Riker's birthday party is cut short when the Enterprise finds some unusual readings from an uninhabited M-Class planet near the Neutral Zone, which the crew believes could be indicative of a Romulan secret base. Riker is sent to lead an away team, which arrives at a cave that suddenly starts filling up with methane gas. The team falls unconscious and is beamed up, with some difficulty.
Riker awakens in Sickbay and notices that both Dr. Crusher and himself look considerably older. When Riker mentions the mission, Crusher explains that during said mission, Riker contracted an alien virus that remained dormant for years, but which has suddenly became active and put him into a coma, erasing all his memories since the moment of infection: sixteen years have passed since the mission and Riker has been captain of the Enterprise for nine, none of which he remembers. Dr. Crusher sadly informs him that while there is a chance for his memories to return, the damage is likely permanent.
Riker tours the Enterprise with Dr. Crusher and finds a number of changes: Geordi's VISOR is gone, replaced with cloned eyeballs; Worf now has a battle scar on his face, and sits in Data's position at Ops; the helmsman is a Ferengi, and Data is now First Officer. Suddenly a Romulan Warbird de-cloaks and Riker orders a Red Alert, only to be informed they were expecting the ship. The Warbird hails the Enterprise and Riker is greeted by none other than Picard, now an Admiral with Troi as his assistant. They beam aboard and bring Riker up to speed: 4 years ago, Riker and the Enterprise rescued a damaged Romulan ship, which impressed the Romulans and finally prompted them to start peace negotiations, of which Riker was a key part. The negotiations are in their final stage, and Riker is expected to continue to represent the Federation as the last issues are hammered out and the treaty is signed. Riker doesn't feel like he's in any condition to perform negotiations, but Picard trusts his ability. Troi leads Riker to his quarters—where he finds a ten-year-old boy who calls Riker "dad." Riker is understandably shocked.
The boy, Jean-Luc, asks Riker for some details involving a past Enterprise mission, and finally realizes his father doesn't remember him. Troi asks Jean-Luc to leave and Riker understandably asks why he wasn't informed of this. Apparently Dr. Crusher thought the shock would help to recover some memories, but it didn't. Riker asks about the boy's mother and Troi sadly tells him that "Min," who served as the ship's counselor after Troi's departure, was killed in a shuttle accident two years ago. At Troi's advice, Riker spends some time bonding with Jean-Luc, which they both enjoy. Riker tries to look up his service records, but the computer seems to be having difficulty bringing them up. The ships systems have been acting laggy ever since Riker woke up, prompting Geordi to run a diagnostic. Riker is interrupted by news that the Romulan Ambassador has arrived and goes to greet him—and is stunned to find that it's the Enterprises old enemy Commander Tomalak. The now-Ambassador Tomalak knows of Riker's condition and is understanding of his concerns, but claims he is a changed man. Riker is also apprehensive of the fact that negotiations will be held at Outpost 23, the key to all Neutral Zone defenses. Picard informs him that Outpost 23 hasn't been strategically important in years and there is no cause for concern.
Riker is contacted with news that Jean-Luc has injured himself and rushes to see him. Riker spends more time with Jean-Luc, claiming that when he was Jean-Luc's age his own father was absent and he doesn't want to make the same mistake. After going on a fishing trip on the holodeck, Riker tries to find records of his deceased wife. Again the computer is having problems, but Jean-Luc helps him. In a family video, Riker sees "Min" for the first time... and realizes that she's actually Minuet. Riker has a Eureka Moment and goes to the bridge.
An agitated Riker walks around the bridge asking rapid fire questions: why is Geordi taking so long to do a basic diagnostic? No answer. Where did Worf get the scar? What battle, what unit, what sector? No response. Why can't Data quickly solve a bunch of calculations despite his advanced brain? And did Data just use a contraction? Riker demands the end of this "charade"... and the bridge fades away to reveal a Romulan holodeck, with only Tomalak remaining.
