The ship encounters a wormhole, and everyone aboard except for Data is knocked out for thirty seconds. They send a probe back to the planet they thought they had detected before the wormhole, and then they continue on their way. But before long, strange things start happening. A plant sample that Dr. Crusher is cultivating shows 24 hours of growth. Data begins acting strangely. Computer logs have been tampered with, transporter logs show 24 hours of extra cell growth, Worf has a broken wrist that’s been mended and no memory of breaking it, and boy is Data ever acting strangely. All the clues point to a missing day, and Data seems to know what’s happening, but he’s not talking.
This episode is a prime example of my favorite type of TNG show, the mystery. In fact, this episode is all about how much humans love a good mystery, and how they can’t resist trying to solve it, even when they know that they probably won’t like the answer. As the titular clues begin piling up, the viewer becomes just as invested in this mystery as the characters, longing to solve it, to find out what happened.
“Identity Crisis” (4x18)
Five years ago, on an away mission as part of the crew of the USS Victory, Geordi LaForge took part in an investigation into 49 missing Federation colonists. Now, all but two members of that away team are also missing, and the Enterprise is on its way back to that same planet to find out what happened to them. When they get there they find abandoned shuttle craft and torn Starfleet uniforms. Somehow, the missing crewmen and being transformed into aliens, and the same thing is happening to Geordi and his lady friend. Geordi now has to review the logs from the original away mission to find the answers to this mystery before he himself is transformed.
Remember that scene in Blade Runner where Deckard is using his computer to examine a photograph, moving through it and zooming in to find the clues that it contains. There’s something very compelling about that scene that I’ve never been able to fully explain to myself. You’re watching the wheels turn in someone’s head, extrapolating information, piecing together clues, trying to figure out what it all means. Geordi’s scenes recreating the away mission logs on the holodeck have that same indefinable element, as he locates a shadow that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone and extrapolates where it’s coming from. A mysterious humanoid figure, previously invisible appears, and there’s moment where we instinctively know that something bad is about to happen. It’s that tension that keeps the viewer riveted and makes me love this episode.
The Enterprise is struck by a mysterious energy wave from an alien ship, and the entire crew gets amnesia. They retain enough knowledge to run the ship, but they have no idea who they are. They’re finally able to get some data from the computer, including their names and their immediate mission. The audience is immediately aware that something is wrong, because the personnel files list a Commander MacDuff as the First Officer and the mission files say that they are at war with a race called the Lysians, and they’re supposed to destroy their command center. But when they discover that the Lysians are about 100 years behind them technologically, they realize that things aren’t adding up. Turns out Commander MacDuff (pictured above with his human shell burned away, revealing his chewy nougat center) is a big fat liar, and a member of a race that really are at war with the Lysians and they just wanted the Enterprise to do their dirty work.
This is an unusual episode, but it’s a lot of fun to watch the crew interacting with each other in strange ways, making incorrect assumptions about their relationships with each other. Worf thinks he’s in command, Ro and Riker think that they’re an item, and Data thinks that he’s a bartender. The same idea will be done again years later on Buffy the Vampire slayer in “Tabula Rasa”, only played for a lot more laughs. In any case, a very creative episode that was very well done.
“Power Play” (5x15)
Following a distress call to an uninhabited moon, the Enterprise discovers the remains of a 200 year old starship, the USS Essex. When Troi senses life on the moon, Picard sends an away team down to the planet via shuttle craft. The shuttle crashes, Riker breaks his arm, and O’Brien beams down with pattern enhancers to rescue the away team (why they don’t include pattern enhancers as part of the shuttle’s standard equipment, we’ll never know). Lightning strikes the enhancers, knocking everyone down (a stunt that Marina Sirtis did herself, breaking her tailbone in the process) and the unconscious crewmembers (except Riker) are entered by a trio of little floaty balls of light. Back aboard the Enterprise, the three alien possessed crewmembers take hostages in Ten-Forward, where they claim to be the ghosts of the crew of the Essex and demand that their remains be beamed aboard and given a proper burial so that they can rest.
I think it’s a rule now that every show, no matter what genre, has to have an episode with a hostage situation. This is definitely one of the more creative methods that I’ve seen, but still all the normal tropes are here. Picard trades himself as a hostage to get the injured hostages released. There’s a covert attempt to disable the hostage takers, which goes wrong. There’s a mother with a baby among the hostages, Keiko and Molly O’Brien. Considering that this is shortly after Molly’s difficult birth in “Disaster”, also in Ten-Forward, Keiko might want to consider avoiding the room from now on, bad things seem to keep happening to her there. And of course, there’s the heroic sacrifice in the end and the dramatic revelation that the captors aren’t who they say they are. But cliché’s aside, the reason this episode is so much fun is that the bad guys are wearing familiar faces. And any excuse to let Brent Spiner ham it up is okay by me.
“The Next Phase” (5x24)
There’s a lot of great character stuff here for Ro, as she explores her relationship with Picard (seen walking through her, above) along with her mixed feelings toward Riker, and his possible feelings toward her. Ro didn’t get that much character development that didn’t directly refer to her being Bajoran or her people’s plight with the Cardassians, so it’s nice to see her on her own here with her guard down. There’s also some great character stuff with Data and Geordi, as Data considers his friendship with him and what it means. But the best part I think is the stuff with Geordi and Ro. These are two characters that haven’t had much interaction with each other in the past, thrust together in a situation, clinging to each other as comrades and friends. The scene with the two of them at the end laughing together is really touching. I wish they would have developed their friendship more in future episodes.
