(written from a Production point of view)
Commander Riker fights for his life in sickbay after he is infected by an alien parasite while on an away mission. Dr. Pulaski soon discovers that the only way to save Riker's life is to force his mind to relive painful memories. (Season finale)
The USS Enterprise-D orbits an unexplored planet named Surata IV. An away team of Lieutenant Geordi La Forge and Commander Will Riker are on the surface in an alien swamp, teeming with strange lifeforms. La Forge finds Riker sitting on a log, injured. Something has bitten his leg. La Forge, not taking any chances with alien biology on a world unknown to the United Federation of Planets, calls for the transporter.
Transporter Chief O'Brien delays, getting an alert signal from the biofilter in the transporter, as Riker's body has been infected with some type of unidentified microbes. Doctor Pulaski is summoned, as the chief medical officer must authorize any transportation of unfiltered biomaterial.
Pulaski reluctantly uses the transporter – a rare occasion for her – to beam down and verify if it is safe to bring Riker aboard. She materializes and inspects Riker's wound with her tricorder. He complains of no pain, but of a numbness near the bite. La Forge hasn't had any luck finding what might have infected the wound. Pulaski beams them directly to sickbay. Two medical orderlies help Riker to the bed. He tries to shrug off their help, but when he takes a step his leg suddenly gives out.
Captain Picard records a log entry detailing Riker's predicament. He chides Riker for putting his foot where it didn't belong, but Riker maintains he is just trying to keep the doctors busy. Pulaski informs them that Riker's nervous system is being invaded by a microbe which combines elements of both a virus and a bacteria. She uses a medical scanner to illustrate the microbes bonding themselves to Riker's sciatic nerve and multiplying. They are not damaging his nerves, just preventing them from functioning – and they are progressing towards his brain.
Meanwhile, Picard decides to send La Forge and Lt. Commander Data to the surface to locate the source of the infection. Data protests at risking La Forge for the mission. However, La Forge tells him that he knows exactly where Riker was standing when he was injured. Data, using his android reflexes, prevents his Human friend from being hurt. They find a thorned vine in the swamp using parasites to paralyze animal life. Data records significant fossil remains around the area of the vines, which, judging by their fast motion attacking La Forge, are predatory in nature. When La Forge cuts off the thorn, the vine writhes in (futile) resistance. The officers call O'Brien for a beam-out and the thorn sample is delivered to sickbay while Data reports on the predatory nature of the vines to the captain.
Pulaski is hard at work analyzing the samples and Riker's condition, but is unable to find what characteristic in Human nerves causes the microbes to thrive. Riker is continuing to grow more numb, but acts stoic when Picard expresses regret at Riker's condition. As Counselor Deanna Troi watches unseen, Riker even tries to cheer up the medical technicians with stories. Troi attempts to reach out to her imzadi, but Riker soon falls unconscious. Pulaski attempts to stabilize him, but estimates he will die within an hour.
In order to prolong Riker's life, Pulaski puts him into a neural stimulator, hopefully keeping them active and resisting the virus. This causes Riker to dream of his past adventures aboard the Enterprise.
At first, Riker's dreams are of reasonably neutral occasions, such as his first meeting with Data in the holodeck and his attempt to help Wesley with meeting Salia. He also remembers saying goodbye to Deanna when he considered the USS Aries promotion. Soon, his dreams become more pleasurable, perhaps even erotic, including meeting the cheerful young Edo women on Rubicun III, or the matriarch Beata on Angel I, the attractive Bringloidi woman Brenna Odell, and the computer-generated holodeck woman Minuet.
However, while pleasing to Riker's mind, the passionate dreams actually worsen Riker's condition, with the organism's growth rate doubled.
It is apparent that the organisms are sensitive to the nature of the dreams Riker is having. Pulaski hypothesizes that they are sensitive to brain endorphins, with positive endorphins attracting them. Pulaski and Troi therefore agree to try to make the machine evoke negative dreams instead. Riker then experiences dreams of the death of Lieutenant Natasha Yar and the apparent death of Troi's child Ian. Sure enough, this has the desired effect, as the negative endorphins drive the bacterio-virus growth down, but these endorphins are not strong enough.
