While exploring an alien planet, Commander Riker is stung by a predatory plant that invades his body like a virus. Numbness soon turns to paralysis and then unconsciousness as the virus pushes into his brain. To sustain his life, Dr. Pulaski hooks Riker's brain up to a stimulator, which triggers a flood of memories from his subconscious. With the help of Counselor Troi, Pulaski tries to isolate the types of emotionally charged memories that will combat the virus and save Riker's life.
You won't find anyone who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation willing to defend this episode. But it was doomed to failure before it ever went before the cameras. With the production having exhausted the operating budget for the year, Paramount demanded an episode that could somehow be shot in just three working days, rather than the usual seven or eight. It was to take place on as few sets as possible; there are in fact only three locations in the episode: the planet, the transporter room, and sickbay. (There aren't even any scenes on the bridge.) This episode is a "clip show," a minimalist plot padded out with footage from earlier episodes of the show.
The concept itself, that we're seeing Riker's memories as a result of his neural stimulation, doesn't even really work if you give it half a second's thought. Without the real world financial restrictions, it makes absolutely no sense that the only memories he seems to have are of the last two years. And it also doesn't work that many of his "memories" include cutaways from his point-of-view, to things he wasn't even present to experience. But this was the reality, a consequence that episode director Rob Bowman said was the tradeoff for all the money they spent on "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Q Who."
Utterly demolishing any chance to salvage something good from these impossible restrictions, the job of writing the script fell to Maurice Hurley. He had already announced his intention to leave the show when he took the assignment. He has acknowledged in subsequent interviews that he "was on the way out the door," and was phoning it in. And it totally shows in the finished product.
We don't even see the onset of jeopardy here; when the episode begins, Riker has already been attacked. The dialogue is stupid and melodramatic throughout, trying to sell us on the sense of danger that isn't at all palpable; though Riker has escaped many worse situations than this before, he (and everyone else) is talking from the gallows here, certain he's going to die. And that's all before the clips even start!
Once they do, things gets exponentially worse. Setting the tone for what you're in for, the very first clip shown is from "The Last Outpost," an episode reviled even by the writers at that time, so much so that they basically pulled the plug on the entire concept of the Ferengi. To lean on that episode here shows just how little care went into this episode. Not that the writers had a lot of great material to choose from. The "erotic memory" montage shows us that, for whatever reason, the episodes in which Riker gets a love interest are usually among the worst of the series to this point. The "action" montage shows us the fist fight from "Conspiracy" with the painfully obvious stunt doubles. In fact, they seem so hard up for visually striking moments that they resort to splicing in a second or two of the Genesis Project demonstration film from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan! And as if deliberately trying to make it all just that much more cheesy, the editors use a cheap "iris in / iris out" effect to get in and out of the clips.
Working on a tight schedule, and with a bad script, it's no surprise that the acting in this episode is pretty terrible. There's a nice moment near the beginning, where O'Brien messes with Pulaski before beaming her down to the planet. There's also a nice moment in the finale scene, in which Riker playfully teases everyone about the possibility of memory loss because of his ordeal. But in between those two moments is a lot of woodenly spouted technobabble delivered by Diana Muldaur as Pulaski, and an over-the-top performance from Marina Sirtis as Troi, who hasn't been uncontrolled and amateurish like this since "Encounter at Farpoint." Watching the episode, you get the impression that there wasn't even time for second takes; in the moment Riker's vital signs are restored, for example, you can see Jonathan Frakes open his eyes on the table for a moment, before the camera pans away and back again to reveal them closed once more.
- Why would you send the ship's chief engineer to survey a planet with no technology?
- Despite the limited budget, the planet set is actually not that bad. It even has a knee deep stream of flowing water.
- This is the final appearance of Diana Muldaur as Katherine Pulaski. As much as I disliked the character, I really would have wished her a better sendoff than this. But then, it felt like she was on borrowed time for her whole season anyway. Though Diana Muldaur has said that she took a "Special Appearance by" credit every week out of deference to the cast who'd been with the series from the beginning, the fact that she wasn't even a part of the main titles made it feel to me like everyone knew all along she wasn't there to stay.
- This was also very nearly the swan song for director Rob Bowman. After directing a large number of episodes in the first two seasons (a few bad, but most quite good), he also left the show after this. That would have been it, except that he came back one time at Rick Berman's request to helm the technically challenging fourth season episode "Brothers." (Which we'll get to in time, I suppose.)
- A strong visual indicator of how much things have changed on the series comes in the clip where Riker meets Data in "Encounter at Farpoint." The makeup for Data has evolved significantly over two seasons; early Data has much more red lips, and a strange redness around the eyes.
- The one person involved with this episode who seems to give it a full force effort is composer Ron Jones. His music does convey the slow, creeping dread the story seems to want as Riker's condition worsens. Jones also has the interesting challenge of trying to unify a hodgepodge of clips from over a dozen episodes under one set of musical themes. In the process of that, he not only scores scenes that were done by another composer the first time around (Dennis McCarthy), he re-scores scenes he wrote himself originally, with different music.
What of season two as a whole? The series was definitely maturing, that can be said. Seven episodes (essentially 1/3 of the season) rated B+ or better in my book. The season also featured the first grade A and A- episodes of the series. Still, there were kinks to work out. Another seven episodes (again, essentially 1/3 of the season) rated some form of D or worse... and there were two F grade episodes to season one's single catastrophe. In short, while there was room for things to get better still (and they would), Star Trek: The Next Generation was improving.
My top five episodes of the season: "The Measure of a Man," "Q Who," "Peak Performance, "Contagion," and "Elementary, Dear Data."