“Schisms” (season 6, episode 5)
According to The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion by Larry Nemecek, “Schisms” suffered from a “scaled-back ending” when the production budget wouldn’t allow for what writer Brannon Braga had envisioned: “a single insectoid claw around Riker’s bed in the alien lab, with only a few sparse bits of light and the ever-present clicking sounds to break up the darkness” (page 221).
Although “Schisms” doesn’t end as Braga originally envisioned, Riker and Ensign Rager’s (Lanei Chapman) harrowing experience in the enigmatic aliens’ lab in the final act still taps into not only primal body horror fears but also late-1990s fascination with stories of abduction (also evidenced in the popularity of The X-Files). And since the aliens’ hooded cloaks prevent viewers from getting too many glimpses of their insect-like appearance, we’re not overly distracted by thinking, “These are just folks in rubber suits.”
The scene in the holodeck in which Riker and his fellow abductees reconstruct the cold, metal slab on which the aliens conduct their experiments is convincingly creepy, especially thanks to the episode’s sound design. Those aforementioned clicks evoke a palpable sense of dread.
And the fact that the aliens’ origin and motives remain unknown at the episode’s end, as with the aliens in “Conspiracy,” is a chillingly perfect capper. It deserves a spot on any list of Star Trek TNG episodes for Halloween.
“Frame of Mind” (season 6, episode 21)
If “Schisms” is a harrowing experience for Commander Riker—and it was—”Frame of Mind” is even more so. This episode gives Jonathan Frakes a chance to shine as an increasingly disheveled and disturbed Riker doubts his sanity.
From the very first scene, in which (unbeknownst to the audience), Riker is rehearsing a play by Dr. Crusher that’s “full of disturbing images—people losing their minds, being tortured by doctors,” viewers are on the edge of their seats wondering what’s “real” and what’s not. (They may also idly wonder why the Enterprise’s kind chief physician is writing a play about doctors who torture, but fiction is fiction, right?)
Paranoia is one of the most powerfully fearful emotions human beings can experience. “Frame of Mind” pulses with paranoia from start to finish, and also boasts some nifty visual effects that literally shatter our carefully constructed barriers between illusion and reality. It’s a psychological tour de force, and perfectly unnerving viewing for the spooky season.