Welcome to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! It’s a ‘TNG’ week this time and a first season ‘TNG’ week on top of that! (What can I say? I like to keep things interesting.) So sit down and join us as we revisit ‘Conspiracy’.
The first season of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ is… Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly the most beloved season of TV that ‘Star Trek’ has ever produced. Far from it, in fact. But as bumpy as that particular ride can get for the audience, that’s nothing compared to what was going on behind the scenes. A seemingly never-ending barrage of mismanagement, meddling lawyers, and infighting gave rise to a drama all its own. Partly thanks to all that chaos, ‘Conspiracy’ is an episode that almost didn’t happen.
When Tracy Torme first pitched ‘Conspiracy’ to Maurice Hurley (who took over as showrunner late in the season), it was rejected as, essentially, too dark, too violent, and “not ‘Star Trek'”. And to some extent that’s understandable, as the titular conspiracy in original version of the story was a military coup within Starfleet, a development which would have flown in the face of Roddenberry’s utopian conception of the 24th century (and which did, in fact, meet with some resistance from the man himself). Ultimately, though, someone (believed by Torme to have been Rick Berman) on the staff saw the pitch and rallied behind it, and with a group of supporters that included Berman and original series veteran Robert Justman, Torme’s story was greenlit over Hurley’s objections.
Once given the go-ahead, the story was altered so that the conspiracy was being orchestrated by alien parasites rather than overzealous Starfleet officers. Despite the episode’s ominous ending, the parasites were never seen again. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the writing staff initially had other ideas. According to Michael and Denise Okuda (writing in their 1996 ‘Star Trek Chronology’) ‘Conspiracy’ was – like ‘The Neutral Zone’ – meant to serve as a lead in of sorts to the Borg storyline that Maurice Hurley had originally planned for the second season. Obviously, this didn’t happen as that arc was derailed by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. It’s not entirely clear what sort of connection the parasites were meant to have had with the Borg, but it does make sense for there to be a connection if you recall that the Borg were originally envisioned as more of an insectoid hive than the “bionic zombies” they eventually became.
As the episode begins, Picard receives an emergency message from Walker Keel, an old friend and captain of the Horatio. Keel is visibly paranoid and asks Picard to meet him at an abandoned mining colony on Dytallix B.
Picard orders the Enterprise to divert to Dytallix, with no record of the course change. Upon arriving at the colony, Picard beams down and finds Keel waiting for him, along with Captains Scott and Rixx (of the Renegade and the Thomas Paine, respectively). The trio questions Picard about his past, and once satisfied that he is who he appears to be, they share their suspicions of a conspiracy within Starfleet Command. Though they don’t have a full sense of what’s going on, they note a number of strange orders and suspicious deaths in recent months. Additionally, they’ve noticed a number of officers – including top level personnel – undergoing some sort of vaguely defined change, the first sign of which is long-term memory loss (hence their earlier questioning of Picard). Keel mentions that he is suspicious of both his first officer and his chief medical officer, and urges Picard to stay vigilant.
Picard returns to the Enterprise deeply unsettled by what he’s been told. While the Enterprise resumes its previous course, he has Data review the last six months of Starfleet orders. Sometime later, the ship’s sensors register a disturbance in a nearby sector and Picard decides to investigate. They arrive to find a debris field, and their analysis concludes that it is the wreckage of the Horatio.
In light of Keel’s death, Picard brings Riker into the loop, sharing what he was told on Dytallix. The two then connect Keel’s suspicions to those that Admiral Quinn shared during his visit to the Enterprise several months prior. Data soon joins them. His review of Starfleet orders has revealed two things: an “uncustomary reshuffling” of command personnel and an unusual degree of contact between new officers and individuals at the highest levels of Starfleet Command. The pattern, he points out, is consistent with that of a hostile force seeking to control key parts of Federation territory. Faced with this chilling realization, the Enterprise returns to Earth. Upon arrival, Picard is contacted by a trio of admirals (Savar, Aaron, and Quinn) who want to know what he’s doing there. Picard simply says that he’d rather have that conversation in private. After a moment, the admirals agree and invite him and Riker to dinner. Quinn mentions that while he won’t be able to attend, he’d like to visit the Enterprise. As he prepares to beam up, he looks at am insect-like creature he keeps in a case.
Quinn boards the Enterprise and obviously bluffs his way through a discussion of his prior visit, leading Picard to recognize him as an imposter. After leaving orders for Riker to have Crusher give Quinn a medical exam and deliver his conclusions on Earth, Picard beams down and is greeted by Savar, Aaron, and Dexter Remmick – an aide of Quinn’s who accompanied the admiral on his last visit to the Enterprise. Back on the ship, Quinn shows Riker the creature, which he describes as a superior form of life, and explains that it was discovered by a survey team on an uncharted planet. When Riker offers to have a science team look at it, Quinn grabs his arm, saying that it “won’t like” the science officer, but “it does like you.” A fight ensues, during which Quinn displays incredible strength and knocks Riker out – though not before he can call security. Worf and LaForge arrive, and Quinn tells them that Riker slipped and fell. When he tries to excuse himself, however, they move to detain him. The admiral hurls LaForge into the corridor – breaking down the door in the process – before turning his attention to Worf.
Quinn is about to overpower Worf when he is phasered into unconsciousness by Crusher. They take him to sickbay, where Crusher’s scans show that he is who he appears to be, but in the course of her examination, she finds a spike sticking out the back of his neck.
On Earth, the Aaron, Savar, and Remmick try to convince Picard that there’s no conspiracy, but in doing so they tip their hands.
Before dinner is served, Picard takes a moment to contact Riker. Crusher answers instead, bringing him up to speed and explaining that the “spike” is actually a gill belonging to a parasitic creature that has taken control of Quinn and his brain functions. She hesitates to remove the creature, believing the attempt could leave Quinn dead, and adds that Picard must set his phaser to kill, as the stun setting has no effect. Picard, of course, beamed down unarmed.
The message delivered, he goes to join the others for dinner. The dish being served, though, is a bowl of worms, leading Picard to realize that he is the only one at the table not controlled by a parasite. Picard gets up to leave, only to find an apparently infected Riker waiting for him. Captain Scott enters, revealing herself to have been under the control of the parasites the whole time. As the conspirators discuss their plans, Riker moves to eat… and instead draws a phaser. Riker and Picard come out on top in the shootout that follows, though the victory is short-lived as a parasite crawls out of Admiral Aaron’s mouth. They follow it as it flees under a nearby door.
In the next room, they find Remmick, who remains nonchalant as the creature approaches him and crawls into his mouth. Remmick, his neck bulging, declares that the creatures mean no harm and seek peaceful coexistence. So in the finest Starfleet tradition, Riker and Picard open fire, keeping their phasers on Remmick until he literally explodes. A larger creature emerges screaming from what used to be Remmick’s chest, and the two again open fire, vaporizing it. Later, Picard notes in a log entry that the remaining parasites apparently died along with the “mother creature” and that Quinn is expected to make a full recovery. As the Enterprise prepares to move on, Data raises the possibility that the message Remmick was transmitting when Picard and Riker found him was a homing signal, leaving open the possibility that the parasites may yet return…