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!
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 4, Episode 18
One of my oft-repeated, not-at-all-original observations about horror is how well it meshes with sci-fi, mainly because of all the otherworldy possibilities the latter genre opens up for scary stuff. The sci-fi classic The Fly (in all its versions) tapped into the horrific idea of transforming into a monster as punishment for daring to push the envelope of science. David Cronenberg’s queasy remake added the unique idea of that transformation being a gradual one, as Dr. Brundle found himself decaying into a disgusting, hideous beast. “Identity Crisis” isn’t nearly as disturbing, but it effectively toys with the rising horror of some bizarre force from within mutating one’s body into something truly alien.
The premise of the episode is great and delivered with understated but effective creepiness. La Forge’s former fellow officer Susanna Leijten from the USS Victory is aboard the Enterprise, detailing how three of La Forge and Leijten’s other Victory comrades have disappeared, one of which was last seen heading to Tarchannen III in a shuttle. The five of them had all performed an away mission on that planet during their tenure on the Victory years earlier, investigating the disappearance of 49 colonists (which had never been solved).
It’s a great setup and immediately introduces tension as it implies that the same fate will eventually befall La Forge and Leijten. A large number of colonists just disappearing without a trace, (along with some former crewmembers who happened to visit there) is downright unsettling and there’s a slow boil of terror throughout the episode that builds gradually.
Leijten is a good foil for La Forge – honestly, it’s just good to see him interact with a woman in a non-cringey manner. Their friendship seems warm and genuine, and it helps round out Geordi’s life and past a bit. His concern and affection for her throughout the episode has a brotherly tone and is nice, providing some emotional stakes for this creepy horror-tinged story.
Leijten and La Forge’s reminiscing of past times is interrupted when the Enterprise tracks down their old crewmember’s shuttle approaching Tarchannen III. He doesn’t respond to attempts at communication as he points his vessel directly at the planet. His angle of approach is too steep and he soon burns up in the atmosphere. Two more shuttles are on the surface, but no signs of life are detected.
Some sort of phenomena has caused the colonists to disappear, but there also seems to be something compelling anyone who’s visited the planet to migrate back there mindlessly, even if it kills them in the process. It’s weird, and reminiscent of certain varieties of parasites that afflict insects and alters their behavior to accomplish their reproductive goals. This always ends with the death of the host, and in some cases the parasite helps to hasten that end by forcing the host into life-ending actions. It’s some real-life body horror stuff.
The most impressive aspect of the episode is how much creepiness it’s able to squeeze out of basically nothing. There isn’t a classic monster reveal until the very end, and the only source of scares is an invisible idea that something bad will happen. It’s Terror 101 – not showing, but just implying. There’s something around the corner and you don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely there, just outside your senses.
Case in point, the away team to Tarchannen III Riker leads is a nicely understated creepshow. The setting of the planet is effective – dark (of course), with low light from the colony and a slight haze about. One of the shuttles is sitting there – its doors still open – with alien footprints on the ground around it. There’s something particularly spooky about the trope of the abandoned colony on an alien planet. Worf tells Riker that he senses that they’re being watched, and La Forge finds a Starfleet uniform on the ground torn to shreds. Spine-tingling!
Things take an even more chilling tone when La Forge realizes they’ve lost track of Leijten. He eventually finds her staring off into the dark wilderness, and she tells him she can sense the lost crew out there. It’s super creepy, these silent voices calling out to her from the darkness. Again, to the episode’s strength we don’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary, the scares are all implied. She starts to head off into the unknown, at which point La Forge grabs her and calls for an emergency beam-up as she tries to fight him off. Yikes!
Dr. Crusher checks Leijten out and notes some of her vitals are out of whack. Leijten seems super eager to return to the planet, but is belayed by both Crusher and Picard. She gets increasingly fidgety as her and La Forge review the Victory’s old mission logs, and is obsessive about going back to the planet. It’s clear that she’s following the same path as the rest of the Victory crewmembers who mysteriously disappeared. She ends up collapsing and revealing that she’s begun a strange physical transformation as her fingers have fused together and her skin takes on a blue, veiny appearance. Chilling!
In sickbay her condition worsens and she grows more and more unrecognizable. Now extremely sensitive to natural light, Crusher keeps Leijten bathed in darkness. The episode gets a lot of effective mileage out of UV light effects. It’s a simple technique, but always looks cool and makes for a memorable time.
Crusher theorizes that the missing crewmembers weren’t abducted, but transformed into alien life forms, as Leijten’s cells now match the alien cells they found on the planet. She warns Geordi that the same will probably happen to him, and that he should remain in sickbay. La Forge refuses, as he wants to investigate and try to find a solution with the time he has left. They have the computer monitor his bio-signs so they can detect the first sign of trouble.
In engineering, La Forge reviews the video log of their previous mission. It takes up a lot of time in the episode and gives off an interestingly 90’s vibe (so many camcorders). It also meshes with the alien abduction fixation pop culture had during the time. La Forge watches the video over and over again, convinced that there’s some hidden clue in there. I always like watching Trek characters narrow things down with the computer. He decides to review the log on the holodeck. As he enters the room, he notices his hand has started to tremble…
Through trial and error (and as his physical condition slowly deteriorates), La Forge discovers that there was apparently an invisible figure along with them on the mission that cast an extra shadow. The computer reconstructs this presence as a grey, vaguely humanoid blob. It’s a nice detail – the computer doesn’t give it any features since there’s nothing to work with other than its general size and shape, and it still manages to be a weird and unsettling image. Again, it seems to dovetail with the fuzzy footage of UFOs, aliens, or just general cryptozoological creatures that were all so very popular in the 90’s. Indistinct things can be intensely scary, stuff that is just on the edge of sensory detection but lacking the fidelity to show anything clear.
