Star Trek: The Next Generation: Conundrum   Rewatch 
May 3, 2021 9:31 AM - Season 5, Episode 14 - Subscribe

After the crew's memories are mysteriously erased, the computer records indicate that the Federation is at war with the Lysians, and that the Enterprise has been ordered to attack their command center.

Is it possible to bypass the normal pathways? To get at Memory Alpha some other way?

Story and script
  • The original pitch involved drafting soldiers by rewriting their memories. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 191)) A similar story later appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Nemesis".
  • The story was one of several amnesia stories first pitched in Season Four. Two of these were produced ("Future Imperfect" and "Clues"), and this one was held for further development. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 191); Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, pp. 237-238)
  • The majority of this episode's teleplay was in fact written by an uncredited Joe Menosky. According to Brannon Braga, the story went through a number of writers before Menosky made it work. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, pp. 237-238)
  • Rick Berman commented, "It's based on that whole concept of what if? If you have nine people who don't know who or what they are, will they find themselves? Will they find the pecking order? Will the captain become the captain?" (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 238)
Sets and props
  • The Lysian Central Command model was previously used as the Edo God in TNG: "Justice".
  • As a memory-less Ro Laren waits for him in bed, we see that Commander Riker has a horga'hn in his quarters. The horga'hn was first seen in TNG: "Captain's Holiday", when Riker asked Captain Picard to acquire a horga'hn for him while the captain vacationed on Risa.
  • The tune Riker plays on his trombone is "The Nearness of You" by Hoagy Carmichael. He had previously performed this with the holographic jazz band in "11001001".
  • This episode marks the third time Picard is seen at the helm of the Enterprise during the series. The other times were in "11001001" and "Booby Trap".
Poster's Log:

Liz Vassey, playing Dr. Crusher's patient Kristin, would go on to recurring roles as Captain Liberty on "The Tick" and lab tech Wendy Simms for 5 seasons of CSI:.

From a character-building standpoint, the early Ro-Riker tension is wonderful. We still don't know her very well, and watching Riker bristle at something he, himself, might have done tells us a lot about what serving over Ro must be like.

The camera switch from a stationary or dolly setup to a swooping Steadicam when the energy wave washes over the bridge officers is a beautiful touch, heightening the disorientation and confusion of the moment.

Yelling "WHO IS THAT GUY NO DON'T LISTEN TO HIM" at the TV does not, unfortunately, make the crew realize that MacDuff is a plant.

Worf's innate Klingon-ness manifests in some very interesting ways, especially the way he lounges in the captain's seat.

Per the crew manifest, Picard is 63 at the time of this episode. Patrick Stewart, at the time, was only 52.

There's a lot to like in this episode, but the pacing feels off. With the long run up of trying to figure out what's going on, the final confrontation and denouement feels a little rushed.
posted by hanov3r (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Very fun one…great writing for our main cast. This time, though, I noticed some strange stiffness from the actor playing MacDuff, some fear in his eyes. He may simply have been intimidated to be on a Star Trek show—that has been known to happen—but it also may have been a deliberate performance choice. After all, his actual species is wayyyy technologically outclassed by Starfleet, and his plan is awfully risky. Either way, I'd be scared too.

With the long run up of trying to figure out what's going on, the final confrontation and denouement feels a little rushed.

True, but the figuring-out stuff here is so meaty and fun that I fully accept a rushed finale, including its many unanswered worldbuilding questions.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 9:48 AM on May 3, 2021

As the failure of the plan hinges on Picard's crisis of conscience, would MacDuff's plan have worked better if they'd made him an Admiral or something instead? Perhaps they could be said to have miscalculated due to limited information about the Enterprise. Or, they wanted it to be easier to say the Federation blew up the Lyssians for their own interests, not just because they happened to have a spy hanging around....

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:

Conundrum tries to simulate the episode: make a crew with moral failings attack one of your ships. At the very least wasting their time, hopefully making it super convenient to blow them up with a superior force. Works way better on the Romulans and the Cardassians than the Federation, in the game.

Memory Wipe primarily was designed to make Starter Deck II based games run more smoothly, but you could also use it to add affiliated personnel to a Non-Aligned deck.

