WARNING: This article contains a nightmarishly large amount of spoilers for the TNG episode "Phantasms". If you want to sleep at night spoiler-free, avoid the article.
In brief: Another "Minds Screwed With While You Wait" show, and one that's almost as much fun as "Frame of Mind."
As with last year, it seems that TNG seasons these days just need a few shows to warm up. "Phantasms" was worth the wait. More, after a fairly lengthy synopsis:
Data walks down a corridor, his steps in perfect time. He stops to speak with Geordi about a plasma conduit needing to be installed, then moves on. He hears what sounds like a telephone ringing, then muffled clangs and shouts. Moving on, he sees three workmen breaking through a corridor wall and attempting to dismantle what's behind it. He tries to stop them, but finds himself emitting a high-pitched squeal. "Be QUIET!" snarls the head of the workmen, and all three approach. They overwhelm him, ripping off limbs. Data's head comes off --
-- and he awakes, finding himself in his quarters.
Some time later, work is proceeding on the new warp core. Picard is a bit annoyed at being unable to avoid the annual Admirals' Banquet, but other than that there's no real deadline to reach. Data and Geordi, meanwhile, discuss Data's recent nightmare, as well as the crush that a young ensign in Engineering has on Geordi. (Data offers to help talk to Tyler to clear the air, but Geordi hastily assures him that it's not necessary.) Finally, all seems to be working, and they get started on testing the core -- but then, actually implementing it stalls the Enterprise out.
Later, Data is watching Spot sleep (and dream) in his quarters when Troi comes in to check on him. Data says that he is somewhat reluctant to continue dreaming because of his recent nightmares. Troi, however, urges him not to run from dark imagery, but to experience it. Data decides to initiate another dream then and there. Troi leaves, and Data dreams...
. finding himself in Ten-Forward, where he sees Worf eating a cake. When Worf is asked what the cake is, he responds, "It is a cellular peptide cake, with mint frosting." Pondering this, Data again hears a ringing. He wanders over to the bar, where Beverly is drinking from a straw that is attached to Riker's head. While Riker tells Data to answer "that damned ringing," Data moves to a side table, where the three workmen are assembled. Data begins to ask them what their business is, but again finds himself emitting a high-pitched squeal. Again, the head worker orders him to "Be QUIET!", and this time Data complies. The workmen move aside, and Data sees Troi on the table -- except that her lower body is missing, and her upper body is a cake. Data moves to the cake and begins cutting, and Troi cries out in pain --
-- and then the real Troi wakes Data up. Data discovers that his chronometer was supposed to wake him over thirty minutes ago...
Data and Geordi run a diagnostic of Data, and find no problems. Geordi suggests that this whole experience may have been intentionally designed by Dr. Soong to make Data more human, and Data admits the possibility. When asked to describe his nightmare, though, Data demurs, saying that "'strange' is not a sufficient adjective to describe the experience."
Data consults with a holodeck recreation of Dr. Sigmund Freud, who is most intrigued by elements of the nightmare, particularly the long knife. He spouts reams of analysis about Data's repression and sexual desires, and eventually goes so obviously wide of reality that even Data can see there's no point in continuing. The core is repaired, and all is ready to proceed again -- only this time, initiating warp blows a power converter, killing both the warp and impulse engines for quite some time.
Data continues his work in Engineering, still slightly unnerved by his dream. However, things get even stranger when Geordi hands him a probe to analyze, and the probe looks identical to the knife from Data's nightmare! Data turns to tell Geordi about this fact -- but sees a small mouth open and close on Geordi's neck. Data backs away, and enters the "anteroom" of Engineering, which is unusually empty. Data hears the ringing again and turns to try to locate it, but cannot. Suddenly, Riker appears, still with a straw protruding from his head, and tells Data to answer it. Data opens his own chest, revealing a telephone. He picks up the receiver, only to hear Freud's voice saying "Kill zem. You must kill zem all before it's too late." Suddenly, Geordi taps him on the shoulder --
-- and Data turns to find Geordi looking concerned, and sees that he is still holding the probe as if it were a telephone.
Data goes to Troi, now very concerned, all the more so because he's ruled out any technological origin for the experience. Troi muses that Data seems to be becoming almost obsessive about himself, nearly neurotic. This fact, ironically, cheers Data up. Troi suggests a regular counseling session for a while, and urges Data to turn off the dream program for the time being.
Picard speaks again to Admiral Nakamura, making excuses for their lateness. Nakamura is not pleased, and a disgruntled Picard goes down to Engineering to "help" with the repairs. Eventually, he is led away to let Geordi and Data do their jobs, but when Geordi turns to Data in relief, he finds that Data is gone -- and so is the probe. Troi, some distance away, feels a premonition, but sees nothing to encourage such worry. She enters a turbolift, but at the last second Data joins her, stabbing her repeatedly in the shoulder with the probe. Riker and Worf come upon them only moments later and subdue Data, calling for a medical team to help Troi.
