Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Conspiracy”

Teleplay by Tracy Tormé
Story by Robert Sabaroff
Directed by Cliff Bole

Season 1, Episode 25
Original air date: May 9, 1988
Star date: 41775.5

Mission summary

The Enterprise crew is excited about taking yet another shore leave on Waterworld Pacifica under the guise of a “scientific mission.” They’re goofing off and telling inappropriate jokes on the Bridge when a top secret communiqué rains on their parade: a Code 47 on the Starfleet Emergency Broadcast System, for the captain’s eyes only. Riker wakes up Picard to take the important call, which is from one of his oldest living friends, Captain Walker Keel of the U.S.S. Horatio. He has an ominous warning for Picard: Trust no one. They agree to rendezvous in person at an old mining planet, Dytallix B, which is almost as good as a planet of beautiful oceans and beaches, if you’re a Horta anyway.

The ship arrives to find three other Federation ships in orbit, the Horatio and two frigates, with their three captains waiting on the surface. Picard beams down alone to join Keel and Captains Tryla Scott and Rixx. Keel asks him a series of personal questions designed to prove his identity before disclosing that his secretive group is concerned about irregular orders coming from the highest ranks of Starfleet Command and mysterious, “accidental” deaths. Keel even suspects that his own crew has been compromised.

Picard is skeptical as he resumes their mission to Pacifica, but he assigns Data to a fun research project: reviewing all of Starfleet’s orders for the last six months. Keel’s talk of conspiracy gains some credibility when they discover the wreckage of the Horatio, and Picard is even more convinced when Data informs him that there is something hinky going on at Starfleet, potential signs of infiltration by alien invaders. Remembering Admiral Quinn’s warnings several episodes ago, the captain decides to return to Earth to sort things out personally.

At home, they get a lukewarm welcome from Admirals Savar, Aaron, and Quinn, but there isn’t anything overtly suspicious. Picard accepts a dinner invitation to share his concerns with them in private, and Quinn invites himself to the ship—which Picard interprets as an attempt to speak to him alone. Little does he know that Quinn is bringing a little friend with him, an alien bug-worm thing in a convenient carrying case planned as a gift for Dr. Crusher. Quinn is such a romantic.

Once the admiral is aboard, Picard brings up his previous conversation about a threat to the Federation, but Quinn backpedals and tells him he’s mistaken. Everything’s fine! Couldn’t be better. Yeah, Picard isn’t fooled though. He tells Riker that Quinn has been replaced somehow and orders him to watch the old guy while he beams down for dinner.

Riker watches Quinn as the admiral handily beats the crap out of him for asking “What’s in the case?” Quinn says it holds a “superior” life form that was discovered on an uncharted planet, which would like to get to know Riker better. You know, for his mind. Worf and La Forge rush to Riker’s aid. Quinn knocks out Worf even more quickly than he did Riker and flings La Forge around for good measure, but he eventually succumbs to multiple shots from Dr. Crusher’s phaser.

Meanwhile, at Starfleet headquarters, Captain Picard should really be picking up on the fact that he’s in trouble. When he tells the Vulcan admiral that Riker will join them for dinner shortly, Savar says in a very ominous voice, “Yes, I’m sure he will.” He also says “We’ve prepared a special dinner in your honor.” But Picard was more the Shakespeare in the Park type than a horror movie buff, so he takes him at his creepy, creepy word—until Dr. Crusher contacts him with the startling news that Quinn’s mind had been taken over by a parasitic alien wrapped around his brainstem.

Apparently you can detect that someone has been taken over by a “blue gill” protruding from the base of his neck—or by his strange appetite for mealworms. Starfleet should really fire their Ferengi chef. Picard is put off by the meal; the worms are a little rarer than he likes, and he had a big lunch, which he’s in danger of losing at the table. Foolishly without a phaser—after all, “one does not beam down to Starfleet headquarters armed”—he tries to escape, but he’s stopped by Riker, who not only beamed down to Starfleet Headquarters armed, but also seems to have drunk the mealworm Kool-Aid.

The admirals are surprised that he was chosen, but welcome him as their wormy brethren. Captain Scott soon joins them and they all chat about their plan to conquer the Federation from within, while Riker plays with his food. Then he pulls a phaser and shoots the nameless guy across from him. Riker was just pretending the whole time! He and Picard manage to disable everyone else quickly, sending their convincingly-animated parasites scuttling from their mouths.

They follow one of them to a control room, where Quinn’s assistant Remmick is studying a star chart. They try to warn him as the parasite crawls into his mouth… for shelter? Ew. He rises from his seat, neck pulsating, and reassures them:

“You don’t understand. We mean you no harm. We seek peaceful coexistence.”

Spoken like a true parasite. Picard and Riker fire on him. His head explodes and a large mother alien bursts from his chest, which they also blow up, leaving a grotesque, headless corpse. Well, they never liked this guy anyway.

Back on Enterprise, Admiral Quinn is recovering, his own parasite now gone for some reason. Everything is awesome again, and boy could they use shore leave now. But Data has some chilling news.

DATA: Captain, I have attempted to trace the message Remmick was sending. I believe it was aimed at an unexplored sector of our galaxy.
LAFORGE: Any idea what the message was, Data?
DATA: I believe it was a beacon.
PICARD: A beacon?
DATA: Yes, sir. A homing beacon, sent from Earth.