Commander Tomalak explains the obvious to his prisoner: using neural scanners and a holodeck, they created a Faked Rip Van Winkle for Riker, hoping to gain the location of Outpost 23. Tomalak asks what gave away the false Enterprise. Riker responds that it was the computer lag (which was due to the limited response time of the scanners), and more importantly, the presence of Minuet as his "wife." Minuet, if you recall "11001001", was a mere Holodeck program, albeit one for which Riker had such feelings that the scanners had mistaken it for true love. Riker then asks why they didn't just pull the location of Outpost 23 directly from his mind, not buying Tomalak's explanation of "gaps" in his memory since the recreation of the Enterprise was otherwise pitch perfect. Tomalak orders Riker to be sent to a cell.
In the cell is a boy who looks exactly like Jean-Luc. As Tomalak explains, his likeness was used to create Riker's fake son. After Tomalak leaves, the boy introduces himself as Ethan, and claims he and his parents were living in a new research station near the Neutral Zone and were captured by the Romulans. After Tomalak returns, they manage to make a break for it and hide in a special place Ethan found where their captor's sensors are blocked. Riker discusses getting to the communications room and contacting the Enterprise, but Ethan claims it's impossible since the security system only responds to Ambassador Tomalak's voice. Riker realizes he's being tricked again: Tomalak was never called "Ambassador" outside the Holodeck he was just in. The Romulans show up again, despite the room being sensor-immune. This prompts Riker to throw away his weapon and claim, "I don't want to play anymore." As the Romulans prepare to fire, the Romulan base fades away...
... revealing the cave from the beginning of the episode, where Riker and "Ethan" stand alone. Riker is contacted by the Enterprise; Picard tells him he was lost mid-transport, and it's only been an hour or so. Riker confronts Jean-Luc/Ethan about why he did this. He explains that his planet was invaded and his people were killed but his mother, who also died in the invasion, placed him in this advanced holodeck to keep him safe. The neural scanners gave him everything he ever wanted... except real friends. Riker then invites him to join them on the Enterprise so he will never be lonely again. Jean-Luc/Ethan then changes to his true Grey Alien-like form. He says his real name is Barash... and Riker replies "To me, you'll always be Jean-Luc." And then he is never seen again.
Tropes in this episode include:
- Absentee Actor: Wesley doesn't appear in this episode.
- Amnesia Danger: Riker thinks he's subject to this when he loses his memory just before negotiating with the Romulans.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Riker uses several of these when he sees through the charade.Riker: Worf, where did you get that scar?Worf: In combat.Riker: What battle? When? Which sector? Which unit? Mister Data, if we left immediately, when would we arrive at Outpost 23?Data: At warp 1, in three days, four hours.Riker: How about at warp 7? (pause) At warp 8? At warp 9? What's the matter, Data? What happened to those millions of calculations per second?
- Big "SHUT UP!": Once he's realized the future is fraudulent, and he goes on his rant to the bridge officers, "Admiral Picard" tries to calm him down, but he responds:Riker: SHUT UP!
"Picard": I beg your pardon?
Riker: I said "Shut up!" As in "close your mouth and stop talking!"
- Call-Back: When Riker meets "Ambassador" Tomalak, he's unnerved, remembering how Tomalak threatened to take the hull of the Enterprise to Romulus as a war trophy in "The Defector".
- Continuity Nod: Minuet, the holographic woman from season 1's "11001001," is used to portray Riker's "wife". It's the conclusive proof to him that the reality he's in is not reality.
- Dream Within a Dream: Same idea, but with holodecks. When Riker figures out the Faked Rip Van Winkle, he is then made to believe that he has been captured by Romulans and placed in their version of a holodeck. This is merely the second layer of the deception; in truth he's still in the cave, which has far more advanced technology that is able to read his mind and create an illusion based on his thoughts, so that a lonely young alien can have some company.
