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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Conspiracy (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

Conspiracy stands out from the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, it stands out from pretty much the majority of the Star Trek canon, feeling distinctly unpleasant and unnerving throughout. It is not just the gore – which remains one of the most weirdly graphic scenes in Star Trek history, to the point where it was edited out of the original BBC broadcast of the show.

There’s something more unnerving and uncomfortable about Conspiracy, as it represents the first time we’ve really seen the Federation and Starfleet so thoroughly corrupted and subverted. Sure, we’ve had rogue officials, obfuscating bureaucrats and meddling administrators, but Conspiracy represents a thoroughly cynical examination of some of the core concepts that Star Trek takes for granted.

It isn’t indicative of what The Next Generation would eventually evolve into, even seeming considerably darker than Star Trek: Deep Space Nine normally delved, but it does represent something bold and new, something that we never would have seen in the original Star Trek. I think that is what makes it such a fascinating episode in this rocky first season, even ignoring its sizeable flaws.

A can of worms...

A can of worms…

It is worth noting that Conspiracy evolved significantly from its original idea. Writer Tracy Tormé, one of the strongest writers of the rocky first couple of years on the show, had pitched the episode as something even darker than the version that eventually made it to screen. As he explains:

It was intended to be completely non-alien. It was going to be a story about the Prime Directive and it restrictions and the fact there was a militant wing inside the Federation. The Prime Directive was too restrictive, the Federation was going too soft, making the enemies out there think that they were too complacent. Picard’s old friends were starting a coup inside the Federation. That was the original idea. It just wasn’t something Roddenberry wanted to do. Then, we moved it much more in the science fiction direction with aliens.

Tormé has acknowledged that the Iran-Contra affair was a major influence on the storyline in its earliest stages, and that is apolitical event that The Next Generation seemed to play with quite a bit in the first year.

Things come apart...

Things come apart…

Lacking the finesse that would come with later issue-driven adventures, Too Short a Season had seen an Admiral caught up in a weapons-for-hostages deal that came back to haunt him. It was hardly the best way to handle the scandal, with Jameson reduced to a card-carrying egomaniac who had to be punished for various transgressions, but it did demonstrate a willingness to embrace relatively complex political and philosophical issues on the series, something that had always defined Star Trek.

The America that was tuning in weekly to watch The Next Generation was no longer the same nation that had enjoyed Kirk’s voyages to the stars. The X-Files was only a few years away, and I think it’s fair to suggest that pop culture was growing increasingly uncertain about authority. The original Star Trek ended shortly before man first set foot on the moon, perhaps the most optimistic moment in the second-half of the twentieth century, where the world seemed to grasp humanity’s sheer potential.

Creepy crawlies...

Creepy crawlies…

However, The Next Generation arrived in a world that had suffered through the Watergate Scandal, seen an ineffective government flail through the Iranian hostage crisis, and just emerged from a fairly bleak recession. To its credit, The Next Generation would eventually embrace an optimism and humanism that managed to (arguably) outshine that of the original Star Trek, but Conspiracy represents the one moment where it seemed to allow for the type of institutional corruption and decay that many cynics had come to take for granted.

Truth be told, Conspiracy feels strangely out of place on The Next Generation, but I admire that about it. Indeed, I’d argue that Conspiracy would feel even more out of place (and much less welcome) had it emerged at any point past the show’s third season. Part of the reason that Conspiracy works quite well here is because it can be read as a reaction to a lot of the first season, where the Enterprise and her crew (and humanity in general) have been portrayed as the embodiment of perfection. They are not just better than we are now, they are the best they could ever be.

Sticking his neck out...

Sticking his neck out…

Tormé explicitly identifies that complacency as the reason that he pitched and wrote Conspiracy:

I felt Next Generation was way too soft, too complacent. Everyone liked each other, every ending was happy and everyone was always hunky-dory. So, I really wanted to do something different at the end of the year that was different.

To be entirely fair, Conspiracy doesn’t work perfectly. The revelation that the sinister goings-on are the work of mind-controlling parasites feels like a bit of a convenient reveal, especially given the way that Admiral Quinn stated his concerns in Coming of Age. The script was affected by the writers’ strike of 1988, and there’s a definite sense that the script could use a polish. The reveals come far too quickly, the denouement is too easy, and the conspiracy itself becomes less sinister and more inept in the second half of the episode.

