…The time warp was kind: according to our calculations, we jump back just in time for the title “TNG in 2018” to still make sense! (Part 1) Let’s look at a final batch of episodes from this “best of” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the second half of season 7 (1993-1994) episodes:
Another great physics-bending episode by Brannon Braga, this time with parallel universes! Many things to like here. Blue-eyed Data‘s explanations are solidly based on real physics (although OK just Worf sliding is a stretch), I got some vibes of Back To The Future Part II. Poor Worf is sliding from world to world and progressively gets on a bifurcation further from his Prime universe (Sliders, anyone?). It starts slow, with Worf’s birthday cake changes (surprise party! that Worf hates), and culminates in an epic scene at the nexus of universes where over 9,000 Enterprises appear simultaneously! Apparently there is a nightmare universe where the Borg have invaded, Picard is assimilated and Captain Riker is so distressed he’d rather shoot on Worf than go back — a shock! There’s a Lieutenant Wesley Crusher. There are small things that change, like a Cardassian Starfleet officer in the background, and then there are big things, like Worf and Troi are a couple in many universes. That took me by surprise, I just assumed TNG would not break the “mainstream” coupling of Riker/Troi that is in place since the pilot, but it’s actually a nice evolution of Worf asking Troi to take care of Alexander. In the end of the episode, Worf and Troi share a dinner and champagne: would that have happened if “our” Worf had not seen his parallels? didn’t his parallels start this relationship somehow? chicken or egg? quantum confusion!
A parallel Data (calm, as always): “At this rate, the sector will be completely filled with Enterprises within three days.”
“The Pegasus”: Very good
Interrupting Captain Picard Day (!), Admiral Pressman, who used to be Riker’s Captain when Riker was just an Ensign on the Pegasus, arrives on the Enterprise with a secret mission from Starfleet Intelligence, which will put him at odds with the Enterprise crew. Are all senior officers from Starfleet Command the incarnation of evil? At times it seems as if the only utopia in the 24th century is aboard the Enterprise with Picard, while the rest of the world is still struggling with egos, hierarchies and jealously kept secrets! As his inferior, Picard has to execute Pressman’s orders, and Pressman expects nothing but loyalty out of Riker. However, Riker still wonders whether he should have had mutinied with the rest of the crew 12 years ago, that’s how bad it was — despite the fact that mutiny is as disgracing as can be for a Starfleet officer.
The Enterprise plays hide and seek with a Romulan warbird (and its delightfully menacing captain) and finally, well past the episode’s half way, the secret is revealed: Pressman and his scientists were developing cloaking technology, which apparently is prohibited under a treaty with the Romulans. I didn’t quite get why this is though, the Romulans and Klingons have cloaking technology and it seems like a big concession to make on the Federation’s behalf in order to have a cease-fire and neutral zone in exchange. This resulted in the Pegasus being half-fused together with the rock of an asteroid, very neat! (and reminiscent of similar things in The X-Files‘ Dreamland!) In order to get out of this alive though, the Enterprise has to make use of it, right under the Romulans’ noses! They have to shift phase and their matter can cross the inside of an asteroid, very neat too! — it seems to be the same technology as what happened to Ro and LaForge in The Next Phase. In doing so, Pressman’s illegal secret is revealed to the rest of the crew and Riker confidently turns against his ex-captain this time. It ends well here, but what does that mean for Starfleet Intelligence, which seems to be routinely breaking treaties under the guise of doing “important things”? Picard gets Riker out of this mess this time, however should he not also be in trouble due to his involvement with Pressman 12 years ago, now that everything is out in the open?
Overall, this was a tense episode on hard choices and secrets that eat on your conscience, similar themes to The First Duty with Wesley at the Academy, and I preferred The Pegasus. It is a heavy episode, and big on dialogue, like many of Ron Moore‘s episodes.
Picard, on the ironic importance of context: “He disobeyed a direct order and he risked a general court martial because he thought he was right. And when I read that, I knew that I had found my Number One.”
Terry O’Quinn (Pressman) was “Mr. Ten Thirteen” for a while: three different roles in The X-Files, the excellent co-star Peter Watts in Millennium, and the main villain Santiago in the criminally short-lived Harsh Realm! Then he became famous for being John Locke in Lost.
“Lower Decks”: Excellent
The Enterprise from the point of view of the lower ranks. A really great idea! Four Ensigns and a civilian meet for drinks and poker. For them, the group of high-ranking officers we have come to know so well are their superiors: they are in awe before them, they are timid in approaching them, they are not privy to all their secrets and so they have to piece together information to understand what’s going on. Outside of big life-changing decisions on the Bridge, life goes on. It actually reminded me of a Babylon 5 episode that had a similar concept (A View from the Gallery), but chronologically the TNG episode came earlier!
There’s Ensign Ogawa, Crusher’s aide whom we’ve seen many times already since season 4 (her story here is just romance waiting for her prince…one negative point for this cliché sexist storyline); there’s a promising Bajoran Ensign Sito, who we met in Starfleet Academy with Wesley in season 5’s The First Duty; there’s a mini-Riker Ensign who wants to make a good impression on Riker; there’s a Vulcan Ensign who is exquisitely Vulcan (actually the son of key producer and writer Jeri Taylor!); and there’s the bartender (what happened to Guinan this season?), who doesn’t care much for all things Starfleet. Five great characters who come very much alive just in the 45 minutes we come to know them.
