Sunday, May 10, 2015

“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”: Night Terrors

“Night Terrors” is another episode derided by pretty much everyone: From the people who worked on it to the people who watched it, almost nobody has anything kind to say about this story and it's frequently held up as being among Star Trek: The Next Generation's absolute worst of the worst.

You should know where this is going by now. I always thought it was pretty good!

What we've got this week is another step in the show's transition into its next form. Like “Clues”, “Night Terrors” is a story about the Enterprise crew in the thick of a mind-bending cosmic mystery that warps their conception of reality. It's also a competently mind-bending psychological thriller for the audience as well, with some unsettlingly well-done hallucinatory scenes and a plot that goes out of its way to showcase the power of dream logic and dream imagery. A great many future Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes will be comprised of one or both of these storytelling archetypes in roughly equal measure, and while “Night Terrors” isn't the best or most ambitious iteration of either one of them, it is a very noticeable first draft.

It's also not really safe to say that “Night Terrors” is the point where this becomes the show's default mode, and of course the very best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes will find ways to blend this with its pre-exisiting commitment to utopian conflict resolution, but, perhaps fittingly, this episode is a sort of vision of things to come-A decent first look at what's going to be more or less a baseline average for the show going forward. Which is really not a terrible thing as far as I'm concerned.

Also like “Clues”, “Night Terrors” is another strong ensemble outing where each and every character gets to show off their talents and particular skillsets. Deanna Troi obviously plays the biggest role and we'll talk about her a little later on, but this is a great showing for everyone in the main cast. I think what I enjoy the most about the act of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from an entertainment standpoint is seeing the crew work together comfortably and effortlessly to figure something out and the trust they have in one another in the process: It's that “competency porn” idea again, and this episode is a good example of that. The twist this time is that the dream deprivation is testing the limits of their capabilities and sanity both, and the hook is in watching how the crew responds to this.

And in this regard the actors really drive home some stellar performances: I know they always do and I always say they do, but it's especially noticeable when their acting is bolstered by writing they can really play off of, as is the case here. Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden are particular standouts for me, as they play Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher slowly and subtly growing more and more frazzled and unhinged, yet never once wavering from their heroic dedication to saving their friends and their ship. Jonathan Frakes too is a master of face acting, and you can read his fatigue and impatience right off the subtlest expressions and body language cues he delivers. And yet they persevere, finding their way out of what looked like a doomed situation with their sanity, dignity and composure intact.

Deanna Troi is obviously the person of the hour, and it's refreshing to see a story so centred on her particular abilities *as Deanna*, instead of just catering to Marina Sirtis' style of acting (as much as I enjoy seeing that), smearing her or trying to pretend she doesn't exist. Aside from the fact she saves the whole ship by stepping up when nobody else is able to, there's a terrific scene where Deanna talks Worf out of committing ritual suicide that's a fantastic demonstration of just what her role on the Enterprise is and why it needs people like her. Which is nice to see in a season that has seemingly gone so far out of its way to marginalize and belittle Deanna. This scene also goes a way towards furthering the eventual close relationship Deanna and Worf will have later on in the series that begins to be developed further next year.

Indeed, if anyone should hate “Night Terrors” it's the agoraphobic Marina Sirtis who spends a not insignificant portion of this episode strung up in a flight harness. Most everyone agrees this sequence of special effects was probably a mistake, and I'm not going to entirely disagree with that assessment, though I will say no matter how ill-advised the flying stunt was, I think the actual effects shots themselves were pretty good. And I mean come on, if you're willing to forgive the wobbling Technicolor set design and visible wires of the Original Series but not one slightly ropey design decision here, really, what's wrong with you?

