Most people identify season 3 as the one where TNG reaches its cruising speed in terms of quality – and as much as I liked season 2 I have to agree. Why does it take so long for a series to find its footing? Is it a matter of writers’ inspiration, of budget, of general direction?
In the case of TNG, Roddenberry made use of several scripts developed for the aborted project “Phase II” but that was not the bulk of TNG‘s beginning, most of it was new with little planning: new ship, new crew, but the same way to write stories as before. TNG is mostly a procedural with independent episodes: writers try things and see what sticks in a trial and error process, and eventually, cumulatively, something good comes out of it. Today’s series hardly get the chance for more than even a handful of episodes to find an audience before they are cancelled. TNG at the time certainly benefited from a lot of goodwill on behalf of the studio based on the brand name. So writers experimented until they found something that worked, and constructed stories that they revisited from time to time.
Also in the case of TNG there was certainly all the behind the scenes drama, with writers and creator Roddenberry clashing, which prevented the series from having a direction everybody agreed upon and make the most out of it. More massive changes happened behind the scenes between seasons 2 and 3: Roddenberry at this stage is almost entirely absent with a rapidly declining health; Maurice Hurley, the near-showrunner for season 2, left out of frustration at the constraints Roddenberry had put on the format of the show; newcomer Michael Piller and Rick Berman take on the role of showrunners and try to build some stability and direction. Season 3 sees the arrival of young writers that will become very important as the show continues: Ron Moore, Ira Behr, René Echevarria. And as a consequence of Hurley’s departure, Dr. Crusher comes back (and Dr. Pulaski leaves). That’s a lot of changes!
Season 3 starts shortly after the movie “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” was released, the first movie with the TOS crew made in parallel to TNG. It was certainly…not the best Star Trek movie! And that must have helped change popular perception of TNG: progressively, TNG is not the derivative, Star Trek is not Kirk/Spock and a spin-off series, it is Kirk/Spock and it is Picard & co. TNG can stand on its own.
Now, on to some individual episodes of season 3 (1989-1990), presented in two parts:
Boy, has Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) grown between seasons! This episode focuses on Wesley and his precocious (cognitive) growth. A genius scientist visits the Enterprise and builds a rapport with Wesley, but when push comes to shove and his experiment is threatened he proves to be dangerous to the ship. Wesley is also responsible for creating nanotechnology that develops sentience, and it is surprising how quickly Picard considers this a life form that is worthy of protection, while it was just a little experiment that could be replicated at will; given the threat of these nanites to the safety of the ship, one would think that Picard would take more swift action. This is Star Trek, and solution is not in conflict — however this one was too easy. Yet, it was enough to get Michael Piller appointed as head writer!… The soundtrack sounds quite different from the past two seasons, less orchestral and more electronic, more pulsing, to generate tension.
Wesley: “I always get an ‘A’.”
Guinan: “So did Doctor Frankenstein.”
“The Survivors”: Meh
A story that should carry a lot of emotional punch, with an alien turned pacifist after he was responsible for a genocide. It could either be a half-hour Twilight Zone episode or a longer epic like Iain Banks‘ “Use of Weapons“, but in this 45 minute format it doesn’t quite work. With her empathic powers blocked and in pain, Troi is integrated in the story, which does not appear to happen often. The crew visits a planet and it’s shot in an outdoor location for a change, not on a soundstage!
“Who Watches the Watchmen”: Really excellent!
The perfect episode for the Prime Directive: what happens when it is broken inadvertently and the situation builds up to the point that the Enterprise has to reveal itself to a less advanced race. The episode does exactly what one would expect from a pitch like that: the primitive race mistaking the crew for gods (the hilarious “The Picard“!) and creating a religion, the crew debating how to contain the situation, the happy ending. It is the illustration of Arthur C. Clarke‘s law that a civilization with sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The episode includes the memorable scene where Picard does his best to convince the Mintakans’ leader that he is a mere mortal and that the Mintakans can too wield the power he has, if just enough time passes. The vaguely matriarchal alien civilization is represented by just a lightly populated small village in the Californian desert, much smaller in scope than the civilization-wide issue that is discussed, but that’s probably all they could do with the budget they had. Although the episode is not exactly surprising, it is one of those definitive First Contact tales.
The religious zealot is Ray Wise, none other than the man who one year hence would be Leland Palmer in “Twin Peaks“!
Picard: “Look at me. Feel the warmth of my hand, the rhythm of my pulse. I’m not a supreme being. I’m flesh and blood, like you.”
Nuria: “Not like me.”
Picard: “Like you! Different in appearance, yes, but we are both living beings. We are born, we grow, we live… and we die. In all the ways that matter, we are alike.”
“Booby Trap”: Very good!
