Terror Trek - To Boldly Go Into 80's Horror
Space, the final frontier. As a kid there was nothing better than hearing those words as the Enterprise slowly filled my TV screen. I am a horror fan, through and through, but I am also a huge Trekkie who loves The Next Generation with a passion. But something interesting happened recently as I started rewatching the series. Amid the camp and homages to Rodenberry’s original series, something more sinister was coming into view. From musical scores and lighting effects to camera angles and creepy creatures, I started to view this ongoing mission as a work of science fiction horror.
Stop and look at it for a moment. It was the late 80’s and fans were still in the midst of a genre renaissance with some of the best horror and sci-fi movies of the last 25 years hitting screens and coming to television. And, in 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation came out to mixed emotions. Hardcore fans, the ones you find in literally every fandom, had their lists of toxic, self absorbed complaints. Critics, too, had their issues as they picked apart the new series and compared it to the original. Still, the show would manage to become a hit and remain on the air for 7 years. In it we had plenty of campy, corny, quintessentially 80’s/90’s episodes. But it’s the first couple of seasons that I’m going to explore with you.
I am not going to go through every single episode of the series and point out elements that felt like intentional science-fiction horror. In fact, the majority of episodes fitting that sci-fi horror bill were in the first season and a half of TNG. But every season had at least one episode that could have earned it some credibility in the horror community and I’ve selected some of the best as an example.
Encounter at Farpoint (Trickster Gods and Eldritch Hostages)
The pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation sees the crew of the Enterprise kidnapped by a being who can only be compared to a trickster god (Q), put on trial for the crimes of the human race, and then sent on a mission to dig up a giant space squid who has been held hostage by a primitive species who use its powers to grant them wishes. Honest to god it feels like someone consulted H.P. Lovecraft on this one. It was a good way to introduce the strangeness of these new adventures and an excellent introduction of the characters but let’s look at some of the scenes that truly make this a valid candidate for that SF&H label.
Q (John deLancie) is a capricious, egotistical, borderline malevolent alien being whose ability to warp reality and time for his own amusement rank him up their with the Greek and Norse deities. After attempting to intimidate the crew into scrubbing their mission, he transports them into a “twenty-first century court of atomic horrors” where drug addicted soldiers act as murderous bailiffs while the mutated and diseased rabble of nuclear fallout heckle from the stands. There is a ritualistic style to Q, a flare and charm that give the character a sort of debonair serial killer aura.
Moving on to the actual Farpoint station, the handful of the Enterprise crew not being tried by a lunatic judge are investigating how a planet with pre-industrial technology suddenly leapt into the 24th century overnight. Was it witchcraft? It was witchcraft, right? Gotta be witchcraft. Nope. Actually, it felt more like a Last House on the Left meets Call of Cthulhu love story. A wandering, wounded space squid, a living ship capable of producing everything its theoretical crew could ever need, lands on the planet to recharge itself and recover. Seeing what it is capable of, the native Bandi capture and enslave the creature, starving it to a point near death to keep it from being able to leave while providing them with everything they want.
Then, of course, we have pissed off space squid number two who arrives to free its mate. Firing on the cities surrounding its captured lover, it intends to murder the entire population of the planet until it has freed its companion. Of course the Enterprise and her crew save the day and shut Q’s mouth at the same time, reuniting the gargantuan alien lovers while teaching the natives a very important lesson about freedom.
There are lots of static closeups, upward facing camera angles, and heavy use of red and purple lights in situations of danger and dismay. The cavernous ruins that give way to the mysterious innards of the Farpoint station/eldritch hostage feel very much Lovecraftian as does the ringleader of the alien hostage takers being punished in a pain filled forcefield within one of the creatures. It doesn’t have that hard hitting, blood and gore terror you’d expect from a horror flick of the era, rather there is a subtle, psychological factor to the fear. That the universe is marvelous and frightening full of wondrous, terrible unknowns seems to be the overarching theme of the episode.
Honorable mention goes to Brent Spiner who plays the android Commander Data. In this first appearance the characters eyes are a hauntingly dark shade of yellow and seem to stare through the lifeforms he encounters. Add to this an unnerving infatuation with the human condition that goes beyond curiosity. In many scenes Data looks at his comrades as if he would disassemble them if he could somehow understand how their emotions worked.
Where No One Has Gone Before (Cutting the tether with reality)
This episode solidified for me that TNG relied heavily on elements of horror to stay afloat during its freshman season. The Enterprise is flung to the furthest reaches of the universe, the deepest and most abstract regions of deep space. The crew is encountering strange, almost ghostly phenomena including Captain Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) encounters his grandmother in the middle of an otherwise empty corridor. She is an elderly woman dressed in what looks like a Victorian Era dress, drinking tea. The scene itself is filled with a creepy, haunting score that is only intensified by the reaction shot of the captain himself.