But no, Marina Sirtis herself thinks this episode was a deceptively clever one, flying stunts aside. Of it, she says
“I liked the storyline of that episode because it was about the dreamworld, and I'm of Greek descent so I totally believe dreams mean something. And not the Freudian thing, all this hocus pocus. So that was another one that I could relate to really strongly. But I did hate the flying.”
Although all that said, not everyone is handled quite as well as they could have been. As much as it makes sense for the crew to lean on Data as he's the only one who (at least at this point in time) doesn't need to dream, I am finding it a *little* bit tiring to see just how many times the show has defaulted back onto “Data is magic and he saves the day because he's special” this season. I know Data basically gives you narrative carte blanche to resolve every situation instantly because he can do things nobody else on the ship can do, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to do that. After a time, one does begin to wonder why the Enterprise has any non-Data crewmembers aboard at all. Apparently, he can run the whole ship all by himself. If “Remember Me” had been about him instead of Doctor Crusher, the show would have ended then and there.

The thing is, Data is a very easy character to abuse, because his aforementioned superhuman talents mean he's very easy to get lazy with and use as a deus ex machina crutch. It also doesn't help matters that Data's shipboard role was defined so broadly in the original writer's guide: Apparently he's some hybrid of science officer, chief engineer, security chief, helsman, tactical officer, away team leader and ship's computer. Personally, I tend to find Data works best (at least from a general team building perspective-his narrative character arc is of course something completely different) if you treat him as basically a reference library for scientific and technical information, as befits his name. Let Geordi and Miles O'Brien do the nitty-gritty tinkering stuff and let Doctor Crusher be the science officer who solves mysteries and makes hypotheses about heretofore unknown phenomena. Otherwise, Data basically renders every one of his friends and colleagues completely irrelevant and redundant, and that's stretching credulity a bit much even for me.

But Data is a comparatively minor complaint. The big problem I have with the characterization in this episode is Miles O'Brien, who blows up at Keiko and storms off to ten forward to berate random people. I know he's stressed and his mental state is suffering just like everyone else's, but I just can't see him ever behaving that way: It seems less like something he would do under pressure and more like a genuine out-of-character moment. Miles is just way too nice to act like that much of a bully, and personally I find his scenes in this episode more disturbing and uncomfortable than *anything* in “The Wounded”-I actually, literally had to mute the TV whenever he was onscreen. There's also that random crewmember who loses it, starts talking about conspiracy theories and trying to pick fights. I could nitpick him by saying an Enterprise crewmember shouldn't act that way, but it fits enough in with the themes of the episode I'm inclined to let it slide

Because as a psychological horror story “Night Terrors” is actually rather effective in my opinion. Growing up I always found this episode genuinely creepy in a way I didn't feel about even some of the late-period psycho thriller episodes-Even rewatching it for this project I got the chills when those bodies all sat up in unison in the morgue or any time that voice chanted “Lights in the dark. One moon circles” in Deanna's dream. Everyone seems to criticize the pacing in this episode, saying it's way too slow and hard to follow, but isn't slow burn a hallmark of effective horror atmosphere? Far from being boringly slow, I found that this story is quite good at building tension and an overbearing sense of feeling like you're being gradually worn down in this odd state of purgatory. If you've ever suffered from sleep deprivation, “Night Terrors” captures the fugue-like mentality you enter into pretty well.

Another way to read this episode is to focus in on the concept of being unable to dream. As Marina Sirtis says, our dreams mean something and can oftentimes give us clues about what's to come or where we need to go. In “Night Terrors”, we get a stark glimpse at what happens when people lose the ability to dream. As Rick Berman is quick to assure us when asked about this episode, it is strictly speaking medically accurate-When deprived of restful REM sleep, our mental faculties do begin to falter. But in the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season, and in particular now, just after it's rebooted itself and has pledged to avoid devolving into a hackneyed and irrelevant set of stock dramatic cliches, this lesson begins to resonate on a deeper and more important level.

(What, indeed, shall we make of the fact the Enterprise lacks the necessary Yurium to trigger the explosion to free them from the rift?)

We're reminded once again of the importance of hopes, aspirations and visions: Holding on to our dreams doesn't just save us from stagnation and complacency, it saves us from self-destruction by reminding us there are still yet things to strive for.


  1. Hang on... you're seriously telling me people don't like this? Seriously? This actually has a *bad* reputation?

    Sorry but what the actual fuck???

