Thursday, February 20, 2014

Star Trek: TNG S1 Ep18: Home Soil

"Only life can replicate itself doctor, inorganic or not, it is alive."
"We come in peace."
-Jean-Luc Picard.
"Ugly bags of mostly water."
-Inorganic life form referring to humans-
"You are beautiful to us. All life is beautiful."
-Deanna Troi-

So is it one step forward or one step back for the imbalanced inaugural first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation?

The one and only former General Gogol of the Roger Moore-era head of the KGB in James Bond, the late, great Walter Gotell (1924-1997) makes an appearance.  Gotell was splendid as the KGB head in some of my all-time favorite James Bond films beginning with Roger Moore's The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and ending with Timothy Dalton's The Living Daylights (1987).  Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983) and A View To A Kill (1985) combined for a total of six appearances over a decade.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season One, Episode 18, Home Soil Gotell plays Kurt Mandl, director of the terraforming planet Velara III.

From the opening shots alone it's clear he has no interest in Picard's away team, but even when Captain Jean-Luc Picard was less than his normally perceptive self he always has his trusty empath and body language expert Deanna Troi to break the situation down for him.

The away team (Counselor Troi, Commander William Riker, Geordi La Forge, Lt. Commander Data and Lt. Tasha Yar) are greeted with a fine reception. Home Soil breaks down the terraforming process nicely as well as the receipt of approval to mine a lifeless planet by The Federation as a policy.  A good bit of detail is established in the effort to terraform rather than simply skimming over the venture.  In fact, even later in the installment some of the scientific discussion is actually based in fact rather than mere techno babble demonstrating a rare turn toward hard science fiction.

Whilst on Velara III a member of the operation is attacked and killed by a laser drill.  Shortly after being beamed up to sick bay with Yar, Data, too, is attacked by the same device. Data survives destroying the laser-equipped drilling arm/mechanism and suggests the device was sentient operating with an artificial intelligence all its own. Why and How?  With everyone returned to the Enterprise-D an air of mystery builds in Home Soil.

Picard requests a work-up and psychological profile of the remaining terraformers now guests aboard the Enterprise while La Forge and Data are dispatched back to Velara III to investigate further.  Their investigation yields information that indeed the terraformers were potentially hiding the possibility of inorganic life within the planet to proceed with their mission.

Data returns with a sample for Dr. Beverly Crusher so that she might apply the scientific method in determining life.

One of the most interesting exchanges takes place between Picard and Mandl because the scene drips with tension. Picard suggests the possibility that Mandl, aware of the Prime Directive, is knowingly and willingly violating it. Mandl is defiant. "I create life. I don't take it."

Troi is given a significant role to play in Home Soil as she provides moments of psychoanalysis with her "gift." The exchange between Patrick Stewart and Gotell is something akin to two old giants of drama on full display.

It turns out Mandl has advanced degrees in computer engineering and artificial intelligence, but the real wild card of the three remaining survivors, which also includes Luisa Kim and Bjorn Benson,  is Kim. Kim is a visionary working in the abstract, but with little scientific background.  Number One is sent to work his charms.

"It's trying to communicate with us." It becomes apparent there is intelligent life on Velara III.  Notable is the fact that the life form, and not that it's a first on ST:TNG in any way shape or form, is that it is anything but a hairy or pointy-eared creature. Instead, ST:TNG offers us the kind of sparkling science fiction that would work beautifully in the abstract on Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek or Gerry Anderson's Space:1999. Approaching these sometimes indefinable, ambiguous life signs or life forms makes for a great story and forces us to rethink our pre-conceived notion or understanding of the universe without the distraction of the kinds of aliens Star Trek is sometimes noted for. Mandl insists he was assured by the Federation prior to terraforming that no life existed.

This further underscores one of the problems with the overly smug nature of the crew in some of the previous entries. They aren't always right, and as the case here presents, they still have much to understand. The Federation got this one wrong and thus human beings are fallible. ST:TNG begins to get it right when it behaves by presenting us with questions and attempts to determine answers.  This sense of discovery is truly awesome.

In this case, the life form tests the crew of the Enterprise as it takes over the ship's medical lab.

Home Soil is an effective entry on a number of fronts building on an idea and seizing the opportunity to create a mystery and generate questions that all culminates in a satisfying conclusion.

