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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Evolution (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Evolution kicks off the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and marks the point at which the spin-0ff really comes into its own. It’s remarkable how consistent in quality the third season is, despite the trouble brewing behind the scenes. It’s also remarkable how quickly the show finds its footing after two years of stumbling clumsily in the right direction. Within the first five episodes of the third season, The Next Generation has clearly found its voice.

However, a change is obvious even from Evolution. Michael Piller would take over the reigns four episodes into the season, but he also co-wrote the script to the season premiere. While Piller polished quite a few of the scripts passing through The Next Generation‘s third season, it is interesting that his credited work book-ends the season, setting the tone and leaving a clear impression.

While Evolution is not the strongest episode of the season to come, it does have a much stronger sense of self and purpose than anything that has really come before. It isn’t a bold or ground-breaking script by any measure; it’s actually a relatively simple story. It just tells that story with a wonderful resonance, clarity and efficiency, commodities that have been sorely lacking from The Next Generation to date.

Hold on, it's time for a change...

Hold on, it’s time for a change…

Michael Piller made quite a mark on Star Trek. In terms of contributions to the franchise, only Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman can really claim to have had the same level of influence on what Star Trek was. Piller pretty much anchored the Star Trek franchise at the peak of its popularity. He oversaw the bloom of The Next Generation into the show that it needed to be. He was responsible for creating and guiding two of the three subsequent spin-offs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. He was in charge of the first three movies starring the cast of The Next Generation.

It is very hard to state how important Piller’s influence was on Star Trek. He was, in many ways, the man who brought the franchise into the nineties. He reinvented it and defined what Star Trek was for an entire generation of the show. Rick Berman is really the only guiding light who held influence for longer, but even then Berman is generally seen as more reactive and conservative in his definition of what Star Trek should be – less bold and brash and proactive in shaping and defining the series, and much more efficient at keeping it ticking over.

Shocking...

Shocking…

The general mythology of the third season of The Next Generation is that Michael Piller swept into the show and immediately set about righting the ship. He introduced a new direction for the series, a new approach to script writing. He brought in new blood, and he opened up the writing process to included unsolicited scripts from fans and outsiders. Piller brought a bold new focus on character, and an insistence that each episode should really focus on our lead characters.

However, as neat as that mythology is, The Next Generation was in turmoil when it entered the third season. Tracy Tormé and Maurice Hurley – two of the stronger voices working in the writers’ room – had both departed the show. Michael I. Wagner – who shares a credit with Michael Piller on Evolution – had been drafted in to manage the writing staff. Wagner was actually in charge of the show’s writing room for the first four episodes of the season. With Wagner’s departure, Piller was suddenly thrust into a leadership position, primarily on the strength of his work on Evolution.

Core concerns...

Core concerns…

Explaining Wagner’s departure in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, producer and director Cliff Bole offered:

I just don’t think it was his cup of tea as far as the way the show worked, and the way Rick and everybody knows the show so well that they all rely on each other. Input even comes in from the technical guys, who have almost been in space. I just don’t think it was the way he’d been operating in other places.

Wagner remains a somewhat elusive figure in the history of The Next Generation. His tenure was much too brief to have made any real impression, and his departure was abrupt enough that it should have thrown the whole show into chaos. His presence is barely touched upon in the supplemental features on the blu ray collection. He passed away from brain cancer in 1992.

What a piece of work...

What a piece of work…

What’s remarkable about the start of Piller’s tenure on The Next Generation is just how efficiently he managed to take control of the show. The growing pains were relatively minimal. He very clearly had a vision for what he wanted the show to be, and knew how to realise that on screen. Indeed, Evolution is somewhat informative when it comes to understanding Michael Piller’s approach to Star Trek. It is the script that landed Piller the job managing the show’s writers’ room.

