Things take a turn for the not-so-typical when they reach said corner of space, and encounter a small spacecraft of unknown design. Sensors indicate a single lifeform aboard, but whoever they are, they don't reply to a hail, and start scanning back. The scan soon turns into an attack: a wave of green light sweeps through the ship—and suddenly, no one can remember who they are.
Our amnesiac heroes try to figure out what just happened. They know they're on a starship, they're all wearing matching uniforms, and there's the wreckage of another ship outside. Logic dictates they're the crew of a ship and they've just suffered some kind of attack. The guy with the lumpy forehead and the fancy sash assumes that he's in command, since he's the most heavily decorated, and starts acting as such. His top priorities are weapons control (after all, if they really have been attacked, they have to be prepared for another), and assessing just how widespread this amnesia problem is.
It turns out that it's shipwide: no one aboard can remember who they are, although they seem to have retained their skills and training (the doctor knows how to work the medical equipment, the engineer knows what the engines do, etc.) The tall guy with the beard and the navigator with the funny nose head down to Ten Forward, where they meet an android serving drinks and a woman who seems to have an empathic ability that no one else does. And this woman and the tall guy seem to remember each other...
Checking the computer systems, the blind guy who seems to be the computer expert finds that the memory files have also been erased. But he manages to get a list of the command crew. That bald guy who's trying to get everyone to calm down and think about this situation? That's Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain. The guy with the baldric? Worf, the Tactical Officer (Worf is bummed he's not in charge and ashamed that he assumed he was, but Picard consoles him with the fact that nobody remembers anything anyway). The blind guy? Geordi La Forge, Chief Engineer. The navigator with the funny nose? Ensign Ro Laren. That android down in the bar? Data, the Operations Officer. The empathic woman? Deanna Troi, Ship's Counselor. The tall guy with the beard? Second Officer William Riker. The shifty guy over there? First Officer Kieran MacDuff.
...Hey... wait a minute...
Anyway, once the crew figures out who they are, they gather for a meeting. La Forge has managed to get a little more information out of the computer. Like the memories of the crew, the computer memory files have been selectively deleted. Any personal data or historical logs are gone. All they know is some general information and their current mission:
They are the crew of the Enterprise, flagship of the United Federation of Planets. The Federation is currently at war with another power, the Lysian Alliance, and the Enterprise was on a secret mission to destroy the Lysian command center. The memory loss they've experienced is in keeping with rumors Federation intelligence has been hearing about a secret Lysian weapon that's been disabling Federation vessels. The Enterprise's mission is a crucial one for ending the war, and they are under strict radio silence orders. So they have no way to contact the Federation and confirm all of this. Despite some obvious misgivings, Picard orders the Enterprise to move forward.
Meanwhile, crew members are trying to get to some point of normalcy. Riker escorts Troi back to her quarters, where she expresses her unease: something about this whole situation doesn't feel right at all. Riker shares her unease, but he thinks it's just because they're at war; war never feels right. Bidding Troi a good night, Riker returns to his quarters... to find a provocatively-dressed Ro waiting for him.
The next day, the Enterprise reaches Lysian space. They are immediately accosted by a Lysian warship. Surprisingly, the ship doesn't immediately attack; in fact, they open a hailing frequency. Picard is about to answer, but MacDuff advises against it: this might have been what they did the first time. The situation is taken out of everyone's hands when the Lysian ship gets tired of waiting for a response and opens fire. The Lysian weapons, shockingly, don't even dent the hull of the Enterprise, and when Picard reluctantly orders a return fire, all it takes is one phaser blast to destroy the ship.
Picard is disturbed by this turn of events; being forced to kill someone he doesn't even remember has made him even more anxious to get his memories back. He consults with Doctor Crusher to determine if anything can be done. Crusher has a theory that their memories have not been erased, but simply blocked off by some biological agent in their brains, and if they can remove that agent their memories will return. She's worked up a possible treatment, but without access to everyone's personal medical records she's reluctant to test it out. MacDuff volunteers (how convenient), but when he suffers some kind of seizure in the middle of the procedure (again, how convenient), Crusher decides to scrap the whole thing.
Later, Picard calls MacDuff into his Ready Room, and there he expresses his concerns. Picard has serious moral issues with this entire situation: he's being asked to blindly follow orders he doesn't remember getting the first time. Orders which require him to kill people he doesn't know. And the encounter with the Lysian ship, whose weapons technology was clearly no match for the Enterprise's, has filled him with tremendous doubt. MacDuff expresses his sympathy with the Captain, but he reminds him that they are at war, and the possibility of saving Federation lives must naturally outweigh one man's moral qualms.
After this conversation, MacDuff speaks to Worf privately. He notes that he and Worf are Not So Different: the Enterprise is a diverse ship full of experts in science, engineering, and diplomacy, and they're both clearly the experts in combat. And he wants Worf's assurances, from one soldier to another, that they have each other's backs—and that Worf will back him if the situation should arise that they need to make a hard decision the Captain can't. Worf isn't very enthusiastic about this possibility; like everyone else in the crew, he's starting to feel like something is very wrong here.
