To say that Star Trek’s relationship with religion has been fraught over the years is something of an understatement. Series creator Gene Roddenberry was a secular humanist who had no place for religion in his vision of the future. Nevertheless, religious references did pop up in episodes like “Balance of Terror” and “Bread and Circuses.” However, few, if any, Star Trek characters ever really had a true crisis of belief until the Next Generation episode “The Next Phase.”
Even more interesting, the character in question was Ro Laren, a disgraced Bajoran officer who received a second chance aboard the Enterprise-D. Much like religion, Star Trek never really knew what to do with Ro. Her fiery personality and relationship with the other bridge officers, and Captain Picard in particular, made her more than just a background character or glorified cameo. But she only appeared in six TNG episodes and in her final appearance — season seven’s “Preemptive Strike” — Ro ultimately decided to leave Starfleet for the Maquis, a group of resistance fighters battling the Cardassians.
Ro was originally intended to appear on Deep Space Nine, but actress Michelle Forbes was reluctant to commit full-time to the series, which led to the creation of Major Kira Nerys (as portrayed by Nana Visitor). Ro’s story was thus left unfinished until the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard, where she and Picard finally settled their grievances in one of the season’s most powerful scenes.
“The Next Phase” is arguably my favorite Ro episode. There’s the religious aspect, to be sure, but I also enjoy the episode because it pairs Ro with Geordi La Forge — a pairing that you wouldn’t think of at first. Picard or Riker? Sure. (Although Ro was paired up, quite literally, with Riker in an earlier episode, “Conundrum.”) Perhaps even Worf. But La Forge? I didn’t see that one coming. And the unlikely duo finds themselves in a real predicament when they find themselves in what appears to be the afterlife.
The following contains spoilers for “The Next Phase.”
When the episode begins, the Enterprise is responding to a distress call from a damaged Romulan ship. Ro and La Forge are part of the initial away team, and after identifying a faulty part, transport back to the Enterprise to make repairs. A transporter malfunction suddenly occurs, however, and Ro and La Forge fail to rematerialize on either the Enterprise or the Romulan ship, much to their crewmates’ shock.
Ro awakens near Sickbay, though nobody seems to notice her pleas for help, nor does her communicator work. Her fears are first raised when she overhears Picard and Dr. Crusher discussing death certificates for her and La Forge. Those fears are soon confirmed when Picard walks right through her. (A simple-yet-nifty visual effect used throughout the episode.)
Ro and La Forge reunite in Main Engineering, and though comforted by the fact that they can still see and interact with each other, they have very different views of their situation. Ro insists they’re dead — she saw the death certificates, after all — and now that they’re spirits, they need to make peace with their former lives so they can move on. La Forge, however, points out that he’s still wearing his uniform and VISOR. Refusing to believe that he’s now “a blind ghost with clothes,” La Forge sets out to fix whatever’s wrong with them.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew continues to assist the Romulans even as they mourn the loss of their comrades. Ro listens to Picard and Riker discuss her and La Forge’s upcoming funeral — which is being planned by Data(!) — and she’s surprised when Riker says that he’d like to say a few words in her memory. (Perhaps he’s still thinking of their time together in “Conundrum.”) There’s also a nice little moment where Ro thanks Picard for giving her a second chance and ruefully admits that even in death, she still finds him intimidating.
The duo eventually returns to the Romulan ship, where La Forge finds a clue that they might not be dead after all. After peeking into some strange Romulan tech, he surmises that the transporter incident actually left them both cloaked and phased. They’re not just invisible; they can pass through matter like, well, ghosts. They also overhear a pair of Romulan officers plot to sabotage the Enterprise to prevent any discovery of their “molecular phase inverter” (just one of the many lovely bits of technobabble bandied about in the episode). And plot twist(!), as they leave, the audience learns that one of the Romulan officers is cloaked and phased, too. (I’m sure that will present no significant issues later in the episode.)
In addition to his funeral planning, Data has been trying to determine the cause of a bizarre phenomenon — sudden fields of chroniton particles — on both the Enterprise and the Romulan ship. La Forge eventually realizes that he and Ro are the cause, which happen when they phase through matter. This results in a fun scene where La Forge tries to “guide” Data into making the same discovery — and finds a possible solution to their “phased” state.
Remember that cloaked and phased Romulan officer from before? Turns out, he does present a significant issue. After taking Ro hostage, he demands to know where La Forge is — which leads to another fun scene as the two of them run through the Enterprise’s walls and crew members. Eventually, La Forge comes to Ro’s rescue and manages to shove the Romulan through a bulkhead and out into space.
As cool as this looks, it does raise the episode’s biggest question, even bigger than what happens after death: If they can pass through walls, then why don’t they sink through the floor? There are some scenes where you can see Ro and La Forge interact with things like chairs despite being phased, which seems like a production oversight á la the Game of Thrones coffee cup. But the fact that they don’t fall right through the Enterprise is a pretty big plot hole that could’ve been solved with a single bit of dialog:
Ro: Wait a minute… if we can walk through the Enterprise’s walls, why don’t we sink through the floor?
La Forge: The artificial gravity generators must somehow still interact with and push back against our chroniton fields. Anyway, that was pretty bad-ass how I pushed that Romulan into space, wasn’t it?
And then there’s the fact that they can still breathe. If the phased Ro and La Forge can pass through everything, then everything should pass through them, too… including oxygen. Of course, at some point, you just need to suspend your disbelief and employ the time-honored MST3K mantra (“It’s just a show, I should really just relax”) because such nitpicking ultimately gets in the way of enjoying a nice story.
