Previously on The Next Generation…
After that cliffhanger, Trekkies must have spent the summer of 1990 full of anticipation for the return of the show! While the last movie of the original TOS crew was still in production during TNG season 4, TNG is by now the Trek to watch! Merchandising must have been flooding shops everywhere and Paramount must have been rubbing its hands in dollary joy. The producing crew is finally stable for the first year since TNG started, and the producers can finally start thinking ahead of ways to expand the franchise and start brainstorming ideas about future spin-off series.
But before we get there, let’s focus on some episodes of TNG’s best season yet, season 4 (1990-1991):
“The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”: Excellent
Second parts and conclusions are a tough challenge for writers. The stakes are high, the excitement is at its maximum, but somehow the reboot button has to be pressed at the end in order for the show to continue starting from the next episode. This episode delivers on the previous one and has some amazing moments: the relentless and unstoppable approach of the Borg towards Earth, the tear shed by Picard as he cannot prevent what he does as a Borg, Riker‘s reluctance to replace Picard and his amazing strategic skills to extract him from the Borg ship, the linking of Data with Locutus/Picard. Still, there are a couple of issues that are sort of obligatory if they wanted to get out of this situation: the Borg do not assimilate the Enterprise when they could in the beginning, and the triggered self-destruct of the Borg ship is an easy solution and if I were a Borg I would consider this a serious security issue (all it takes to destroy them all is take one hostage). There is also, to the eyes of this viewer in 2018, a lack of resources in special effects to show the scope of the war and destruction with the Borg: the models work is great as ever and shots get more and more complex as the show goes on, certainly reflecting an improvement on the budget, but even with that there’s something missing.
But let’s not nitpick: this is an amazing episode, with the highest stakes yet for TNG (the survival of Sector 001, Earth itself) that will have serious consequences. It is a landmark moment and the writers know it, they will come back to it in DS9 and the movie First Contact! A pensive Picard not being able to drink his tea due to his experience is a memorable ending!
Locutus: “Worf, Klingon species; a warrior race. You too will be assimilated.”
Worf: “The Klingon Empire will never yield!”
Locutus: “Why do you resist? We only wish to raise the quality of life for all species.”
Worf: “I like my species the way it is!”
“Family”: Absolutely excellent!
A one-of-a-kind episode, in that it’s very clearly outside of the format of the Star Trek space adventure: the only plot here is purely character-focused and psychological. Already in season 2 “The Icarus Factor” there were character-focused episodes, but this is taking it much further. An entire episode devoted to the Enterprise’s stay on Earth and its orbit, recuperating, makes the importance of the Borg encounter even bigger in retrospect. It is so much out of format that this episode was not produced second, but later in the season, and was made at the insistence of writer Ron Moore that there was something interesting to be done here.
Picard‘s visit in rural France and his feud with his brother feel very right for the character (with the exception of that still unexplained impeccable English accent: pourquoi? and couldn’t Paramount figure out that the French don’t toast with salut?) If I didn’t know there were four more seasons, I would really have believed that Picard could be convinced to stay on Earth and change careers, so the episode was successful at that. I want to see more of Chateau Picard and nephew René! (pictured here) Worf‘s awkwardness with his visiting foster parents on the Enterprise is a highlight that is both humorous and very touching! Interesting that the parents are Russian (and very cliché at that!), extending the metaphor of Klingons-as-Russians/Soviets of TOS, only that by now the Russians are very sympathetic (we are in October 1990 and the USSR is in the middle of its collapse). And finally, Wesley seeing his father’s recorded message is not too creative but it does the work ad is also touching; given that Wes is about to written out of the show, I would have largely preferred for this moment to have come much sooner in the series.
You can tell by how much I have written: this is one of TNG’s best, and I believe the choice to do such a different episode payed off in emotional attachment with these characters. By now, TNG is as much about the self-contained adventures as it is about its characters, and is richer for it.