In many respects, given Michael Piller’s work on Evolution, it’s no surprise that the third season feels so consistent. Although it was filmed second, Evolution aired as the season premiere. The ideas that Piller puts into effect here would obvious come back into play once he started directing the show’s writing staff. His voice shines through here, just as it shines through the later episodes of the season – given the volume of tweaking and re-writing and note-giving that he did on the scripts by other writers.

Here comes the science...

Here comes the science…

Discussing Piller in the documentary Resistance is Futile, future staff writer René Echiverria suggested that his focus on character was the sharpest and most important change that Piller made to the show:

I think the secret of how Michael – in my opinion – brought Star Trek to life and turned it around was that he was aware of the original, but he wasn’t a fan of it. He wasn’t reverent about it. He  was like, “It’s a TV show. And it needs to do what all TV shows do. It needs to be about these people. It needs to stop being about ideas primarily – ideas, of course, will come, but they won’t drive it. The ideas need to be about those people. Not about the guest stars; not about the planet of the week, or the metaphor of the week, for these people to encounter. If it doesn’t touch them, fundamentally, as individuals, then it won’t touch the audience.”

That’s really what the third season brings to the table that had been sorely lacking during the previous two seasons. The Measure of a Man is really the only episode from the first two seasons of The Next Generation that works successfully as a character piece. (Although episodes like The Icarus Factor and Samaritan Snare do try.)

Under the magnifying glass...

Under the magnifying glass…

As Ronald D. Moore elaborates, Piller made it clear to his writing staff that the stories had to flow from the characters themselves, rather than relying on interesting aliens or exotic trappings:

Michael’s edict was that there is no episode of Star Trek that is just about the aliens of the week. Every episode is ultimately about one of our characters on the bridge. Those were his marching orders. That was the big shift.

And you can see that philosophy at work in Evolution, which is ultimately a story that features the same high concept trappings that one associates with Star Trek, but with tighter focus on character.

Egging the research on...

Egging the research on…

It’s worth comparing Evolution with the show’s last season premiere. The Child also featured the Enterprise on an important mission interrupted by a strange phenomenon of the week. The show even used the same prop in both episodes. The difference is that The Child was primarily interested in the strange events for the sake of strange events. One of the bigger problems with The Child is the way that it treated Deanna Troi as nothing but a vessel for some alien intelligence – with little regard for her as a character.

This time around, the story is focused on character. We get a solid supporting character in Ken Jenkins’ wonderful Stubbs. Jenkins is a wonderful guest star who does great work in a small role, and Stubbs is a character who is fleshed out with remarkable efficiency. However, Stubbs is only really important as he relates to Wesley. While Stubbs is defined reasonably well, he is a character who exists merely to develop Wesley.

Worf speed...

Worf speed…

That’s an important distinction. While Stubbs does get a character arc, it’s clearly secondary to Wesley’s character development. As Michael Piller noted in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages:

I had this story about nanites. Once I got to know the scientist and realized who he was, I realized that the scientist is Wesley in forty years, if he stays on the course of being the smart kid who is dedicated to his work and seems not to have much else going on in his life. I said, ‘If I use that relationship to get it down to a more human level, I can help Wesley grow. I can help Wesley move into a relationship with a girlfriend.’…That became the key element to Beverley’s re-entry into the series, which was, ‘My son is not having a normal childhood.’ We know a lot of kids like that. I saw that and had a sense that was needed.

Compare this relationship between Stubbs and Wesley to The Emissary in the second season, where  primary character Worf’s arc was secondary to guest star K’Ehleyr.

What's this all a bot?

What’s this all a bot?

More importantly, though, Piller starts with Wesley. Wesley is the first character on the show to really benefit from Piller’s approach to character. That makes a certain amount of sense; after all, Wesley is one of the show’s problem characters. At the same time, it’s also rather risky. Wesley is a hard character to get right, as evidenced by the fact that he spent most of the first and second seasons wandering around inside his own little pocket universe – the star of a young adult spin-off that occasionally intruded into the show.