Two episodes in one: One is the exploration of a derelict spaceship and its mummified crew, which is full of conscious references to the landmark “Alien” (even the music directly references Jerry Goldsmith‘s “Alien” soundtrack!). The miniature work is excellent, and the interior images look better, clearer (were they using more expensive film stock?), more interestingly lit; the production values this season seem as updated as the quality of the scripts! The other half of the episode is focused on Geordi and his loneliness. He finds company in a holodeck representation of a fellow engineer, the Enterprise’s engines designer, but this was only momentary. I don’t expect at this stage that the series will give much character evolution to Geordi to the point where he will develop an on-screen relationship, but within this episode this was a touching story. The end is very satisfactory for any science or science fiction fan, with Picard out-doing the computer’s simulations by making use of a gravitational slingshot.
Geordi, to his virtual recreation / potential love interest: “Don’t go away! I mean, Computer, save program.”
“The Enemy”: Very good!
It’s with episodes like this one that it’s clear that this season is set on making the most out of the Star Trek universe! The Federation and the Romulans nearly destroy their cease fire and descend into war when the Enterprise comes across a Romulan intrusion into the Neutral Zone. Partly focused on Geordi, stranded on the planet with a Romulan survivor, partly on Worf, who refuses to let go of his hatred of the Romulans, partly on Picard and his handling of the tense situation, there’s a bit for everyone in this episode and there’s not a moment that could be cut without losing something precious. Excellent!
The Romulan that was a Narn: Andreas Katsulas, the Romulan Commander, was the memorable lead character G’Kar in “Babylon 5“!
Geordi: “We did it! The first Federation-Romulan co-venture!”
“The Defector”: Absolutely excellent!
Season 3 sees Ronald D. Moore joining the writing team and he will become very important for the rest of the Star Trek franchise. His second script for TNG hits all the good marks, with relentless tension, sharp dialogue, humor where it’s needed, and a final twist that ends in a tragedy. James Sloyan‘s portrayal of the Romulan defector and his pain at the idea he will never see his family again is one that should stay long in the memory of TNG fans. War means death and suffering: the story as it is told here, and particularly its end, points to the fact that TNG is changing and is moving beyond its early template characterized by happy endings. The episode also includes Picard training Data in how to act Shakespeare in the holodeck!
(The image here is from this episode)
Ron Moore will also create a little show called “Battlestar Galactica“, where he will attempt to do everything he couldn’t do on Star Trek!
Jarok: “How do you allow Klingon peta’Q to walk around in a Starfleet uniform?”
Worf: “You are lucky this is not a Klingon ship. We know how to deal with spies.”
Jarok: “Remove this tohzah from my sight!”
Riker: “Your knowledge of Klingon curses is impressive. But, as a Romulan might say, only a veruul would use such language in public.”
“The High Ground”: Really excellent!
This was unexpected! Most TNG episodes have been focused on a science fiction story or a demonstration of what a utopian way to deal with things in the 24th century looks like; but this episode and its focus on terrorism is clearly tackling socio-political issues. There is much here that could be expected from such an episode — one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero and the such — but the high quality of the dialogue for all characters and excellent casting of the lead rebel elevate this episode above expectations. Unfortunately this was Melinda Snodgrass‘s last episode for TNG, and oddly enough the other writers didn’t like this episode; she left due to differences with showrunner Michael Piller (she also wrote season 2’s “The Measure of a Man“). Of note: Beverly‘s confession to Jean-Luc is cut at the last moment and we are left to wonder what it would be. Another quick hint that there’s a lot going on under the surface!
But what was most unexpected from this episode is that it paints the Federation in a dark light for the first time in the history of the series, I think! (and much earlier than DS9) The terrorists are presented as three-dimensional characters with senseful motivations and questionable choices, and we are led to extend this moral relativism to the Federation itself: what if the terrorists were right and the Federation is unfairly choosing sides, even indirectly? The question is too big for a single episode to tackle; the story of this episode is neatly wrapped up at the end with, obviously, the terrorists safely neutralized, but the issues raised by it remain. And we still have six years left, according to Data, for the reunification of Ireland thanks to terrorism.
Richard Cox as the lead terrorist Kyril Finn was memorable as the lawyer Al Pepper in “Millennium“‘s extraordinary “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions“!
Finn: “I am willing to die for my freedom. And, in the finest tradition of your own great civilization, I’m willing to kill for it, too.”
“Déjà Q”: Very good!
Another Q episode, but this time the writers try something new and make the most out of De Lancie‘s excellent performance by going full comedy; TNG had humor from the start but this is perhaps TNG’s first entirely comedic episode! Q is expelled from the Q Continuum to teach him some humility (and we meet another representative of the Q, but the actor is not as good at doing De Lancie as De Lancie); Q takes shelter with his best friends at the Enterprise — where actually nobody wants him, especially Picard and LaForge. Q’s frustration with the human body makes for good laughs and he makes a good pairing with Data, either lamenting or holding in high esteem the human condition. Some of the humor might be too much (Cuban cigars?) but overall this is a very welcome change of pace for the series! Of note: this is the episode that is the source of that meme that has flooded the internet, the Picard facepalm!
Q: “I have no powers! Q, the ordinary!”
Picard: “Q, the liar! Q, the misanthrope!”
Q: “Q, the miserable! Q, the desperate! What must I do to convince you people?”
Q: “Oh, very clever, Worf. Eat any good books lately?”
TNG Season 3 returns after these commercials…