Meanwhile, a restless Troi visits Riker, once again feeling like somehow they have a connection. Riker manages to confirm this: while searching his quarters, trying to figure out who this William T. Riker guy is, he found a book with a handwritten dedication in it: "To Will, From Deanna, With Love." They are about to share a tender moment, but then Ro comes in and breaks up the party.
The Enterprise encounters very little resistance as it progresses through Lysian space: all they meet are a few automated defenses that they easily steamroll over. Until finally they reach the Lysian command center. It's a space station with a crew of thousands—and weapons technology a hundred years behind the Federation's. MacDuff urges Picard to destroy the station, but Picard has had enough of this. There is no way the Lysian Alliance could possibly be the mortal enemy of the Federation if this is how advanced they are. At any rate, he's not about to end thousands of lives without being absolutely sure it's necessary. MacDuff, on the verge of Villainous Breakdown, tries to take over, but he's quickly shot dead by Worf and Riker. In the process, his disguise is damaged: he's not even human.
In the aftermath, the truth comes out: "MacDuff" was a member of the Satarran race, the actual mortal enemies of the Lysians. He was using the Enterprise to bring a swift and decisive end to the decades-long war between them. And he very nearly succeeded: Picard muses grimly on the Lysians they killed while under the influence of this evil plan.
Now that she knows that the procedure is actually safe, Doctor Crusher starts to restore everyone's memory. Things are slowly getting back to normal—except for poor Riker, who has the most awkward meeting imaginable with Ro and Troi...note
Tropes featured in "Conundrum" include:
- Amnesia Danger: The Enterprise and her crew becoming a pawn in a war between two alien civilizations? Selective amnesia and radio silence are really the only ways to make that happen.
- Amnesia Episode: And not a bad one, really.
- Anti-Mutiny: Attempted by "MacDuff." Fails miserably.
- Arc Number: There are 47 sentry pods defending the Lysian Central Command.
- Aside Glance: MacDuff manages a few of these. You know, just in case we didn't think he was in on the plot.
- Backstory Invader: MacDuff tries to pull this off. Interestingly, the direction for the episode doesn't go out of its way to present him as a "new guy"; there's no closeup shot with ominous music or anything when we first see him. If you had never seen TNG before, you might not know there was anything special about him at all. Even regular fans might think he's just some random helmsman or other officer, until the crew manifest is recovered.
- Beam Spam: One of the rare instances of the Enterprise firing more than one phaser beam in one second against the Lysian sentry pods.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: This episode confirms its existence between Riker and Ro. They act on it during their memory loss, after Ro points out their obvious mutual attraction, and promptly suggests that they should have a little fun before they get their memory back and realize that they actually hate each other.
- Bittersweet Ending: The imposter is uncovered and the crew's memories are restored, but it won't bring back the Lysians they mistakenly killed.
- Bling of War: Invoked—this is the reason why Worf thinks he's the captain, given his shiny sash. Naturally he's a little embarrassed to discover that the baldric isn't a symbol of rank, he just wears it as a token of pride in the Klingon part of his heritage.
- Bottle Episode: Dialogue-driven, using existing sets, one guest star, and minimal special effects? Check, check, check, check.
- Complexity Addiction: MacDuff's plan suffers from this upon reflection. He's got the technology to selectively erase both computer and organic memory, as well as implant his own information. You'd think he would have found a simpler way to use that technology to end the war than hijacking a shipload of total strangers, insinuating himself into the crew, and railroading them into fighting the war for him.
- Continuity Nod:
- While speculating about his purpose, Data suggests that androids like him may be standard-issue on starships. Isn't that what Bruce Maddox wanted?
- Riker plays "The Nearness of You" by Hoagie Carmichael on his trombone. He'd previously played it in "11001001".
- Data's chess match with Troi calls back to a similar match between Kirk and Spock in the second original series pilot.
- Cringe Comedy: The awkwardness in Riker's conversation at the end with Ro and Troi... oh, it's palpable.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The Enterprise quickly destroys the meager defenses of the Lysians without any real effort. This serves as a major clue that something is very fishy about that story of the lengthy war the Federation is supposedly fighting against them.
- Did They or Didn't They?: It's left ambiguous as to whether Riker and Ro slept together during their amnesia. (Although given that we last saw Ro, in the bedroom scene, saying, "And what makes you think you're going to get any sleep, mister?", what are the odds that they settled down to a nice game of pinochle and a cup of cocoa?) But Troi's not very amused in the end.
- Didn't Think This Through:
- Even if MacDuff's plan had succeeded, did it ever occur to him or the Satarrans that the Federation might not take kindly to having one of their ships getting hijacked and the crew being manipulated into fighting their war for them under false pretenses?
- Also, MacDuff didn't seem to consider that the crew might become suspicious of the set-up once it became obvious how much they outclassed the Lysians technologically.
- Dizzy Cam: Briefly used right after the crew's memories are erased, to better illustrate their disorientation.
- Dramatic Irony: One of the few times we can see it in real time.
