Monday, 15 December 2014

Mind Over Matter: Dream on Data

"Data...sometimes a cake is just a cake..." 

Season seven's Phantasms is among my favourite The Next Generation episodes ever. I spent a whole weekend in my teens transcribing the script from VHS volume 79 and typing it up. In some respects it makes Schisms look like a trip out to the seaside for utter weirdness yet it has me enthralled thanks to its unique plot and imagery. Then real shame is that the basis for the story is only explored in two episodes of The Next Generation and tragically never gets any more airtime due to the demise of Data in Nemesis

I guess it was one if those things that really would need it's own episode to talk about and I guess coming up with plots surrounding a dream programme aren't the easiest of things to come up with. This breakthrough in Data's programming was unleashed about half a season earlier in Birthright, Part I which I now think is a great little story. While the plot around the activation of the dream programme is only explored in the first part, it's one of the strongest indicators that Data is capable of becoming so much more and gets to keep an improvement for once rather than having it bestowed as a thank you or stolen from him. 

Now, Phantasms. I would absolutely love to wax lyrical over this one... Oh go on then, I will. Twenty years since it first aired (Really?! That long?) it's one of those classic The Next Generation moments for me. As an immediate successor to Birthright, Part I,  it does the story of Data's dreams the justice they were ill-afforded and ignored by the concluding part of the sixth season instalment. Brandon Braga is of course the man behind the script while Patrick Stewart held the directorial reins for the episode. This could easily have mutated into a schmaltzy "Data-learns" story as he comes to terms with his dreams and what they mean it goes as opposite in direction as possible. 

While saving the ship from some slug-like hitchhikers, we gain a troubling entrance into Data's psyche. Perhaps placing it against the recent emotions he experienced due to Lore in Decent would be as justified as relating it back to the more understandable visions that were realised in Birthright. There it was about Soong as creator, forging Data using his own hands and then letting him loose to explore and evolve. It was evidence that Data could make significant jumps in his understanding and abilities but there is a far more poignant moment in the sequel of Phantasms. When I rewatched it I still got the tingle of amazement that this line made it into the final version. When Data awakes from his second dream sequence he speaks to Geordi in engineering and starts to say that when he woke up he..... And never finishes the sentence. 

Is it that eventually the emotion chip he finally receives in Generations (and conveniently turned on and off for First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis) would not have been required? Was Soong's surprise in his appearance to Data in Birthright to do not only with the fact that his ultimate creation had managed to access such a deeply ingrained programme that he knew it could lead to self-development of emotions without external assistance? For me it's one of the most jaw-dropping cast off lines of the entire series, even more "argh" inducing than the Picard/Crusher romance that never quite happened. Had we explored the dreams of the android some more would this have been an eventual outcome?

The benefit of hindsight, hmm? I actually think we'd never get an answer to that unfinished question and it's important to remain on target here. Phantasms perhaps highlights how far Data has come since the beginning of The Next Generation while perhaps showing that he still has a great distance still to complete. His dreams bleed into reality and while it eventually becomes clear that there is a purpose to his "waking dream state" which reveals the existence of the creatures feeding on cellular peptides, it genuinely emotes some of the most chilling sensations I've ever felt within an episode of the series, specifically the sequence with Troi in the turbolift which was originally trimmed by the BBC when they first aired the episode. While Data is able to dream and thus be a step nearer to his goal of becoming human he still has the ability to turn it on and off at his will - there is still that last hurdle to overcome where it will "play" automatically rather than being instigated when desired. While the Troi incident is naturally chilling, the reminder of the dream sequence which repeats itself through the story is as bizarrely imagined as it is apparently logical by the tale's end and it would be more than criminal to avoid at least one reference to the "Troi Cake". All signs of consumption - and did you notice that the slice Worf is eating is cut into the Starfleet delta shape?

Anyway, let's look more like at what these stories say about Data. I actually think that the dream programme is far darker than we sense here. I I personally don't think Data really understands the power of the visions even when realises the significance of the visions at the conclusion of Phantasms which ultimately leads to the salvation of the Enterprise crew. In fact it could be seen that this addition is a weakness. I look at it this way, not only does he oversleep but there is the attack on Troi to consider. In Birthright, Data is wiling to effectively self harm to experience the programme again and becomes fanatic to the point of obsession with recreating images from the initial vision. While he might see it as some kind of Holmesian mystery to solve there is genuine danger to reach that goal and learn what it might all mean. It is perhaps more of a lost opportunity in Phantasms to push Data to yet another level that would be artificially provided in GenerationsMaybe this belays that Data's personal evolution is not finite and that he simply does not understand how the dream programme could aid the ongoing development of his humanity even when there is moment that could define his future and is (almost) missed. 

While the choice of location for both of Data's dream experiences are firmly on the Enterprise (budget limitations i expect) is limited his dreams relate firmly to his past with fantastical embellishments - Riker's straw, Soong as a blacksmith. This latter vision has a thread carried into the sequel with the workmen i dressed in equally period garb. Interesting that such a futuristic being as Data would hark back to such an age - maybe hints of his preference for the odd Sherlock Holmes mystery coming through his android subconscious here! The very unsophisticated look of the workmen as well as Dr Freud's involvement perhaps are even further suggestions that Data's dreams and possibly his evolution are still in their infancy - he has yet to evolve to a more high-tech age and is still regarded by his now-deceased creator as a child in so many ways. 

While the workmen and Freud, like all the aspects of the dream are in some way symbolic, they are the most memorable aspects of the story. Where else would you find three manual labourers attempting to dismantle a plasma conduit in the office of a famed psychologist in the dream of an android lieutenant commander on a starship (souonds even more bizarre when you read it back). The addition of that emotion chip back in Brothers might have been a bit early given some of Data's nuances over the later seasons (particularly when fed emotions from that very chip in Descent).

Just to take a few moments to indulge in Phantasms it is more unusual when you look at the structure of the story. The Data plot is also aligned with a faulty warp core, the Annual Starfleet Admirals' Banquet and a love-struck young ensign in Engineering. It's packed to the saucer section with great moments which all intertwine into one strand at some point along the way whether we realised it or not. Data's dreams act as the core to the narrative with all these elements packed around it seemingly separate but yet all fundamental to the solution - even if that solution is keeping the captain busy for a few minutes elsewhere.

While the dream in Birthright is all about expression and growth, the second tale of Data's mental state is much darker and unnerving as a whole. Birthright is more open and inviting to Data, making him want to explore the possibilities buried within his cranium but that's totally flipped by the surrealism and haunting melodies that are played throughout Phantasms.  You're never quite sure what the visions mean right up to the close of either installment and it's the deciphering of the experience which helps us to not only, perhaps, get to grips with the story but also understand how Data deals with a new experience, function or program. How we would have seen this expanded further we will never know. Interestingly after Phantasms there is only one more throwaway reference to Data's dreams in a single line at the end of Masks near the middle of the season. 

Not only that, but while it's one of my favourite episodes I would really like to find out how the cellular peptide eating critters manifested themselves into Data's dreams in the first place. Maybe it was one of the great misfires of the latter years of The Next Generation alongside the cringe-worthy Force of Nature's warp five speed limit. I think an even more mind-bending third story would have been necessary to top these two pieces. Data as a bird and Troi as a cake? Surely Picard as the White Rabbit had to be the logical next step?

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