Season 5, the season of maturity. By now, The Next Generation has nothing more to “prove” to the world. It stands on its own and with the continuous upward trend of seasons 1 through 4 it is already a remarkable achievement. Season 5 is the first truly post-Roddenberry season and the season during which the TOS series of movies draws to a close. Next season, TNG will be the tentpole around which the spin-off shows will develop. Star Trek has become a huge franchise and now TNG is at the heart of it. The Enterprise-D crew is cool with that.
Let’s see some season 5 (1991-1992) episodes in detail:
“Redemption, Part 2”: Very good
This is the show’s 100th episode! This two-parter comes one year after “The Best of Both Worlds“, and a comparison is inevitable. There is a lot to like here, in particular all the Klingon aspects: in particular the power plays between Duras and Worf and his brother are gripping and really feel like the culmination of all the build-up over the past season and a half. As with the attack on Earth by the Borg exactly one year ago, a bigger budget would have been welcome to widen the scope of the Klingon civil war to more than just the handful of ships manned by known faces. Another enjoyable part of this episode is Data being handed the command of another ship and encountering a lieutenant who does not believe an android capable for the job: similar themes to previous episodes, but well written and acted here. Cool new wardrobe for Picard, too!
However, I am more conflicted with the Romulan stories included here. Part 2 shocks us with the revelation that Sela is the daughter of Tasha Yar and a Romulan, and the callback to “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is indeed welcome, but in retrospect it feels like an artificial way to justify that they were able to cast Denise Crosby as a guest star. In the end, the plot is exposed, the bad guys escape to be able to torment the heroes another day, and Worf quickly returns to the service of Starfleet and to the status quo. It’s all a bit too easy and too fast, which is a trait shared by many second parts, and not just of TNG. Previous Klingon episodes had presented a rich world full of political intrigue, weird cultural practices and a colorful cast of secondary characters; by comparison “Redemption Part 2” is an enjoyable adventure but lacks some of the earlier episodes’ subtlety.
Kurn: “What’s wrong? Kill him!”
Kurn: “But it is our way! It is the Klingon way!”
Worf: “I know. But it is not my way.”
Timothy Carhart, the Lieutenant who disliked Data, was the titular “2Shy” in The X-Files — a fat-sucking mutant who loved to read Dante!
What an episode! Picard spends his time on a planet with an alien nobody understands in a hopeless situation that could result to war. How much violence, how many wars have resulted from lack of understanding one another, from not being able to communicate or share one’s feelings? Certainly more than as the result of genuine disagreement. At any moment the situation could slide towards the worst but Picard is adamant: he doesn’t use the Enterprise’s weapons to assert his superiority, he doesn’t take the knives handed to him to fight. His dedication to a peaceful solution, however long it takes and frustrating the path there may be, is remarkable. As Picard says, “In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure” — this makes Star Trek‘s Federation stand out from most of other on-screen science fiction. This doesn’t work in all situations, but the script sells this idea nicely. The aliens’ language, using metaphor from their mythology for anything they say, was very beautiful and seemed to me very original as well. (In the same vein but with a totalitarian twist: see Loyal to the Group of Seventeen in Gene Wolfe‘s The Book of the New Sun!) Picard and Dathon try to understand each other at night around a campfire — and Picard tells the dying Dathon of the Epic of Gilgamesh — this is certainly one of the series’ most memorable scenes up to now.
Dathon (meaning that he/Picard understands): “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!”
Under that makeup, Dathon is Paul Winfield — a.k.a. Traxler, the head cop along with Lance Henriksen in The Terminator!
“Ensign Ro”: Absolutely excellent!
Really a jewel of an episode! The themes are deep: submission to or rebellion against power, peaceful resistance or terrorism, cynicism in politics, giving yourself to a higher cause (be it Bajoran sovereignty or the Federation)… The dialogue is sharp, the acting excellent, the situation much more complex and less clear-cut than in an earlier seasons episode. The situation just by itself would make an interesting episode: the Enterprise is pulled by acts of terrorism into a war between a new ally and an oppressed people — really a very similar situation as in season 3‘s “The High Ground“, which was already exceptional! What makes this episode stand out is the titular Ensign Ro, an interesting character in of itself, and deliciously portrayed by Michelle Forbes. Strong, independent, contrarian, seemingly incompatible with everyone, she had some great interaction with Guinan here, and it was very interesting in the end that Picard found that Ro showed several qualities that could be honed in to make her an excellent Starfleet officer.
