The first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had many of the hallmarks of the classic series, but from time to time audiences got a glimpse of genres far outside its stately sci-fi focus; it was those odd moments that suggested that it was influenced by its era. The first season was especially rife with these fun, uncharacteristic instances, many of which were foisted on Commander Riker.
Early on, Riker gets beat up by a feeble old man, and later he and Picard have to blow the head off another dude who has a parasitic Alien-esque chestburster coming out of his body. Among all the episodes of The Next Generation, the episode "Conspiracy" is easily the most bizarre and decidedly un-Star Trek. And yet this strange moment in Trek history is still highly watchable and utterly entertaining.
On some level, the entirety of the episode "Conspiracy" could classify as a 45-minute WTF Moment. The episode actually opens with Riker and the rest of the bridge crew shooting the breeze about how much they like swimming, even though Worf and Data aren't fans (because apparently Klingons and androids don't dig baths). Then, after getting a super-secret transmission, Riker has to rouse Captain Picard from sleep, which is really weird because it indicates that at some point on The Next Generation Picard took a nap while the rest of crew were pulling their regular shift. (Which, what? Did the Enterprise's senior officers mess around and pull all-nighters while Picard slept? Considering how cranky Picard is in Season 1, maybe some kind of weird work schedule was the culprit.)
Anyway, Picard being asleep while everyone else is clearly awake and working is almost as weird as the crazy chest-bursting alien at the end of this episode. Almost.
As its title suggests, "Conspiracy" is an episode in which Captain Picard inadvertently discovers that Starfleet Command has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens that live inside humans and make them act like creeps. What the parasites want isn't entirely clear, but once we find out about these body-snatchers no horror cliché is left unturned — or un-eaten.
A helpless old guy suddenly has super-strength, people eat disgusting worms for no reason, a possessed person's neck bulges out like a bullfrog, and the parasitic aliens enter the human host bodies through the mouth. At the end of the episode, Riker and Picard don't outwit the alien parasites or even beam them out into space. Instead, they phaser the head off of the guy who is harboring the host alien, causing his face to explode and a giant chestburster to emerge from his body.
This was the goriest scene in Star Trek up until that point, and in contrast with the rest of The Next Generation, it feels like an R-rated action scene suddenly inserted in the middle of a Pixar movie. Is this scene kind of awesome? 100 percent. Is it tonally out of place with most other episodes of The Next Generation? Also 100 percent.
"Conspiracy," written by Tracy Tormé and Robert Sabaroff, was the 25th episode of Season 1 of The Next Generation and aired on May 9, 1988. It was also the penultimate episode of that season, and the ending of the episode strongly suggests that the dastardly parasites will return in future episodes. Though this never happened, it's interesting to note that the original intention of then-showrunner Maurice Hurley was to use the parasites as a way of setting up the Borg in Season 2. (At the time, the specifics of who and what the Borg were had yet to be decided.)
In non-canon Star Trek novels, published much later, the parasites' origin was retconned: It turns out they were genetically mutated versions of Trill symbionts that were at war with the Trill. And, in case you've forgotten, the Trill are those friendly little worms that live inside of people, most famously Jadzia and Ezri Dax on Deep Space Nine.
At the time it aired, "Conspiracy" was a big deal because it was the conclusion of a mini-story arc that began earlier in Season 1 with the episode "Coming of Age." (Back then, story arcs on TV shows like Star Trek were very uncommon.) In "Coming of Age," several visiting characters — including Admiral Quinn and Remmick — made a huge deal about a conspiracy in Starfleet, and then in "Conspiracy" both of those guys return and are possessed by the parasites.
Remmick, for those unacquainted, is the guy who gets his head blown off at the end of the episode, and Admiral Quinn is the old guy who suddenly gets superpowers and throws Riker around like a WWE contender.
A note on that scene. It's hilarious and almost better than the ending scene in which Picard and Riker blow up Remmick's head. After old Admiral Quinn grabs Riker's hand, he then throws him across the room. This leads to Riker fighting back with these hilarious flip-kicks in Quinn's face. Then a really great, 1988, made-for-TV brawl really gets going and it's very, very clear that both actors are using stunt doubles.
At this point, you're probably considering a real-life conspiracy theory. I know. I know. Could it be possible that Jonathan Frakes grew a beard for Season 2 of The Next Generation just to disguise a stunt double's face in future episodes? If the alien parasites ever return to Trek canon, we'll be sure to ask them why Riker looks like a totally different person when he gets into fights, and more importantly, why he never used those flip kicks ever again.