Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Conspiracy

James reaches the penultimate episode in his lookback at the first TNG season, one with a schlocky sci-fi horror vibe...

This review contains spoilers. 

1.25 Conspiracy

A lot of TNG season one was bland to the point of being completely forgettable. Say what you will about Conspiracy, but at least it was memorable. Not necessarily for good reasons, but after the previous instalment, we’ll take character where we can find it.

At the start of the episode, Picard receives a secret priority message from Captain Keel, an old friend. We know this because the computer starts blaring “SECRET PRIORITY MESSAGE INCOMING!” from every speaker, which strikes me as, er, not very discreet. Keel insists Picard meet with him on the planet Dytallix B, explain nothing to his crew, and fail to log the diversion to Starfleet. It seems like it’d be difficult to keep a random diversion secret on a ship with over a thousand people on, but since you only need about six to actually run the thing maybe no-one else knows what’s going on.

Arriving at the planet, Picard meets Keel and some other captains who warn him of odd behaviour in Starfleet. Maybe even… a conspiracy! Sceptical but trusting of Keel’s instincts, Picard returns to his ship vowing to look out for any unusual instructions from people he otherwise trusts (like being told to meet people in secret and tell no-one. Does that count?). Meanwhile, he tasks Data with sifting through months and months of order logs to look for patterns. And if he finishes that, he’s to rename all of the ship’s MP3s so that they’re in lowercase and make sure they all have cover art.

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As the Enterprise continues on its way, they encounter some wreckage. It’s Keel’s ship! Which apparently overtook them at some point and has since exploded. Well, that at least clears up whether Keel was being paranoid or not. When Data completes his study, he finds a lot of subtle yet strategic crew movements that suggest… a conspiracy! Picard orders the Enterprise back to Earth so he can speak with Starfleet Command personally.

Upon arrival, Picard is greeted by Admiral Quinn (the one from Coming of Age who originally warned Picard that something was rotten in Starfleet). Quinn beams to the Enterprise and invites Picard and Riker to dinner. As they show him round, Picard mentions his previous visit. But Quinn brushes it off! Maybe they’ve gotten to him too? Picard certainly thinks so, asking Riker to hang around and watch out for unusual behaviour in Quinn while he beams to the planet.

On Earth, Picard is greeted by two Admirals and Quinn’s assistant, Remmick. The one who riled up our favourite crew while investigating them. Ooh, we don’t like him!

Back on the Enterprise, Riker is chatting with Quinn in the Admiral’s quarters when he unveils a small box containing a new lifeform! Quinn describes it as “superior” to humans. When Riker looks horrified, Quinn starts spouting some crazy, threatening slogans and beats the hell out of him. Or at least, pushes him around a bit. Riker summons a security team before he’s knocked out, and Worf and Geordi turn up (wait, THAT’s the security team?) and get beaten up too. Luckily Crusher was just passing with a phaser, and stuns Quinn.

Investigating Quinn’s odd behaviour, they learn that he’s been infected by a brain parasite that’s controlling his mind. They inform the captain of what’s happened, warning him to set his phaser to kill, but he’s unarmed. He has no choice but to go to the meal! The admirals, having kept up the pretence of being normal humans inexplicably serve live grubs for dinner, chowing down while Picard looks rightly horrified at the prospect. He’s about to leave when Riker arrives! Acting all weird and infected. He forces Picard to sit down and listen while the others explain their plan in rather more detail than is strictly necessary. It turns out that the brain parasites are attempting to take over Starfleet. It’s… a conspiracy! (Oh, so THAT’s why this episode is called that.)

With the plan explained, Riker is about to eat some worms when he flips his allegiance and reveals that he was only faking it! He shoots one of the Admirals with his phaser, and Picard grabs another. As they shoot the infected hosts, the parasites leave their bodies. One scuttles away, and they follow it to… Remmick! It crawls up his body and into his mouth. He’s brimming with the things. Riker and Picard do the only thing they can (or rather, the only thing they can think of.) They phaser him until he explodes, revealing a giant parasite waving around in the middle of his melted torso like a cut scene from Spaceballs. Then they shoot it as well.

