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Retro Review: Frame of Mind

Posted by Michelle - 04/06/10 at 02:06 pm


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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season: 06 Episode: 21 (s06e21)

Original US airdate: 05/03/1993

After a case of stage fright and a difficult away mission, Riker finds himself in an alien hospital facing evidence that he is insane.

Plot Summary: Riker is rehearsing for the lead role in a play when Picard picks him for a secret mission to Tilonus IV. Already under stress from stage fright, Riker begins to feel paranoid. His performance as a mental patient gets a standing ovation, yet as soon as the play ends, he finds himself in a hospital that resembles the stage set. Dr. Syrus tells Riker that the play – and his career in Starfleet – are both delusions, for he is in the hospital because he murdered someone. Riker attacks a guard and is sedated, then wakes on the Enterprise, where Troi and Crusher tell him that his fears about the play are affecting his dreams. When he spots Lieutenant Suna, an alien from Dr. Syrus’s planet, Riker attacks him. Crusher can find no medical problem, yet when he returns to his quarters to sleep, he finds himself in the alien hospital again. Threatened with surgery to repair his synapses, Riker agrees instead to try reflection therapy, in which he is told that the people he knows as Troi, Worf and Picard are really elements of his own psyche. They each try to convince Riker that he is a Starfleet officer, but Riker dismisses them as phantoms. Later Crusher visits him to tell him that the crew is trying to get him released, but he refuses to believe that she is real. A few hours later, Data and Worf carry out a rescue, though Riker tries to alert the guards before they transport him back to the Enterprise. Picard tells Riker that he was abducted on his secret mission, but when Crusher is unable to treat his head wound, Riker concludes that the entire ship is a delusion and shoots himself with a phaser to prove it. He finds himself back in the mental hospital, where he sets the phaser at maximum and shoots at the administrators, but that blast puts him back on stage on the Enterprise. As the audience applauds, he wakes in a hospital bed with a probe connected to his brain near where he imagined that he had a head wound. He finds his communicator and alerts the Enterprise. Picard tells him that he was indeed abducted, and Troi hypothesizes that his mind used the plot of the play to keep him sane as the aliens sifted through his memories.

Analysis: “Frame of Mind” is a lot of fun to watch – Jonathan Frakes gets to show more range than we typically see from Riker, and it’s difficult to guess where the storyline is going – but once it ends, it all feels like a delusion. Whether the experience of watching makes up for the letdown at the conclusion will probably depend on how much one enjoys seeing Riker out of his element. I don’t think of him as a wannabe actor any more than I think of him as insane, but I can relate to the idea of freaking out at finding oneself locked in a foreign institution and being told that one is insane, a storyline that at this point has been done to death in genre television (Stargate, Smallville, et al) yet seemed pretty fresh when Next Gen first aired. There are moments when the episode feels like The Prisoner, so effective is the sense of paranoia and the fact that every time Riker starts to trust someone, that person turns out to be duplicitous or crazy. And there are moments when it seems to anticipate The Matrix, with reality breaking open around the main character as he tries to get at the truth.

The writers evidently had a lot of fun working on the fictional drama in which Crusher is directing Riker and the “real” psychodrama of the mental institution, but unfortunately they didn’t spend as much time on the denouement. We’re told early on that Tilonus IV has rival factions fighting for power, one of which has taken Federation negotiators hostage; we’re never told what provoked the overthrow of the previous government, whether demands have been issued, why the Federation is involved in the first place, or what information, tactical or otherwise, any faction might hope to gain by probing the mind of a Starfleet officer, all of which would seem germane to the story’s relevance and could have been covered in two sentences by Picard if those details had been worked out. Since they weren’t, the Tilonians come across as generic evil aliens with bumpy foreheads; there’s nothing memorable about them. And they’re pretty stupid to leave Riker’s communicator within reach as they tamper with his mind, which they don’t yet know how to tap very effectively. I’m not even going to ask why the Enterprise can’t trace the communicator signal to figure out where Riker is being held.

Worse, we’re never told the identity of the inmate who looks like all the alien doctors yet identifies herself to Riker as a fellow Starfleet officer. Her appearance on the Enterprise is one of his clues that he isn’t really on the Enterprise at all, so although she’s a symbol of madness on Tilonus, trying to use a spoon as a communicator, her specter helps him wake up. Is she based on a real person – an officer from the Yorktown, which is who she claims to be – whom Riker worked into his own fantasy? Is she based one of the Federation hostages whom Riker has been sent to recover? Is she one of the aliens tormenting him in an effort to dig up Starfleet secrets? I understand that this information can’t be revealed during the course of the episode or it would require an early revelation about where Riker is and why he’s hallucinating, but for proper closure, the audience should get more information at the end about the reason for it all. Plus, I would think Riker would need to know for his own peace of mind.

The dark-and-creepy tone is well maintained throughout the episode, but I’m not sure there’s anything that happens in the alien hospital as unnerving as the opening scene of the episode, before we know that Riker is rehearsing a play, when he’s being told that he’s insane and can identify the speaker as Data or possibly Lore. Once we’re shown the device of the box-within-a-box, or the drama within the episode in this case, it’s not as scary; I liked the idea that we were actually seeing the ship through the eyes of a deranged Riker before we knew about the covert mission and started seeing the hospital administrator whose appearance ruins all of Riker’s thoughts of waking up back on the Enterprise. It’s a bit disturbing how quickly he accepts that he is insane and allows the alien doctor to play games with his psyche, though I suppose we can’t know whether they gave him drugs or otherwise meddled with his personality, making him doubt his Inner Picard and Inner Troi in favor of the fictional kindly Dr. Syrus. I like him best fighting for his life, but he spends much of the episode fighting Crusher, Worf, Data, et al in an effort to prepare himself for trial for a murder he can’t remember. That doesn’t seem like the same Riker who once woke up in an alien hospital and agreed to make love to a local just to try to get free.

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