Attention on heck! Don’t try to adjust your viewscreens, person-hell and boo-tenants! What you’re seeing isn’t a creepy clone, a hellish hologram, or a strangely specific alternate universe! For the month of October, we’ll be taking a spine-chilling stroll through Trek’s most horror-iffic outings and spooky adventures! Now why don’t you sit back and try not to let that green blood of yours run cold! If things get a little too intense, don’t hesitate to ask Scotty to SCREAM you up! Hehehehehehehehehe!
“Schisms” (Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 6, Episode 5)
“Horror” and “terror” are sometimes used interchangeably, and though they are close cousins, the two terms delineate subtle but distinctly different ideas. Essentially, “horror” is the revulsion and shock of seeing something…. well, horrifying. Whereas “terror” is the fear and dread of that approaching, unknown horror. It’s the hair-raising build and gut-churning anticipation felt before the reveal. In terms of the horror genre, terror is really 90% of the intended scare-emotions we experience in a book, movie, or TV episode. The tension of not knowing what’s behind a hidden corner or dark hallway is more scary than the reality finally revealed.
The Next Generation, though primarily a PG-ish show, dabbled in outright horror a handful of times to some evocative and memorable results (the violently explosive climax of “Conspiracy” is a pretty good textbook definition of horror), but it has also accomplished some more effective forays into terror. “Schisms” definitely falls into the latter category and is a highly successful genre episode… up until a certain point.
The reason that terror is typically the predominant emotion of the genre is that it’s easier to build and maintain than the horror part. By putting off the reveal of the monster, our imaginations do a lot of the heavy lifting and can fill in the parts with whatever our subconscious finds most frightening. The reveal in a horror work can sometimes be disappointing because it can’t possibly live up to what our minds have conjured. “Schisms” is 90% a good episode, and what keep it from being 100% is the anti-climax of its reveal when weighed against what has taken root in our heads.
The producers were reportedly unhappy with the final result of the episode, particularly the design/conception of the aliens, essentially because the monsters are “fish monks,” according to Brannon Braga. “And monks aren’t terrifying.”
He definitely has a point, and it’s unfortunate because the rest of the episode does a stellar job of building up an increasingly creepy vibe. It begins with Riker experiencing a pretty banal problem – he can’t seem to get any decent sleep (hair and makeup do a great job of making Frakes feel frazzled – say that five times fast). Exhaustion, especially from sleep deprivation, puts our minds into a frayed and loopy state, and it sets the appropriate tone for a nightmarish foray into darkness (interestingly, the other major terror-genre episode, “Night Terrors,” also deals with sleep deprivation as the major plot device).
It’s a great starting point because it’s a relatable situation without a sci-fi hook. We’ve all had those nights where it feels like we didn’t get any rest, despite making the effort to go to bed early. But the weirdness steadily creeps up from there for Riker (emphasis on creep). Frayed nerves and irritability are only the start, and he begins to experience more disturbing feelings, including a weird reaction to the helm console. It’s such a great, short bit and Frakes really sells that his sanity is crumbling slightly. Similarly, Worf has a visceral reaction to a pair of scissors. Geordi also experiences some dizziness, and Data loses an hour he can’t account for. It’s smart that everyone is having different symptoms and weird reactions, since it creates more mystery and scope.
The centerpiece of the episode is one of the most chilling and effective scenes of the entire show (and I’d throw it in the top 10 of the franchise), where the affected members of the crew gather in the holodeck to try and visualize their shared experiences/sensations. The holodeck is used mostly for recreation (and danger when the plot needs it), and occasionally for investigation, which actually seems like the cooler and most interesting use of it. There’s a certain nerdy glee in watching everyone start off with the table and steadily refine its shape, size, texture. Star Trek is entertaining as science fiction not just because it uses outlandish sci-fi elements, but because it seems to value the scientific/deductive process. The show is far from hard science, but it does frequently depict its characters going through the nuts and bolts of investigating, hypothesizing, testing, and narrowing down through logical and empirical means. Personally, as someone who is very process-oriented and who often thinks in straight lines and right angles, these kinds of scenes scratch the itches in my brain few other pieces of entertainment do.
