Original air date: February 10, 1992
It's a typical day on the Enterprise. The ship is en route to an uncharted sector of space to make First Contact with warp-capable civilizations, Doctor Crusher is tending to a patient in Sickbay, Troi and Data are playing chess in Ten Forward, and Ro and Riker are kvetching in the halls. Things take a turn for the not-so-typical when they encounter a small spacecraft of unknown design. The ship releases some sort of strange scan that wipes the memory from everyone aboard the ship.
Our amnesiac heroes try to take stock of their situation. They quickly deduce that they're on a starship with the wreckage of another ship outside, but the ship's computer and many other systems are offline. Logic dictates they're the crew of a ship and they've just suffered some kind of attack. Assuming that he's in command due to his fancy baldric, Worf orders Riker and Ro to assess the rest of the ship while everyone else focuses on getting the ship back into fighting shape in case a new enemy presents itself.
Riker and Ro discover that the problem is shipwide. No one knows anything about who or where they are and have to guess through the circumstances they found themselves in. Crusher quickly figures out that she's a doctor, but Data assumes that he's a bartender because he was behind the bar when the flash hit. Troi realizes that she's empathic and seems to remember some sort of connection with Riker.
Geordi retrieves the ship's personnel files so they can figure out who is who. To his embarrassment, Worf realizes that he's just the security officer. However, the computer also says Riker is only second officer, while the random Red Shirt who's been hanging around for some reason is First Officer Kieran MacDuff. Who?
Now that everyone is in their proper place (?), the senior staff receive a presentation of what they've gleaned about their current mission from the restored computer: They are the crew of the Enterprise, flagship of the United Federation of Planets, which is at war with the Lysian Alliance. They're on a secret mission to destroy the Lysian command center. The memory loss they've experienced is a new 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 comm silence orders, so they can't verify any of this data. 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. Well now...
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 Lysian ship gets tired of waiting for a response and opens fire, but its weapons are wholly ineffective, and a single phaser blast from the Enterprise destroys it.
Now that the Enterprise is killing people, Picard is even more insistent to get his memories back so he knows what he's doing. Crusher proposes some Techno Babble as a way of recovering the memories, and MacDuff volunteers to be a guinea pig, but he suffers some kind of seizure in the middle of the procedure (how convenient), so Crusher scraps the idea.
After MacDuff has recovered, he continues to beat the war drums. Picard has moral issues with blindly following orders to kill people he doesn't know, particularly against such seemingly weak foes, but MacDuff insists that everyone is counting on them to end the war and save lives. He then goes behind Picard's back to Worf, noting that they're alike and asking his support to override the captain should he fail to do his duty.
Meanwhile, Troi visits Riker to explore her feelings of familiarity with him. There's obvious attraction between them, and Riker discovers a loving note from Troi in a book he owns. They are about to share a tender moment, but then Ro comes in and breaks up the party, declaring that she thinks she's the jealous type.
The Enterprise steamrollers its way through Lysian space, and Riker notes that this seems far too easy. They reach the Lysian command center, with a crew of thousands and weapons that are a hundred years behind the Federation's. MacDuff urges Picard to destroy the station, but the captain has had enough. There is no way the Lysian Alliance could possibly be the mortal enemy of the Federation if this is how advanced they are. MacDuff, on the verge of Villainous Breakdown, tries to stage a mutiny, 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. Rather than competing for his affection, Ro and Troi are having a girl's talk about him. They both teasingly make it clear that his dalliances with both of them are now over, and Riker is left a little bummed to go from two ladies to zero.
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: One of several proposed in the fourth season, this one finally got made in the fifth.
- 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 if they didn't notice his three pips prior to him being introduced as the first officer.
- 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.
- 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 Cavalcade: As a Freeze-Frame Bonus, the personnel files recall various previous episodes:
- Picard's file notes his artificial heart and previous service as the Klingon Arbiter of Succession.
- Data's file notes his daughter, Lal.
- Troi's file notes her son, Ian.
- 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.
- Riker examines his horga'hn from Risa, which he got from Picard in "Captain's Holiday."
- 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.
- Dizzy Cam: Briefly used right after the crew's memories are erased, to better illustrate their disorientation.
- Dramatic Irony: The audience knows the crew's real occupations and relations to each other while the crew themselves struggle to figure it out. We also know that the Federation's war with the Lysians is false and that MacDuff is an imposter long before the crew does.
- Easily Forgiven: The Enterprise crew wiped out a Lysian destroyer with few dozen hands aboard and crippled the defenses of their central command, which you would think would cause some sort of repercussions. However, when it is revealed that they were manipulated by Satarrans, expressing their solemn apologies for what happened is all it takes for Lysians to forgive them. Then again, it's not like they had the means to make any demands from Federation.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: This is ultimately MacDuff's downfall — he fails to take the Enterprise crew's pacifistic nature into account, assuming they will simply follow the orders they think they have been given. Instead, they start to question the morality of their supposed mission, especially when it becomes clear that the Lysians aren't even remotely a match for the Federation. When MacDuff realizes they're having doubts, he attempts to manipulate Worf, dropping hints about the possible need for a mutiny if Picard won't go through with it, but it doesn't work — in the end, the Klingon is no more willing to fire on a defenseless enemy than the rest of the crew, especially when MacDuff starts yelling for him to fire all weapons at a station which, it was already established, could be destroyed with a single photon torpedo.
- Gut Feeling: One of the main reasons MacDuff's plan falls apart is that 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.
- Love Triangle: A minor one between an amnesiac Riker, Ro and Troi. This leads to an awkward moment for him at the end, when he learns the two women have been talking about what happened.
- 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.
- Meaningful Name: MacDuff is not of woman born.
- 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.
- 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 when refusing to eradicate a defenseless enemy.
- Reverse Whodunnit: While we don't know the exact circumstances, we do 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.
- 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 play chess at the beginning of the episode, and Troi actually beats Data by playing intuitively. This comes after it being established that defeating Data in a strategy game is a virtually unthinkable feat.
- 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.
- Stock Footage: The Lysian Central Command is the Edo "God" from "Justice".
- Technician Versus 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, 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.