This month marks the first anniversary for this blog. Across that year of occasional posts on the topic of representations of mental health on the small screen, I have learned much about the subject matter. As a result, I have given a lot of consideration to how I might approach it myself, as was my original intent. And to mark the milestone, I thought it apt to explore the episode that suggested the blog’s title, a stand-out instalment from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s (1987-94) sixth season.
The episode’s genesis is noteworthy in itself. Working within the time constraints of a network television production schedule, the writers’ room were struggling for story ideas when Brannon Braga posed the simple question, “What if Riker wakes up in an insane asylum?” Three days later, the team had a workable story that was approved to enter production. Braga also cited an interest in surreal imagery, and had the following to say about the episode and his influences:
It was fun for me to do. One of my favourite films is Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion, and I think the influence will show through. I’ve always wanted to write something about someone doubting their sense of reality, and I think it works.
“Frame of Mind” opens with Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) speaking with an unseen figure, seeking to explain that he is of sound mind, that he is ready to leave the confines of his stark surroundings, and then becoming increasingly agitated as he rails against his harsh treatment in a mental health facility wherein he believes he does not belong. As the frame widens, this other figure is revealed to be Data (Brent Spiner) as it becomes clear that the duo are engaged in rehearsals for a play, presided over by Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden).
This sense of the audience’s immersion in the layers of Riker’s perception of reality is therefore established within the teaser sequence, and indeed is perpetuated throughout. This perspective shifts between one reality aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise and another as a patient in a mental health hospital on the planet Tilonus IV, which itself comes to parallel scenes in the titular play he has been rehearsing back on the ship. These shifts become ever more abrupt and disturbing as Riker’s hold on reality appears to crumble. A glance at the episode’s preview trailer serves to illustrate the paranoid tone that pervades as a result.
Troi is here referring to the shadow aspect of the personality, comprising instinctive and irrational aspects of the self, and suggests that Riker is unsettled by revealing such darker parts of his psyche through his stage role. This opens up some potentially fascinating avenues for Riker’s character development that are ultimately never really explored save during one of the episode’s most effective scenes in which he is subjected to reflection therapy, during which holographic images of Troi, Worf (Michael Dorn) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) appear as visual representations of different aspects of that psyche. All we ultimately get from such scenes, however, is a very clear but generic sense that the Enterprise’s second-in-command does not like to be held in circumstances that are outside of his control.
Another throwaway and somewhat comical reference comes from Data reacting to Riker’s unpredictable behaviour during a performance of the titular play:
It is noteworthy that “Frame of Mind” is this blog’s first foray into futuristic science fiction, and therefore its first insight into writers’ vision for the future of mental health, its perception in society, and the potential for its treatment. Perhaps predictably and a little disappointingly, however, this vision very much informed by a contemporary perspective.
The world of Star Trek often made a point of illustrating just how far medical science has advanced in the intervening centuries, with many debilitating illnesses in the twentieth century being readily treated by the twenty-third as depicted in the original Star Trek. The same cannot be said for mental health conditions, though, as represented by the all-too-recognisable scenes within the mental hospital to which Riker is consigned, for example, or in scenes from the play Frame of Mind. Whilst much of the episode’s perspective will be seen to have originated within Riker’s own mind, I am making the assumption here that his visions mirror the world that he inhabits, and therefore are representative of the same.
Again, though, it seems as though this was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer, perhaps necessarily so in order to make Riker’s predicament all the more relatable to the audience. Braga illustrates this in his comments on the choices he made over some of the vernacular used in the script, such as the word “crazy”:
People use this word. it’s a good word, and I decided to use it. When you get too “politically correct’ it shows, and what’s “PC” today won’t be five years from now. Star Trek is a show that transcends time, and we try not to date it.
Ultimately, Riker is revealed to have been captured during his undercover away mission to the planet, and to have been subjected to an invasive procedure designed to extract key strategic information directly from his brain. Most of what is presented in the episode is therefore entirely internal to Riker:
It’s true that both the neurosomatic technique employed by his interrogators in Tilonus IV and Dr. Crusher’s ability to restore Riker’s memory are both signs of advances in neurosurgery—albeit rooted within a contemporary context—but this still feels like an area in which the story lacks a certain vision. Alternatively, perhaps it is deliberately suggestive of a bleak future for the treatment of mental health. Perhaps the episode’s stance posits that more effective treatment for mental health issues will still remain beyond the reaches of medical science in the twenty-fourth century. More likely, though, it represents little thought having been afforded to the potential for this element of the story.
Nonetheless, “Frame of Mind” represents a strong Riker-centric episode and a striking instalment even in the context of what was a a truly remarkable run of high-quality episodes across multiple seasons for Star Trek: The Next Generation. What it may lack in its consideration of the future for mental health treatment it makes up for in the complexity of its set-up and narrative, and in the power of its central performance by Frakes who, in the special features on the Alternate Realities boxset, cites “Frame of Mind” as his favourite Riker episode of the entire series. In accordance with his character’s predicament, it is a story that lingers long in the memory.