Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Evolution”

“Evolution”
Written by Michael Piller, Story by Michael Piller and Michael Wagner
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Season 3, Episode 1
Original air date: September 25, 1989
Star date: 43125.8

Mission summary

Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher wakes up from a terrible dream about spending two years aboard an alternate version of the Enterprise, in which the crew often behaved as if their dialogue and actions were guided by poorly-written television scripts and their missions didn’t make any sense. Phew. Thank goodness that’s over. Unfortunately, Commander Riker’s wake-up call informs Wesley he’s late for Bridge duty; he’d fallen asleep at his workstation and forgotten to set an alarm. He hastily packs up his scattered equipment and rushes off to take his position at Navigation.

The ship is hanging out near a binary star scheduled to explode in eighteen hours. Their obsessed-scientist-of-the-week, Dr. Paul Stubbs, is there to run an experiment that relies on the energy that will result from the neutron star’s explosion—the culmination of twenty years of lonely nights. If they miss this narrow window, their next chance won’t be for another 196 years. As they prepare to launch his experimental unit, nicknamed “the Egg” for its only vaguely egg-shaped design, Enterprise abruptly malfunctions and throws itself into the path of the stellar matter being transferred between the red giant and its companion neutron star. This is not an ideal place from which to observe the explosion. Disturbingly, the ship’s computer declares that all systems are operational, with no record of the inexplicable loss of control.

Dr. Stubbs sustained minor injuries from the impact and gets patched up in Sickbay by Dr. Pulaski Crusher, freshly back from her stint at Starfleet Medical, now mysteriously at an end. Stubbs takes an interest in Wesley and plants the idea in Dr. Crusher’s mind that perhaps it’s a bit stifling to have one’s mother on board the ship he’s serving on, a situation that can only be remedied by nagging him further. She expresses her stereotypically maternal concerns to a slightly uncomfortable Captain Picard, who assures her that he’s “his father’s son.” She just wants Wesley to meet society’s expectations for a “normal” seventeen-year-old boy.

Stubbs and Wesley inspect the Egg and the scientist is pleased to see it hasn’t cracked. He informs Wesley that he’s passing on the torch to the young ensign.

STUBBS: I see a lot of me in you. In my youth, they called me a wunderkind. Do you understand wunderkind?
WESLEY: It’s German, isn’t it?
STUBBS: It means wonder child. It is reserved for those of us who achieve early in life. Now the burden is yours.
WESLEY: Burden?
STUBBS: To fulfill your potential. You will never come up against a greater adversary than your own potential, my young friend.

As if to prove him wrong, the ship goes to Red Alert and reports that they’re under attack by the Borg. But it turns out only to be another computer malfunction, and the ship moves on to reciting chess moves, because this is Star Trek after all. Still unable to move the ship out of harm’s way, Picard calls a meeting to sort it all out. The gist of it seems to be that they may need to consider abandoning Stubbs’ time-sensitive experiment in order to save lives. The doctor takes this news poorly.

Meanwhile, La Forge continues working to isolate the problem. He tells Wesley that something really tiny seems to be dismantling the computer core processor from the inside. Wesley races back to his workstation and checks the contents of a jar, a jar that had been left open all night after he fell asleep. He freaks.

Wesley crawls around Ten Forward setting small but not inconspicuous traps when he encounters Guinan and is forced to admit that his science experiment has escaped: He had been playing matchmaker between two medical nanites, which are usually contained in isolation, forcing them to interact with each other so they could learn to be better nanites. It was working but then they got loose, and now it’s really working. He’s reluctant to fess up until he absolutely knows they’re responsible, and Guinan helpfully compares him to Dr. Frankenstein.

System problems mount on the ship and Dr. Stubbs becomes increasingly frustrated at the likelihood that his own experiment must be put on hold. Wesley finally admits his mistake to his mom and the crew realizes that the tiny robots are more than they appear—they’ve evolved into a new form of collective intelligence with incredibly destructive power. Stubbs is all in favor of wiping them out, but as a potentially sentient, developing lifeform, standard protocol is to seek a non-violent way to get them to stop eating the ship. Stubbs zaps a bunch of the robo-bugs with a gamma beam, immediately killing some of them in one section of the computer core. They react by poisoning the atmosphere on the Bridge and then hunting Stubbs down and zapping him. They’re alive!

With this evidence that the nanites are acting intelligently, Picard orders Data to find a way to communicate with them. The android modifies the universal translator to be even more universal, then volunteers himself to serve as a conduit through which they can speak. For some reason, all agree this is an excellent plan as a way of showing goodwill, and the nanites possess Data so they can chat directly with the crew. Stubbs apologizes for his attempted genocide and they realize it was all just a hilarious misunderstanding—the nanites were just harvesting raw materials from Enterprise to replicate themselves and never intended to harm anyone.

Stubbs pulls some strings to get the nanites a planet to call their own and is able to launch his egg on time to go do its thing, whatever that is. Best of all, Dr. Crusher learns that Wesley does have friends his own age and is lousy with healthy teenage hormones.

