Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Frame of Mind"

****

Air date: 5/3/1993
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by James L. Conway

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Riker rehearses the part of a man locked in an insane asylum in a play called "Frame of Mind" that Crusher is directing and he's supposed to perform tomorrow. (Have you ever stopped to consider how weird it is the crew seems to spend so much time staging plays in their free time?) But strange things are happening. Riker keeps slipping into a reality where he actually is institutionalized in an alien mental ward whose holding cell looks exactly like the set of the play. And you thought he had things bad when he couldn't get any sleep in "Schisms."

"Frame of Mind" combines the slowly escalating psychological dread from "Schisms" and the uncertain nature of reality from "Ship in a Bottle" and wraps them into a premise where reality becomes so much an open question that we have no idea what's truly going on until the show is over. It's a brilliant and conceptually driven piece of sci-fi writing from Brannon Braga on one of his better days, featuring a storyline that is simultaneously (and paradoxically) straightforward and labyrinthine, with a protagonist who is put through the terrifying wringer of experiencing two separate lives and not knowing which one of them is real. Facts from each reality spill into the other. Ultimately, Riker must face the possibility that he is losing his mind.

It all has something to do with an undercover mission on an alien world that Riker is (or perhaps already was, in the past) supposed to go on a few days after his play's performance. But the play still hasn't happened, and after spending a day in the alien mental hospital, he wakes up on the Enterprise on the morning he's supposed to perform. He performs the play. He hallucinates (or maybe not) an alien whom in the mental ward is his therapist, Dr. Syrus (David Selburg). He grabs the guy and shouts at him. He's embarrassed. A turbolift door opens and suddenly he's walking the halls of the mental ward. He crosses back into that reality and finds that it seems more and more real, while his memories of the Enterprise, explained to him as delusions by his psychiatrist, seem less and less so.

This might not work as well as it does if Jonathan Frakes' performance didn't carry us through it. But Frakes turns in a solid performance as a protagonist who is slowly broken down by the Kafkaesque weight of not being able distinguish reality from fantasy, slowly losing his grip as things fall apart. (This story would've been perfect for Miles O'Brien.) Like many of Braga's best conceptual stories, the truth lies is in the details (see also "Cause and Effect"). In this case, the way little details manifest themselves in each of Riker's realities and subsequently cascade throughout the story (the cut on Riker's temple that never heals, the way he was jumped from behind in an alley in his memories from the supposed murder he committed, etc.) makes for a puzzle that's always intriguing, sometimes dizzying. The production design of the mental ward is appropriately disorienting, hostile, and atmospheric.

The way the plot resolves itself — with the events of the entire episode essentially being a construct of Riker's mind as a defense mechanism attempting to ward off an alien mental probe — means that "Frame of Mind" isn't actually even required to hold together as a plot where you can figure out what's real, what clues have meaning, or why. Because, ultimately, none of it is real, which allows the story to become completely unhinged in its final act. Trying to "solve" it as a puzzle is ultimately not the point — which for some may come as a mild disappointment. But if you examine the pieces and how they were built from Riker's memories of recent events, it still holds up marvelously as a plot. But more important is how "Frame of Mind" exists at a level of dreamlike incoherence, with bizarre imagery and a ground that keeps shifting. This episode is about a concocted reality with cracks in it, which Riker is ultimately able to poke at until the entire surface of the looking glass shatters.

Previous episode: The Chase
Next episode: Suspicions

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30 comments on this review

David - Fri, Aug 31, 2012 - 12:09am (USA Central)
Normally I'm a big fan of TNG Brannon Braga. He wrote some of my favorite episodes and he has a knack for remembering the little details and coming up with some well crafted high concept sci fi mystery stories(Cause and Effect, Parallels, Timescape, Identity Crisis, Power Play, Schisms, All Good Things--many of which are classic gems worthy of 4 stars i.e. C&E, Parallels, the upcoming Timescape for instance.

But this one was ruined by the revelation that it was all just a dream--something similar completely ruins S7's "Eye of the Beholder". Don't get me wrong the atmosphere was certainly creepy especially the final scene where he wants to take down the stage in Ten Forward to give himself peace of mind but the fact that it was a defense mechanism in response to an invasive interrogation procedure to gather information just took all the air out of it for me.

