Star Trek: The Next Generation: Force of Nature   Rewatch 
October 15, 2021 3:43 AM - Season 7, Episode 9 - Subscribe

Data and Geordi join forces to confront the challenges of besting Geordi's rival and training Data's misbehaving cat. Meanwhile, all interstellar travel everywhere is threatened. But about the cat…

This is Memory Alpha. We should be better than everybody else:

• The episode derived from a premise Joe Menosky had created back in the sixth season, known as "Limits". Menosky's allegory for modern day environmental problems was dropped as an element from several episodes that season, including "Suspicions".

• Jeri Taylor recalled, "This was a troubled episode from the first...We had tried it in many guises and it never worked. At the beginning of the seventh year, I sent Naren and Brannon to a big breakfast meeting of an environmental watchdog group that we have here in Hollywood and they came back inspired. Naren was so galvanized. He said, 'I want to take a crack at "Limits." I want to do this. This is important.' I agreed. It was a story I really wanted to do and I think it does make an important statement, but dramatizing a huge issue like that is always the trouble. We started down many roads. At first, we had Geordi's sister come on board to help him adjust to the death of his mother, but that seemed to muddle everything completely. We then started the whole little thread of Geordi in competition with the engineer from another ship so we could show Geordi's deeply felt belief in technology and the benefits of technology, so that he would be at war with himself when realizing that it was contributing to something disastrous.

        "When the script was written, it turned out to be very, very short and so we then started adding scenes about Data's cat. By luck, or by bad luck, all of those scenes turned out to be at the beginning of the show, so you had an episode that started very fitfully and seemed to be about Data's cat and then it took a turn and seemed to be about Geordi and his rivalry with this other guy. Then it went back to the cat and then, finally, in about the third act, the real story began and, by that point, I think people were hopelessly lost. It sort of never got back on track, but it's still an important idea and our intentions were good."

• Regarding the weak link between the episode's A and B plots Shankar explained, "The slightest dramatic connection between those two is the notion that you can't control a force of nature like a cat."

• This was the first Star Trek episode where the maximum warp speed limitation was imposed by the Federation on all Starfleet vessels. Further references were made to the speed limit in "The Pegasus" and "Eye of the Beholder" later in the season, but has rarely been referenced since. According to the unpublished VOY Season 1 edition of the Star Trek: Voyager Technical Guide, by Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, it was suggested that because of the variable geometry pylons, warp fields may no longer have a negative impact on habitable worlds as established in this episode.

• This was the first episode in which Data's cat, Spot, was referred to as "she" rather than "he". Though unexplained, the cat's change in gender went on to play a significant role in TNG: "Genesis", in which she has kittens.

• The production staff were unanimously disappointed with this episode. Michael Piller remarked, "I think this is the worst show I collaborated on this season. It certainly inspired us to have several meetings on where the season was going because I felt we were letting it slip away."

• Taylor commented, "I've been on enough series and tried to do environmental issues to realize that they are so hard to dramatize, because you're talking about the ozone hole,'s so, so hard to make it emotional and personal and give impact on that kind of level." She praised Shankar's attempts to deal with the "doomed premise."

• Braga observed, "There were preposterous moments in that show. On the other hand, we knew the risks, but we felt it was real important to at least try to do an environmental show. We struggled with making it a personal story and in the end it just didn't work as well as we wanted it to. We couldn't find a personal angle. When you limit warp drive, the rug is being pulled out from under Star Trek. I wish more time had been spent with that, and less time with Spot and cat."

"This is down. Down is good. This is up. Up is no."
- Data, attempting to train Spot

"This is the flagship. We should be better than everybody else."
- La Forge

"You know, Geordi, I spent the better part of my life exploring space. I've charted new worlds, I've met dozens of new species, and I believe that these were all valuable ends in themselves. Now it seems that… all this while, I was… helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear."
"It's won't turn out that way, Captain. We still have time to make it better."
- Picard and La Forge

Poster's Log:
What a bafflingly clumsy, amateurish first half this episode has. You're fifteen minutes in and you think Spot is the A-story…like he's gonna turn out to be a hostile shapeshifter, like they just forgot to include the menacing zoom in on his face right at the end of the tease.

