When LaForge and Ro disappear during a transporter accident, the crew believes they have died…and so do they.
Plot Summary: The Enterprise intercepts a distress call from a Romulan ship and goes to assist. LaForge and Ro beam back to the Enterprise with a part in need of repair, but the transporter technician can’t resolve their patterns and they do not reappear on the Romulan ship. The Romulan engine core is jettisoned before it can destroy the ship and the Enterprise remains to help restore their propulsion. Unhappily, Picard has Crusher begin to work on death certificates for Ro and LaForge, and allows Data and Riker to arrange a memorial service. Meanwhile, Ro wakes in a corridor outside of sickbay, overhears the crew talking, finds that her hand can pass through computers and other people, and concludes that she must be in the afterlife. She soon encounters LaForge and tells him that they need to seek resolution before they can find peace, but LaForge believes there must be a scientific solution to their plight. When he learns that Data and Worf intend to take a shuttle to the Romulan ship to investigate the transporter accident, LaForge insists that he and Ro accompany them unseen. The Romulans resist Data’s inquiries, but once he has left the engine room, LaForge and Ro overhear the Romulans discussing their new cloaking device, which shifts objects into a different phase of matter to hide them. LaForge realizes that he and Ro are not dead, only cloaked, but their hope that the Romulans will help them is quickly dashed when they learn that the Romulans are trying to hide the new phase inverter from Starfleet by rigging the Enterprise to explode when the ship goes to warp. Back on the Enterprise, Data discovers inexplicable chroniton fields forming and uses anions to try to remove them. When LaForge discovers that the anions make his hand partially rematerialize, he tells Ro that they must be the source of the chroniton fields and they must find a way to make Data use sufficient anions to bring them back into phase with the Enterprise. They visit their own memorial service, making contact with as many surfaces as possible until Data has the entire room flooded with anion beams. LaForge and Ro rematerialize, and LaForge is able to take the engines offline before the ship expodes.
Analysis: “The Next Phase” is a rare Next Generation episode with a serious theme about religious beliefs – often on Star Trek, all faith is dismissed as superstitious nonsense. Unfortunately, the science doesn’t make very much sense, at least not the way it’s portrayed in the episode. If Ro can walk through bulkheads, furniture, and people, why can’t she step right through the floor? If LaForge can hurl an invading Romulan through the shields that surround the ship, exposing the Romulan to outer space, what’s stopping LaForge and Ro from floating right through the same outer layers and dying the same way? I suppose the writers assumed this wouldn’t be distracting if the plot was strong enough, but for me – and many other fans, if fan reviews are any indication – it’s a huge point of annoyance that could probably have been addressed with a couple of lines of technobabble. Even if such an explanation would inevitably have been incomplete, at least it would show that the writers were trying to address the science.
Then there are the Romulans. In terms of intrigue and acting like original series Romulans, they’re fantastic here – sneaky, vicious, working on cutting-edge cloaking technology, and the Vulcan-like stiff sneaking around after Ro and LaForge trying to get de-phased and destroy their ship at the same time is a terrific element, until the ridiculous flying-through-the-bulkhead scene – the idea that Ro needs rescue by LaForge irritates me for starters. But after everything that happened with Spock and Sela, I’m confused about who’s in charge, whether the Romulans are looking for a war or just trying to be prepared, whether they’re formally sharing technology with the Klingons or just swiping one another’s weapons plans via double agents like the Duras Sisters. Which makes this not a powerful addition to this season’s Romulan arc, but more of an aside, not connected fully to the previous storylines and not anticipating the upcoming storyline in which we learn that Riker had a personal investment in the development of cloaking technology. It doesn’t damage the episode but it doesn’t redeem it either.
My favorite aspect is the character development, particularly where Ro is concerned. It’s no surprise that LaForge, like most Starfleet officers we’ve seen, prefers a scientific approach to questions of life and death to a mystical approach, but Ro is Bajoran, and though she says her religious faith has lapsed, she has a rich history to draw upon. Even atheists have been known to pray when they think they’re going to die. When she finds that she can’t communicate, can walk through walls, and has been declared dead by the ship’s doctor, Ro turns to the childhood spiritual beliefs she had rejected as a scientist; with acceptance comes the expectation that she must make her apologies and farewells before she can move on. We tend to see Ro as a provocateur and Starfleet rebel, so it’s logical that she wouldn’t follow typical Starfleet patterns when it comes to how she expresses her faith. And it’s nice to see her portrayed as open-minded rather than just defiant. LaForge never ridicules her, just encourages her to keep an open mind about other possibilities than their being dead, until she recognizes on her own that there is a scientific explanation for their condition after all.
Considering that this is mostly a Romulan episode, we really learn more about the Bajorans and Klingons. I love the scene in which Data, trying to find an expression of grief for the memorial service, speaks to Worf and is told that this is a difficult time for Worf as well, since his impulse is not to mourn but to celebrate since his friends have died in the line of duty. It’s similar to sentiments he expressed previously about Tasha Yar, and it’s one that Riker seems to share, putting together a New Orleans jazz funeral to celebrate Ro and LaForge’s lives. It seems very fitting that this is the setting in which LaForge and Ro fight to return, not only for their own sakes, but to save all their crewmates. It’s too bad the technobabble here, with the anions and chronitons, distracts from the drama, when it’s so notably lacking earlier to explain why they don’t float through the ship and into space. All in all, it’s not a bad episode, but coming on the heels of “I, Borg” and the other memorable stories of the fifth season, it’s not one of the greats.