Analysis

I always confuse this episode with “A Quality of Life,” the episode in which slightly-larger tiny robots basically evolve just like the nanites. It’s a thing. I had no real opinions of “Evolution,” since I didn’t remember most of the details, but now that I’ve re-watched it I can firmly say that it’s okay. Pretty good, even, especially following those first two seasons.

This is a safe and comfortable episode that represents many of TNG’s tropes. There’s a visiting scientist who is completely absorbed in the most important work anyone has done in the universe ever—groundbreaking research that we will never hear about again. I still don’t really know what the Egg is supposed to do. Does it need the energy from the explosion to perform some task, or is it just studying the data from the phenomenon? I can only assume that it was either a breakthrough in astrophysics, which only excited astrophysicists, or the experiment was a bomb and Stubbs disappeared into ignominy.

Wesley’s nanite experiment, on the other hand, is kind of a big deal, a discovery that could even eclipse Dr. Stubbs’ work, but as far as I recall we never hear about again either. So there’s now a planet of nanites out there and Starfleet knows that their medical tools are capable of intelligence. I assume that they continue using them as tools though, careful not to let them mix ever again. What role do the evolved nanites play in Starfleet and the universe at large? I find it interesting that one of the malfunctions they cause is a phantom Borg ship on the sensors, which is both a reminder of the impending threat that will come to a head (and a forearm) at the end of the season, and as an eerie prediction of what the nanites could one day become. But really, couldn’t intelligent nanites be an invaluable ally, especially in a conflict with the Borg, given they can interact with technological and biological material equally well? And as far as repercussions go, Wesley didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for breaking rules and inadvertently creating a new race.

However, I actually wasn’t that annoyed by Wesley in this episode (not as much as I was by Dr. Crusher, certainly), though I cut him more slack than some; he was faced with a difficult situation and eventually he did the right thing, with a little help from his mom. It’s great to see him make a mistake and not be wholly responsible for cleaning up the mess he made, and I enjoyed the initial dynamic and connection between him and Dr. Stubbs. I think I’m reading too much into this, but with only a little more work, this could have been a way of showing Wesley’s evolution.

It’s also a decent way to open the third season and illustrate the evolution of the series itself. It’s enjoyable, well-written, and has an engaging moral question at its heart. It doesn’t knock the ball out of the park or anything, but it gets the job done. I was at first and a little excited at all of the differences in the show, from the revised title sequence to the new uniforms and modified Bridge design. This show looks like the episodes I remember so fondly, and with the introduction of Michael Piller to the writing team, the scripts are getting better too.

I can point out several flaws in the implementation of the episode, chiefly that we’ve seen variations on this before and will again, and it’s completely unnecessary to risk your only android when the ship should be just as capable of communication, or you know, the holodeck (except for maximum dramatic effect, of course). In retrospect, I’m surprised Data’s status as a sentient machine wasn’t mentioned even once to defend the nanites and their significance. But I’m in a forgiving mood and the problems are both minor and chronic to the show as a whole. As indicative as it is of TNG’s all-too-common shortcomings, it also makes good use of some of its better themes, with a story about first contact, exploration both personal and stellar, resolving conflicts among humans and with other life forms, and learning to understand and respect other perspectives.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: I was all set to comment on Dr. Stubbs’ pirate shirt, but then in the final seconds of the episode I glimpsed Wesley’s girlfriend’s outfit, and I thought it worth pointing out. The still frame reveals even more outfits worthy of mockery though; once again, the kids on the ship are dressed in the most absurd, colorful outfits possible. Perhaps these clothes were replicated while the nanites were in control. That girl on the left kind of looks like she’s cosplaying as Misty from Pokémon. This is possibly the only screenshot in which Wesley’s drab uniform actually looks pretty good, due in part to the fact that his crotch area is hidden–because no one needs to see that, least of all his mom.

Best Line: STUBBS: Captain, I have been inspecting the egg for the last twenty years. You may lay it when ready.

Trivia/Other Notes: Though this was the first episode to air in the third season, next week’s episode, “The Ensigns of Command,” was filmed before it.

Geordi La Forge and Worf were promoted between seasons to Lieutenant Commander and Lieutenant, respectively. Geordi’s really on a fast career track!

Gates McFadden returns to the show as Dr. Crusher, replacing her replacement, Diana Muldaur. Fans had written letters for a year requesting her back, but Roddenberry and Berman claimed they thought she just had better chemistry with Picard than Muldaur, and when the Pulaski character didn’t work out as they hoped, they decided to bring Crusher back.

The new two-piece wool uniforms debuted in this episode, designed to replace the jumpsuits worn in the first two seasons, which would still be seen on extra crewmembers.

A new title sequence debuts in this episode, along with a remixed version of the theme song.

Stubbs’ Egg is a reused prop from “The Child.”

You can thank Robert Blackman for those colorful kids’ outfits, as he replaced Durinda Rice Wood as the series costume designer with this episode.

This episode would eventually earn Michael Piller the head writer position on the series, largely because of Stubbs’ speech about baseball, which resonated with Rick Berman.


Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 22 – “Shades of Gray.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 2 – “The Ensigns of Command.”

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About Eugene Myers

Eugene has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr. His website is at http://ecmyers.net.