Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Quality of Life   Rewatch 
July 15, 2021 3:55 AM - Season 6, Episode 9 - Subscribe

When Data determines that exocomps are alive, he must convince Picard and Dr. Farallon that these aren't the droids they're looking for.

MetaFilter doesn't come close to Memory Alpha's sophistication:

• In LJ Scott's original premise, the artificial lifeforms were talking wall terminals and household appliances.

• Of Data's decision, Shankar commented, "It was a logical conclusion. Those are nice moments with Data, when you can couch something emotional within the framework of a logical deduction – it becomes that much more moving for an android to make that kind of decision."

• However, Shankar struggled with writing the arguments about life and intelligence. He admitted that some of Data's positions appeared weak. "You can apply very similar ideas to bacteria or unicellular life forms of various kinds. According to his argument, these must be an intelligent life form too, but are they? I don't think so. Who's to say where you draw the line?"

• Shankar felt that some of the reasoning echoed contemporary anti-abortion movements. He commented, "I'm very strongly pro-choice and writing a show like this is in some ways difficult because I didn't necessarily agree with it all the time, but you still have to make a strong case for it. I think in a lot of ways that was accomplished and in other ways it was not."

• Writer Naren Shankar envisioned the exocomps as modular devices that would be added to existing tools, "like a high-tech Transformer toy," and above all, that would be alien in appearance and easily overlooked. In addition, he hoped that the eventual look of the exocomps would not be the "cute R2-D2 type," referencing the Star Wars films. He drew comparisons to parts of the animal rights movement. "As long as they're cute and fuzzy people respond, but if it's a nasty, ugly-looking thing they won't save it."

• Senior illustrator and technical consultant Rick Sternbach designed the exocomps. David Livingston recalled that Sternbach went through a large number of designs before they were approved by the producers. The final design was loosely based on the character Nanmo from the animated series The Dirty Pair.

• LeVar Burton was allowed to regrow his beard for this episode since he wanted it for his wedding.

• Troi is seen wearing a new hairstyle. Still long and curly, the hair is now off her face and taken back, without the use of a headband. This hairstyle is worn for the rest of the season.

• Jonathan Frakes praised Ellen Bry's performance in this episode. "Unlike most of the actresses I read, she seemed to be able to handle the language which in other actresses' mouths sounded dull. She somehow had passion about it and was able to deliver the lines with the same kind of alacrity as Brent [Spiner] and LeVar [Burton] did on a daily basis."

• Jonathan Frakes commented, "It was a little heavy on technobabble, but all things considered I think that show came off quite well." However, he was disappointed that there was no callback to the poker scene at the end of the episode. "We should have seen the result of the bet the characters made. Either Gates [McFadden] should have been a brunette or we should have been sitting in the chair about to be shaved. I don't know why they would lay it out as a red herring and not have it pay off in some way – as if no one was watching the show."


"My beard is not an affectation!"
- Riker, to Crusher

"There is a big difference between Data and a tool."
"Doctor, there is a big difference between you and a virus, but both are alive."
- Dr. Farallon and Data


Poster's Log:
I think the exocomps' final design didn't quite achieve what Shankar envisioned, because I've always found them to be kind of cute in exactly that R2-D2 way. I couldn't stop referring to them as "droids" during this rewatch.

Bernd at Ex Astris Scientia points out that Farallon's whole endeavor is shown to be so riddled with hazards that Picard should've shut it down immediately, but of course the story needed him not to. I think that tidiness is the main reason I've never considered this an essential episode, even though the exocomps themselves are pretty memorable.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (8 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've always found them to be kind of cute in exactly that R2-D2 way.

Peanut Hamper!
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:14 AM on July 15 [8 favorites]


This is basic, solid, meat and potatoes sci-fi. The kind of sci-fi premise with a steady job, provides for its family. Short story sci-fi, gets anthologized a lot.

As is often the case, this one doesn't quite fit into the jigsaw puzzle of previous Star Trek episodes (which is fine, ST continuity is a narrative straitjacket anyway), but it's also not even the first time we've had "obsessive scientist trying to get their pet project done by a deadline is stymied by unexpectedly sentient tools, and tries to kill them" on TNG. Given that the whole purpose of the mission is (sometimes) to find new life, you'd figure Starfleet would have, like, guidelines by now. Instead we have Crusher going "Hoooo, whew, ok, that's a tricky one. Kind of calls into question what we're all doing out here, huh? Yeah, that's a stumper for sure." I mean, come on, y'all. For serious. Like, come onnnnnnn.

I'm surprised that the exocomps weren't based on the robots from Silent Running, which they somewhat resembled and even took some plot cues from. And if they didn't want them to be cute, they shouldn't have given them those adorable little sneakers.
posted by phooky at 7:23 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


Just finished the episode (another one that I don't think that I've watched before; I was familiar with the exocomps from the Lower Decks episode and random references in the fandom), and thought it was excellent. There's a little bit of frustration that Starfleet and/or the Federation still doesn't seem to have any solid policies or procedures regarding establishing the sentience or lack thereof of synthetic beings. (This is really a franchise-wide problem, all the way up to and including PIC, with the Zhat Vash's self-fulfilling prophecy.) I'd also disagree with Data about his actions being in the league of Picard's defending him in "The Measure of a Man", since Picard was not in danger of being court-martialed. Data's actions also retroactively raise the question of whether any of the crew might have tried to smuggle him off the ship in a sort of digital Underground* Railroad if his personhood hearing had gone the other way, again not unlike what we eventually saw in PIC. I also liked that they came up with a test that they thought "proved" the exocomps' non-sentience, without considering the possibility that the exocomp would realize that it was being tested.

