Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Phantasms"

***

Air date: 10/25/1993
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Patrick Stewart

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

During his periods of nightly shutdown, Data's dream program begins manifesting bizarre and nonsensical nightmares that Data has difficulty deciphering the meanings of. The situation becomes more serious, however, when Data begins oversleeping, then having periods of waking dreams — and things become dire when he eventually begins sleepwalking during those waking dreams and doing bad stuff, like, say, stabbing Counselor Troi.

I've talked recently about Good Brannon Braga. "Phantasms" is more like B-grade Decent Brannon Braga, but it still gets an endorsement from me because it has the benefit of being amusing. The best way to approach "Phantasms" is to look at it as weirdness for weirdness' sake. On that level it works. It benefits from some bizarre and funny images and has a tone that strikes the right balance of strange, funny, and downright goofy. It does all of this while also tying everything into a fairly routine — and definitely Braga-esque — tech/alien mystery involving interphasic parasites from another dimension (or something) which, if not expunged, will cause the entire crew to lose cellular cohesion and disintegrate. You know, the part of the plot that makes sense compared to Data's nightmares.

This is the logical plot-based non-character outgrowth of Data dreaming, established in last year's "Birthright, Part I." It involves Troi as a human cake being cut up, Worf commenting on its deliciousness ("It is a cellular peptide cake"), a trio of 19th-century laborers dismantling a corridor on the Enterprise, a telephone that won't stop ringing inside Data's chest, Crusher drinking Riker's brain through a straw, and, of course, Dr. Sigmund Freud (Bernard Kates) deconstructing it all in the holodeck and recommending Data undergo full psychoanalysis. Of course, all of that pales in comparison to Data becoming a mad slasher, stalking Troi through the corridor, and then stabbing her in the turbolift in a perfectly framed payoff shot that echoes Norman Bates in Psycho. When I look at that list, what's not to like?

All of this is happening for a reason, naturally. It's shortly after the stabbing that Crusher discovers the invisible alien parasites from another dimension, and it's learned that Data's dreams are actually subconscious manifestations of his program having detected them on their wavelength. The meanings behind the images line up with the happenings aboard the Enterprise as a result of the alien presence; within the clues lie the answer of how to destroy them. So Picard and Geordi use the holodeck to enter Data's dream and try to crack the mystery. This leads to a lengthy sequence where Data's dream is broken down, symbol by symbol, with Picard and Geordi providing running commentary to explain how the puzzle all fits together. This is more arbitrary than enlightening, but it gets the story from A to B.

All of this is leavened by its humor. In addition to the story's clear amusement with its own goofiness, we also have a running gag about Picard potentially missing a conference that he absolutely would love to miss but has been sternly warned by the admiral to absolutely not miss it without a really good reason. As I said before, this is the nuts-and-bolts approach to Data as a piece of hardware instead of an exploration of what nightmares mean to him as a character, but sometimes hardware is what we enjoy in our TNG.

Previous episode: Gambit
Next episode: Dark Page

Season Index

38 comments on this review

grumpy_otter - Thu, Sep 20, 2012 - 9:20pm (USA Central)
This would get 1 from me. Take away the bizarre imagery (which has made for some fun caption contests, but since it was all dreaming, who gives a ^%$#?) and you've got a really pedestrian "mystery."

And oh, good lord, that was the worst Freud I've ever seen.

I think there could have been potential with the parasites and Data stabbing Troi, but the weird stuff didn't seem fun to me at all.

It gets the 1 for the scene with Spot and Worf.
David - Fri, Sep 21, 2012 - 12:17am (USA Central)
I agree it is a 3-star episode. Not Brannon's best work but good enough. I think what really stands out to me is the atmosphere it really felt dream-like and bizarre. I thought some of the padding with the lady with a crush on Geordi and Picard/Admiral was uninteresting filler which brought the episode down but I though Brannon did a good job with the selection of images and connecting them to the real-life events on the ship.
Jammer - Fri, Sep 21, 2012 - 12:20am (USA Central)
Good point: The whole thing with the woman with a crush on Geordi was completely irrelevant and was dropped by the story ... so much so that I forgot to even mention it in the review.
Mikael - Sat, Sep 22, 2012 - 5:03pm (USA Central)
This is actually one of my very favorites, even though I have to admit it's not horribly rich on substance. "Phantasms" has the too-rare-for-Trek Lynchian tone also present in TNG's "Survivors," Voyager's "One" and Enterprise's "Doctor's Orders". It's funny but it's also chilling. The image of Worf eating Deanna has never left me.

