Data’s Nightmares Are Even Worse Than You Could Possibly Imagine, The Continuing (Bonkers) Final Season of TNG

Okay, I had to watch this episode three times to verify that it makes approximately no sense. It’s a dream episode, not a good start, and it’s Data’s first nightmare, so it’s an android dream episode, many more elements to deal with here. Can we treat Data’s dreams like human dreams? Should he be affected by nightmares like regular people? Why is he stabbing Troi? The central issue (far fetched even for Star Trek standards) gets solved in the end, so I guess that’s all that really matters in a weekly TV series, but Jesus this thing is a mess. It even leaves a time bomb in the midst of the crew that will never be addressed again.

The plotting here is fairly minimal, so lets get it out of the way before we dive into just how nonsensical and banal the use of dreams is here. The Enterprise is running late for an Admiral’s Ball that Picard does not want to go to in the first place because they are installing a new warp core. This absorbs Geordi’s and Data’s full attention. Simultaneously Data has his first nightmare and gets a little obsessed. Even more so as the nightmares intensify.

The world around us is constantly bombarding us with stimuli that we can’t understand. We don’t see x-rays. We can’t hear as well as a bat. Neutrinos pass through us all the time without even stopping to say hello. Massive fish made of tachyons swim through space and time and our primitive nervous systems take nary a notice. If your sensory organs can’t receive the information then it may as well not exist, right? Not in the Star Trek universe. Onboard a Starfleet vessel these types of things make you have nightmares and hallucinate.

We’ve already seen this phenomena tried as an explanation for Geordi seeing his lost mother on an abandoned ship full of corpses. The Enterprise has dealt with strange dreams and half-formed memories from their time as cross-dimensional medical experiments. This will not be the first time this season that there is some weird brain-fuckery. Probably everyone has brain cancer or severe hypothalmus damage, but the mission marches on.

In case you’ve forgotten Data leveled up last season and unlocked the power of dreams. I’ll forgive you if you forgot. It hasn’t come up a whole lot since. It turns out that his ability to dream can also give him nightmares as he dreams that some very surly miners are tearing into the ships plasma conduits and being violently insistent that he keep quiet for god’s sake. Because there’s nothing miners hate more than ringing telephones and high-pitched shrieking, apparently.

Understandably Data is somewhat obsessed with these new nightmares. He finds himself fixated on the imagery, attempting to decode it during his waking hours. Troi encourages Data to continue his dreams.

Data’s next dream really puts the icing on the cake, as it will be. This time he is in Ten Forward. Worf removes a comm badge from a piece of cake and begins eating. It’s a cellular peptide cake, with mint frosting he points out rapturously. Near the bar Dr. Crusher is sipping from a straw implanted in Riker’s head. A phone is ringing. Riker tells him to answer that damn ringing. The miners are gathered around a table. When Data attempts to speak there is nothing but a high pitched scream. On the table Troi is the cake and begs for Data not to cut into her. He apologizes, but cuts into her anyway.

He awakes to find Troi, Worf and Geordi standing around his bed trying to wake him up. Data has overslept. This is very concerning for him. Oversleeping for us is annoying, and usually preventable, but Data is his own alarm clock. He should wake up exactly on time every time, or there should be something wrong. A diagnostic of Data’s inner workings can find no malfunctions.

Having ruled out any mechanical fuckery Data decides to visit Sigmund Freud in the holodeck. Freud is the usual manic, bearded, Austrian caricature munching a cigar that we’ve all grown to expect, and he’s spouting the same pop-psych sensationalist bullshit that he is forever spouting on television, often by proxy. Freud of course, hated Americans and their rather crude interpretations of his ideas, but he needed their money. Star Trek takes the chance to fire some pot shots across Freud’s bow.

Freud believes that Data’s mechanical side is attempting to reassert itself over his human side. This isn’t really consistent with Data’s journey so far. At no point has his movement towards humanity been presented as a duality. And of course he wishes to possess his own mother, because no Freudian appearance is complete without some parental sexual possession being thrown in. The knife represents sexual inadequacy turning into violence. This isn’t even consistent with the dream. Data apologizes before cutting into the Counselor cake at the insistence of the miners, clearly an outside influence. Finally, as Data begins rejecting Freud’s assertions, Freud twists Data’s objections as transferred anger with his father.

But he still gets under Data’s skin. In a session with Counselor Troi he openly wonders if Freud is correct. Maybe he does want to hurt people. Troi can make some vague assertions, appeal to Data’s gentle nature, but she can’t make any kind of concrete counter-interpretation. Despite few professionals, even in our time, hewing to Freud’s ideas about dreams, or very much else in any but the most basic form, there is no other popular figure or philosophy that can be drawn on to give meaning to dream imagery. No other personality or system holds as much cultural cache. The sexual overtones may be something of a joke, and they’re obviously being rejected here, but nobody else gives dreams nearly as much narrative cache as Freud. He cannot be escaped. His spectre hangs over any talk of dreams outside of a spiritual context.

