Star Trek: The Next Generation – Force of Nature [7.9]

Attempting to find a missing medical ship, the Enterprise encounter two scientists who claim their world is being threatened by the continued use of warp drive.  This has resulted in them in demanding Federation attention by mining their area of space (accounting for the missing vessel).  When the Federation response seems too slow in coming, one of the scientists sacrifices her life to prove that their theories are correct – causing a deadly rift that threatens the medical vessel as well as the Enterprise.  The Enterprise is able to save themselves and the medical team, and after reporting their situation, Starfleet institutes a “speed limit” of Warp Five for all warp travel, except in dire emergencies.  Also, Data tries to train his cat.

Written by Naren Shankar. Directed by Robert Lederman

Previous Episode: Attached • Next Episode:  Inheritance

Um…the environment is really important.  So…you should watch this episode.  Because it will help you realize how important the environment is.  Uh…

OK, Star Trek has always been known for its ability to take real world political and social issues, and coach them into a science fiction setting as a way of subtly discussing them, and commenting about the human condition.  And that’s fine.  Some people love that about the show, some grow tired of it.  For some people, it the aspect of the franchise that they find missing in the recent JJ Abrams reboot.  Either way, they’ve been doing this since the beginning.  I remember when my little impressionable brain got the message that Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was about race.  I thought, “How clever!”  But then, I was very young.  Now, I’d think, “How obvious!”

And that’s unfortunately the response one feels watching Force of Nature.  Now, it’s not a problem for the show to be obvious in it’s perspective.  That can be annoying if one happens to disagree, but it can still make a good episode.  The problem comes when all the show really offers you is an obvious take on a social issue, and it doesn’t layer that commentary with little things like an engaging plot, a depth of characterization, compelling action, and fun humor.  Force of Nature does make an effort, I guess.  It tries to show Geordi’s love of engineering and force him to deal with the shocking revelation that the very thing he loves may be bad for stuff that he and the whole Federation really values.  But it’s clunky and weak, coming across like an afterthought to deepen the characterization rather than an integral part of the story.

And then there’s all that stuff with Spot and Data’s futile but half-hearted efforts to train her, which does not add much to the episode.  Although maybe Spot is what the title is referring to, since all the problems of the rest of the episode are being caused by man-made forces, and not really a force of nature at all.  Anyway, the Spot subplot is obvious time-filler and ultimately amounts to a big pile of nothing as far as the story is concerned–and I like cats.

Possibly an even deeper problem–and maybe even the reason that the production team had such problems with the rest of the episode–is the fact that it’s a bit ill-conceived.  There is obviously an attempt to make an interesting choice and centre the story around environmental issues being faced by the main characters themselves, and not some planet of the week, but it means the show can’t go “all the way” with the concept.  The issue is that the show builds the problems around technology which not only central to Federation life, but central to the entire series’ premise.  It’s basically impossible for the show to actually eliminate warp drive from the program permanently, or even to make it into a major ongoing issue, without reshaping the entire franchise. As a result, it all comes across as a bit half-hearted, and the show isn’t willing to do the work that its asking the characters to do:  “Hmm, we can’t really live without warp drive, so we’re just going to quietly ignore the issue and hope that everyone forgets.”

Anyway, since I didn’t want to see the next ten episodes of Star Trek being about the Federation’s attempts to solve this problem, written in a way to stay true to the gravity of the real-world concerns, I’m happy just to forget it too.

Guest Cast:
• Michael Corbett, who plays Dr. Rabal, is credited with 177 appearances on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope.

• Margaret Reed, who plays Dr. Serova, apparently played seven different characters in seven appearances over three different Law & Order series.

• Lee Arenberg plays DaiMon Prak.  He also appears in all the other “modern” Star Trek series, including in two episodes of Enterprise as a Tellarite ambassador.  He will also show up in a later episode this season as DaiMon Bok (the same character that showed up way back in Season One’s The Battle, though played by a different actor).

Shout Out to the Past:
• There’s a brief reference to Geordi’s sister, who was mentioned earlier this year in Interface.

• This episode tells us for the second time this season that Spot does not refer to verbal commands.

Setting Up the Future:
• As a result of this episode, there are one or two references in later Next Generation episodes to situations where Starfleet had lifted the warp drive speed limit due to emergency situations.

• Hmm…this seems to be a bit of a meaningless teaser, although it’s a little funny.  “Although she does have the unfortunate habit of jumping on my computer console when I am working”–hey!  My cat does that!  “I do not think it would be wise to startle her.”

• As this episode gets underway, I know what’s coming more or less, but I find don’t remember what I’m watching at alll.

• “This is the flagship – we should be better than everyone else.”  A nice little bit of pride in his work for Geordi.

• Geordi’s sister walked around for two months with a piece of tuna in her blouse!

• Spot appears quite disinterested in Data’s training.  Data says, “I have not been entirely successful,” in a deadpanned way that’s a bit funny.  And Geordi’s line is a also good, “I don’t know about Spot, but it seems to me your training is coming along just fine.”

• I like Riker’s indignation and building anger:  “You can call it whatever you like.  The fact remains you deliberately disguised your probes.  You made them look like signal markers.  You hid them in the debris field!  You mined the Corridor!”

• The female scientist knows exactly how long it will take the Enterprise to get going again – seems silly and overly precise.

• Geordi’s “Yes, sir,” after being told by Picard to work with Serova and Rabal is well played.

• Picard is pretty blunt with that poor guy whose sister just died.  I didn’t remember that Serova died so close to the middle of the episode – I thought that was the climax.  The climax we got was a lot better, with the last minute twist of the Fleming trying to use their warp drive to be one of the best moments of the show.

• “We need to find some way to get the Fleming out of there,” announces Picard.  Obvious much?

• Data asks Rabal something that Rabal finds out just by asking the computer.

• They say that Serova had to kill herself just to get people to listen…but really, couldn’t she have just sent the ship on some sort of auto-pilot?

• “It won’t be easy at all.”  Valiant attempt at the eco-message, but I just can’t get behind this episode, not really.

• Data’s understatement response to Riker’s suggestion:  “I do not believe so, sir, and the resulting explosion would likely destroy the saucer section in the process.”

• “We could <techno babble techno babble blah blah blah> and be pulled along with it!”

• There are references to the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians here.

• Crusher tells it like it is in one of her two lines of dialogue:  “Putting limits on warp speed is only going to prevent other rifts from forming.  What are we going to do about this one?”

• Another noble attempt to drive home the message by Picard at the end:  “You know, Geordi, I spent the better part of my life exploring space.  I’ve charted new worlds, I’ve met dozens of new species.  And I believe that these were all valuable ends in themselves.  Now it seems that all this while, I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear.”  Unfortunately, this is belied by Geordi’s too-pointed response:  “It won’t turn out that way, Captain.  We still have time to make it better.”

Dialogue High Point
Clearly, I’m not a fan of this episode, either of the main plot or the Spot sub-plot.  But my favorite line of dialogue  comes when Geordi suggests phasering Spot as a disciplinary measure.

Geordi, I cannot shoot my cat.

Previous Episode: Attached • Next Episode:  Inheritance

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