We drop out of warp in a crucial time for the Star Trek franchise. The films with the cast of The Original Series just wrapped. The Next Generation is continuing with unprecedented success into a sixth season and 150 episodes, a juggernaut. The franchise is expanding with the launch of a second series, Deep Space 9. Star Trek is huge, setting a template that many other franchises will want to copy in the next decades. Producers are pulled between multiple tasks, particularly Rick Berman and Michael Piller, Roddenberry‘s “replacements” since TNG‘s season 3. Viewers’ attention is waning as well: viewer ratings peaked for TNG in season 5 and start a slow decline with season 6. Five seasons is a long time in television, especially with these 26-episode seasons, anything more than that is really riding on the success of what came after. And indeed season 6, although with the same high production values reached in season 5, starts showing signs of wear for TNG.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really excellent episodes though! After season 5, let’s look at some season 6 (1992-1993) episodes more in detail:
“Time’s Arrow, Part II”: Very good
Second parts are tough to pull off: they have to deliver on the mysteries set up by the first part. In this second part there’s more exciting time travelling and events that fall into place resulting in a timeline that is intact: things that happened happened in the way that they happened and could not have been any different! I liked this aspect, instead of delving into multi-verses and paradoxes and other SF tropes. The realization introduced in the previous episode — Data will inevitably die — is overturned here: Data’s technology is so good that it withstood the passage of five centuries and all they had to do was reconnect the head to the body! We also got Picard and Guinan‘s first meeting and we are still teased that their relationship will go “far beyond mere friendship” — but what does this mean?!? But this episode also did not treat any differently these magical soul-sucking aliens, too “spiritual” for my taste of Trek. As I suspected, we did meet some historical figures: I didn’t know that Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain‘s real name (nor did I know that he wrote a time travel novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court“, shedding new light in this two-parter, which is essentially an adaptation!) and the bellhop turns out to be Jack London. All in all, a very entertaining two-parter, which maybe plays better watched back-to-back. It all ends with “Everyone who should be in the 19th century is safely there and those who should be in the 24th are here“, as it should, and season 6 is off to a great start.
Riker: “The disappearance of Mark Twain, one of the most noted literary writers of the 19th century–”
Clemens: “Thank you!”
Riker: “That’s not supposed to happen.”
Clemens: “I only took advantage of an irresistible opportunity, as any good writer would.”
The highlight of this episode is of course that it features Montgomery Scott from TOS! — although he was not given a double episode like Spock was in the previous season (Unification). This episode could have been just a shot of nostalgia due to the mere presence of Scotty, but it manages to be quite a bit more than that, reflecting on the passing of time and old age.
Scotty is found stored in the transporter system of a derelict ship, and with a considerable amount of technobabble he is brought back. The titular “relic” is actually Scotty, who is shown that he is without friends, obsolete and all his technical knowledge is no longer relevant for 24th century technology — to the extent that he becomes a nuisance to Geordi and the functioning of the new Enterprise. He does get to save the new Enterprise in an emergency situation, the story would not have been complete without that, and leaves to explore the universe. But the overall feeling is bittersweet about the passage of time. A special mention to the holodeck scene, where the old Enterprise bridge is recreated and Scotty and Picard share a drink. This episode and scene might gain new significance now that we know that a new series with an older Picard will be made in 2019/2020!
In addition, this episode features an excellent science/science fiction concept: the Dyson sphere! To show how grand and majestic such a structure is would need a bigger budget, and this episode does very well with miniatures and matte paintings, but I would have loved it if more time had been spent on that idea and how advanced a Kardashev Type II civilization must be to master it.
LaForge: “I told the captain I would have this diagnostic done in an hour.”
Scotty: “And how long will it really take you?”
LaForge: “An hour!”
Scotty: “Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would really take, did you?”
LaForge: “Of course I did.”
Scotty: “Oh, laddie, you have a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.”
“Schisms”: Just OK
The 1990s really was the “alien abductions” decade! The X-Files (launched in 1993) comes to mind, of course, but also Communion (1989 film based on the 1987 book), the Sightings TV docuseries (1991-1997), Fire in the Sky (1993), the Roswell TV film (1994)… Schisms is TNG doing a “classic” alien abduction episode. The episode spends a long time around the mystery of what is going on to Riker and some other crew members and half-remembered flashes, setting up the reveal. The scene where they all recreate what they remember on the holodeck is reminiscent of a regression hypnosis session, something that was also in vogue and associated to alien contact and paranormal literature of the 1970s-1990s. The aliens who are responsible are abducting people in their sleep, do medical experiments, use probes — they are like aliens from another show. The problem is that TNG works in a framework where interacting with hundreds of alien species is no more alien than taking a haircut; the rules of alien horror don’t quite apply and the whole thing feels forced. The focus is again Riker, who had a key role in the other TNG episode that toyed with the alien contact theme: season 4’s First Contact. And that one was much more creative than Schisms.