Trek should have more episodes where a character's subjective reality bends as it offers so many storytelling opportunities. Whenever they experimented and used art house techniques the episode stood out, even if they sometimes missed their mark. Voyager's horridly pretentious "The Fight" comes to mind as an obvious failure. All form (or lack of it...) with no substance to present through the form.
Josh - Sat, Sep 22, 2012 - 6:24pm (USA Central)
I actually watched this one a few weeks ago and agree with the rating. It has a good mixture of creepiness and humor.
Nic - Sun, Sep 23, 2012 - 6:07pm (USA Central)
This has always been one of my favourites as well. The funniest moment in all of Trek for me is probably when Data answers matter-of-factly "It is a cellular peptide cake" with Worf, mouth full, piping in "with mint frosting!"

LOL.
Paul - Mon, Sep 24, 2012 - 10:37am (USA Central)
Terrible episode. I might give this one star, if only for the "mint frosting" line.

The weird, almost metaphysical plots from Braga sometimes work. But this is just Data masturbation, of which there's way too much of in season 7 (Masks, Thine Own Self, Descent II). We get it -- he's the series' most interesting character, Spiner's a good actor and we're bored with just about everybody else.

The first six episodes of this season (with the awful Dark Page next) show that TNG was really out of gas. If not for Parallels, All Good Things and even The Pegasus, there would be almost nothing worth watching this season.
dan - Mon, Sep 24, 2012 - 6:14pm (USA Central)
the cake at the end was funny
R - Tue, Sep 25, 2012 - 6:34pm (USA Central)
Will someone answer that damn ringing?!
Landon - Wed, Sep 26, 2012 - 6:22pm (USA Central)
A top 10 Data episode. Top 40 TNG episode. Have always loved it. Loved Data interacting with Sigmund Freud...Trek is so educatioal, I believe from sherlock holmes to freud to shakespeare TNG first introduced me to all these things. Awesomenes.... 3.5 stars
Nick P. - Thu, Sep 27, 2012 - 3:14pm (USA Central)
Hey jammer, if you wanna skip all the episodes until "
All Good Things", with maybe a sentence on each episode in between, I am perfectly fine.

The only reason I say this is because I fear we will all be dead of boredom by the time we get to "All Good Things"!

Quick question to everybody. Why was "All Good Things" so amazing, and every single other episode of season 7 so amazingly lackuster? Did some writer or director come back from somewhere? I felt like "All Good Things" would have fit perfectly during season 3 or 4, back when the show was really good.
Patrick - Thu, Sep 27, 2012 - 7:10pm (USA Central)
@Nick P

Sorry dude. "Lower Decks" is a classic, and I and many others want to hear Jammer's thoughts on this matter.

("Firstborn" and "Preemptive Strike" are also ones of considerable interest.)
Paul - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 10:55am (USA Central)
@Nick P and @Patrick --

The finale, Parallels, Pegasus and Preemtpive Strike are all good to great. Lower Decks, Attached, Force of Nature, Journey's End, Inheritance, Interface, Bloodlines and Gambit are watchable.

But I'd say Liaisons, Phantasms, Dark Page, Homeward, Masks, Thine Own Self, Eye of the Beholder, Firstborn and Emergence are all really terrible, Sub Rosa is arguably TNG's worst episode and Genesis is arguably its most ridiculous.

The series lost a lot of its zip in the sixth season and only rarely found it again in the seventh. Troi gets too much airtime, Worf gets declawed, there's too much Data masturbation (Thine Own Self, Masks, Phantasms) and the tone of the series is noticeably muted.

