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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Schizoid Man (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

I should probably hate The Schizoid Man. It is certainly a very, very flawed piece of television. It would be a lot more forgivable had it aired during the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the show was still trying to find its feet – including it early in the second season feels like the show is pushing it a little. In many respects, The Schizoid Man embodies a lot of the (legitimate) complaints about the weaknesses of The Next Generation as a television show: the performances from the peripheral members of the main cast are a bit ropey, there’s an incredibly false sense of urgency generated by techno-babble and the dialogue is just terrible.

And yet, despite that, there’s quite a lot here to like. Stripping away the terrible dialogue and the unnecessary convolutions, The Schizoid Man is a very basic morality play, one touching on themes the show will handle a lot better a few episodes down the line. Brent Spiner is surprisingly creepy as Graves-as-Data, and W. Morgan Sheppard is pretty great in an admittedly thankless part as the misogynistic and creepy Ira Graves.

23rd century Schizoid Man...

23rd century Schizoid Man…

The body swap is a science-fiction standard. The original Star Trek did it quite a few times, including the final episode – the dire and incredibly sexist Turnabout Intruder. The Next Generation has already done a few variations on the “possession” theme, with various crew members serving as a conduit for an alien intelligence in Lonely Among Us and mind-controlling parasites infiltrating the Federation in Conspiracy. Data has already been a victim of a swap, with his evil twin brother taking his place in Datalore. (Using the same mechanism that Graves does here.)

Body swap stories are fun because they revel in the strangeness of a particular character acting out of sorts, showing the audience a new side to a member of the ensemble. They also invite the actors to have a bit of fun in their roles, shaking things up a bit by giving them an opportunity to play outside the range they’ve established on the show. Variety is the spice of life, and one imagines that seven straight years of playing the same character might lead a performer to welcome the opportunity to branch out.

We commend this body to the stars...

We commend this body to the stars…

Brent Spiner clearly has a great time playing the possessed Data. Like most of the Next Generation ensemble, Spiner isn’t an actor with a particularly broad range. However, he can do childlike innocence very well – there’s a reason that Data became the breakout character of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He can also do creepy and smarmy remarkably well. Spiner seems to relish the opportunity to portray particularly unnerving and unsettling villains, and his Graves-as-Data is remarkably unnerving.

This sense of discomfort is probably enhanced by Spiner’s decision not to overtly mimic the performance style of co-star W. Morgan Sheppard. Sheppard offers a lovely scenery-chewing turn as an arrogant and cantankerous old man staring down his own mortality, but Spiner’s take on the character is remarkably different. Instead, Spiner offers us a more swaggering version of the character, giving us a sense that being inside the android’s body has only empowered the genius’ ego.

What? Do you think his hair stays this stylish naturally?

What? Do you think his hair stays this stylish naturally?

Indeed, it’s Spiner’s deliciously campy and creepy performance that makes The Schizoid Man so much fun. The episode has a lot of very serious flaws, but the actor is clearly having a lot of fun cutting loose. Spiner makes it clear that Graves isn’t a villain in the most obvious of senses – he’s not violent, he’s not psychotic, he’s not driven by goals opposed to that of the Enterprise crew. Instead, he’s just very unpleasant.

It’s hard not to cringe in the scenes where Graves-as-Data professes his love for Kareen. We’re so used to seeing Data’s face as relatively blank and emotionless that it’s awkward to see it contort and move in a more human manner beneath that white make-up and yellow contact lenses. Spiner does intense frustration and bitterness remarkably well, and his version of Graves manages to strike us as a very broken individual, his misogynistic tendencies not withstanding. (Also creepy: that scene where Data “checks out” a female crewmember.)

The Android demands a mate...

The Android demands a mate…

However, as fun as Spiner’s performance is, The Schizoid Man is hardly the strongest of the show’s episode. If we’re feeling charitable, there’s a case to be made that The Schizoid Man might have made a decent episode of the show’s first season. It raises all manner of issues and concepts, but they feel rather basic. The Schizoid Man feels like a rough sketch of the show’s themes and plot points surrounding Data, rather than a full portrait.

