“Eyes in the dark”: Night Terrors (TNG) vs. The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Voyager)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Night Terrors” (season 4, episode 17)

night terrors 6Teleplay by Pamela Douglas and Jeri Taylor; story by Shari Goodhartz; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1991

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise comes across the starship Brattain, which has been missing for a month, and is now adrift, its engines not working for no apparent reason. Its crew are all dead – all except one catatonic Betazoid – after spiraling into paranoia, and turning against each other. Now, it seems that the Enterprise is having the same mysterious engine trouble, and its crew, too, are becoming increasingly agitated and fatigued, and are experiencing horror-movie hallucinations. Dr. Crusher discovers that something is preventing the crew from achieving REM sleep, therefore preventing them from dreaming, and slowly driving them toward psychological breakdown … all except the Enterprise’s own lone Betazoid, Counsellor Troi, who has the opposite problem: recurring nightmares. She realizes that her nightmares are an attempt at communication by aliens stuck in the same anomaly as the Enterprise, and Captain Picard puts Data in command of an increasingly distracted and paranoid crew as they try to find a way to cooperate with the aliens and escape the anomaly, before they end up like the crew of the Brattain.

VS.

Star Trek: Voyager – “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” (season 6, episode 25)

haunting 1Teleplay by Mike Sussman, Kenneth Biller, and Bryan Fuller; story by Mike Sussman; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 2000

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

As Voyager prepares to enter a nebula, the crew are busy taking precautions, including shutting off power to much of the ship, in order to avoid what happened “last time”. What did happen last time? We don’t know, and neither do the four young Borg who recently came aboard Voyager. They do know that a section of deck twelve is mysteriously off-limits to most of the crew, though, and they demand answers from Neelix, who proceeds to tell them a good-old-fashioned ghost story, around the good-old-fashioned space-campfire, about what happened the last time Voyager entered a nebula. In between interruptions from the kids, we watch Neelix’s story play out, jump-scares and all, as Voyager is “haunted” by an alien life form that accidentally hitched a ride out of its nebula home in Voyager’s computer systems, and is using those systems to either get back to its native habitat, or recreate that habitat on Voyager … whether the crew survives it or not. But Janeway is finally able to convince the life form that it needs them alive to get what it wants, and a truce is reached. The Borg kids are skeptical, and Neelix finally admits that it was all just a made-up story … OR WAS IT? (No, it totally wasn’t).

night terrors 1When you think of Halloween episodes, Star Trek probably isn’t the first franchise to come to mind. But the Trek universe really has produced a surprising number of spooky stories, paying tribute to sub-genres of horror like the slasher film (Deep Space Nine’s “Empok Nor”) or psychological horror (The Next Generation’s “Frame of Mind”), and even beating The X-Files to the alien-abduction body-horror punch (TNG’s “Schisms” first aired in 1992; The X-Files debuted the following year). Which does make a certain kind of sense. It’s The Simpsons’ “rubber band reality”, as Matt Groening has described it, which allows that show to pay tribute to the horror classics in its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes … and Star Trek, too, has often embraced a certain amount of rubber band reality. Sure, later series like DS9, Enterprise, and Discovery would aim for more realism and a more consistent continuity, to varying degrees (and with varying levels of success). But the franchise was founded on an anthology-like approach that treated its technologically advanced setting less like a coherent, canonical universe, and more like a springboard for jumping into different genres of fiction for an episode at a time: the crew of Kirk’s Enterprise, for instance, could find themselves transplanted into a 1920s gangster story, a tragic World War II-era romance, or a 1960s spy comedy, depending on the episode. The Next Generation and Voyager, in particular, tended to carry on the original series’ anthology approach more often than not, and this allows them to almost tell their own “Treehouse of Horror” stories, with “Night Terrors” and “The Haunting of Deck Twelve”.

night terrors 4TNG’s “Night Terrors”, in particular, uses the crew’s REM sleep-deprived hallucinations to take a shotgun approach to horror tropes, fitting in as many familiar frightening images as, presumably, its budget allowed: writhing snakes in Riker’s bed; the walls and ceiling of the turbolift closing in on Picard; and, of course, the corpses of the Brattain crew in Dr. Crusher’s morgue, who just won’t seem to lay still like they ought to. There are other elements of the horror genre on display here, too, in the form of a soundtrack which is, at times, reminiscent of 80s horror-synth, and the obligatory discovery of a room full of murdered people, in this case on the bridge of the Brattain. Running alongside these moments of horror homage is a more stereotypically Star Trek-ish story, complete with a ghost ship whose fate the Enterprise must try to avoid; an interstellar anomaly of the week (a “Tyken’s rift”, in this case); unknown aliens who inadvertently harm the Enterprise crew while trying to be helpful; and a mysterious ailment that leaves the crew increasingly impaired. Both the horror-movie hallucinations, and the threat of simple mental exhaustion (as opposed to something more obviously dramatic, like space-madness, or even space-drunkenness) do serve to make this episode memorable, among many, many other episodes of Trek with similar plots. We’ll see a similar juxtaposition of horror tropes and Trek tropes in Voyager’s “The Haunting of Deck Twelve”, in which those elements come together quite well, but in “Night Terrors” they never quite seem to mesh.