I know Doug Wert, Jack Crusher here, from the defining UFO/conspiracy TV movie of the 1990s, “Roswell“, with Kyle MacLachlan!
Sergei Rozhenko, to everyone he meets: “I have all the specs and diagrams at home!”
We continue with episodes that are very important for the characters with this one on Data, Lore, and Dr. Soong — three chances for Spiner to shine! The episode starts with Data taking over the Enterprise and isolating the crew, which of itself was an intriguing and tense part, but the episode surprised me in how much beyond all that it progressed. Dr. Soong is the mad scientist, very intelligent, living in isolation, a bit wacky, a bit egoistic (androids in his own image), but not lacking of emotion: the reason for all this is that he wants to gift Data with emotions. And Data’s first question is of course the eternal question: why do I exist? (30 years later, AI films have not advanced one bit from that: this creator/creation question is at the core of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant) It is also in perfect continuation with Lal in “The Offspring“, where Data was exploring the act of creation himself. There is a bit of retcon here, with Data learning that he was not created as less perfect than Lore (and repeating that to himself to assimilate that twist!) but it comes naturally. There is a definitive sense that this is not over and that we will meet Lore again: the writers are purposefully spinning story threads for them to explore from time to time, and that’s good for now. I could have done without the B-story of the two kid brothers fighting, which was there to create urgency for them to leave Soong’s planet; without it, we could have had more time with Soong. I really regret he died here, I would have loved to have seen more of Spiner as Dr. Soong.
Soong: “Again, I ask you, why?”
Data: “Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.”
Soong: “What’s so important about the past? People got sick, they needed money. Why tie yourself to that?”
Data: “Humans are mortal. They seem to need a sense of continuity.”
Soong: “Ah hah!! Why?”
Data: “To give their lives meaning. A sense of purpose.”
Soong: “And this continuity, does it only run one way, backwards, to the past?”
Data: “I suppose it is a factor in the human desire to procreate.”
Soong: “So you believe that having children gives humans a sense of immortality, do you?”
“Remember Me”: Just OK
Wesley‘s experiments with warp physics create a bubble universe of Beverly‘s making. Half the episode is spent with us wondering what the hell is going on, as we follow Dr. Crusher’s point of view and people start disappearing. In the other half the mystery is revealed and there is a race against the clock as Beverly’s universe threatens to disappear. The universe getting smaller and smaller really creates a claustrophobic atmosphere and would make you crazy if you think too much about it — what’s the in-universe purpose of a ship travelling through space in a universe slightly bigger than the ship itself? — but this serves to illustrate Beverly’s fear of aging and losing the people she loves, a nice find. What doesn’t work for me is the too technobabbly pseudospiritual séance that Wesley and the Traveler go through to bring Beverly back. Of note, the production values of the show are even higher this season, and it shows.
Dr. Crusher: “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!”
The template now in season 4 is clear: episodes focusing on one character, evolving storylines explored in one episode left open to be picked up in a future episode again. It is a formula that works very well, for the time being. Here: Worf-focused, picking up on the Klingon Empire drama from “Sins of the Father“. Worf has a family! Worf’s mate K’Ehleyr was a great addition to the show, a half-Klingon with very different morals from your typical war-mongering Klingon, a a very likable character overall — and it was surprising that she was introduced only to be killed off in the same episode! Season 4 has no time to waste! The potential for flashback episodes (or spin-off novels, of which the Star Trek franchise has many) is huge. Worf’s son Alexander (!) is shipped off to Earth as the TNG formula can’t have Worf with a son running around, but I’m very sure this is not the last time we’ve seen him. With Worf killing another person while on duty as a Starfleet officer should have serious consequences; I wonder whether we will see that later, otherwise that was treated quickly with just a disgruntled Picard. Overall an excellent episode with palpable tension and twists (the Klingon conspiring with the Romulans was not Duras!). More, please!
Quite surprisingly, I discovered that Patrick Massett (Duras here) is also a producer, and he was co-executive producer of the Battlestar Galactica spin-off/prequel Caprica!
