Data begins to experience inexplicable nightmares that become waking dreams, and lead him to at one point stab Counselor Troi. It turns out that Data is observing on a subconscious level parasitic organisms that are normally undetectable to Starfleet officers or technology which are feeding on the crew, and interpreting this information through his dreams. Using the holodeck, the crew is able to determine what is happening and stop it.
Written by Brannon Braga. Directed by Patrick Stewart
Phantasms is by no means a great episode of Next Generation. It’s more interested in bringing the shocks and the confusion and the bizarre dream imagery that is just literal enough to be easily decoded into a straightforward message than it is developing the characters or their relationship, or taking us through a genuinely strong plot. It’s also got a bunch of little mini-subplots (the engineer with the crush on Geordi, Picard stressing about the dinner) that ultimately don’t really add much to the proceedings.
What it does, however, it give us the creepiest stuff we’ve ever seen in a Star Trek episode or probably ever will–easily beating out Night Terrors which was the last time the series tried something like that. The surreal imagery is genuinely disturbing, with the image of Troi as a cake being particularly memorable. And it all becomes even more unsettling as Data begins to have waking dreams. The scene where Troi is attacked is a real shocker in how brutal it becomes, and the revelation that the crew is infested with invisible parasites that are basically eating them also adds to the nightmarish quality of it all. I rewatched this episode quite late at night by myself and I definitely felt regular chills as the story went along. Well done, from that perspective at least, director Patrick Stewart.
A semi-random thought I’m curious about–how many times has Data’s programming been subverted in some way to make him a threat to the Enterprise or to its crew? I’m remembering both Brothers and Descent, as well as this episode. And that doesn’t count his intentional actions in Quality of Life. In none of these stories does Data ever have to face any consequences for what has happened. You’d think by now someone would have thought about building in some sort of fail-safe to prevent Data from doing stuff like that.
Back to the episode, it’s of course not all chills and thrills. There are some funny moments as well, mostly around Data’s relationship with Spot. The scene where Data asks Worf to care for Spot is something that has stood out to me ever since – making this the second episode in a row in which the best scene is between those two non-human officers. Worf’s sneeze is the icing on the cake (it’s hard not to make puns like that when writing about this episode). There is also attempts, I guess, to use Data’s visit to a holographic Sigmund Freud to lighten the mood, but I found those efforts to be less fruitful, and more just annoying. But at least the episode also treated it as annoying, and not helpful for Data, which I appreciated. “But I do not have a mother,” says Data, and “I do not believe I am being helped by this session.” And I did like Troi telling Data to come to her before going to Sigmund next time.
Anyway, in the end it’s not a great episode, but it’s one that surprised me with enough clever style and story points that I ended up enjoying it more than I remembered doing.
• David L. Crowley plays one of the workman. He was security guard Lou Welch for a few episodes of Babylon 5.
• Clyde Kusatsu makes his second of three appearances as Admiral Nakamura.
Shout Out to the Past:
• Data’s dreams in this story all come out of the dream program that he discovered back in Birthright, Part I.
• As just mentioned, Admiral Nakamura re-appears, after last being seen in Measure of a Man
• There are references to both Dr. Soong and to Alexander.
• Right off the bat, it all seems wacky and odd. Data being dismantled is creepy.
• Data sleeps under covers? Trying to emulate humanity, I guess.
“After six years, Number One, I don’t think I have any excuses left.”
• Ensign Gates, the bridge officer that Picard gives numerous orders to, is conspicuously mute. It’s absurd. Did the budget really not stretch to give this character a speaking line, just to make the scene feel real? Wouldn’t that have been a nice thing to do for Joyce Robinson after all those uncredited appearances? Oh well, at least she went on to win The Amazing Race.
• Spot! Data staring at Spot is funny. Data say, “I have often wondered what Spot dreams about. His twitching and his rapid breathing would seem to suggest anxiety, but Spot has never seen a mouse or any other form of rodentia. He has never encountered an insect, or been chased by a canine.” Really, I think having a pet is one of the best little character bits the series ever had for Data.
• When Data sees the mouth on the back of Geordi’s neck–super creepy.
• Picard has some fun tension talking to the Admiral, but isn’t it strange that Picard abruptly ends the communication, and not vice-versa? Surely that could get him into trouble.
• The impatience Geordi has with Picard looking over his shoulder is also fun.
• After he stabs Troi, I don’t know why security guards aren’t all around Data all the time. He doesn’t need a knife to be dangerous.
Dialogue High Point
As I said, I love the bit where Data asks Worf to look after Spot. Worf’s reaction–“Your…animal,” is priceless, as well as all of Data’s instructions: “He will need to be fed once a day. He prefers feline supplement number twenty-five…And he will require water. And you must provide him with a sand box. And you must talk to him. Tell him he is a pretty cat, and a good cat.” And then it caps off with my favorite exchange:
Worf: I will feed him.
Data: Perhaps that will be enough.