Episode no. 117
Season 1
Entertainment rating: B+
Tergiversation meter: +3


HOME SOIL



FEATURING: Ensemble crew, with Walter Gotell as Kurt Mandl, Gerard Prendergast as Bjorn Benson, Mario Roccuzzo as Arthur Malencon, and Elizabeth Lindsey as Lisa Kim. DIRECTOR: Corey Allen. WRITERS: Robert Sabaroff (teleplay), Karl Guers, Ralph Sanchez, and Sabaroff (story) STARDATE: 41463.9. EARTHWEEK: 2-22-88.

OVERALL RATING: B+. WRITING: B+. ACTING: B+.

THE SHOW: "Home Soil" is one of Star Trek's better science episodes. It is the first Star Trek episode to present the notion of an inorganic sentient life form (besides Data), and is a good, dramatic tale with a clear scientific idea at its center.

The Enterprise arrives at the Federation terraforming colony Velara III, where a group of scientists is working to transform a "lifeless" planet into one that can sustain, first, microscopic life forms, and, later, vegetation, animals and humans. Such projects take many years to be completed and require tremendous commitment from the scientists. The Enterprise mission is to evaluate the progress of the Velara III project.

Contacted by Captain Picard on the main viewer, the director of the project, Kurt Mandl (played by Walter Gotell) seems tired, irritated and doesn't want visitors. Picard insists on sending an Away Team down to the terraforming station. There, one of Mandl's assistants, Lisa Kim (played by Elizabeth Lindsey), seems open and welcoming, and shows the Away Team around the lab. Another assistant, Bjorn Benson (Gerard Prendergast) steps forward and takes Data's hand, marveling at meeting an android. These folks have been out of touch for quite some time.

The team has discovered a thin layer of extremely saline water just beneath the surface of the planet. They are using precision mining tools--a laser drill--to pump the water out, desalinize it and use it to create organic life on the surface. But they have been experiencing troublesome power surges in the laser drill, of late. La Forge suggests that the salinity of the water would increase conductivity, thus interfering with the drill. The terraformers get into a heated exchange about this--Bjorn disagrees with La Forge; a third assistant (Arthur Malencon) agrees. Director Mandl has shown up during this exchange, and orders Malencon into the hydraulic chamber, to work. In he goes. A moment later, there is a terrible scream. The door to the hydraulic chamber won't open. Then the door suddenly opens, to reveal the mangled body of Arthur Malencon.

Mandl and Kim beam up to the Enterprise Sick Bay with Malencon, who is dying. Data and La Forge investigate the lab and the laser drill. Data tells La Forge to power up the station, and Data goes into the hydraulic chamber to see why the drill malfunctioned. The door closes. We are inside the chamber with him. As he studies the console, the arm of the laser drill turns and aims its beam at Data's head from behind. He reacts just in time. He ducks. The drill follows his motions, and he does some nifty, action scene athletics, to get out of its range. Cut to La Forge.

The rest of the scene takes place outside of the chamber, with La Forge trying to get in. The door won't open. Picard, up on the Enterprise, is about to beam Data out of the chamber, when the door suddenly opens, and Data walks out. He says, no need to beam him up, "everything is under control." Behind him lay the completely mangled arm of the laser drill. Data had won.

The writers, director and special effects crew are to be congratulated on many things in this episode, among them, the clear, simple computer graphics showing the saline stream beneath the planet's surface, the clarity of the scientific ideas, and this scene with Data, which is so simply and cleverly removed from our view, at the right moment, creating far more suspense and drama than if we had witnessed the entire struggle.

It is an elementary dramatic device that is employed here (removing the main action off scene to heighten suspense and to utilize the viewer's imagination); nevertheless--as with the Shakespearean "report scene" in the later episode, "The Offspring" (Season 3), about the death of Data's daughter--it is enjoyable to see elementary devices illustrated, if they are done well.

Lab assistant Bjorn Benson, who, a short time before, had been marveling at android Data, now laments the years of work that have been lost because of the crippled drill--with no thought to their near loss of Data. It is rather a curious lament, which we're not quite sure how to react to--is it supposed to be funny? Does he really value the drill over Data? In Star Trek stories, we have come to expect misfiring dialogue, or the odd, irrelevant scene that doesn't contribute to the plot or plots. This is a fairly well put together story, however, and, although we don't get follow-up on Bjorn and Data, the scene does, indeed, have meaning, a bit later, as the script gets into the question of this science team's disregard for other life forms.

Data reports that the laser drill attacked him, that is, it anticipated his movements as if it were intelligent. Mandl scoffs at this idea. Picard shuts down the terraforming project. He thinks he has a murder on his hands. He begins to investigate the terraformers, to discover if any have a motive for killing Malencon. As each of the terraformers reveal more about themselves, under questioning, we discover that, although terraformers are known as a particularly obsessive breed of scientist, none of these people seem like murderers--not even Mandl, whom we initially suspect.