- Dull Surprise: Barash as Jean-Luc Riker sees his "father" awaken from a coma brought on by a virus that wiped out part of his memory, and all he could greet him with is a very casual "Hi, Dad" like he just came home from work. Justified, as Barash had been without contact with his own people for a long time and would not know how to properly interact with humans.
- Faked Rip Van Winkle: The 16-year jump into the future is all a holographic illusion.
- A Glitch in the Matrix:
- How Riker unravels the first scenario: his deceased wife (obviously the computer pulling a memory of a past love from his mind to use for material) was in real life a hologram. Then he confronts his "colleagues" with a tirade of questions that they're unable to answer, such as Worf being unable to recall where he got a scar beyond "in combat," because this was never accounted for by the alien programmer.
- In the second scenario, he realizes something's amiss when "Ethan" refers to Commander Tomalak as "Ambassador" yet again.
- An interesting clue to the viewers is that when Riker sees his future son in Sickbay after a Parrises squares injury, and Dr. Crusher calls Riker aside to talk to him privately, Crusher's voice briefly comes out of the mouth of Riker's son.
- A case where the lack of a real glitch is a glitch: Riker also spots Data's speech pattern when he says "I can't" instead of "I cannot." Data is unable to use contractions, unlike other androids (his "daughter," Lal, and his "brother," Lore).
- All throughout this simulation, whenever Riker tries to access computer logs, the computer suffers from severe lag. The people in the false reality try to explain that the computer has been acting up when, in truth, the lag was used by Riker's captors to mask the fact that they had to make up computer logs on the fly.
- The Greys: Barash's true form.
- The Hero's Birthday: Commander Riker is celebrating his birthday when the episode begins. Picard apologizes for pulling him away from his party to lead the away team.
- Homage: A good portion of the episode is one to the classic Roald Dahl short story "Beware of the Dog", adapted as 36 Hours (1965).
- I Never Said It Was Poison: Riker sees through the second illusion when his cellmate calls their captor "Ambassador" Tomalak. Tomalak was only an ambassador in the first illusion. Since Riker hadn't mentioned it, he realizes that his cellmate was present in both illusions.
- Last of His Kind: It's implied that Barash is the last surviving member of his species, as his mother hid him away before she and everyone else were wiped out during an invasion.
- Loads and Loads of Loading: The fact that the Enterprise computer is suffering from this is at first handwaved as being due to a computer problem, but later turns out to be a sign that the holodeck creating the simulation is trying hard to keep up with Riker's questions.
- Mythology Gag: The Romulan Warbird from the first simulation is called the Decius, named after a Romulan officer from the TOS episode "Balance of Terror", the first episode to feature the Romulans.
- Ominous Visual Glitch: The distortion of Riker's illusion is shown with distortion of the simulated reality.
- Out-of-Character Alert: Part of the reason Riker sees through the first illusion is when he learns that Geordi is allegedly still running a level one diagnostic of the systems after thirty hours; as Riker puts it, Geordi La Forge is "incapable of that level of incompetence".
- Remember the New Guy?: "Ethan" tries to invoke this using a Faked Rip Van Winkle.
- Time-Passage Beard: "Admiral" Picard has a beard and, of course, totally rocks it.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The episode does a pretty good job of showing this with respect to TNG, with slightly different uniforms, logos, set design, etc.
- Virtual Reality Interrogation: The second layer of virtual reality tries to explain the first layer to Riker as an example of this.
- Voodoo Shark: In-Universe. Riker asks why the Romulans didn't just pull the location of Outpost 23 from his mind. They claim they there were "gaps" in what they recovered, but he doesn't believe it because the simulation of the Enterprise was nearly flawless.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Barash, the lonely insectoid child responsible for Riker's abduction and holographic imprisonment, is invited back to the Enterprise at the end of the episode, never to be seen or heard from again.
- Wham Line: After Riker has been made to believe that he is the Captain of the Enterprise in the future but ultimately sees through the deception, "Ambassador" Tomalak says the following:Tomalak: As you wish, Commander Riker... the charade is over.