Kieran MacDuff, Executive Officer makes a decent crew member, with two x2 skills and Intelligence. As a bonus, you can could 'donate' him to your opponent to slow down their mission attempts. About average value for his cost.
posted by StarkRoads at 10:16 AM on May 3, 2021

The two-fer this week seems to be Hijacking the Easy Way, as the usual approach of having the ship physically boarded, and the crew then having to McClain their way through the Jeffries tubes, is eschewed in favor of sneakier approaches. (There's a little McClaining in the next ep, but not too much.) I liked this plot very much, as it's not immediately evident even to longtime watchers that MacDuff is a fake--it would be unusual, even for an organization as obviously variant from current-day military rules and customs as Starfleet, for there to be a full commander on board that wasn't part of the senior staff, or even have not been mentioned until now, but he could be a passenger on his way to somewhere else, or the extra pip could have been a costume error. In fact, there's something metatextual about the crew being unfamiliar with themselves, or even each other; it's very much like someone not familiar with the series starting with this episode and having to work out the position and function of each crew member and their relationships with each other. (If someone had literally started with this episode, assuming that they didn't miss the teaser, they would have gotten a clue that something had changed given the different ways in which Riker and Ro interact pre-and post-incident... but they wouldn't have known that McDuff wasn't the XO.) And it's kind of fun watching the crew play detective with each other, especially with Worf assuming that he's the big man because he's got the baldric, and everyone else going along with that.

Speaking of Riker and Ro, though, although it's likewise kind of fun to see them spark together, I wondered how much the amnesia affected the personalities of the people involved. Mostly, they seemed like basically the same people, even if they didn't remember their own names; Worf was certainly very Worfian. Would Ro really have been that eager to go after Riker if she hadn't remembered the Cardassian occupation and the specifics of her experiences under it? Was the reason why she hadn't gone for Riker in the first place maybe tied up in her opinion of the Federation and its citizens in general? This question reminds me of something that Nana Visitor said about the differences between Kira Nerys and her mirror-universe counterpart the Intendant: that they really weren't that different at all, that the main difference is that Kira used her drive and even occasional ruthlessness for the benefit of the Bajoran people, and the Intendant used it mostly for herself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:52 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've always liked Conudrum, not least because I find the idea of MacDuff as a third senior command officer fascinating. In retrospect, I wish this would have been a two-parter. Not just to see Kieran interacted with the rest of the senior staff, but see everyone else cutting loose a little like Riker and Ro.

Which brings me to... though Conundrum is a good episode that I enjoy, it does have some of the usual TNG problems. Once again, an alien power comes out of nowhere to take over the Enterprise. There has been an interstellar war going on next to Federation space that we are just hearing about. I've not a writer, but this entire scenario could have been spread out over an entire season, with a Conundrum two-parter being the conclusion. Ugh, BermanTrek episodic TV.

And then there is Riker. I'm sorry if Riker is becoming my punching bag, but it's so easy! And I will say upfront I think it's easy because Frakes did a better job acting Riker-as-womanizer than he did acting Riker-being-affectionate (Riker and Troi, Riker and Yuta, etc...). Conundrum is interesting because, as a friend reminded me, Riker is not the aggressor with Ro; she seeks him out (because BermanTrek loved Ro and they would never have her be passive). And then the writers have that scene at the end where Riker gets a little comeuppance for sleeping around. Maybe the writers really were aware of what kind of character they were creating with Riker over the seasons and decided to have some fun with it.
posted by Stuka at 10:52 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I loved Worf's "I have the fanciest hat; therefore, I am assuming command" moment. He definitely had some good captain swagger going on, and I was pretty disappointed that he only got about ten minutes before they dropped the inevitable "oops, Worfpologizes" hammer. Patrick Stewart does such a good job conveying uncertainty here, especially in the early bits where he's at helm. I would have loved to see them stay in the swapped roles all the way up to the denouement, honestly. Riker in engineering! Crusher at tactical! Counsellor Ro!

I agree with the pacing issues, though. The conversation where Data exhaustively lists all the possible reasons that he is the lone android on the ship is exhausting and feels like someone left on a dictaphone in the writer's room. And yes, I would have loved a B-plot about the O'Briens. What is this? Who left it in our room? Why is it crying?
posted by phooky at 12:30 PM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

The mystery puzzle episodes are always kind of fun and this one is definitely in that category, but it's also frustrating in how much better it could have been without the standard '90s approach to TV. If Trek weren't '90s episodic in nature, they could have sprinkled MacDuff in a few episodes earlier, or even as Stuka suggests, as a two-parter, where we would have a chance to live with him a bit so he's less obviously a plant and doesn't completely turn this into a textbook entry of how dramatic irony can sometimes sap a scene or story of life when the audience is focused on thinking "Christ, what morons, how do they not see he's the bad guy?"

I've seen this one done well in other shows (my favorite was Torchwood's "Adam"), but TNG didn't do enough to set up the weirdness of this sort of event, so that we as viewers could easily ride along with MacDuff as not being quite right but we don't know why, and his intentions are so baldly telegraphed it's a bit frustrating compared to the fun of everyone else trying to figure out who they are, who they have relationships with, etc. We never really see anyone outside the core group trying to figure out something about their personal relationshups, like "okay, the computer says you're my adolescent daughter, so, uhhhh, do your homework and dinner's at 1800." The closest we get is Riker and Troi's attraction.