Pulaski tries again, using the machine to evoke dreams of raw, primitive feelings of fear and survival. Riker then dreams of his experience aboard the Pagh, then fighting the parasite-infested Admiral Quinn. The growth rate now decreases significantly, but still not enough. Pulaski can focus her beam even tighter, but Riker is now very weak. Troi says they have no choice but to proceed.
With Riker's vital signs very weak, Pulaski tries yet again. Riker is now dreaming more quickly through memories of pain, of T'Jon's attack on him, then being attacked by the Ferengi on Delphi Ardu IV and being enveloped by the tar creature Armus. The organism's growth rate is now very low, but still too high. His blood pressure dropping, Pulaski calls for the tricordrazine.
Riker now remembers tense situations, like setting the Enterprise auto-destruct sequence, saving the Klingons from the Talarian freighter that was about to explode. The organism's growth rate continues to decrease, but it needs to decrease even more. He relives his memories again at a much quicker pace, but also his encountering the neural parasite's mother creature, Data repairing the ship which was about to explode, the killing of one of the inhabitants of Solais V, the destruction of the SS Tsiolkovsky and the USS Lantree. Finally, the treatment resulting in the negative emotions releasing brain chemicals that eradicate the parasite once and for all cause Riker's vital signs to head back to normal.
Riker recovers to his well-adjusted, humorous self. Pulaski asks him who he is, and, seeing Picard walk in, he wittingly says he is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Picard in turn refers to Data as "Admiral", saying they were worried about him. Data obviously doesn't get it.
"I hope these are the right coordinates. Just kidding, doctor. I know how much you love the transporter."
"About as much as I love comical transporter chiefs."
- - Chief O'Brien and Dr. Pulaski
"Let's try something. Maybe it likes Humans more than androids."
"If you are correct, you are placing yourself in grave danger."
"Well, I'm counting on those great android…"
(A vine suddenly lashes out, but Data catches it.)
"…reflexes of yours."
- - La Forge and Data
"For Commander Riker's sake, I hope my hypothesis is in error."
"Unfortunately Commander Data, your hypotheses rarely are."
- - Data and Picard
"They're waiting on me hand and foot. I just… I hope they don't find out that I'm faking it."
"I wish you were faking it."
- - Riker, talking to Picard while he lies on a biobed in sickbay
"If you drop a hammer on your foot, it's hardly useful to get mad at the hammer."
- - Riker, explaining to Picard his lack of anger on his current situation
"Deanna, facing death is the ultimate test of character. I don't want to die but if I have to do, I'd like to do it with a little pride."
- - Riker
"My great-grandfather was once bitten by a rattlesnake. After three days of intense pain, the snake died."
- - Riker
"There may be some residual memory loss. I just want to be certain that you still know who you are."
"Of course I know who I am. I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise."
"I'm delighted that you're feeling better… captain. The admiral and I were worried about you."
"Captain, I do not believe you have the authority to promote me to the rank of admiral."
- - Dr. Pulaski, Riker, Picard, and Data
- - Beverly Crusher (her only dialogue in the whole episode)
- Final draft script: 26 April 1989
- Revised final draft script: 1 May 1989 
- Premiere airdate: 17 July 1989
- First UK airdate: 2 October 1991
Story and production
- This episode is Star Trek's first clip show. This does not count TOS: "The Menagerie, Part I" and "The Menagerie, Part II", which were built only out of segments from TOS: "The Cage", which had never actually aired. Clips also briefly feature in Act 8 of the DS9 finale, "What You Leave Behind".
