Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 1: Conspiracy

The Next Generation, Season 1
Airdate: May 9, 1988
24 of 176 produced 
24 of 176 produced 


Captain Picard receives a mysterious summons from his old friend, Captain Walker Keel. Meeting in an abandoned mining complex with Walter and two other Starfleet Captain, Walker tries to convince Picard that a threat to the Federation has infiltrated he highest echelons of Starfleet Command. His is skeptical, but based on his friendship and trust with Walker, is willing to explore the possibility. Shortly after the meeting, Walker Keel's ship is destoryed, seemingly confirming his suspicions. Captain Picard makes the decision to return the Enterprise to Earth to get to the bottom of this conspiracy. What will the Enterprise find? How far does this conspiracy really go?
"To seek out new life and new civilizations..."


Kevin: This is probably the strongest, most tightly executed episode of the first season. On a purely techinical side, the follow up to Coming of Age is awesome. Especially when that episode referenced so many previous episodes, it really gives a nice through line to the entire season, making it feel like a single large effort rather than a series of smaller ones. Also, this episode has perfect pacing. About every ten minutes there is a new reveal and a new layer added to the story, and it succeeds in really pulling in the viewer.

Matthew: Continuity is big. It rewards faithful viewers, and, if done in a non-intrusive way, intrigues new viewers. But more than that, it makes this episode, as a standalone story, better. If Admiral Quinn just walks in and Picard just says "he acted differently 6 months ago," it's not very effective storytelling. But we've actually witnessed it. We know that Quinn has been worried about just the sort of thing that Keel and the other captains were warning Picard about. So it becomes even more interesting. Has Quinn been turned, or is he still on the side of the good guys? His dialogue is nicely non-specific - nothing contradicts either position, until a nice and dramatic reveal 20 minutes in. Other episodes have tended to shoot their wad too soon. This one held back until the most effective moment. Kudos! 

Kevin: This episode also had some great character moments. The conflict of Picard's trust in his friend versus his skepticism at what is being allege is palpable and effective. More importantly, the dialogue felt really organic. Exposition was delivered in a way that sounded like someone actually talks. I hate it when characters discuss mutually known histories with each as if the information is new as a means of getting that information to the audience. Particularly the short scene with Beverly on the bridge. It adds veracity to the relationship without her needlessly recounting facts. On a side note, this is a great example of what should be lesson #1 for a writer: Show me, don't tell me. Rather than just talk about Picard, Crusher, and Keel being friends, we get a few nice lines of dialogue demonstrating it. It took maybe thirty seconds, but breathed a lot of life into that part of the plot. A central part of the plot is that friendship, and with remarkable economy, they made it a very real thing.

Matthew: Time to jump on the JJ-bashing train. The great thing about the dialogue style you mention is that people really talk like this. One of the things about Abrams-helmed projects that irritates me the most is the "drip-drip" style of plot reveal. On "Lost," Jack would ask Kate "So what did you do?" And Kate would reply "Well, the world is a tough place," look doleful, and then walk away. Instead of saying "WTF, Kate, come the hell back here and answer my question," Jack blithely accepts this, basically because it's not time for the plot to have the Kate flashback episode yet. OK - by contrast, in this episode, Picard is lured to Dytallix B. Why doesn't Keel just tell Picard? For a GOOD REASON - the conspirators may be monitoring subspace communications. Then, when he gets to Dytallix, Picard ASKS LOGICAL QUESTIONS and waits until he gets a god-damned answer. Aaaah. It's like a breath of good-writing-fresh-air. Memo to Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman: we're intelligent enough to desire logically thought out answers to questions, and we're patient enough to listen to them in expository dialogue. Stop writing as if we're a bunch of mouth-breathing "Gossip Girl" fans or something.

Kevin: I think this episode is, in a very subtle way, the first example of how the crew's relationships enable them to succeed. Picard starts down this road because of his friendship with Walker, is able to continue it because of the trust his own crew places in him, and knows that the admiralty has truly been compromised via his conversation with Quinn. In order to succeed, Starfleet crews have to trust each other. It's a theme that the show will return to again and again, concluding with the awesome finale of "All Good Things."

Matthew: Just giving characters friends goes a long way to making them seem like real people. It can be done too much, of course, but on TNG they did a good job keeping it balanced. 

Kevin: As for the conspiracy angle itself, I think it was well developed, certainly better than a lot of political thriller episodes of other shows. Especially with the connection to "Coming of Age" and Quinn's warning, the plot feels more real because of how deliberately it moved. Even discerning the pattern took Data analyzing all of Starfleet's orders. I think making it an alien invasion robs it of a little punch, and the coup by humans in DS9's Homefront/Paradise Lost will be more effective because the threat truly comes from within. Still, the reveals and twists are all effective, particularly Quinn's speech about the creature and his attack on Riker. I also have some issues with the gore level of the ending, but Star Trek does something that graphic rarely enough that it at least appeared thoughtfully used and not cheap. It is a tonal departure for the show, but it was so well executed, that becomes an asset rather than a detriment.

Matthew: Well, it really depends on what kind of story you're trying to tell. Aliens dampen a political thriller, but they heighten a "body snatchers" type plot. I'm fine with the choice they made. I just wish we had gotten more information about the creatures. The Kelvans, for instance, in TOS episode "By Any Other Name," were given a few more lines about their history and intent, and that helped the story. We could have been told more about the creatures. We don't even know their name! And the mechanisms by which they operate are a little fuzzy. Why is there a mother creature? Individual drones seemed to have distinct personalities. But, if there is a mother creature, there seems to be a telepathic connection between the creatures, since they all die when the mother is destroyed. Why then do the Admirals not know that Riker is a fraud?