Captains' summit...

Captains’ summit…

All these problems hold the episode back a bit, but it still makes for some pretty fascinating viewing. Both the final script (and Cliff Bole’s direction) manage to create a sense of discomfort and unease. There’s something decidedly off-beat about the secret meeting on an abandoned planet, something that feels far more uncomfortable than any away mission into openly hostile territory. The “dinner” sequence is delightfully off-putting, if only because the hosts treat the consumption of the worms as though nothing is wrong.

More than that, though, there’s something very unnerving at the heart of Conspiracy, and it is the idea that the Federation has grown so complacent that this sort of thing could happen. On top of that, there’s the idea that this sort of thing could happen and only a few people would notice – and that the rest of Starfleet would so blindly and unquestioningly follow orders that these reasonable suspicions would be dismissed as almost paranoid. Even Picard, the benchmark of reasonableness on Star Trek, refuses to listen to Walker’s case until it is too late.

Set your faces to stunned...

Set your faces to stunned…

The destruction of the Horatio is intended to lure Picard to Earth, so it makes sense that it is a rather blatant manuever by the conspiracy. However, the actions recorded by Walker and his associates seem less than subtle:

Some of us have seen strange patterns emerging. Unusual orders. High-ranking officials backing irrational proposals.

Starbase 12 was completely evacuated for two full days. No explanation given.

And what about the deaths? McKinney, Ryan Sipe, Onna Karapleedeez.

All dead?

A series of accidents.

Or so they say. It’s hard to be certain of anything. Interfleet communications are at a minimum. But something is happening.

The fact that all of this could happen without anybody but Walker, Rixx and Scott questioning it seems to suggest that there was already something rotten at the heart of Starfleet. After all, if this sort of activity goes unremarked upon and unquestioned, it seems a bit much for Starfleet to lecture the Ferengi, the Anticans or the Selay about how to improve themselves.

Home front...

Home front…

This “cancer growing within the ranks of Starfleet” and “subversion inside the Federation” all happen without anybody noticing. Picard suggests that he missed it because the Enterprise was on the “outer rim.” Perhaps hinting that the show needs to be more introspective. To be fair, Data attempts to rationalise the fact that nobody noticed what was going on. “The orders were given with great subtlety. To use an aphorism, Starfleet’s left hand did not know what its right hand was doing.”

All that aside, still suggests a pretty massive blind spot on the part of the Federation, and an arrogant lack of transparency, that such activity could take place without setting off alarms. If this happened with the United States military, imagine the scandal that would break. And, let’s face it, this sort of mind-control infiltration is far more likely in the world of Star Trek than in the real world. Kirk seemed to meddle in a plot like this once or twice a year, so there’s no excuse for how it could happen.

Did somebody call a doctor?

Did somebody call a doctor?

We learn relatively little about this alien species here. “It was discovered accidentally by a survey team on an uncharted planet,” not!Quinn tells us. It is quite disconcerting to believe that it escaped from that rock and effectively managed to conquer the Federation. It seems especially surreal when you bear in mind what not!Quinn considers to be “subtle infiltration” – in consists of throwing three staff members around, smashing some furniture and fixtures, and twirling an imaginary moustache.

And yet, this isn’t out of character. We actually have very little trouble believing that the Federation as seen in The Next Generation was complacent enough to allow that to happen. After all, The Naked Now demonstrated that “quarantine procedures” on the flagship consist of leaving the patient unattended in Sick Bay with an unlocked door, and Angel One suggested that nobody undergoes more than a routine examination after coming back from a field-trip. The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us would leave us to believe that Starfleet officers are so confident in their own superiority they are more likely to lecture other cultures that to question themselves.

Gut instinct...

Gut instinct…

There’s also another interesting aspect to the parasites that is brought up only fleetingly. Much like the Borg, who would make their debut the following year after being teased in the next episode, and become perhaps the most iconic alien race introduced in The Next Generation, the parasites offer an interesting (and critical) mirror to the Federation. Heart of Glory was the first episode of The Next Generation to suggest that the Federation’s value system might be purely relative and not inherently superior – with the Korris literally unable to live in the state of idealised utopian peace realised by the Federation-Klingon alliance – and Conspiracy brings up the idea of forced integration. Indeed, according to the text commentary on Star Trek: First Contact, the parasites were originally intended to more firmly tie into the arrival of the Borg.

