You Spooky Trek to Me? – “Conspiracy”

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!

***Content Warning: Violence and Gore***

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 1, Episode 24

Star Trek has pretty established themes and parameters as far as its content goes, and I generally love them (hence why I love Star Trek). But I also appreciate when the shows step outside of that, even if it doesn’t quite succeed. That’s a big part of the fun of these spooky-themed episodes, as a lot of them stick out like a sore, disfigured thumb from the rest of the franchise – but can still be quite enjoyable in their weirdness. “Conspiracy” definitely fits that bill as an unforgettable, gory, and bizarre fever dream of an episode.

Star Trek has been on the air in some form for so long that it’s easy to forget how much the television landscape has changed throughout its run. Case in point – even though there are more Trek shows currently running (and planned) than ever, none of them are even on regular network TV, and the property might never be again. Kooky! Even in the Next Generation-era Trek heyday of my youth, it still occupied the fringes of network TV, typically airing on weekend afternoons – not exactly the coveted top Cheers or Seinfeld time slots. It aired alongside other oddball sci-fi TV shows that have faded into the ether of pop culture memory, some of them modern revivals of classic shows like The Outer Limits and Tales From the Dark Side, and others I can’t even recall the names of. These shows were weird and sometimes salacious in ways – by way of their violence, sexual content, or both. But they all kind of just flew under the radar back in the day and were thus allowed to be their own bizarre little things.

I’m pontificating about this because I think “Conspiracy” makes the most sense in this temporal context, as a weird and nutty pitstop in those weekend afternoon TV badlands. But taken in the context of Star Trek, it’s a singularity that has never been duplicated – which is perhaps for the best.

“Heyyyyy Johnny-Poo, how’s it going, buddy???”
“Now shut the fuck up and listen, asshole! Shit’s fucking WEIRD out there, goddammit!”

Season 1 of The Next Generation was very rough and even embarrassing at times. But although “Conspiracy” doesn’t totally escape the creakiness that characterized early TNG, it manages to be one of the objectively best and most watchable entries of the season. As the penultimate episode of S1, it displays the growing confidence of the show that would lead into the improved (but still flawed) Season 2. One may not like what it sets out to accomplish, but it does succeed at its goal in extremely memorable fashion.

Although the episode is most remembered for its incredibly violent and gory climax (and it really is something, for sure), that overshadows the fact that “Conspiracy” successfully crafts an effective tone of creepy, unsettling horror that permeates the hour. Captain Picard receives a top secret transmission from an old friend and fellow captain Walker Keel in the middle of the night (which is appropriate, since everything bad seems to happen at night). Keel is initially friendly but quickly turns intense – he refuses to even tell Picard what his call is about over subspace, insisting he divert the Enterprise to personally meet him on a distant and abandoned mining planet.

“Walker, do you really think the highest echelons of Starfleet command would just lie and cover things up? Like every other organization ever has done? C’mon man, you’re talking crazy.”
“Pop quiz, hot shot. What congenital defect do I have and what body parts does it prevent me from growing?”

Picard immediately changes the Enterprise’s course and demands that no record of the course change be made to the crew. The Picard of Seasons 1 and 2 was pretty unlikable and dickish, but seeing his loyalty to an old friend softens him a little. Beaming down alone to the barren abandoned mining colony, he’s confronted from the shadows by Keel and two other Starfleet captains at phaserpoint – Scott and Rixx (character actor and horror icon Michael Berryman; his inclusion adds to the episode’s tone). Keel casually questions an irritated Picard about personal experiences they’ve had to test that he is who he says he is (Keel introduced Beverly Crusher to her husband Jack, which is a detail that gives him some dramatic weight). Satisfied, they let down they guard slightly and explain that some sort of conspiracy is worming its way through the ranks of Starfleet – there’s nothing definitive, but a lot of weird orders and even deaths are adding up. Keel suspects some of his own officers are involved. It seems like the agents of the conspiracy have a weakness where memory is concerned (hence the interrogation).

It’s an unsettling and well-done scene that effectively sets the tone for the episode.In fact (and unfortunately), I think it’s the best part of the episode as it lays down a palpable sense of terror. The blood red palette of the set is great, and the lack of detail and explanation is one of the wisest decisions of the story initially – effective terror is built upon the potential horrors of the unseen and unknown. The eventual reveal is certainly gross and creepy, but doesn’t quite live up to the subtle terror this initial scene inspires. Few things could.

