…Aaand we’re back, after part 1! Season 3 has some of Star Trek: TNG‘s best episodes, so let’s get to it!
Selected episodes of season 3 (1989-1990):
“A Matter of Perspective”: Just OK
TNG‘s “Rashomon” episode, of sorts: Riker on trial for murder and the holodeck is used to recreate every witness’s account of the events. Riker having inherited the womanizing aspects of Kirk‘s character, he is under suspicion since he seems to be hiding that he flirted with the wife of the deceased scientist. It’s amazing what the holodeck can do with such limited information, it makes you wonder how far we are in attaining this technology in our world at least using VR goggles. The resolution involves a technological gimmick of course — this is Star Trek — and we don’t exactly learn how far Riker was willing to go with the flirting. There could have been more about the subjectivity of memory here, but this is a very straightforward episode.
The scientist, Mark Margolis, is a recognizable face from many of Aronofsky‘s films; and was also Tio Salamanca in Breaking Bad!
Riker: “We can’t both be telling the truth.”
Troi: “It is the truth… as you each remember it.”
“Yesterday’s Enterprise”: Absolutely excellent!
An unexpected change in form: an episode told from the point of view of Tasha Yar from a different universe! The predecessor of our Enterprise gets trapped in a temporal rift and its absence in a conflict with the Romulans creates a present where the Federation is a much more military organization (great work on costumes and lighting to signify this “darker” timeline), at war also with the Klingons; the old Enterprise must be sent back to its certain death in order to restore the timeline. This is an episode that gives Denise Crosby / Tasha Yar a proper farewell after her expedite killing in season 1‘s “Skin of Evil” (albeit this is temporal bubble Tasha, not “our” Tasha). Of course this episode works better if one is a bit familiar with the show and its past: the show is now old enough to create emotional responses based on the cumulative experience of watching these characters live their lives. It was a team effort: no less than five pairs of hands were involved in its writing, and on top of that written in a haste because of production reschedulings. It was also Ira Stephen Behr‘s first episode as a writer — he will become the key person in the development of Deep Space 9 a few years later. An excellent episode all around, a fan-favourite and rightly so!
Alternate Picard: “Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name Enterprise. Picard out.”
“The Offspring”: Very good!
Data is a father! Building on his research on his own positronic brain — a clear reference to its inventor, Isaac Asimov, by the way — Data builds what he describes as a piece of himself that could continue once he is no more: a child. A most positive proof that Data is behaving like any other living organism in search of perpetuating itself, only that Data doesn’t use self-replicating molecules of organic chemistry. More specifically: a daughter. If the episode would have been made today, Troi might have said more about gender and identity in the scenes where Lal is choosing her gender, compared to the single line she gets here — but that line is there! Lal’s accelerated development and learning makes for a captivating episode; although the additional threat of Starfleet taking Lal from Data’s custody, reminiscent of the philosophical debate of “The Measure of a Man” feels too artificial and sudden. Lal manages to outdo Data in feelings and understanding of human emotions, appropriately for a next generation android that evolves beyond its predecessor; and the fact that Data inserts her memories into his is promising for Data’s further self-actualization.
This is the first time Jonathan Frakes, Riker himself, sat in the director’s chain, and he who would go on taking that role many times in the Star Trek franchise, including directing two of the TNG films! It is also the first episode written by René Echevarria, who would write many TNG and DS9 episodes.
Data, to Riker just after Lal kissed Riker: “Commander, what are your intentions towards my daughter?”
Riker: “Your daughter?!”
“Sins of the Father”: Excellent!
