WARNING: This article contains spoilers for TNG's "Force of Nature". Repeated exposure to these spoilers may cause serious difficulties.
In a nutshell: Another moral-of-the-week bludgeon, alas, but with many redeeming features.
The best feature, of course, was the "training Spot" idea, but that's a comment for later on. For now, a synopsis:
The Enterprise is in search of a missing medical transport, the Fleming. They are searching in a region known as the "Hekaras Corridor", the one part of a large area of space free of tetryon fields, which interfere with warp drive. The one inhabited planet in the region hasn't seen the Fleming, but has seen a Ferengi ship, which rouses fears of a hijacking.
However, the reality turns out somewhat different. The Ferengi ship is found, but after an abortive attempt at battle on the Ferengi's part, it becomes clear that the ship was damaged by a "mine" of sorts in the Corridor, which overloaded all subspace-based tools on the ship, warp drive included. After Picard offers to help with repairs, the captain "discovers" that his crew has time to search the ship's records and find the Fleming's last known heading.
The Fleming is traced to a field full of debris (feared to be the wreckage of the Fleming itself). The Enterprise heads in, but finds a probe disguised as a buoy that cripples the Enterprise just as the Ferengi ship was damaged. As they lie defenseless, a small ship approaches, and its two inhabitants, Drs. Rabal and Serova, beam aboard. They say that Serova's research has discovered that warp-fields are very hazardous in that region of space, and will in mere decades cause the formation of many subspace rifts, threatening the habitability of Hekaras Two. In exchange for their assistance in repairing the Enterprise, Picard agrees to have Data re-examine their findings, but sternly cautions that the remainder of the mines are to be deactivated at once. Rabal agrees, over Serova's objections.
From there, however, the situation worsens. Geordi remains strongly skeptical of Rabal's and Serova's claims, alienating Serova in the process. What's more, although both Rabal and Serova say that their planet is willing to give up warp travel altogether (thus isolating themselves from all other worlds), Data's analysis merely leads to a recommendation of more study. Rabal takes this as a positive first step, but Serova is appalled. As the engines are repaired and the Enterprise nears the Fleming, Serova takes her spacecraft and deliberately causes a warp-core breach, destroying herself and creating a rift in the process.
The Fleming is now inside the rift, and Geordi and company must find a way to get the crew out safely without using warp engines in or near the rift. As Geordi, Data and Rabal devise a way to "coast" in and out of the rift using a short-duration warp pulse well outside it, Geordi ponders his resistance to Serova's claims, wondering if he was truly as open-minded as he claimed to be. Rabal reassures him that his reactions were not overly hostile, but also points out that everyone will soon have to reexamine the way they look at space travel.
The mission into the rift begins, but is quickly complicated when the Fleming tries to use its own warp engines to escape. The ensuing distortions damage both ships, the Fleming seriously, and also enlarge the rift enough to make the "coasting" solution impossible. In the end, the Enterprise escapes by "surfing" a distortion wave out of the rift. With studies showing that the entire corridor may become one massive subspace rift within forty years if something is not done, the Federation announces restrictions on warp travel in that region -- and the crew of the Enterprise becomes grimly determined not to become part of destroying the things they are so keen to explore.
Now that we've taken care of that, onwards.
"Force of Nature" reminds me of "The Outcast" from two years ago in a fairly crucial way. In the case of "The Outcast", I very much admired the message the show was trying to present, one of tolerance. However, I rather vocally did not admire the sledgehammer style in which the message was presented: in other words, I prefer my analogies a lot more subtle than they were.
"Force of Nature" had some similarities to that. I appreciate the environmental message lying about a micrometer beneath the surface of the plot (though even I had some qualms about the extent to which it seemed to be taken here). Again, though, I strongly dislike the fact that the second half of the show, with only a few interruptions, was the scriptwriting equivalent of someone walking on-camera with a "Real-Life Analogy" sign. I don't need to have Rabal saying "our climate is already beginning to change" to realize that this was a show about phasing out CFC's or automobiles. I don't need Geordi saying warp drive is a "proven technology" to realize that warp drive is an analogy to many current technologies. And I most definitely do not need the final speech at the end, coupled with the last line: "There's still time to make it better." I half expected to see a trailer across the bottom of the screen with a phone number and a "call in with your pledge now!" plea instead of the end credits.