Later, Data describes his dreams, both sleeping and waking. All of the staff are taken aback by the nature and intensity of the imagery, and concerned by Data's uncontrollable urge to eliminate the image of a mouth he saw on Troi's shoulder. Data is temporarily relieved of duty and confined to quarters.
In sickbay, Troi wakes in a panic. Beverly reassures her that everything will be all right, but then becomes concerned herself when the wound appears to have left a rash. She calls for an interphasic scanner and begins to investigate, as Data asks Worf to take care of Spot for him.
Shortly thereafter, Picard comes to sickbay to hear grim news. Beverly has discovered that the cells in Troi's shoulder are breaking down -- and an interphasic scanner shows an insectlike creature on her shoulder, feeding in some way. However, it doesn't end there -- there is a similar creature on Bev's sleeve, and Riker's head, and Picard's neck ... in fact, on nearly everyone on the ship; and they're spreading...
The creatures are draining cellular peptides, threatening the cohesion of their bodies. Given the interphasic state in which they exist, there is no known way to affect them. However, the correlation between Data's dream-perceptions and the locations of the creatures is enough that they think Data might hold the key to what's going on, and they decide to investigate his dreams. Data agrees to hook himself into the holodeck, in effect putting Picard and Geordi into his dream. Data is connected up and begins to dream...
Picard and Geordi find themselves in an Enterprise corridor, able to act as if they were simply a part of Data's dream. Data appears and greets them, and they follow him to Ten-Forward. As they hear the telephone ringing, Data offers them cake. They ask what the cake is, only to be told "it is a cellular peptide cake."
"Wf mnt frfting," offers Worf helpfully.
Continuing around the room, Picard and Geordi find Riker and Bev at the bar again, with Riker complaining about the ringing and Bev offering them a sip of Riker's head. Picard and Geordi speculate about what the ringing might symbolize, settling on communication. Geordi opens Data up and answers the phone, but then hands it to Picard, saying "it's for you."
Picard answers, and hears "Kill zem." "Kill who?" "Kill zem before it's too late." "Who is this?"
The scene around them changes -- to Freud's office. Freud speculates that he symbolizes Data's unconscious mind, warning Data (and now them) about the dangers they face. When Picard asks how to kill the creatures, the phone rings again. "Answer it." Picard moves to do so.
"Nein, nein, NEIN. Do not be so literal. When I say answer it, I mean respond to it. To zem."
Suddenly, the workmen burst in, shouting at Freud to "be QUIET!", and shoot him, a mortal wound. They move Data and the couch on which he lies away from the wall and take down a curtain, revealing the plasma conduit Data and Geordi installed with the new core. Picard realizes that the "to zem" might mean the workmen, and asks who they are. "We are your enemies," they respond, approaching menacingly.
"Stop," says Data, now joining the scene. "You must not hurt my friends." He again emits the high-pitched squeal.
"Be QUIET!" they yell, and Data stops. Picard, however, realizes that the squeal causes them pain, and urges Data to resume. He does, and the workmen crumple to the floor in a heap.
"I believe I understand," says Data, and wakes. He asks Geordi to help modify Data's brain to emit an interphasic pulse, which he believes will destroy the creatures infesting the ship. The process is successful, and the infestation is eliminated.
The creatures, it turns out, were attracted to the plasma conduit when it was built using a new interphasic technology, staying dormant until the warp core was activated. All is well -- but Picard misses the banquet, and Data finds turnabout is fair play when Troi evens the score by serving him a cake of himself "to snack on."
Whew. That was rather lengthy. At any rate, onwards.
Almost seven months ago, I remember being told at a con flat-out that "Yes, we'll see Data dream again. I [meaning Brannon Braga] want to give him nightmares, actually." Those couple of sentences have been whetting my appetite for a show like this for a while.
It's about time.
"Phantasms" is, quite honestly, the first TNG show I've seen this season that has made me think the seventh season really had something new to do. "Descent, Part II" was fairly weak; "Liaisons" was neutral; I liked "Interface", but it was hardly something worth a whole season for; and "Gambit" was a fairly entertaining B-movie.
"Phantasms" was an extension of what's gone before. It took the idea of Data's dreaming (one of the most breathtaking sequences of all of last season) and put it to use, not only for Data but for the ship. And, of course, since it had nightmares rather than "normal" dreams [boy, now that's an oxymoron for you...], we got a lot of disturbing imagery on a par with "Frame of Mind." And -- surprise, surprise -- both "Birthright I" and "Frame of Mind" were created by the same warped brain behind "Phantasms", Brannon Braga.
It's nice to see a signature style.
The one negative of "Phantasms" was the negative I've been ranting about for a season and more, namely the dreaded Technobabble Virus. Fortunately, it was only a mild case here -- enough to be annoying (or laughable, at least on the biological side), but not enough to really leave the episode gasping for breath a la "Realm of Fear" or "Schisms", for instance. Regardless, it was enough to be annoying -- did we really need to have the long-winded medical babble about exactly what the creatures were doing? Why not a simple "they're draining nutrients from our bodies, and we'll die soon if they don't stop"? Is there anyone out there who truly needed the rest?