Most of all, the concept of life in its infancy is genuinely moving on a science fiction level.  This is the kind of concept taken to much greater budgetary extremes and greater production effect in director Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012). But here on ST:TNG the story gets the essence of those great unknowns right. Working from the building blocks of a kind of inorganic organism gives science fiction fans the kind of origins experience that might one day culminate in the development of an inorganic form such as the replicators made popular in Stargate SG-1 and other examples explored within ST:TNG.  There is some truly bold science fiction vision here even if it doesn't always compute effectively on every note.

There are a few issues here that one must accept.  The terraformers are clearly zealots of a sort unwilling to perceive clear information on potential life forms. There is an excellent scene as Captain breaks down evidence that suggests the life form was making attempts to communicate, but that the terraformers were willing to turn a blind eye in the interests of their scientific passion.  Humans certainly make these errors in judgment based on their inability to put the facts before blind ideology and vision.  Think Dr. Nicholas Rush of Stargate Universe or Dr. Paul Stubbs from ST:TNG, S3, Ep1, Evolution. This is a recurring theme in science fiction. We see it in politics every day too.

Another issue I kept playing back to myself had to do with this volatile life form presenting problems for the crew. Isolation or containment seemed to be merely temporary and without understanding of the planet's life form or its potential destructive capability. This was an entirely unknown variable. BEAM IT DOWN! I kept thinking. Get it off the ship. Communication with the creature determines the terraforming has in effect been killing the life form and it has now declared war on humans. The techno-life form is growing too. And then finally, efforts are made to beam it away, but by that point it's too late because the sentient organism is reproducing and growing stronger interfacing with the ship's computers.

These minor quibbles aside Home Soil captures the essence of Star Trek: The Original Series as it certainly echoes the human conflict with the silicon-based Horta as penned for the classic The Devil In The Dark by Gene L. Coon even if Coon's story was more effective and more affecting. Home Soil might even have drawn some inspiration from Space:1999, Year Two, Ep4, All That Glisters. What made the mysteries and thrills of those aforementioned series work so well are beginning to have an impact here. While the pacing and originality may not quite be there as it was for the ST:TOS original, there are promising signs applied here on ST:TNG. The nuanced approach is beginning to work well for the new cast and crew without feeling like a mere copy of ST:TOS as it so glaringly seemed early in Season One with Code Of Honor (Ep4) or The Naked Now (Ep3). That essence serves as a foundation for generating the confidence required to really build something entirely special and original for ST:TNG as it continues to fill in the framework of its own identity here. And there's no Vulcan mind melds happening.

Make it SnOw Number One. 

Ironically, the life form informs the Captain and the crew, "You are still too arrogant," a self-satisfied complacency that really dissipates nicely throughout Season Two and acknowledgement of that complacency even recognized by Picard himself within the first half of Season Two. But if Home Soil and other positive steps forward are any indication, there is indeed a move toward humility for this fine crew that is boldly going in the right direction. It's also clear the crew is far less stiff than they appeared in the early going and relaxing nicely in their respective roles.  Picard submits the crew needs to learn more and take away from this lesson and better prepare while Mandl discovers the irony of his efforts to create life resulting in the death of other life on a grave miscalculation by the very human Federation. The even greater irony is how exactly Picard and others could prevent this from happening again when calculations were made by us - humans. Humans, particularly ignorant ones, whether ignorant by choice or through an unintentional lack of information, are doomed to make mistakes even with the wisdom of history - we will repeat it again. New variables, new circumstances present new miscalculations. To err is human. To inadvertently violate the Prime Directive is a reality.

Home Soil: C+.
Writer: Robert Sabaroff/ Karl Geurs/ Ralph Sanchez.
Director: Corey Allen.

*Prime Directive: A guiding principle of The United Federation Of Planets. To prohibit interference by Starfleet with the development of alien civilizations. To avoid imposition of Starfleet technology, values and ideals on other alien cultures or life forms.


Roman J. Martel said...

I agree with your C+ grade on this one. As the story went along, I was reminded strongly of "Devil in the Dark", but this episode did enough things differently that it didn't feel like a copy, more like an adaptation for the TNG crew. It still felt a little uneven in places, but it it certainly a very watchable episode.

Ah man, that shirt Wesley had to wear in that first season... so painful to look at.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Yeah, still trying to get all of the balance right in this first season.

Tough shirt my friend. Ah youth.