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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Home Soil (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

I’ve been complaining pretty consistently throughout this rocky first year of Star Trek: The Next Generation that the show is trying too hard to be a carbon copy of the classic Star Trek, rather than trying to define its own distinct identity. By that logic, I concede that I should detest Home Soil. Much like the less-than-classic The Naked Now, it is pretty much an attempt to update an episode from the original show.

In this case, the story of a bunch of terraformers provoking an unconventional native lifeform recalls The Devil in the Dark, one of the best-loved episodes of Star Trek‘s pretty stellar first year. While Home Soil doesn’t quite measure up to its rather wonderful progenitor, it does manage to put its own slant on the story, to the point where Home Soil doesn’t feel like a recycled Star Trek script; rather, it feels like a story told from the perspective of The Next Generation.

Spark of life...

Spark of life…

The original Star Trek did pulp amazingly well. It’s a bit of an over-simplification to talk about Kirk leading with his fists and Picard with his head, but I think that the original Star Trek did an exceptional job balancing weighty moral and philosophical issues with adventure storytelling. In contrast, the style of The Next Generation is typically a bit more introspective and ponderous. Every time I make that argument, I feel the need to justify that it’s not to argue that one is superior to the other, but merely to emphasise that there is a clear difference in tone between the shows.

A lot of these early episodes of The Next Generation might play better in the pulpy surroundings of Star Trek. Despite the fact that it requires the Enterprise to carry children, When the Bough Breaks seems like it would make a better-than-average third season instalment of Star Trek. Similarly, the battle sequences at the start of Hide & Q feels like a strange hybrid between The Squire of Gothos and The Savage Curtain. It took a while for The Next Generation to find its groove and – when it did – it wasn’t with episodes like those.

A giant frickin' laser...

A giant frickin’ laser…

Interestingly, The Next Generation really grew into its own show with episodes like Home Soil. The basic premise of the script is familiar. A bunch of humans on a distant world decide to tame the environment to their needs. In doing so, they inadvertently cause harm to a local lifeform. That local lifeform strikes back in the only way that it knows how. So you end up with a fatal misunderstanding stemming from humanity’s stubborn inability to acknowledge intelligent life that doesn’t conform to our own rigid definition of it. It’s a powerful moral from a show that prides itself on its moral philosophy, and that’s one of the reasons that The Devil in the Dark stands out.

However, the Horta of The Devil in the Dark is still obviously alive. While it looks wonderfully alien, the shuffling form suggests (at the very least) an animal living in an environment under threat from the encroachment of mankind. The miners in that classic Star Trek episode are too eager to kill the monster, evoking villagers with flaming pitchforks. I don’t make these observations to criticise the show – it is a person favourite – but to illustrate a few of the concepts and ideas that Home Soil builds upon.

Shakin' it up...

Shakin’ it up…

I’ve argued that The Next Generation is a more intellectual show than that original Star Trek ever was, and Home Soil develops some of the ideas and themes just a little bit further than that much-loved sixties episode. For one thing, the mistake on the part of the terraformers is easier to forgive. Faced with the prospect he may be responsible for attempted genocide, Mandl assures Picard, “Picard, I must point out again that we were assured, not once but many times, by the best scientific minds in the Federation, that this planet has no life. No life! And we were not looking, and therefore we did not see.”

It’s one of the first times in The Next Generation that the Federation is shown as fallible – and not do to a rogue officer, internal corruption or some other easy-to-dismiss factor. All of a sudden, Home Soil turns the slightly unnerving “humans are superior” subtext back on itself. Episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us saw the crew lording their inherent superiority over other lifeforms, and the show has already repeatedly emphasised that humans are oh-so very special. Here, their perspective is limited by that arrogance and self-centredness.

Terrorforming...

Terrorforming…

The Federation couldn’t possibly be wrong in how it defines life, right? We’ve been hearing how the organisation is flawless and hyper-evolved for years now, so this massive error in judgment casts a pretty big shadow. It’s far greater than anything Admiral Jameson did in Too Short a Season, because at least he knew he’d made a mistake. The concession that it is possible to make that sort of mistake (with these sorts of consequences) represents a major departure from Roddenberry’s idealise version of humanity – as is the implication that the misunderstanding arose from the fact that his normally-enlightened human characters were exposed as relatively close-minded.

