"Phantasms"

Season Seven, Episode 6
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Patrick Stewart
Main Cast:
Patrick Stewart as Capt Jean-Luc Picard
Jonathan Frakes as Cmdr William Riker
LeVar Burton as Lt Cmdr Geordi LaForge
Michael Dorn as Lt Worf
Gates McFadden as Dr Beverly Crusher
Marina Sirtis as Counsellor Deanna Troi
Brent Spiner as Lt Cmdr Data
 

Guest Cast:
Gina Ravarra as Ensign Tyler
Bernard Kates as Sigmund Freud
Clyde Kusastu as Admiral Nakamura
David L Crowley as Workman
 

"[Spot] will need to be fed once a day. He prefers feline supplement twenty-five. And he will require water. And you must provide him with a sand box. And you must talk to him; tell him that he is a pretty cat, a good cat..."
"I will...feed him."
-- Data and Worf

Synopsis:
 
As Geordi struggles to get a newly-installed warp core operational, Data has a series of bizarre nightmares in which various members of the crew appear in bizarre scenarios. Riker has a straw protruding from his head, Troi is a cake and the Enterprise is being demolished by workmen. Soon these bizarre dreams begin to affect Data's behaviour, most disturbingly when he stabs Troi with a knife. However, Crusher learns that the crew are actually infected with invisible leech-like parasites, related to the installation of the new warp core. Data is evidently picking up the parasites on a subconscious level, so with the help of the holodeck, Picard and Geordi enter Data's dream world to get to the bottom of the mystery. They realise that a certain sound frequency is harmful to the parasites, which they use to cure the infection.


Review: 

Never let it be said that I'm particularly enamoured by Trek's "in the mind" stories -- you know, episodes which supposedly take place in someone's mind. Despite the occasional winner such as season six's Frame of Mind, this is a Trek sub-genre that I could pretty much do without. The bad news is that at this point, TNG seems to be on an "in the mind" kick. We've already had one such episode this season, the tepid Interface and the next two episodes straight, Dark Page and Attached also qualify. All I can say is, ugh

The good news is, Phantasms is a fairly decent attempt to utilise a hackneyed, nebulous premise. It's more than a little silly, to be sure, but it's an interesting story that benefits from some nice doses of humour and some surreal imagery. It's not exactly earth-shattering, but it's a watchable effort.

First of all, I could have entirely done without the technobabble sub-plot involving alien parasites which damage the new warp core and infest the crew, draining their cellular peptides (don't ask). The technobabble-o-meter was nearing the danger mark and the connection to Data's unconscious mind was rather hokey, as well. Fortunately, Brannon Braga ties the two storylines together very well -- if anything, a little too well (things all began to slot into place a bit too perfectly). He also injects some much-appreciated humour; Worf being put on charge of looking after Spot was a classic, and I greatly enjoyed Picard's attempts to weasel out of the dreaded Admiral's banquet. 

Patrick Stewart helms the episode quite adeptly, brewing an appropriately eerie, discomforting ambience throughout with some stand-out work during the dream sequences. Of the dreams themselves, you have to admit they were interesting: Worf's a greedy pig, Troi's a tart and goodness only knows what Freud would have said about the significance of Crusher sucking Riker's straw...

But whilst the imagery was quite effective, at the same time I think it could have been taken further. Phantasms didn't actually, in my view, utilise the concept of a nightmarish mileu to its full potential. I mean, a straw sticking out of someone's head is hardly my idea of a nightmare. Perhaps it's just me, but I definitely picked up a self-satisfied, "aren't we smart" vibe to much of the episode. While we're all allowed to have a little fun, I did not appreciate Braga trashing Sigmund Freud, a master in the field of psychology, and shortly thereafter trying convince us of his oh-so gifted understanding and application of psychology and the unconscious mind. The words "arrogant git" spring to mind. Whether or not one agrees with Freud's work is immaterial, but I didn't appreciate a cocky young television writer trying to presume that he could beat the masters at their own game. As television goes this is decent fare; but as a work of pyschological analysis not to be taken seriously at all (least of all, I would guess, because Data is an android!). Am I being a little paranoid about Braga's motives? Perhaps...if so, blame it on this cough medicine I'm taking. :-P

In a nutshell, Phantasms is a competently-crafted story which fits together quite nicely. It's entertaining, amusing and at times even creepy -- far more scary than the "nightmares" were some of the waking moments; such as "mouths" appearing on necks and Data casually stabbing Troi. On the down side, it's all a little silly, failing to capture any sense of true menace with regards to Data's supposedly spine-chilling nightmares (which are more amusing than scary). And, yes, there is something a little smug and conceited about an episode which claims to have a greater understanding of psychology than a true master of the field. At the end of the day, however enjoyable, I can't quite shake the feeling that this was an episode that was trying to be weird just for the sake of being...weird.

Rating: 6


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