A Star Trek near-virgin, I continue my viewing of the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After the nice but bumpy season 1, what does season 2 have to offer?
(Image from season 2‘s blooper reel!)
It has been interesting to accompany this viewing with reading on the making of the series — sometimes I obsess with behind the scenes details as much or more with what happens before the camera! Apart from Memory Alpha, I also saw a documentary directed by William Shatner, “Chaos on the Bridge“, very oriented towards UnitedStatesOfAmerican audiences, but very informative as well on how the pilot and the first 3 seasons of TNG came to be. With so much chaos, it’s a wonder it turned out as well as it did!
In the beginning, Creator Gene Roddenberry tried to bring as many collaborators from TOS as he could. But either he had changed or television had changed since the 1960s, something was not working. While Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future is something that plays strongly in TNG‘s favour, and in making the show stand out from the rest, apparently Roddenberry approached TNG with much stronger moral guidelines that he jealously guarded compared to TOS. His strict adherence to too-perfect characters and lack of inter-personal conflict was apparently unnerving and constraining several writers already in season 1. Over the season there were many changes of writers and producers behind the scenes due to arguments with him over these guidelines.
When season 2 started production, there were changes behind the camera and changes before the camera. Many TOS writers and one-off writers left during season 1 because they couldn’t get along with Roddenberry; but in season 2 it is Roddenberry himself that begins to be less involved due to health issues (perhaps network intervention to save the situation too?). Maurice Hurley essentially becomes the showrunner, inserting more character development in the episodes. Dr. Crusher is replaced by Dr. Pulaski (due to a conflict with producers over McFadden’s acting, it seems), quite unceremoniously. A writers’ strike will also impact the organization of producing the series in the first half of the season, and there will be “only” 22 instead of 26 episodes.
As with any series, in the first season the series was still trying to define itself and distance itself from being a rehash of TOS. But with so many changes season 2 is also like a second first season again: while it continues on the general world and characters of season 1, behind the scenes everything is being rebuilt.
And it is a much better season overall, from what I’ve seen! Here is a zoom into some season 2 episodes (1988-1989):
“Where Silence Has Lease”: Meh
In this episode: Star Trek encounters a big blob in space which is a sentient entity that plays games with them: it’s very pulp scifi-ish and the pitch sounds like the reason why many people don’t watch Star Trek. The interesting part is the entity’s curiosity about humans and the concept of death — which triggers a similar curiosity in Data. This gives the opportunity for Picard to talk about his view of metaphysics and his definition of a soul; unexpectedly he is not a pure materialist, despite the mostly purely god-less worldview of the Star Trek universe.
Directed by Winrich Kolbe, who among many things directed several “Millennium” season 1 episodes, including the landmark “Lamentation“!
Data: “Captain, the most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is ‘I do not know.'”
“Elementary, Dear Data”: Just OK
A holodeck adventure that spills over to the real world: one has to wonder who was the IT engineer who gave user rights to holodeck AIs to interact with the rest of the ship. Seeing Data, LaForge and Pulaski in a late 19th-century London setting and attire is indeed very cool, and the casting of Moriarty was excellent! We get to know more of Dr. Pulaski, vastly different from the underdeveloped Dr. Crusher, and perhaps McCoy-like in her humor and attitude; also, having in Pulaski a character who has difficulty in treating Data as anything else than a machine was a very good move and sets up future developments.
Moriarty: “I do not want to die.”
Picard: “And I do not want to kill you.”
“A Matter of Honor”: Very good
Riker goes on an Erasmus to a Klingon ship, where he out-Klingons the ship’s captain! This is an excellent episode for Riker, showcasing his wits and capability to adapt and use the constraints he is dealt with (the Klingon code of honor) to reach his ultimate goal (allegiance to Starfleet, not destroy the Enterprise); he might not show it behind that smile but he is always one step ahead of everyone else. There’s a lot more humor this season, which helps us build affection for the crew. The Klingons are also more humanized in this episode: we do learn a lot of their bloodthirsty culture, which would put ancient Sparta to shame, but we also see they are capable of humor and complex feelings. We have also seen enough episodes to appreciate Picard‘s and Riker‘s two different styles of leadership: one could learn more about management from watching TNG than reading “how to be a good manager” books!
