Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Home Soil

James' weekly return to Star Trek: TNG's first season comes to an episode that's Star Trekky at its core...

This review contains spoilers.

1.18 Home Soil

The Enterprise arrives at Velara III to check on the progress of a terraforming colony (if you can call four people a colony) and are surprised to find that the leader, Kurt Mandl, is far from pleased to see them. Troi helpfully informs everyone of this fact about nine times in the first ten minutes, just in case you missed it, although she once again declines to explain how her empathic abilities work over videophone.

An away team beams down to the planet and meets the rest of the crew: Hydraulics Specialist Arthur Malencon, Biosphere Designer Luisa Kim, and chief Engineer Bjorn Bensen. Bensen, on meeting Data, is surprised to be talking to an android and asks “Where were you made? Are there more like you?” to which Data replies “Both matters are subjects of protracted discussion,” even though both questions were answered quite definitively five episodes ago (Datalore).

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Once they’ve exchanged pleasantries, Luisa apologises for her boss’s rudeness, and “treats” the away team to an explanation of how terraforming works, given in unusually punishing detail. The away team stand around waiting politely for her to be quiet, but you can practically see their eyes glazing over. Mendl arrives and apologises for being rude, then tells Malencon to go do his job instead of standing around chatting.

Suddenly, Troi screams! She senses terror! And then everyone hears Malencon screaming for his life as he’s sliced up by a laser drill from behind an unexpectedly-locked door. Soon, the screaming stops and the door opens, but it’s too late for Malencon. Oh no! Who will specialise in hydraulics now?

Most of the team head to the Enterprise to discuss this terrible tragedy, while Geordi and Data poke around on the planet. Data is attacked by the laser drill in exactly the same was as Malencon, but luckily he’s quick enough to smash it to bits with his android powers. Off camera, of course. While they try to decide whether it was programmed to kill or somehow alive, they discover a minute and highly unusual flashing crystal. It looks like it could be alive, so reasoning that this is why the terraformers were being so secretive, they transport it back to the Enterprise for further study.

In sickbay, they put the crystal in a bell jar and do science to it, which consists of Dr. Crusher shouting abstract instructions to the computer. Apparently, in the future, all you have to do is tell your computer to “Theorise!” and it’ll come up with all sorts of unlikely nonsense. Eventually, they decide they have got inorganic life, and Picard gives Mandl a telling off for not mentioning this fact. Mandl maintains an air of plausible deniability, claiming at various points “I didn’t know”, “you can’t prove that I knew” and “you’ll never make the charges stick, you Federation stooges!” (probably).

The crystal thingy in sickbay freaks out, and suddenly it divides! There are now two of them! They try to quarantine it (er, possibly a bit late) but it resists, and keeps replicating until it’s formed a little computer-like structure. During an advert break, they all agree to call it a “microbrain” (no wonder it’s upset). It quickly takes over the Enterprise (with frankly embarrassing ease) at which point Picard starts to get shouty. It’s too late, though. The crystal microbrain patches into the computer and declares war on the “ugly bags of mostly water” that have been killing them down on the planet. For that is what the terraformers had been accidentally doing.

Eventually, they discover that the crystal gets its power from light, but unfortunately it has control of the computer’s dimmer switch. Picard sends Riker to sickbay to operate the dimmer manually. Presumably, no-one closer is capable of the task. The microbrain, apparently scared of the dark, immediately gives in the moment Riker turns off the lights. Picard assures it they aren’t trying to kill it (even as they are LITERALLY doing the very thing that will kill it. Good diplomacy tactic, I DON’T THINK.) Luckily, the microbrain lives up to its name and is dumb enough to accept their word. The crew beams it down to the planet, and just before they do the microbrain tells them to come back in three hundred years when they’re less primitive.