Dun dun dun.


I’ve always loved this episode, perhaps because it’s so different from your usual Star Trek episode, but that is admittedly one of its drawbacks as well—it doesn’t quite fit in, especially with TNG, and this time around I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

The first half of the episode effectively builds a compelling and ominous tone that there’s a major threat to the Federation, working from within, but it really isn’t all that different from what was already accomplished in its precursor, “Coming of Age.” In pre-DS9 days, any hint that anything dark was going on at Starfleet was intriguing but anomalous; I’m kind of surprised that this plotline was approved at all, although of course, the darkness comes from outside our perfect Federation. It seems very ambitious, like it’s all building to something dire and important, but not only does the episode fail to deliver on that promise, but the dangling plot threads are never picked up again.

It’s somewhat disappointing when the enemy ends up being bug-like critters that have to be carried around in boxes, and badly rendered ones at that. These things are almost as bad as the puppets in the original series episode “Catspaw.” I like horror movies in this vein, like Night of the Creeps and Slither, and I also like stop motion animation something fierce, but there is nothing convincing about these creatures—unlike, say, the Ceti eels in Star Trek II which are very similar in form and function. This is campy B-movie schlock at best, and the episode goes for cheap horror movie tricks, like the alarming POV on Dr. Crusher in Sickbay when Riker approaches (a clumsy bit of misdirection for the viewer) to the frankly gratuitous exploding Remmick at the end, which did hold some appeal to the 13-year-old me during his campy B-movie phase.

The episode is just plain sloppy. Why do they show us Quinn with the parasite in the transporter room, when it only undercuts its later reveal? Why does Quinn tip his hand and attack first Riker, then Worf and La Forge, with only the mildest provocation? Picard and Riker have a private conversation about Quinn being replaced—while a transporter tech is in the room with them!

Also, and this is a big ALSO, those Starfleet regulation haircuts should make the tails protruding out of their necks so noticeable, but we only see them once the plot mentions that they exist. And I know we pick on Counselor Troi a lot, but why the hell didn’t she notice any of this going on around her, not when they talk to the admirals onscreen or when Quinn comes on board. Is identifying alien mind control above her pay grade?

The admirals on Earth are generic, ludicrous, obvious villains who also choose to reveal their plan to Picard for some unknown reason by serving him a bowlful of wriggling worms. This little exchange is pure wishful thinking on the part of the script writer:

SAVAR: Patience is one of our virtues, Captain. We didn’t go after you, we allowed you to come after us.
AARON: More dramatic that way, don’t you think?
TRYLA: Yes, the one thing both races share is a love of theatre. And you’ve put on a fine show.

No, this isn’t more dramatic, and this isn’t a fine show. And the whole matter of the parasites just begs all sorts of other questions. How did these bug things learn to love theater? Why do they all die or disappear or whatever when their momma parasite is killed? I know the ending makes them seem like some terrible threat, but how dangerous are they really? They need host bodies and can be killed pretty easily, it seems. For all their strength and cunning, Picard’s response to Data’s announcement should have been, “Bring it.”

Basically, all this episode does is make Starfleet look inept and present the Enterprise and her crew as better than pretty much everyone. At the same time, I applaud the diversity in Starfleet: We see a Bolian captain—before we know who the Bolians are—as well as our first woman captain on TNG, and they even go so far as to elevate her above Captain Kirk, as the youngest captain in history. That’s bold. Speaking of bold, Riker is particularly brazen, bluffing his way into a dinner hosted by enemy parasites, though I don’t know why he waits until he nearly has to eat worms to fire on them. I also like that it takes Dr. Crusher to bring down Admiral Quinn and essentially figure everything out in a couple of minutes.

As much as I still overall enjoyed this one, it’s really just a whole lot of tone and style over substance, just a pale Invasion of the Body Snatchers ripoff with special effects on par with a 1950s SF flick and no lasting consequences.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: This is tricky, because pretty much everyone in this episode is wearing a Starfleet uniform. The only exception is when Picard is out of uniform–way out–and we get to see more of him than we have before. (Still nothing on the order of “Chain of Command,” of course.) Really, is this any way to answer a video call, especially one that could potentially be from one of your superiors? I get the feeling his BFF Walker Keel has seen it all before. And by the way, who designed a communication station that flashes a pulsing bright orange light in your face while you’re talking? Or is this the equivalent of a VCR blinking 12:00 and Picard just hasn’t figured out how to change the settings yet?

Best Line: WORF: “Swimming is too much like… bathing.”

Trivia/Other Notes: The original plot of this episode, as set up in “Coming of Age,” concerned a military coup within Starfleet to parallel the Iran-Contra affair. Gene Roddenberry insisted that the alien parasites be introduced to explain the inconsistencies within the Federation, thus protecting its spotless reputation.

This episode was censored in the UK, cutting several minutes of the show, including Remmick’s grisly death. It is also the only TNG episode to receive a viewer discretion warning in Canada.

The star chart Remmick studies was reused in many later TNG episodes and even appeared in another series: the BBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures… perhaps suggesting a link between the Star Trek and Doctor Who universes?

Astonishingly, this episode received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for a Series.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 24 – “We’ll Always Have Paris.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 26 – “The Neutral Zone.”

About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.