It’s a static closeup of Picard’s face at a slight upward angle. The frame itself is set in a vignette with the intensity of the light focused at his eyes. It’s reminiscent of the classic shot of Bela Lugosi as Dracula that has become so truly iconic of that character. The episode continues to see the crew facing off with the unknown in an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of dread until, at last, they manage to escape to the safety and sanity of their own galaxy.
Skin of Evil (Alien Murder Puddle)
A shuttlecraft crashes on a remote planet and is surrounded by this being who is nothing but a sentient black liquid. This malevolent entity takes great pleasure in its ability to make the survivors suffer and to torment the crew that comes to rescue them, going so far as to even kill Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) who had already made a career of near death experiences in the first season. This episode offered up an alien that existed outside of the humanoid mold. Yes, it did briefly take on a vaguely sapient silhouette to mock the crew but otherwise it remained a gelatinous murder puddle bent on their destruction. A creature of great power and boundless evil cast into a barren wasteland and locked away forever until an unfortunate journey brings unsuspecting people into its grasp once more. It’s a classic horror story as old as storytelling itself given strange, new life.
Conspiracy (Bodysnatching Worm Monsters)
This was the biggest disappointment, in my opinion, to ever be written in Star Trek history. With an earlier episode building the conspiracy theory foundation for this one, the writers simply let it die at the end of Season 1 in favor of another, equally menacing threat they would reveal in future episodes. An alien intelligence has infiltrated Starfleet, taken possession of the minds and bodies of key figures of power within the organization, and is planning a massive invasion in which they will take over the entire Federation by possessing them like meat puppets.
The big reveal at the end is, granted, one of the hokiest monster effects ever produced in The Next Generation while simultaneously being one of the goriest moments in Star Trek history. Picard and Riker (Patrick Stewart & Jonathan Frakes) chase down the officer who is the host for the alien queen. After the expected villain/hero banter, they fire phasers and literally vaporize the flesh off the front of the man. We get a gruesome look at bulging eyes, burnt flesh, and exposed sinew before it explodes to reveal a giant worm monster residing inside his torso. The creature wriggles and looks menacing from the smoldering crater that still has hunks of arms and legs connected to it before exploding from more phaser fire. As a kid in the late 80’s this was the most graphic thing I’d seen on network television at the time and even today it amazes me that the censors let them sneak it by.
It was a short lived scene but the dramatic, suspenseful build up to it had all the right elements to classify this episode as a science fiction horror.
The first season alone, in my opinion, solidifies Star Trek: The Next Generation as a science-fiction horror series at its core and, the dramatic changes made during the 2nd season seem to speak volumes to that. The series would go on to tone down these darker, more terrifying elements over the years as the crew of the Enterprise became more like suit wearing executives than deep space explorers. But don’t doubt for a minute that they kept finding ways to bring back the otherworldly terrors.
Season Two introduced us to the Borg in the episode “Q Who," a race of technology cannibalizing space zombies only to double down on this reality in the Season 3 and 4 episodes “Best of Both Worlds” in which Picard himself is assimilated. The 1997 movie, Star Trek: First Contact would give the Borg an even more terrifying facelift and was shot in such a way that every encounter with the ravenous alien technophage felt like a zombie flick.
Season 6 brought us “Schisms” an alien abduction story in which cloak wearing, claw handed aliens reach through some kind of dimensional rift and abduct crew members in their sleep. The episode itself is a classic “Fire in the Sky” style horror complete with amputations and organ removals. This leads us into the final season and an episode called “Genesis” in which a mutant virus causes crew members to revert to less evolved forms of their own species. For the predominantly human contingent of the enterprise this means cavemen. Unfortunately, Worf (Michael Dorn) is a Klingon whose race descended from a terrifying mantis like creature. Oh, and in his primal state Worf is looking for love and that means he is willing to murder his way through everyone to get to a certain Betazoid frog woman who he has imprinted on.
There you have it. Androids who want to see what we look like on the inside. Space zombies invading the galaxy. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a series replete with alien murder puddles and a Klingon rape mantis and, as a horror fan, you should definitely watch the early episodes and appreciate the true terror behind this particular Trek.
Note: I ran a less in depth piece about this on Pop Horror that you can still read if you're interested. Terror Trek: The Hidden Horrors of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Also, no, I didn’t forget about that episode where Dr. Crusher falls in love with her dead grandmother’s “ghost” boyfriend, I omitted it. It sucked.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan on social media @dotdblog and read his stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.