When we open, Picard is fencing with Lt. Whomever. After Picard explains the move he just used to defeat his opponent, a few seconds of dialogue instantly repeats. It’s done fairly seamlessly. In fact, I could imagine that someone watching this episode for the first time on television would be convinced for a moment that the broadcast had glitched out. But Picard quickly discovers that the entire ship experienced a loop in time lasting for a few seconds. Before they can consider the ramifications, however, they get a distress call from a science station led by Dr. Paul Manheim. Manheim was apparently a well-regarded scientist who was booted out of the Federation’s science club for doing unauthorized experiments, and as the Enterprise warps to the rescue, they begin to learn that the time distortion that caused their loop is getting worse, and is affecting a massive area of space.
This is all revealed fairly quickly, and seems fairly standard TNG fare. Unexplained phenomenon? Check. Distress signal? Check. Picard demonstrating ridiculous levels of skill at yet another hobby? Check. The twist comes when Picard starts behaving strangely upon hearing Dr. Manheim’s name. He goes to the holodeck, recreates a cafe in Paris, and chats with a lonely young woman wearing some bizarre outfit. When they arrive at the science station, Picard rushes to sickbay to meet the two survivors they’ve beamed up, and it’s made very clear right away that it’s not Dr. Manheim that Picard is interested in seeing. It’s Jenice Manheim, the scientist’s wife, and Picard’s old flame.
Romance is a tricky thing for a show like TNG to pull off (in fact, I’m trying to remember a single episode over the course of the entire series that managed a romantic relationship that didn’t feel amateurish and awkward, and failing). When the bulk of the show is stand-alone episodes, you have to figure out a way to establish romantic feelings between two characters with only forty minutes, and that’s if they’re the only story in the episode. Credit where credit’s due: Stewart and Michelle Phillips (who plays Janice Manheim) manage to navigate the emotions of “what might have been” professionally and deftly. There’s a scene in the conference room where she quietly asks him why he never showed up at a planned meeting decades ago, and they banter back and forth with the ease of two people that have a shared history. It’s all very well done...but it’s also so goddamn boring.
So if the romance doesn’t make things interesting, it falls upon the strange science fiction to keep it lively. Manheim was apparently trying to open up a passage between universes. When he succeeded, the doorway jammed open, and trapped Manheim between two different universes. At the same time, the conflict between the two universes is triggering the “Manheim Effect”, the strange time loop effect that’s running rampant through the sector. The crew determines that they have to go down and close this doorway between worlds, or else the consequences will be… Bad? I think bad. They don’t really go into the details, but I’m sure it would be bad.
This is all carried out in fairly neat fashion, and there are several entertaining scenes involving the crew looping through chunks of time, staring at themselves from a few moments ago. A really clever scene shows Data, Riker, and Picard stepping into a turbolift, the doors shut, and when they open, the three of them are standing outside the turbolift, waiting to step into the turbolift. The Datas, Rikers, and Picards stare at one another until the doors shut again, but this time, we jump to the perspective of the trio still waiting to board the turbolift. It’s an elegantly constructed scene that really drives home just how bizarre these circumstances are. The final scene sees Data, sent down to the planet to seal the door between universes, splitting into three identical Datas, and trying to figure out which one is in the “right” timeline.
I suppose this should all be fine, but it’s all so wildly rushed that we never get the chance to give a shit about any of it. Picard and Janice have a proper goodbye on the holodeck, but it lasts all of thirty seconds, and I don’t see how that would resolve anything. Dr. Manheim (who’s all mentally screwy because of his mind being split between two universes) is perfectly fine as soon as the doorway is shut, and eager to get back to work. Even the three Datas scene, the only scene from this episode that I remembered from the first time I watched this episode, is so short as to give you whiplash. The show keeps introducing interesting ideas, but warping past them before you get the chance to enjoy.
“We’ll Always Have Paris” is aggressively fine. It takes no chances, does nothing really interesting, and does nothing to make the viewer think, but it’s fine. It’s also wholly forgettable. It’s worth noting that I was having a discussion about TNG with a friend, and I mentioned the episode. After describing the entire episode, my friend (a lifelong TNG fan) didn’t remember it at all. He asked me if he should go back and check it out, and I shrugged. A shrug is about all this episode deserves.
