Star Trek The Next Generation: Evolution

The Enterprise is moving slowly towards season three, headed for a binary system in the Kavis Alpha sector to watch an explosion. While investigating, there's a hiccup, the gemstone of a spaceship whorls out of control, and the ship's inhabitants get injured as they face the question: what happens when a search for knowledge conflicts with life?

The episode opens with a strangely anachronistic STAY TUNED! sign over a sleeping Wesley, and despite the purpose of the ship's presence at this stellar event, it's our boy who's the focus of the episode. I like Wesley, and love Wesley episodes; I think what they did here was the beginning of his journey towards a more interesting path than the show took him during the first season. I don't think it's a mistake a lot of the Wesley-grows-up episodes put him in conjunction with driven folks who lose touch with their humanity. He's more intelligent than most, and this means his mistakes can be correspondingly bigger. We are often responsible for the effects of things even without being responsible for the causes, as any mother (including the returning Beverly Crusher) can tell you, and it's how Wesley responds to this accident that helps us form an image of the man he's going to become. So on a thematic level that whole STAY TUNED! sign was just terrifically symbolic and appropriate.

I kept seeing this episode as a thematic rewrite of "Where No One Has Gone Before," or at least a sequel in a loosely connected sequence. In both episodes Wesley gets involved with the work of an experimental scientist visiting the Enterprise. In both cases his accidental involvement causes problems and danger to the Enterprise. In both episodes it's all about Who He Is and His Amazing Potential. As Beverly points out, however, he's also only 17. Beverly's right to be worried: the ship malfunctions turn out to be Wesley's fault. When we saw him passed out during the first scene, he'd left an experiment unguarded. I'm not entirely certain he was responsible for the evolution of the nanites, which turned out to have caused the ship's malfunctions; it seems they had this potential for evolving innately, and it might've happened with or without his passing out at work. His youth and his inability to perfectly judge his abilities yet, and need to grow up normally, are more in question here, not so much his abilities themselves.

"Please, Wesley, don't grow up to be this smarmy."
Whereas Wesley is still trying to make amends on the sly by laying nanite traps (how does that even work?), and is generally good-natured, Stubbs actively shoots the nanites and risks all in a bid for success. Wesley isn't turning immoral, although he's frustrated, exhausted and doesn't seem to have any experience doing Assorted Teenage Things, as Beverly notes (in a somewhat whiny way, although I forgive her, because I like Gates McFadden.)

Where the episode goes wrong for me is... that's pretty much where it stops for Wesley; the remaining emotional development really belongs to Stubbs. Wesley reveals his culpability and they contact the nanites using Data as an intermediary. Stubbs apologizes and makes amends and gets his data. And Wesley? He apparently asks a girl out and his mom gets jealous. No changes are made to his schedule, and it's not clear exactly how aware Picard and the rest of the crew are of the problem. I'm left still wondering, and thinking about that initial sign, warning us to "Stay Tuned!" Wesley's driving himself as much as anyone else is, and one day that'll cause problems, especially if he's just adding dating to his list of activities without taking anything else off. (Where did he meet the girl?)

The nanites came across initially as sort of a plot device of the week to showcase Wesley, but after the past seasons' events I liked how they were quickly recognized as a race and how they used Data as an intermediary to communicate. I think they bring up a serious question about the mission of the Enterprise and the need for the Prime Directive to ensure respect for life forms supersedes respect for knowledge. At the end, it felt like the nanites are foreshadowing of the Borg–another machine-ish race with its own concerns which evolved beyond us, introduced to us by Q first season in another reference to "Where No One Has Gone Before." And of course the Borg themselves also appear on screen at one point thanks to the nanite malfunctions. Perhaps the writers were saying "stay tuned" in more than one way?

Bits and Pieces

Gates McFadden was a welcome return for me; I like Crusher, and I think Wesley needs a mom around to give him balance.

When the ship rolls around in the first appearance of nanite-caused problems, Stubbs is clearly hurt, but the crew sort of just shrug and sit and wait, and when it's all clearly done, finally call Sickbay. Can't decide if they were being sensible or just heartily sick of arrogant scientists!

I don't know how others feel but I like the evolving usage of Guinan/Troi. Troi still needs to evolve past "He feels angry" to true diplomacy, but it makes total sense to have the Hostess as a sort of emotional front lines, and Goldberg is perfect in this role. Wesley and Beverly both use her as a sounding board in this episode.

Baseball is sort of a Trek leitmotif, seen in both TNG and DS9. Here, Stubbs uses baseball and the ability to remember sequences of moves and interactions and compare patterns as a sort of metaphor intelligence and science and seems to see through baseball a sort of justification for his own reaching for fame and glory.

Guinan had at least one son, and he was a rebel.


Stubbs: My dear Counselor, no insult intended but please turn off your beam into my soul. I will share the feelings I wish to share. Well, if we do not leave in time, so be it. It's one sure way into the record books, eh?
(Stubbs leaves, hands in pockets)
Troi: His nonchalance is studied and practiced.
Picard: Even my sensory perception picked that up.

See? I'm not the only one who thinks Troi needs to think a little about her "contributions" to the crew.

Guinan: Are you saying there are nanites loose?
Wesley: Two of them, that's all. I just wanted to see how they would interact and function in tandem. You see, in my experiment, I had proposed a theory that by working together they could combine their skills and increase their usefulness. It was working.
Guinan: So you made better nanites.
Wesley: I was pulling an all-nighter to collect my final data. I fell asleep. And when I woke up I saw the container had been left open. It's just a science project.
Guinan: You know, a doctor friend once said the same thing to me. Frankenstein was his name.


Much better than the clip show that was dissected in Mark Greig's hilarious take on "Shades of Gray," but I think he'd agree that's not a high bar. Extra points for the awesome opening scene.

3 out of 4 Captain Picard-laid Stubb-eggs.


Anonymous said...

I particularly enjoyed the exchange of words between Stubbs and Picard.

IMDB Quote

Billie Doux said...

I liked the basic idea of the episode, but it kept making me yawn. But hey! new costumes! a few new hairstyles, too.

Stay tuned? I don't think I got that, and I'm streaming the show on Amazon. But you're right. It's oddly appropriate.

drnanamom said...

Thanks for the great review! I mostly enjoyed the episode but was a bit annoyed when they put Data in danger by using him for communication. I think Worf had a point. Sure it was a gesture of trust but it was really just a cool way to let the nanites communicate. I do get annoyed sometimes when things are so obviously plot devices.