I'd give it 2.5 stars only.
Vylora - Fri, Aug 31, 2012 - 1:29am (USA Central)
When I was younger I used to record episodes of TNG on VHS. I was very adamant about my pausing and resuming during commercials and having them in proper order. Also painstakingly labelling each tape accordingly for future quick viewing. I, of course, recorded other stuff but neither here nor there. Ah those were the days...

Anyway I remember going back and rewatching some episodes multiple times because they were so intriguing to me. Yesterdays Enterprise, Measure of a Man, Best of Both Worlds, Inner Light, 10111011011000111101, and the episode with the title that was a bunch of numbers etc. I always had thought the oddball episode I kept going back to was Frame of Mind. Every time I saw it I loved it but never thought "oh hey this is classic Trek".

Now granted this is an episode I haven't seen in years so I do not have a current opinion on it. But from what I read and what I remember I actually found Jammers four stars surprising. But in a good way. I need to watch this one again but I would like to say thanks for the rating. In my head I was expecting to read this review and see maybe a 3 or 3.5 at best.

Thank you Jammer. (:
grumpy_otter - Fri, Aug 31, 2012 - 5:01am (USA Central)
Aside from the excessive Beverly and her idiotic dramatic leanings, I love this episode. Riker carries this, as Jammer said, and the tension of the mystery works very well.

Even on repeat viewings, my heart drops when that alien talks into her spoon.
Elliott - Fri, Aug 31, 2012 - 12:25pm (USA Central)
I'm surprised the review didn't mention "Projections" as a similarly themed episode from the same author. Unlike "Projections," "Frame of Mind" doesn't have the character core to punch it through. True, Frakes delivers a marvellous performance, but why this had to be a Riker show is totally absent from the material.

However, what it lacks in character it makes up for in atmosphere and direction. It reminded me of a "Twilight Zone" ep. with a Star Trek coda that explained how it all took place rather than leaving it a complete mystery. I'd say 4 stars is a bit generous, but not an offensive grade either. Probably would get 3.5* from me.
Nathaniel - Fri, Aug 31, 2012 - 2:00pm (USA Central)
This has always been one of my favorite episodes. I have a penchant for mind fuck stories, and this is one of the finer ones I've seen.

Certainly doesn't hurt that Frakes does one of the finest performances of his career.
Paul - Sat, Sep 1, 2012 - 9:28am (USA Central)
The fact that the plot was a defense invented by Riker's mind takes this down a lot, especially is you know Braga's tendencies to do crap like this.

Still, I liked Frame of Mind, partly because it gives Riker something to do again. Season six is where Riker really becomes a secondary character, and this is arguably the second-to-last Riker vehicle in TNG (Pegasus is a Riker episode, but Second Chances is more of a TOM Riker episode).

Frakes isn't the cast's best actor, but he had his moments -- and he's better than Sirtis who becomes a much more central character (regrettably) in seasons six and seven.
dan - Sat, Sep 1, 2012 - 2:26pm (USA Central)
you stated miles o brian would have been a good pick for this episode. But he does get something similar on DS9 when his clone was running loose on the ship and he thinks everyone is against him in DS9 whispers
Moegreen - Sat, Sep 1, 2012 - 6:58pm (USA Central)
This is one of the best episodes in the entire run.
Grumpy - Wed, Sep 5, 2012 - 11:17am (USA Central)
Never liked this one. Not as bad as "Suspicions," but a lot of it felt like wasted time. The problem, I think, is stories that reveal their premise in the last act. If the shocking twist comes in the penultimate act, the story has more time to deal with the revelation. That's why I give higher marks to "Night Terrors," where the crew figures out the problem early but takes longer to find a solution. (Then again, I still don't like "Schisms," where the mystery is revealed before the final act.)

