In which terraforming projects are a thing, Troi gets really creepy with investigative journalism, and nobody reads the mission logs.
The Enterprise has been mapping the Pleiades cluster and has been diverted to check on a bunch of colonists terraforming Velara III. Having just taken a break from terraforming a brand new planet in Beyond Earth to bring you this episode, I can relate. Apparently, their communications have been somewhat spotty lately, and nobody really knows how they’re doing. There’s a brief circle-jerk on the bridge about how awesome terraforming colonists are, but the colonists don’t respond to the hails, at least at first.
When they do respond, the colony leader is put out and defensive, a fact which Troi picks up on and says out loud, while they’re all on Speakerphone. The colonist leader is hiding something of great import, but can’t quite muster an excuse to refuse an away team from the Enterprise. I’m getting shades of “Devil in the Dark” off of this one. I don’t actually remember this episode but it feels like they’re going to be exploiting or slaughtering some indigenous creature and the Enterprise will have to put a stop to it.
The surface is pretty barren except for what looks like a rather small terraforming module. Despite the brusque greeting that the Enterprise got, the colonists are fairly friendly. One is even an android enthusiast. Two of the terraformers are still keeping secrets, but the friendliest one, Louisa Kim is, at least according to Troi, not keeping any, implying that she doesn’t know the Deep Sinister Secret. She goes through some of the high-level explanation of what terraforming is for Riker, who is the stand-in for the viewer who’s never heard the term before. The Federation only allows planets to be selected if it has no life or any hope of developing it. After that point, they treat any water that they can find and then introduce microorganisms. The station is having some problems with the hydraulics, which is why (or at least the excuse everyone uses) for being so stressed. Also, their timetable is planned out for decades. I guess the Federation is not familiar with the phrase ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’
While working on the hydraulic controls, one of the colonists starts screaming, and is then reduced to a smoking ruin by some unnamed piece of equipment. Possibly a mining laser. It is not yet cleat how it went bonkers, but the crew shuts down all power to that room before going in. Data examines it, and in his capacity as the ship’s resident obsessed-with-Sherlock-Holmes-person starts walking the crime scene. Since the laser attack stopped when the engineer stopped yelling, Data decides that this is weak evidence for the laser drill gaining sentience. Or something, there are probably more explanations than that. He has Geordi turn it back on so he can see what it was supposed to be doing. Predictably, it attacks him despite the motors being off, but he’s good enough to dodge it for the several minutes it takes for them to open the door. He also had to break the laser drill.
The speculation is that someone programmed the laser drill to kill anyone in the hydraulics room, and the injured colonist… well, he isn’t injured anymore. Since the only suspects are the tree remaining terraformers (it couldn’t possibly be some sort of microbial hive intelligence trying to defend its home, for instance, that’s just crazy talk) they begin to do some digging, both into the station for physical evidence and the dossiers of the rest of the engineers for further clues.
In the borehole, Data and Geordi find a series of pulsing lights with complex harmonies in various spectra and frequencies. Geordi says, and I quote, “How could it be alive, it’s inorganic.” Is William Riker the only one who reads mission logs from previous starships? Why do they even bother keeping them? Crusher does some figuring on what it might even mean to have inorganic life. Wesley is in love with it, plus its crystaline structure must remind us of the Crystalline entity that we encountered in “Datalore.” I can only presume the entire ship was hit with a memory-erasing ray that made them all forget whatever happened a month ago. The sample they collected is also reacting to the scanner and their presence in the lab. The computer is also baffled as to how it could be making flashes, since they’re not possible via known physics.
This leads to an inevitable confrontation with the lead terraforming engeinner, who asserts vehemently that he was unware of any life on the planet, because the Federation cleared it. There are some questions about the other terraformers. In particular, Louisa Kim, but Troi suggests Riker is better suited to get the truth out of her. Yes, that’s right. Riker’s ex-girlfriend, the ship’s therapist, recommends he seduce the information out of a woman grieving for her friend and colleague, as well as her life’s work. Troi is dark.
Back in Sick Bay, the microsophic life-form is exhibiting new behavior. It changes its radiation and turns off the Enterprise scanners just prior to duplicating. Data is the first to say it – the things are alive, in some sense. The translator turns on by itself, but rather than staying int he lab to talk to it, they leave and turn on a quarantine filed. That seems… counter to their mission. Maybe they just went to go excoriate the terraformers. The two remaining male terraformers had been aware of some clues, but since the Federation assured them there was no life, they didn’t really put any of the clues together. Louisa Kim was oblivious, apparently, to the fact that regular geomentric patterns were appearing and disappearing in the sand, which is kind of exactly how we would start to communicate with any life-form we didn’t share a language with – math. Math is universal.
The life-form is taking over the lab and has reprogrammed some of the turbolifts, and is starting to emit lightning. This, by the way, is the point at which you beam it back down to the planet. Maybe you send someone down with a translating computer. What you don’t do is let it get anywhere within a hundred kilometers of a cache of antimatter until you’ve opened communications.
They get the universal translators online, and the first thing the microsilicates say is “Ugly giant bags of mostly water.” This is amusing, but I have to wonder how a microscopic crystaline life-form has a concept of ‘bag.’ The microsilicates say, in essence, that they tried to ask the terraformers to leave, but they didn’t listen so now the two peoples are at war. Apparently, they emit light pulses that the Enterprise computer can interpret as program instructions. That seems like a huge design flaw. While it’s in a dormant state just prior to reproduction, they try to beam it off, but it’s too powerful now. There’s a tiny little Q-style light flash and the transporter fails. There is a part of me that finds compelling the idea that this is another one of Qs tests.
Apparently, the water layer was connecting the microsilicates, and they feed on infrared. They turn off the lights in the medical lab and the microsilcates surrender, and say that if humans come back in 300 years maybe there can be friendship between them.
Picard declares an indefinite quarantine on the planet, which seems pretty stupid. They explicitly stated 300 years would be fine. That’s pretty definite.