December 14, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Schisms"

It is 19 October 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While the Enterprise explores a vast globular cluster, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) finds himself unable to get enough sleep at night. What seems like an odd irritation grows increasingly serious as he discovers he is not the only member of the crew to be exhausted, and that they may be getting abducted in their sleep.

"Schisms" undertakes the risky task of taking a bonkers premise - alien abductions in space - and transforming it into a smart, gripping episode of The Next Generation. It does so remarkably well. This is an episode with genuine surprises and unexpected plot developments, and is peppered with plenty of small highlights and neat touches.

One remarkable aspect of the episode is just how long it takes to get going. It spends the whole of the first two acts (out of five) setting up Riker's tiredness and irritability, and then the gradual revelation that he is somehow missing time whenever he goes to bed. From there more characters begin to exhibit unusual symptoms. Worf (Michael Dorn) has an inexplicable violent reaction to a pair of scissors. La Forge (LeVar Burton) has an odd bacterial infection around his eye implants. Gradually the characters gather together and, with the help of Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), begin to establish that they have been abducted and experimented upon. It is even revealed Riker's arm has been severed one night and re-attached to his body, all without his knowledge.

This all culminates in a great scene in which the assembled victims get together in the holodeck and collectively build a surgical table with various implements for experimentation. It is put together from their various memories. The physical execution of the scene is a little off - the changes in the holographic table are a little too pronounced from one adjustment to the next - but the actors sell it and it's a brilliant concept for a scene. It's so brilliant, in fact, that the episode's actual climax struggles to compete.

That climax sees Riker get injected with a drug to keep him awake during his next abduction episode, where he manages to witness a group of chattering insectoid aliens conducting medical experiments on members of the Enterprise crew. As with the scene in the holodeck, the execution struggles a little. The aliens have clearly been produced on the cheap with monk-like robes and rubber heads, and that detracts somewhat from their unsettling and threatening behaviour. The episode clearly sets itself up for a sequel: the aliens have been investigating the real universe from inside a subspace reality, and the heavy implication is that they are planning for an invasion. Sadly this tantalising thread is never picked up again - not even inside Star Trek's plethora of spin-off material.

All of this, plus a chance to hear Data's attempts at writing poetry. For The Next Generation, "Schisms" is a hidden gem. We're now five episodes into Season 6 and the quality ratio is up to 60 per cent.

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