And then there's the absolutely pointless C-story about Geordi's competitor. And THEN there's the Ferengi plot-cul-de-sac, which thankfully is at least a little relevant to what we will eventually realize is the actual A-story. Once we're in the rift, there's excitement, but it could've been capitalized on further.

The utter lack of tension early on had what seems to me to be a simple enough fix: Geordi (or somebody) already knew, and had some sort of competition/conflict with, one of the Hekaran scientists. Introduce this in the tease! Maybe Geordi's back from another conference (why not, space is all conferences, apparently) where he got into a big, heated, public, kind of unprofessional argument with Serova… eh, this is sounding too Brahmsy. Okay, it's Data; he's trying to understand competitiveness, and Geordi is just his explanatory sidekick. So we open the ep with Data going to Geordi all confused about Serova's disruption at the conference—or maybe we actually SHOW the disruption—and then Serova and Rabal show up with their demands at the end of the tease. If it runs short, add more scenes with the Hekarans—both of their performances were plenty compelling—or let us actually see the Fleming, or whatever. No need for the cat.

Another thing I noticed on this rewatch is (and this is somewhat pedantic and less critical to the ep's success or failure) that the damage warp drive is doing to THIS REGION of space, which has "unique properties," somehow seems by the end of the story to have been broadened out to a danger to ALL of space, even though nobody actually connected those dots. It wouldn't have taken much.

So yeah, the episode is, well, broken, to use an apt Pakled expression. Not used to this level of clumsiness from this franchise. Lack of time on the production side? Burnout in the writers' room? Good chance it's both, I guess.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
With you on this one; seems almost inexplicable that they had such a hard time breaking the episode, let alone that they had to use filler about Spot to get an entire episode's worth. I mean, what a promising premise: we'd heard all along that warp drive basically worked by bending space/time; what if they'd bent it so much that it started to break? And what if there was no easy fix? What would that imply for the franchise going forward? What if, and this is something that I've bitched about before on Trek threads more than once, this was used as a series arc/plot point for the upcoming Voyager, to have it look for an alternative mode of interstellar transportation, not just to get that ship home, but to fix the warp speed limit problem?

Instead, we get this generally jumbled mess of an episode, the implications of which are more or less ignored by the rest of the franchise. (VOY's variable-geometry nacelles--which change position to a lesser degree than a Klingon Bird of Prey--aren't used by any other ship class in the fleet.) In addition to the proposed modifications that you suggest, they could have tied in the errant plot lines by a) having Spot's antsiness explained by some feline sensitivity to broken space (hey, we don't know that they wouldn't be), and La Forge going from being slightly obsessed with competing with his rival to more than slightly obsessed with collaborating with his rival on a solution. (Not a solution within the scope of the episode, though; competence porn is all fine and good, but it's less hot if it's too easy IMO.)

Speaking of VOY, I'm not sure if I realized previously that the Voyager Technical Manual (at least the S1 version) is online.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Watching these makes me understand how most other shows try to really mix things up in the last ouple seasons. Heal turns, killing off established characters, bringing in new ones, etc. I would have been dead set against any of that if I had been asked, but if the alternative was the nonsense that's scattered throughout this season, it may have been worth it. I've looked ahead at the rest of the season and count 6 episodes that I think of as the worst of TNG, and even more startling, 3-4 episodes I don't recognize at all, even with a plot synopsis. Four good-to-great episodes left by my count, so at least something to look forward to still.
posted by skewed at 9:55 AM on October 15, 2021

Force of Nature is a great example of TNG's reach exceeding its grasp. I do not believe I have seen this entire episode more than once. Setting aside the clumsy execution, the entire premise of the story, establishing a warp speed limit, is 1) simply too large a brush stroke for a single hour of television (it is on par with IRL Earth banning fossil fuels all in one go with the resulting economic and cultural impacts), and 2) a very very very bad idea IRL considering your entire show is based on FTL. The episode isn't even over and the Federation (AKA the Writers) has already set up an exception to the speed limit. So it's a given that Berman Trek would eventually have to hand wave it away unless they wanted to address it in every single future episode of Star Trek.
posted by Stuka at 10:00 AM on October 15, 2021

"We came back from this breakfast really determined to do something about the environment! Something important, you know? So we really cranked on it through lunch, but we kind of ran out of steam in the afternoon, and then Michael was just musing, like, 'hey, what's happening with Data's cat?' And that was kind of it, really."