“Frame of Mind” (6x21)
Riker is rehearsing a play aboard the Enterprise where he is playing a mental patient, when weird things start happening to him. People staring at him strangely in the halls, an alien crewmember that he’s never seen before keeps appearing, and a cut on his head that keeps reopening. Then he wakes up to find himself in a mental hospital for real, the mysterious alien is his doctor, and he’s told that he’s insane and his life aboard Enterprise is just a delusion. Then he wakes up on the Enterprise again and is told that the alien mental hospital was just a dream. What’s real and what isn’t? Is he crazy or is he being held prisoner?
I love these kinds of episodes that fuck with your head. We see all of the events from Riker’s perspective, so by the end we are just as unsure as he is as to what is actually happening. It’s a great character episode for Riker, something he didn’t get very many of, a great mystery, and it had a lot of dark and scary imagery that really worked well. It’s a fear that plays to all of us, being thought of as crazy and having no way to prove otherwise. Watching “Shutter Island” earlier this year, it reminded me a lot of this episode.
Picard, Troi, Data and LaForge are returning from a conference on Earth, traveling via runabout, when strange things begin occurring. Troi notices that the others all seem to freeze for a few seconds, as if being put on pause. One of the runabouts engines fails, drained of fuel, and the logs say that it’s been running continuously for 47 days. Some rotten fruit and some long fingernails later, they figure out that they are encountering pockets of space where time is either speeding up or slowing down. And when they return to Enterprise, they find it trapped in one of these pockets, seemingly during an attack by a Romulan Warbird.
Again, this episode breaks down into essentially a great mystery story, with a lot of really fun sci-fi tropes along the way. As the four of them move around aboard the frozen Enterprise, each new scene they encounter is another clue as to what is happening. The Enterprise is supplying power to the Romulan ship, but why? They’re beaming aboard injured Romulans, but why?
Alternate universes are another one of my favorite sci-fi tropes. It’s all about ‘what if’, which is the question that you’ll find at the core of most great science fiction. The idea that every decision we make results in an alternate reality where the opposite decision was made, and that those decisions can butterfly effect in fantastic ways that we can only imagine, is tremendously interesting. This is also a good character episode for Worf, and set up the whole Worf/Troi relationship that persisted throughout the rest of the series. Now, I’ve never been a fan of Worf/Troi. To me, adding a relationship to a show that late in the game smacks of the old add-a-kid strategy. Things are getting stale? Shake them up a bit, add a cute kid or a talking animal with magic powers, start pairing people off for no reason. The whole thing is just a little to soap opera for me, and Star Trek is better than that. It doesn’t have to resort to cheap character gimmicks to tell interesting stories.
This is probably my favorite episode on this list. It’s just so strange and yet so fascinating. When Data first starts exhibiting these other personalities, he looks up at the camera and says in a really creepy voice “Masaka is waking” right before a commercial break. It’s such a great WTF moment, and it really sets the tone for a lot of the strange stuff that happens later. It isn’t a very well received episode among the fans. Oddly enough, the thing I like the most about this episode, Brent Spiner’s performance, is the thing that most people point to when they shit on it, including Spiner himself. He apparently didn’t get as much prep time as he wanted for this performance and wasn’t happy with the end product, but I think that he does a wonderful job. A lot of the other criticism seems to be on the general weirdness of the story, which again I loved. Star Trek has always done such a great job of taking Science Fiction and making the elements relatable by drawing parallels to our modern day lives, but I don’t think that means that it can’t be weird too. Some of the best science fiction is the stuff that is just plain weird, and you can’t be afraid of that.
In Sickbay, Barclay has diagnosed himself with a fatal illness. Dr. Crusher assures him that he only has some alien flu, and gives him a treatment for it that involves activating dormant t-cells. Meanwhile on the bridge, the crew is testing a new weapons guidance system. One of the torpedoes they fire goes off course, so Picard and Data take a shuttlecraft to retrieve it. Aboard the Enterprise, the crew begins to behave strangely. Barclay is hyper, Troi starts complaining that it’s too cold and dry, Riker can’t concentrate, and Worf is acting extra aggressive and primitive. Worf attacks Troi, biting her on the cheek, and he attacks Dr. Crusher, spitting venom in her face. Three days later when Picard and Data return, they find the Enterprise in shambles, and the crew devolved into various primitive life forms. Riker is a caveman, Barclay is a spider, Troi is some kind of amphibian. Worf (pictured above) is some kind of proto-Klingon, and he’s marked Troi as his mate (hence the biting). Picard and Data figure out what’s going on thanks to Data’s cat, who has devolved into an iguana. Picard, who is devolving into a lemur at this point, has to distract Worf from trying to break into Sickbay to get to Troi so that Data can finish the cure and disperse it to the ship, which he does. In the end, Dr. Crusher names the new disease after Barclay and Troi clears her calendar for the next few days.
This is just a fun episode all around. It has humor, it has action, it has mystery, great special effects, and great character moments. It marks the directorial debut of Gates McFadden, as well as Barclay’s fifth and final appearance on the series. Worf and Troi’s relationship has developed to the biting stage, which is good for them. A lot of fans complain whenever any humor is injected into the show, and while I’ll agree that a lot of early episodes that tried it fell flat, this episode is a good example where it works. It isn’t forced, they aren’t trying to do gags, it’s just an unusual situation where characters are acting out of character in a way that’s funny. Riker trying to eat Picard’s fish, Data telling Picard that’s he’s transforming into a lemur or a pygmy marmoset. In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.