Monday, April 30, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 7: Phantasms

The Next Generation, Season 7
Airdate: October 18, 1993
157 of 176 produced
157 of 176 aired


Data, while experimenting with his dream program, experiences some disturbing and seemingly inexplicable images. Little does he know that in fact they are being influenced by alien parasites who have stowed away inside the Enterprise's new warp core. The question now becomes whether Data and the crew will discover and deal with these aliens before Data does too much damage in his near-psychotic state.

Look, there just isn't any caption for this besides "Dr. Crusher sucks Commander Riker's head." I'm sorry.


Matthew: So after all of my ragging on the way Data stories have gone in "Fistful" and "Descent," you might be expecting me to go ballistic on this particular show. But, oddly enough, I won't be. Despite some initial and final reservations I have about the plot, which I will get to, I find this episode to be pretty involving, actually. It is what is becoming typical of a Brannon Braga show, a weird-fest with psychological elements. I think what saves the show from just going off the rails is that the character interactions remain true, the overall mystery remains interesting, and the resolution is pretty satisfying. The plot is a strange one to be sure, but it affords us the opportunity to see Data with a rotary telephone in his chest, Troi as a cake, Crusher drinking out of Riker's head with a straw, and Worf holding a cat with disgust at arm's length. These things must count for something.

Kevin: This is definitely a prime example of season 7 reaching for different stories to tell, and overall, I think the episode succeeds. I can't decide that if the lack of an android dreaming of electric sheep is a mark for or against the episode. My only fault at the conceptual level of the episode is that it doesn't go far enough in clarifying what exactly qualifies as Data's "subconscious." I'm not sure if the human subconscious is that well defined, so exploring how a simulated neural network might give rise to a simulated subconscious would have been fun. What is the android equivalent of REM? Does Data enjoy the same benefits in terms of assimilating new information after a good night's sleep that a human does? A little more direct engagement would have led to some interesting dialogue and really delved deeper in how Data works. Still, what we get is fun, and above all, really entertaining.

Matthew: The reservations I have for a plot like this are in keeping with the objections that have crept up in my mind over Data episodes. Just how in the heck does he still have a job? Now he's not experiencing dissociative psychotic breaks annually, but apparently monthly. There is just an inherent danger in centering a Data story around "because he's different, normal things that we do go horribly wrong and endanger everyone." At least this time, as he was violently stabbing a fellow crewmate, he was acting on some sort of "subconscious" concern for the alien infestation on the ship. Or something. How did he know they were there, again? Oh yeah, some piece of technology in his head. It was nice that he was relieved of duty and confined to quarters, instead of being given a wise talking to by the captain and being sent on his merry, murderous way. You know, it would have been nice when Data was being counselled by Troi about his fear of a repressed desire to inflict violence on others, that they could have mentioned "Descent," in which he willingly tortured his best friend and plotted the destruction of the Federation. Wouldn't it make more sense for an empath like Troi to sense a malevolent alien presence in her subconscious, and to show us her dreams, instead? Oh yeah - because it's a Data episode.

Kevin: Generally, I agree with your assessment, particularly when it comes to Troi and Data being favorite targets of possessing forces, but given that Geordi got off with a warning when he was under the influence of grief and flame creatures and Crusher apparently suffered no long term consequences because her hunch was right, I think we can safely say that "being generally awesome" is a bit of a barrier to disciplinary consequences. If anything, everyone seems to get one pass too many. Satie's CRAZY aside, Picard did violate the Prime Directive nine times at that point. Just saying. At least here, there was a solid and understandable line between Data's impulse and action. I would have preferred a less overtly violent attempt, at least at first to blur the line between sanity and insanity. Maybe he could have subconsciously tried to flood the ship with the necessary radiation, but in a way that presented an unacceptable risk to the crew. Going right to the stabbing was a tad much for me.

Matthew: There were many entertaining, strange, and funny scenes. The captain's interference in engineering was a classic bit. It was leavened by Geordi's disdain for Tyler's affections, but then his gratefulness at her waylaying the captain. The Admiral's banquet was a funny setup, too. The bit with Worf and the cat was classic, too. Data's dialogue showing concern for Spot, and then entreating Worf to shower him with affection, was both touching and funny. The Freud scene was entertaining as well as reasonably accurate to history. This episode definitely burned "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" into my memory. And, despite how incongruous it seems given the events of the episode, Troi's make-up with Data at the end was nice, too.

Kevin: I loved the final scene with Troi, if only because it acknowledged a real facet of human relationships. Even if I understand that you did not mean to hurt or may not have even been able to stop it, that doesn't mean I emotionally don't react like you did. It's the denouement missing from Descent with Geordi. I like that Troi was the one who reached out. It makes more sense she would take the lead on this, being the psychologist. I also like the slight not of hesitation in her voice when referencing the events. I like that the time sensitive destination for the Enterprise was a bureaucratic social function. If it had been another vaccine or whatever, it would have derailed the comedy moments in engineering.