Not that convinced but still unnerved, Picard returns to the Enterprise and tasks Data with researching Starfleet’s directives to see what he can find. Back on their original course, they detect a nearby disturbance. Investigating, they find the debris of Keel’s ship, which has been totally destroyed with the loss of all hands. Ruh roh.

“Well well well, if it isn’t… Captain… You! How the hell’s it hangin’… man?”

Picard informs Riker of what’s going on, and Data reports that Starfleet has been doing a noticeable amount of crew reshuffling. Lots of new officers have had contact with the highest levels of command and it all potentially points to a hostile force gaining command of key sectors of the Federation. Picard orders the Enterprise to return to Earth to investigate. Again, the fact that there still aren’t any specifics of what’s causing this ratchets up the tension more.

The Enterprise arrives at Earth, and is coolly greeted by three admirals of Starfleet Command. One of them is Quinn, another old friend of Picard’s introduced in an earlier episode. The groundwork of a conspiracy was actually laid in that previous episode (albeit to a much less intense degree) by Quinn, who warned Picard that something unusual was afoot. In a modern TV landscape, this storyline would no doubt have taken up many episodes. Indeed, it could have benefited from some more time and space, although an entire season (as is the style now) would probably be pushing it. The admirals invite Picard to meet them for dinner, but Quinn decides to visit the Enterprise instead. At least he’s on our side, Picard says to Riker.

Gotta body snatch them all.

He’s wrong of course, as we see Quinn closes a case containing a small bug-like alien creature before beaming up. Arriving on the ship, Picard references his earlier dire warning, but Quinn dismisses it as a, uh, metaphor man, y’know? Picard privately informs Riker that this isn’t his old friend, tells him to watch him closely. Oh, and give him a full medical exam. Easier said than done, but an incredulous Riker agrees to try.

Later on, Riker visits Quinn in his quarters, who offers to show Riker a new form of life they’ve discovered – a superior one, in fact. He proceeds to grab Riker with superhuman strength and toss him around the room like a rag doll. It’s a slightly comical but overall unsettling scene as this old man shrugs off Riker’s blows and batters him unconscious. Worf and La Forge soon arrive, and Quinn makes quick work of both of them (again, somewhat comically by throwing Geordi through some obviously plywood doors). Crusher (apparently the only one who thought ahead) arrives and phasers Quinn into submission.

“Crossfit… it does wonders for the body!”
“And no, it’s not a cult! We’re just passionate followers of a highly structured, insular, and regimented sub-culture that suppresses any dissent through… fuck, we’re a cult aren’t we?”
“Put down that hors d’oeuvres, Klingon! It’s time for some aged beef!”

On Earth, the admirals cheerfully deny any conspiracy, which is totally what someone doing a conspiracy would do. They also brush aside the death of Keel as a result of his own negligence. Cool, cool. Crusher calls Picard and informs him that she’s discovered a parasitic creature inside of Quinn, attached to his neck and controlling his brain. The only external sign is a helpfully visible little spike sticking out of the neck that helps it breathe. She tells him only a phaser set to kill will stop them, to which Picard dourly replies that one does not beam down to Starfleet Command armed. Aboard the Enterprise, Crusher is working when a kooky-eyed Riker sneaks up behind her. It’s an effective jump scare that fits in with the episode’s tone.

“Listen, it’s either this or Arby’s. …Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now shut up and eat your worms or I’ll really give you something to vomit about.”

Picard sits down to dinner, which turns out to be an ornate bowl filled with writhing worms that the grinning admirals start shoveling them into their mouths. It’s gross-out for gross-out’s sake but bolsters the horror of the aliens and what they represent, and like the climax, makes for a stomach-churning visual. Picard makes no attempt to hide his disgust and gets up to leave just as Riker enters. Shoving Picard back, Riker claims to be one of them and even has a thingie on his neck (and the aliens’ haughty, superior attitude) to prove it. Captain Scott arrives, also one of them (whether or not she was one earlier or is a new convert is not made clear).

The aliens confidently boast about infiltrating Starfleet and their plans to take it over, combining humanoid’s brawn with their brains. The aliens don’t have a ton of personality beyond “smugly superior dicks,” although they reference a love for the dramatic/theater. It’s an interesting detail, and I wish we could have gotten a few more, but alas.

“Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”

But Riker whips out a phaser and starts shooting, revealing that he hasn’t been taken over. They manage to subdue everyone, at which point the alien critters escape by crawling out of the unconscious peoples’ mouths. It’s not quite as viscerally gross as the Ceti Eel wriggling out of Chekov’s bloody ear in Wrath of Khan, but it’s up there.

Picard and Riker chase down one of the running creatures to Remmick, Quinn’s abrasive assistant (also from the earlier episode where he mercilessly interrogated the Enterprise crew). And here’s where we get to the bloody fireworks factory. Remmick smirks as the critter crawls up his body – as was the style of the time, the effects are done in stop motion and the trademark skittering of the technique adds to the unsettling tone. He swallows it whole (a simple but well done effect), and calmly addresses Picard and Riker, his neck pulsating disturbingly.

“Howdy, boys. Up for a little game of Spare the Square? It’s like Q*Bert but somehow even worse. I got two controllers with your names on them…!”

“We mean you no harm. We seek peaceful coexistence,” he says, which is what someone who definitely means you a lot of harm would say. The actor’s delivery is appropriately malevolent and incongruous to the content of his words, almost sarcastic. Without saying a word, Picard and Riker promptly shoot the guy in the head with their phasers.

“OK, now you’re just being rude.”
“Ow, my entire head! I was using that for conspiracies and stuff!”

Killing the alien monster is a trope of many sci-fi and horror movies and typically the expected climax, but there’s something very incongruous to it in the context of Star Trek. After all, the famous tagline spells out an exploratory mission of peace to meet as many aliens and civilizations as possible. And here they are, face to face with a strange new creature, blasting the shit out it without missing a beat. In their defense, the episode has laid the groundwork for how intractable and horrifying a threat these things are. They’re trying to take over Starfleet (and presumably, the Federation) from within and corrupting everything Picard has sworn to uphold and protect. Stewart’s face perfectly conveys the anger and disgust he feels over this force trying to pervert not only Starfleet but some of his closest friends (as well as killing them, let’s not forget). If there was ever a time to give no quarter and shoot to kill, it’s here. But it’s still highly unusual for Star Trek.

“Heeeeere’s Remmy! I just burrowed my way out of the chest cavity of a human and boy are my pincers tired!”
“…I mean honestly, you ever ride coach in someone’s ribcage? Let me tell you, we’re talking zero tentacle room here!”

The visual effects of Remmick’s skin vaporizing and his head exploding are shocking, and surprisingly, it doesn’t end there. His dissolving torso reveals a revolting misshapen mother creature with wet, glistening skin and beady eyes. It screams a deathly howl, and the sound design really rivals the visuals in pure disgusting horror. It’s just otherworldy and hard to describe. I like Riker’s brief glance to Picard, looking to him on how to handle this. Wincing in disgust, Picard replies by shooting the creature, Riker follows suit, and the thing vaporizes with a final scream. The lack of dialogue from them is noticeable but also a good episode decision – I mean, what the fuck could you possibly say when confronted by a Lovecraftian horror such as this? Any words would just detract from the pure horror spectacle of the scene, and the episode wisely knows enough to step back and let it happen unimpeded.

“Ahhh! You seein’ this shit?? These woke kids and their cancel culture, you can’t even say anything anymore amiriiii—–“

A final wide shot of Remmick’s decimated body in the chair is a lovely parting visual – his head gone, smoking torso completely exploded, and dozens of dead alien bugs scattered everywhere. Holy hell, what a horror show. The producers admitted that part of the premise of the episode was to chase some of the appeal of the Alien movies, and they certainly succeeded in channeling a big part of the films’ visceral gore. I vividly recall this episode always airing with a warning at the start concerning its violent content – long before the system of TV ratings had been established. There’s something quintessentially 80’s about its graphic violence, and it fits right in alongside popular shlocky horror franchises of the period like Scanners.

Smoked ribs, anyone? It’s either this or Arby’s. …Yeah, didn’t think so. How do you want your critter patties cooked?

The death of Remmick/mother creature conveniently takes care of all the other alien creatures (a hokey sci-fi trope, but we gotta wrap this up here). Picard voices some regret over being forced to destroy life after being taught to always respect it, but it feels a little hollow and perfunctory and doesn’t paper over the jaw-dropping horror we just witnessed.

