Star Trek: The Next Generation, for fans of intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction, was gold-pressed manna from heaven. Action-packed, contemplative, heartfelt and principled in equal measure, viewers of the show were never quite sure which facet of Gene Roddenberry’s star-borne tale they were going to get each week, and no episode exemplifies that ever-changing face more than the sixth episode of the seventh and final season, “Phantasms.”
In what is certainly one of the most out-there episodes in all of Star Trek history, the episode begins with Data experiencing an unusual dream as he walks down a corridor on the Enterprise. Hearing the sound of an old-fashioned rotary phone, he sees a trio of workmen dismantling a warp plasma conduit. When he attempts to engage in conversation with them, he emits a high-pitched noise as the workmen turn and tear off his arms and head. Worried, Data wakes from the dream, but is encouraged by Counselor Troi to continue his dreams as a means of therapy.
Meanwhile, Captain Picard is invited to an admirals' dinner, and grudgingly orders the Enterprise to head towards Starbase 219. The new warp drive won’t engage and Data and Geordi set out to fix the problem. Despite their best efforts, the drive refuses to engage.
Data is deep in another dream within Ten-Forward. Along with the workmen, Troi appears as the head of a “cellular peptide cake with mint frosting.” The workmen tell Data to slice into the shoulder of the cake as Troi pleads him to stop. Data wakes to find his fellow crew members looking for him. He is late for his shift, something that has never happened before. Keen for understanding, he activates the holodeck and books a session with a simulation of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. As he continues his work on the engines with Geordi, characters from his dreams begin to appear, including crewmen with small mouths on their bodies, and the cake knife briefly appearing as an engineering tool. Data disturbingly attacks Troi in the turbolift, claiming to have seen one of the mouths and wounding her on her shoulder. Shocked at his own actions and concerned he will do it again, Data puts himself under guard in his quarters.
As Dr, Crusher further investigates Troi’s wound she finds evidence of interphasic creatures, feeding on the crew. It transpires that these creatures are where the mouths have been appearing to Data. He believes he knows how to remove them by adjusting his circuitry to an interphasic pulse that will kill the creatures. Geordi posits that these creatures had infected the warp drive, a theory confirmed as the pulse is activated and the warp drive engaged. Luckily for Picard, the repairs take longer than expected, meaning he once again dodges the admirals’ dinner.
As the episode ends, Data apologises to Troi for the attack. Troi accepts his apology, revealing a Data shaped cake for them to share.
First aired on October 25, 1993, the episode was written by Brannon Braga and directed by Patrick Stewart. The fourth of his five episodes at the helm, the show was littered with a number of interesting continuity gems, including the re-appearance of Data's head from the “Time's Arrow” two-parter back in seasons five and six, the gift that Jenna D'Sora gave Data in "In Theory" (also directed by Stewart, his first TNG directorial effort) was seen, as was Data's Sherlock Holmes outfit from season two's "Elementary, Dear Data". We also learned that Data believed he had no mother. He would meet her a month later in the 10th episode of the final season, "Inheritance," in the form of Juliana Tainer, wife of his creator Noonien Soong. Interestingly, the episode was one of a handful that were edited for UK audiences, with the turbolift stabbing scene between Data and Troi trimmed to only allude to the stabbing rather than showing it.
As TNG journeyed through its seventh and final season, on its way to the big screen and four movies, the show took the opportunity to not only emphasize the familial bonds between the characters, but also to layer in extra elements of character progression and exploration. “Phantasms” saw the further development of Data as his ability to dream evolved, all bringing him further to his adventures with the emotion chip in Star Trek Generations. Our magnificent seven were well entrenched, confident in each other’s abilities and skills, even when confronted with cellular peptide cakes with mint frosting and pesky interphasic creatures.
A quarter of a century on, episodes like “Phantasms” only serve to illustrate how fortunate we were to share the journey with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D. As Geordi said in the episode, "This ought to be a lot of fun!"
How right he was.
Mark Newbold has been an avid Trek fan since the 1970's, when TOS was shown on UK TV, but it was the original cast movie series and TNG era that sealed the deal. Mark is a writer for Star Trek The Official Magazine, is editor-in-Chief of Star Trek: The Neutral Zone and was a stage host at Destination Star Trek Germany in 2018. At heart, he's a Niner. Follow him on Twitter.