Data’s “Ode to Spot”: “Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature / An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature.”
This was co-written by Ron Wilkerson, who went on to write some Stargate SG-1 episodes.
“True Q”: Just OK
Q returns, when he senses that a medical intern is actually part of the Q continuum without her knowing it. As she discovers her powers, she swears she will not use them and vows to remain human — however Q tricks situations in order to force her to use her powers to save the Enterprise crew, and she accepts her nature. In essence, this is a similar episode to season 1’s Hide and Q, where Q had momentarily given his powers to Riker to “corrupt” him. I really felt the repetition — after 130 episodes it’s bound to happen.
A transporter malfunction converts crew members into kids! Picard struggles with projecting the gravitas of The Captain. With Guinan’s help, Ro Laren reluctantly gets to relive the childhood she never got the chance to experience the first time around. Keiko is awkward with O’Brien given their age difference and their baby. They even all work with Alexander and save the ship when Ferengi invade and don’t pay as much attention to these kids. This is all good fun! I particularly liked the young actresses for Guinan and Ro, but it’s tough to portray Picard (the actor is actually the same as nephew René in season 4’s Family!). The episode plays around with the “adults in kids’ bodies” concept, but despite some talk of DNA analyses the whole thing is absurd and un-scientific even for Star Trek. Perhaps the episode could have taken even more risks to make it really memorable.
Ro: “Well, I should be doing something, instead of just standing around, waiting for them to find a cure!”
Guinan: “You’re right. Let’s go play.”
Mike Gomez, one of the Ferengi, was the Puerto Rican alien abductee Jorge in The X-Files‘ Little Green Men (the first episode I ever saw!).
“Chain of Command, Part I” / “Chain of Command, Part II”: Excellent
After season 5’s Unification, season 6 follows the trend with a mid-season two-parter, an opportunity to tell a big story! There is only a little bit of filler here (Picard, Worf, Crusher training for their mission) but not much; they are definitely better watched together, especially with the second part being almost entirely just Picard. The overall result is an impressive epic story that takes risks and goes to places unimaginable for Star Trek a few years ago. It is also a lead-in to Deep Space 9, refreshing the viewers’ memory of the Cardassians before they become an important part of DS9; the pilot of DS9 would air just a few weeks later.
The two episodes deal with two stories: Enterprise under the command of a Captain that deals with things very differently than Picard, and Picard held captive by the Cardassians.
The Enterprise crew experiences command under Captain Jellico (the excellent Ronnie Cox). He is more into vertical hierarchy, more confrontational, likes to use machiavellian tactics to force a result out of his crew or out of his opponents. What is interesting is that he is not an evil person or with anti-Federation intentions: he just has a different way of doing things. The viewer does get the impression that he is the “bad guy” — after all, he is replacing Picard!! — but the whole point is that he is not. It’s a complicated balance to pull off and the episodes are mostly successful. For instance, just when you are convinced he is kind of a bastard, you see another side of him when he talks about his children or when he has a nice chat with LaForge. I did expect that he would have a more strategic mind with the Cardassians and that Riker and Troi would find out about his true plan eventually; but in the end he was just playing with their temper until they would explode in anger. The obvious characterization of Jellico would be that he is sure of himself, but Troi sees through him and says that he is not, so perhaps he is projecting aggressiveness because of some inner imbalance or lack of love? I found this very interesting as it forces an entirely new reading on the character and the episodes. This is not touched upon again, but it would be great to get more of this type of psychological insights into Star Trek characters. Does this invalidate Jellico’s whole approach to command as something immature? No, it should not be read as such, and at the end he does get things done! But it does force a new appreciation of Picard and that not everyone in Starfleet is as utopian-like as this captain. Overall, I found that this story was well written and acted — albeit a bit simplistic — and did a great job at tackling some complex themes. I would love to see Jellico again, actually!