So, in terms of a "nice message overall, but please shoot the messenger" feeling, "Force of Nature" was essentially "The Outcast" wrapped around a different message. However, there were definitely some features of "Force of Nature" that kept it from sharing all of "The Outcast"'s problems.
For one thing, the Spot subplot was a scream. Although I think a little continuity-checking would be in order (Spot has been "he" all the time up 'til now, folks), the reactions from both Data and Geordi to Spot's behavior seemed absolutely perfect. Of course, it helped that just as Geordi got out the line "Half the time I didn't know if she was gonna lick me or scratch my face off," one of our cats was staring up at us from a lap with exactly that expression on its face. In any case, it was in these scenes above almost all others that the dialogue flowed and sparked well, that the characters felt like real people, and it was here that I enjoyed what I was watching. That beats "The Outcast", where as I recall I enjoyed basically nothing.
Another touch that was well done was the "Geordi competes for best engines in the Fleet" idea. While amusing, it also served a purpose of making Geordi's possessiveness and defensiveness over his engines to Serova seem part of the character. Granted, it would have been far better to have put these scenes in a few weeks ago, but I've mostly given up on having things foreshadowed that well. For the particular story we had, this part worked for me. (Besides, I've been wondering for ages if Geordi had any vices, and this seems a good one.)
Other than that, however, the show had serious problems. Serova was the stereotypical environmental extremist, willing to go to any lengths to prove her points and protect her cause. Her tactics were unsafe and uncomfortable (shades of Earth First!), but her findings were right. We were told time and time again that Things Must Change [TM], or we are all doomed. Besides being incredibly transparent in its message, it's also one-sided to an extreme that even I, a fairly ardent environmentalist, find distasteful.
The Federation's subsequent actions, while quite in line with the analogy Naren Shankar wanted to present, have left things a bit too unresolved for my taste. Geordi says (in a line that could have been lifted from a Greenpeace leaflet) "we still have time to make it better", but I'll take bets from anyone who thinks we'll actually see this issue mentioned again. If it is, then I'll rethink much of my negativity about the show, because to actually play around with such a basic component of the Trek mythos is a bold move; but I strongly, strongly doubt we will.
So, then, some short takes:
- The transport names are still cute. Naming a medical ship the Fleming is quite appropriate.
- Despite the heavy-handed way in which it was used, I do want to say I appreciated an example of scientific research actually being a slow and ongoing process. It didn't exactly make the show marvelous, but neither did it add another nail to the coffin; and given the way I've torn into the series on occasion for science-related issues, I should give credit where it's due.
That about takes care of it. Unfortunately, "Force of Nature" is another fairly weak outing this season. Of the nine shows we've seen so far, there's still only one ("Phantasms") that to me really had the qualities I watch TNG for, and really justified a seventh season on an artistic level. Then again, this time last year there had only been "Relics", but come Christmas we had "Chain of Command", which started off an extraordinary run of quality. I hope the same is true here -- TNG deserves a set of good memories to lead it into the film series.
So, to sum up:
Plot: Message-R-Us. The Spot bits were the only respite from it.
Plot handling: The addition of the "EPS competition" idea was strong and the handling of the Spot bits fine, but everything was focused too much on getting the point across.
Characterization: Difficult to say, as I rarely saw anyone exhibit any characteristics! I'd have to say that Geordi was fairly good up until the end, and that Data was decent throughout, but that's it.
OVERALL: Call it a 3.5. Ow.
Data's been a father and had a father (and a grandfather); time for the mother's side to come in...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"Why is Spot under the bed?"
"Probably because she knows if I catch her, I'm gonna kill her."
-- Data and Geordi
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...