The “micro-brain” of the episode might look like a repurposed Christmas tree decoration, but there’s nothing wrong with that. (Just look at Way of the Warrior, for example.) It still looks decidedly alien, and much more so than the Horta, which was basically a guy crawling around in a sheet. Indeed, there’s something conceptually fascinating about a planet that is its own intelligence, rather than housing it.

Cutting through it all...

Cutting through it all…

“The microbrains may be like our own brain cells,” Crusher explains at one point. “Individually, a cell has life but not intelligence. Yet when interconnected, their combined intelligence is formidable.” The grains of sand on the terraformed planet combine to form one mass intelligence, a concept that feels relatively unique in a series that has mostly confined itself to funny forehead aliens in goofy costumes. While the special effects might not be the best in the show to date, the idea is absolutely fascinating.

Home Soil also marks a bit of a departure from its predecessors in that it doesn’t have a happy ending. The Next Generation had a habit – in its first year – of wrapping up the story so that everybody ended up winning. It turns out that the notion of conflict was really just an illusion, and some plot contrivance would allow the crew and the guest stars to all live happily ever after. This could be done quite well (in 11001001, for example), but it also undermined other conflicts (as in When the Bough Breaks or Haven).

Not so "micro", eh?

Not so “micro”, eh?

Home Soil allows itself some measure of a happy ending, in that the genocide of an intelligent lifeform is averted. However, the episode makes it clear that Mandl has wasted years of his life. It would be easy for the show to paint Mandl as a malicious old man who refuses to let reason stand in the way of his success, and Home Soil does tease that possibility. Instead, however, Mandl is show to be stubborn and irritable, but never inhuman.

Indeed, Mandl seems almost broken by the revelation he almost wiped out a sentient species. “I wanted to create a place where living things could thrive,” he realises at the climax of the episode, “and all the while I was about to destroy the life that is there.” Walter Gotell, recognisable to James Bond fans the world over, makes Mandl much more than he might otherwise have been, and his portrayal suggests that his failure will have pretty severe psychological repercussions for the old man.

Lying down on the job...

Lying down on the job…

Part of the reason this works is because Home Soil injects a lot of time and effort into convincing us that this terraforming business is hard work. The Enterpise flies through space on a mission of exploration, encountering new lifeforms and new civilisations on a weekly basis. These terraformers don’t have that luxury. They invest years of their lives in the same place, working towards one grand goal. It’s not something they can easily give up on. It’s a fascinating look at what must be going on behind the scenes while the Enterprise is adventuring, a look at the more “mundane” day-to-day life in the 24th century.

Riker seems surprised at how much work and time go into terraforming a planet. “Incredible,” he remarks, reviewing the process. “It’s planned month by month, decade by decade?” Mandl clarifies, “Every single thing is specific and exact. You see grand, romantic concepts. I see unyielding rock under an ocean of sand.” It’s a nice way of subtly attacking the unrelenting optimism and idealism of Roddenberry’s future. Technology like replicators make the future seem like some sort of utopian paradise, but Home Soil suggests that even in utopia there must be some amount of effort involved, some hard work.

Getting out of dodge...

Getting out of dodge…

This sense of the work the team are doing helps give the climax of the episode weight. The fact they have been on the planet for years (and plan to be around for years more) means that it isn’t simple for them to leave. Granted, there’s never really an alternative, but it means that the decision to leave has weight. If the story simply had the Enterprise showing up at an abandoned planet to realise that the planet was alive, only to then continue on its way, it wouldn’t feel like anything had really been lost, or that the realisation had cost anybody anything.

There are some problems. The similarities to The Devil in the Dark occasionally threaten to overwhelm the episode. More than that, it seems like everything moves a little bit too fast. Once the Enterprise arrives, we almost immediately discover what is going on. There’s a nice moment early in the episode when Picard is almost certain he has figured out what is going on – he suspects that the accidents are due to human sabotage. “And so the question becomes not who, since it clearly was one of the three remaining terraformers. The question becomes why?”