The climax of The Schizoid Man hinges on a debate between Graves and Picard about Data’s right to exist, and whether an artificial life form can ever take precedence over a real flesh-and-blood person. When Picard questions Graves’ moral authority to usurp Data’s body, Graves asserts, “I had every right, Captain. I am man, he is machine. There is no question who must live and what must die.”

Bad Data...

Bad Data…

Naturally, Picard is having none of this. “No,” the captain counters. “He must not be lost. He’s not simply an android. He’s a life form, entirely unique.” When Graves repeats that Data isn’t human, Picard responds, “He is different, yes. But that does not make him expendable, or any less significant. No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another.” This is nice meaty Star Trek philosophy, engaging with big issues about life and rights and moral authority.

The problem is that this all feels rather basic, as if it has been wheeled out because the climax of the show needed an issue to hook the audience. There’s no debate here, no convincing argument to be made. The Next Generation has been on the air for over a year at this point. Audiences are already responding to Data. The character has been accepted as part of the ensemble. The audience accepts, without question, his right to exist.

The halo effect...

The halo effect…

So the whole philosophical argument about whether Graves’ existence can take priority feels a little shallow. Data is a character we’ve spent a year coming to know and love, and Graves is a sexist and abusive pig. There’s really no way that any member of the audience might argue that Graves’ point held any weight whatsoever. This is the second season of the show, and so the audience has begun to accept these characters at face value.

Had the episode aired early in the first season, and had Graves seemed like a decent person, the argument might feel more substantial. Indeed, it would have had a lot more meat than most of the early first season episodes. Unfortunately, the debate feels like an after-thought at this point in the show’s run. Airing less than a month afterwards, The Measure of a Man would raise the same sort questions, but in a more nuance and challenging way. Again, there’s no way the audience would side against Data, but the arguments are more clearly articulated, and the debate more intriguingly framed.

Attending his own funeral...

Attending his own funeral…

Indeed, quite a lot of The Schizoid Man feels like The Next Generation is still trying to figure out the basics of telling Star Trek stories. As with the last few episodes, there’s a sense that we’re slowly getting there, but the show is still sketching a rough outline, rather than adding fine shading. This really isn’t where a second season should be. This is what the first half of a first season should be like.

Like Where Silence Has Lease, we open with a character-building teaser. I think these teasers stand out as one of the smarter creative decisions of the second season, allowing the characters on the show room to breath and beginning the process of introducing them to the audience as friends or family rather than simply dramatic protagonists. The show turned a corner in its third season by becoming decidedly more character-focused, but those roots are evident in the second season, even if they often seem accidental rather than intentional.

He's just a love machine...

He’s just a love machine…

“What is Data up to this week?” or “what’s Worf worrying about today?” are the sorts of questions that built towards the show’s familial atmosphere. That warm and endearing atmosphere became one of the hallmarks of The Next Generation, when we’d randomly open episodes on poker games or holodeck simulations, getting a sense that the Enterprise isn’t just a military ship charting the unknown, it’s also a floating city or a large extended family, with its own rhythms and relationships and in-jokes.

The Schizoid Man opens with “Data grows a beard.” It’s hardly the best cold open “crew relaxing” sequences the show ever produced. It feels rather… basic, really. It’s as if the writers are still trying to figure out how to convey Data’s study of the humanities in a way that is easy for the audience to understand and relate to. The whole sequence is awkward, because it feels like an idea that really should have been nipped at that initial pitch.

Other-worldly...

Other-worldly…

Marina Sirtis’ performance doesn’t help. The scripting doesn’t do Levar Burton or Spiner any favours, but Sirtis is terrible when asked to develop Troi as a regular person. To be fair to Sirtis, she does the whole “vaguely mystical crewmember” and “professional member of the senior staff” stuff well, and has great chemistry with Jonathan Frakes. However, Troi and Crusher remain the most nebulously defined players in the ensemble. McFadden is typically given stronger material (Sub Rosa notwithstanding), but she’s given it more rarely.