    This has always been one of my absolute favourites of TNG. Like, it was one of the ones I'd defend even when I was in my 'must kill all Trek with fire' phase.

    This is a genuinely creep, spooky thriller. You mentioned the bits with the bodies in the morgue... that actually gave me nightmares when I saw it as a kid (which is good, btw)... but I'd also mention the intense spookiness of Riker being sure he's being watched in his quarters, and the business of the door chimes going off followed by the knock on the door. Very few ghost stories really get how scary a sudden, unexpected knock at the door can be.

    You mentioned that it's about what happens when people can't dream... it's also about co-ooperation between species who are so different they can't even talk to each other in any straightforward way (something TNG really only does a few times)... and scientific knowledge understood via poetic metaphor...

    It's a cracker. Trekkies don't understand their own show, clearly.

  2. I'm glad I watched Night Terrors to prep for this. I have really, really fond memories of Night Terrors being downright terrifying to me as a child. All the best pop culture stuff has affected my younger self here and there with some good and proper scares. Particularly Doc Crusher examining that room full of corpses, which out-of-context sounds kind of ridiculous (I mean she's got whole teams of frazzled, but probably still competent staff to help with that so she's not alone in a room with the dead.)

    You're so right about Data, though. O'Brien on the other hand, I glanced over. Not that he wasn't clearly acting rotten, it's just that we're meant to know that something's wrong and I think what's lost in that is that those people with a more active dream-life are the ones who are strongest affected. Riker is visibly a shell of himself, and kind O'Brien is testy and vile. One imagines Reg Barclay is somewhere belowdecks punching people. But if that's jarring (and it is, because comparatively later when that other ops guy is turning all revolutionary, O'Brien plays as the slightly more level-headed one) I think some of it just comes from how good Colm Meaney is at playing overboard, embittered, slightly vicious types. This isn't uncommon, though, for someone eminently likable and charming to be able to be doubly unlikable when they're acting unlikable. Personally I can draw instant comparisons to a large number of my direct family members, and lest I seem bitter, probably myself as well, since I suffer from actual sleep problems that can result in a personality 180 sometimes.

    I was primarily interested in watching this for Deanna and having forgotten a chunk of the sci-fi story mechanics I was really pleased with the emphasis on frankly the way psychic brainwaves actually work. It's stealth worldbuilding, but it's also a great way to isolate and elevate Deanna from the rest of the crew in a way that's not marginalizing her or making her seem elite or aristocratic, but rather just kind of highlights the real difference, which is as simple as "she's got an extra sensory node in her brain." Really, though, the way in which the psychic force from the other side is trying to communicate does three things (again, stealthily). First it coyly intimates that the Enterprise is lucky to have a psychic onboard (specifically Deanna, because she can study dream logic (using Data as sounding board, of course)). Second, it coyly suggests that some of the more creative thinkers who are wrecks without dream-sleep might be "closer to psychic/empathic" than those who aren't. Which is a brilliantly low-key revelation. Would it surprise us to learn that Riker and O'Brien are sort of latent "near-empathic" humans? No. Third, just the very notion that us everyday humans can hear psychic signals, we just can't process them, and the way it acts as interference makes total sense to me and kind of highlights how and where in the mind and brain psychic powers manifest.

    There's a bit of magic here as well, as once again we encounter another barely sciencey space phenomena that's like a bridge to an Otherworld. Where once again there's a couple Betazoids at the center of it, the Enterprise's magical axis is tilted out of sync, the feng shui is off. I don't think it's a coincidence that the mystery aliens speak to Deanna through metaphor about moons and eyes, for instance.

    1. One of the things I always enjoy about Colm Meaney's career are the times when he plays arseholes and murderers. He's fantastically entertaining. I'm thinking in particular of that jackass federal cop in Con Air who tries to shoot down the plane before Nicolas Cage's long-ass hippie hair has a chance to save the day. And as Russell Brand's greasy Vegas club musician dad in Get Him to the Greek. And as the grandpa-rock DJ who snaps and holds Radio Norwich hostage in the Alan Partridge film. He really does play mean so well.