The Klingon that would have killed Riker is Brian Thompson, a well-known face, among other things the Alien Bounty Hunter in The X-Files!
Klag: “Klingons do not express…feeling the way you do!”
Riker: “Perhaps you should.”
Klag: “We would not know how!”
Riker: “Yesterday, I did not know how to eat gagh!” [a Klingon delicacy]
“The Measure of a Man”: Absolutely excellent!
This philosophical tale is perhaps uncharacteristic of Star Trek as a whole, it is essentially a bottle episode with a trial, with the only science fiction element being Data‘s nature as an android, but it shows the breadth of types of stories this series can tell. It is essentially the “controversy of Valladolid” where instead of American Indians it is debated whether androids have a soul, and set a legal precedent for all future androids. Writer Melinda Snodgrass drew on her experience as an attorney to write the episode. The only drawback I would say is forcing Riker to be the advocate of the position against Data, which feels a bit artificial in generating drama, but very effective at that. There is also Whoopi Goldberg‘s Guinan, who is in charge of the ship’s bar but we have not been given much background as to who she really is. In the end, even Dr. Maddox is impressed with the quality of Data’s character; despite their recent opposition, once the matter is settled Data has no trouble putting that behind him and acknowledging that scientific research and advancement that would come out of studying Data is in the interest of both. In many ways, Data is the perfect Starfleet officer: dispassionate, self-improving, inspiring. I wonder what a Star Trek series set in the future of TNG would look like, and whether most of the crew would be androids. This is a remarkable episode in the way it is written and the values it promotes, and earns my first top mark for the series!
Data: “That act injured you and saved me. I will not forget it.”
Riker: “You’re a wise man, my friend.”
Data: “Not yet, sir. But with your help, I am learning.”
“Contagion”: Really excellent
Xenoarchaeology (archaeology of alien civilization, something I always fall for), a man-sized portal that instantaneously transports one to a distant point in the galaxy, a tense military situation and an arms race with an alien foe: this episode really is the template that inspired Stargate SG-1! Also, a nice nod to other science fiction with naming the Enterprise sister ship the USS Yamato! The tension throughout the episode is very well managed, first with the destruction of the Yamato and then with Data‘s investigation of the Iconian ruins as the situation with the Romulans brings everyone to the doorstep of war.
Picard: “The victors invariably write the history to their own advantage.”
“Time Squared”: Good
Star Trek and time travel are obvious good bedfellows, and I know this is not the last episode with that science fiction trope. What is interesting here is Picard‘s reaction to what is happening and his frustration at the idea the captain would abandon his ship; it is also unsettling to see so much distress in the second Picard, as we have grown accustomed to an impeccable authoritative Captain. At moments, the tense music (different from the usual symphonic music) helps the episode; at other moments the lack of music gives the impression the episode is longer than its script warrants. In the end, no explanation is given why the entity focused so much on Picard; while keeping a part of mystery is interesting, this does feel a bit anticlimactic. To explain that, this episode would have been linked with “Q Who” but Roddenberry was apparently not a fan of too much interconnection between episodes; this sheds an interesting light on the differences between generations of showrunners, as TNG came at the exact time when series were shifting from a strict anthology format towards a more serialized form (more on that with DS9, obviously!).
Picard to his future self: “What happened? Why did you leave the ship? Don’t turn away. Look at me. Picard! Look at me!”
The Icarus Factor: Really excellent
TNG is dedicating more and more of its time to character development episodes, which from my point of view is very much appreciated; the format is such that there is enough space for both character and science fiction stories.
The A-story is about Riker and his conflicted relationship with his father, whose method of upbringing was the old school manly “growth through challenges” method. This is directly put in contrast with Troi‘s more feminine emphasis on empathy and growth through understanding. I wouldn’t read too much in Riker compensating for the lack of his mother in growing closer to Troi, but that reading is there in the episode.The whole situation is resolved very quickly at the end of the episode (and with an imaginative game of anbo-jyutsu!), too quickly perhaps. The B-story concerns another weird aspect of Klingon culture. Despite them being a bit disgusted at it, Worf‘s crewmates are supportive and act as real friends; in 2018, in a time of rising racism, I find this depiction inspiring!