An episode that starts as a comedy and progressively turns into a very personal dramatic story for Worf. As a continuation of Riker‘s exchange program from season 2‘s “A Matter of Honor“, the Enterprise receives a Klingon — who proves to be Worf’s brother! We visit the Klingons’ homeworld, which is as dark and red as you would expect, for a trial that can either result into honor restored or death, as you would expect. We get a lot of background on Worf and the circumstances that led him to become a member of Starfleet. Despite his role in Starfleet far away from anything Klingon, Worf still holds the honor of his family very close to heart; and despite his expectations, the Klingon High Command is more concerned with internal power struggles than the values such as honor that Klingons should hold dear. The solution to the episode, the Klingon equivalent of ostracization, sort of pushes Worf further closer to his Starfleet family, and also certainly sets up a future continuation. A great episode full of very quotable dialogue!
Tony Todd (Worf’s brother Kurn) has been everywhere. For instance, Augustus “Preacher” Cole in The X-Files‘ “Sleepless“!
Worf: “It is a good day to die, Duras, but the day is not yet over.”
A bottle episode of sorts, with Picard and three other aliens all trapped in a room possibly watched by their abductors. All four have different attitudes and relationships with authority, which is what the abductors were studying. Meanwhile, the Bounty/Enterprise progressively decides to mutiny against the replica of Bligh/Picard that replaced him. But not before we get an impressively straightforward attempt for replica-Picard (replicard?), in his robes, to flirt with Dr. Crusher, and an out-of-character replica-Picard singing with the crew as if this were a 17th-century English ship in open seas, both rare opportunities for Patrick Stewart to act differently! The resolution of the episode is very simple, with the crew of the Enterprise giving a lesson to the abducting aliens; the whole thing feels too much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, including the aliens’ makeup and the “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” setup!
The tall violent alien is a tall German actor, Reiner Schöne, who was Dukhat in Babylon 5, Delenn’s mentor.
“Tin Man”: Just OK
An interesting premise — an alien the size of a ship that can communicate telepathically, and the arms race to find it and win its favours between the Federation and the Romulans — but the end result is somehow less than its potential. The character of Tam Elburn, a gifted telepath and a previous acquaintance of Troi‘s, is indeed original, and it would be interesting to follow his career as he acts as a mediator and negotiator to make different races peacefully co-exist. But the episode itself doesn’t manage to make these ideas exciting. There was a lot of potential of exploring and discussing with a sentient living being that is also living symbiotically with humanoid hosts, à la Farscape; but despite interesting sound design the episode doesn’t communicate as much a sense of awe as it could.
Tam Elburn is portrayed by Harry Groener, the evil Mayor of Sunnyvale in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
“Hollow Pursuits”: Just OK
A really introvert Enterprise engineer cannot deal with real-world issues and finds refuge in the holodeck, where he let his fantasies with the crew’s females run wild (and play the Three Musketeers with the males): one could say this is the 24th’s century equivalent of a geek/otaku/… According to interviews, if this was a joke at the expense of a certain type of very introverted Trekkies then it was not conscious on the writers’ behalf (but then would they really say so if it were?). So much television has happened since TNG aired that it is hard to say to what extent what we see was original at the time it aired; see the latest season of Black Mirror for a dark twist on the exact same pitch (what’s more, in that series’ tribute to Star Trek TOS!). Like all TNG episodes, it is well-made, well-acted and enjoyable. What stands out is Geordi‘s and the crew’s refusal to just dismiss or fire the officer that does not live up to their standards, something that would be understandable in most of today’s fiction and the real world. In the 24th century utopia, people work on their issues, try to resolve them and become better persons in the process. That is justification enough to make this episode required viewing for today’s cynical viewers (or prospective company managers).
Picard: “I’m just not accustomed to seeing an unsatisfactory rating on a member of my crew.”
“The Most Toys”: Average
A rare objects collector kidnaps the most unique “object” of them all: Data! Things escalate until Data is brought before the impossible choice of having to kill his captor in order to escape; the Enterprise’s transporter intervenes and Data doesn’t have to live with the consequences of that choice, only he, Riker and O’Brien know that he had actually chosen to pull the trigger. That decision, and his ironic taunting at his captor at the end, strike me as a bit out of character — Data would indeed not allow to remain captive but most likely he would not harm his captor nevertheless, and the suffering that his captor inflicts on others should not “trigger” Data emotionally. A run-of-the-mill episode otherwise.