Matthew: The sci-fi plot is just OK. We get yet another [insert realm X] being who infests [insert equipment Y]. I liked how they were represented in the dream, but I did not like how they had no motivations, and how there was no compunction against potentially doing them harm. I think the show would have been helped if the "cellular degradation" they were causing would have been more serious than a hickey on Troi. Without the threat of serious harm, it's more of an annoyance than a plot issue that demands a solution. I did enjoy the dream sequences, though when they moved to the holodeck, I was perplexed. Where did data and his chair go when the holodeck dream began? Then, at the end of the sequence, the room focuses on his head again, as if Geordi and Picard were stationary and the room moved around them. I am not opposed to this idea fundamentally, but it doesn't seem to be in keeping with other portrayals of the holodeck.

Kevin: I would have liked some attempt to safely remove them or communicate with them. Just because they look similar to our parasites doesn't mean they aren't intelligent. The Crystalline Entity got some of Picard's concerns and understanding, so a line or two of that here is really expected.


Matthew: Spiner's Data was much less annoying in this episode than the previous Data episodes I've cited. He always seemed like Data, even when he was troubled by something, or stabbing someone. The performance maintained the sort of affectless, blank Data feel that I'm looking for. Similarly, I liked Sirtis in her role. She's got the counselor thing down pat, and she makes a good horror sequence victim. Geordi's annoyance was well played by Burton, and Stewart showed off his comedic chops in his hovering scene. All in all, this was a great episode for good character acting.

Kevin: I remain (until Masks, really) far less annoyed at the use of Data in the series than Matt, but I think what basically works about this episode is that we don't have to destroy Data's character to achieve it and it was in keeping with the more firmly established Data canon. His detached demeanor was pretty creepy. I agree on the the comedy stuff as well. When used with a gentle hand, Spiner is a gifted comedian with Data.

Matthew: I enjoyed the various guest stars in this episode. Gina Ravarra was good as Tyler, at least as far as she was asked to be a puppy-dog in love with Geordi. I would have liked the chance to see her act a bit more professional. Bernard Kates was very funny as Sigmund Freud. And Clyde Kusatsu, who seems like he's been the Asian guy in everything, not to mention the Asian judge in everything, was funny in his recurring role as Nakamura.

Kevin: I loved Nakumura when he suggested towing the Enterprise to dock. I liked that Tyler had more than one dimension to her, it kept the puppy dog love story from coming off as creepy or even a tad misogynistic. Freud was pretty great for me too, particularly when he was talking to Picard and Geordi in the dream sequence. I also want to congratulate the main crew for their dream sequence work. Crusher encouraging Data to try the drink and Worf with the cake were pitched perfectly. Dream sequences on television are a fine line. You have to telegraph that bizarre things are normal in the context of a dream without depending on waving lines and foggy transitions to do the work for you. The scenes played like actual dreams, not a television pantomime of a dream, and I think the credit goes to the actors inhabiting them.

Production Values

Matthew: The dream sequences gave us a re-use of the "Time's Arrow" Data head in dream. The cake, chest-phone, and head-straw looked good. We also saw a nice ruined corridor wall and plasma conduit. Speaking of the Enterprise, it was fun to see the warp effect fail, and we got lots of nice model shots of the derelict ship. I did feel a tad cheated that they got a "new warp core" but there was no fundamental change to the engineering set. Only a tad, though.

Kevin: I made that cake once. It was awesome. I even added mint extract to the frosting. Because I am nerd. That's why. I'm in the middle of moving right now, but as soon as I can find a picture, I'll post it.  I thought the workmen were a tad much. I don't think anyone actually used the word "guv'nor" at least. There's something haunting about the derelict Enterprise that we noted in Unification too. I find it more disquieting than the destroyed Enterprise we've seen over the years. I remember not exactly liking the redesigned warp core and was glad when they were back to the old one in the next episode. Maybe it was the green. I just didn't like the new color in the set design.

Matthew: The holodeck scenes were good, with a nice Freud office set. The "end program" effect was also one of the best on the show thus far, with almost no clue that it was an optical effect. The phasing effect on the parasites was good, both in detecting it and when they were eliminated. I think the "brace" tool for engineering was kind of too "on the nose" in looking like a knife.

Kevin: Agreed on the "brace." What does it brace? Can it brace things without stabbing them? I doubt it. The effect was surprisingly well achieved on the parasites. I don't think I saw any artifacts from the optical processing at all. The one on Riker's temple freaked me out as a kid, and I won't lie, I spent a little time after that episode worried that hideous invisible bugs were somewhere on my body.


Matthew: I think this episode overcomes two bad signs - being a creepy Braga episode, and being a Data episode, and still firms up into an averagely entertaining show. I don't hate watching this and I never skip it. It isn't one I'd recommend to try and impress people, but that doesn't mean it's an embarrassment by any means. I think it's a 3.

Kevin: I agree with the 3 for a total of six. There are some great moments, and I did get an awesome cake out of this episode, and that's almost a four. A lack of a little more exploration of Data's mind and a too pat science fiction threat and resolution keep this in average territory. That brings our total rating to a 6.

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