This is one episode I could re-evaluate, and I might enjoy it more, if only for the acting.
karatasiospa - Thu, Sep 6, 2012 - 5:40am (USA Central)
I love this episode. I think it is the only trek episode that reflects modern science fiction literature (post-80s)since trek was a series based mostly in the science fiction of the 50s (yhe era of asimov, simak etc).
Yakko - Sat, Sep 8, 2012 - 8:58am (USA Central)
I've never been particularly fond of this episode but it always resonates with me on a personal level. In February of 1993 I was a young Trekkie visiting family in L.A. and I made a pilgrimmage to the Paramount lot in hopes of catching a glimpse of "TNG" - the sets, an actor - something. There were no tours but I managed to sneak on to the lot. (Not through the famous main gates but through the far less secure Gower Street entrance on the side.) I carried a clipboard and mostly walked purposefully in the hope that I'd look like someone who was supposed to be there. After circling the lot a few times (the coolest part for me were the city streets I recognized from "The Untouchables" and countless other productions) I took a stab at entering Stage 8 through yet another side door. Out of nowhere I was spotted by some guy with a headset. I bluffed and pretended to be lost and looking for David Livingston's office (a name I only knew from show credtis!) and he sent me on my way. I was too freaked to try entering the building again so I kept walking near the trailers with the slim hope of seeing a cast member. I was just about to give up when I saw none other than Jonathon Frakes. He had just gone to his trailer and was upset about something. I don't remember what he said but he looked like he was about to tear some poor P.A. a new one. He shot me an angry look and stormed off. Given his apparent mood and my own status as a trespasser it seemed unwise to say anything to him but I was curious why he wasn't wearing his Starfleet uniform costume but instead was dressed completely in black in a kind of informal tunic. I left the lot shortly after and would never have known what episode he was shooting until "Frame of Mind" aired three months later and I saw that he spent most of the show in the same black tunic I had seen that day. In retrospect I'm damned lucky I wasn't arrested but it was thrilling at the time.
grumpy_otter - Sun, Sep 9, 2012 - 1:57pm (USA Central)
Bravo, Yakko--GREAT story! That took some serious cojones, and I am glad you didn't get into trouble.

So glad you could identify Frakes costume--he was probably so agitated because of the complexities of the role. lol.
Yakko - Sun, Sep 9, 2012 - 7:22pm (USA Central)
Thanks Otter. I had the same thought in retrospect about Frakes' agitation. He's in just about every frame of that episode and often doing a lot of yelling and carrying on so I imagine he was working 16 hour days.

I actually spoke to him at a sci-fi con three years ago and it never occurred to me to tell him that story. Probably for the best - I probably would have come off like Annie Wilkes from "Misery" if I had!
Nick P. - Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - 4:03pm (USA Central)
Loved this episode, I don't even care the ending was dumb, the journey is always better than the destination.

One thought. I disagree on Frakes being a bad actor. He is no Stewart, but he is top 3. I think the problem is that after BOBW2, the creators just didn't know what to do with him. I think BOBW2 was the worst thing to ever happen to this character. If that could not get him a command, nothing could, and we as the audience knows this. For one thing, how cool would it have been if Riker STAYED as Captain, and Picard was promoted to Fleet admiral? Already by that point TNG was better than TOS, but imagine how much more the rest of the cast could have done in the last few seasons if Picard was fleet admiral, and Riker still had a believable career (and data, worf, etc...)

BTW, Picard would not even have to leave the enterprise, in the Navy Admirals can stay on ships for years..Why couldn't Picard? BIG missed opportunity.
Nic - Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - 4:49pm (USA Central)
Thanks Vylora, for making me realize I wasn't alone in dong this :)

God, if I had known back then that there would one day be this great invention called DVD where you can have an entire season of television in a tiny box!
Paul - Wed, Sep 12, 2012 - 12:11pm (USA Central)
@Nick P: The creators didn't even need to make Picard an admiral. In STV and STVI (the latter of which came out after BOBW), Spock is a captain and is first officer to Kirk, also a captain. Hell, Scotty was a captain, too.

The real problem, as you noted, is that the creators really ran out of things for Riker to do in the last four seasons (particularly the last two). As I've noted elsewhere, he's often akin to Scotty in the original series -- the guy running the ship while Kirk (Picard) and Spock (Data) go have adventures.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nemesis, where Riker has Trek's least important fight scene with Shinzon's viceroy. The fight added nothing to the movie -- a movie where some key character tidbits were cut for time.

Riker was my favorite character growing up because of the role he played in the early seasons. But they really marginalized him late in the series, which might have coincided with Frakes taking more runs at directing.

As Riker was marginalized, Picard was more of a focus. That was fine, as long as it didn't go off the deep end (e.g. the stupid Argo part of Nemesis). It also gave more screen time to Troi, which was an unfortunate choice, because Sirtis was the worst actor in the cast and making her more central necessitated some ridiculous plot holes. Good example: She knows everything there is to know about Romulan engine rooms in 'Timescape' about a year after not knowing what a warp core breach was in "Disaster".