The sands of time make it clear...

The sands of time make it clear…

However, the answer becomes obvious a little too quickly. The result is that there’s no real mystery to the story, despite the inviting premise. It also prevents us from prying into the human characters on the terraforming station a bit more – as a few minutes of an inquiry might have given each of the guest stars a bit more character. On a more basic level, it also serves to make the terraformers look especially stupid for not seeing the reality earlier. If events had moved a little slower, if communications with the alien had been a little less obvious, I think Home Soil would be a much stronger show.

While Gotell is pretty great as Mandl, Elizabeth Lindsey is fairly weak as the only other developed terraformer, Louisa Kim. She has this terrible stilted delivery that you get from the weakest actors in the franchise. Although Kim does provide fodder for a really strange moment where Deanna seems to make a passive-aggressive swipe at Riker’s obvious interest in her. “She’s possessed of highly abstracted reality,” Troi explains, in what rapidly becomes a back-handed compliment. “Lovely visions, little data. You might do better than I.”

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

I’m glad that this sort of cattiness is rare, as it’s really not the best way to handle the character (Riker always seemed the more immature of the pair) and Marina Sirtis seems distinctly uncomfortable delivering the line. I feel really bad that I keep noticing these unfortunate little touches about the female characters on the show, as I can’t help but wonder if my perception of the first season is coloured by my opinions of Code of Honour and Angel One. Hopefully, things will get better when I deal with the second season. Well, once we get past The Child.

There’s another – relatively minor – aspect of Home Soil that I quite liked. It’s the idea – suggested in Where No One Has Gone Before – that there’s still a lot of room for human growth and evolution. “You are still too arrogant,” the microbrain tells Picard when the Captain proposes the possibility of interaction. “Too primitive. Come back three centuries. Perhaps then we trust.”

Don't know much biology...

Don’t know much biology…

Gene Roddenberry’s take on The Next Generation tended to stress the idea that this was human civilisation at its pinnacle. While Q might have dismissed humans as a “grievously savage child race”, the irony was that Q was the one acting like a spoilt brat. Similarly, we were meant to laugh at the Ferengi’s acerbic remarks about humans in The Last Outpost, as if to make the aliens the butt of a cosmic joke. It’s a romantic idea, but it’s not one conducive to drama.

It’s romantic and endearing to suggest that we might one day be better than we are, but perfection is not anything that can ever be attained. If the humans of The Next Generation are perfect, what more is there to learn? What can they discover about the universe, or about themselves? More than that, though, a civilisation at its pinnacle has no upward thrust. If you are “the best you could be” then you cannot get “better.”

The strands come together...

The strands come together…

This was, I think, part of the problem with Star Trek: Voyager and it explains a lot about why so many of the post-Enterprise pitches (like Bryan Singer’s Federation or the animated Final Frontier) used the decay and collapse of the Federation as a starting point. What is the point of exploring if you have nothing to learn? If there’s no prospect of improving, then I think you lose a lot of the aspiration of Star Trek. We are not perfect and we never will be, so we can’t relate to perfect figures. We can, however, strive to be better.

And I think that the best of Star Trek acknowledges that struggle and optimistically embraces the idea that we can improve. Home Soil suggests that there are some things in the universe that we’re just not ready for yet, but we might be at some point in the future. That is a lot more interesting and enjoyable than watching a show without any conflict or excitement.

Ugly bag of mostly water...

Ugly bag of mostly water…

I’m a big fan of Home Soil. According to the ever-reliable The Next Generation Companion, the script was still being worked on at the point that the episode went into production – with script pages being re-written on the day of the shoot. With that in mind, it actually looks pretty damn great. Home Soil might not be the best of The Next Generation, but I think it’s an indication of what the show is capable of. Contrasting the show with The Devil in the Dark seems like it might be asking for trouble, but I think it offers hints at the fundamental differences between Star Trek and The Next Generation.

It hasn’t quite delivered on that promise yet, but at least it seems to be finding itself. It’s about damn time, too.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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