In which the Enterprise is a non-stop party, Romulans can’t be trusted, and Riker will never learn the trombone.
The Enterprise is surveying near the Neutral Zone, and everyone expresses mild surprise that the Romulans haven’t tried to reignite hostilities… again. On the ship itself, everyone seems to be celebrating Riker’s birthday. Given that there are likely to be at least three birthdays per day on a ship that size, and that this scene is full of extras in the background, one wonders how much work actually gets done on this ship. In fact, even Picard and Riker are abandoning the bridge next to hostile territory for this shindig – at least until sensors detect a probe coming in from Alpha Onais III. Could be a secret Rromulan base, so Picard calls Riker back from his party to go possibly get shot by disruptor fire.
Riker, Geordi, and Worf beam down into a massive cavern from which there are power readings emanating. As soon as they beam down, interference prevents good communications and the cavern starts to fill up with toxic gasses. The away team starts to pass out and the transporter stutters, but in the end, Riker wakes up in… a different sick bay, to Beverly wearing her hair differently, no rank pips, and a different communicator style. Also, Riker is a grey-haired captain now. Memory loss is indicated.
It is now sixteen years later than that mission, and Riker has had an Altarian Ecephalitic infection which has put him in a coma and wiped out a decade and a half of his memory – back to when he was first infected. Man, that’s going to make the rest of this series super awkward. It’s just going to be three more seasons of Captain Riker Trying To Remember How Stuff Works.
They area also dealing with some computer bugs. Crusher tries to take Will to his quarters, but Riker insists on going to the bridge, and the computer balks just for a moment. Well, it’s been sixteen years. Maybe Geordi got promoted and someone more in line with the engineering chiefs in season 1 is back in charge. Oh, nope. Geordi is still in charge. And also has eyes. I guess he changed his mind about getting the cloned implants Pulaski offered him.
Worf is now at Ops, Data is First Officer, and the instinctive jump to Red Alert that Riker made when a Romulan warbird uncleaks is apparently no longer merited. Admiral Picard and Unknown Rank Deanna Troi have brought the warbird over for some thing, and Riker can’t even.
So here’s a question for the peanut gallery: Should Starfleet demote Riker pending recovery of his memory? He’s missing seven years of memory between Alpha Onais III and becoming captain of the Enterprise. Seven years of experience in the field before (I guess) Picard found some other duties calling to him and Riker was offered the Enterprise instead of some other, lesser ship. And then nine years of command experience. Four years of treaty negotiations with the Romulans after the Federation saved one of their ships (in much the same way that hostilities with the Klingon empire were prevented from re-heating in “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Riker spearheaded that movement, and has to finish the negotiations himself, despite not believing he’s fit for command.
Finally, Will gets back to his quarters, where his son is playing the trombone even more badly than Will did sixteen years ago. His son, Jean-Luc, was half-expecting not to be remembered but it’s still rough for the kid. Also, the boy’s mother is dead in a shuttle accident, so Will never gets to meet Min, who was a ship’s counselor after Deanna left. There’s some sub-surface stuff going on between Will and Deanna that’s kind of amazingly well done. The tension between them is still there, and one gets the sense that when Will and Min started getting serious, Deanna couldn’t stand to ‘listen’ to Will being in love with her.
Riker sits down to give Jean-Luc a father-son trombone lesson, but screws up the same note he did on his birthday sixteen years ago. He seems to expect muscle memory to have kicked in, but apparently he always makes that mistake. He seems to find something strange about that, and goes digging through his service record. The computer takes some time to pull that data up, and before he can read it he gets called to the bridge to meet the Romulan ambassador, and it’s Tomalak, our favorite smarmy jerk. He seems to be fairly invested in the peace process, at least. Riker does not seem to be quite accepting of all this, however. He’s suspicious of his own son and not willing to forget the way Tomalak would have destroyed the Enterprise, had it not been for the Klingon cavalry.