Trying to distract from the red flags he raised in Coming of Age, not!Quinn tries to distract Picard by claiming that he was concerned about how the Federation interacts with new members. “But Jean-Luc, you took me far too literally. I was only referring to the problems involved in assimilating new races into the Federation. It’s an ongoing, tumultuous process which can cause stress and strain on every aspect of our alliance.” It is the first team we’ve really heard it suggested that assimilation into the Federation is not always a smooth ride.

Ramping up...

Ramping up…

What is interesting is that, during that wonderful dinner scene, not!Scott seems to try to argue that the relationship between parasite and host is mutually beneficial. Perhaps, one could argue, similar to the relationship between humans and other Federation members. not!Scott’s arguments are less than convincing, but they are made with a strange earnestness, one that suggests that the parasites genuinely believe this arrangement is best for all parties involved. This isn’t parasitic, she seems to suggest, but symbiotic.

“It’s a perfect match,” she tells Picard. “We’re the brains, you’re the brawn.” She also tries to find some small element of common group between the two species, “Yes, the one thing both races share is a love of theatre. And you’ve put on a fine show.” When not!Remmick is confronted, in another of the show’s superb sequences, his throat bulges as he assures Picard, “We seek peaceful coexistence!” It is meant to be an ironic moment, but we’re never sure whether or not not!Remmick actually believes that or is merely desperately attempting not to get exploded.

He's a faaake!

He’s a faaake!

However, despite the wonderfully absurd idea of a mind-control parasite assure Picard and Riker “we mean you no harm!”, I don’t find it too difficult to believe that the parasites are being entirely honest – at least from their perspective. Undoubtedly they deem their manner of existence to be superior to those of lowly humans. It turns a lot of the smug superiority we’ve seen from the crew on its head. After all, don’t the Federation consider their values to be superior to those of the Ferengi or the Klingons?

Sure, the Federation would never resort to force to impose its views, but there are more subtle methods of coercion. After all, the Federation seems to be strangely dominated by humanity, despite the fact that we are a relative latecomer to the stars. The youngest captain in Starfleet, Tryla Scott, is a human. Federation headquarters is on Earth. Characters still use language like “human rights”, as the Klingons would call them on during The Undiscovered Country. Okay, the fact that the majority of our cast is always human is due to budgets and network controls, but the subtext feels a little uncomfortable.

It bugs me...

It bugs me…

Indeed, The Undiscovered Country provides an interesting counterpart to this episode. In that film – the final featuring the original Star Trek ensemble – a military conspiracy works to undermine the Federation’s objectives. As peace between the Klingons and the Federation seems to become less and less likely, Acting Chancellor Azetbur calls the Federation on its cultural imperialism. “Human rights. Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a homo sapiens only club.” In fact, Heart of Glory (and almost ten years of Klingon-centred episodes following it) would suggest that the triumph of Federation values had led to the decline and decay of the Klingon Empire. It’s worth noting that, apparently, the original draft of the episode featured Starfleet officers upset with the peace the Federation had secured with the Klingons, making it an interesting mirror to The Undiscovered Country.

The Borg offered a similarly dark mirror to the Federation – in fact, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that not!Quinn used the verb “assimilate” to describe the policy by which the Federation claims new members. Despite the insistence of the show’s bible that the show is not about “spreading 20th century Euro/American cultural values throughout the galaxy”, you could argue that this is a large part of what some of the preacher early episodes of The Next Generation have been about. The parasites are just more overt in their sense of superiority and their process of assimilation.

He just hit the mother lode...

He just hit the mother lode…

Conspiracy ends with one hell of a hook, and one that was never followed up on, at least officially. (The aliens did appear again in the Deep Space Nine relaunch novels, and that show’s darker philosophy was probably a better fit for them.) According to The Art of Star Trek, audience reaction to Conspiracy played a part in the fact that the creatures never returned:

Indeed, the first-season episode Conspiracy is the Star Trek exception that proves the rule. A grim story of an alien conspiracy at the highest level of Starfleet, the episode’s graphic portrayal of alien parasites made it stand apart from other Star Trek television episodes. Though the story was set up for sequels, the alien-conspiracy plot threads were never revisited, due in part to the negative reaction the episode received.