What is going on? Data and La Forge soon discover a strange, lighted crystalline substance in one of the holes that the laser drill has tunneled into the planet. They beam this substance aboard. It has very curious properties. It emits a hum when it is magnified. It also emits flashes of light, which the Enterprise computer says are "not organized." When asked to theorize about the source of the flashes, the computer replies, "Life."

Data looks at the substance wondrously. Have they discovered inorganic life? A bit later, there is a sudden period of quietude in the cystalline substance, a surge of power is taken from the Enterprise, and the crystalline substance reproduces. It is beginning to fulfill the criteria for life. The lab where they're holding the substance is evacuated, but not before the substance changes its "hum." It emits what sounds like static and gurgles. It is trying to talk.

Picard questions the terraformers again. Did they know of this substance? Hadn't they any clue that it was present on the planet? Mandl is obdurate. The planet had been tested for life forms; none was discovered. What they've now found, according to him, are "meaningless silicon crystals that rebroadcast sunlight." Picard speculates that Mandl had become so obsessed with his project that he was hiding the discovery of an indigenous life form, and committed murder to cover it up. Further questioning results in the information that the terraformers had noticed geometric shapes in the sand on the planet which had appeared, disappeared, and changed locations, but had dismissed them as meaningless.

The crystalline substance meanwhile has developed a speaking voice--a high pitched, child-like, somewhat watery sound, which it transmits through the Enterprise computer. It declares war on humans--whom it describes as "ugly bags of mostly water"--for destroying its habitat. "Bags who drill in the sand must die." The entity, which has been dubbed "microbrain," has "more rapport with our computer than we do," says Data. "Microbrain" proceeds to attack the Enterprise life support systems.

The theme is good one: humans stumbling into a place and destroying life forms and habitats before we even know that they're there. It raises many questions, some of which the story attempts to answer. What is the definition of life? Crusher says, the abilities to assimilate, respirate, grow and reproduce, and also, develop, move, secrete and excrete. But what is the definition of inorganic life? And what is the definition of sentience? (This question will be raised again, in regard to Data himself, in one of Star Trek's best episodes, "The Measure of a Man.") When the "microbrain" begins speaking through the computer, and declares war on the Enterprise, there isn't much question that it is a sentient life form; indeed, it is a civilization.

The main principle at issue in this episode, however, is the Prime Directive, which establishes respect for all life forms, and non-intererence with developing cultures. The terraformers, obsessed with the desire to finish their project, had ignored indications (the designs in the sand, for instance) which pointed to the possibility of sentient life. The "microbrain" had taken contol of the laser drill, and had killed Malencon, as a warning. Picard observes, of the "microbrain," that the human destruction of its habitat in the water beneath the sand was "reason enough to go to war."

There are no villains in this story. Mandl and the others are guilty, not of genocide or murder, but of not paying attention. The "microbrain" is merely defending itself. The Enterprise solution is to beam the "microbrain" back down to the planet and to quarrantine the planet for 300 years--that is, if the "ugly bags of mostly water" can convince the tiny crystalline life form to call off the war.

Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Elizabeth Lindsey (Lisa Kim) do an excellent dramatic scene together, during the investigation of the terraformers, in which Lisa reveals her devotion to her work and her sorrow at having made such a terrible mistake. She had wanted to create life, and has almost destroyed it instead--the lament of many well-intended scientists whose work ends up doing unintended harm.

Scientific and ethical questions such as these are woven smoothly into the story, are presented in a context of high drama--danger, death, murder, a micro-war, obsessive scientists and ruined careers.

TERGIVERSATION METER READING: +3. Star Trek, which is a messagey show, by its very nature, has the problem of presenting enlightened messages without undermining the message with preachiness and negative subtext, all in the context of commercial television. Like the scientists in this story, Star Trek writers are generally well-intended in their efforts to present enlightened thinking, but they often fail--for a variety of reasons (discussed throughout this work). In this episode, they largely succeed. The subject matter involves complex ethical and scientific questions. The writers examine these questions in some depth. They provide no easy answers. They make a good tale of it--good plot; interesting, believable characters, whose obession with their work is also explored in depth.

One question which is not addressed (here, or elsewhere) is this: Is the Federation policy of terraforming "lifeless" planets, to create Class M planets that will support organic life, an ecological mistake? What of the mineral ecology of a solar system? Of a cluster of solar systems? Of the galaxy? Are "lifeless" planets part of a larger ecology that is not understood? Are humans (as proposed by Star Trek) damaging the ecology of solar systems, and the galaxy, by transforming planets into habitats fit for humans?

Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).

*Note: Larry Nemecek gives Elizabeth Lindsey's character name as Louisa Kim, in the Star Trek TNG Companion. The character's first name is pronounced "Lisa" in the episide.


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