- Foreshadowing: MacDuff is not of woman born.
- Fridge Logic: In-universe, the main reason MacDuff's plan falls apart. Too many things just don't add up.
- Gut Feeling: The other main reason MacDuff's plan falls apart: this whole situation feels wrong to the crew.
- Just Following Orders: Picard does his utmost to defy this.Picard: I feel as though I've been handed a weapon, sent into a room, and told to shoot a stranger. Well, I need some moral context to justify that action, and I don't have it. I'm not content simply to obey orders. I need to know that what I am doing is right.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: Exactly how the Satarran weapon works.
- Made of Iron: MacDuff is able to absorb a surprising amount of phaser energy before he finally goes down. It's not clear if the Satarrans are just super-tough or if he's been augmented somehow.
- Moment Killer: At least as far as Troi is concerned, when Ro interrupts a tender moment between her and Riker. As for Riker—he just proceeds to have a tender moment with Ro instead.
- More Dakka: Worf reports that the Enterprise has 275 photon torpedoes in its inventory. For a ship dedicated to peaceful exploration that's operated by an organization that insists it's not a military, during peacetime, one wonders what the hell kind of situations Starfleet thinks the Enterprise might find herself in that would require a standard loadout of that many antimatter weapons.
- Mind you, they have by now faced the Borg on multiple occasions, and plenty of other threats besides. The Enterprise and Starfleet are dedicated to peaceful exploration in general, but at the same time, Starfleet has a policy of equipping its starships to at least modestly handle themselves. Concurrent with this period in the Trek universe, Starfleet was making its first purpose-built warships (the Defiant class) in a direct response to the walloping their fleet had taken at Wolf 359.
- Mundane Utility: Watching Data demonstrate his speed and dexterity in Engineering, La Forge remarks, "You must have been one hell of a bartender." Considering that Troi's wager in their chess game was that Data make her a specific cocktail "as only you can make it," this is probably very true.
- Ontological Mystery: IN SPACE!
- Patrick Stewart Speech: Even suffering from amnesia, Picard manages one of these, because that's one of his skills.
- Punch-Clock Villain: We really don't know enough about the Lysians, the Satarrans, and their war to make any judgments, so we really can't call MacDuff anything more than someone trying to do his duty to his people.
- In retrospect, the Lysians were pretty quick to start shooting at a strange spacecraft that they knew nothing about. The information MacDuff plants in the Enterprise computer explicitly paints the Lysian Alliance as "genocidal," but the truth of that statement is, like everything else, up for debate. For all we know, the Lysians are the aggressors in the war and MacDuff's plan was one of last resort. Of course this also means that Picard and Company might even have helped him if he'd just asked.
- Reverse Whodunnit: Of a sort: We viewers know that this MacDuff guy isn't part of the crew, and this war with the Lysians is a fabrication. We just don't know what's really going on or how he figures into it.
- Schizo Tech: The Satarrans have memory-altering technology far more advanced than anything the Federation has seen, but their weapons tech is way behind. With how easily one guy took over the Enterprise, a massively powerful warship from a civilization they knew nothing about, it's entirely possible they didn't think they needed weapon tech.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Ro looks pretty good in a dress. Riker certainly thinks so.
- Shout-Out: The brief glimpse of MacDuff's true physical form shows that the Satarrans closely resemble the aliens from They Live, another race who make use of illusion and subterfuge to get humans to do their dirty work for them.
- Smart People Play Chess: Data and Troi at the beginning of the episode. (Incidentally, you trying playing "intuitive" chess against a computer some time and see how far it gets you.)
- Spotting the Thread: The fact that the Lysians are so technologically inferior to the Enterprise undoes the assertion that they are the Federation's mortal enemy.
- Status Quo Is God: A First Contact situation goes horribly wrong, leading to the Enterprise becoming an Unwitting Pawn in an interstellar war, singlehandedly wiping out a huge chunk of one side's defense forces and most likely severely altering the balance of power in that sector of space. You'd think there'd be some kind of diplomatic fallout from this. But no; neither the Lysians nor the Satarrans are ever mentioned again.
- Technician vs. Performer: Data versus Troi in their chess game. Troi is the Performer, playing by intuition, whereas Data, as an android, is incapable of being anything other than the Technician. Surprisingly (and perhaps unrealistically), Troi wins.
- The Unfair Sex: Troi and Ro really give Riker the business after everything is resolved, even though Ro was the one who made a pass at him.
- Villainous Breakdown: MacDuff has one when his plan starts to unravel.
- The Worf Effect: Just to demonstrate that MacDuff is more dangerous than anyone thought, guess who gets tossed halfway across the bridge? At least Worf gets to return the favour.
- Writers Have No Sense of Scale: OK, so the Lysian defence system is really puny. But 4.3 kilojoules? Let's leave aside the fact that you would surely be more interested in power (watts) than energy (joules)—a domestic wood-burning stove puts out more than 4.3 kilojoules every second. Apparently the aliens have built base defences with something that wouldn't boil a kettle.