From a purely formal standpoint, it’s a great scene. But the actual emotional tenor sends it into the stratosphere. Riker and co. steadily build their collective nightmare and their mutual terror before their eyes. The prop of the table, the lighting, and sound design (especially the sound) all come together to create a visceral feeling of terror that fills the edges of the scene. The holodeck has tried to kill the crew several times, but it’s never been as scary as it is here.
The tension and mystery build as the crew uncovers more about what is being done to them. Besides being abducted, Riker learns the horrifying detail that his arm was amputated and reattached. And one of the crew members gets returned only to immediately die, only for Dr. Crusher to find his blood replaced with a polymer. There can’t be any possible medical value to this stuff, and it highlights the cruelty and sadism of the unseen abductors.
Logically, the only way to up the ante from this point would be to reveal that the crew are being sent to hell and experimented on by Satan himself. But instead we get… the fish monks. The producers lamented that time didn’t allow them to employ some more disjointed filming techniques for this sequence. And indeed, some more flair would have helped disguise the relative silliness of the villains. We do get some fish eye lenses (as was the style at the time, is that an incredibly subtle pun given the aliens???) which creates a requisite bizarre tone. But some more obliqueness and visual mystery would have been welcome to maintain the horror of the climax.
And the sight of these Creatures From the Subspace Lagoon shuffling around in their shiny robes does not inspire terror or horror, unfortunately. There’s a certain weirdness factor that has some appeal, but they’re definitely not that threatening (Riker stuns one, and he just plotzes like he slipped on a solonagen-based banana peel). In “Conspiracy,” the crew discover the little brain bugs and they’re pretty gross, but to the episode’s credit, the climax delivers on something that’s about 100x worse.
But Riker and the other crew member escape and all turns out well (unless you’re that one guy). Data makes a valiant attempt to “both sides” the aliens in a “maybe they were just exploring, too.” But Riker sets him straight; what they did went beyond simple curiosity. The episode regains a little of the eeriness lost in the climax, and we get the perfunctory “they sent out a probe/signal…!”, but spoiler: we never hear from these scaly schism-y scaries again.
If the episode does have another weakness besides the less-than-terrifying reveal, it’s perhaps that the goals of the aliens aren’t delineated in any way, and that there’s a little too much procedural technobabble throughout (there is a TON of info dumping about subspace that doesn’t do anything, dramatically). That time could have been put to use fleshing out the aliens more while still maintaining a terror-iffic air of mystery.
There’s still some subtle terror in Geordi’s hypothesis – the aliens found them because the signal he created was powerful enough for them to detect in their pocket of subspace/reality. Star Trek has explored the theme of the dangers of the terrifying unknown before, and it’s a frightening thought that there are viscous and bizarre creatures out there that are waiting to snatch anyone up who calls out into the darkness loudly enough and do god-knows-what to them in return.
- One of the more interesting bits from the episode is that the aliens capture Data (and are able to do it without his knowledge). That’s kind of weird, given that he’s usually The Invulnerable One.
- It’s kind of silly that the ship doesn’t sound an alarm when anyone is abducted. Picard has to ask the computer if anyone is missing and it’s like “Oh yeah, a couple people disappeared awhile ago.” “How did it happen, computer?” “I dunno lol.” Thanks, computer. Really on the ball there.
- Whoever wrote Data’s poetry deserves a medal. His Ode to Spot really melts my gears.
- In addition to fish-eye camera lenses, alien abduction stories seemed really huge in the 90’s, as well as an overall cultural fascination with aliens. The X-Files and Independence Day were both products of this interesting preoccupation. The episode doesn’t feel dated or anything, but it also definitely feels like a product of its time in this way.