Incidentally, there are currently more Klingons than just Worf serving in Starfleet, so we can assume that the alliance with them has been fairly stable. An alliance between the Federation and the Romulans would leave the Ferengi the only recurring foreign power of any significance in the nearby region. Well, except that there are also Ferengi in starfleet, so maybe we’re just looking at the Diplomatic Victory condition here.
Tomalak pays a bit of special attention to the tactical station, which prompts Riker to pull Picard and Troi into his readyroom. Apparently, the place where the final treaty will be signed, Outpost 23, is a strategic cornerstone of Neutral Zone defense. Going back to the security discussion in “Brothers,” everyone who’s lived the past 16 years seems to be willing to accept that a four-year treaty negotiation process is sufficient to ensure that the Romulans are serious about peace. Riker, who doesn’t remember those years, is a lot more willing to accept the alternative – that the Romulans were willing to sink four years into a long con in order to get the location of that base.
Of course, it’s been sixteen years. Picard updates Riker that Outpost 23 is now of minimal strategic importance. To add one thing to another, Jean-Luc Riker has injured himself playing Parreies Squares. So far, all we know about it is that it’s super violent and dangerous and there’s a ramp. Riker almost has a stroke, since his son gets a broken bone on his first day as a father, but turns out to be pretty good at it. Part of that is his determination not to be as bad a father as Kyle Riker. He gets Jean-Luc to tell him some of his favorite memories, which gets Riker thinking about Min, and watches some old home movies. The computer still fouls up trying to display Min Riker, but finally pulls it up. And now Riker figures it out.
Riker goes up to the bridge and starts grilling everyone in increasingly furious tones. Geordi still hasn’t fixed the computer. Worf doesn’t remember where he got the scar. Data can’t do all those super annoyingly precise calculations as fast as he should be able to, but he can say “can’t.” As it turns out, everyone was a projection of a Romulan holodeck, with Tomalak as the only real participant. In a wonderful piece of visual storytelling, we can see right away that Romulan holodecks are not meant for recreation. It has an observation deck, which means that the program is designed to throw photons at Riker while allowing others to see his own actions and reactions. All of the holographic setpieces are likely only visible from the inside – the same kind of effect you can see in a video game if you turn off collision detection so you can walk through walls and see the game area from outside. One tends not to think about it from within the simulation.
I digress. Riker is being interrogated. The Romulans have been using neural scanners on him to read his mind and supply expected values to him. Which is kind of tragic – when the scanner asked for ‘non-Troi romantic interests’ the strongest response in Riker’s head was the holodeck creation Minuet from “11001001.” That said, hearing Riker put so much venom into telling Tomalak that his fatal mistake was to use a RealDoll Riker fell in love with is kind of amazing. You have to imagine Tomalak’s reaction to that given his lack of context. ‘Wait, you fell in love with a Holodeck program? How has your species managed to live this long?’
Now Riker is even suspicious of Tomalak – if they wanted the location of Outpost 23, why not just scan for that information. The brain scanners somehow don’t work all that well on human brains. You’d think, given they have the human boy playing Jean-Luc Riker, they they would have tried to recalibrate them while Riker was still under sedation.
So now Riker and the boy – whose actual name is Ethan, is from a research station on Veridian VI, also on the edge of the Neutral Zone. Set up a year ago and invaded by Romulans, and nobody told the Enterprise. Riker commits to saving the kid, and they punch some Rromulans the next time Tomalak comes to interrogate them and run away to hide in a vent and find a forgotten storeroom. Riker and Ethan plan how to get out of there. The shuttles are out because the Romulans can track them. The communications center is out, because only Ambassador Tomalak can unlock the comms. MUSICAL STING! How does Ethan know about that?
Riker rolls to disbelieve and succeeds. Turns out Ethan was the one controlling the illusions the whole time. He’s an orphan, hidden from the enemies of a dead species in a holocreche, and just looking for a real person to hang out with. Compare to “The Bonding” for the ‘real people are better than illusions’ moral, and “Charlie X” for the ‘lone survivor grows up unsocialized’ angle. I really do like this episode better than both of those, however.