- This episode was written to save time and money as a result of budget overruns earlier in the season. It was shot in only three days, while most take at least a week. Director Rob Bowman commented, "It was Paramount saying, 'We gave you more money for "Elementary, Dear Data" and the Borg show. Now do us a favor and give us a three-day show.' So that's what you do. It's an accepted part of the medium." (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 182)
- Production assistant Eric A. Stillwell was given the task of searching through tapes to come up with scenes representing Riker's memories. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion 2nd ed., p. 94) Stilwell recalled, "I spent eighty hours that week scanning through the episodes, finding clips so the producers could pick which ones to plug in." (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 115) As a joke, he wanted the installment to be called "Riker's Brain". Stillwell almost persuaded the other production staffers to call it that prior to the episode being named "Shades of Gray", which Stillwell also devised. He called it that "because I decided it was a really bizarre episode that wasn't black or white; it was just shades of gray." (Information from Larry Nemecek) For his efforts, Stilwell was credited as "Researcher" for this episode. (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 115)
- As originally scripted, the entire forest was supposed to come to life and attack Geordi and Data when they attempt to extract a thorn from one of the vines. This was cut from the finished episode, presumably for budget reasons. 
- Only three sets were used for the episode – the surface of Surata IV, sickbay, and the transporter room.
Cast and characters
- This episode marks the final appearance of Diana Muldaur (Doctor Katherine Pulaski) on the series. For Season 3 onward, Gates McFadden returned in her role of Dr. Beverly Crusher.
- Aside from clips from previous episodes, Michael Dorn (Worf) and Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) do not appear in this episode.
- Despite its poor reception, this episode is the only episode of The Next Generation to feature virtually all major characters introduced thus far: Picard, Riker, Data, La Forge, Troi, Dr. Crusher, Worf, Wesley, Tasha Yar, Dr. Pulaski, O'Brien, and Guinan, albeit some in stock footage.
- This episode is among the ones across all Trek series with the smallest cast, with a total of nine. Other such episodes include TAS: "The Slaver Weapon", DS9: "Invasive Procedures" and ENT: "Shuttlepod One".
- The episode features clips from the following episodes in this order: "The Last Outpost", "Encounter at Farpoint", "The Dauphin", "The Icarus Factor", "Justice", "11001001", "Angel One", "Up The Long Ladder", "Skin of Evil", "The Child", "A Matter Of Honor", "Conspiracy", "Symbiosis", "The Last Outpost", "Skin of Evil", "11001001", "Heart of Glory", "Conspiracy", "The Last Outpost", "Symbiosis", "Conspiracy", "11001001", "The Naked Now", "Skin of Evil", "A Matter Of Honor", "11001001", "Loud As A Whisper", "A Matter Of Honor", "11001001", "Unnatural Selection", "11001001", "Heart of Glory", "Conspiracy", "11001001", "The Naked Now", "Skin of Evil" (audio only). Counting them together it makes the use of 17 episodes of the first two seasons.
- Right before the last collection of clips, specifically just before a shot of the infested Dexter Remmick, a very brief clip of Project Genesis footage from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is shown.
- Several of the scenes from Riker's flashbacks contain cutaways of locations which are not in Riker's point of view. For example, when the away team evacuates the Klingon ship, Riker's "flashback" contains scenes from the bridge and the transporter room of a ship he was not on.
- This is the last episode to feature the regular characters wearing Type A uniforms made for the series in Season 1 and Season 2 which were first used in the premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint". For Season 3 onward, the uniforms are revamped, although they would appear again on Season 3 background performers, "Suddenly Human" (albeit in a photograph), "Identity Crisis", "Violations", "Second Chances", and one more time in "All Good Things...".
- This is also the last episode to have the original opening credits from Season 1, featuring some of the planets from the Solar System.
- This episode is thought to be one of the worst ever made. Maurice Hurley, who co-wrote the episode, commented, "Piece of shit. It was supposed to be a bottle show. Terrible, just terrible, and a way to save some money. I was on the way out the door." (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 182)
- In 2012, Peter Lauritson recalled the episode, saying "It was just… we learned from that. I think, probably the worst we ever did. It was like "Never again." "Shades"… I don't even want to remember it." Likewise, David Livingston also commented "It's very cheesy and the fans didn't like it. We didn't like doing it, but Paramount said "Hey, you gotta save us some money."" (TNG Season 2 Blu-ray, "Strange New Worlds" special feature)
- Ronald D. Moore called it "embarrassing", listing it along with "Up The Long Ladder" as the worst episodes in the series. (AOL chat, 1997)
- Director Rob Bowman recalls, "'Shades of Gray' was basically a money-saving episode. All we shot was three days of framework and they just stuck in flashbacks. That's all it was." ("Rob Bowman – Director of a Dozen", The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine issue 10, p. 20)
- A mission report for this episode by Robert Greenberger was published in The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine issue 9, pp. 65-66.