ME: [around campfire, to younglings of tribe] Anyway, that's what Hollywood was like.
YOUNGLING: And is that why you burnt it to the ground, wizened elder?
ME: Well, it was most of Southern California, but... eh, y'know what, sure, let's go with that.
posted by phooky at 10:36 AM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
A bit of spaceline interference, ok if you like that kinda thing, and a pretty decent mission in First Edition, 5 span's a long way to go of course, representing your ship having to maneuver around all the anomalies and such. Come Second edition the two Hekaran scientists appear as Non-Aligned Engineers, which appeared in a lot of decks given their respectable pools of related skills. Serova even got a foil version.

The standout card of course is Spot, which very much speaks for itself. I like that animal cards in the game are generally 'Neutral' black rather than 'Non-Aligned' gold.
posted by StarkRoads at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2021

I admire the effort -- and Picard's final lines in this episode have always stuck with me. I think it's likely that I'll have some similar emotions about my work at some point, if I don't already.
posted by brainwane at 11:49 AM on October 15, 2021

The pace of the first half is positively glacial. I kept pausing to see the timecode because it seemed to have been running forever but we were nowhere near the main plot. First it was about Spot, then it was about Geordi's nemesis, then it was finally a Trek-style story, but one which somehow changes by the end of the show from a localized problem to a galaxy-wide's a mess.

A mess that's clearly written by people who know nothing about cats. (Spot's gender change is interesting, because female orange tabbies are somewhat rare, far fewer females are born than males--I found that out when I had one and everyone commented on it.) Halloween Jack, your comment about linking her behavior to the plot issue was exactly what I'd been thinking when I was watching this again: I know someone who had a cat we called the "earthquake early warning system," because he would get abruptly weird and aggressive and squirrelly, and inevitably we'd get an earthquake within the next 12 hours; even minor ones seemed to set him off. It would have made a much better link in the show and tied that boring first act to the plot, but then, you'd have to have a writer with the first clue about cats or even just animals in general, which they clearly never had on staff.

This didn't have to be so lackluster; it doesn't say good things about them that they couldn't make this work.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:22 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

While we're all morosely dunking on this terrible episode, I would like to surface one moment which is getting lost in the morass: it's when uh-oh, the other ship accidentally Environmental Crimed and now they're going to be stuck inside the rift, and Geordi saves the day by suggesting they surf their way out on a distortion wave.

That scene was one "Radical idea, La Forge!" or Whorfian "Cowabunga!" from causing the 90's the to collapse in onto itself, forming a cultural void from which not even the light of reason could escape.
posted by phooky at 2:47 PM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

The crew is lamenting warp drive, how much they love it because of what it allows them to do and it's being taken away from them.

The show has covered at least one other form of FTL propulsion during its run. A form that happens to be very similar to the surfing method Geordi suggests to get out of the rift. but do they mention it in this one? No.
posted by Fukiyama at 3:01 PM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

I genuinely can't decide whether or not I like the maximum warp speed concept. On one hand, adding limitations to Trek is usually a good thing. Even Voyager, which does a better job at making space seem big than any other series, doesn't go nearly far enough. On the other hand, if you're going to fundamentally break all of Trek in a big way, it's a real shame to half-ass it and then forget about it two weeks later. Something this significant should be a series finale and the birth of a radically new kind of Trek. I know there's some ancillary-media mumbo jumbo about the Voyager-era folks having solved it by rotating nacelles or something. But, it's never given appropriate weight in any of the TV series, as an existential threat to at least the galaxy. (Lower Decks is just sitting on related jokes.)

