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Retro Review: Schisms

Posted by Michelle - 05/02/10 at 05:02 pm


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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season: 06 Episode: 05 (s06e05)

Original US airdate: 10/19/1992

Members of the crew experience bizarre symptoms and have flashbacks of alien abductions.

Plot Summary: While mapping a globular cluster using a modified deflector grid, several crewmembers experience strange afflictions. Riker has trouble staying awake, LaForge’s VISOR fails, Data’s chronometer falls out of sync with the ship’s, Worf believes the ship’s barber is trying to attack him, and an explosion appears to damage a cargo bay though minutes later there is no sign that anything occurred. Since the symptoms seem to affect people who worked in the cargo bay, LaForge investigates and discovers a bulkhead in molecular flux from a subspace field that has somehow penetrated the ship. Troi tells Riker that she has talked to several crewmembers experiencing extreme anxiety and suggests getting them together to talk. When they meet, they realize that they all had identical experiences of being cold and trapped. On the holodeck, they work together to recreate an operating table upon which they all believe they were experimented. Crusher examines them and finds that they have inexplicable injuries – particularly Riker, whose arm appears to have been cut off and reattached. Moreover, Data’s self-diagnostic indicates that he was off the ship for more than an hour. Picard learns that two more crewmembers are missing; when one is returned a short time later, he dies in agony before he can speak. Because Riker has apparently been taken several times, Picard agrees to let him use stimulants to stay conscious and wear a homing device so they can try to track him when it happens again. That night Riker is removed from his room and taken to a dark laboratory. Aliens try to sedate him, but he remains aware of his surroundings, spotting the sedated missing ensign. The aliens try to widen the subspace rift in the cargo bay, but the Enterprise crew is able to close it just after Riker gets himself and the ensign through the rift. Data wonders whether the aliens were explorers like themselves, but Riker recalls the dead crewman and Picard worries that the abductions could happen again.

Analysis: I think of “Schisms” as The X-Files episode of Next Gen, though of course the theme of alien abduction in science fiction is much, much older. Humans get abducted and experimented upon by malevolent aliens! They wake at home, unable to articulate exactly what has happened to them, and people think they’re crazy! Since this is Star Trek and we know these characters, they don’t actually turn out to be crazy, which takes away some of the fun — when it was Fox Mulder, we were never completely sure, even when we were seeing what he was seeing. And being Starfleet officers, none of these characters are given to fury or panic for more than a few seconds at a time. They go looking for answers. At least we really see why Troi is invaluable – while Crusher doesn’t guess that all these random complaints might be related, and while LaForge can’t guess how an engineering anomaly could be affecting people from all over the ship, Troi decides that it would be helpful for everyone having similar experiences to talk to one another and see if they can recreate what’s been troubling them. No sooner does she get them all on the holodeck than one person’s memories and mental images begin to trigger the next. The scene where the crewmembers together design and modify the table upon which they’ve been tortured, in a dark room with grid lines but no other distractions, is as creepy as anything this series ever pulled off.

Sadly, the rest of the episode doesn’t have the same level of intensity, and by the time we actually get to see the evil clicky aliens, there’s almost a comic element to their menace. This is largely because the intense situation is muddled with far too much technobabble. What I think happens, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that the aliens create a subspace field using tetryons, and since LaForge says that shouldn’t even be able to exist in the Enterprise’s space-time continuum, no one notices them using it to abduct crewmembers. So the Enterprise shoots its gravitons, which may or may not be what LaForge is channeling through the deflectors to speed up mapping the globular cluster and thus bringing the ship to the attention of the aliens – this point is really never made clear, since Riker is falling asleep on the job before LaForge implements it. Somehow the gravitons open a rift right where Riker needs one, then close it before the aliens can retaliate further and destroy the Enterprise. It’s hard to take any threat to the ship seriously, since we know that even if it blows up, some temporal reversal will bring it back. It’s also a pretty good bet that Riker, LaForge, Worf, and Data will all survive.

This means that the biggest threat would appear to be to the woman working with the others to recreate the alien torture chamber; everything about her screams red-shirt, even though she’s wearing blue. But after getting us all involved with what happened to her while she’s working with the command team, she’s not even among the missing when the computer finally does a head count. (You mean to tell me the computer doesn’t notice every time a comm badge goes completely AWOL? Not the best security system, Starfleet.) Sure, it’s sad that a crewmember we don’t know has convulsions and dies, and that another crewmember we don’t know looks practically dead when Riker finds her in the alien lab, but since those people aren’t even involved in building the operating table with Worf and LaForge, we have no connection to them, and we aren’t given a reason to care about them as individuals – no one exclaims about how wonderful the missing ensign is at her job. I know the original series comes under criticism for killing off so many ensigns, but at least they usually get a few lines first – we have a reason to like them. These aren’t even characters we’re seeing, they’re just names in uniforms.

There are some wonderful major character moments in the early minutes when Data holds a poetry reading that nearly bores the entire crew – not just the afflicted Riker – to sleep, ending with a delightful nerdy ode in honor of his cat Spot. (“O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display/connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.”) It would make sense for some glitch relating to that event to connect to the threat – for the problem with Data’s chronometer to be directly related to the clumsiness of his poetry, for LaForge to mention Data’s stickler-for-detail personality when they disagree about how long he was gone. There’s not really a B storyline, just vignettes, so the dialogue has to be sharp. In the scenes where it is, like Worf complaining to the barber about his last haircut and getting lectured about using hair conditioner, it’s a terrific show…but in the scenes that get bogged down with tetryons and gravitons, it’s hard to work up much concern even for Riker when he’s strapped to the torture table. Plus the special effect that carries him off the ship is cheesy beyond belief. Evil aliens are a risky prospect at best, so on a show that can’t do horror-movie gruesome or kill off a regular, it’s important to make the audience care about the victims and keep the storyline focused. I wish my reaction at the end was more of a shudder at Picard’s concern that the aliens could return for more, rather than an instinctive desire not to have to sit through any more of the same technobabble.

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