toys". Outwardly, he was his usual calm,
rational, emotionless self. But just *listen* to his voice at the close of his conversation with Bev, or during the conference, or in several other places -- and then try to tell me with a straight face he's *really* emotionless. I know I couldn't. I don't think I've heard a statement as double-edged as his "Doctor, there is a big difference between you and a *virus*..." since the end of "The Most Toys"; and I'd almost forgotten how much I missed it. I am very, *very* gratified to see this, and urge those involved to please keep up the good work.
I can't say I'm completely surprised by the quality of the episode however, based on past precedents. The writer was Naren Shankar, whose previous TNG work included co-writing on "The First Duty", another extremely strong character piece. And the director was Jonathan Frakes, who is now five for five in directing stints so far as I'm concerned. Both combined here to produce a show that worked on emotional levels (oozing tension towards the end where necessary) and on intellectual ones, provoking a lot of debate where I was, and hopefully where you were.
I'd also like to applaud the opening poker game. If I'm not wrong, it's the first one since "Cause and Effect", and the first one to have some terrific, light character moments since well before that. Beverly's recent sardonic streak came out quite a bit here, particularly in her zinger after Riker touted beards as "a sign of strength": "Oh. And, of course, women can't grow beards..." The subsequent wager was hilarious, and I earnestly hope we see the results of it sometime soon; if nothing else, Bev seemed extremely set on that bet, and I can't imagine it would soon be forgotten. (Not, mind you, that I'd be anxious to see either result be permanent; Bev as a brunette seems out of place to me, and we already know that a beardless Riker looks like the Balsa Wood Commander. :-) ) It was a pleasant moment in a show hat became increasingly serious introspective, and as such made a terrific counterpoint.
A few short takes before I wrap up, then.
--Data's "What about fire?" had me cheering, in part because it is *precisely* a point made in the science class my students get in eighth grade. I hope they appreciate it. ;-)
--A discussion Lisa and I got into was whether they wanted evidence of *life*, or of *intelligence*. My eventual conclusion was that they already had evidence it was intelligent; if the exocomp was alive to boot, then it's clearly not in a position to be exploited. Thoughts?
--And MST 3000 rears its head again, oh so subtly. Farallon mentions early on that the exocomp was based on a "simple industrial servo mechanism". Inside, it even looked like poor Tom Servo, too. ;-)
--Geordi's eye -- er, VISOR -- rolling when Data and Farallon first started talking technobabble was a scream.
--Just how complicated, in TNG's time, can something be before it can no longer be replicated? So far as we know, living tissue can't; yet life and intelligence are kept intact in the transporter (barring the every-third-episode accident, of course). Could a virus? A bacterium? A protozoan? A multicellular animal? An exocomp?
--Transporter Chief Kelso? Someone's into nostalgia...
That's about it for me. Every so often, TNG comes out with a show that's basically quiet and understated, yet leaves me thinking a lot more than most of the others. "Darmok" was one of them last year, as was "The Inner Light". This appears to be the first one of this season, and I truly hope it's not the last.
So, the numbers:
Plot: 9. As I said, I wish there hadn't had to be any actual "jeopardy".
Plot Handling: 10. No complaints at all.
Characterization: 10. Fewer than no complaints. :-)
TOTAL: 10. Bingo.
NEXT WEEK: The first of five reruns, and I take a very-needed vacation. Ta!
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"Always the easy questions..."
--us, after Data asks "what is the definition of life?"
-- Copyright 1992, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...