Video and DVD releases
- Original UK VHS release (two-episode tapes, CIC Video): Volume 24, catalog number VHR 2507, 7 October 1991
- UK re-release (three-episode tapes, Paramount Home Entertainment): Volume 2.7, catalog number VHR 4743, 5 July 1999
- As part of the TNG Season 2 DVD collection
- As part of the TNG Season 2 Blu-ray collection
Links and references
- LeVar Burton as Lt. Geordi La Forge
- Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi
- Brent Spiner as Lt. Commander Data
Special appearance by
- James G. Becker – stand-in for Jonathan Frakes
- Darrell Burris – stand-in for LeVar Burton
- Jeffrey Deacon – stand-in for Patrick Stewart
- Nora Leonhardt – stand-in for Marina Sirtis
- Tim McCormack – stand-in for Brent Spiner
- Vaughn Armstrong as Korris ("Heart of Glory")
- Brenda Bakke as Rivan ("Justice")
- Robert Bauer as Kunivas ("Heart of Glory")
- James G. Becker as Youngblood ("Heart of Glory")
- Ron Brown as drummer ("11001001")
- LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge ("Heart of Glory")
- Merritt Butrick as T'Jon ("Symbiosis")
- Steve Casavant as Edo ("Justice")
- Christopher Collins as Kargan ("A Matter Of Honor")
- Ward Costello as Gregory Quinn ("Conspiracy")
- Steven Craig as Edo ("Justice")
- Denise Crosby as Natasha Yar ("Justice")
- Jeffrey Deacon as command division officer ("Heart of Glory")
- Jake Dengel as Mordoc ("The Last Outpost")
- Michael Dorn as Worf ("Justice")
- Abdul Salaam El Razzac as bass player ("11001001")
- Dana Dru Evenson as stunt double for Denise Crosby ("Skin of Evil")
- Jonathan Frakes as William T. Riker ("Encounter at Farpoint", TNG: "Heart of Glory", "Symbiosis", "Skin of Evil", "Conspiracy", "The Child", TNG: "A Matter Of Honor", "The Dauphin", "The Icarus Factor", "Up The Long Ladder")
- Ron Gans as voice of Armus ("Skin of Evil")
- John Garrett as Lieutenant ("Loud As A Whisper")
- Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan ("The Dauphin")
- Charles H. Hyman as Konmel ("Heart of Glory")
- Dan Koko as stunt double for Jonathan Frakes ("A Matter Of Honor")
- Rosalyn Landor as Brenna Odell ("Up The Long Ladder")
- Iva Lane as Zero Zero ("11001001")
- Richard Lavin as Warrior #1 ("Loud As A Whisper")
- Richard Lineback as Romas ("Symbiosis")
- Jay Louden as Liator ("Justice")
- Mart McChesney as Armus ("Skin of Evil")
- Tim McCormack as Bennett ("Skin of Evil")
- Carolyn McCormick as Minuet ("11001001")
- Gates McFadden as Beverly Crusher ("Symbiosis")
- Kelli Ann McNally as One One ("11001001")
- Karen Montgomery as Beata ("Angel One")
- Tom Morga as stunt double for Jonathan Frakes ("Skin of Evil")
- Gary Morgan as stunt double for Tracey Walter ("The Last Outpost")
- Diana Muldaur as Katherine Pulaski ("The Child")
- Randy Pflug as Ten Forward waiter ("The Dauphin")
- Ray Reinhardt as Aaron ("Conspiracy")
- Robert Schenkkan as Dexter Remmick ("Conspiracy")
- Tricia Sheldon as Edo ("Justice")
- Armin Shimerman as Letek ("The Last Outpost")
- Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi ("Justice")
- Brent Spiner as Data ("Encounter at Farpoint")
- Brian Sterling as Edo ("Justice")
- Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard ("11001001")
- Brian Thompson as Klag ("A Matter Of Honor")
- Tracey Walter as Kayron ("The Last Outpost")
- Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher ("The Dauphin")
- R.J. Williams as Ian Troi ("The Child")
