“Frame of Mind” calls back to two Riker-centric episodes, “First Contact” and “Schisms,” both of which put Riker in a victim-like role. As in “Frame of Mind,” Riker spends a great deal of time in a hospital in “First Contact,” and in this episode, he relives the experience of hallucinations from “Schisms.” What sets “Frame of Mind” apart from both of these is that the episode actually plays on our knowledge that Riker cannot be hallucinating his life on the Enterprise as the source of the twist. Moreover, Frakes manages to portray a depth of helplessness here that is both believable for his character and simultaneously difficult to watch. Trek generally and TNG specifically is often best when the stories eschew large action pieces to focus on the emotional world-building of our beloved characters, and “Frame of Mind” is no exception.
I recommend casting an eye over the Memory Alpha link for this episode because while “Frame of Mind” isn’t necessarily more difficult to summarize than other episodes, so much of the episode’s impact hinges on details that a broad summary will miss. The episode opens with Riker rehearsing a play in which he portrays a patient at a mental hospital who allegedly murdered a man while in the grip of hallucinations. While nervous about his role, Riker sets that aside when he’s given a mission to Tilonus IV, a planet in a state of extreme social unrest. After accepting the mission, Riker proceeds to prepare not only for the mission but also for his performance. When finally on-stage, Riker flawlessly performs his part against the mental hospital backdrop, and he takes his bows. He straightens to discover himself in a real version of the cell from the play with a “Doctor Syrus” taking Data’s role as the psychiatrist. Syrus explains that Riker, much like his character has been committed to the hospital due to his extreme delusions, with the strongest one being that Riker is a Starfleet officer. From Mavek, an attendant at the hospital, Riker discovers that Syrus opted to elide mention that he’s facing criminal prosecution for murdering a man while under the influence of those delusions.
Riker then finds himself back on the Enterprise where Dr. Crusher stands behind him, observing him applying makeup for his performance. After concluding his final monologue, Riker looks out to see a strange new lieutenant in the audience, and he confronts the man. Dr. Crusher talks him down and escorts him to Sickbay, where she can find nothing wrong with him neurologically. Riker returns to his quarters only to have them open into his room at the hospital. Syrus comes to him and explains that the murder case must be resolved, so they engage in “reflection therapy” in which Riker will be able to confront parts of his psyche directly, with the aid of holographic projectors. Predictably, the holograms take the forms of his Enterprise colleagues, and Riker screams at them that they’re delusions.
While taking a meal in the common area, Dr. Crusher approaches Riker to tell him that his crew will attempt to extract him. Riker tells himself that she is not real. Later, when Worf and Data come to fetch him, he turns on them and hides behind the hospital orderlies who have come to investigate the commotion. They take Riker back and beam him to the Enterprise where Dr. Crusher treats him. However, she cannot seem to staunch the bleeding from his temple, leading Riker to conclude that this Enterprise is not real either. He takes a phaser and fires it upon himself. He opens his eyes to find himself once again in his room at the hospital, but crucially, he still holds a phaser. He proceeds to fire upon the scene in front of him. He breaks out of both layers of delusion—the hospital and the Enterprise–to discover himself on a table in a laboratory. Riker frees himself from the table, grabs a knife, and contacts the Enterprise for beam out.
While debriefing with Captain Picard and Counselor Troi, Riker remembers being kidnapped, much as his memories from the reflection therapy described. Troi and Picard and explain that the Tilonusians planned to access strategic information from his long-term memory via a “neuro-somatic process.” Riker’s subconscious mind, therefore, created the layers of delusion out of his most recent memories as a defense mechanism to shield him from the trauma of the process. The episode ends with Riker breaking down the set from the play, which was real in a sense, because he does not believe that he could sleep with the knowledge that the mental hospital set still stands.
There’s a lot to love about this episode. First, Frakes gives one of his all-time great Riker performances. No matter how clever the story or how beautifully realized the episode, the episode rides on the strength of the performances given, and Frakes allows Riker to unravel to levels we have never before seen from him. Even in “Schisms,” Riker still fundamentally believes in his own sanity, but here, the episode strips him of that faith and rightly so. Neither the mental hospital nor the scenes aboard the Enterprise actually occur, even though they remain close enough to reality as it exists in the show context to be believable. Completely unmoored, Riker makes the best choices he can with the options available to him. It just so happens that none of the options are good ones because Riker’s grasp on the situation has been so manipulated by his own mind that nothing is quite real. Frakes lets all of this trauma play out on Riker’s face, and as a fantastic touch, during the reflection therapy sequence, his Riker looks to Syrus for approval when he rejects the images of his colleagues. The jerky movement hammers home just how at sea Riker really is. This performance alone makes the episode worth a watch.
However, the physical sets and costumes really stand out here as well. The mental hospital walls feature off-center lines, in dark greys, which form almost a glass-shard motif. The mirror in Riker’s room is asymmetrical and bent, producing an inaccurate image. The beams in the hospital corridors are similarly jagged and asymmetrical, suggesting not only glass shards again but also Riker’s own instability here. They are also one of the few points of color on set; their yellow comes across almost aggressive in its comparative intensity. The hospital costumes feature off-center seams and drab colors, furthering the impression of “wrongness” that characterizes the hospital scenes. The light in Riker’s room flickers weirdly but not so much that it detracts from the action that takes place in the foreground.
Visual and performance cues on the Enterprise indicate that something isn’t quite right on the ship on the ship as well. The bedspread on Riker’s bed is two-tone, red and black, recalling the horizontal blocks of color used on the Tilonusian garb, unlike the regular linens we’ve seen before. The lighting color palette used in Riker’s quarters tends toward pinks and purples, which is not normal for that set. Some costume changes occur far too fast, even as far as Dr. Crusher’s inhuman ability to pop back into her uniform is concerned. As far as dialogue goes, Data uses contractions in his role as the doctor, which is not something that he can do in reality. Just as the asymmetry of the hospital design creates an unsettling effect, so too do these details.
Sets and costumes on TNG can often be hit or miss. Most often, the clothing and fabric choices for the various alien races feels the most dated of any aspect of the show, but in “Frame of Mind,” the production designers and staff absolutely nail it. In fact, the sets themselves take on a storytelling role in this episode to an extent that they do not normally do in TNG, and frankly, the episode is all the better for it. Even the evolution of Riker’s hair style throughout the episode is perfectly on point, reflecting his loss of control and identity. “Frame of Mind” is really one of those episodes that takes advantage of television as a visual medium, which pushes the episode closer to the top of my personal favorite list.
: Four cups of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- I confess, I have no idea what strategic information the Tilonusians are after here, but I do respect that the episode hand-waves the issue because frankly, it’s really not important.
- Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize Jaya as being played by Susanna Thompson who will go on to play Lenara Kahn in DS9 and the Borg queen in Voyager.
- I also like that hallucination Worf features some bruising, even during the rescue sequence because he still represents Riker’s own aggression. He still sports some war wounds from Riker’s attempt to protect himself from the kidnapping attempt, which is a great secondary visual cue.
- Speaking of Worf, the nisroh exchange is really strange. Worf “accidentally” slicing Riker’s face is even less convincing than usual, which may be intentional on the part of the production staff as yet another indication that the sequence isn’t real.
- I really love the design of the door. It’s one of the few elements of the hospital set that is symmetrical because the door represents escape. As such, it becomes the focal point of the room set. It also picks up some of the line elements from the lab table, which makes for a great visual link between the sets.
- I can’t stress enough just how great the set and lighting designs for this episode really are.