Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Force of Nature"

**

Air date: 11/15/1993
Written by Naren Shankar
Directed by Robert Lederman

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Enterprise ventures into a corridor of space in search of a missing Starfleet vessel but instead finds a disabled Ferengi ship, then later a debris field that's actually a trap used to disable the Enterprise. It was set by the inhabitants of a nearby planet used to raise awareness; two of their scientists, Rabal (Michael Corbett) and Serova (Margaret Reed), claim the cumulative use of warp drive in this narrow corridor is causing irreversible damage to their space and planet. Also, there's a lot of dialogue about Data's cat.

Structurally, "Force of Nature" is about as inelegant as it gets. For the first half of the episode we essentially have a B-story where Data and Geordi crawl around Jeffries tubes and talk about Spot the Goddamn Cat. This material is so clearly padded (and then abandoned) that I'm pretty convinced the writers realized they didn't have enough story to fill the hour and so they tried to turn what should've been the teaser (and absolutely nothing more) into 10 minutes of irrelevant subplot. Then we get the disabled Ferengi ship, which is ham-handed to say the least (the Ferengi captain is a hostile idiot who makes threats and wild accusations despite any evidence and his inferior position that's completely at Picard's mercy) — and again, is dropped so soon after it's introduced that it feels like filler.

Finally we get the meat of the story with the alien scientists, who are desperate to prove theories that have been skeptically received for years, which is that warp drive is damaging their space. When it doesn't look like Serova is getting the immediate response she wants from the Federation, she pilots her ship into the rift and breaches the warp core, killing herself in a radical demonstration that opens a spatial rift that (sort of) proves she was correct. Serova does this despite the fact that Picard was fully prepared to take her recommendation to Starfleet, whom we have no reason to believe won't take it seriously. Serova is, in short, the story's dramatic catalyst, but not a particularly believable one. There are some okay scenes in the wake of this, including Geordi navel-gazing and his conversations with the reasonable Rabal, brother of the late, radical Serova.

The last act, in which the Enterprise must enter and escape the rift to rescue the survivors of the missing ship, drowns in a morass of who-cares technobabble. It makes you realize just how bored this kind of rote recitation of jargon must make the actors. It's action of the most thankless kind, where the camera shakes while people urgently yell out jargony jargon words, and it's supposed to be exciting, but it really is not. Better, but not good, is the heavy-handed final scene in the conference room, where we get the fallout from the revelation that warp drive might actually be causing damage to some areas of space. (The story is sketchy on the details, so as to not lock Star Trek into a situation where one can't trek the stars.)

This is a Trekkian Message Show with themes delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The real-world corollaries might register as topically relevant if they weren't so laughably obvious in their delivery. To summarize: warp travel is equivalent to carbon emissions, which is causing damage to space, with the long-term devastating environmental effects being equivalent to global warming. I will say that this is not one of Trek's more enlightening or effective allegories. (The Federation's immediate short-term precautionary solution is to institute a speed limit of warp 5, which comes across as more silly than anything.) The one irony I will note, writing this 19 years after "Force of Nature" aired, is the sad state of where the issue of global warming has since ventured in America — with accepted science being pathetically reframed as debate by absurd and shortsighted economic/political denial.

Come to think of it, the fact that the Federation enacts a speed limit immediately after the events of this episode says something when you consider what we haven't done to address carbon emissions and other ecological problems in the 19 years since this episode aired. Perhaps this episode is the ultimate allegory of indictment, meant to be analyzed decades after it was made! Now there's a concept!

Okay, or not.

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20 comments on this review

grumpy_otter - Sat, Oct 27, 2012 - 4:36pm (USA Central)
I don't disagree with your overall review, just wanted to tell you not to call Spot a "Goddam Cat" again. If you do, I may have to enlist my fellow small mammals into teaching Jammer about proper small mammal address and protocol.

I like Spot, and think discussions of him/her are some of the funniest bits on TNG. If this had appeared in a better episode, I don't think you'd have minded.
Jammer - Sat, Oct 27, 2012 - 5:16pm (USA Central)
I'm not anti-Spot, but the amount of Spot-related dialogue in this episode was really stretching it thin in a particularly obvious way. Definitely not "Spot on." (Har har! Groan.)
lvsxy808 - Sun, Oct 28, 2012 - 5:16am (USA Central)
Dull dull dull dull dull. The most pointless, white-noise waste of an hour ever. I'd rather watch "Manhunt" or "Shades of Grey" than this.