Other bits:

- Hmm, bit of a trend in Trek with extractive industries being problematic; see also TOS' "Mudd's Women", Praxis exploding in Star Trek VI, and the premise behind DS9.

- The teaser has provided images for a Geordi meme that's an alternative to the Drake meme.

- Since I mentioned Peanut Hamper previously, I should point out that PH made a different choice than the unnamed heroic exocomp in this ep.

*RIP Humpty Hump
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:31 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


The sexual tension in that opening poker scene was an 11, then they just forgot about it. I think that's probably how sexual tension works in TNG though.

It would have been pretty cool to have the exocomps be just an ugly bundle of circuit boards literally bound up in duct tape (or Jefferies' tape, I guess).
posted by skewed at 9:55 AM on July 15


There is something funky going on with how they fitted in the length of the Jeffry's Tube off that small chamber in Engineering. The tube looks like it just goes on forever, which would have been somewhere in the open Warp Core chamber.

I don't like Dr. Farallon. She is all gung ho about her tools, but once Data shows they are alive, she is all on board with accepting them.

Beverly has dumb things to say given that Starfleet has no set policy yet on artificial life, but I really like Gates in this one regardless.

Despite all the effort to make this a Data episode where he defends life and risks a lot doing it, and does something human in that risk, I never feel like there is much at stake. This ep is a by the numbers ep in the second to the last season. They are clearly on cruise control.
posted by Fukiyama at 10:02 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:

Premiere offered us Particle Fountain, a fairly easy way to pick up 5 points. OK if you're looking for that kinda thing. Exocomp provides a unique way to fix your ships on the go. As Wesley pointed out, this was the first personnel in the game with a 'special skill' aside from the standard passel of Anthropology, Biology, Medical, etc, the first of many. We always considered this card gender-neutral for very obvious reasons, but it's been officially male in the game since 2002. Beh.

Both these first two cards can be enhanced with the later Dr. Farallon, giving you some more free points and a free android for your trouble.
posted by StarkRoads at 10:10 AM on July 15


This is not a bad episode, necessarily, but it's definitely trying to talk out of both sides of its mouth, and learning they were trying to "both sides" topics like abortion and animal rights makes that make a lot more sense. They've undercut their own story in trying to explore it from all angles--which is not necessarily a bad thing! In the hands of more skilled writers, maybe it would have come out differently. But this writers room is not that.

And if they didn't want them to be cute, they shouldn't have given them those adorable little sneakers.

Agreed. The first time this aired, I saw Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running. There's no way you can come away from that design without having your audience going "d'aaaawwwww."

Jonathan Frakes praised Ellen Bry's performance in this episode. "Unlike most of the actresses I read, she seemed to be able to handle the language which in other actresses' mouths sounded dull. She somehow had passion about it and was able to deliver the lines with the same kind of alacrity as Brent [Spiner] and LeVar [Burton] did on a daily basis."

Ew. Ugh.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 11:26 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]


Unlike most of the actresses I read, she seemed to be able to handle the language which in other actresses' mouths sounded dull

Since he was the director, I guess he's talking about the other actresses who tried for the role? At first I thought this would be referring to similar guest roles on other episodes. Had that been the case, I would definitely disagree. Maybe she did embrace the technobabble, but I thought she was overacting a lot. "Mr. Data (whom I initially admired) thinks these tools are alive! *scoff* *rolls eyes*"

I thought this was a good sci-fi premise, but the execution was botched. Data's criteria for being alive is "self-preservation"? Well, sure. Plants act in self preservation, but I think it can be just fine to cut down a tree to build a house. On the other hand, I am opposed to cutting down an entire forest, although a forest does not act in self-preservation. Also, the internet tells me that self preservation is Asimov's 3rd law of robotics. I cite this because they quoted Asimov in one of the first episodes as though he's considered a prophet in the Star Trek universe, and also because it's just a really basic idea that you would program a robot to not get destroyed. "Don't disobey orders" is the 2nd law, but I am more inclined to say that this means there's a bug in Dr Farallon's programming than "they must be alive".

Given that the whole purpose of the mission is (sometimes) to find new life, you'd figure Starfleet would have, like, guidelines by now

100% Agree. I also thought it seemed really phony that Data would present the question to the doctor as though it's something that never occurred to him before...not a question that follows him around constantly as he wishes he was human or creates a daughter etc. And before he goes on a date, he can watch all movies to get a grasp of male-female relationships, but he can't look up the question of "what is life" to have realized that any answer the doctor gives is just going to inspire endless debate.

"Doctor, there is a big difference between you and a virus, but both are alive."

And Data, Mr. super-scientist walking encyclopedia should know that a virus defies life/nonlife categorization (and is probably used as a tool by Dr. Crusher all the time--at the same time as she happily wipes out other viruses).
posted by polecat at 12:43 PM on July 15


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