Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Home Soil”

“Home Soil”
Teleplay by Robert Sabaroff
Story by Karl Guers, Ralph Sanchez, and Robert Sabaroff
Directed by Corey Allen

Season 1, Episode 18
Original air date: February 22, 1988
Star date: 41463.9

Mission summary

The Enterprise pays a visit to Velara III, a Tattooine-like planet chosen by the Federation for terraforming. The leader of the terraforming team, Mandl, looks nervous and tries to discourage the Enterprise from stopping by. Picard knows something’s up (who wouldn’t want a hello from the inspectors?) and sends Riker, Yar, Data, and La Forge down to check things out. The rest of the terraforming team–Malencon, the hydraulics specialist; Luisa Kim, the biosphere designer; and chief engineer Bjorn Bensen–don’t seem to have any secrets. But when Mandl tells Malencon to get back to work, the specialist disappears into a room only to start screaming moments later. The crew finds him too late, badly burned by a ceiling-mounted laser drill.  Though they beam him to sickbay, he’s dead, Jean-Luc.

Everyone but Data and La Forge return to the ship while Data re-runs the drilling program to find out what went wrong. Unsurprisingly, the laser starts shooting at Data. La Forge is able to shut it down, but only just barely. With no explanation, but lots of opportunities to be burned into Swiss cheese, the terraforming crew winds up beaming to the ship for safety. Mandl is outraged–they’re already behind schedule–and Picard begins to suspect that Mandl killed his specialist to protect some secret. He sends La Forge and Data back down to the planet, where they discover some kind of blinking light…thingy. They beam it to the Enterprise‘s lab. It’s fully inorganic, but its light flashes have no pattern, it hums when people are near it, and it seems to harness energy. Dr. Crusher asks the computer to hypothesize as to what this is, and the computer responds: “Life.”

Picard confronts Mandl, who eventually admits his team had discovered some… anomalies… on the planet, but since the Federation certified the planet lifeless he didn’t think much of it. Meanwhile, the blinky thing is reproducing, and its new clone army starts interfacing with the Enterprise‘s computers.  It rejects attempts to contain it in a quarantine area and finally gets through to the universal translator, addressing the bridge crew as “Ugly bags of mostly water.” It–or they?–declare that they tried to make peace with the humans on their planet, but no one would listen, and now it’s about to get real. They declare war on the humans and start to screw with the ship’s systems.

Eventually our heroes put 2 and 3 and 8 together and discover that the terraforming technique of siphoning off the layer of saline water below the sand would kill these crystal energy…blinky…things. They need water (and a conductor) in order to link together in what Data calls a microbrain. Whoops. The crystal things are  in control of the ship by now, shutting down systems left and right. La Forge hypothesizes that they might be photoelectric, and so Picard orders a shutdown of the lights in the room. In moments, the crystal blinkies beg for more light or they’ll die. Picard grants them just enough for them to surrender, apologizes for that particularly dick move, and beams them back to their “wet sand.”


Now that we’ve heard the ugly bags of mostly water joke, we can all go home until season 3, right?

As a whole, I liked the idea of the blinkie sandy wossnames. A subterranean layer of water is entirely believable (just ask Europa), and saline water operating as a large-scale conductor for brain-like electric activity is notionally pretty neat. But gosh, science is just so hard, isn’t it? I’m not sure what I loved more: that this “microscopic” and “single-celled” organism is at least the size of a ladybug, or that they take “photoelectric” to mean “photovoltaic.” I’m really not a stickler for scientific accuracy–I can enjoy handwaving as much as the next ignorant once-upon-a-time humanities major–but this was too much even for me.

I appreciated that Mandl (or any of his crewmembers) weren’t actually evil or bad people. Mandl never argues that his terraforming project is more important than these life forms. He and Bensen didn’t understand what they were looking for because they would have never guessed the answer. It’s a mistake–a terrible mistake, but an honest one, and I’m glad the episode didn’t vilify them for it. I’m still not clear on how it takes only four people and a single station to terraform a planet, but I suppose my only frame of reference is Red Mars.

But the thing that really grates on me is the resolution. First of all, if a single-celled organism can take over your ship, you need to seriously do another round of QC before putting that software live. Secondly, once again we have a life form that can read the ship’s memory banks and yet doesn’t know the first thing about humans or the Federation or its (peaceful!) mission. And thirdly, Picard essentially starves these things to death, forcing them to surrender or die. I don’t see how that’s diplomatic or, frankly, even ethical, considering the worst they’ve done is pout, lock the door to their bedroom, and hook up some Christmas lights, with maybe a minor electrical inconvenience here or there against the people who were going to wipe them off the map.

Ultimately, there’s really only about 20 minutes of story here and the rest is filled with pointless asides and investigations. Why does Troi send Riker to squeeze information out of a crying lady scientist? Does that serve any purpose whatsoever aside from creeping me out? (And why is she crying anyway? There are other desert planets out there…) Then there are the, like, six meetings called to try and bully a confession out of Mandl. The only thing more boring than sitting through a meeting yourself is having to watch other people do it.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: You’d make that face, too, if you had to wear a washed out kimono. Terraforming sounds cool and all, but is it worth having to go to work dressed like that?

Best Line: LIFEFORM: Ugly giant bags of mostly water!

But a close second:

LA FORGE: La Forge to Enterprise, we have a problem.
PICARD: Be specific!

Trivia/Other Notes: Walter Gotell, who plays Mandl, is probably most famous as Russian General Gogol in five James Bond movies.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 17 – “When the Bough Breaks.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 19 – “Coming of Age.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.