“Eternity waits”: Schisms


The way I thought of time was I thought of it like a river. And so I thought of it as flowing toward its lowest level. And I thought of history as a river and Eternity as the ocean. So naturally history flows downhill to reach Eternity. I also like the fact that when the descent in elevation is rapid, the river runs faster, and when the landscape is almost flat, the river broadens out and meanders. So it was to preserve this idea of time as a fluid. The other reason is a mathematical reason. It has to do with the fact that if we have novelty moving downward, then the maximum of novelty is zero.
-Terrence McKenna

Brannon Braga sells himself short when he describes “Schisms” as “just a garden-variety-UFO abduction episode”. Though only writing the teleplay, Braga's signature stamp is unmistakably all over the place here, and it's all for the better.

This isn't the first time Star Trek has done missing time and alien abductions: The earliest I can remember is “The Mark of Gideon” in the Original Series, which was seeped in that imagery and iconography even if it wasn't overtly about it. The Animated Series was similarly awash in all manner of 1970s New Age sci-fi spookiness. And actually describing “Schisms” that way similarly does it a disservice, Braga himself pointing out the story's real appeal lies in the mystery underlying its initial acts. While its surrealism looks comparatively tame next to the sheer mind-breaking symbolic power of some forthcoming Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (in particular, Braga's forthcoming episodes) and it doesn't help the big reveal is given away in the weekly syndication teaser trailer, “Schisms” remains unarguably compelling.

It also doesn't help, sadly, that the aliens themselves are, shall we say, somewhat underwhelming as realised. Braga himself even describes them, rather bluntly as “fish monks” and complains, albeit correctly, that neither fish nor monks are scary. Their language of clicks, by contrast, is a testament to the kind of insane attention to detail that can go into shows like this: That's not just random background noise, that's an *actual fictional language of clicks* devised by producer Wendy Neuss and the sound team, and every sequence of clicks you hear has been painstakingly translated to Fish Monk from English. Yes, that's *actual dialog* those dudes are speaking, and none of you would ever have picked up on that had I not told you.

One thing I do really like about the Fish Monks is their origin: A group of mysterious creatures from outside the normal space-time continuum who are trying to re-shape our universe for their own unclear motivations. They don't just come from another universe, which would almost be blase in the kind of science fiction setting Star Trek: The Next Generation has, they come from an *entirely different* kind of space (in fact, if my understanding of how subspace works in Star Trek is correct, it's literally a *liminal* space between). There's also something to be said that their endgame goal is to reshape our universe with their space, effectively rewriting reality in their image, which is an unbelievably oversignified concept. They will not be the last group of Star Trek antagonists to attempt this, and even though they don't make a return appearance (on television at any rate) the open-ended conclusion to this episode still rings with an ominous tone of foreshadowing.

But if we can pretend for a moment we don't know what's going on from the beginning (maybe we somehow managed to turn off “Relics” before the trailer, or, more advisably, skipped “Relics” entirely) and approach “Schisms” as a newcomer it's perfectly effective at slowly building a sense of unease and dreamlike disorientation. One of the things especially deserving of praise in my opinion is the way Robert Wiemer's direction compliments Braga's script here, as the sense of missing time experienced by various crewmembers seems to plague the audience as well. Take particular note of the scene where Geordi wakes Will in his quarters and where Data asks Geordi if he's been to sickbay: In both cases the camera's perspective is paralleled with that of the victimized crewmember. So we watch Will get ready for bed and settle in, only to have Geordi come to his door for what to him (and us) seems like moments later even though he's presumably spent eight hours in the subspace construct: All that information is relegated to what amounts to a solitary cut *at most*. With Data, things get a bit trickier, as we do get a whole scene with Geordi in sickbay so we instinctively *know* Data is wrong about how much time has passed, even though the cut back to him is equally subtle.

The combined effect of direction like this is that “Schisms” is scary good at building a sense that time itself, or at least our perception of it (which is all time, and the rest of the universe, is anyway) is being fucked around with by some unseen force. And part of the reason this is so creepy and effective is that the rest of the episode has an almost “day in the life” tone to it. The Enterprise is on a stellar cartography mission, which is precisely the sort of thing you'd expect it to be doing when it's not getting wrapped up up galactic realpolitiking, and, if you're like me, the kind of thing you'd kind of like to see it doing more often. Then there's of course the subplot about Data's poetic aspirations, which to me is just a masterpiece of characterization. “Ode to Spot” is naturally a laugh riot, and that whole scene is a showcase for the brilliant physical and facial acting of the regulars, including seasoned veteran extra Tracee Lee Cocco's Lieutenant Jae!

Jae is basically TNG's Morn. Keep an eye out for her.
(Speaking of Jae, I should talk a bit about her. Although I haven't mentioned her before, she's always been here, quietly in the background of a *ton* of episodes and definitely an unsung hero of the Enterprise. Really, Jae ought to be considered an honourary bridge crew member right alongside people like Miles O'Brien: Hell, with 63 appearances she's in more episodes than Tasha Yar and Ro Laren *combined* and even made the transition to the first three 90s films. By this point in the show the casting directors and choreographers seemed to be subtly trying to position Jae as a more prominent part of the crew, culminating with her looking for all the world here like Captain Picard's date to Data's poetry reading. I mean, they sit right next to each other, exchange glances with each other and the camera keeps cutting between them and fan-favourite couple Will Riker and Deanna Troi. The cinematic symmetry and comparisons are simply too easy to make. If nothing else, it's an interesting stylistic choice coming not long before “Lessons”: As much as I like to read Captain Picard as asexual and aromantic and as much as the age difference would obviously be an issue, I'm not going to pretend Picard/Jae isn't a kind of adorable couple to me.)