As TV, it's bad. The writing is obvious, the direction is cheesy as hell, and the beat-you-over-the-head moralizing makes ad council public service announcements from the '80s look subtle. As much as I love everyone who worked on this and probably agree with the not-at-all subtle allegorical ethics, it's hard to watch without cringing and laughing.
posted by eotvos at 5:40 PM on October 15, 2021

The inconsistency around warp speed in Trek is a wee bit annoying. You've got Warp 10 as this mythic infinite velocity, but there's also transwarp, coaxial warp, even quantum slipstream, which I guess are supposed to be like Warp 9.999999999999 or something? Although, it doesn't make sense to call something "transwarp" if it is still within the warp speed scale, but whatever. And then in the TNG finale (SPOILER) future Capt. Beverly Crusher-Picard has her ship coasting at Warp 13, so what the hell is that all about? Finally, isn't there momentum in the Trek universe?! Sure, they'd need engines to compensate for the gravitational pulls of various planets etc., but it's like a ship runs out of dilithium and they literally STOP in space.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:15 PM on October 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Finally, isn't there momentum in the Trek universe?!
Final Mission and other episodes make it pretty clear that momentum has been done away with by the TNG era. (Also, basic probability and most of biology. . .)

Have I mentioned that I love Trek? 'cause I do. Really.
posted by eotvos at 4:46 PM on October 16, 2021

The season 2 finale of Lower Decks just had a disabled starship nearly crash into a planet after being disabled in space, but the gravitational pull was drawing the ship in. I guess it’s up to drama.
posted by Servo5678 at 7:05 AM on October 17, 2021

Even Voyager, which does a better job at making space seem big than any other series, doesn't go nearly far enough.

Voyager's problem was the fact that despite them more or less constantly moving in one direction for months and years they keep running into the same species. Unless the Vidiians or Kazon are constantly chasing them (especially specific Kazon like the ones Seska threw her lot in with) or control areas of space larger than the Federation, they should have been left behind in the dust pretty quickly.

Finally, isn't there momentum in the Trek universe?! Sure, they'd need engines to compensate for the gravitational pulls of various planets etc., but it's like a ship runs out of dilithium and they literally STOP in space.

Momentum sure, but that doesn't apply to warp speed, which is more about moving space around a ship rather than moving a ship through space. A starship can drop out of warp and be moving at thousands of kilometers per second, but that might as well be motionless at interstellar distances.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:13 PM on October 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Here's what I didn't like...

Geordi is beating himself up that he didn't listen to Serova before, but I think he said it himself: warp drive has been in use for 300 years and nobody noticed these problems before. Data didn't see the evidence, and I think he's pretty objective about these things.

Furthermore, when the Cytherians gave the Federation a massive boost in technology, they should have said, "In addition to the fact that our method of zapping anywhere in no time is a lot more satisfying, it doesn't rip the universe apart like that warp drive that you're using." They forgot to mention it, I suppose. The giant disembodied head Cytherian guy did seem pretty stoned.

I'm impressed that Serova and Rabal were able to get hold of a starship and with their 2-person crew use this super weapon to take out 3 other starships. All goes to show how amazing our no-scarcity future is! However, the Romulans or whoever ought to look into that weapon some more--seems really powerful.

As far as being concerned about whether the Romulans will follow the new speed limit--I think instead they're going to weaponize it.

Did Serova have to kill herself? I think she could have blown up the ship remotely. Self-immolation might get additional attention, but since now her planet is moving out of orbit or something, I think the point has been made loud and clear. Thanks, Serova, for dooming everyone a lot faster!

Data's quest to become human must be going great, because he was clearly embarrassed about his failures at training Spot.
posted by polecat at 2:08 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

Geordi is really not coming off well in this rewatch. His awful relationships, gaslighting and now suggesting training Spot by stunning her. Just a joke, my arse. Not funny.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:04 AM on March 27

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