However, Sirtis has difficulty making Troi seem like an actual person. The whole bit where she stifles a laugh and has to excuse herself was never going to be comedic gold, but Sirtis manages to make the whole thing feel particularly staged and particularly cringe-inducing. Burton’s dialogue isn’t that much better, but his comedic timing is stronger, and Spiner is clearly making an effort.

Graves' concern...

Graves’ concern…

Of course, “Data grows a beard” is an absurdly trite way of demonstrating the character’s fascination with humanity. From the third season onwards, the show would go on to offer some rather wonderful short teaser scenes hinting at his on-going exploration of what it might mean to be human. The Defector opens with Data and Picard practicing Shakespeare. Ensigns of Command gives us Data as a musician. There are lots of lovely little examples scattered throughout the show.

Although the series has done little moments like this before – most notably Data and Geordi painting together in 11001001 – it hasn’t yet become a feature casually imported into episodes. The beard scene is hardly a crowning accomplishment, but it is a step in the right direction. This also adds to the sense that the show is still learning the ropes, and The Schizoid Man would be a lot easier to stomach as an early first season episode than it is as an early second season episode.

"Gene let Frakes keep his..."

“Gene let Frakes keep his…”

That said, not all of The Schizoid Man‘s problems can be forgiven as a show still learning the ropes. For example, the episode’s opening act features a surreal techno-babble complication designed solely to generate a false sense of jeopardy and to eat time. While on their way to rescue Graves, the Enterprise receives a distress call from another ship. The Enterprise can’t be in two places at one time, so they decide to leave the away team on the planet and come back later.

From a storytelling perspective, this plot point makes sense. For the story to work, the show needs to get Data and Graves alone together for an extended period of time without supervision. If Graves is beamed to the Enterprise, he’ll be under constant watch. Even if Graves were to refuse to beam up, Pulaski could beam an entire medical team down to research his condition and make him comfortable. So getting the Enterprise away and leaving only a skeleton team behind makes sense from a storytelling point of view. (Even if Selar seems a little ineffective  and inattentive as a doctor.)

Getting a handle on Data...

Getting a handle on Data…

However, the problem is how the episode decides to execute this plot point. It would be easy enough for the Enterprise to beam the team down and then receive the distress call, warping off after checking everything is okay, but before Graves has been diagnosed. This would work reasonably well and provide the necessary set-up. However, The Schizoid Man opts for a more convoluted and awkward solution, presumably to amp up the drama.

I am a massive fan of Star Trek. I love The Next Generation. I am even quite fond of The Schizoid Man, as I’ve admitted above. I mention this, because any abiding affection for Star Trek must come with a tolerance – and even a cheesy affection – for the franchise’s storytelling crutches. It means admitting that techno-babble makes no sense, and is chosen for dialogue flow more than scientific accuracy. I means appreciating the cheesy storytelling tropes, even when they make little sense outside of context.

Of all the souls we encountered on our travels... his was the most... cantankerous.

Of all the souls we encountered on our travels… his was the most… cantankerous.

Star Trek has a fondness for using techno-babble to ramp up tension, spinning dilemmas and problems out of meaningless dialogue spoken with urgency and underscored with a suitably ominous soundtrack. Like the shaking of the bridge, it’s a nice shorthand for warning the audience of some dangerous plot point without needing to blow any of the special effects budget. It can be done remarkably well – the cast of The Next Generation do the “bridge shuffle” incredibly convincingly – but it can also become a crutch, like it did in Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Enterprise.

To be fair to The Next Generation, it is a talky show. I’d argue that’s the best thing about it – one of the best things about The Next Generation is the fact that the scripts are actually willing to talk big ideas out. The best part of The Neutral Zone, the awful first season finalé, were the long and thoughtful conversations about what the return of the Romulans might mean. Soon, the show would produce its best episode to date – and one of the best in the entire franchise – in The Measure of a Man, simply one big long discussion about whether Data is sentient.

Knocking some ideas about...

