This episode is a different kind of energy narrative than I have discussed thus far, usually I focus on the energy resource rather than the effect of the technology that the resource on the environment, but I couldn’t resist writing about this episode. As I’ve mentioned before in my discussion of the original Star Trek, warp cores use dilithium crystals as fuel. I’ve also written about the political struggles that dilithium has caused between the various warp capable species. However, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) there appears less of these political struggles and so I found interesting that the TNG writers decided to through a wrench into the perfect “warp drive”. Now it appears that warp drive may be as damaging to the galaxy as gasoline was to earth. It appears that the utopian solution of the future is not a solution after all.
The Enterprise travels to a region of space where warp travel is difficult, in pursuit of a missing Federation ship called the Fleming. The Enterprise discovers that the Fleming has been destroyed and finds an unusual object amongst the debris. The object begins generating a verteron field, which is dangerous to the Enterprise. Before the Enterprise can take evasive maneuvers, the field disables their warp engines and takes down their shields. A ship approaches the Enterprise and beams two of their crew aboard Main Engineering. When Lt. Cdr. Geordi La Forge asks the intruders why they have boarded the Enterprise they say, “we are trying to make you listen. You are killing us.”
The intruders are Herkaran scientists, who have been disabling ships in their region for some time. According to their research, warp fields cause a “dangerous reaction” in their region of space and if “something isn’t done” their planet will become “uninhabitable”. La Forge comments that the Herkaran’s research has been reviewed by the Federation Science Council and that they saw no link between warp fields and the degradation of their planet. The Herkarans respond that their research was only preliminary at the time of the Science Council’s evaluation and that if they requested the Science Council’s review again that it would take too long for them to conduct another evaluation and in the meantime their planet would be destroyed, so the Herkarans started disabling ships to get the Federation’s attention. The Herkarans agree to help the Enterprise repair its engines in return for their agreement to review their research, and Picard accepts their offer.
One of the Herkarans, Serova, assists La Forge in fixing the Enterprise engines. La Forge complains to her that she has caused him weeks of extra work. Serova responds by saying: “I’m sorry you’ve been inconvenienced. But that’s all it is—an inconvenience. Our concerns are much more important than the condition of your engines.” Serova later exclaims that there is no point in trying to talk to La Forge, who is one of Starfleet’s warp experts, because he has “already decided not to listen,” and then she storms off.
La Forge talks to Serova’s brother Rabal after Serova leaves. He claims that Warp Drive has been around for three centuries and that it is a proven technology. Rabal says he held the same position four years ago before he began to study his sister’s research. Rabal tries to explain just how dangerous he and Serova believe warp drive is to their system by explaining that they will need to convince the rest of Herkaras to forgo using warp drive, which will leave Herkaras isolated from the rest of the Federation.
Cdr. Data reviews Serova and Rabal’s theories and concludes that they are theoretically possible but that there is no evidence to suggest that the phenomena is occurring now. Data also claims that in order to develop the rift that the Herkarans are afraid of that there needs to be a warp field that is much more powerful than any that could be developed by a starship. The Herkarans argue that the warp field effect is cumulative and that the many starships over the area will create this effect. Data again agrees that this is possible and suggests that the Science Council send a research team to further analyze the Herkarans data. Serova complains that this will only cause more delays.
In act of desperation, Serova transports back to her ship and engineers a warp core breach, this causes Serova’s ship to explode and the rift that she theorized to develop in space. The Enterprise realizes that they now must travel through the rift to rescue the Fleming. As Data and La Forge are working to get the Enterprise safely through the rift, they discuss Serova’s proven theory. La Forge regrets not listening to her more closely, but Data reminds him that if she had been willing to wait and do further research on the effect of warp fields the rift would not have formed and she would not have lost her life. La Forge asks himself why he was so resistant. Data responds that perhaps Serova’s “aggressive methods” that created an adversarial situation. La Forge remarks that he taking Serova’s assertions personally: “Maybe…I was a little threatened, the thought that warp engines might be doing some kind of damage.”
La Forge meets with Rabal in Ten Forward while he is waiting for the preparations to the Enterprise to be done.
Rabal: “I don’t think we can look at space travel the same way anymore. We’re going to have to change.”
La Forge: “I’ve been in Starfleet a long time. We depend on warp drive. I just don’t know how easy it’s going to be to change.”
Rabal: “I won’t be easy at all.”
As usual after some difficulty, the Enterprise is able to rescue the crew of the Fleming and navigate through the rift. In the dénouement of the episode, La Forge claims that the warp field effect will not only effect this area of space but other areas as well given enough warp traffic. The Federation Science Council issues new orders that until they can figure out how to counteract the effect that they should slow the damage as much as possible, therefore areas of space that are likely to be effected by warp fields will be restricted to essential travel only and all federation ships will be limited to a speed of warp 5 except in cases of extreme emergency. The Federation will share this information to other warp capable planets that are not in The Federation.
The episode ends with the following conversation between La Forge and Picard:
Picard: “You know, Geordi, I’ve spent the better part of my life exploring space. I’ve charted new worlds, I’ve met dozens of new species and I believe that these were all valuable ends in themselves and now it seems that…all this while I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear.”
La Forge: “It won’t turn out that way Captain. We still have time to make it better.”
This episode is analogous the fossil fuels/global warming debate. A group of scientists realize that warp technology leads to the degradation of the environment. However, the Federation, which has become dependent on warp technology, is slow to accept this idea until there is a major environmental event. Fortunately, the Federation calls for change in the warp-use of all of its ships except in emergency situations. This immediate and expansive action is not something that has happened yet in regards to global warming. Whether or not there are more pressing matters is technically up for debate, but ultimately I think that before it’s too late we need make sure that La Forge’s words are still true: “do we still have time to make it better?”