The Spot business was indeed filler, written to replace what would have been a much more interesting sub-plot in which Geordi's sister comes aboard to try to help him through the loss of their mother. The story would have revealed Geordi as a bit of a control freak, refusing to accept that his precious technology could ever be the cause of environmental damage and concentrating on that issue precisely to avoid dealing with the lack of control implied by his mother's unexplained disappearance, and his sister would have helped him to face his issues. That story was dropped because it was yet another never-seen-before family member coming aboard in a season full of such stories, which is an understandable concern. But what they replaced it with was so much crap that I'd much rather have had another family story than How to Train a Cat Using Tuna in Your Bra.

And after all that, the warp speed limit was Never Heard From Again except for one off-hand reference in which it was specifically suspended for political reasons.
grumpy_otter - Sun, Oct 28, 2012 - 3:51pm (USA Central)
"I'm not anti-Spot, but the amount of Spot-related dialogue in this episode was really stretching it thin in a particularly obvious way. Definitely not "Spot on." (Har har! Groan.) "

Okay, you're forgiven. I will inform the irascible mustelidae community.
Jay - Sun, Oct 28, 2012 - 7:53pm (USA Central)
Yeah this was definitely a silly idea, and if high traffic causes rifts like this, it shouldn't have taken long before a huge one opened up next to the Bajoran wormhole...

And as far as that series goes, I suspect the Defiant rarely settled for Warp 5.
Paul - Mon, Oct 29, 2012 - 9:13am (USA Central)
Really terrible episode. I'm surprised it even got two stars, Jammer.

The first half is (as you said) all over the map. The tension-filled part of the episode is boring season 7 material -- lots of technobabble and boring music.

But the worst part is how significant the conclusion should be to everything later in Star Trek -- but it isn't. There's some talk of the Warp 5 speed limit for the rest of season 7 (in "Pegasus" and "All Good Things ..."). But after TNG goes off the air, there's no mention of the speed limit or the danger to space.

There is some sort of reference to how Voyager's engines were designed in a way to prevent this problem (maybe in one of the encyclopedias?). But nothing on air is mentioned, and none of the DS9 vessels appear different.

Season 7 is just such a waste. Other than the finale, "Parallels," "Pegasus", "Lower Decks" and "Preemptive Strike", we're lucky to get mediocrity.
Nic - Mon, Oct 29, 2012 - 7:28pm (USA Central)
The writers certainly had good intentions with this one, and I'll grant you it's not easy doing a show with an environmentally-conscious message without being obvious. But yeah, they could have done better.
Paul - Tue, Oct 30, 2012 - 1:36pm (USA Central)
Here's what they should have done with this episode that would have made it watchable:

1) Cut out the filler crap at the beginning.
2) Make the female scientist less whiny and the Ferengi less stupid.
3) With the time leftover from the beginning, go forward a few weeks where the Federation has more of a plan to combat the problem. A scene with Geordi and Picard talking about "promising results" with new technology designed to avoid the problem would have been huge.
Nick P. - Sun, Nov 4, 2012 - 12:39am (USA Central)
And we have it! the worst episode of the entire run. I could watch the Crusher masterbation one tens times in a row before I would watch this one.

But everyone is wrong, it is not direction, or message, or acting, or plot, or music, or writing.

See, like all entertainment, what makes people come watch it, is that they want to LIVE in this universe. they want to BE the heroes. No one wants to live in universe with a "warp speed limit" and the fucking horrible starfleet beurocracy that was surely created. that is similar to why the last Indiana Jones failed. the 1st three were fun because you want to BE Indiana jones, but no one wants to be the 68 year old professor. That is the secret to entertainment.

Star trek was at its best from the TOS to mid season 4 TNG. Starfleet and the enterprise stopped being the guys you wanted to be. Look at all the episodes with Ro laren, or Wesley, from the 5th season onwards. No one wants to be that starfleet. The boring beurocratic one. TOS was about not judging people by their gender or skin color. Now star trek is about NOT warping somewhere cool.

F-that.
Delkazyr - Mon, Nov 5, 2012 - 4:19pm (USA Central)
The real paradox in this episode is that the oh-so-brilliant Serova proved her theories the practical way. Using her as an allegory for present environmental problems, consider her an anti-nuclear activist causing a radioactive meltdown (in her vicinity) to prove lacking reactor safety. Yeah, brilliant indeed!