The writers must have spent some time developing her character more than a character that they would use for just an episode, and it shows. Forbes was cast as a recurring role throughout season 5. The writers/producers liked her and she would have become a lead character in Deep Space 9 — some sight that would have been! It didn’t turn out like that after all, a different actress got cast as a Bajoran, and I’ll have to keep watching to see how interesting she became.
Ro Laren (about other Bajorans): “They’re lost, defeated. I will never be.”
Michelle Forbes was a very memorable guest star in what was perhaps Battlestar Galactica‘s best arc, “Pegasus”/”Resurrection Hub I/II”, as the ruthless Admiral Cain!
Disaster strikes the Enterprise! because of some technobabble, with quantum in it — but the focus is the characters. The cast is trapped in five different parts of the ship, each part doing its best to do right. A tense episode with problem arising on top of problems, and somewhat of a bottle episode too. Troi is put in charge of the Bridge, that was an unexpected and welcome development; Troi is proven right about her faith that others would prevent the Enterprise from exploding, but things could very well have turned out differently — an easy resolution to her disagreement with Ensign Ro (I didn’t expect to see her again really, that was a surprise!). Dr. Crusher and LaForge face chemicals and radiation — a coupling of characters not seen much before. Riker is reluctant to use Data as a machine with detachable parts — and a detachable head! — but Data doesn’t have such human prejudice. In the episode’s comic relief bit, Worf is cornered into becoming the one who has to deliver Keiko’s baby — predictable but effective! As for Picard, his dislike of children (set up ever since the pilot) is put to test as he has to marshal three very different kids into a miniature Starfleet unit — it was nicely written in how the one who turned out the leader was not necessarily the one it looked like it would be when we met them. By season 5, both writers and audience know these characters very well, and it is in putting them in unexpected situations and teasing them where it hurts that the writers find inspiration for new stories.
Worf: “Congratulations, you are fully dilated to ten centimeters. You may now give birth.”
Keiko: “That’s what I’ve been doing!”
“The Game”: Good
Wesley is back, this time as a guest star! He saves the day, obviously, like he used to, but this time there’s the extra spice of a love interest, with an Ensign that is as obsessed with science experiments as he is — and accordingly, it’s an extremely beautiful Ensign, Ashley Judd. The Enterprise is plagued by an addictive virtual reality game that stimulates more and more pleasure to the brain with each level, and everyone ends up in hedonistic isolation in their own little world — anticipating the smartphone phenomenon by over two decades! And who else did the aliens on Risa choose as the one who would introduce this game to the Enterprise but Riker, womanizer and easy prey? Another very entertaining episode.
(Post-money 24th century:)
Data: “Each wishes to be the first to use the thermal imaging array.”
LaForge: “Well, tell ‘em to flip a coin. We’ve got to work together on this mission otherwise we’re never gonna get it done.”
Data: “A coin. Very good. I will replicate one immediately.”
Ashley Judd, also a political activist, appeared in the recent revival of Twin Peaks: The Return, as the now older Ben Horne’s flirt temptation.
“Unification, Part 1”: Excellent
These episodes mark one of several important “passing of the torch” moments between TOS and TNG. They come soon after Gene Roddenberry’s death and are dedicated to his memory (I am guessing that they could have dedicated to him the episode that aired after his death but they were holding it for a special occasion); they also include the death from a neural degenerative disease of Sarek, the father (read: creator) of Spock, who we saw earlier could be considered to be a stand-in for Roddenberry in TNG (“Sarek“). They come soon prior to the release of the sixth and final TOS movie, The Undiscovered Country, whose story also dealt with trying to settle peace in a situation where division has been the way of life for so long — actually these episodes were in part created to promote the movie, as Spock references to the Federation/Klingon peace talks. And finally, and I imagine at the time this must have been billed as the main attraction, they feature Spock himself — Leonard Nimoy — who is revealed at the very end of Part 1.
This event was important enough to exceptionally produce a two-part episode in the middle of the season — a first in the series’ history, and I guess setting the trend for the future. It’s true that it’s got it all and mixes nearly all recurring story threads created by the Trek universe: a space adventure, Romulans, Vulcans, Klingons… The first part has some delightful scenes with Picard and Data getting makeup on to pass for Romulans (breaking the fourth wall, Stewart and Spiner really did wear the same makeup other actors wore to look like aliens!). The search for Vulcan spaceship parts led by Riker is for the time being completely incidental to the main events but promises to tie in with the main story. It is difficult to address these two episodes separately, so on to part 2.
Picard: “The man is dying. And it’s my honor to tell him that his son may have betrayed the Federation.”