night terrors 8Which isn’t to say that “Night Terrors” doesn’t work; parts of it work very well. Most of the cast do a great job playing their REM sleep-deprived characters, aided by some impressively restrained hair and makeup work. It would be easy to go overboard on either of those counts, but Picard, Riker, and Crusher, in particular, are very believably mussed up and exhausted. Patrick Stewart gives Picard’s worry over losing his faculties a great deal of gravitas (arguably more than the episode earns, given how little time it devotes to this fear of his). And Jonathan Frakes shows us, with his barely-restrained frustration at being ordered to rest, that Riker is on his last nerve, instead of just telling us (something which is a problem in other parts of the episode).

night terrors 5But it’s Gates McFadden who gets what is not just the best (and by far the scariest) scene of the episode, but arguably one of the most striking and memorable images The Next Generation ever produced, when the corpses she’s examining seem to sit up in their body bags. She plays the scene perfectly, showing Crusher to be scared, yes, but also certain in her knowledge that what she’s seeing, like the delusions of the Brattain’s crew, can’t be real. The scene is also staged very well, maximizing the episode’s limited budget. Too many scenes in “Night Terrors” either tell us about the scary things people are seeing, without showing us – like Worf, who almost takes his own life over a fear of something we never see – or try to show us something scary, but fail to pull it off (Troi’s nightmare scenes, in particular, are so poorly executed that they’re almost painful to watch). But Crusher’s morgue scene really does more with less; the fact that we never see the corpses actually moving – we cut away, then cut back to see them in a sitting position – somehow makes the scene even creepier, while keeping us firmly anchored in Crusher’s point of view. And it all works on a thematic level, as well, with Crusher seeming to be threatened by the corpses of the Brattain’s crew, whose fate she is working to help the Enterprise crew avoid. The image of corpses in a morgue moving when they shouldn’t is a horror movie trope, sure, but even the most time-worn tropes can be effective when they’re connected to something more specific and meaningful to our characters; Crusher isn’t just seeing something scary, she’s being haunted by what will happen to her, and her friends, if she fails to figure out what went wrong on the Brattain.

night terrors 2Which is, unfortunately, where other parts of this episode fall flat; the stock horror images are just that, stock images, without much connection to anything deeper. Patrick Stewart, again, really sells Picard’s fear of being crushed in the turbolift, because that’s what an actor of his caliber does, but we don’t get the sense that his hallucination plays into any deeper fears, or is particularly significant at all, aside from scaring him in that moment. His reflections on what it was like to watch a relative succumb to dementia are potentially much more poignant, but aren’t really explored at all by the episode. The snakes in Riker’s bed, likewise, come off as just a random scary image, connected in no way to the paranoid feeling of being watched that he experiences beforehand, and which, again, is much more interesting than the anticlimactic discovery of the snakes under his sheets. Even the discovery of the Brattain’s crew, dead on the bridge of their ship, is a missed opportunity; stepping onto that bridge full of corpses should be an instantly, existentially horrifying moment for the away team – some of whom serve on the bridge of the Enterprise – but instead, they spend some time casually looking over the bridge instruments before even noticing the dead crew.

night terrors 7Moments like these almost make me wish that “Night Terrors” had dropped the horror conceit entirely – as much as I like the idea of it – and focused entirely on the crew’s fatigue, which is executed more consistently, as well as Data’s role as the sole crew member still reliable enough to command the ship. There are some great moments, here, of Data exercising his own judgement and, dare I say it, sensitivity, by stepping in to help his fatigued crewmates as they lose their train of thought. One of my pet peeves, as a Trek fan, is the franchise’s tendency to treat Data (or Spock, or Voyager’s Doctor, etc.) as a ‘Pinocchio’; to focus on how he could be more like us. I’m always happy when an episode, like this one, focuses instead on the advantages of Data being different from us. Another pet peeve of mine is the assumption that just because Data (or, again, Spock or the Doctor or whoever) doesn’t understand human behavior, he wouldn’t be able to observe, predict, and pick up on social cues and appropriate behavior. “Night Terrors” rejects that assumption, and shows us a Data who knows his crewmates, even if he doesn’t fully understand them, and is perfectly capable of knowing when they are struggling, and when to help.

haunting 6Like “Night Terrors”, Voyager’s “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” sets out to make a mashup of horror tropes with staples of Star Trek storytelling … but does so much more successfully. Maybe because Voyager, in its sixth season, and after seven seasons each of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in the decade or so before it, was in a position that it could (and, arguably, had to) be more self-referential. The boilerplate sci-fi story at the heart of both these episodes – an unexpected alien encounter with unintended, but gradually worsening, consequences – was already something of a cliché when it appeared in “Night Terrors”. By the time “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” first aired, a decade later, any viewer even remotely familiar with Star Trek storytelling would have pretty much known it by heart. This is, arguably, both a weakness and a strength for Voyager, throughout the series. It gave up early on most of the elements of its premise that could have made it unique among its sister Star Trek shows, and opted to become comfort food for folks who missed The Next Generation, instead. But where The Next Generation debuted as the first new Trek on TV in decades, Voyager debuted hot on the heels of both TNG and Deep Space Nine, while the latter was still running; it was feeding nostalgia for something that was still too fresh to even really be nostalgic about. The result was a lot of episodes that felt like an enthusiastic fan’s pie-in-the-sky ‘improvements’ on existing episodes of TNG. This approach produced, um, varying results, but “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” is, to my mind, a prime example of how it can be done right.