One instance of "-babble" which was used to very good effect, however, was Freud's spouting off of major psychobabble during his therapy session with Data. It would appear that Braga shares my view of psychology (or Freudian psychology, at any rate -- I wouldn't presume to speculate beyond that), namely that it's complete rubbish. (Before I get loads of mail from angry psychologists, though, let me hasten to point out that it's only a personal opinion, strongly bolstered by the fact that I'm descended from a long string of psychologists who've never managed to figure out anything. :-) ) Yes, it was the psychological equivalent of technobabble, but it had a point -- and worked to rather amusing effect. Kudos.
[Actually, my favorite line from that whole scene had to be Freud's little musing about "zere could be a paper in zis..." There's academia in a nutshell for you. :-) ]
Just as the Freud scene, in a way, turned technobabble on its head, so the "deadline angle" of the show was twisted around for most of the episode. It was nice to not have a major threat to the ship looming over our heads (except for the last ten minutes), just Picard getting caught missing a major social function. That's a definite plus to the show as well, particularly in Riker's reactions to the whole mess.
However, the centerpiece to the show was, of course, the nightmare sequences themselves, and the quality of the show was going to stand or fall on how they turned out. What's more, that's an issue that can depend very greatly on how well the director does -- a scene can be written to be creepy as all hell and still flounder on film.
Given that Patrick Stewart's record as a director so far didn't include any examples of what I'd call really good "creepy" scenes, I was a little worried. Fortunately, he was up to it. While the dream sequences weren't quite on the level of those in "Birthright, Part I", they were still excellent, and showed that Data seems to have become much less "rooted in the mundane," to quote Soong. I was impressed. The dreams were eerie, unreal, and turned commonplace things and places completely on their heads -- much the way real nightmares do.
One element that I expected, and that I would have been disappointed to not see, was a "waking dream", or at least some nightmare scene where it is not immediately supposed to be evident to us that he's dreaming. Given how well the reality boundaries were blurred in "Frame of Mind", I expected as much here -- and I was starting to get worried when I didn't see it. Fortunately, I had only to wait. :-)
Another thing that "Phantasms" had was wonderful incidental dialogue. "Gambit" had a fair amount of it as well, but here it all seemed to flow from the characters as themselves, not playing other roles or off guest stars (aside from the Freud scene, of course). Picard's whole discomfiture about the banquet was a good example, of course, but probably my personal favorite was the entire scene where Data asked Worf to take care of Spot. I think that's the first scene in quite a long time that literally had my eyes tearing up with laughter (particularly Worf's sneeze at the end -- trust a Klingon to be allergic to cats...). Lovely.
There's not much else to say, really. The bit about Ensign Tyler and the crush wasn't particularly terrific, but it was also a very small bit -- and it did have the cute bit where Data offered to go talk to her, which I enjoyed. Everybody else did a wonderful job, both in and out of the dream sequences.
So, a few shorter takes:
- One slight annoyance was the suddenness with which the "dreams" issue was brought back. It's hardly a fault of this episode in particular, but more one of the last season or so as a unit. It wouldn't have taken much time to have Data mention a dream here and there, and that would have made this much less of a surprise. I'm sure some of that's an effect of having so many different people writing the episodes, but this isn't exactly the first show Braga's written since "Birthright I" either. Just a minor point.
- Along similar lines, I hope this isn't the last we see of Data's dreaming. Clearly, he can and does dream on a regular basis, and should be capable of nightmares. Let's get a reference here and there, if nothing else.
- "I have often wondered what Spot dreams about." Lisa and I shivered a bit at that one, and if you've ever read any of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic, so should you. :-) [If you haven't, you should. "Dream of a Thousand Cats", the issue in question, is among the best of the series, and the series as a whole is superb. This concludes this unabashed literary plug.]
- Speaking of Spot, it was great to see him again -- but that was one heavily tranquilized cat in the Data/Worf scene. Speaking from my own experience, I've never seen a cat that would have put up with being held like that for that long -- mine wouldn't have put up with it for even half of Data's first line. I wonder where I can pick up a supply of Feline Supplement #25. :-)
- Speaking of that Data/Worf scene ... whose idea was the sneeze? That wasn't essential to the scene as a whole, but in my opinion it was the perfect capper to it. For the life of me, though, I can't get a really good guess about who decided to put it in, because it strikes me as something that Braga, Stewart [as director], or Dorn could all have thought of. Any guesses?
- Surprisingly, the FX were a little weak this time around. The straw coming out of Riker's head didn't seem at all real, even by dream standards.
That's that. Now, to wrap up:
Plot: Superb. Another good reality-bender, and only a slight excess of technobabble.
Plot Handling: Excellent. Good creepiness and good pacing.
Characterization: Spot-on, no pun intended. :-)
OVERALL: Call it a 9.5. Definitely the best of the season so far.
Lwaxana's brain shuts down. Someone remind me why this is supposed to be a bad thing.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"I am a cat, and I keep my own counsel."
-- "Dream of a Thousand Cats"
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...