(I admit, I essentially quoted Phil Farrand here. But come to think about it, he does have a point.)
Jeffrey Jakucyk - Wed, Nov 7, 2012 - 6:01pm (USA Central)
I'm glad Jammer brings up the ambiguity of just how far-reaching this damage is. I've watched this episode a few times (though I admit it's difficult to pay attention to as it's so plodding), but I've never noticed anything to suggest that this damage applies anywhere but in this one particular corridor of space. It's a problem for anyone going through that corridor sure, but does it affect anyone near Earth, or Bajor, or anywhere else of much importance?

On the other hand, the discussion about warp speed limits and Voyager's special nacelles would seem to suggest otherwise. I just always felt like people blew this issue way out of proportion because it seemed (at least to me) to be fairly minor. To use the pollution analogy, this would be more like a problem with smog or heavy metals in a river, local concerns, not something with global implications like carbon dioxide or CFCs.
Skeptic - Fri, Nov 16, 2012 - 2:32am (USA Central)
Ironic that since this Global Warming cautionary tale aired Earth's climate has not actually become significantly warmer. Maybe the warp 5 speed limit had unexpected benefits.
Eric - Sat, Feb 23, 2013 - 12:56am (USA Central)
@Skeptic: What's your definition of "significant"?


It has raised though. From this chart I found on the National climatic data centre, it looks to be about .2-.4 degrees (since the episode aired), I dunno, seems "significant" to me, considering its a global mean.

From what I've read/heard from scientists on GW, is that global average increase that they're predicting is actually slow - deceptively slow, because a global average increase of 1.2 degrees in 20 years actually carries a lot more punch than laymen tend to think, in the form of rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Don't forget there's also feedback mechanisms, rising population levels, and a segment of Earth's population that is only now becoming heavily motorized/industrial.

Its baffling that anyone is skeptical of this, or that people think that there's a debate raging in scientific fields. There isn't. Go to skepticalscience.com if you want to see a list of all the scientific institutions that support the consensus. Or to desmogblog.org, to see all the great exposition done on the disinformation spread on GW (Probably why so many people think that there's no consensus - therefore its not that baffling, but anyway...). Desmogblog did a tally of how many peer-reviewed research papers denied GW vs how many did. Something like 3 to 2000. Unless most of the world's climate scientists are participating in the world's biggest, most elaborate conspiracy (to what end, I'm not sure), we have a real problem on our hands.
Formerly known as Artisan - Mon, Mar 11, 2013 - 8:03am (USA Central)
A couple of years before this aired, a young woman who I admired (but only knew via GEnie, an electronic forum of the 90s) privately shared with me a copy of a TNG script she had written. It would have been a great episode. When "Force of Nature" aired, I was amazed by the similarities, and terribly disappointed. Ellen's script was exactly the story this one should have been.

In her take on the subject, Picard had a difficult decision to make, and took responsibility for it. He could allow an alien civilization to die, if the Federation continued to use warp technology as before, or he could cripple the Federation to save them. He chose the Federation. There was real drama, and real tragedy, all of it rooted in people we care about, and true to their established character and motivation.

Having that spec script as a basis for comparison, this episode seemed even worse than it was. In the aftermath, it was no surprise that its speed limit was more thoroughly disregarded and unenforced than the 55 mph limit of today.

Grumpy - Mon, Apr 8, 2013 - 9:02pm (USA Central)
(A lot of my comments are of the "If only..." or "They could've" variety, even though they're 20 years too late. Well, here's another.)