Quinn seems back to his old self (and presumably everyone else is, too), and Riker reveals how Crusher made a fake spike on his neck to fool everyone. It’s all a little anti-climactic given the build up and the implication of how long these aliens have been at this, but oh well. Data analyzes a transmission Remmick was sending before he was killed, and says it was a homing beacon to attract more of the aliens. As the Enterprise moves off, the camera zooms in slowly on space as the chirping sound of the transmission echoes into the cosmos…

It’s another common trope but is effective in putting a final creepy stamp to the episode’s end. For as many wonders and nice, intelligent people the universe contains, it also houses blood-curdling horrors and destructive monsters. So beware, gentle viewers! Bewaaaaare….!

Ultimately, despite this teaser the storyline was not followed up on. Which is probably for the best, all things considered. The producers admitted that the episode was far outside the bounds of what fans expected from Star Trek and thus they didn’t have much of an appetite to explore its implications (I can’t imagine anyone having much of an appetite of any kind after this). But also, how could you follow up on this in a satisfying way? I think any sequel would only dilute the pure terror of this one with diminishing returns – as many long-running horror franchises have shown.

“Conspiracy” is weird and disgusting, but it’s an effective, self-contained horror show. Trek had never been this ugly and violent before, and would never attempt to be again. There are plenty of other places you can find that stuff if so inclined, so that’s mostly a good thing. But I wouldn’t take it back for anything and I’m glad that this queasy hour of Star Trek exists. It’s a brief burst of disgusting terror that was burned into my young mind and stands alone in the franchise, a visceral time capsule of another era in pop culture. The episode shows in graphic detail that new life isn’t always pretty and isn’t always civilized. It’s an uncharacteristic message for an episode of Trek, but it definitely represented a new frontier for the show, for better or for worse.

Stray Observations:

  • The episode’s story went through big changes during development. It was originally intended to be a non-alien Starfleet military coup, as well as a commentary on Iran-Contra. This was of course nixed by Gene Roddenberry, who hated interesting things.. Eventually Deep Space Nine would run with this idea for a twoparter that took place on Earth. The alien parasites were added to make the idea palatable.
  • The bugs have individual consciousness (presumably – they all act like it), and yet can’t survive without the mother creature? Aside from being a gigantic weakness, the two ideas don’t seem to go together. These things are presumably spread out all over Starfleet, but they all simultaneously die and that’s it? OK….
  • So presumably Remmick has always been the mother creature? When he and Quinn were on the Enterprise earlier that year, Quinn was already talking about the conspiracy. But this would have been a prime opportunity for Remmick to take over Enterprise personnel and yet he didn’t. Sure hope someone’s head got phasered for that blunder.
  • Data babbles so long to the computer that it basically tells him to shut up. This show was so goddamn weird early on.
  • TNG would go on to introduce the Borg (who like these things, were teased in an earlier episode), and there are some similarities to the aliens here. They both assimilate people, although here it’s much creepier. Apparently there was an intended connection between the two races but that was dropped.
  • TNG would also introduce another race of small creatures attaching themselves to the crew in “Phantasms,” albeit invisible and out of phase with our reality. I want to write a fanfic of these two races going to (a very small and cute) war with one another.
  • These things seem like a more malevolent version of the Trill. Apparently in the novels they had a cold war with the Trill symbionts, using humanoids as pawns. Sounds like a good idea, I’m sure the books were incredibly mediocre.
  • It seems kind of weird that these aliens are jacked directly into people’s brains but don’t have access to their thoughts? Since they’re connected to the spine, maybe it’s just motor control functions they’re affecting. I wonder if the hosts are conscious, unable to do anything? That’s a pretty horrific idea, similar to the Borg’s control and explored in the horror film Get Out.
  • So these things go in through people’s mouths and somehow find their way to the back of the spinal cord? That sounds… anatomically unpossible. Why not just enter the butt and drill through the entire body while you’re at it?
  • Those freaking spikes sticking out of the back of the neck are pretty silly. You fucks think you’re going to secretly take over a vast interstellar alliance with your wittle tails sitting out for all to see? Although they got this far, so maybe humanity deserves to be taken over for its negligence.
  • I love how crappy the prop work is on Quinn’s head and neck. The rest of the alien effects are really good in the episode, but holy shit on this they did not try at all:
Upwards of a dozen dollars was spent on this.
  • I had the exact same binder case Quinn has. It was a promotional item from Nintendo Power magazine.
*smacks top* This baby can fit so many strategy guides in it.