Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 2: Unnatural Selection

The Next Generation, Season 2
"Unnatural Selection"
Airdate: Jan. 30 1989
 32 of 176 produced
 32 of 176 aired


The Enterprise receives a distress call from the USS Lantree, a nearby supply vessel. Upon arriving at the ship, they find that its entire crew, including its 30-something captain, dead of old age. Following the Lantree's path back to its last stop, a genetic research facility, they find the scientists there suffering from the same mysterious condition. Dr. Pulaski is torn between her duty to protect the Enterprise from harm and her duty to help people in need. How far will Dr. Pulaski go to satisfy both? And does the scientist's research hold the answer to this dangerous puzzle?

I wonder if Diana Mulduar ever gets annoyed when this shows up in her Google Image results...


Kevin: This is one of those episodes I always liked, separate from how I may objectively rate it. The opening scenes with the Lantree were quite good I thought. The tension and crew's discomfort with what they find is palpable, and I liked the shout out to Wrath of Khan with how Picard takes remote control of the Lantree bridge. I also liked the sparring between Picard and Pulaski. It's the first time her combativeness both seemed organic and served the story. It makes sense a dedicated doctor would err on the side of helping people and a dedicated captain would err on the side of protecting his crew. I also liked the not-over-the-top comic timing of the Pulaski continuing to argue after Picard grants her request.

Matthew: The initial scenes were nice and tense, as you say. Making the command codes of a ship a Captain's clearance access thing is a lot better than making it a 5-digit luggage code as in TWOK. But then, given that they are obviously aware of TWOK, it is quite odd that they don't moralize a bit about genetic engineering in the same vein. We'll get to that in a bit.

Kevin: The comparison to TOS' "The Deadly Years" is obvious, but I like this set up a little more. The radiation cause and adrenaline cure are a touch magical. The man-made problem is a little more interesting, even if the transporter solution is as magical as the adrenaline.

Matthew: Almost every good science fiction story has a "what if" question at its core. Here, the question is "what if we genetically engineered super-humans who were powerful and immortal?" The nice twist here is that, instead of the answer being "they will obviously rebel and try to kill their creators," instead it is "the law of unintended consequences will bite you in the ass," which is much more realistic in my book. The ass biting (as it were) took the form of a previously used story, but it was effective nonetheless.

Kevin: There are some flaws here though. Almost everywhere else in Star Trek lore, there is a strong prohibition of genetic engineering. Here, that seems to have been forgotten. Also, Dr. Kingsley saying they're only dealing with human genetics and not something "that got away from us" is pretty silly, given that that is exactly what happened. How often does creating supermen go well? Never. Not once. Just saying. Also, the mechanism of the disease didn't do it for me. Are the kids constantly spewing self-sustaining micro-organisms that act as an immune system? How would they detect disease without contact? Also, it's a credible ding to Kingsley she never considered the immune system that proactively affects the environment as a cause of an environmental problem.

Matthew: As I watched it again, I waited for a serious dose of moralizing, especially from Picard, over the Darwin Station's experiments. Sadly, only an apologist could really find it. He does say somewhat dismissively that this is apparently Dr. Kingsley's vision of humanity's future, but at no point does anyone go "What a bad idea! This already happened several centuries ago and nearly wiped out humanity!" Oh well, no continuity here. On the other hand, I kind of like that they didn't flip out like angry ninjas over it. At least in this episode, scientific progress is viewed as OK, as long as you don't kill everyone with it. Even a few episodes later, we're going to get some pretty serious moralizing against cloning, and later in the series "The Masterpiece Society" gets Picard all worked up into a lather.

Kevin: The resolution of the show was a little wanting for me. If all we have to do is run you through a transporter to return you to a state that you were in a previous transport, why not use it for functional immortality? You could constantly rematerialize at the age of 18. Also, I understand not wanting to pay an actress to appear as young Kingsley, but it leaves their whole plot largely unresolved. A final scene of them looking at the children through isolation would have been nice.

Matthew: Yep. This is one of the worst transporter-induced deus ex machina of all time. The way I'm reading it is that the transporter will rewrite every strand of DNA in your body using one original cell as a template. Um, OK. But why would that remove the wrinkles you had obtained, or change your hair color back? Seems like you'd need cosmetic surgery for those types of surface things. Really, the problem I think is the whole etiology of the disease - DNA is "self replicating," and it self replicates itself into some sort of aging effect? It is hard to imagine self-replicating cellular damage happening so quickly. After all, it takes us 40  years to accumulate enough cellular damage to show on our bodies, and another 40 years for it to kill us (and it isn't at all clear that this damage is all tied to DNA). At least in "Too Short A Season," such rapid changes were depicted as extremely painful. If the mechanism here is DNA's own self-replication, then it seems like the stuff in this show isn't plausible. Better to say the aggressive antibodies of the kids break down all cellular systems, like a cellular acid or something. It's the sort of treknobabble explanation for a story idea that fails to hang together. You know... kind of like the solution they came up with.