The Klingon bureaucrat rewriting history to Duras’s benefit, unrecognizable under that makeup, is Erick Avari — who was, among many other roles, Kasuf in Stargate the movie and Stargate SG-1 the series!
“Unification, Part 2”: Very good
The titular “unification” refers to the Vulcan-Romulan re-unification after some thousands of years of divergence. It is a very interesting idea, in line with core Trek values of progress through peace. If they were the same race at some point, then the idea of reunification re-positions the current war as a civil war, and makes you think how these sneaky Romulans can be persuaded towards a peaceful path. For Sela, Romulan conquest of Vulcan is also a unification, which is interesting because the “correct” way promoted by the series’ point of view really does sound like the Romulans being guided to see that the Vulcans’ way of life is the superior one. But then we have hardly seen anything sympathetic and likable in the Romulans, so Spock’s strategy of inserting more Vulcan-ism in an underground Romulan network is justified. All of this makes a great first half of Part 2, and I hope the story thread of unification is picked up again in the series’ future.
Then Sela appears. Once more as with “Redemption Part 2” Sela has been built up as the absolute baddie, but the show has already settled in the formula where her plans are foiled before she can have any real victory, and she escapes at the end to brew her next cunning plan. This part of the episode I liked less. I understand that Sela doesn’t appear again in the future, which might also mean that the writers were out of original ideas for her! This doesn’t get better if you start over-analyzing the motives: if a hologram of Spock was going to be used anyway, why the need to torment him and convince him to deliver Sela’s message himself? While the storylines have become more complex and more inter-connected compared to the start of the series, TNG is still a show that is at its core a string of independent episodes; it’s a shame TNG doesn’t experiment with a change in form that could have been brought by following through what would have happened if Sela succeeded in part. That is for another series. (This also means that the only sympathetic Romulan, Pardek, whom Spock knew for years, is also a manipulative liar; there’s really no saving to the Romulans!)
The B-story is that of Riker pursuing a lead of some unknown space debris. Here Star Trek goes full Star Wars! — with giant space junkyards, shady space merchants, and especially a musical diner full of aliens that recalls a lot-a lot Mos Eisley. This all provides a lighter comic adventure that acts like a counterpoint to the heavy political story on Romulus and is a bit uncharacteristic of TNG, although it did give us Worf singing Klingon opera! This story proves to merge with the A-story in the end, but for most of both episodes I was wondering why we were watching this and why couldn’t we return to the main story. It was an odd structure and I’m sure I wouldn’t have the same impression upon rewatching it.
Finally, there’s Spock and his interaction with who are really becoming TNG‘s two leads, Picard and Data. There’s a bit of Spock in both of them, so for a fan of TOS it must have been amazing to see their reactions, which are often similar. The episode ends with one of the most emotional scenes to date, with Spock accessing Sarek’s memories via Sarek’s mind meld with Picard. That last shot of Picard is both Picard proud of himself he helps an important member of Starfleet, and Sarek experiencing a moment he never got to while living. And since we leave Spock in the middle of the action, I do expect him to come back…maybe? Despite some shortcomings, like the caricature villains, the way these episodes managed to mix all these stories is remarkable; with these two-part episodes, the producers were perhaps testing the waters too with the idea of TNG feature films in the future.
Data: “As you examine your life, do you find you have missed your humanity?”
Spock: “I have no regrets.”
Data: “‘No regrets.’ That is a human expression.”
Spock: “Yes. Fascinating.”
The Enterprise’s memory is wiped and under alien influence they believe their mission is to attack the aliens’ enemies. The scenes where the crew struggles to figure out who they are and what the hierarchy is supposed to be are delightful: unhinged from their formatted behaviour, you see their true character in their immediate reactions. Worf assumes he’s the leader. Picard is level-headed. Riker and Ro actually get along well. That last one is the most surprising development, leading to a love triangle between Riker, Ro and Troi. They will remember these events later, which makes for an awkward situation. At this stage the Riker-Troi romance is like a given, something that certainly happens between scenes — so I am not sure whether future episodes will delve back into the Riker-Ro relationship (or antagonism), but it would be interesting if future episodes built upon what was teased here. In the end, the aliens’ schemes are no match to the Enterprise’s crew wits, of course, and all is right again — the general structure really reminded me of a similar memory wipe episode, last season’s “Clues“. An entertaining episode.
Riker: “For all we know, you and I could be married.”
Ro: “For all we know, you and I could hate each other.”
Season 5 part 2 is coming up as soon as we do some maintenance on the nacelles…