Knocking some ideas about…

So using dialogue and exposition to raise the stakes can work, and it’s something that The Next Generation can do very well. However, The Schizoid Man‘s attempt at generating tension in its first act feels transparent and shallow. The crisis involving the USS Constantinople feels so abstract and convenient that the urgency feels false. We don’t get to see the ship, and we only hear the scrambled call for aid over audio. (It’s also dealt with quite quickly, with the Enterprise returning to the story as soon as it is expedient.)

The writing doesn’t help, with the main cast reduced to offering plot-driving exposition that doesn’t convince the audience to invest in the Constantinople as anything more than a convenient distraction. Riker even helpfully labels the function of his dialogue as “suggestion”, creating the impression that this is the most mechanical of exchanges, an afterthought that nobody is really too worked up about. If the writers aren’t too bothered, why should we be?

Looking down on his fellow crewmembers...

Looking down on his fellow crewmembers…

The “near-warp transport” doesn’t add anything to the plot. It’s not set-up or foreshadowed. There’s no dramatic penalty exacted upon the crew for attempting it. It seems like the episode is drumming up tension for no real reason, with no real effort and investment. It gives the characters a bunch of lines to read urgently, but the net effect feels somewhat disappointing – standard footage of the Enterprise coming out of warp, the usual transporter effect and a line from Troi about how she totally felt how urgent and risky that manoeuvre – which looks exactly like every other time the Enterprise has beamed down an away team – really was.

It’s a distracting sequence, because it expends a lot of energy on something that ultimately adds very little to the plot as a whole. Would The Schizoid Man be a weaker episode without that sequence? The episode could easily have used the extra time to flesh out the supporting cast, or to put more flesh on the bones of Graves or even to give us a bit more insight into Data’s quest to be human. There are the heart of the episode, and the fact that The Schizoid Man is so easily distracted by stock special effects and terrible dialogue speaks volumes about the problems with the show in its second season.

Cold hands, robotic heart?

Cold hands, robotic heart?

These dialogue problems are not restricted to this sequence. A lot of the episode feels somewhat clunky, as if the writers are using the characters to directly address the audience. When they beam down, Data explains, “All is quiet so far. Of course, no one knew we were coming.” That piece of information feels a little redundant, except as an awkward plot point reminder to the audience. It’s phrased uncomfortably as well, just like Riker’s labelled “suggestion.” The dialogue is overloaded with exposition and feels very inorganic.

When Troi is talking to Kareen, she rather bluntly feels the need to inform the young woman that Graves had romantic intentions towards her. Troi isn’t even subtle about that. “His feelings towards you are very warm,” Troi states. “He’s attracted to you in many ways.” Kareen reveals that she has known about the affection for quite some time, but Troi’s decision to just blurt that out there makes her seem highly unprofessional. She could have easily destroyed a professional working relationship. Troi was never a character who achieved her maximum potential, but the second season is not a good year for her as a character.

He leaves an impressive body of work...

He leaves an impressive body of work…

While Graves makes quite an impression in a short amount of screen time, that seems to be mostly the work of actor W. Morgan Sheppard. It’s no wonder that the franchise has used the veteran character actor multiple times, across several of the shows and casts. The script does what it can to negate the actor’s charisma, having him over-explain cheap shots made at the expense of the crew. The Outrageous Okona demonstrated the difficulty that The Next Generation has with over-written humour, and that carries across here.

“No offense,” Graves tells Selar, “but I don’t want you touching me in any way. It’s no secret that I don’t like people much, and I like doctors even less.” It would be a decent enough throw-away line to demonstrate just how much Graves hates doctors, but then the script tries to call attention to how wry Graves is being. Troi awkwardly replies, in a line that makes it seem like she’s not the sharpest cookie in the biscuit tin, “That’s funny, I thought most doctors were people.” Clearly not having over-explained what should have been a flippant remark enough, Graves responds, “Then you’re wrong. Ask any patient.”

"Sensors report tension has been appropriately raised."

“Sensors report tension has been appropriately raised.”