Evolution is really the first time that a storyline in the show has approached Wesley from an adult perspective, and treated him as a character in a show aimed at an adult demographic. As much as Wesley’s genius causes the problem of the week, Evolution is less interested in “Wesley Crusher: Boy Genius” than it is in the very adult fears around Wesley. It’s an episode about the kinds of questions that the rest of the crew should probably be asking about their over-achieving boy wonder.

Getting a head...

Getting a head…

Because, up until this point, Wesley hasn’t really been a character. He’s been a stock television trope. He’s the kid who is smarter than all the adults in the room. He’s the vehicle for learning very important life lessons, and who seems to be driven to contribute to his community and earn high grades. However, Evolution takes a step back and treats Wesley as more than just the protagonist of some strange alternate universe “Wesley explains it all” spin-off.

Wesley is a genius, but he’s a genius who seems to have no real friends his own age. He spends all his time and energy hoping to excel and earn his place in Starfleet, possibly earning the respect of a distant father figure. That might be a television cliché, but it’s not healthy. “What were you doing when you were seventeen?” Beverly asks Picard. Picard responds, “Probably getting into more trouble than Wesley, I can assure you.” Beverly confesses, “So was I. Isn’t that what seventeen’s supposed to be?”

Those nanites really got under Data's skin...

Those nanites really got under Data’s skin…

And so Evolution focuses on the problems that Wesley would face if he were a real person, rather than the two-dimension wunderkind with whom we’ve spent the past two seasons. “Is this all this boy does, Doctor?” Stubbs asks. “Fly the ship and read? Doesn’t he ever have any fun?” When Picard points out how well-behaved Wesley is, Beverly protests, “I know, but, in a funny kind of way, that’s exactly my point. We talk. We smile. It’s almost too polite.”

Even Wesley himself gets some measure of humanity. When he screws up, he doesn’t immediately do the right thing. He tries to covertly correct his mistake before coming forward. When Beverly tries to talk to him, his frustration feels more natural and honest than any other expression of emotion we’ve seen from the character to date. “Look,” he insists, “I have done everything that everyone has asked of me and more. And how can you know? You haven’t even been here.”

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

Which is interesting. Beverly’s departure in The Child was almost perfunctory. We got to see the shuttle craft leaving the Enterprise, and Wesley decided to remain without her. However, the rest of the second season made no real reference to her absence. The fact that Wesley was living on his own for the first time should have really been a big character beat, but the show never really explored that part of Wesley growing up. It was much more interested in teaching him lessons about how beauty was only skin deep or how friends respect the cultures and traditions of their friends.

Beverly’s return is hardly the apex of characterisation on The Next Generation. Pulaski disappears as abruptly as Beverly did in The Child. Her absence is seldom mentioned or even alluded towards. Most of the show pretends that Beverly was simply always there – that she never really left. Certainly, there’s no real change in the relationship between Beverly and Wesley after Evolution, but there wasn’t really too much of a dynamic there during the show’s first season either.

Crusher's return causes a whole Bev-vy of character issues...

Crusher’s return causes a whole Bev-vy of character issues…

At the same time, at least Evolution tries to deal with the emotional fallout of Beverly’s return, suggesting that she can’t just slot neatly back into her niche on the Enterprise. (Although later episodes suggest that… well, she actually can.) Wesley does seem a little frustrated at her departure and return, and it’s suggested that she has trouble adjusting to his own development. The script does try to retroactively suggest that it was a more emotional experience than it was presented as being. “Beverly, isn’t it just a matter of time?” Picard asks her. “I know how difficult it was for you being away.” Really? The show never gave that impression.

Then again, the focus on Wesley is a nice way for Piller to comment on the show itself. Like Wesley, The Next Generation was still young when this episode was scripted. Like Wesley, it was performing well by any objective external measure – ratings were strong, it was selling in syndication. At the same time, like Wesley, its development felt a little shallow and stunted. And yet, despite that, the show has an enormous amount of potential.

The thinker...