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Back on the ship, Crusher reveals that killing the big parasite has called all of the others to instantly die (convenient!). But all is not well: it turns out he sent a signal to the parasite’s home planet before he died. Maybe even a homing beason. The episode ends with an ominous signal beeping away into the depths of space…

Of course, no-one ever picks that plot thread up, so, er, mission accomplished. Now, does anyone know if Remmick has a widow? She’s due a Starfleet regulation Ham.

TNG WTF: Where do we even start? The unusual tone of the episode forgives a lot of its weirdness, but nothing can stop the obviously stop-motion animated brain parasites from looking utterly ridiculous. It doesn’t help that they’re bright pink, too. If only they’d been done as effects they could have re-done the animation for the Blu-ray remaster. But no, they’re in-camera, and thus preserved for eternity in their current, horrible state.

Also, the scene where Remmick gets phasered is possibly the most WTF moment in all of TNG. Picard and Riker subject him to an extended attack, but rather than being vaporised (like most people are by extended phaser bursts) the skin melts off his head and then it explodes. Then his chest caves in. It looks straight out of the eighties horror playbook. Someone was clearly having a little too much fun with that bit.

TNG LOL: Oh, this is an episode full of laughs. Some of them even intentional.

The first proper laugh is on purpose. After being shut down all season by his crew-mates for over-explaining everything, Data is explaining his findings to the computer… which interrupts him saying “Thank you Sir, I comprehend.” I laughed like a drain.

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The next is less intentional. Riker and Quinn’s fight. It’s absolutely Grade A Star Trek fighting: awkward and over-choreographed. At one point the two stand face to face so that Riker can do a Danny Laruso-style crane kick into Quinn’s grinning mug, which is something no-one has ever done in a real fight ever. Later, Riker gets taken out with the smashing of a coffee table (a classic TNG move.) And if there was any further doubt, when Worf joins the fray he even does that weird double-handed punch thing. Brilliant.

The bit where Riker attempts to eat mealworms to prove that he’s been taken over is hilarious, not least because he leaves it until the last possible second before changing his mind. The weird thing is that this appears to be purely for the audience’s benefit, since he accomplishes nothing by stretching it out.

Also, look out for Patrick Stewart in this episode. He does a good line in facial expressions. The look of disgust and contempt he gives after he’s just blown up Remmick’s head is particularly hilarious. You think he’d be a BIT more contrite!

Mistakes and Minutiae: This episode reveals that phasers have a new setting to go with the standard four (Stun, Kill, Cut Through Door and Heat Up Rocks): Head Explodey. I’d use that one most.

Time Until Meeting: 18:35. Picard and Riker discuss a potential conspiracy. Most of the opening thirty minutes is just people standing around talking to one another, and while this meeting is no more important, it does take place in the meeting room. Sounds fair to me!

Captain’s Log: Well, it’s certainly an unusual episode, I’ll give it that.

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If nothing else, this episode is the closest thing TNG season one has to a finale. If the series had been made today, the events of this episode would have driven a season arc. As it is, it’s essentially a two-parter split up by multiple episodes. Taken in that light, it’s actually not bad. It does, at least, tell a complete and well-seeded story. Even if the resolution gets a bit B-movie by the end.

But let’s face it. Conspiracy is aiming far higher than it hits. Reading about this episode, I learnt that it was supposed to be some kind of commentary on the Iran-Contra affair, which makes its schlocky sci-fi horror vibe all the more puzzling. The paranoia is interesting but never tense. The weirdness is unsettling, but too often undercut by the terrible effects.

Still, at least it’s doing something different. And it’s ultimately better than the sum of its parts, just for taking a completely crazy idea and committing to it fully.

Watch or Skip? Watch! It’s hard to say if it’s entertaining or entertainingly bad, but either way it IS entertaining.

Read James’ review of the previous episode, We’ll Always Have Paris, here.

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