Original air date: November 16, 1992
This episode opens with Geordi showing off his new beard at Poker Night. When Crusher starts negging the concept of beards, Geordi, Riker, and Worf opine that beards are symbols of strength, prompting Doctor Crusher to up the stakes of their next hand: if she wins, they all have to shave their beards, and if she loses, shell dye her hair. Much to her consternation, however, Picard interrupts the game to summon them all to the bridge.
They've arrived at Tyrus VIIa to oversee a new mining operation utilizing a particle-emitting satellite. The operation is running behind schedule, so the resident Dr. Farallon shows off the new tool she's developed, Exocomps. The adorable little flying robots fix things and learn how to perform better with each task. Data is particularly interested in how the machines use logic and experience to solve problems they have never seen before. Data supports Farallon's request to use the Exocomps to complete her work before the ship leaves.
As Data and Farrallon work, one of the Exocomps shuts itself down rather than go into an access tunnel. Moments later, an explosion occurs within the access tunnel. Farallon notes that Exocomps tend to have problems the longer they're in operation and need to have their memory wiped. Geordi jokes that it just wanted to avoid the explosion, but Data takes the idea seriously. He investigates further and finds that the burned-out interface circuitry that prevented the Exocomp from accepting commands has been repaired by the Exocomps own repair functions.
Data goes to Crusher and asks her to define life. She struggles to find a definition that applies to both organic life forms and Data himself, admitting that it's a question that humanity has yet to solve. With this information, Data returns to Farallon and tells her that she must stop using the Exocomps because he believes they are alive. Farallon rejects the notion, insisting that the Exocomps are too simple to be life forms, but Data counters that viruses are also simple and alive.
Picard takes Data's assertion seriously and agrees to a test an Exocomp's self-preservation instinct. Geordi sets up a scenario where an Exocomp is instructed to make repairs in an access tunnel where a simulated plasma cascade failure is about to occur. However, the Exocomp continues making its repairs well after the failure would have destroyed it. Farallon declares that the test has proven her correct. Picard assures Data that it was certainly worth testing, but he agrees with Farallon.
Data, however, continues repeating the test. Each time, it fails to abandon its task. Crusher visits Data to see how its going, and Data admits that he might have been too eager to find another artificial life form. However, his conversation with the doctor distracts him until the Exocomp returns. Data notices that the tool it has generated is not a tool needed for the task it was assigned but rather a tool meant to deactivate the false plasma cascade failure. He realizes that the Exocomp knew there was no real danger and intentionally shut off the false alarm.
When Picard personally goes to inspect the mining station, another incident occurs. This time its a power surge, and the entire station needs to be evacuated. Picard and La Forge stay behind to find a lost crewman but get stuck behind as the radiation from the power surge blocks further transport. Riker asks for solutions on his end. Farallon suggests detonating the Exocomps to shut off the plasma stream, but Data objects, revealing the results of his experiments and again insisting that the Exocomps are life forms. Riker decides the captains life is more important than Data's unproven theories and orders Farallon to proceed. They deactivate the Exocomps command functions to keep them from acting on their own and attempt to beam them into position, but Data locks out the transporter functions.
Riker is livid, but Data refuses to back down. He offers to beam to the station to shut down the plasma stream manually, but Riker can see that even an android would be killed by the radiation. Data says that he has the freedom to make that choice; the Exocomps dont. Riker then offers to reconnect the Exocomps command function and give them a choice. Data accepts this as a fair course of action. Farallon programs the Exocomps, and they immediately alter the commands given to them. However, they are not refusing the commands but instead have decided upon their own solution. They beam into the mining station and begin siphoning energy out of the power core. This opens up a window to allow Picard and La Forge to beam out. The Enterprise tries to beam the Exocomps out as well but is unable to retrieve one of them. Geordi realizes that one of them had to stay behind to keep the window open for the others.
Obviously, Picard cant recommend Farallons mining technique after all that went wrong, but she promises to continue her work until she fixes the problems. Data wishes her well. He then addresses the captain to explain why he put Picards life at risk for the Exocomps. He says that he wished to do for them what Picard had done for him when his own rights were threatened. Picard tells Data that he understands and calls it the most human decision hes ever made.
