“Shades of Gray”
Written by Maurice Hurley and Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Rob Bowman
Season 2, Episode 22
Production episode 40272-148
Original air date: July 17, 1989
Captain’s Log: While on an away mission to a jungle planet, La Forge finds Riker sitting with a cut on his leg. O’Brien tries to beam him up, but the transporter detects unidentified microbes that the biofilter can’t screen out. Pulaski beams down and examines Riker’s incredibly fake-looking wound. He says there’s no pain, but it’s a bit numb. When she overrides the medical lockout, they beam up, and Riker’s leg goes dead.
Riker’s nervous system has been invaded by microbes that act a bit like both a virus and a bacteria, but it’s tied so closely to his nervous system that surgery’s out of the question.
Data and La Forge beam down to try to find a sample. They come across a vine that appears dead, but which has thorns on it that seek out warm-blooded life and attacks them. There are fossilized remains near the vines that suggest to Data that it’s predatory.
Pulaski can’t find a way to stop the infection. Riker is being philosophical about it, and still joking with the nurses and with Troi. While sitting with the latter, he lapses into a coma. The microbes have spread to his spinal column, and it’ll hit his brain within an hour, killing him.
The doctor’s solution to delaying the inevitable is to stimulate the nerves with electrical impulses to keep them pootling along. This requires sticking lots of needles in his head, which makes Riker look like a rejected victim from A Clockwork Orange.
We then get the first clip of the clip show: Riker remembers beaming down all alone in “The Last Outpost,” which is a nice bit of cute symbolism.
Pulaski finds a method of neuron stimulation that is at least keeping the microbes at bay. Troi senses that he’s dreaming, and he recalls his first meeting with Data on the holodeck in “Encounter at Farpoint,” followed by his attempt at giving advice on meeting women to Wes (with Guinan’s help) from “The Dauphin,” followed by his goodbye to Troi when he thought he might be going off on the Aries in “The Icarus Factor.”
Troi senses that he’s relaxed, and Pulaski says that he’s remembering things intensely, a side effect of the neural stimulation. Pulaski also notices a change in the microbes from the intense memories, so she stimulates other memories, starting with the away team’s arrival on Edo in “Justice,” followed by his first meeting Minuet in the holographic New Orleans jazz club in “11001001,” then his liaisons with Mistress Beata in “Angel One” and Brenna Odell in “Up the Long Ladder.”
Unfortunately, making him feel good has made the microbes grow faster. They’ve made things worse — but Pulaski now theorizes that they feed on endorphins. She tries stimulating different emotions, more negative ones, including Yar’s death in “Skin of Evil” and Troi’s “son” Ian’s discorporation in “The Child.”
The negative emotions slow the organism down, so Pulaski triggers more: Riker beating the snot out of Klag on the bridge of the Pagh in “A Matter of Honor” and the parasite-enhanced Admiral Quinn beating the snot out of Riker in “Conspiracy.” It’s slowing the organism down, but not enough. He needs to have memories that prompt even stronger, more primal emotions than the ones he just experienced.
So Pulaski hits him with T’Jon threatening his life in “Symbiosis,” the Ferengi attacking them in “The Last Outpost,” Armus The Sadistic Oil Slick sucking him into himself in “Skin of Evil,” Picard and Riker setting the auto-destruct sequence in “11001001,” and the rescue of the Klingons from the exploding freighter in “Heart of Glory.”
The growth rate is slowed to almost nothing, but the microbe’s still there, so Pulaski’s solution is to start a montage! We get clips from “Conspiracy,” “The Last Outpost,” “Symbiosis,” “11001001,” “The Naked Now,” “Skin of Evil,” “A Matter of Honor,” “Loud as a Whisper,” “Unnatural Selection,” and “Heart of Glory,” and after being subjected to a second and third iteration of Riker screaming, “Data, something’s got meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” from “Skin of Evil,” the organism — overcome by the dullness of the clips — finally runs screaming from Riker’s body.
Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi’s mental link with Riker helps Pulaski judge his emotional state while remembering things.
If I Only Had a Brain…: Data tries to talk La Forge into not beaming back down with him, as the microbes would be less likely to hurt him than La Forge. La Forge’s very unconvincing argument is that they might like androids, too. Yeah, that makes sense.
I’m a Doctor, Not an Escalator: Pulaski gets to take the transporter for the first time since “Unnatural Selection.” O’Brien jokes about it, to her annoyance.
Welcome Aboard: The only guest this week is Colm Meaney as O’Brien, since the idea is to save money, so no real guest stars.
I Believe I Said That: “Of course I know who I am. I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise!”
“I’m delighted that you’re feeling better, Captain — the admiral and I were worried about you.”
“Captain, I do not believe you have the authority to promote me to the rank of admiral.”
Riker being silly, Picard playing along, and Data totally missing the joke.
Trivial Matters: Because the season went over budget, in particular “Elementary, Dear Data” (with its elaborate sets and costumes) and “Q Who” (with the Borg and space battles), Paramount demanded an episode that could be shot in three days. The solution was to do a clip show. Lucky lucky us.
Pulaski asks a nurse to keep “tri-cordrazine” on hand in case of a seizure, which must be a fancier version of the cordrazine that McCoy used in “City on the Edge of Forever.” So it’s like cordrazine, only three times better!
Make it so. “The snake died.” Okay, I totally get that the show had gone overbudget, and it was certainly worth seeing “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Q Who” in their full glory, but holy cow, was this a train wreck of an episode.
Put it this way: I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan since birth, and a professional Star Trek writer for over a decade. When TNG first aired, I recorded the episodes on VHS tapes, and kept them even after I got the whole series on DVD.
With all that, the viewing of this episode for this rewatch was the first time I watched “Shades of Gray” since it first aired in the summer of 1989.
And honestly it was worse this time than it was then, because we’ve had shows like Xena, Hercules, and Stargate SG1 raise the bar on how to do a clip show. On top of that, the clips weren’t even that interesting. I mean, seriously, focusing all the clips on Riker, who’s, like, the fourth- or fifth-most interesting character on the show? And doing a lame-ass medical “drama” with a cheap excuse to give Riker memories that would serve as clips? Gah.
In all honesty, they’d have been better off doing one fewer episode — the season was shortened by the writers strike anyhow — and upping the budget on one of the other 21. Just an awful, awful episode.
Warp factor rating: 0
Keith R.A. DeCandido has a story coming out in November called “Ragnarok and Roll” that will be in Tales from the House Band, edited by Deborah Grabien. His most recent critically acclaimed novels are Guilt in Innocence, part of “Tales from the Scattered Earth,” a shared-world science fiction concept, and the fantastical police procedurals SCPD: The Case of the Claw and Unicorn Precinct. Find out more about Keith at his web site, which is a portal to (among many other things) his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, his blog, and his podcasts, Dead Kitchen Radio, The Chronic Rift, and the Parsec Award-winning HG World.