Still, perhaps it’s for the best. Conspiracy makes its case quite convincingly on its own. although not quite as effective as Q Who?, the plot does serve to humble our protagonists a bit. I’m sad to say it, but the crew of the Enterprise as presented in this first season have been so smug that they desperately need a good humbling.

His logic is quite clear...

His logic is quite clear…

Amid all the carnage and cynicism, there are also some nice character beats. Already the ensemble has developed their own rhythms and beats, to the point where it’s quite nice to spend time with the senior staff as they plan their holidays. That is something I never thought I’d type. Worf’s reaction to the question as to whether Klingons swim (“swimming is too much like bathing”) is worth the price of admission alone. With the exception of Heart of Glory, Dorn hasn’t been given much to do this year, but he has excellent comic timing. The same is true of Brent Spiner, who plays that old “Data misunderstands a turn of phrase” gimmick remarkably well.

There’s also a nice little revelation buried in the conversation between Picard and Keel. I had forgotten that Beverly never knew Picard before she met her husband. It almost makes their sexual tension all the more frustrating. It isn’t that his crush married his best friend, it’s that he only met the girl of his dreams after his best friend had started dating her. Despite how dark and pessimistic the episode is about Federation politics, it is nice to see the primary cast still realise Roddenberry’s vision of utopia. Picard trusts his crew so absolutely that he almost immediately brings them into the loop, despite Keel’s warnings not to.

Boy, they really blew it...

Boy, they really blew it…

Conspiracy isn’t a perfect episode. I’m not even convinced that it is an especially great one. However, it feels like a necessary addition to the canon, and one that seems to acknowledge that some of the subtext of this rocky first season has been far from wholesome. The series would improve dramatically over the following two years, and I’m not sure that would have been entirely possible without the ideas suggested here. The Next Generation wouldn’t get quite this bleak and dark again, but it wouldn’t need to.

There’s a world where Conspiracy served as the season finalé to this troubled and stumbling first year of the science-fiction revival. In that world, it’s likely that many of us left with a better impression of the show than we might have otherwise. Unfortunately, The Neutral Zone would actually close out the first season, repeating many of the mistakes and falling into many of the same traps that Conspiracy repeatedly pointed out. Still, even if the lessons weren’t learned immediately, it seems that they were picked up quickly enough.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

The Next Generation certainly wouldn’t have become one of the best shows on television without Conspiracy, whatever you may think of it.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

8 Responses

  1. When “Conspiracy” first aired, I was so excited to finally see something gritty and dark–real conflict. While I followed TNG, I wasn’t terribly impressed by it (for good reason), so this episode gave me hope. I’m not sure why there was such negative reaction to it (nobody asked me), but I really hoped that this storyline would have been followed up, even with just one subsequent sequel. They wouldn’t start with story arcs until much later, but it hinted at what the show was capable of doing.

    • I agree entirely.

      I think that the reason people who like Conspiracy like Conspiracy is because it is so decidedly different from everything else in that year. It’s boldly experimental, and the first season of a new show really needed to be. Sort of like how the first season of Deep Space Nine had Duet or The Hands of the Prophet, Conspiracy indicates that the show is going to be more than an imitation of TOS, even if they aren’t sure what exactly that means yet.

  2. The “Conspiracy” episode of “STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION” is my favorite episode! We even taped it off the air on blank vhs and on dvd disc. I love my favorite scene where this creepy parasite bulges inside the guy’s neck like that. LOVE THE NECK BULGING SCENE!!! It would be really cool if many horror filmmakers should copy this idea a little and make millions new Body Bulging Parasite Horror Movies out of it; and they also ought to add an over dozens to hundreds more head and body parts bulging makeup fx and more practical special fx including a lot of Neck Bulging Mutant, special fx Horror Movies.

    • That is a great special effect. Fun fact: did you know that the effect was surprisingly low-maintenance? They had guys blowing into a hose off the stage to make the neck inflate and deflate, if I remember correctly.

      I just loved the B-movie-ness of the whole episode.

      • Yes, I seen a video where the special effects artists doing the behind the scenes test of the face inflation makeup bladder fx from the movie “Scanners II: The New Order.” And I thought that was incredibly awesome special makeup effects work. I seriously think most of the horror filmmakers should do millions new body inflating special fx, mutant horror movies.