La Forge has discovered that when he’s hit by an anyon beam, he becomes partially de-phased. So all they need to do is get hit by a bunch of anyons and hopefully someone will see them and connect the dots. Which means they need to go somewhere with lots of people, and what better place than their own funeral? To their surprise, though, Data has thrown a party in Ten Forward complete with balloons, festive drinks, and a jazz band.
Using the now-deceased Romulan’s disruptor, they set about creating as many chroniton fields as possible. After an anyon sweep makes them partially visible, Data puts two and two together and bombards Ten Forward with anyons, bringing Ro and La Forge back from the dead.
The episode’s final minutes are filled with some truly delightful character moments. I love how Data stands there awkwardly after Ro and La Forge’s return, as if unsure how to proceed, and how La Forge sees him and acknowledges his thoughtfulness. Data and La Forge are TNG’s best bros, and their shared nod just cements that status.
Even better, the episode ends on a humorous note with one of my favorite interactions in all of TNG. While the starving La Forge wolfs down his meal, Ro sits there quietly, obviously troubled by her recent experience.
“I was raised with Bajoran beliefs,” she says. “And I even followed some of the practices. But I never really believed in a life after death. And then suddenly I was dead and there was this other life. And it made me feel like I’d been pretty arrogant to discount everything I’d been taught, you know? Now I don’t know what to believe.” La Forge responds by saying that Starfleet should develop its own phasing technology because “if it can teach Ro Laren humility, it can do anything.”
The episode ends with the two of them sharing a warm laugh. Unfortunately, due to TNG’s episodic nature, we never get to see what Ro — or La Forge, for that matter — takes away from the experience and how it affects their own personal beliefs and spirituality. Nevertheless, it’s still a delightful endcap to a delightful episode.
In his review of Star Trek: Picard’s third season, Geoffrey Reiter comments on Star Trek’s episodic nature, and notes that “there’s not really a substitute for a group of people working long hours together day in and day out for years.” He continues: “The development of TNG’s characters came not from scripted storylines but from the emotional beats of actors growing together across the seasons.”
Although Ro had only been on TNG for a few episodes before “The Next Phase,” this final interaction still reveals the truth in Reiter’s words concerning the beauty of “actors growing together across the seasons.” I doubt the episode’s final scene would’ve been so warm or enjoyable without the cast’s camaraderie, and one can only wonder what might’ve been had Ro become even more prominent on The Next Generation and later, Deep Space Nine.
Some other highlights from “The Next Phase”:
- “The Next Phase” was written by Ronald D. Moore, who wrote some of TNG’s best episodes, including several Klingon-themed episodes (e.g., “Sins of the Father,” “Redemption”) as well as “Relics” (which I’ve previously written about) and the series finale “All Good Things…”
- When the phased Ro and La Forge pass through normal matter, they generate chroniton fields, which are potentially hazardous to the Enterprise’s systems and can only be fixed by anyon fields. Both of these are perfect examples of Star Trek’s fascination with fantastical-sounding subatomic particles, which makes for some of my favorite Star Trek technobabble. (Whenever someone mentions dekyons, polarons, tetryons, and the like, I get a big smile on my face.)
- I always enjoy seeing Riker hobnob with the rest of ship’s personnel like a regular Joe, and he does just that when he joins the aforementioned jazz band on trombone. Jonathan Frakes actually plays trombone in real life, having played it in the Penn State marching band. But he was often overdubbed on the show by jazz legend Bill Watrous.
- Ro shooting Riker through the head with the phased disruptor makes me chuckle, and the sight of the disruptor exploding in Ten Forward with no one else noticing is a nice touch.
- Picard shares a story about the first time he met La Forge, and how impressed he was with the young officer’s diligence. Though not a major scene, it does provide some nice background info for how the Enterprise-D crew came together and some insight into Picard and La Forge’s relationship.
- While traveling back to the Romulan ship (with Ro and La Forge in tow), Data and Worf discuss human and Bajoran funerary customs, and Data describes both his desire to honor La Forge (“I never knew what a friend was until I met Geordi”) and his difficulty knowing how to say goodbye. Worf, on the other hand, refuses to grieve. According to Klingon beliefs, La Forge has earned a place among the honored dead by dying in the line of duty — which makes this a joyful time for Worf.
- I remember being stunned when the phased Romulan — whose name is Parem, by the way — finally revealed himself. Watching the episode now, his existence is telegraphed way too soon. Indeed, the way he first appears onscreen is almost humorous in its complete lack of subtlety.
- Given TNG’s focus on the bridge crew, we rarely get to see how the rest of the Enterprise-D lives. Which is why I love Ro and Parem’s chase through the ship. Sure, we get to see more cool phasing effects, but more importantly, we get a glimpse of the ship’s personnel doing mundane things like exercising and enjoying a nice dinner in their quarters.
In hindsight, “The Next Phase” isn’t a gripping, in-depth examination of religious belief. This is still Star Trek we’re talking about, powered by Gene Roddenberry’s humanistic outlook. Still, the fact that “The Next Phase” (1) discusses religious belief to the extent that it does, (2) takes its character’s spiritual concerns seriously and doesn’t dismiss them out of hand, and (3) briefly explores some of the diversity of religious belief within the Star Trek universe — and moreover, throws in some truly delightful character moments that balance faith, humility, humor, friendship, and ingenuity — makes it a favorite Star Trek episode that I find eminently watchable.