You know the one. The Enterprise is doing its thing on its way to do something scientific on Pacifica (a place we learn in later years is a beach world, so evidently beach science). Starfleet’s uniforms are yet to sport Nehru collars, the carpet on the bridge still looks new, and Data doesn’t really understand jokes yet. Captain Picard gets an urgent message from Captain Keel, an old friend with very heavy eyebrows, and the beach trip is off as our captain and crew are sucked into an alien conspiracy at the heart of the Federation.
Keel and some other high-flying captains tell Picard that something dark is happening at the heart of Starfleet. Key people are acting strange, losing their memories, and issuing orders that make no sense, but our man is unconvinced. His skepticism lasts until the Enterprise comes across the wreckage of Keel’s ship, at which point it’s off to Earth to find out wtf is actually going on with Starfleet Command. Wtf ends up being an Invasion of the Body Snatchers deal, and pink parasites with more than a little Ceti Alpha V to them are wearing Starfleet personnel as meatpuppets.
There are plenty of reasons to love the episode. Some remember it fondly because they actually blew up people’s heads on Star Trek. Some because it feels like part of a larger story—and a larger universe—than an endless string of missions of the week. Some just dig the stop-motion animation of the parasite that makes it look less menacing and more adorable than I think the crew were going for. I’ve always enjoyed a touch of paranoia in storytelling—who doesn’t love The Parallax View, after all—and this was Trek doing paranoia years before anyone dreamt up Section 31.
Like The Parallax View, Conspiracy ends with ambiguity. The “mother” parasite is destroyed and the infected Starfleet people are mostly OK. But Data informs everyone that he’s decoded the alien signal. It’s a homing signal, and we hear it calling from Earth to an unexplored part of the galaxy as the star field fades to black and the end credits roll. You’d think it would be a storyline we’d revisit at some point, but frustratingly that never happened, outside of some apocrypha I haven’t read.
The parasites never made another on-screen appearance in Star Trek, but the idea of a secret conspiracy at the heart of Starfleet has certainly returned more often. Thirty-one years ago it was a brief alternative to yet another formulaic away mission episode. Now, in the 21st century, it feels to me as if sometimes Trek is too much about the overarching season-spanning plot; maybe it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way.
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