I watched the bulk of this series with my parents. My parents were usually fairly restrictive about what I watched on television, but TNG seemed like a godsend. It was relatively wholesome (except for Data being “fully functional”), and featured a lot of really smart and ethical people jetting around the galaxy being smart and ethical. In an era of Homer Simpson, Jean-Luc Picard was the kind of fictional role model my parents could get behind. We would watch it together, I would jabber excitedly about the episode while they smiled, and I’d go to bed, eager for next week’s adventure. Then an old man kicked the shit out of Worf, Riker tried to eat bugs, and Picard blew a dude’s head up, and I had nightmares for a week. My parents were so shocked by “Conspiracy” that they considered abandoning the show, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I was nine years old, and THAT GUY’S HEAD JUST BLEW UP, and it was immediately the best show ever.
“Conspiracy” has the opposite problem from “We’ll Always Have Paris”. The latter doesn’t stumble, but is wildly forgettable. “Conspiracy”? This episode has some serious issues. Picard acts like an idiot at one point, the body double work is really sub-par during several scenes, and the ending promises a really exciting plot thread that is never touched again. But no one who watches this episode could possibly forget it. It’s completely insane, and unlike anything the show has done yet, or anything that the show will ever do again.
The Enterprise is on its way to Pacifica (the show has mentioned Pacifica several times now, but as far as I remember, they never actually even show the planet) when Picard gets a message from an old friend, Captain Walker Keel. Keel is being fairly cagey, but pleads with Picard to meet with him on a remote planet, refusing to discuss the reasons why over subspace radio. Upon arrival, Picard meets up with Keel and two other captains, and they reveal that they’ve become concerned about strange orders and ship disappearances. Keel interrogates Picard, asking him questions about the history of their friendship, and insists that people that he’s known for years aren’t who they say they are any longer. They’ve become convinced that there’s a conspiracy at the highest levels of Starfleet. Picard isn’t convinced, but agrees to look into it. He beams back up to the ship, and assigns Data to the task of reviewing every order Starfleet Command has issued over the last six months to find a pattern. Before Data can finish, however, the Enterprise discovers a debris field, which is identified as the USS Horatio, Walker Keel’s ship.
My biggest complaint about this episode is how rushed it feels. The idea that Starfleet is not quite on the up-and-up is a really fascinating departure for the show, and I would have liked more detail regarding the bizarre orders and disappearances. As soon as Data confirms that some strange shit is going down, Picard brings the entire crew up to date, and orders a course set back to Earth. As they approach Earth, they’re contacted by three admirals, including Admiral Quinn, who ordered the inspection of the Enterprise back in “Coming of Age”. They happily welcome the Enterprise back, extend a dinner invitation to Picard and Riker, and Quinn invites himself up to the Enterprise for a tour. Riker stays behind to get the admiral settled in, and Picard beams down. Alone. Unarmed. With strange shit going on.
That would be the moment I mentioned before, about Picard doing something idiotic. It makes no sense. They make phasers the size of credit cards, and despite the fact that Picard just saw the shattered remains of an entire starship that seems to have been destroyed just to keep Walker Keel quiet, he decides to beam down without any weapons. There’s some dialogue that attempts to excuse it away, but it’s clearly shoehorned in. Picard beams down unarmed because the plot really needed Picard to beam down unarmed. It’s lazy writing, and in a lesser episode, it would be a deal-breaker. It’s quickly forgotten as Picard begins chatting with the two other admirals, however. The discussion is eerie and off-kilter just enough to really make the scene feel uncomfortable in the best possible way. These two men feel wrong, and Picard is effectively trapped.
Back on the ship, Riker checks in on Admiral Quinn, who’s inspecting something in a briefcase. He explains to Riker that it’s a superior life form, and when Riker suggests getting Data to inspect it, Quinn grabs Riker’s arm and proceeds to beat the absolute shit out of him. Let’s remember, Quinn is an old man, and he roundhouse kicks Riker through a coffee table (awesome). Geordi and Worf show up, and Quinn hurls Geordi through the doors (AWESOME), and beats Worf into unconsciousness (HOLY SHIT GUYS THAT OLD MAN BEAT UP WORF). Finally, Crusher shows up and shoots Quinn repeatedly with a phaser, finally stunning him, and disappointing nine-year-old Dietrich, who at this point wanted Quinn to fight Picard, Data, Worf again, a shuttlecraft, Conan the Barbarian, and my dad, in that order.
Crusher straps Quinn to a table, and examines him. She learns that a bug of some kind is attached to his brain, and is controlling his actions (think Ratatouille, but with less stew and more body-snatching alien parasites). The only sign that someone’s been infected with the parasite is a tiny little spike on the back of the neck. Crusher’s busy explaining what’s what to Picard (who is REALLY regretting not beaming down with an Uzi or three), when Riker regains consciousness and comes up from behind Crusher, grabbing her shoulder and looking super creepy.