Picard, to Riker, about being the Captain: “You know, there really is no substitute for holding the reins.”
Pen Pals: Good
A touching story about Data‘s young pen pal resulting in him violating the Prime Directive, and the dilemma that follows of interfering to help a civilization from destruction or not. The high point of the episode is the discussion where the Prime Directive is discussed passionately, a philosophical debate that Star Trek was created for! The solution is to interfere but to make their interference unknown to the aliens by erasing Sarjenka‘s memory: it is a synthesis of positions, and an easy way out, but as the first (?) episode dealing with the Prime Directive head-on this is not a drawback. The B-story is about Wesley growing in self-confidence and being given a team of scientists to lead: another episode where TNG reads like a dramatized lesson in good management.
Riker, to Wesley: “In your position it’s important to ask yourself one question: ‘What would Picard do?'”
“Q Who”: Very good
The episode that introduces the Borg, which were originally planned at the season 1 finale! They would have been much more involved during season 2, but the man who is the unofficial showrunner at this stage, Maurice Hurley, is encountering behind the scenes issues himself, so his plans keep changing. The Borg will become iconic for TNG: cyborgs with a hive mind, they are completely alien and at the same time appropriate for our present concerns of rapidly evolving technology. This first encounter is masterfully handled by director Rob Bowman. Q is back and he wants to crush Picard‘s faith that humanity and the Federation can overcome any obstacle. And indeed the episode doesn’t end optimistically with everything wrapped up: there are dangers out there. Inadvertently, with this little experiment Q might have drawn the Borg’s attention to humans and changed the course of future events! The short B-story of a goofy ensign that could be a love interest to Geordi is…awkward and forgettable (and the writing team knew that, we won’t see her much more).
Q: “You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually, you’ll weaken. Your reserves will be gone. They are relentless.”
“Peak Performance”: Good
A war-game simulation is the opportunity for “Captain” Riker to show his qualities against Picard, and how he too can be a leader of men — in this instance inspiring Wesley to improvise and obtain something necessary for their side’s strategic advantage. In the middle of all that, the Ferengi attack and the war game becomes reality: it’s Picard’s turn to come up with a plan to use his knowledge of how Ferengi think (pure mercantilists) in order to outwit them. The episode goes from surprise to surprise and is very enjoyable. The B-story has Data in deep self-doubt when he cannot beat a humanoid in a simulated game; I’m not sure that the solution, to play for a stalemate instead of a quick win, would be sufficient to satisfy an AI in reality, but it is well played.
In one of the first Ferengi sightings, it’s Armin Shimerman — who will become the franchise’s most recognizable Ferengi during the seven years of DS9 as Quark!
Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
Overall, of what I’ve seen of season 2, this is a clear improvement over season 1, despite many personality clashes behind the scenes. TNG is still a “procedural in space” show — the stories in each episode are still mostly self-contained — but they operate within a universe that is evolving (for example, the tensions/wars with the various races) and, most importantly, characters build on things they have learnt previously. The actors are inhabiting their roles perfectly. Episodes are a mix of scifi adventure and character-driven plot, more so than in season 1: the scripts contain more space for character development and the emotional consequences of the plot on the characters.
In short, if season 1 was interesting, season 2 is great!
Which is impressive, given how chaotic the making of season 2 was! At the end of the season, near-showrunner Hurley also left due to his frustration with working with Roddenberry. Roddenberry believed he was maintaining a high quality and ensuring his worldview of the utopian future was coherently shown throughout the series — but actually Roddenberry was perceived by many new generation writers as somebody blocking quality drama. The first seasons of TNG are the story of this fight between generations of television-makers!
As TNG headed in its third season, another wave of changes took place, with Gene Roddenberry continuing to be less involved, the self-proclaimed Roddenberry-inheritor Rick Berman taking a more important role, newcomer Michael Piller fast becoming head writer, and more new writers coming to replace those who were fired or resigned. By the time the fourth season came about, the behind the scenes drama had more or less stabilized around the core team that would develop Star Trek into the cultural behemoth of the 1990s, with TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT and movies! And it’s true that TNG kept getting better throughout, whatever Roddenberry’s opinions might have been.
And so, Ensign Crusher, Warp 9.3 to season 3!