- Adaptive Ability: It's implicit that Exocomp sentience is derived from their capacity to learn by constructing new circuit pathways. This inadvertently gives them an intellect capable of growing through experience.
- Ambiguous Situation: Geordi is surprisingly annoyed when Farallon fixates on Data the moment they arrive on the Enterprise. Did he have designs on her? She does wear her hair in a similar style to the way the simulated Leah Brahms did when Geordi fell in love with her.
- Continuity Nod: The fact that Data fought for, and won, basic human rights back in "The Measure of a Man" is referenced several times throughout the episode.
- Do-Anything Robot: The Exocomps were designed with this in mind. A built-in replicator allows them to make any tool they might need.
- "Eureka!" Moment: When, after 34 straight "failures", the Exocomp Data was testing finishes its repair task despite the supposed threat of a plasma cascade and then switches tools to shut down the simulated plasma cascade on its own initiative, Data realises that the Exocomp didn't fail the test at all- it saw right through it.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum: The Exocomps are effective, friendly, intelligent, and manufactured by making a slight modification to off-the-shelf tools. Data also suspects that they're his closest relatives in the galaxy, but no one ever mentions them again in the show. They do get brought back up in various spin-offs.
- Grew Beyond Their Programming: The Exocomps were programmed to be repair robots with multitools and some judgmental and adaptive capabilities. Over the course of the episode, it becomes increasingly clear that they've become sentient beings with the capability of free will, free thought...and self-sacrifice.
- Heroic Sacrifice:
- One of the Exocomps is destroyed to ensure the safe return of Geordi, Picard, and its fellow Exocomps.
- While he ultimately doesn't have to go through with it, Data offers to beam down and shut down the plasma stream himself in place of sending the Exocomps, willing to sacrifice himself for them as well as Picard and La Forge.
- Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: It's not stated exactly how long the Exocomps take to achieve sentience, but it's clearly not that long a time if Dr. Farallon has seen it before (more than once even), and the good doctor clearly did not intend it to happen.
- Manly Facial Hair: The men in the poker game assert that beards are a symbol of strength.
- Oppose What You Suffered: In the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man", Data's rights were contested, as a scientist argues he should be treated as a machine, rather than a person, and this fact was even demonstrated by Data being taken apart and switched off without his consent. In this episode, Data then goes to extreme lengths to protect the Exocomps from being treated in the same manner before they can fully achieve sentience, even going so far as to risk the life of his own best friend, Geordi La Forge.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: As always, Picard listens to all sides of a dispute and settles on a reasonable solution. In this case, he agrees to the proposed self-preservation test of an Exocomp. After the result sides against Data, he still reassures Data that the test was worth pursuing.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Data sabotage's the transporter controls to prevent the Exocomps from being beamed to the Particle Fountain as Action Bombs to prevent what he believed was the needless sacrifice of intelligent machines. He explains to Riker that he knows subverting his commands was punishable by court martial, but remains resolute in his defiance until he presents an alternative solution.
- Take a Third Option:
- In order to test their sentience, the crew rigs up a fake plasma overload similar to the one that the sentient Exocomp saved itself from. After numerous failures, Data gets distracted and lets the test carry on rather than just recalling the Exocomp upon failure. As it turns out, the Exocomp realized it was being fooled and, given enough time, repaired the test itself by fixing the fake overload.
- Dr. Farallon gives the Exocomps a command for a task that would (in all likelihood) sacrifice them in order to save the two trapped Enterprise officers. Instead of accepting or refusing the command outright, they alter the task to one that would save the officers while only sacrificing one of the Exocomps.
- The Teaser: Unlike most other episodes, the cold open of this episode has no plot or thematic connection to the rest of the episode at all. It was added merely to pad out the runtime.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Dr. Farallon is loathe to admit the Exocomps are intelligent, seeing them as just tools as opposed to the human-emulating Data. The episode helps you sympathize with the machines by giving them a vaguely animalistic appearance, with a snout-like body, two big feet, and appendages on either side that waggle and resemble ears or stubby arms.