Star Trek The Next Generation: The Quality of Life

"Exocomps are highly sophisticated devices, sir."

Data finds android Pokemon and loves them.

This episode was at times entertaining, but at times seemed really senseless and unfocused. We have the thread on the particle fountain mining station with Geordi and Farallon, the thread following Data and his discoveries on the ship... and a curiously disconnected thread about Beverly Crusher, who plays poker and wrestles with the big boys, and sits all lackadaisial on medical counters.

Farallon's working on making the particle fountain work, and Geordi's assessing why she's not getting the job done. The particle fountain could change mining, make life easier. It's a Good Thing but Very Experimental and They've Had a Rocky Start. Before you can whip out any more clich├ęs, a Mishap Occurs. But wait! an unimpressive box saves the day.

Seriously. For the focus of this episode, the exocomps are bizarrely neutral. I understand this is TV and everyone's on a budget, but I checked. This episode was produced in 1992. And while some of my students might think "That's the dark ages, right, with dinosaurs and Edgar Allan Poe?" that was five years after the production of one of my favorite cheesy movies, Batteries Not Included, which had far more sophisticated representations of sentient robot life.

On the other hand (and yes, I'm segueing into Data's storyline) this makes them the perfect contrast to Data. Data's had his life and humanity questioned, most interestingly in "The Measure of a Man," which J.D. Balthazar called "one of the best [episodes] of the entire series." In that episode, Data, who is at the very high end of artificial intelligence, so much a product of artifice that he seems a genuine living being, has his rights questioned. In this episode, he's looking at what might be the beginning of artificial intelligence and sentience, a robot able to choose a tool and make decisions to protect itself. When Farallon's tool, the exocomp, decides to fry its own circuits rather than follow an order to go into an area it knew was going to explode, Data decides this is evidence that the machine has moved into sentience. Or something.

Except, I'm sorry, by that standard the Enterprise itself should be considered alive, and many times over. There are plenty of times when the ship has decisions, it has fail safes to prevent it from destruction... Data's accused of anthropomorphism, but I think robomorphism is the fallacy he commits here. Think about how the episode is set up – Data in the beginning when he meets Farallon talks about how he reprograms himself, and then he finds out the exocomp did the exact same thing. His belief is so great that, when the particle mining station goes into Seriously Bad Boom Boom mode, Data decides to disable the transporters rather than allow the exocomps to be used to rescue the station at the expense of their destruction. Riker decides to ask the exocomps instead of force them to by bypassing their command centers, and the exocomps, once asked, follow orders and go. One of them is destroyed, giving Data a teary moment. I don't think this defection of Data's is ever mentioned again.

Then there's Beverly. I found her characterization and Beverly's relationship with Data here kind of odd. I kept trying to make some kind of connection between her rejection of beards and her lecture on life to Data.

The episode ends with Farallon promising to think carefully about the exocomps. I think she just wanted the paranoid android to leave.

Bits and Pieces

I think ethically Data's argument is actually closer to the argument for veganism than anything else.

The beard discussion had me laughing my head off, although it did feel bizarre. So did Riker managing to conveniently get out of his bet!

Geordi seemed somewhat attracted to Farallon.

Quotables

Data: I am curious as to what transpired between the moment when I was nothing more than an assemblage of parts in Doctor Soong's laboratory, and the next moment, when I became alive. What was it that endowed me with life?
Crusher: I remember Wesley asking me a similar question when he was little, and I tried desperately to give him an answer, but everything I said sounded inadequate. Then I realised that scientists and philosophers had been grappling with that question for centuries without coming to any conclusion.
Data: Are you saying the question cannot be answered?
Crusher: No, I think I'm saying that we struggle all our lives to answer it, but it's the struggle that's important. That's what helps us to define our place in the universe.
Data: I believe I understand, Doctor.

Crusher: Tricorders aren't alive.
Farallon: Neither are exocomps.
Picard: Clearly these are difficult issues to resolve. We have to proceed very carefully. So the first task is to test Mister Data's hypothesis.
LaForge: Data, you're claiming that this exocomp may be alive because it demonstrated survival instincts, right?
Data: Yes.
LaForge: Then why don't we just threaten its survival again and see what happens?
Picard: Make it so.

Overall

I liked the idea of Data having cute and friendly pets around, but in the end this episode was a sad mess. Two out of five carefully chosen tools.

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

Yes, I so agree. I liked what they were going for, but they just didn't get there. Brent Spiner's subtle performance was on point, as usual -- the audience could tell from micro expressions that Data was concerned or upset. But Farallon acted like a horse's ass and I hated her face alien make-up, I never understood what her all important experiment was, and there was just so much techno-babble.

I kept trying to make some kind of connection between her rejection of beards and her lecture on life to Data. LOL, Joseph.