Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Evolution

They're back! James kicks off another season of Star Trek: TNG look-backs. Fridays just weren't the same without them...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 Evolution

It’s the start of a new season! We’ve got new uniforms, a new introductory sequence, and an old doctor who isn’t as old as the previous one. Even Wesley’s got a brand new haircut, and it’s one the showrunners are obviously confident will win people over because they start the episode with a rather-too-close-up shot of his sleeping head. Viewers, meet the new TNG: same as the old TNG.

But let’s not be too hasty. Not only does it all look a little slicker, the program makers have even managed to transport Dr. Kelso from Scrubs back to the early nineties and de-age him so that he can appear in an episode of Star Trek. He’s playing a former wunderkind (his word, explained at length in case you’re an idiot) Dr. Stubbs, who has dedicated his life to an experiment which they’ve got only one shot at getting right. Which, if you ask me, doesn’t sound like a very wunder-ful decision. After beginning an extended metaphor about eggs which will last the entire episode (egg-tire egg-isode) Stubbs asks the Enterprise (Egg-terprise) to “lay the egg”, at which point there’s a catastrophic system’s failure and the ship is left plunging towards certain death (cert-egg d-egg-th).

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After engaging the manual override (oh, that was an option?) everyone tries to figure out what’s causing trouble, all except Dr. Kelso-Stubbs who wants to know when they can resume his experiment. The failures keep coming, the ship is going haywire, and Picard repeatedly threatens to pull the experiment in favour of keeping everyone alive, something Kelso-Stubbs is not keen on. He would rather die than fail! (A position Troi confirms, because it’s already blindingly obvious to everyone.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher is worried that Wesley isn’t getting into enough trouble and that she’s smothering him and stunting his development as an adult. To get around this problem, she speaks to literally everyone on the ship then stages a one-woman intervention in an attempt to force him to lighten up. Ah, future-parenting.

Unfortunately, Wesley has realised that his science project is what’s causing the trouble. He’s created new life. New, intelligent life. He is essentially a man-god to a race of nanites which have evolved a collective intelligent consciousness. For some reason everyone treats this as par for the course (“Oh no, we’ve independently created intelligent life, again”) and sets about trying to negotiate with the new beings, except Dr. Kelso-Stubbs who fries a bunch of them with gamma radiation. Rather than Hulk-out, they promptly die en-masse.

Everyone is upset with this, so they confine Kelso-Stubbs to his quarters. The first time he goes to sleep the Nanites try to electrocute him through various fixtures and fittings, and Picard decides he simply will not tolerate this level of insubordination from the furniture. Data figures out a way to talk to the Nanites then allows them to possess him, like a robotic Derek Acorah. Everyone agrees it’s all been a huge misunderstanding and the Nanites ask Picard to drop them off on a new planet at his earliest convenience.

Oblivious to the leap in artificial life they represent, Picard obliges. Dr. Kelso launches his experiment (egg-sperm-egg) and everyone’s happy. Meanwhile, in Ten-Forward, Dr. Crusher continues allowing Wesley to grow as an adult human man by secretly watching as he interacts with young women. We can only hope this doesn’t screw him up so much that he eventually leaves this plane of reality altogether. Ah, it’s good to be back.

TNG WTF:  Everyone seems terrifyingly blasé about the fact that Wesley has just created intelligent life in a petri dish. Considering that everyone thinks Data’s such a big deal, you’d imagine someone might be a little more impressed. But no, not only do they gloss over this fact, they essentially fire them out of the garbage chute at the end of the episode. Good work, team.

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TNG LOL: “I’m not sure I’d want my mother flying through space with me. No, I take that back. I am sure. I wouldn’t want her.” – Dr. Stubbs, at his most Dr. Kelso-esque. Replace “my mother” with “Enid” and Wesley with Zach Braff and this entire episode is one voice-over away from being a lost episode of Scrubs.

Who’s That Face?: Ken Jenkins! From Scrubs! AKA the guy you phone when you want to cast a Grumpy Old Guy Who Hides His Sentimentality Beneath A Thin Layer of Hostility. And very good he is at it too.

Time Until Meeting: 14:06. Picard, Data and Riker have a stand-up in the meeting room, discussing the recent systems failures. Then they’re interrupted by Troi and Stubbs. No-one even pretends to hide their disappointment.

Captain’s Log: There are things about this episode that don’t work, but actually, a lot of the character stuff is good. The episode tries to play up the idea that Wesley is going to end up like Stubbs if he doesn’t stop focussing on his work so much, but it doesn’t really sell the idea that this is such a bad thing. Stubbs certainly doesn’t seem like he regrets anything, and before the parallel can be fully realised he briefly becomes a gamma-ray wielding madman.

That said, there’s a great scene where Wesley and Stubbs discuss baseball which sells the idea of him as a rather sad figure, imagining games from statistics rather than watching them. And all the stuff with Wesley, Beverley and Guinan is all quite good too. The scenes feel genuine and character-driven, even if their plot struggles to get a look in overall around the hilarious malfunctioning ship moments (which, granted, are good fun.)

But basically, it loses too much by focusing on the technology behind the episode, ignoring the character threads and missing the philosophical moments entirely. And Star Trek is always at its best when it’s focussing on the latter two more than the former, so this is definitely one where things could be better. It’s not bad, mind, but nor is it quite the strong start you’d imagine series three would want.

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Watch or Skip? Watch, but mainly for Ken Jenkins.

Read James’ TNG season one and two look-backs, here.

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