After three straight outings featuring stories that clearly hinted at a closing series tidying up unfinished character business (albeit not especially successfully), we get one last trip into bad sci-fi tedium with "Emergence," which would've been right at home in the middle stretch of season seven that gave us "Sub Rosa," "Masks," and "Genesis," TNG's Trilogy of Terrible.
Of those three, "Emergence" most resembles "Masks," in that there's a bunch of crazy stuff going on and it's all supposed to be a metaphorical representation of something more significant and highbrow (or at least middlebrow). At this point, I think maybe we've been one too many times to the metaphor well of Joe Menosky — who has the teleplay credit here from a story with Brannon Braga's name on it, but which mostly seems to be an asinine foray into a holodeck-gone-awry pastiche.
The plot is that the Enterprise begins developing its own conscious intelligence based on the massive knowledge base that is the ship's computer, with all its recorded mission logs and personal data. From this intelligence it begins to synthesize a series of connected circuit nodes that suggest the ship itself is becoming sentient. The ship begins synthesizing a physical presence in a cargo bay that the crew believes is its progeny.
That's not a bad concept for a sci-fi story. But the show drives itself into a coma-inducing morass when the computer's consciousness begins using the holodeck to express itself through a series of holodeck programs, combining various characters, eras, and scenarios into a ponderous muddle of sequences that do not for a moment cohere into anything thoughtful or intriguing. They instead come off as random scenes playing out in front of us, alleging the illusion of meaning where none actually exists. The most thematically consistent part of all this is that there's a train, and everyone aboard it is trying to get to "Vertiform City," which is the computer's way of symbolizing the realization of its birthing journey. There are plenty of other details, but none of them work as good storytelling. (Meanwhile, I kept wanting — now, albeit not in 1994 when it originally aired — for the train conductor, played by David Huddleston, to break out and shout at somebody, "Condolences! The bums lost!" But all he could muster was "Ticket, please.")
There's probably a decent story that could've been made from the crux of "Emergence." The idea of the ship becoming its own intelligence and creating its own offspring is reasonably intriguing, as is the idea of the final scene, where Picard notes that he didn't view the entity begotten from the Enterprise as threatening because, well, it came from us. But unfortunately, the way the vast majority of "Emergence" is executed makes success impossible. Here is yet another seventh season episode where it feels like everyone is sleepwalking through it — the writers, the producers, the director, the actors, everyone.