haunting 2Using Neelix’s ghost story as a framing device for the alien stowaway storyline is a stroke of genius. It certainly works as a way to spice up this otherwise familiar story, to make it feel a bit fresher and newer by injecting elements of another genre. But on another level, it also works as an interesting, self-aware commentary on Voyager’s relationship to the Trek that came before it. We could almost view Voyager, itself, as a series devoted to doing (or at least trying to do) what Neelix does in this episode: reframing familiar stories in a way that walks the fine line between giving the audience something new, and giving them what they want. It’s hard not to see the Borg kids as a stand-in for that audience, as they argue with Neelix about his own story as he’s telling it, then argue amongst themselves about whether or not to just let him tell his story his way. These arguments are among the most entertaining parts of “The Haunting of Deck Twelve”, as when the oldest Borg child, Icheb, questions Neelix’s technobabbly reference to the ship’s “Bussard Collectors” (which are, hilariously, part of the pseudoscience solution to the Enterprise’s problems in “Night Terrors”, as well):

Icheb: You’re not remembering correctly.
Neelix: I beg your pardon?
I: The Bussard Collectors don’t produce Nadion emissions.
N: Well, the technical details don’t matter. What’s important is that Voyager’s presence was destabilizing the nebula.

haunting 8Neelix could almost be breaking the fourth wall and just speaking directly to the audience when he says that “the technical details don’t matter”. He’s reminding us that, whatever meaning we might invest in Trek’s technobabble, its actual purpose is to simply move the story forward; it’s a means to a storytelling end, not an end unto itself. Neelix makes a similar point when the kids let their own story predictions derail the story they’re actually listening to:

Neelix: What none of us knew was that a mysterious stowaway had come aboard Voyager.
Mezotti: What kind of stowaway?
Icheb: It was obviously a space-dwelling lifeform.
N: Yes, but we didn’t know that. Not at that point.
M: Was it non-corporeal?
N: In a manner of speaking
Rebi: Hostile?
N: Well, I’m getting to that.
Azan: Species 5973?
N: Who are they?
I: The Borg encountered them in Galactic Cluster Eight. They’re multi-spectrum particle lifeforms.
N: No, that’s not what this was.
M: Maybe it was an inter-phasic species.
N: We can either debate comparative xenobiology, or I can continue with the story. Now, it’s up to you.
I: … Continue the story.
N: Somehow, I thought you’d say that. Now, where was I?

haunting 9Again, Neelix is arguing that world-building details and plot mechanics are less important than how a story is told, and how it makes us feel. And the kids prove his point, by finally admitting that they’d rather Neelix continue telling the story than “debate comparative xenobiology” with them. But more than that, I suspect that “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” is arguing, on Voyager’s behalf, that there’s nothing wrong with rehashing the plot of previous episodes of Trek, because the plot of a story isn’t the point of the story. How the story is told, Neelix and Voyager seem to be telling us, is the story. If, say, “Coda” fails as an episode of Voyager, it’s not because it’s derivative of TNG’s “Cause and Effect” – it’s because it fails in its attempts to add something to that familiar story.

haunting 5And “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” succeeds precisely because it does add something to a familiar Star Trek storyline through the introduction of horror elements, in a way that “Night Terrors” struggles to. Where the generalized horror tropes of “Night Terrors” rarely gel with the rest of that story, “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” wisely sticks with one main sub-genre of horror – the haunted house story – which is perfectly suited both to the alien stowaway storyline, and to Voyager as a series. After all, the series as a whole is about a crew stranded far from familiar space, with only their ship as a place to call home; moving isn’t really an option for Captain Janeway and her new extended family. This lends real, weighty stakes to both the alien stowaway and haunted house tropes; if the starship Voyager is all this crew really has, then the idea of it being turned against them is legitimately frightening, in a deeper, more existential way than “Night Terrors” ever really manages. And “Haunting” really shows its understanding of what makes horror horrifying, when it has the alien stowaway use the ship’s computer as its voice. Haunted houses are scary because they take away the promise of comfort a home is supposed to provide, and I doubt there are many things more comforting to fans of 90s-era Trek than the voice of Majel Barrett as the ship’s computer. This puts us on the alien’s side, initially, but then makes it all the more disturbing when the alien starts to turn against the crew. As wonderfully creepy as Crusher’s morgue hallucination is in “Night Terrors”, “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” might have it beat, with this excellent moment that’s both perfect horror and perfect Star Trek:

Janeway: You’ll have to kill me!
Ship’s computer: Acknowledged. [Hallway floods with gas]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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