Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Quality of Life [6.9]

Data becomes suspicious that small robots called Exocomps invented by a scientist to assist her in engineering experiments are actually a new life form.  When an accident endangers Picard and Geordi, Data refuses to allow the exocomps to be sacrificed to save them.  However, when offered the choice, the exocomps help of their own accord, and one even sacrifices itself to save the others.

Written by Naren Shankar. Directed by Jonathan Frakes.

Previous Episode: A Fistful of Datas • Next Episode: Chain of Command, Part I

The Quality of Life is a mostly well produced episode, but still winds up being unmemorable and a bit flat.  It’s one of many stories that would have been considered pretty good if it had come out in the series’ first season, but here, in the midst of season six, after winners like A Fistful of Datas and (surprisingly) Rascals, and before the highly re-anticipated Chain of Command, it just comes across as a bit of a filler.  Which is funny, because it’s about some pretty grand concepts, as Data wrestles (as much as he ever does, anyway) with the idea of what it means to be alive.

I guess the reason it lacks punch is because it’s not about whether Data is alive.  We’re all pretty comfortable with that idea by now.  But it’s about whether little no-personality robots are alive. Data’s experiments don’t really prove anything one way or the other – except that the Exocomps are smart enough to work toward self-preservation.  Maybe if Data had tried to communicate with the Exocomps, that would given the story more weight. One figures that in Star Trek-land, there must be some way to do that.  I mean, Picard nearly found weird and wacky ways to communicate with the Crystalline Entity before it was destroyed.  And obviously they are able to tell the machines about various dangerous situations going on around it.  Why not try to talk to these guys?

A while ago, I mentioned that if I, Borg had been a Doctor Who story, it would have involved Hugh escaping and slaughtering half the crew before he was stopped.  Well, The Quality of Life again stirred such thoughts in my mind, as I couldn’t help imagining the Doctor Who-version of this story, in which the Exocomps rebel against their human creator who keeps lobotomizing them whenever they get too smart, and start replicating deadly weapons instead of engineering tools and begin to attack the science team.  In this case, such a story move might have been helpful, because it would have given everything a bit of a stronger dramatic focus.

I think there are two things that make the story a bit of a strange one.  The first is how gosh-darn easy it’s getting in the Star Trek world to invent artificial sentient life forms.  Data, we are often told, is unique, and his creator Dr. Soongh was a special kind of genius.  But of course, there was also Lal (created by Data himself) and Moriarity (created by mistake on the holodeck).  And now we have little technical repair robots who just start spontaneously becoming alive, because they’ve been made particularly cleverly.  It gets far worse later, when the Federation seems to start creating sentient holodeck people on a mass scale–but this is the first place that I really noticed this odd trend.  I don’t know, it all just seems a bit weird – something with massive implications that nobody seems to be fussing about.  You’d think that if it became possible to not just discover new forms, but to invent them, whenever you wanted to, that would have a massive impact on Federation society.

The other strange thing, which I just find kind of annoying, is how easily Data can hold the ship hostage, seemingly whenever he wants to, and without getting into trouble for it.  And how he is always right.  Always.  If there’s ever a moral argument to be had, to be sure Data will be correct.  People often remember Wesley Crusher as a character who was smarter than everyone else and was constantly saving the ship, but really he doesn’t hold a candle on Data.  It’d be nice to see some more stories about Data dealing with his mistakes and failures.  There are drips and drabs of this over the years, but never (in my memory) a real focus.  That would have been a very “human” story to tell.

Guest Cast:
• Ellen Bry, who guest stars as Dr. Farallon, played Nurse Shirley Daniels for a few years on St. Elsewhere, and had a small part as Lindsey’s mother on Mission: Impossible III.  She also played Julie Masters on the short-lived TV series The Amazing Spider-Man in the 1970’s.

• J. Downing, who plays Chief Kelso, appeared on the TV show Viper for a couple of years as FBI Agent Catlett.

Shout Out to the Past:
• There are direct references to the events of The Measure of a Man.

• There is a lot of talk about beards at the poker game, including Geordi’s, which was brought up a bit in the last episode.

• There are also references to both Wesley and Dr. Soong.

• We have another poker game, the first for a while.  This time its Geordi, Worf, Riker and Beverly playing.  It’s a great scene – very natural and family sounding.  I wish they had continued that longer.

• The Exocomp looks a little shaky, and must be pretty light based on how easily Geordi carries it around.

• It’s a nice moment when Dr. Farallon thinks that Geordi is telling her off, but she isn’t.  And a good exchange between the two of them

Geordi:  You know, I’ll bet you were the kind of little girl who was always climbing one branch higher than the other kids.
Farallon:  Anything to get to the top of the tree.
Geordi:  And I bet you never fell.
Farallon:  Oh, no, I fell all the time.  Usually breaking a bone in the process.  I just never let it stop me.

• I like Dr. Crusher’s relaxed smile as she is healing herself after her time with Worf, and her easy going sitting in her office.

• Data points out, as a defense of his assertion, that there is a big difference between Dr. Farallon and a virus, but that they are both alive.  However, that’s a bit of a meaningless statement, since nobody is saying a virus is sentient, and I’m sure in the end if sacrificing a virus would have saved Picard and Geordi, Data would have been glad to do it.

• Again, there’s reference to “fatal levels of radiation”.   But no reference to how everyone should be based on those non-fatal levels?

• I like how Geordi is as much in charge on the surface in the crisis as the Captain is, since the issue is an engineering issue.

• There’s just something slightly contrived about the situation that puts Picard into danger.

Dialogue High Point
My favorite scene is the opening card game.  It’s one of the most natural and “family” sounding bits of dialog that the show has had.  In it, Beverly gets this cute comment

You know, I have always been a little suspicious of men in beards

Previous Episode: A Fistful of Datas • Next Episode: Chain of Command, Part I

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