“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.