Not much would've saved this snoozer, but one easy fix is to replace the nobody scientists with someone we care about, especially in the spirit of 7th season bookends. Leah Brahms is an obvious choice. Another option is Mirasta Yale. In "First Contact," she represented technological progress. Now she's thrust into the 24th century (she left her planet, remember) and she discovers the future's not so clean. The same theme would've been served by an encore appearance by, say, Berlinghoff Rasmussen. Or both. Or all three!
Jack - Sat, Sep 14, 2013 - 11:05am (USA Central)
Ferengi Council? We never see it, and by this time, DS9's "The Nagus" had already aired.
Reverend Spork - Mon, Sep 16, 2013 - 7:43pm (USA Central)
It's a middling episode, to be sure, but I enjoyed the Data / LaForge patter. I also like Spot the Damned Cat. However, the A-story boasted annoyingly hardheaded characters, and those characters are especially Annoying Trek Cliches [tm]. Two stars is an accurate assessment, IMHO.
William B - Fri, Oct 18, 2013 - 9:25am (USA Central)
I generally like the Data/La Forge patter and interaction enough to let the time spent on the Spot material slide, if this weren't an episode which obviously had more important things on its mind and didn't fail. The La Forge subplot in which he works hard at a competition he has with another chief engineer, on the other hand, has a clear story purpose which works well. "Booby Trap" more or less suggested that the Enterprise is his girlfriend, and this episode, in which Geordi moves immediately from seeing whether he's ready for cat ownership to, once that has fallen through, channeling his energies back into the warp engine, suggests that the Enterprise engines are also his pet. That Geordi has a personal connection to the ship is something that has been established over the years, and, as with "Interface," this episode does a bit to poke holes in Geordi's relationship to technology and show the weaknesses therein. Geordi is personally hurt that warp drive, which his identity is wrapped up in, could have devastating effects on the fabric of space, and that blow suggests that maybe the thing he values most is not a good thing after all. That's a potentially great story, and one I applaud in theory. In practice, though, while there's a good moment or two with this the emotional heft is lost.

Really, the episode is a mess, unable to stay focused, wasting time on irrelevant details so that the actual story doesn't begin until about halfway through the hour. Once then, it becomes a ponderous, preachy mess; some of these scenes work, but the idea that Serova, as Jammer points out, would react so strongly as to kill herself when people *were listening to her*, and, more to the point, would go as far as to do the damage of a *million ships* on her own space, which is surely more damage than would happen in a year, undermines her as a credible activist (unless, of course, there is a point here being made about activists sliding into extremism that is not only morally suspect because of the damage they do to themselves and others, but to the cause itself, in which, uh, maybe?, but there is no time to digest this). The performances of the guest cast are weak, and then the rescue mission in the last act is awful, with only *one* exterior shot to give us some dramatic idea of what's happening beyond Data and La Forge et al. shouting out what they are doing. The last scene in the conference room feels like a long, droning exposition scene about the new rules which are being put into place which are shortly being ignored.

I applaud the idea behind this episode quite a bit -- the thing about environmental damage is that to forestall it really does mean making compromises on things one had believed to be safe. For the Enterprise crew to learn that they have been unintentionally contributing to environmental damage is a great idea. Sadly the execution is terrible, aside from a few La Forge details. 1.5 stars.
mephyve - Wed, Jan 29, 2014 - 10:27am (USA Central)
I definitely enjoyed the running gag 'Spot the cat' throughout the seasons. I love the imagery elicited whenever someone suggests using a phaser against it. Equally hilarious was the look on Data's face as he considered the implications of the suggestion. "Geordi, I can't stun my cat.' Hilarious! Was it filler? Perhaps somewhat, but highly entertaining filler that dealt with an ongoing gag. Good stuff.
I think the Ferengi scene was used to show that this was a universal issue rather than one limited to the federation. A serious environmental problem was brought to light that would have had more impact if it had led to changes in the Trek verse.
I enjoyed the episode.
3 stars
Smith - Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - 8:15am (USA Central)
Thought the story was flawed, but execution and teleplay were strong. Gene specifically in his writing bible prohibiting making technology a villian. When do you do this lose some abstraction and the ability to tell stories in a more creative and spontaneous format. Story lines over whether you can break warp 5 become simplistic and tedious and compete with other more stronger story lines.

The concept of doing a global warming story was good...but it needed more abstraction. Gobal warming is about denial...and you can communicate this is a very science fiction indirect way. Perhaps the crew picks an alien parasite and those who have it deny they do. Or perhaps a new tech is hurting the crew in ways they can't realize and the engineers get in denial over it? Lot's of methods, without being too obvious.

I liked the non-linear format of the show in that it went from Spot to Geordi's competition to the rescue of the science ship to the "pirates" then to the global warming story. Too many modern stories are "too efficient" and become subconsciously predictable and boring.

Initially, there was going to be a subplot about Geordi's sister coming aboard to reminisce about their Mom...which Pillar thankfully nixed because he thought (correctly) it was too trite.

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