Kevin: Still, having said all that, the episode is paced well, and I enjoyed the moments between Pulaski and Picard and Data. It was the first time their McCoy/Spock riff actually hit the mark. "Mr. Data has a way with computers," made me smile. Her fear of transporters is a little on the nose, but what can you do?

Matthew: I agree that overall things were snappy.  This episode just goes to show that you don't need to shoehorn in mentions of sick colonies or whatever in order to ratchet up the stakes. You can do that just fine with people actually depicted on screen.


Kevin: All around, this was a pretty good job. Like I said above, this seemed like the first time they've pitched Pulaski's stubbornness well. Her concern for the people of Darwin station was good. In terms of guest cast, we get the newly named Chief O'Brien, and his calm dependability at the transporter will be a comforting presence for years to come. I thought Patricia Smith, who Memory Alpha informs me passed away last month, did a good job. Somewhat standard in your vein of pompous Federation scientist in a crisis, but her scenes with Pulaski were good and her resistance to accept the conclusion her experiments were responsible was credibly played.

Matthew: I think Mulduar went a bit far in her "old person voice." Other than that, though, her contretemps with Picard were well played. I actually think Sirtis stands out yet again in her counseling role. She senses the telepathy from the boy-man, advises Pulaski on how do deal with Picard, and overall just has a good episode. This has been a pretty good season for her.

Production Values

Kevin: We get a reuse of the Miranda class ship, without the rollbar for the Lantree, and it's always nice to see a good model. I understand its utility for budget purposes, but I have never been a fan of editing an explosion over the ship then having the ship disappear behind it. It never looked good to me, even as a kid. The Lantree bridge was a nice, if not unsurprising reuse of the battle bridge.

Matthew: I thought the reuse of the battle bridge was pretty good. They dolled it up with some paint and some graphics, and some dessicated old bodies of course. Although I did note the "cheap" explosion effect, I thought it was a nice composition.

Kevin: The matte painting for Darwin station was really nice, and we'll see again several time. We never got a good enough look at the interior, but what was there looked nicely developed. Little sidenote for everyone: according to MA and the Star Trek Companion, the genetically engineered children were scripted to appear nude, until someone realized the sets were built with transparent furniture. Even if they were in standard, non-transparent furniture, it still seems an odd choice, but there you are.

Matthew: What really stuck out to me from the matte painting, beyond the pseudo-Asian influences, was the sky. It was a really cool green animated effect. It was only on screen for about a second, but it probably took an hour's work. I like that kind of detail.

Kevin: The aging make-up was good, but not great in my opinion. It looked a little heavy, but still appeared natural enough. The wig pretty good, like what I would expect her hair style to look like in twenty years. The backroom of the shuttle is a little non-descript, but I appreciated the claustrophobic feel. The styrolite (the non-trademark infringing version of styrofoam, I am sure) and paneled force field were pretty good. I'm glad we don't see them again, as the sparkly force field is more visually interesting, but the effects here were well realized and didn't look cheap or half-assed.

Matthew: I thought the force field was cool. Is it a re-use of the Manheim force field from "We'll Always Have Paris?" Hmm. As far as makeup goes, I thought that Pulaski's mid-stage makeup was BAD. Seriously, 50-year-olds don't have the ashen pallor of corpses. Did the Doctor's makeup fall off of her face as she aged? The old-old makeup was better, though. They didn't go as far as "The Deadly Years," with hunchback appliances, but the latex appliances themselves were well done.


Kevin: This is a solid 3. The story is interesting enough, but the acting and the atmosphere really are what sell it for me. By giving the disease only to Pulaski, it kept the episode tighly focused and away from pandemic tropes, and it keeps the tension on her responsibility and risk taking as a doctor. All around, this was a good episode for her, and like I said, the first time her McCoy shtick didn't come off as offensive or annoying. The avoidance of the debate on genetic engineering and the too magical solution are what holds this one back.

Matthew: I agree with the 3. The lack of continuity with regards to genetics cost this episode one point, and the deus ex machina cost it one more after that. But everything else was entertaining and well done. That brings this to a 6 all around.

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