K’Ehleyr to Worf: “Not even a bite on the cheek for old time’s sake?”
“Future Imperfect”: Just OK
Riker wakes up sixteen years later, or does he? Is he a captive of the Romulans, or is he? The episode builds up these mysteries and spends enough time in each of them to make us believe in them and wonder how this will be corrected. The first world, Riker in the future, is actually very convincing, except perhaps in the fact that it would depress Riker/Troi shippers, but one can easily imagine Riker as Captain of the Enterprise, an older, bearded Picard as a high diplomat, and a Federation that welcomes the Ferengi and the Romulans in its midst. Maybe “Jean-Luc” as the name of Riker’s child was too much, especially with his older namesake up and about! Nice return casting of Minuet from “11001001” though! The second world, a Romulan jail, made me think that this could be a fail-safe holodeck layer in case the first failed as it did. This was close to the truth, but the ultimate resolution, that it was all the making of the imagination of a lonely alien child, was either touching or anti-climactic, depending on how one looks at it. TNG in season 4 had by now accustomed us to more interesting endings!
“Data’s Day”: Absolutely excellent!
A Day in the Life of Data. An episode with a completely different format in a season that is not afraid to experiment, and this one is one of the very best! Data reports to Dr. Maddox (from “A Measure of a Man“) and describes his day and his very Data-like thoughts observing the humans around him. We get to know more of O’Brien and we get to meet his maybe-future-wife Keiko (they seem oddly unaware of each other’s habits for a couple getting married!). We have Dr. Crusher teaching Data how to dance — I found it interesting that Data could perfectly copy a highly technical and complex solo dance but had trouble doing a simpler dance that involves human interaction and improvisation! And, not content to have all this original material, the episode also includes an intrigue that would have been sufficient to cover an entire episode in earlier seasons: a Vulcan ambassador negotiating a secret peace with the Romulans that turns out to be a Romulan spy. The density and entertainment value of this episode is far ahead of what previous seasons seemed capable of! Bonus points for the introduction of Data’s pet: the cat Spots!
Data: “I could be chasing an untamed ornithoid without cause.”
Dr. Crusher: “A wild goose chase?”
“The Wounded”: Very good
Chief O’Brien finally gets his moment to shine — Colm Meaney has been there since the beginning and by now is as much a starring member as LeVar Burton or Michael Dorn! Also, first appearance of the Cardassians! This is an episode about the trauma of war: about the very close ties that are created between fellow team members fighting a common enemy, and about soldiers continuing to see war everywhere even when the rest of the world has moved on. In that sense, this episode has the same theme as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which at that point in time had completed its script and was only in pre-production, so there is a slight chance this influenced the episode.
I was afraid the episode would be too much of a caricature of clear-cut good vs bad choices, but the actors of Captain Maxwell and O’Brien and their scenes together sold it to me. The episode is elevated by the ending: there is reason to suspect the Cardassians of preparing war with the Federation! But instead of choosing preemptive strikes during a time of freshly signed peace (which is what Captain Maxwell does), Picard chooses to play by the rules in order to impress on the Cardassians that peace and trust are possible and that war is not inevitable. A noble choice, as could be expected of Picard.
Bob Gunton (Captain Maxwell) is a recognizable face, I remember him as Ethan Kanin in 24. There’s also Marc Alaimo (the Cardassian Gul Macet) who will become an important Cardassian (Dukat) in DS9. And also, co-writers and real-life couple Stuart and Sara Charno are The X-Files alumni: Stuart was an actor (the killer medium in the timeless masterpiece “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose“) and Sara was a writer of two season 2 episodes!
Picard: “I think, when one has been angry for a very long time, one gets used to it. And it becomes comfortable like…like old leather. And finally… it becomes so familiar that one can’t remember feeling any other way.”
We have to drop out of hyperspace for repairs related to the warp, er, word limit being reached, but we will be back soon with the rest of TNG season 4…