- Unknown actors as
- Unknown stunt performers as
"a little"; "a lot"; admiral; amplitude; analysis; android; animal; area; "as a matter of fact"; "as you wish"; "at issue": attention; authority; auto-destruct sequence; autonomic nervous system; away team; bacteria; Batris; battle; biofilter; blood pressure; body; brain; calf; case: chance; choice; Class of '78; "come on"; companion; composition; coordinates; crash; creature; day; death; Deneb IV; destruction; door; dose; dreaming; effect; electrical impulse; emergency; emotion; endorphin; engineering section; erotic; evaluation; evidence; exobiology; eye; faking it; feeling; Felicium; foot; fossil; fossilization; friendship; geological sweep/geological survey; "get out of my hair"; gift; "go on": graveyard; guest quarters; hammer; "hang on"; heart; "hello"; "here goes"; holographic image; hour; Human; humor; hypothesis; "I do not know"; imzadi; "in any event"; "in case of"; "in error"; "in order to"; "in the way": infection; infiltration pattern; injury; instinct; interpretative cortex; irregular heartbeat; job; joke; K-complex; kilometer; Klingon; Klingonese; knocking; language; Lantree, USS; leader; leg; lesson; life sign; lifeform; line; loyalty; machine; malice; medical test; medical tricorder; memory; memory loss; metabolism; microbe; microorganism; Milky Way Galaxy; millennia; milligram; minute; mister; morning; mouth; nerve damage; nervous system; neural activity; neural impulse; neural parasites planet; neural stimulation; neuron; night; number one; numbness; oath; "of course"; "on my way"; order; Ornara; pain; patient; pedestal; percent; person; personnel file; phaser energy; Pinocchio; "Pop Goes the Weasel"; practice; prejudice; pride; probability mechanics; prognosis; promotion; pulse; puzzle; question; rank; rate of growth; rattlesnake; reason; record; reflex; relationship; REM state; resentment; respiration; Riker's great-grandfather; rhizomatous; "right away"; "right now"; risk; sadness; sample; sciatic nerve; scratch; second; security; seizure; shuttle; shuttle crew; side effect; smell; soul; spinal column; "stand by"; star; stimulation; Surata IV; Surata IV microbe; Surata IV predatory vine; survey team; survival; survivor; symbiotic relationship; test of character; "thank you": "that's all"; theory; thing; thorn; touch; tour; transporter; transporter chief; transporter lock; transporter room three; tricorder; tricordrazine; Tsiolkovsky, SS; understatement; universe; vertex wave; virus; visitor; vital signs; vitamin; "waiting on me hand and foot"; warm-blooded being; warmth; warrior; word; worship; "you bet"
- Patient ID = Riker, William T.: composite neural profile; electroencephalography (EEG); electromagnetic energy exposure; epidermal contaminant scan; genetic sequence comparitor scan; neural enzyme pH analysis; respiratory toxin intake analysis; skeletal structure analysis; spinal synaptic activity monitor; toxin scan (epidermal); toxin scan (subcutaneous perfusion);
- Transporter console references: Howard, Merri; Julian, Heidi; Metoyer, Robert; Over, Ernie; Overdiek, Diane; Simmons, Adele
- "Shades of Gray" at StarTrek.com, the official Star Trek website
- "Shades of Gray" at Memory Beta, the wiki for licensed Star Trek works
- "Shades of Gray" at Wikipedia
- "Shades of Gray" at MissionLogPodcast.com, a Roddenberry Star Trek podcast
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