TNG was at its best midway through season three to midway through season six (with some classics sprinkled around elsewhere).
Patrick - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 12:35pm (USA Central)
^^
"Genesis" is the worst episode of all 178 episodes of the series. It's worse than even "Shades of Grey". Seriously.
Patrick - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 12:47pm (USA Central)
^^
And "Lower Decks" is *far* more than 'watchable'. It's a classic.
Paul - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 3:30pm (USA Central)
The inclusion of Ben as the Guinan stand-in hurts "Lower Decks" in a major way.
Paul - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 3:40pm (USA Central)
Also, Genesis and Shades of Grey aren't worse than Sub Rosa.
Landon - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 4:06pm (USA Central)
Let's see, classic season 7 episodes: "All Good Things", "Parallels", "The Pegasus"...Very good season 7 episodes: "Preemptive Strike", "Phantasms", "Lower Decks" and although season 7 isn't the best season and yeah seasons 3 and 4 were the best and more epic you guys really exagerate on your critisiscm, it has several more decent episodes, I mean man my mentality is I LOVE TRek and I love TNG as a whole and it has some down/inferior momemts and some GREAT moments same as anything, overall its one of THE best series EVER. PERIOD.
Patrick - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 5:04pm (USA Central)
I'd like to think of Ben as one of Guinan's many children training at tending bar and listening. I never found it to hurt the episode in the least.
Paul - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 6:27pm (USA Central)
Landon -- I don't like season 7 as a whole, but I love TNG.
Paul - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 6:32pm (USA Central)
Patrick -- I hate when new characters that we've never seen before parachute in and the regular characters all act like said new characters have been around for years. This isn't unique to Star Trek, but I can't think of a more blatant example in Trek than here.

It's especially transparent when Ben is CLEARLY playing a role meant for Guinan -- right down to the character's self-assured nature.
Patrick - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 8:44pm (USA Central)
More blatant than in "The Wounded" when we learn that the Federation was retroactively at war with the Cardassians, who in that episode we meet for the first time? "The Wounded" was a terrific episode in the vein of "Balance of Terror" (which did the exact same thing in TOS).
Paul - Sat, Sep 29, 2012 - 1:26pm (USA Central)
Well, BOT was like the 10th episode of the series and the story talked about how the Romulans hadn't made an appearance in a century. So, it was plausible that we'd never heard of them until that episode.

The Cardassian thing was less plausible, though it happened a couple other times (the Xgenthi in DS9, the one-off bad guys in TNG's Suddenly Human, etc.).

But, yes, I do find the Ben thing more annoying the others. Here's a character who we never saw before and never saw again who's like best friends with everybody. Ridiculous.
Robert - Mon, Oct 1, 2012 - 3:00pm (USA Central)
I actually liked Ben... one of the great things about Lower Decks is that it opens your mind to the fact that there are hundreds of officers on the Enterprise with lives, hopes, dreams and concerns that aren't "our main seven".

Even DS9 (which had a more fleshed out set of recurring characters) sometimes suffered from that same feeling of being too small (especially jarring during wartime when, outside of big battle CGI sequences, it felt like the entire enemy force was Damar, Weyoun and the female changeling). Introducing one off characters that seem to be friends with and know everybody isn't necessarily a bad thing (especially in an episode that seemed designed to make you feel the amount of people on the ship).

Paul, I do share your feeling that it was a little sad we never saw him (or Ensigns Gomez and Lefler) again. It was a missed opportunity to get some excellent recurring characters (like O'Brien/Ro). But even with those recurring characters they often just "show up" one day. Ro got a hefty introduction, but one day everybody is psyched for Keiko/O'Brien's wedding and the viewers had never heard of Keiko before. I remember Guinan's introduction being equally as sudden and shes best buddies with Picard even though we never heard from her Season 1. The only difference between that and Ben is that Keiko/Guinan showed up again later!
Landon - Mon, Oct 1, 2012 - 5:23pm (USA Central)
This how it gone for me: series-wise I've gone back and forth between which series is better-TNG, VOY or DS9....ultimately there all great and equal for me with their own individual strengths....I think that says somethig....
Concerning TNG, I've jonestly gone from thinking maybe ssn 6, then 5, then 7 and then 4, now 3 are the best seasons, at one point I even felt like maybe season 2 was the best due to its handful of timeless juggernauts...before I looked more for high-concept episodes, ow I more appreciate the expanding, epic-scale fleshing out of the Trek universe that ssns 3 and 4 did....so, again...I think this says something....and I think ultimately that something is Star Trek is damn good and damn consistent for all the reasons and in all the ways all of us already know....
Paul - Tue, Oct 2, 2012 - 11:47am (USA Central)
@Robert: You make some valid points. And had they introduced Ben more gradually, had he appeared in later episodes or if he hadn't SO CLEARLY playing the role like Guinan, I might not have cared.