Data’s dreams are no longer relegated to his dreaming program though. His counseling session is brought on the by the hallucination of a mouth on Geordi’s neck and the ringing of a telephone. Nobody fucking takes this seriously though. Everybody seems to welcome with open arms the idea that Data is becoming more human by becoming obsessed with dream imagery and hallucinating. It’s interfering with his job. He is becoming a worse officer and displaying some very disturbing signs of losing his mind. Troi even admits that if he were a human patient she’d be very worried, but because he’s an android she’s more inclined to observe.

As it transpires she should have taken things a little more seriously because after their counseling session Data hallucinates a mouth on her shoulder and tries to cut it out. He completely loses control of himself and cannot help but stab her in the shoulder. On the upside while Doctor Crusher is fixing the wound she notices some discoloration. It turns out that interphasic alien mouths have latched themselves onto the crew and are draining them of their precious cellular peptides. Even though they could soon be turned into puddles of goo and chemicals, nobody is experiencing any ill effects. That’s right, the entire fucking crew is being eaten alive by parasites and Picard is the only one with so much as a headache, and that’s because of an Admiral’s ball. Remember when I said this shit didn’t make sense?

So, in a final dream, projected into the holodeck with Picard and Geordi along for the ride, the final answers are revealed. Freud even shows up to embody Data’s unconscious mind warning him about the dangers around him. Even here, after having had his interpretation completely dismissed by all of the characters involved and the plot itself, Freud cannot be escaped as the avatar of the import of dreams. He’s inescapable.

It turns out the Data’s positronic brain is responding to interphasic pulses being sent out by the aliens. His positronic brain can be wired to emit a similar interphasic pulse that will drive the aliens away. Yes, just like those magic, ultrasonic pest deterrents. An interphasic fusion process was used to build the new plasma conduit that came with the new warp core and that must have attracted the aliens.

I certainly hope that this is the first and last time they’ve used that process, because otherwise there are a bunch of ships out there with crews that are just going to melt away into their component chemicals with little or no warning. This is a serious emergency that nobody bothers to address. Are other parts being manufactured using this process? Are people in the plant safe? Is the planet even safe. Surely if a ship’s worth of hungry alien mouths can follow a single plasma conduit the factory can attract an entire city’s worth. Why does nobody fucking do anything about this?

And now everything just falls apart in an embarrasing mess of convenience. Data’s subconscious, or whatever cognitive subroutine comes closest to that function for him, saw the aliens. Let’s go ahead and give them this one. Magnetic fields can have strange effects on biological brains. Interphasic fields can have similar effects on positronic brains. When things like that do happen though people tend to experience it as feelings of unease. They may get nauseous, irritable, or even hallucinate.

The thing about hallucinations though is that they are rarely particularly useful. Seeing your dead mother floating through the drawing room window in no way indicates that the faulty wiring in your house is jacking up the electrical impulses in your brain. These hallucinations and dreams seem to be very helpful and detailed though.

Not only can data see the feeding aliens, reasonable, but he knows exactly what they are eating and exactly where they came from. the miners are digging away at the very same plasma conduit that brought the interphasic beings to the Enterprise. The noise that Data makes in his dream is equivalent to the interphasic pulse that will drive the aliens away.

None of this information is available other than the existence of the mouths, and maybe, MAYBE, giving the absolute nicest benefit of the doubt, that they are interphasic beings in some way. Doctor Crusher discovers the beings are interphasic, not even detectable with a tricorder, but doesn’t come up with the idea of an interphasic pulse. Nobody comes up with this. It’s not as if this has been a problem before and Data would know that that’s what needs to happen. The dream creates this information from nothing at all. Dreams, if they are to be assigned secular importance at all, operate by exaggerating kernels of information. The kernel of information that defines the threat has no reason to contain either the source of that threat or its solution. Those are issues for rational, wakeful thought. It wouldn’t even hurt the episode to have the aliens discovered by Data’s dream and then the solution to come from discussion, but instead Crusher discovers the aliens, the one piece of information Data could reasonably have come up with, and their source and solution comes from his dream. The pieces are there, but they’ve all been forced down in the wrong order.

The problem solved Data is let off the hook and Troi bakes him a Data shaped cake so that she can symbolically dissect and consume him like he did her. We are all supposed to be happy that there was nothing actually wrong with Data, but that’s actually way, way worse than Data having some kind of malfunction. Data senses things that his conscious mind can’t quite grasp and has nightmares that offer miraculous solutions is a fine thing. Data senses things that his conscious mind can’t quite grasp and can’t help but be totally consumed by dream imagery to the point that he stabs a colleague and friend is a completely different beast.

He didn’t just have weird dreams. Those dreams asserted themselves on his waking world and took control. The Enterprise encounters weird shit all of the time that could potentially be just outside of Data’s usual sensory abilities. From now on every single one of those things has the potential to totally highjack him and turn him into a murderer. Hell, he’s “fully functional.” He could become a nightmare possessed, mechanical rapist. And yet nobody is worried about this. Two nightmares turned your friend into a very determined amateur surgeon and everyone is willing to just say, “That’ll probably never happen again.” In fact, one of the hallmarks of Star Trek is that everybody ignores the possiblity of any particular horrible thing ever happening again.

Meanwhile, Data lays in wait for the time when some subtle, nearly undetectable phenomena will turn him into Mr. Hyde again.

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