It’s worth talking a bit about Selar, because The Schizoid Man is the only episode in which she appears. She’s referenced a few more times on the show – her name is dropped in Yesterday’s Enterprise and Remember Me. She’s a character who seems to have caught on despite only a single appearance. Selar has become a major player in the expanded Star Trek tie-in universe, used as a regular crew member on Peter David’s Excalibur series. (Actress Suzie Plakson is another performer who worked quite a bit in the Star Trek universe, popping up later this season as Worf’s lover K’Ehleyr and also in episodes of Voyager and Enterprise.)

Selar was apparently proposed by writer Tracey Tormé as a replacement for Beverly Crusher in the second season, with the writer favouring an alien doctor. Tormé was – as with many things – overruled by Gene Roddenberry, who wanted a more down-to-earth country doctor in the style of McCoy. Tormé worked on the script to The Schizoid Man, so it seems that he got to realise his vision in some small capacity. However, when Plakson was cast as K’Ehleyr, it was apparently decided that she couldn’t play two potentially recurring characters (ah, the pre-Jeffrey Combs days!), so Selar was never mentioned again. Although she clearly made an impression.

"Mad scientist is such an out-dated term..."

“Mad scientist is such an out-dated term…”

The plot to The Schizoid Man feels a little shaky. Body swap plots often run into difficulty when a victim’s family and friends fail to notice incredibly obvious shifts in behavioural patterns, allowing the swap to play out a lot longer than it probably should without raising suspicion. To the credit of The Schizoid Man, the crew notice the changes in Data almost immediately – which is good, because the episode does not do subtle. However, it seems to take the crew quite some time to figure out what has happened.

(As an aside, Data’s strange decision to tell his “grandpa” about his off switch feels a little contrived. I know Data is too trusting, but he indicated in Datalore that he was smart enough to realise that it’s a good idea if most people don’t know the really simple way of deactivating him. He acted like telling Beverly was a massive secret, so it seems weird he’d impart the information so readily, even to a man claiming to be family.)

Their relationship is Kareen-ing out of control...

Their relationship is Kareen-ing out of control…

However, once the crew figures out that something is wrong with Data, it takes them an eternity to figure out exactly what. To be fair here, the crew haven’t been party to all that we’ve seen, but the clues seem incredibly obvious. Early on, Troi talks about two personalities inside of Data. One is “unstable. Brilliant but vain, sensitive yet paranoid.” And apparently “prone to irrationality.” Picard gasps. “Of course,” he mutters. As if he has suddenly pieced it together. After all, who has Data recently encountered who fits that profile?

And yet, despite that, Picard somehow doesn’t make the leap. In his log immediately following that sequence, he confesses, “I am greatly troubled by the unusual behaviour of Commander Data and fear that somehow it is directly related to the experiments of Ira Graves.” Picard might be hedging his bets, embarrassed to admit his suspicions, but it seems like the crew is remarkably slow to suspect that the “brilliant but vain” personality inside Data might be the same “brilliant but vain” cybernetics expert who just spent a lot of time alone with Data on an alien world. It makes the crew look ineffectual.

If I only had a body...

If I only had a body…

The Schizoid Man showcases weaknesses with The Next Generation that would never quite go away. The show occasionally had problems with dialogue, and with a reliance on using techno-babble to create a false sense of risk. However, there’s also some elements that work here. Brent Spiner revels in making Data creepy, and W. Morgan Sheppard is great in a small role. The episode does broach some philosophical arguments, even if they feel far too shallow and thoughtlessly grafted in at the last minute.

It’s an episode that wouldn’t be a bed effort early in the show’s first year. However, as part of the second season, it demonstrates just how far we have left to go.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Star Trek is science fiction. Technobabble should be expected. What shouldn’t be expected is that all that occurs on the ship is scientifically explicable.

    • Technobabble should be expected. But it also shouldn’t be a crutch. Doctors in hospital dramas don’t spend the entire time talking in insane detail about concepts that are not relatable to the layman, why should the Enterprise be any different?

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