The problem here isn't that they introduced a new character. It's that the senior officers on the Enterprise are so trusting of and close to this new character who we never saw previously and never see again.

To be perfectly honest, I don't think this episode should have been made without Guinan -- unless the Ten Forward bartender role was removed completely.
Jay - Sat, Oct 6, 2012 - 12:07pm (USA Central)
I didn't much care for the Ben character either, but I suspect his purpose was to be a "Lower Decks" Guinan equivalent for the junior officers (which apparently suggests than the real Guinan has no time or regard for any of the crew other than the top brass, which is a bad insinuation), but there it is.
Jammer - Sat, Oct 6, 2012 - 1:39pm (USA Central)
If we could, I'd prefer everyone discuss later episodes on their respective reviews when they're eventually posted, and keep the topic here more focused on "Phantasms" or discussion that's at least somewhat related. Thanks.
Nick P. - Tue, Oct 16, 2012 - 8:54am (USA Central)
Ok, Phantasms sucks!
Patrick - Tue, Oct 16, 2012 - 3:20pm (USA Central)
Of all the "crazy crap is happening on the Enterprise" episodes of season 7, "Phantasms" was the best. It's a clever, albeit convoluted premise, but it's well executed.

Compared to garbage like "Masks", "Sub Rosa" and the worst episode of TNG ever a.k.a. "Genesis"--this episode is "Yesterday's Enterprise".
CeeBee - Tue, Jan 1, 2013 - 8:07pm (USA Central)
I liked the episode. The solutions data tries out (like visiting Freud) are funny.

The parasites were creepy. I would jump up and down if I discovered such a creepy critter was attached to my body, invisible or not. Our crew members are not that much disturbed.

One question: why does a captain have to attend an admiral's dinner? And that for six year in a row?
cos - Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - 9:25pm (USA Central)
I'm pretty late to this party (just found your review while googling "Phantasms" after viewing this episode during my own TNG rewatch last night), but I was wondering if there was ever an explanation behind Data's "glitches" in this episode?

I get that Data detected the creatures on some level, and his dreams were how he was working out the problem in his subconscious, but if there was a reason that his internal chronometer failed, or that he started uncontrollably dreaming while awake, I missed it. I assume that there is a technobabble explanation as to why this situation was unique, but was it mentioned? It saved them this time, but I wouldn't want to travel through space with an android who might get stabby any time he has to sleep on a problem!

Regardless of whether or not there was an explanation, I think that 3 stars is about right for this episode. It's not perfect, but the crazy imagery and humor ("I will feed him!") make up for most of its flaws.
Grumpy - Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - 10:54pm (USA Central)
cos,
The explanation for Data's glitches is, as usual, Braga once again failed to understand the premise of his own story, I'm sorry to say (because it's beating a dead horse).
Ray - Fri, Aug 2, 2013 - 1:45am (USA Central)
Data - " and you must talk to him . . . tell him he is a pretty cat, and a good cat"
adrienne - Sun, Sep 8, 2013 - 1:02am (USA Central)
I too loved the exchange between Data and Wharf about Data's cat, but my favorite funny bit was Data climbing into bed, doing a forced fakey yawn and arm stretch, 2 smacks of his lips and he is ready to "sleep"! LOL
William B - Wed, Oct 30, 2013 - 3:00pm (USA Central)
I mostly agree with Jammer's review and would also give this episode three stars. However, I think that it is somewhat character-based. In some ways, Data has a lot in common with autism-spectrum disorder people, in that he processes so much information that he sometimes has difficulty with his filtering processes. And additionally, he has some highly obsessive traits. Once Data fixates on an idea, he cannot get off that idea, and does not need to sleep or eat (if he does not want to) to get off it. When he's solving a mystery, this is *very* good -- in this season, "Thine Own Self" comes to mind, where he works until he discovers the concept of radiation. But when it's something of a personal matter, Data's heedless focus can be less than fruitful -- he can't relax in "In Theory," for example -- or outright dangerous, as in his continuing to chase the dragon of emotion at the possible risk to his own life in "Descent, Part I" (in the holodeck scene with the Borg; this happens before his ethical subroutine is compromised by Crosis).

