In which Riker chews, shatters, and dismantles the scenery.
We open on Riker acting terrified and contrite as an off-screen Data plays doctor. Already this episode makes me think of nothing so much as “Dagger of the Mind.” Mostly as that and “Whom Gods Destroy” are the two takes on really destructive mental illness we’ve seen so far, but also because Data’s character has this delightfully malevolent undertone to it. Also, if this is a play being performed in the Federation its power would lie in its relatability, so when Riker goes on the rant about being strapped down and injected, when we know that even eighty years ago they had more sophisticated methods, what ought we to conclude about treatment of the more accute forms of mental illness in the Federation? Sure, a big long-term ship gets a ship’s counsellor for preventative maintenance, but if somebody really does go nutty?
Will forgets a line and they get ready to break rehearsals for the night. Data suggests Riker access his irrationality to get in touch with his character, but Beverly tells him to go relax, and off he goes ranting rehearsing through the halls of the Enterprise, bumping into an lieutenant of a species we haven’t met before. I’m sure from the lingering camera and the musical sting this can’t possibly be important.
Next day, Picard briefs Riker on the mission of the week – an extraction mission to a planet whose government just collapsed, and whose leading factions are using torture to extract information from anyone they feel is important. Like in “First Contact” Riker feels the best plan is to go in alone and undercover instead of, say, undercover with some tactical support. I feel like the Federation ought to make watching heist shows required viewing – Nathan Ford and Michael Westen would never try something that stupid. Lucky Riker, he still gets to be in the play. Picard timed everything to make sure Beverly doesn’t need to go hunting for another leading man.
At least they’re equipping him with a communicator, although one embedded in a pendant rather than a sub-dermal one. You know, to be sure it can be removed from him in a pinch. Leave it to Worf to supply Riker with a cover identity involving knives, too. And he accidentally nicks Riker in the forehead – a really quick fix, but Riker experiences lingering symptoms and a really intense stare from an engineering tech. The play is surely just messing with Riker’s head, and Beverly throws some Jung at him.
The play seems to be pretty well-received, but as RIker takes his bows, the same creepy lieutenant shows up, and then everyone disappears, the set turns into a cell, and the LT is now a doctor as Riker has become the patient for real, and after a few moments Riker can’t even remember his name. Good thing, too, because if he’s being tortured by those people he was just told torture people, he almost just gave away his cover, on the offchance it was still intact.
Yeah, in fact it isn’t intact. The doctor, Cyrus, says they spoke to Starfleet to check on whether Riker is actually a member of the fleet, and apparently he isn’t. And the knife wound he got from Worf was actually received struggling with an orderly. In Picard’s alternate life he got to be a family man living out his live in the last days of his planet. Riker gets “Future Imperfect” and this. This episode might as well be called “The Inner Dark.”
Riker gets to go to the common area, and hear the screams of other inmates on the way. It is a bleak and dismal place – they have some touristy chopsticks for building toys instead of honest LEGO bricks. The dastards!
I have to assume the glass in that door is made of the same durable materal that they use for starship windows, because glass in an asylum seems like a terrible idea. Riker sits down and is approached by someone claiming to be an officer on the Yorktown, and that there are dozens of other officers being harvested for their neurotransmitters. She’s made a communicator out of a spoon. Or no, it’s just a spoon.
You know, it just wouldn’t be an asylum show or episode without an orderly who delights in the suffering of his charges and undoing all the doctors careful work. Who hires these people, anyway? He goads Riker into a tussle, jabs him with a needle, and Riker wakes up in his quarters aboard the Enterprise the day before the play. This is what is known as ‘method’ acting, apparently. During the performance, he sees one of the aliens peeking through the cell door, which completely throws him off his game. The little touches in this scene are also fantastic – Riker’s pupils are huge. Are they doing this in low-light, did Beverly give him some contacts, or possibly even some drugs to dilate his eyes to give him that extra-crazed look? Or perhaps he’s just crazed – moments before the end of the play he breaks character and grabs one of the audience because it’s the doctor. His realities are beginning to bleed together – the turbolift back home opens on the asylum hall, the door to his quarters closes and turns into his cell.
In his conversation with the doctor, it turns out that theirs is the only mental health facility on the whole planet of Tylonus IV. That seems, and I trust you’ll forgive the pun, insane, unless that’s just a colony planet. The dialogue indicates that their planet’s need is far greater than their capacity. Man, pre-scarcity sucks. At least they have cool holographic therapy to try before they space-lobotomize him. Riker gets some guided meditation about getting in touch with his feelings, and the holographic therapy machine externalizes layers of his subconscious so he can interact with them on a conscious level. Since we’ve known for a long time that machines reading brainwaves and correctly interpreting them is a thing, I buy this. We get Troi as an avatar of his emotions, Worf as an avatar of his actions, and Picard as an avatar of his analytical layer, and the lieutenant that Riker keeps seeing materealizes and is explained as the hospital administrator. The holograms try to convince Riker that he’s really Riker and not a patient, but he rejects them. Hoorah, progress!
Later in the mess hall, Bevery Crusher in civilian garb comes in. Riker dismisses her as a hallucination, but this time she’s cognizant of her surroundings rather than speaking to him as a hallucination would. Likely she’s under cover as a Federation official checking on the human patient in an alien penal ward. Sadly, Riker is a little far gone at this point. Later, as Riker is trying to sleep on his terrible triangle pillow, Worf and Data in tactlenecks try to rescue him but he doesn’t cooperate. He does manage to grab a phaser, though, as the guards arrive. Oh hey, they even used tactics like ‘set up a fallback position in an empty area’ and ‘use the damn transporter instead of a shuttlecraft ten kilometers outside the facility.’ Good job.
On the ship, Riker’s forehead cut turns out to be something else again – a brain implant that can mess with Riker’s head and erase his memories, but things continue to be off, and Riker decides that either he’s in a delusion he’s got to snap himself out of at all costs, or he can’t live with being crazy. He shoots himself and reality begins to fall apart as Riker violently claws his way up from the dream layers. Fun fact – a standard-issue Federation hand phaser on power setting 16 can maintain enough power when set to a wide-angle beam to seriously inconvenience a building made to prison standards. Boy, are the enemies of Starfleet ever lucky that the Federation doesn’t like collateral damage.
Riker finally thrashes around enough that he damages himself, wakes up on an operating table with a tube sticking out of his brain, and makes it to his communicator to beam out and gets to decompress and debrief. And take down the set of the play with extreme prejudice.