Back on the planet, Picard is notified that it’s suppertime. He sits down at the table, joined by several other officers, the admirals, and one of the captains that met him and Keel on the planet, and pulls the lid off the bowl in front of him to reveal a pile of writhing mealworms. (I believe it was at this point that nine-year-old Dietrich decided that he was no longer too old to sit next to his parents while watching television). Horrified, Picard starts to slowly back away from the table, but the door slides open, and Riker steps in, shoving him back and grinning. One of the admirals checks Riker’s neck, and the spike is there. Riker pushes Picard back into his chair, and explains that Quinn had to act quickly and infect Riker with the bug before security could respond. The admirals cackle maniacally, and encourage their new brother to “eat hearty”. Riker grins, scoops up a handful of writhing mealworms (nine-year-old Dietrich is watching this from behind his fingers while curled up on his mother’s lap), prepares to take a bite, and comes up blasting with a phaser.
Nine-year-old Dietrich is cheering maniacally at this point. 37-year-old Dietrich is equally excited, and he knew that shit was coming.
Riker kills nearly everyone in the room, at one point tossing Picard a phaser to join in the fight. One of the admirals sprints out of the room, and the pair shoot the admiral in the back. They watch as one of the corpses opens its mouth, and a bug the size of nine-year-old Dietrich’s foot crawls out and skitters down the hall. They follow it into a room, and find Remmick sitting in a supervillain-esque rotating chair. The bug crawls up Remmick’s arm, and as Picard and Riker stare on in disbelief, Remmick opens his mouth and lets the goddamn bug crawl down his throat. His throat bulges and pulses. Nine-year-old Dietrich is not breathing at this point, and has a death grip on his mom’s arm that probably caused some bone fractures. My dad, who vividly remembers watching this episode with me, told me that at this point in the episode, I started screaming, “SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM NOW!” Picard and Riker oblige my request, and Remmick’s head explodes. And his chest. And a gigantic horrible bug the size of a goddamn corgi crawls out of his chest hole and starts screaming, and keeps screaming until Picard and Riker shoot it and it splatters all over the room.
Okay, some of the effects are terrible. The bug skittering across the floor looks like a Play-doh sculpture being tugged by fishing line. But some of the effects are pretty solid, and they’re damn sure shocking. TNG doesn’t do gore. It does philosophical discussion. It does strange alien cultures. It does fun sci-fi stories. But it doesn’t feature mouth-crawling bugs, pulsing throats, and splattering brain matter. And to be perfectly honest, I’m glad. “Conspiracy” is a great episode, but it’s not what this show does well, and if they tried to keep that tone up, it would fall apart quickly. The episode ends with Picard revealing that Remmick sent a beacon signal to a distant corner of the galaxy, but nothing ever comes of that. I’m okay with that.
As much as I enjoyed it, this episode isn’t really for me. It’s for a nine-year-old kid who’d never seen a horror movie, never read a Stephen King book, who thought Goosebumps books were the pinnacle of scary stories. That kid barely slept for two nights. That kid was terrified of bugs for a year. And that kid obsessively checked the rerun schedule in TV Guide to make absolutely sure that when “Conspiracy” was aired again six months later, he was sitting between his mom and dad on the couch, watching Worf get beat up by an old man and Riker nearly eat mealworms. I’m glad they didn’t make this the tone of the show, but I’m also really damn glad my parents never turned this episode off.
A few other thoughts:
- I did think it was a bit strange that at the end of “We’ll Always Have Paris”, Dr. Manheim is allowed to simply beam back down to his lab and continue his research. His entire team is dead with the exception of his wife, he fucked up space and time for light years, and nearly ripped our universe in half. I kind of feel like that’s got to be an OSHA violation.
- Apparently the special effects crew called up Paul Newman, a fan of the show, and asked if they could use a mold of his head. Newman asked why, and they explained that they were going to fill it with raw meat and gelatin, stuff explosives in the middle, and blow it up. Paul Newman enthusiastically agreed.
- Discussing my reaction to this episode as a child with my parents is one of the most fun conversations I’ve had in a long time. Thirty years later, and they vividly remembered how much I freaked the hell out at this episode. To quote my father, “Oh hell yes. I thought you were going to crap your pants when that bug crawled out of his mouth.” Best.
Next week, we wrap up season one with the finale “The Neutral Zone”, and I’ll have thoughts about season one as a whole.
- Dietrich Stogner