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Picard declares indefinite quarantine, and the episodes ends with a voiceover Captain’s Log where he declares that “perhaps the lesson we’ve learned from this near-tragedy can prevent it from happening elsewhere.” Which is a terrible way to end a Star Trek episode. Seriously?! A Captain’s Log where all he’s got to say is “Well, that sure happened.” Okay, maybe he doesn’t have to be on top philosophical form all the time, but at least TRY.

Also, one can only speculate as to how Malencon’s family would feel about this entire episode being described as a “near” tragedy:

Starfleet Grief Officer: “Mrs. Malencon, I’m afraid your husband has been involved in a near-tragedy.”Mrs. Malencon: “Is he okay?”Starfleet Grief Officer: “No, he’s dead. Sorry, was that not clear?”Mrs. Malencon: “You said NEAR-tragedy!”Starfleet Grief Officer: “Well, we did stop some crystalline lifeforms from being destroyed.”Mrs. Malencon: “Are they friendly?”Starfleet Grief Officer: “Not really. And also we can’t speak to them again for three years.”Mrs. Malencon: “Oh. Still, it’s what he would’ve wanted.”Starfleet Grief Officer: “Really?”Mrs. Malencon: “No.”

TNG WTF: Okay, so everyone in this episode seems really jazzed about the prospect of non-organic life (except the terraformers: “Yeah, geometric shapes kept spontaneously appearing, we just thought it was nothing, really.”) – only… didn’t the Enterprise just have a big fight with a GIANT CRYSTALLINE ENTITY TM that was a lot more impressive than these crystal microbrains? Okay, it wouldn’t talk to them, but nor did it die the moment someone switched the frickin’ lights off.

Admittedly we’ve already established that this episode was written by someone who hadn’t even read the script for Datalore, but you think it might have come up on some point. “Oh, hey, we’ve got two episodes this series which involve the Enterprise crew being threatened by living crystals, maybe we should acknowledge that.” Or, y’know, don’t.

TNG LOL: So… Malencon gets locked in a room with a violent laser. It shoots him up. Riker and the others discover him. Then it cuts to ad-break, and when we come back, Riker has MADE A PERSONAL LOG ENTRY and is in the middle of a chat with Picard about the situation. Then he tells his captain “We’ll beam him up to sickbay, but from the look of his wounds, it’s probably hopeless.” Great! Er, maybe you could’ve been a LITTLE quicker about it, Riker!?

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Cut dialogue following this exchange probably includes:Picard: “Well, is he breathing?”Riker: “I dunno, I don’t want to touch him. He’s really messed up and the whole room smells like bacon. Tasha, you go in there instead, you’re used to this sort of horrible scene.”Troi: “I’m sensing something… like deep sorrow… for the lack of ketchup.”Geordi: “Sorry, that’s me, I’ve not eaten.”

Who’s That Face? Walter Gotell, who plays Kurt Mandl (the surly guy in charge of terraforming) played General Gogol, the head of the KGB in six James Bond films.

Time Until Meeting: 15:03. Uncharacteristically, it’s a stand-up in the captain’s Ready Room, rather than the conference room. Good to know this horrible type of meeting will survive for another three hundred years at least.

Captain’s Log: Well, it wasn’t awful. Whoever wrote this episode clearly cared about the hard science behind what they were writing about, which makes it a definite change from… well, most of Star Trek, to be honest. Although it’s hard to get too excited about the overly-detailed descriptions of both terraforming techniques AND the basis for non-organic life.

On one hand, it’s straight down the line, completely generic Star Trek. But on the other, that’s only about the second or third time they’ve managed to do that competently this series. The mystery is interesting, and although the guest cast is hamming it up terribly, their characters are fairly well developed and far from one-note. In that they all have two notes. There’s actually a decidedly TOS vibe to it, from the dodgy sets to the weirdly disembodied alien voice, so that might even push some nostalgia buttons for you.

Watch or Skip? You can skip it, but it’s good enough to at least consider watching. Unlike last week’s episode, this is very Star Trekky at its core, in that they’re actually seeking out new life, and it’s at least got that what-happens-next charm. Watch.

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