      It's a true testament to his range, because he plays kind so well too. I'm thinking of O'Brien of course, but also a TV miniseries from about a decade ago based on a novel about my home island of Newfoundland, Random Passage. I'm quite impressed by his post-Trek career, really, becoming a sort of Irish everyman character actor.

    2. I like roles where he's a bit of both, like the bullish detective in Intermission, or the wisdom-of-years gangster of Layer Cake.

    3. Colm Meaney's fantastic acting range is always something I've admired about him. I may have found O'Brien's scenes here jarring, but that's only because of how uncannily well Colm sells them. He's every bit as talented as actor as his castmates, and he's probably one of the most versatile of the bunch.

      That he's capable of such a diverse spectrum of emotions and personalities is self-evident. There's a very good reason why he's placed with with Brent Spiner and Marina Sirtis in "Power Play".

  3. Something sort of neat to think about is how rapidly O'Brien, or even rather, "The O'Briens" are being elevated is that we're five episodes into it and we've already gotten a "personality swap/negative psychic effects" type episode with them playing a central role. Really, at this point, how long before we get "demonic possession" tropes, right?

    A recurring character is one thing. We get Q, Lwaxana, and Reg Barclay once a year. O'Brien is an unofficial Main Character at this point, with all the perks, and his own supporting character.

    Another mild thing to think of really quickly is the overlooked job of Transporter operator. If Star Trek made now, I don't think they'd be able to avoid retooling the Transporter operator's job to more effectively convey what it is - which is essentially "mission control", monitoring the lifesigns and approximate geographic locations of everyone in the mission and providing evacuation if necessary. To put it another way - the main "mission" transporter room should be located right out the back door from the command bridge.

    1. Oh, I *like* the idea of a transporter chief acting as mission control--it'd be particularly interesting fused with the communications officer role, which never made sense to me as Worf or Tasha's job. But I could see Uhura being great at a mission control position, something like Misato Katsuragi but without the daddy issues.

      With your permission, I'm totally going to steal this for my STO character's logs.

    2. By all means. Head-canon can't become canon without fan-canon in the interim, and not to delve too deep into pseudo-military accuracy, but it does seem like a good fit for a Senior Chief. Picard shouldn't have to simultaneously face off against a Romulan Commander on a viewscreen and do hand signals behind his back to relay downstairs to monitor what's happening on the landing mission.

  4. Jack Graham said basically everything I would have. Count me as another for whom Crusher's scene in the morgue is a childhood standout. And yeah, I love the slow burn of this episode.

    This is a real standout for me, one of the episodes I remember most vividly, so count me as another astounded that it's disliked.

  5. I'm with Froborr and Jack as being dumbfounded that standard Trek fans don't like this - my jaw is now on the floor! For me this s one of my all time favourite episodes. We have so much here as others have said above: eeriness, great pacing, a creative in-story challenge to solve, portals and communion wit the Otherworld, a great Deanna story and I always love stuff involving dreams.

    I don't bother about any problems with the flying Deanna effects - who cares?

    O'Brien's fine for me as I love Colm's range and you know when something is off-kilter on the inner or outer in a story when he does something non-chief like. I think of him as a kind of warm, human barometer for the heart of whatever crew he works with.

    *Love* this story - Trekkies don't have a clue clearly.

    1. At a wild guess, I know I had a hard time getting past the whole "Spacefaring aliens who can only communicate in the form of insomnia and vague symbolism" thing. (I can't recall what he suggested instead, but I remember that my dad, who is a chemist, thought "one moon circles" was a particularly obtuse way of communicating that they wanted hydrogen. Also that "we desperately need the single most abundant substance in the universe, because we don't have any" was pretty contrived. And a concept that we will be seeing again when we get to Voyager)

    2. It's interest to me from an audience detection sense that he went right to hydrogen, when I, having not seen the episode in an age but being a pretty good deductive reasoner in fiction went right to "they're talking binary star system ... Data, where's the nearest binary star?" Sure, not exactly the most one-to-one moon metaphor, but my first thought was a large orbiting body, not a small one.