      • Do you know other guys who did more of the weird alien neck inflations or all other body inflations bladder-fx?

      • Afraid not Edward, all I know is that wonderful VFX story.

  3. I think some people, including this reviewer, cling a bit too much to the political/humanistic/subversive aspects of this episode even after they were effectively disposed of when the script changed the political conspiracy to aliens.
    Alternatively, they keep saying things like “what a pity that it turned out to be alien parasites; a higher-up conspiracy would’ve been a much more satisfying pay-off to the first half, and it would’ve said something important about the fallibility of the Federation! Too bad that ol’ tree-hugger Roddenberry intervened and insisted on this cop-out…”

    People, whatever Conspiracy had been before it got rewritten, and no matter how exciting and interesting and valuable that previous version may have been – the episode as it stands isn’t that animal, not anymore; it’s not there to make a point, nor is it there to say something about humanity or Starfleet. What it is, is Bodysnatchers in Space – and despite the fact that now a bunch of Admirals get taken over, it can be easily put alongside all those other horror / monster of the week episodes from early TNG and TOS.
    For all their “optimism” and “smugness”, both crews have been facing threats and menaces beyond human capability like every 2nd week, and often only prevailed due to luck or persuasion. This one only stands out as being the largest and most successful one, having actually taken over large chunks of society instead of looming in some distant nebula or a hidden away planet, however, unlike say that space junk god from the Eden planet, or that smug “discoball in a jar” who felt threatened and started messing with the ship in I believe season 2, or Nagilum, or Mitchell, or even the tar monster from Skin of Evil, this threat was actually one of those that our heroes could conquer by force. So no, not particularly subversive or “humbling” – a mystery’s set up, then the monster’s revealed, and at the end the crew kicks its arse.

    There’s a valid point to be made about the “complacency” of a Starfleet that could be overtaken so easily being that last “cynical and subversive” remnant of the previous version, however, that is only if you choose to interpret it at face value; to me, it rather feels like the same kind of plot convenience that makes the heroes the only ones to get behind the conspiracy in every other instance of this kinda plot – basically as in “well if other people were getting behind it as well, then we couldn’t have this one guy and his friends in a paranoid nightmare with no one to turn to, could we”.
    Yea, I guess Picard’s crew and the guys that warned him are sort of the “best”, just like Wesley is technically a prodigy – but basically, in this episode as well as The Game, they’re just the protagonists and hence the only ones able/lucky enough to get on top of things.
    Also, no one discovers that giant sting sticking out of people’s necks before Dr. Crusher does it – again, a comment on the stagnation of medicine in Starfleet, or just a plot device (well, in this case, a plot hole)?

    Similarly, the “creepy tone” of this episode, particularly the 1st half, has really nothing to do with cynicism or subversion, imho – what it does, is create a general sense of menace, paranoia and nightmare that simply comes from “something being wrong… very wrong”. And while technically that could be anything from ghosts to a government coup, ultimately the atmosphere is way too dark, too creepy and too sickly for a mere political conspiracy / corruption of values to have been a satisfying pay-off.
    Even if it were to be a human conspiracy, it still should’ve been something creepy and imposing such as an ancient cult that’s been planning this take-over for ages, or at least a segment of Starfleet personel aiming to establish some kind of horrific tyranny or mind control – ANYTHING but the ol’ “ah so there’s more corruption to humanity than you’d care to admit!” that was realized much better in DS9 and some of the later TNG episodes, where threats and conflicts put the Federation’s lofty enlightened ideals to the test; however, creepy horror crawlies that snuck up on unsuspecting officers when they were alone in their room, making them go from “you know there’s something wrong going on here, old friend; I soon need to depart again, but I had to warn you – we need to watch out” to “nah everything’s dandy, I just meant… what, I said that? Really, that’s what I said? Well guess I must’ve been off my depression pills LOL, don’t take stuff too seriously buddy!”, was pretty much the ideal pay-off imo 😉

    If you want a “creepy political take-over” version of this, without the sickly, unsettling horror but with all the menace and paranoia, check out the 1st chapter of the “Unity” fanfic – the Federation teams up with SW’s Empire, and by the time more and more people come to realize who they’re dealing with and what their plan is, the rest of Starfleet is already hopelessly in denial and the Empire’s planted its seeds in every place…
    😉

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