Riker: “For an android with no feelings, he sure managed to evoke them in others.”
“Sarek”: Very good!
Sarek, Spock‘s father, is a mythical figure in the Star Trek universe, and apart from his appearances in TOS he was also in several of the movies; so his appearance in TNG at the respectable age of 202 was something of a big deal. 202 is also a ripe age for starting to present signs of senility, which for Vulcans correspond to loss of emotional self-control and descent into a state of mind comparable to that of those barbarians, the humans. Despite the very science fiction setting of negotiations with a weird alien race that we never end up seeing, and the very New Age association of superior race with telepathy (a legacy of the 1960s), this story is at its core a very human story: how to deal with a very highly regarded person who does not want to admit that s/he is not who s/he used to be due to old age? This is an episode that works on many levels, for old fans and new alike. Another level it works in, which might have been conscious when writing it, is if one considers Sarek stands for Gene Roddenberry: at that time the creator’s health was declining rapidly, he was hardly or not at all involved with making the show, and this loss did mean more responsibilities for the new writers and producers in handling the franchise. Of note, again: Picard would only have Dr. Crusher see him at his most vulnerable, during the mind meld with Sarek; again hints that these two trust each other more than just coworkers.
Sarek: “It would be illogical for a Vulcan to show anger! It would be illogical! Illogical! Illogical! Illogical!”
“The Best of Both Worlds, Part I”: Absolutely excellent!
There is a before and an after this episode; it is perhaps the show’s best-known episode. After this episode, TNG is no longer a sequel series: Star Trek is TNG. This episode takes the series to an unprecedented level of tension by not wrapping up its story as the show usually did and by ending with a cliffhanger! The cliffhanger was certainly not new in 1990 (Twin Peaks season 1 also ended with an “everything happens” cliffhanger in that year) but it was certainly much more rare compared to today, when it is expected of the season to end on one. Those final minutes of the episode, with the Picard/Locutus reveal and the “resistance is futile” line sure go a long way to explain the episode’s fame, and it is justified! Riker is once more presented with the opportunity to become Captain, and at the end of the episode he gets just that: at the helm of the Enterprise, he turns its weapons against who used to be Captain Picard. But it is not only the ending that make this a great episode. There are many connections to the past, contributing to making this a payoff to what has come before: the destroyed outposts call back to the season 1 finale “The Neutral Zone“; Riker’s dilemma as Captain connects back to “The Icarus Factor“; the Borg themselves were introduced in “Q Who“. The buildup of tension is progressive within the episode all the way to the end. The stakes are interesting intellectually, with the awesome force of the Borg, and emotionally, with the characters we have come to love being impacted. This is, quite simply, Star Trek at its best!
The Admiral giving a warning about the Borg is George Murdock, better known as the Second Elder of the Syndicate in The X-Files (and yes, this part of my reviews started off just as a checklist of actors shared by those two shows, so what?)
What else? “I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life, as it has been, is over. From this time forward you will service us.”
With this cliffhanger, we wrap up an already excellent season 3 that upped the ante from season 2, which itself was a vast improvement over season 1. By now I can call myself a fan! TNG is fresh, sympathetic, addictive. For a series that is 30 years old that is an achievement, and proof at how groundbreaking it was when it was released! All of this despite the fact that when it was launched, in concept it was little different from today’s tends for revivals: a studio product aiming at milking a preexisting franchise, but it became so much more!
It is true that I chose to watch a “best of” for reasons of time (7 seasons of 26 episodes is a lot, today!) but now I wonder whether I should go back and watch it all from the beginning — and given that I’ve only watched the ones considered best I wonder whether that would leave me with a bad taste…
And with that, torpedoes armed and ready, until season 4, I will leave you with that image of a vintage Borg cube toy!