Picard‘s unpleasant time with the Cardassians is a story you would have never seen in Star Trek in earlier seasons. It is dark and indeed does not smooth things in order to make it more palatable to an audience accustomed to more innocent stories. The story is ruthless to Picard: he is stripped of his clothes and dignity, his name is taken away from him and he is referred to only as “Human”, he is hit, drugged, starved, and looks like it. Since the beginning of the series, the Captain has been this untouchable superhuman ideal who hardly raises his voice yet is very authoritative, so to see him so belittled is a shock to the viewer, as it should be. The “Grand Inquisitor” Gul Madred is very memorable (the no less excellent David Warner, very good guest stars here!). He takes his time with his prey, acting all civil while at the same time being so cruel. Almost the whole of Part 2 is two great actors doing theatre-like work. The Cardassians’ culture is fleshed out more, they are established as very similar to the Romulans, severe and militaristic, perhaps more ruthless than manipulative; I look forward learning more about them. The parallels with Orwell‘s 1984 are obvious (convincing that 2+2=5, or that there are five lights instead of four…). The set design is dark but “cleaner” than what it would have been had it been made with today’s standards, but that’s been the production design of TNG since the start. Ultimately, Picard does not give in to torture, and it would all have been too neat had there not been that final scene where he confesses to Troi that he was just about to break. That last scene does invalidate the point of view that Picard mentions that torture does not work, which is the “progressive” argument. However, this conclusion feels right thematically and for the character: nobody is perfect and torture leaves behind some trauma. Writers and actors read on Amnesty International to prepare for this episode, and it rings true. I see several themes later developed in Battlestar Galactica in these two episodes (that panel about torture and civil war with BSG cast and writers and Guinan at the UN was a crowning achievement!).
Both these stories are actually completely independent — they are only connected by showing us why Picard left the command to Jellico. There is no particular thematic connection between the two sections. Nevertheless, I didn’t get the feeling of disconnect between stories that I got with some parts of the Unification two-parter. It shows a bit that this was initially developed as a single episode that expanded into two. Each of the two stories feels larger than for a single episode, so making an “event” out of combining them into a two-parter makes sense and the result is an excellent adventure.
Captain Jellico: “Get it done.” (echoing Picard’s “Make it so.”?)
Picard: “There are four lights.”
Gul Madred: “I don’t understand how you can be so mistaken.”
Ronny Cox (Captain Jellico) is…well…many people! He experienced John Boorman’s Deliverance, he developed the robot police in RoboCop, he was Cohaagen in Total Recall, he was Senator Kinsey in Stargate SG-1!
David Warner (Gul Madred) is a Trek alumni: he was in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (as St John Talbot) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (as Klingon Chancellor Gorkon). But also so many other roles: Jennings in The Omen, several roles in Tron, Thomas Eckhardt in Twin Peaks, Dr. Wrenn in John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, Lovejoy in James Cameron’s Titanic…!
“Ship in a Bottle”: Excellent
Barclay accidentally reactivates the Professor Moriarty program in the holodeck (from season 2’s Elementary, Dear Data) and the crew is trapped in the labyrinthine scheming of the Professor, who wants nothing more than just live freely in the real world. Moriarty “leaves” the holodeck and wanders around in the Enterprise, something that is physically completely impossible, but stands for the victory of mind over matter! When Holmes/Data figures out that they have been inside a holodeck Enterprise the whole time, the crew has to manipulate Moriarty into believing that he really has made it and is exploring the galaxy with his beloved, when in fact he is just living a simulation inside a crystal cube.
The twists and turns already make this a great episode, but the avant-garde elements of simulated reality really make this stand out. This is years before the wave of works that explored this idea in the late 90s-early 00s — The Matrix, Existenz, and more recently Inception or Black Mirror — and Picard here drops this bomb at the end of the episode: “All this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone’s table“. Mind-bending stuff!
Barclay (last line of the episode): “Computer, end program.” [nothing happens]
“Face of the Enemy”: Good
Troi wakes up disguised as a Romulan inside a Romulan Warbird, and is told to act as a Tal Shiar, the Romulan intelligence! The callback to Unification is nice: this is an effort by Spock to give Romulan defectors safe passage to the Federation. There’s even a human defector to the Romulans who decides to return to the Federation again, further complexifying the relations between these races. Because of her empathic abilities, Troi has been chosen and was somehow abducted to help undercover Romulans to carry out this mission. The interaction with the jealous and militaristic commander of the Warbird is nice, especially given her background as a military person who has suffered because of the Tal Shiar. Troi undergoes a surprising transformation with a harsh commandeering voice in order to survive — not only to the Romulan commander but also to her undercover captor. It is all resolved in the end after some tense moments, but after so many episodes it feels less strong or new than previous Romulan episodes like season 3’s The Defector or season 4’s Data’s Day.
This is co-written by Naren Shankar, who joined in TNG season 4 and stayed till season 7 as science consultant (PhD in engineering and physics). Years later, he developed for television The Expanse, i.e. the best space show currently on the air!
The Enterprise returns after these non-TNG-related posts.