But even more remarkable is how the thread continues throughout the early acts. After his (altogether human) awkwardness in the aftermath of the reading, Geordi is in full-on Reading Rainbow mode, imploring Data to put more of himself into his art. And after that, we shift right back to the tech mystery: This isn't the personal character development stuff getting subsumed by technobabble, nor is it serious science fiction (whatever that is) getting compromised to focus on navel-gazey emotionalism and sentimentality-Rather, it's a demonstration that both personal growth and cosmic wonder are important parts of life. In fact, this even ties in to the psychological horror stuff that makes up the bulk of this episode. Through fusing its post- “Data's Day” day-in-the-life structure seamlessly with the uncanny and high concept science fiction ideas (in a manner that's far better, actually, than what “Data's Day” itself actually managed to pull off) “Schisms” seems to be telling us that all of this is simply in a day's work for the crew of the starship Enterprise. And I kind of love that: This is what I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation to see, and “Schisms” is as deft an execution of that paradigm as you're ever likely to find.


Froborr 5 years, 5 months ago

I've never even heard of Jae before, that's great!

I dunno about her being Picard's date, though. If she is, I don't think it's going very well, their body language is very stiff and separate, even if their shoulders ARE touching.

Braga does these sorts of mini-horror movies very well. At least until that "de-evolution" one, anyway.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 5 months ago

Well maybe it was an awkward first date. Maybe Jean-Luc was looking for someone to commiserate with during the reading and Jae was available. Maybe Jean-Luc was trying to get to know the other members of the crew better but went about it a weird way. I'd imagine it would feel awkward for a junior (possibly even enlisted) officer to be hanging out with the Captain. They probably don't have a ton to talk about together except how bad Data is at poetry. Especially considering Jae doesn't talk.

And I like "Genesis", actually! It's profoundly stupid for sure, but I always got a kick out of the suspense and the creepy makeup. And Gates McFadden is a good director! I'm really looking forward to writing about that one!

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K. Jones 5 years, 5 months ago

This episode is a brilliant Frakes/Riker episode. Easily one of the top five. He's definitely the guy to go to if you're doing "day in the life", though LaVar's Geordi gives him a run for it here. They've also finally gotten into a proper groove of turning any episode into a solid ensemble piece and I believe more often than not that will be a hallmark of the rest of these later seasons, as they're so adept at being ensembles that the guest regulars like Ro and Keiko and Miles and Guinan all get plenty of room to play as well.

But that also speaks to the 'day in the life' model, as it's a perfect format for focusing 'strictly' on one or two characters but having actual human-like, personal, meaningful you know ... roles ... for everyone else to play. And like I said, Riker is clearly the guy to do this with. He's so personable - we understand at this point that he's the loyal friend to everyone and that's where his charm and competency come from, and so the mystery of the day almost starts off as another "let's do" episode - one that really speaks to me just because I suffer from massive sleep disorders that entirely affect my day-to-day life and I can completely understand both ends of a skewed circadian rhythm and how they can turn everything upside down.

And so Riker proves to be the right choice for this, as Frakes gives us such a solid depiction of a disrupted circadian cycle and transitions so well from his usual, well kept, outwardly beaming self to disheveled self-interest and being somewhat annoyed at everything from Geordi's tech mystery to Data's poetry. That cold open with Troi elbowing him awake could be my favorite cold open in all of Next Gen.

And anyway, wrapping up my end of the preference for these types of "day in the life" formats, I think it's clear that all of Trek, but maybe particularly Next Gen, are so cut out for that format because of the very subject matter they're supposed to be exploring. Because utopianism and conflict resolution aren't actually these abstract ideals we're supposed to reach for in the stars ... they're sensible and pragmatic ways to handle real human lives on a day-to-day basis. Which is why these subspace cultists are another existential threat to the very fabric of Trek akin to the Devidian phantasms, a really apropos villain for Riker in particular (entities that abduct his friends and people he's responsible for and test that loyalty to the limit), and are overall pretty creepy, even if they never go as far into horror monster territory as say, a similar situation in say, Doctor Who might do. But they're not silly, either, in spite of being more terrifying as an unseen enemy. And yes, this show once again proves its deftness as a psychological horror, which not only fits 'day in the life' extremely well, but really leverages the likability and familiarity with the cast of characters. I remember as a kid being utterly horrified at the notion Will's arm had been severed and reattached.

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Froborr 5 years, 5 months ago

For me, it's one of those rare instances where the bad science actually does ruin the story for me, because I'm laughing at it so hard that all suspense is lost. As my biologist friend put it, "That had a creationist's understanding of evolution and a reporter's understanding of genetics!" And Braga's complete failure to understand evolution does eventually get us whatever the fuck he thought he was doing with "Threshold," which while nowhere near its "worst episode of 90s Star Trek" reputation (I mean, just off the top of my head I can think of at least three TNG episodes and a DS9 episode that are worse), is still pretty terrible in its teleological view of evolution/progress.

It is very well directed, though. Didn't realize it was McFadden!

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Daru 5 years, 4 months ago

I remember when I first watched this, the whole mystery of it really deeply gripped me. This was due to the fact that I simply never saw any next time trailers for upcoming episodes, so I was very much in the dark about what was going on, which is pretty much my favourite state to approach stories in - to be clueless. I love surprises as plots unfold and I agree that not knowing what is happening in this one enhances the experience.

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