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.