And making Troi a full commander -- when Data was still a Lt. Cmdr -- was just laughable.
Dirge - Thu, Sep 13, 2012 - 1:54pm (USA Central)
Why is it whenever Riker starts to go insane he stops combing his hair?
John - Sat, Sep 15, 2012 - 1:26am (USA Central)
Wow. I absolutely hated this one. Cringe-worthy and hammy, predictable, over-acted and with incredibly lame special effects. I'm quite stunned you liked so much Jammer. I've been reading your reviews for years (on and off) and this is probably the biggest discrepancy between my opinion and yours.

Half a star.
Tim - Sat, Sep 15, 2012 - 2:17pm (USA Central)
Enjoyable stuff, kind of reminded me of room 101. Thought acting was good.
Jay - Mon, Sep 17, 2012 - 9:45am (USA Central)
And me to the list of people who strongly disliked this. I was wondering why in the last scene Riker needed to tear down the sets...over the course of the episode he had already thoroughly chewed the scenery.
Mike C. - Sun, Jan 6, 2013 - 5:42am (USA Central)
Awful episode, terribly written. As a former mental health patient, there was absolutely no research done, reducing the mental patients and Riker's delusions into a one note cliche. There is no truth in any of Riker's experience, which borrows more from bad TV writing about hospitals and "crazy people" during the time the episode was made.

I give it half a star however for Data's hilarious advice about Riker's acting: "Humans have a tendency towards irrationality. Perhaps you should tap into that part of your psyche."
Crusher:"Yes, thank you, Data."
J - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 8:02pm (USA Central)
I've always loved this episode. Even watching it now, I find that for a brief moment, I still seriously start to wonder if the entire TNG series was just a figment of Riker's imagination. Switching the show's main set to a mental ward for the rest of the 6th and 7th season might have been a better idea anyways.

My only complaint is the same complaint I have for virtually every other decent TNG episode -- a strong, dramatic delivery that is hastily resolved and trivially explained away in the last 3 minutes of the show. It always feels so unrewarding.

That aside, this one kept me on the edge of my seat.
J - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 8:09pm (USA Central)
Well, that's not entirely true. Inner Light and, to some extent, BoBW 2 had fairly thoughtful, well laid out endings. BoBW 2 somewhat because it had clear continuity into Family.
Reverend Spork - Thu, Aug 29, 2013 - 10:34pm (USA Central)
This is one of a dozen tng episodes I can watch again and again and not get tired of it. I've always believed the key to good sci-fi is a solid plotline, but "frame of mind" takes me on an entertaining journey through a mental labyrinth that always kept me slightly off-balance. Jammer is exactly right: four stars.
mephyve - Fri, Sep 6, 2013 - 10:12pm (USA Central)
Wasn't among the worse episodes but not among the best either. Going through that same play repeatedly was tedious.
Just as an aside, I remember being asked to write a great escape story in high school drama class. It ended with the line 'just as the tiger was about to sink his jaws in me, I woke up.' I got a C.
Cheyne - Sun, Nov 3, 2013 - 6:14pm (USA Central)
Haha, good one, Dirge!

We could also ask why Data can escape from his monotone when he's acting but not in his day to day life.
Latex Zebra - Tue, Dec 24, 2013 - 7:33am (USA Central)
Barely remembered this one but it is very good.
The final scenes of reality shattering is very well done.
Frakes is brilliant in this as well. Some top notch acting.
Moonie - Thu, Jan 30, 2014 - 5:31am (USA Central)
Brilliant episode!
Cloudane - Mon, Feb 10, 2014 - 7:38pm (USA Central)
Fans of episodes like this who are also into gaming could do worse than check out BioShock Infinite. I just finished it, it's an awesome game, and afterwards my mind turned to this episode of TNG.
Smith - Mon, Feb 17, 2014 - 8:11am (USA Central)
Disappointing episode. The concept starts strong as a way to question reality and the examination of mental health. But is not believable because we the audience know the alien reality is fake. A different enterprise reality would have been more believable. The focus of the episode was too much on Riker's emotional outbursts and his ego. Not enough on understanding the ultimate puzzle in the human mind. Very dark episode that was very repetitious with no uplifting nor creative moments.

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