The thinker…

Stubbs talks to Wesley, arguing that the young boy has to live up to his potential. “You will never come up against a greater adversary than your own potential, my young friend,” Stubbs argues. Like The Next Generation itself, Wesley has a lot of expectations pressing down on him. Everybody is aware of his potential – and so Wesley faces the pressure of having to meet those expectations.

That seems like a pretty effective commentary of where The Next Generation was at this point in time. It was a show with a tremendous amount of potential, and with a really bright future visible on the horizon. It just had to figure out how to realise that potential. And realising that potential meant more than just succeeding in purely technical terms. It had to become a lot warmer and well-rounded, more developed.

Massaging his ego...

Massaging his ego…

Evolution builds all this character work off a science-fiction high concept, tapping into a very contemporary concern. Wesley puts the ship at risk by accidentally releasing two nanites from Sickbay. However, those two nanites go on rapidly reproduce, consuming and expanding at a tremendous rate – their survival threatening the existence of the Enterprise itself. The notion of using tiny nanomachines as medical tools was quite relevant at the time that Evolution was broadcast.

The potential development of nanomachines to assist in medical procedures (and maybe even just healthy living) had first been mooted in the late fifties. However, the idea only really moved towards science fact in the late eighties. One of the most notable developments was  the receipt of the Nobel prize in physics by scientists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1986 for inventing the scanning tunnelling microscope.

Riker has a lot to explain when the nanites start playing his multimedia programmes randomly...

Riker has a lot to explain when the nanites start playing his multimedia programmes randomly…

The same year saw nanites entering public consciousness with the publication of the article Tiny Tech in the November edition of Omni magazine. The article proposed all sorts of exciting possibilities:

Indeed, according to Drexler, an obvious application of nanotechnology is “the cell-repair machine”, which would drastically extend our life spans and improve our general health. The remarkable devices “would enter tissues, identifying and destroying bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, parasites, blood clots, and deposits on bacterial walls.” Once injected into the cells, the devices would subject DNA to error-checking tests far more exhaustive than those now imposed by the body itself. They could then repair whatever errors or anomalies they might find. If we wanted to replace a scar (laid down before cell-repair machines had been invented) with fresh tissue, Drexler added, it might be possible to do that, too. “Cell-repair machines,” Drexler told his audience, “can be viewed as an upgrade of the biological processes already at work today.”

However, the article also suggested the rather infamous threat that might be posed by “grey goo” – the risk that these nanites might get loose and start widely and rapidly consuming all available materials in order to propagate themselves.

Preparing to launch...

Preparing to launch…

The “grey goo” example has become inexorably linked with the development of nanotechnology, to the point where Prince Charles was still concerned by the possibility in 2004. In that same year, scientist Kim Eric Drexler himself described the problem as obsolete and invalid – it was something that could easily be side-stepped or avoided. However, the example is probably too evocative to be entirely dismissed – it will likely remained linked with the development of nanotechnology in the public consciousness.

And, as a product of 1989, Evolution taps into those fears quite well, with the nanites consuming and threatening to destroy the Enterprise with their consumption and expansion. Interestingly, Star Trek would come to group nanotechnology among the scientific developments with which it was uncomfortable. Like genetic augmentation, nanotechnology would become associated with the transhumanism of the Borg, with nanotechnology used as a tool of assimilation in Star Trek: First Contact.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

(As an aside, Evolution also works in a reference to the Borg, reminding viewers that the new alien adversary is still out there. While The Next Generation was still figuring out how to tell long-term story arcs, there’s a sense that the show was consciously making an effort to keep those cyborgs at the forefront of the viewer’s mind – assuring those watching that the Borg have not been forgotten about or brushed aside in all the behind the scenes turmoil.)

Still, while it taps into a rather timely scientific concern, Evolution is really the perfect starting point of Michael Piller’s tenure on The Next Generation, even if that era doesn’t properly begin for another few episodes. It is a demonstration of Piller’s approach to the show, and an example of how that works so very well.

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

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