In which Kelso can’t catch a break, we do an old episode better this time, and we take another look at human-machine relations in the 24th century.
Well, friends, we’ve made it through what is considered the weaker seasons of Next Generation. Are we in for better times ahead? I, and this bottle of Talisker, will be the judge of that.
The ship is in the vicinity of what looks to be a binary system, and Wesley is snoring in a lab, and appears to have missed the beginning of his shift. He hurriedly closes a containment jar while Picard gets started with the exposition. There’s a scientist aboard, Paul Stubbs, who’s there because Starfleet decided his research was important enough to task to the Enterprise. It may be that the Enterprise was the only ship with both the speed and scientific equipment necessary to reach the system in time for a predictable energy burst and make use of it. I’m sure nothing completely terrible can possibly happen in the 18 hours before a scouring burst of light and radiation bursts forth to wipe the system clean.
There’s a piece of equipment Stubbs is calling ‘the Egg’ which may be more than a mere sensor pod, but as they go to launch it out of the cargo bay the entire ship goes nutbar and starts heading into the path of some superheated stellar matter. Also, this is the season we get the deep-space opening rather than the sweeping pan outwards from an Earth-like planet. It just looks classier to me.
With everything down, the only thing to do is reset every affected system and hope you can complete the power cycle in time to save the ship. Sadly, after the fact, the computer reports no actual control malfunction, despite all the people who need to go to sick bay and HEY LOOK AT THAT, Bevery is back. Apparently being the head of Starfleet Medical wasn’t as fulfilling as being aboard the Enterprise. I wonder what excuse she and Picard cooked up to fire Pulaski. She stopped being quite so blatantly bigoted about halfway through the season.
After Stubbs leaves sick bay, Beverly notices that the replicator is malfunctioning by continually filling a glass of water so that it overflows. The computer insists that nothing is wrong, however. And such malfunctions appear to be popping up all over the ship. Stubbs and Wes go to check on the egg and find no damage, and are interrupted by a red alert. Sensors report an incoming Borg vessel, and they have no visual. That’s kind of a major glitch. Plus the whole ‘shields won’t come up ‘ or ‘computer starts playing chess when asked for a status report’ thing.
Good thing we found out from… um… which episode was it? Damn. Ah, “Contagion” that the Enterprise has a read-only secure backup. They can wipe the ship clean and restore, and then get on with their day. Hilariously, Data says that there hasn’t been a system-wide failure on a starship in 79 years, but then again, in “Contagion” he did have his memory wiped to preserve the secrets of the Iconian outpost. And everyone else has just forgotten.
Stubbs has been somewhat genial so far, but now that his research is on the line he’s getting a bit antsy and douchey, as one might expect. Since it’s the culmination of at least 20 years of work and probably more, he would literally rather die trying than run away. Geordi is doing diagnostics and finds what basically looks like ship cancer – the circuitry looks like it’s being disassembled from the inside. Wesley runs straight back to his project and assumes a look of pure horror.
His final project for his Genetics class apaprently involved some of Sick Bay’s nanites, and it seems like they’ve escaped. And bred. And mutated. And also Guinan claims to have met Dr. Frankenstein, although that could be just a colorful illustration of how saying “it was just a science experiment” after the fact doesn’t really make things better.
They try for a second launch, and instead of the shuttlebay doors opening, a Sousa march starts playing. On all comms channels. Data has to shut off bridge power to stop the march. In his despair at not being able to even try his experiment, Stubbs gives a pretty great soliloquy about baseball as a metaphor for ones time to shine. Honestly, this is one of the episodes that’s worth watching just for this scene in a darkened shuttlebay, to see Doctor Bob Kelso lament the death of his dream.
Wes has a meltdown while checking his nanite traps and finally reveals that he’s accidentally sabotaged the Enterprise to somebody who’s actually in the chain of command. In the resulting briefing, Stubbs jumps on the ‘machine life isn’t a form of life that is morally important to us’ bandwagon. Unlike Pulaski, he has an excuse – they’re threatening his entire life’s work.
Technology moment here. Wesley has with him a sample of memory core and a sample of nanites, and puts them together. He then fits a little device over the container, which seamlessly broadcasts a visual to the conference room. This is, for all intents and purposes, a near-field broadcast-equipped scanning electron microscope that operates on a cycle fast enough to make animations and artificially colorized readouts in real-time. That’s impressive, but I think anyone who’s ever tried to do a presentation at the office knows that the real miracle is that it broadcasts to the correct screen.
Booyeah, projector humor. You know what’s up.
Anyway, Stubbs wants to exterminate them, and Crusher takes the opposition view, that they are now an intelligence. As a side note, when explaining what they are, Wes tells us that each one has gigabytes of memory. These things are on the scale of a few hundred atoms, so that, at least, answers the question of how much storage space of the Enterprise computer could have. Terrifyingly enormous quantities. The first plan is to see if they can be removed without harming them, but Stubbs does not seem happy about that. Instead, he tries to straight-up kill them with high-level gamma radiation bursts.
The nanites respond by flooding the ship with gas. Nitrogen Oxide or, more likely nitrogen dioxide but written by people who didn’t have fingertip access to Wikipedia. I’ll let this one slide. They put everything back on manual, but the nanites continue to fight back. I am not sure how, on a ship this size and complexity, how you can mnaually control anything. It’s not like there are mechanical controls.
Since they appear to be at least intelligent enough for selective retribution, Picard decides to try to talk to them. Reminds me of “Home Soil” pretty explicitly. Any chance they can just sit Subbs down in front of a monitor and replay the non-classified portions of the log to get him up to speed with how Starfleet is supposed to handle contact with new forms of intelligence? Of course, that might not have prevented them from working their way into his quarters and attacking him.
Just before Picard is ready to order a shipwide gamma pulse, Data manages to get the Universal Translator, somehow, to make contact with them. Picard forces Stubbs to apologize, while Data offers himself as a sort of emissary to facilitate communication. He allows them to infect him and Picard attempts to negotiate peace and explains the situation. Stubbs apologizes, the Nanites accept, and a nearby planet is designated as the new home of the Nanite civilization.
Let’s remember that they went from robo-Adam and robo-Eve to a fully-fledged civilization capable of language and mercy in under 18 hours. If Starfleet doesn’t post a research vessel permanently in orbit over that planet it will be a crime against science. However, before they leave, they do fix the Egg just in time to perform Stubbs’ experiment, so that’s good news at least. Now all that’s left is for Beverly to pick up the pieces of her mother-son relationship.