Kevin: And just as a wrap-up of this section, Matt and I have discussed quite a bit how fatal it is to an episode to have the crew have to act stupid to progress the plot, and this episode is a shining example of the exact opposite of that. When Riker calls in a security alert, and LaForge and Worf find him unconscious, they know enough to keep the conscious guy from leaving the room. When Crusher gets summoned to a room with a security problem, she packs a phaser. It makes everyone look competent, and makes their ultimate victory deserved and believable. They won because they did the things necessary to win, not just because the script said they did.

Matthew: Along those lines, I particularly liked how Riker and Crusher conspired to fake the "gill." It shows ingenuity and guile on the parts of the characters.


Kevin: All around, this was awesome. The main crew shines in a true ensemble piece. Everyone gets to add something and has a nice moment on-screen as a result. Troi counselling caution, and Beverly's shock at losing her friend were both brief moments but added a lot of depth to the episode. Picard displays the conflicting emotions with the skill of the master actor that Patrick Stewart is.

Matthew: Marina Sirtis got a really nice ready room scene with Patrick Stewart. She raised cogent concerns and really held her own against him.  It's too bad they lean somewhat infrequently on this dynamic - every time they do, it's been great.

Kevin: Guest acting was particularly strong in this episode. Keel and the other captains all delivered in spades. Even when referencing names and events I knew nothing about, I believed they did, and I went along emotionally for the ride. Quinn was also awesome in delivering his speech about the "superior form of life." I was in the story the whole episode, even now, knowing the ending. It still draws me in on the strength of the acting.

Matthew: Any time we see Quinn and Remmick, the results are always good. It's too bad that Quinn never reappeared. The other Starfleet admirals were good as well. The captains were good, too, and noted "freak" Michael Berryman was good as the first Bolian in Trek. 

Production Values 

Kevin: Where to start. Just about everything here was awesome. The set on Dytallix B was great. It was atmospheric and clautrophobic and a neat spin on the table in the dark corner of the restaurant. The Okudagram of the galaxy in Remmick's office is one of Okuda's best works and it rightfully appears all over the place in future seasons and series.

Matthew: The red sky was really cool. I love the idea of tidally locked planets, and this is one of the few times TNG mentions them.

Kevin: I understand that they at least tried to explain how empty Starfleet Command looked, but it still would have been cooler to have people milling about. It's the HQ of a galaxy straddling organization. It's 9am in about 10,000 places, that building is busy 24-7, and it being that quiet should be a tip-off in itself. I did like a few of the decor pieces.

Matthew: This was the biggest flaw in the episode for me. Which goes to show how good it is - it's a minor issue but one that always grabs me when I watch this show. They hired at least a half dozen extras on board ship - why not put them in different color uniforms and keep the camera off their faces? It's a simple fix, and really makes me wonder about the director.

Kevin: The parasites themselves looked pretty good, and the air bladder around Remmick's neck was creepy and well executed. The John Hurt moment afterwards was a little much for me, but they went for it with gusto, you have to give them that.

Matthew: The exploding head was beyond gratuitous. It is easily the most gratuitous moment in the entire franchise, at least up until the new movie anyway. It just seemed like there was no context for the action. Picard hates killing stuff, they cured Quinn of his infestation - is "Explode head with Phaser" really the first option? But at least it looked pretty good. I thought the small creatures looked good up close, but he animation moving them along the floor was pretty cheesy.


Kevin: This is a 5, and unless Neutral Zone has some deleted scene I forgot about, it's shaping up to be the only 5 of season 1. I will say I like "Encounter at Farpoint" more, but this is a better episode, if you understand the difference I'm trying to draw. I enjoy watching Encounter at Farpoint more on a purely subjective level, but this is the better episode. It really fires on all cylinders. Writing, acting, and production are all tightly executed and combine for an awesome episode. The only tragedy here is that the homing signal is never followed up on.

Matthew: Yeah, this is a pretty easy pick for the best of Season One. There are some other shows with equal stories, but none are done as well. If 5's are supposed to be the top decile of the show, which would be roughly in the top 20 of TNG, I think this will pretty likely land on such a list. Thus it is a 5 from me for a total of 10.


  1. Ikea lights! I will have you know that my first "big boy" bed was an Ikea bed and it was purchased well before 1988. Granted my ikea bed was imported!

  2. I agree that this episode is likely the best of Season 1. But I have to disagree about the episode's largest flaw...

    The one thing that always nagged me about Conspiracy is that the show never follows up with the homing beacon signal that was sent out at the the end. That would have been a great lead-in for a connecting episode in say, Season 4.

  3. Wicked Winky, I believe that the aliens they introduced in this one were supposed to appear again, but then they invented a different threat species, the Borg. Similar concept of "Hive Mind" but more Humanoid. The concept of a parasite or symbiont reappeared with the Trill. This episode seems to have got a lot of balls rolling at least for me. It is also the one that hooked me on TNG.

  4. We've always made it the policy to not reward or punish an episode for what happens after it. So our 10 stands.

    HD highlights from the Blu-Ray:

    The most gratuitous HD highlight is from the most gratuitous scene. The alien monster head looks really detailed, and the phaser effects are very nice. Overall, it's not a superb show for detail, as it was somewhat darkly lit.

    1. I really think other guys should make six or seven-hundred new neck inflation special effects, parasitic short horror films.

  5. 'Conspiracy' is at least the creepy episode. Especially when the bad guy's neck bulges because of that alien parasite inside of him. The new filmmaking guys ought to do hundreds to over thousands of weird neck bulging makeup parasites fx and make thousands of horror, sci-fi movies out of this alien bug idea; but I think they also should do the twenty-thousand of the stomach, chest, face to neck, and back bulging mutation parasite special makeup effects.