Thursday, November 05, 2015

TNG Flashback: Phantasms

"Phantasms" picked up on the season six development of Data's ability to dream, presenting the dark side of that coin.

LaForge has a mystery on his hands as he works to calibrate a malfunctioning, recently installed warp core. But even more mysterious are the unusual nightmares Data has been having within his dream program. Persistent images of dismemberment -- of the ship, himself, and his friends -- grow more alarming when he begins to experience them in a waking dream state. The two problems are soon connected with each other, and to another discovery: the presence of interphasic creatures that threaten to destroy all life aboard the Enterprise.

From the moment Data first gained the ability to dream, it was inevitable that he'd experience nightmares. Indeed, the writers briefly thought that idea worthy of the sixth season finale (before settling instead on Lore and the Borg). Here, we get to see how wise a choice that was. It's not that Data's nightmares aren't interesting (they are), but rather that the idea is so simple and sparse that the episode is actually quite slowly paced.

Brannon Braga's script has a lot of material that really doesn't advance the plot. There's Geordi (not) dealing with the engineer who has a crush on him. There's Picard wishing for a way out of attending a boring admirals' dinner. There's a debate between Riker and Worf about Alexander's emerging interest in jazz music. We love the characters so well by this point in the run of the show that we don't mind seeing these personal vignettes... yet it also speaks to a plot that doesn't truly have the legs to fill out a full episode.

The script does oscillate well in tone from scene to scene. On the one hand, you have the chilling concept of invisible leeches feeding on the crew without their knowledge. There are a few truly horrific moments, such as Data hallucinating the "mouth" on Geordi's neck, or the scene in which he stabs Troi (which was so intense that it was edited down for broadcast in the UK). On the other hand, there's also a lot of effective comedy in the episode, most revolving around Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn. There's Data's pre-sleep ritual, his instructions to Worf for Spot's care, and Worf's hilarious appearances in Data's dreams ("with mint frosting!").

There's also a series of nice scenes between Data and Counselor Troi, on this rare occasion when the android actually needs the help of a psychologist. (A prospect at which he's excited.) I have to side with Troi in chastising Data for seeking help from a holographic Sigmund Freud. Data didn't actually think that five-century-old ideas on the human psyche would be helpful, did he?

But for all that, the people behind the scenes apparently referred to this as "the cake show," thanks to the tremendous difficulty in achieving the episode's signature visual: Counselor Troi in the form of a giant cake. Thanks to an uncharacteristically vague production meeting, it seems the writers, the production crew, and episode director Patrick Stewart all had different ideas on what this cake was supposed to look like. When the day came to shoot that scene, there was frantic scrambling to try to please everyone -- and even then, the final effect was said to be torturously uncomfortable for Marina Sirtis.

Other observations:
  • There's a gorgeous visual of the Enterprise leaving a starbase at the start of Act One. Decades later, and a lot of the VFX from this series still hold up.
  • Paving the way for a continuity error a bit later in the season, Data's cat Spot is repeatedly and prominently referred to as a "he" throughout this episode.
Perhaps this episode looks better next to some of the lackluster season seven installments so far. In any event, I appreciate the character accents here and would say that overall, "Phantasms" merits a B.

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