In the sixth episode of the seventh season of The Next Generation, Data experiences his first nightmare. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of nightmares, insect infestation, body horror.
Well goddamn, y’all. That was one weird episode, and I’m quite glad that it was as weird as it was. If you’re going to do an episode about dream logic and nightmare sequences, then this is where you should go. ABSURD AS HELL.
There are a couple of glaring flaws within this episode that prevent me from showering it with praise. I’ll start there, because I did enjoy “Phantasms” a great deal. I thought it was unbelievably odd for the writers to include that subplot with Ensign Tyler, only to completely ignore their own set-up. Unless by design she’s included in the next or future episodes, the show gave us a story about a character creating an uncomfortable work environment due to a crush and then did nothing to resolve it. Aside from that moment where Ensign Tyler gets Picard out of Engineering when he’s hovering over Data and Geordi, Tyler has literally no point in this story. None! If you take her role out of this, the episode is exactly the same. So why is she here?
I’m also super confused by the subplot involving Picard’s invitation to the admiral’s banquet. Like… I guess it’s funny that the events of this episode prevent him from going, but why was this plot there? Just to fill up time? Or include a gag that was funny to exist in contrast to the horrifying nightmare subplot? It’s a weird choice, isn’t it?
Thankfully, I don’t think either of these elements bring down this episode very much. It’s a surreal journey through Data’s first set of nightmares, and it introduces another bit of character development for him. I realize now that we definitely knew that Data could dream, but I was still surprised by seeing him actually sleep. From that, we can assume that Data’s brain is continuing to evolve. In order to accept the events that happen here, that means Data has a subconscious mind. Right??? How else would his sleeping mind interpret the events on the Enterprise and then spit them out via increasingly disturbing nightmare sequences?
It’s quite exciting when you think about it. It means that Data is still moving towards humanity throughout the show. I suppose it’s a bit unfortunate that he learns so through THE WORST FUCKING NIGHTMARE POSSIBLE. Oh my god, as cheesy as some things seemed, I liked that everything here had some sort of explanation. Except for Worf eating cake and commenting on the mint frosting, of course. You know why that’s great? Sometimes, dreams contain things that are simply nonsensical. Really, that’s the strength in the way that “Phantasms” is constructed. Brannon Braga’s script never relies on one single technique to communicate these dreams to us. We don’t get silly for the sake of it 100% of the time. The script doesn’t rely on Freud’s dream analysis as the sole explanation for each image in the nightmares. (Indeed, I feel like the show poked fun at the inherent absurdity in Frued’s methodology and reasoning, and that was a lot of fun, too.)
And even in terms of the narrative device itself, Braga’s script is clever enough to escalate the nightmares as the danger escalates itself. There’s no repetition of Data going off to sleep, experiencing a nightmare, and then relaying it to the crew. He starts having waking nightmares, which are later explained as his subconscious freaking the fuck out over the interphasic parasites eating the crew and ship. But I’d be remiss in not addressing one of the reasons why “Phantasms” stands out so much: IT’S SO GODDAMN DISTURBING. Y’all, Data STABS DEANNA, and the sequence is one of the most haunting things we’ve ever gotten on this show. Holy shit, it’s just viscerally upsetting??? AND HER CAKE BODY, WHAT THE HELL. Or Dr. Crusher just drinking Riker’s brain? NO THANK YOU.
Ultimately, I appreciate the details in “Phantasms.” The cast clearly had a lot of fun with this one, and I always enjoy when The Next Generation gives me a mystery that takes the entire episode to figure out. Bravo. That’s quite an achievement. And lastly, let’s not forget the most important single thing in all of this episode:
Spot the cat. Spot, you are a dream come true.
The video for “Phantasms” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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