Star Trek The Next Generation: Phantasms

"Dreams are the royal road to the knowledge of the mind."

Data has nightmares, which turn out to be surprisingly useful, if a tad dangerous to those around him.

The actual plot of this episode is incredibly inconsequential. Some invisible bugs are stopping the warp core from working properly; Data can see them, but only through his nightmares (a development from the dream program from 'Birthright Part 1'). The story plays out as a mystery – Data's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and his dreams uncontrollable, and the crew have to figure out why – but the reason is basically technobabble that adds up to "because the plot says so".

The plot, however, is not the real focus of this episode. This is much more about imagery, character, and humour. The imagery, as appropriate to a dream episode, is bizarre, and this episode does really well at producing genuinely bizarre and unnerving dream imagery - Troi as a cake (famously), Crusher drinking from Riker's ear, and so on. In fact, it's rather disappointing that all these weird images turn out to have a logical explanation and a meaning that is literal (the crew really are being consumed) rather than metaphorical.

The character work is fairly surface level here. Running the dream/nightmare program is part of Data's ongoing quest to become more human, but he becomes entirely uncontrolled and actually stabs Troi in the shoulder, and all she does is bake him a cake.

There are some lovely touches of humour, though. The fact that Data having a phone inside him makes him an Android phone is a coincidence as the episode was years ahead of any mobile phone smaller than a brick. However, my favourite scene of the whole episode was definitely Data asking Worf to take care of Spot the cat, and explaining that he should call him a good cat and a pretty cat, etc. Worf says he'll feed him and Data decides that will do. Deadpan Worf is hilarious Worf.

The episode is completely and utterly inconsequential in terms of lasting impact, but to give the story its due, it most certainly is not forgettable. Whatever you think of the weirdness of the dream imagery, you won't forget the image of Troi as a cake quickly. Even outside of the dream sequences, the concept of invisible leech-like bugs sitting on your skin and sucking all day long is horrifying and will leave viewers itching all over. As dream episodes go, this one doesn't quite have the lyrical feeling of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 'Restless' or the 'are we awake or asleep?' fun of Star Trek: Voyager's 'Waking Moments', but it does outdo them all on the 'crew members eating each other' weirdness front.

Bits and pieces

 - This episode was directed by Sir Patrick Stewart, who must really enjoy Data stories – his first directorial gig, and Stewart's pick when BBC2 asked the four Captains (in 2001) to choose a favourite episode to air as part of Star Trek Night, was 'In Theory'.

 - Data telling Troi that he wonders what Spot dreams about, since the cat has lived his whole life on a spaceship and has never seen an insect or a rodent, makes me, a person whose cat used to love running over the fields behind the house, rather sad.

Quotes

Picard: I've just received a message from Starfleet Command.
Riker: Bad news?
Picard: You could say that. I've been invited to the annual Starfleet admirals' banquet.
Riker: My condolences.

Data: It is a cellular peptide cake.
Worf (mouth full): With mint frosting.

Weird but memorable. Two out of four cellular peptide cakes with mint frosting.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

2 comments:

magritte said...

I rather enjoyed this one for its successfully sustained creepy and surreal mood. I feel that in season 6, TNG was starting to become a little tired and predictable. They responded in season 7 by trying a lot of new things, leading to some uneven episodes. This was one of the more successful experiments, in my opinion.

Billie Doux said...

I enjoyed this one, too. The invisible bugs were absolutely creepy and the dream imagery striking. And I always liked any episode that featured Spot.