As it appears, La Forge immediately has some sort of spasm and discovers that his hands have mutated just as Leijten’s did. Gross!
Crusher finds that there’s a parasitic growth in Leijten’s body that is producing this alien DNA and transforming her body. She’s able to remove it which stops the mutation. But La Forge no longer registers on the ship’s sensors, so Riker and Worf lead a security team into the holodeck to locate him. All they find is his torn up uniform and VISOR.
At the same time, an invisible figure busts into one of the transporter rooms. It’s a quick scene but a really cool effect, as the air ripples like the cloaked Predator. The figure activates the transporter, and we briefly see a transformed La Forge beam off the ship.
Because the aliens are invisible to sensors (and the naked eye) Data puts together a device to detect/reveal them. La Forge only has about an hour until the transformation is complete, at which point there will be no saving him. Leijten, who is feeling (and looking) a lot better joins the away team search party. On the planet, Data’s device illuminates the creatures and we get our first full look at them. Like “The Man Trap,” the episode teases the full reveal until the end, which is an effective and suspenseful choice.
The makeup and costuming of the aliens is great. The blue veins light up under the UV light (along with the fingertips), and the eyes are a weird, spooky yellow. It’s so rad. La Forge and two others (the most recent other members of the Victory away team) scurry away, and the Enterprise crewmembers follow. Leijten takes the lead and calls out to Geordi. Levar Burton doesn’t say a word in the scene but does some great physical acting, emoting the fear and uncertainty he’s feeling. He’s like a frightened deer, curious about these alien creatures but also scared and ready to dash into the dark wilderness if he gets spooked.
Leijten pleads with him to not go with the others and instead take her hand. It’s too late for them, but La Forge can still be saved. Bracing himself against the rock, his head darts around nervously, but he ends up grabbing her hand and she pulls him in for a tight hug. It’s a good story choice to have one of the regular characters undergo the mutation (early drafts didn’t include this), and to have this newcomer be the one to talk him off the ledge. It endears us to her and to the stakes of the situation. It says a lot about their friendship that she’s the only one who can bring him back.
Back on the Enterprise, La Forge recovers from his transformation. He reports that the creatures aren’t sentient, they’re basically just humanoid animals that act on instinct. It’s an unsettling idea but also Trek-ian – to lose your higher faculties and become an unthinking creature is disturbing. But there’s nothing malevolent going on, it’s just this species’ extremely weird way of reproducing. They’re not monsters, simply a unique life form. Picard orders that beacons be placed around the planet to warn others.
La Forge thanks Leijten for bringing him back, and says that in another few minutes he probably wouldn’t have recognized her. But somehow he could feel that he could trust her on some deep level. Despite the overall weirdness and terror the episode is built upon, it ultimately contains a core of emotional fuzziness for its two main characters.
Friendship is one of Star Trek‘s core values – between alien races, as well as the smaller interpersonal types between individuals. “Identity Crisis” is a creepy and suspenseful episode with some memorable creature effects. But it manages to circle back around to a human element by focusing on a friendship that resolves the crisis. The aliens of Tarchannen III have lost their identities not just because of their physical transformation, but because they’ve shed their higher emotional and intellectual qualities. It relates back to a classic horror staple – turning into a mindless animal. Losing who we are and the relationships we have with others is just as scary as losing our lives, perhaps even more so. To be alive but also dead, the shells of who we were mindlessly wandering around, having been hollowed out from within by a parasite like some poor, cursed bug. Now that’s true horror.
- I’m assuming Dr. Crusher was able to perform some preemptive cure on all the Enterprise crewmembers who visited the planet? Otherwise, there might be some more missing people in a few years… The episode doesn’t definitively state what component of the environment caused the transformation, but implies that it could be in the air itself.
- The video log of the mission plays a huge part in the plot, but ultimately amounts to very little critical information, except that there was an invisible alien there (who somehow cast a shadow?). It’s interesting to watch, though. It’s what I remember most about this episode, but is kind of pointless as far as resolving the problem goes (100% of the credit goes to Dr. Crusher).
- No really, how does an invisible creature cast a shadow?
- Conveniently, the Victory away team recorded their mission. Something we never, ever see Starfleet do again… And only one person has a camera. Maybe everyone should have one?
- When the Enterprise crew visit the Tarchannen colony, it appears as it did in the Victory log – all the lights are still on, even. You’d think the Federation would have decommissioned the colony or something at some point? But I think it heightens the creepiness factor that the lights are on and no one is home. Sierra’s old Space Quest V game (I’m old) involved a couple of beam down missions to abandoned colonies and research facilities, and the desolation of those settings was very unsettling like it is here.
- When La Forge becomes an alien, his eyes apparently regenerate to where he no longer needs a VISOR – not only that, but the mechanical contact points on his temples disappear/fall out. And yet when he is transformed back into a human, he’s blind again (and has the VISOR contacts again). That seems… crappy? The medical science behind La Forge’s blindness has always been wonky, though. If you can transmute an entire body from alien to human, you should be able to take nonfunctional eyes and regenerate them into functional ones. But what do I know? NOTHING, THAT’S WHAT.
- The warning buoy around the planet presents an interesting Prime Directive issue. If the Federation quarantines the the planet, they’re essentially dooming this species to extinction. It has no native life, so its species propagates through… outside donations, let’s say? Unless they also reproduce sexually. So let’s all sit back and imagine these blue veiny weirdos going at it like they do on Discovery+. And… you’re welcome.
- This shot!