Braga previously suggested what happens when Data gets a subconscious signal in "Cause and Effect," where Data obsessively placed three's all around the ship and didn't know he was doing so. In this episode, he "subconsciously" perceives the threat from the parasitic life forms. It enters his dreams, where he processes information through his creative side. The dreams turn to nightmares, and the urgency with which this occurs eventually drives out other considerations. He starts having waking dreams, and reflexively stabs Troi to save her. What is interesting and scary and kind of great is that Data is at the point of processing so much information that he "knows" on a deep level that he absolutely has to "save" Troi, and the crew, by alerting them to the parasites, but that knowledge is only encoded in him intuitively, and so manifests as an urge which he can't control.

I was thinking about no one being too concerned, after the episode ends, that this incident not be repeated; that there is no court-martial, nor any risk of Data being disassembled and reexamined, or so on. To some extent, it's because the Enterprise crew are a forgiving bunch, but I think the other thing is, *Data was right* -- Data's uncontrollable impulse was not a sign of some buried destructive urge, but a way to alert the crew to the life forms in a way that was not possible for him to access. Data's dreaming becomes a metaphor for, and demonstration of, all the value of creativity and the irrational mind (in Data and in humans) in interpreting information about the world that is too difficult and complex to deal with fully rationally. It's not so much that the irrational is better than the rational, but that the latter, while frightening, can actually be very important. That's a very Braga type theme to play with, and it's one he deals with well.

I love so many of the touches of humour in this episode -- Worf & Spot, Data's lip smacking, the great Admiral's Banquet subplot. My favourite touch is the image of Data sitting quietly across from Picard in the conference room with two security guards towering over him on either side -- it's such a beautiful contrast, Data's relatively small frame and quiet, pleasant demeanour up against the evidence of how dangerous he is. This is by far the best of the symbol-laden shows this season, though it still falters in some areas (the Fredu is too silly, for example).
mephyve - Tue, Jan 28, 2014 - 10:47pm (USA Central)
As usual Counsellor Pschobabble was way off base, this time with mint frosting.
Lots of good humor here. Especially imagining Worf calling Spot 'pretty cat.'
I do believe that there was some poking fun at Freud and some of his theories. We weren't supposed to take him seriously.
Riker's brain is apparently the perfect beverage to wash down Troi's body. Wierd stuff but definitely enjoyable.
Smith - Sun, Feb 23, 2014 - 9:25am (USA Central)
One of my favorite Braga episodes. Very creative with some great metaphors. Great lens for looking at pycho-babble, parasites and dreams. Loved the critique that Braga did of Freud (Braga admitted he wasn't a fan of him). The directing was actually a pleasant surprise from Stewart (wasn't a big fan of his western trek). Pacing was great, imagery was creative and camera work was wonderful. The one exception was the cake which the producers instructed Patrick not shoot it the way he did (made it obvious that Marina was poking her neck through the cake). Patrick ignored them...and this kind of showed through, but wasn't too bad.

In esoteric circles...there are actually incorporial parasites and perhaps Braga tapped into this subcounsly... All in all, fun episode!

Submit a comment

Above, type the last name of the captain on Star Trek: TNG
Notify me about new comments on this page
Hide my e-mail on my post

Season Index

Copyright © 1994-2014, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of any review or article on this site is prohibited. Star Trek (in all its myriad forms), Battlestar Galactica, and Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc., NBC Universal, and Tribune Entertainment, respectively. This site is in no way affiliated with or authorized by any of those companies. | Copyright & Disclaimer