The other thing that kind of tarnishes my overall enjoyment of the episode is that godawful '90s ending where the only thing missing from the scene is Riker going "women, amirite?" to some random guy in Ten Forward. I know the show is smack-dab in the center of the moral panic era and messed-up understandings of sexual relationships, but geeeez. Weren't they supposed to be so advanced? Haven't they gotten over the shitty weird dynamics of adults having sex when they're not in a committed relationship? Next time I rewatch this, I'm definitely stopping before that annoying tag.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:44 PM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yeah, apart from souring what is otherwise a very enjoyable episode, that last seen just doesn't make sense. What are they mad about? What's Riker supposed to feel bad about?

The conversation where Data exhaustively lists all the possible reasons that he is the lone android on the ship is exhausting and feels like someone left on a dictaphone in the writer's room.

Jesus yes, was there a rule that they had to have a certain amount of screen time for Data or something?

Anyway, every series should do this episode at least once, it's at least good for some laughs and a change of pace, but can also be a good way to refocus what a character's most fundamental traits are, and remind us of the kind of person they are, absent all the drama surrounding them. My favorite version of this is Buffy's Tabula Rasa.

I remember watching this when it was new, and flipping out over McDuffy, because I couldn't figure out if we were supposed to know he's a confederate or he's just a random officer on the bridge crew who is getting too many close-ups. New guy shows up and we pretend he's always been there was a real thing tv shows did back then, so I wasn't sure. Also thought maybe he was introduced in an episode I missed or something. It was very fun when you realize he definitely is the baddie. I think the actor did well with it, he looked like he was both terrified and so excited his head was about to explode ("holy shit it's happening, they're falling for it, I can't believe this is working!"). I would love to have seen more of him, he must have been his species' arch-bad ass to get this assignment.

It definitely seems a pattern where we all wish these pretty good but not outstanding episodes has been made into two-parters. Oh, yeah, and that other pattern where it's trivially easy to disable the Federation's flagship and then take it over for your own nefarious purposes.
posted by skewed at 6:52 PM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

WORF: Sensors indicate a small spacecraft ahead
LAFORGE: Configuration is unfamiliar. Nothing in our database comes close
WORF: Entering visual range
PICARD: On screen
A familiar-looking spacecraft appears on the viewscreen.

Speaking of familiar objects in space, the Lysian Central Command kind of reminds me of the Gold Key Comics Lost In Space ship or station or whatever. I'd put this down to chance, but Memory Alpha says that one of the chess pieces resembles the robot from Lost In Space, so I wonder if there's some intentional homage there.
posted by rodlymight at 7:49 PM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

As often as people (temporarily) get one over on the Enterprise, it strains credulity to believe that the Federation has any other ships left at this point. If nothing else, the Ferengi would have taken them all and sold them.

Maybe there's a crack team of commandos we've never seen or heard about that deals with these problems when they come up?
posted by wierdo at 7:51 PM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Maybe there's a crack team of commandos we've never seen or heard about that deals with these problems when they come up?

Section 31: Mutara Division. They're basically the people who become the Fenris Rangers. You want futuristic competence porn, they go hardcore.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:15 PM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I saw this episode as I was getting into TNG--catching up via syndication even as new episodes were coming out. So I was getting Trek episodes 4 days a week completely out of order, and new episodes once a week. Low-cut collars and beardless Riker interspersed with Pulaski episodes and post-Best of Both Worlds episodes.

So I just assumed MacDuff was a cast member from an earlier season who hadn't stuck around. Also helping this was that I didn't know what an XO was, and always thought of Riker as second-in-command, so "Second Officer" didn't throw me.
posted by pykrete jungle at 3:38 PM on May 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Section 31: Mutara Division. They're basically the people who become the Fenris Rangers. You want futuristic competence porn, they go hardcore.

The Last Unicorn Games Star Trek RPG included Starfleet Rapid Response Teams with a similar idea.
posted by StarkRoads at 5:00 PM on May 4, 2021

Maybe there's a crack team of commandos we've never seen or heard about that deals with these problems when they come up?

“In stardate 40973, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a Starfleet court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Andorian underground. Today, still wanted by the Federation they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them....maybe you can hire The Blue-Team.”
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:10 PM on May 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

A friend of mine just saw this ep and appreciated how, even without their memories, the crew sees that supposedly they are meant to attack an enemy with massively overwhelming force, destroying something that has no substantive means of defending itself against them, and just says: no, this feels utterly wrong, what's going on here?! It speaks to their deep-set morals, their character, in a way that reflects the TNG spirit.
posted by brainwane at 4:17 AM on May 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I hate it when outside meddling just foists new characters on you and you have to pretend like they just fit right in.
posted by ckape at 9:47 PM on May 11, 2021

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