There are some things that stick with you from a young age.
Growing up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are episodes and ideas and concepts that have lingered on in my memory and thoughts which have helped to form my conception of the world. One of those episodes is “Tapestry” in which Captain Picard relives a pivotal time in his life that he still had regrets about and sees how things would have proceeded had he done things differently. Another episode is “Frame of Mind,” an episode that I remembered parts of, but I had forgotten much of the actual plot, but the over arching question of the fragileness of our perception of reality and how our own memories is something that has stuck with me. And is also something that is very present in my mind given my recent research into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
I just reviewed this episode tonight for what might be the first time since its airing back in 1993 when I was thirteen.
In this episode Commander Riker is experiencing hallucinations and going back and forth between a mental hospital and the Enterprise. The entire experience, though, is transitioned through a play he is performing on ship, ‘Frame of Mind,’ in which he plays a patient in a mental hospital. So he begins to question which is actually real, the hospital or the ship. There is a sort of sub plot with Riker about to go on an undercover mission to a planet in order to locate a missing Federation research team, but that is really secondary (though it turns out to be part of the key to the mystery) to the real questions, if both realities seem equally real while you are there, how is one to tell the difference?
This is really a question with which we all must struggle with at some point – that is if we actually think deeply about our lives and existence.
Descartes famously stated, “Cogito ergo sum” as the simple answer to our existence. I think therefore I am, but really…isn’t that just proof of your immediate existence? What of the world around you?
In this episode, Riker’s existence is never at stake, it is his reality. And that is the more chilling question. Because if your reality is illusory, what of your personality, your identity? And if that is truly called into question, what does that say about who you are?
If the foundation of our existence is “Cogito ergo sum” then the next step is “Gnōthi seauton,” know thyself. And if we cannot trust our reality, then how are we to know ourselves?
Now imagine a 13-year-old self seeing this episode and trying to come to terms with the basic question of reality. Maybe I was unique as a child growing up to be wondering about the basic tenants of our existence and reality, but part of me thinks not – though it definitely doesn’t seem like a normal thing to do.
Back to the episode, Riker eventually breaks through the layers of illusion via various destructive means, each time, making the connection of the common links, until he arrives at reality. He had been kidnapped and drugged in an attempt to extract information from him. Interesting to note here is that one of the cues that really sets off the fact that we have arrived at reality is an aural one. As soon as the last mental barrier is shattered (in a cool effect that is what I had remembered most of the episode), we hear a sound familiar to the Trek universe: the deep hum of energy or power or something (what I usually took as the sound of the Enterprise engines). This sound aurally sets apart this reality because once we hear it we realize that it wasn’t there just a moment ago. In this way, it is very much like Kurosawa’s use of sound to indicate reality in Rashomon. For more on that, check out my Temp Track blog, I’ll be posting my paper on this in the next few days.
This is not a unique question to be posed in science fiction, and actually it is one that I think has been explored to more chilling effect by others: namely in the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again,” the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes “Far Beyond the Stars” and “Shadows and Symbols,” and the Lost episode “Dave.” What I really like about these is that they really do leave the question of reality open in the end – did our heroes really find their way back to reality, or did they accept the more exciting or comfortable or reassuring “reality” as opposed to their life in the asylum. And while it is a bit much to go as far as to say that these episodes indicate that the shows themselves are actually the insane constructs of mental patients, it is at least an interesting question to pose. But they are just TV shows in the end.
But, while “Frame of Mind” seems to pretty securely establish that Riker is back in reality, there is a moment at the end where the door does seemed to be cracked open to the possibility that he is actually still a mental patient. As Riker is being debriefed by the Captain, Picard says to Riker, “Go to bed, get some rest, we’ll talk more in the morning.” This line echoes much of the advice given to Riker in both the false Enterprise and the false hospital, and even in the play. Doctors and Counselors telling him to get some sleep, or that “we’ll talk more in our next session.” Had the director, editors, writers, whoever, had merely taken an extra beat, have Riker give Picard an askew look, the door would have been solidly jammed open. The fact that the line is there seems to indicate that it was on the mind of at least someone in the writer’s room.
And knowing that Ronald D. Moore – of Battlestar Galactica fame – was in that writers room, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out some day that that was the original intention behind the line and that the ending was changed in editing to give us a more conclusive wrap up.
So I ask, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”