The episode becomes even better with the unexpected tragic turn in its latter part. Picard tests Ensign Sito for her resolve and, with some coaching from Worf, she passes; here we see that Picard can appear very tough to his crew, when in fact he is trying to bring those that do have potential to the point where they do make use of that potential (this reminded me of how tough he was with Riker in the pilot). Bajoran Sito embarks on a mission with a Cardassian spy for the Federation (yes, such a thing exists!) and…ultimately she never returns! I had grown to like her very much and wanted to see her in future episodes! This is a humbling moment for Picard and us viewers, who have grown accustomed to the stability of the main cast. To boldly go has a cost, and we often forget that. A one-of-a-kind experimental episode, really excellent.
“Preemptive Strike”: Absolutely excellent!
This is the penultimate TNG episode and we get what essentially must be a DS9 episode! In its themes, in its story, in its setting, in its characters, everything is quite remote from the “clean” environment of TNG and much closer to the “murkier” DS9 (or so I believe!). The episode also plays with the fact that the two series are airing at the same time and expects the viewer to follow both: the Maquis are explained very, very quickly here! And what an episode it is: in 45 minutes we get a jam-packed story that evidently spans a long period of time, in-universe, and it would certainly have made more sense to have this be the season’s two-parter instead of Gambit. Oh well.
Picard’s protégé since he recruited her in season 5’s Ensign Ro, Ro Laren is recruited for an undercover mission inside the Maquis in order to prevent them from harming the Cardassians and thus destroying an already unstable cease-fire with them. It’s an incredible situation for her, balanced between her Bajoran heart and her recent Starfleet training: “I’ve spent the better part of my life fighting the Cardassians. I never thought I’d be helping them out.” That dilemma has been with her ever since we met her. Back then, I thought that her complex background made for a unique recruit that would be different from the “mainstream” Starfleet officers, who would be able to know inside out the suffering the Federation was built to prevent, who would also have experienced the parochialism that sometimes prevents peaceful solutions to prevail. But her spending her energies to fight the Cardassians’ occupation of Bajor would also be entirely possible too. Her loyalty and debt to Picard are strong, yet Picard is unusually harsh in the fate he plans for the Maquis. Her feelings towards a new substitute father among the Maquis awake her wounds. What will she do? Her last scene with Picard, an undercover meeting in a dark bar, is an amazing piece of understated tension and dialogue that strikes both to their very essence; they have to act as client and prostitute as part of their cover, but the scene between them truly is sensual, in a way that TNG never dared to do before.
Until the very end of this episode I did not know what Ro’s destiny would be, and I would have believed possible and coherent (and tragic!) either outcome. She really was once of TNG’s best-written and best-acted characters, and it’s a shame she was not involved in DS9. The episode ends with a memorable Picard, silent and angered, in disbelief at Ro’s difficult betrayal.
Ro: “It’s been a long time since I really felt like I belonged somewhere. Could you tell Captain Picard something for me?”
Riker: “Of course. What is it?”
Ro: “Tell him I’m sorry.”
“All Good Things…”: Absolutely excellent!
This is it, the final episode — and with this special event this is a double-length episode that could very well have been a theatrical movie! In fact, it was written at the same time as the first TNG movie, Generations, and the writers themselves (Braga & Moore) admit that the finale is the better script of the two. The finale is in plenty of “best of” lists, it won the series’ second Hugo Award (after season 5’s The Inner Light), it inspired Lost‘s best episode (The Constant), and its reputation is actually well-deserved. It really is a great combination: a Star Trek adventure in of itself, with a purely science fictional concept of time travelling; it provides a retrospective to the entire series, with Q’s judgement of humanity that started in the pilot (Encounter at Farpoint); and it is an emotional story about the characters we have come to love over seven seasons, with multiple versions of them from past, present and future.
In the fashion of A Christmas Carol, Picard gets to visit, like a ghost, Enterprise past, Enterprise present, and Enterprise future. The first hour, more or less, is spent with Picard sliding from timeline to timeline, confused about what’s going on, until it is revealed that Q is behind this. Q, or rather the Q Continuum’s, trial of humanity never ended, and higher powers have not yet decided whether humanity should roam the depths of space freely: “The trial never ended, captain. We never reached a verdict.” Q has put Picard in a last (?) test, where Picard’s resourcefulness will decide not just humanity’s fate but the very existence of every living creature on Earth from its very inception to the future — no pressure! This is revealed in an incredible jump back to some 3.5 billion years ago, where Q and Picard witness the very genesis of life on Earth, the very first protein: “Everything you know, your entire civilization, it all begins right here in this little pond of goo.“
The second hour is spent on solving Q’s intertemporal riddle of the time anomaly travelling in anti-time having consequences in normal-travelling time (what an idea!). It culminates in another incredible scene, with three Enterprises from different points in time, joining together and being destroyed in order to restore the prime timeline. It all readjusts and the only thing that remains of these events is in Picard’s brain (like in The Inner Light!); what we witnessed was like a disturbance in the quantum foam, appearing, folding in on itself, and disappearing.
The episode is very well structured with its transitions from time period to time period. It keeps the mystery of what’s going on going, keeping the point of view strictly on Picard and his confusion, and it manages and doses well the revelations of each character’s fate in the future timeline. The scenes are long in the beginning, then the transitions become more and more frequent as the episode progresses, contributing to its fast pace, until the timelines merge at the end.
Even though the whole crew contributes, the episode has a strong and tight focus on Picard: he is in all scenes in some timeline, giving Patrick Stewart a lot of work. But let’s face it, Captain Picard was the show’s strongest and most memorable character and the closest thing it had as a protagonist. It’s also an absolute joy to discover what the episode does with all the characters in their future version (with some amazing makeup, especially for Crusher!). Future vine-grower / retired Admiral Picard is the same yet his persistence comes off like a grumpy old man who doesn’t get what he wants. The Troi-Riker-Worf love triangle extends decades in the future and its stress caused them some white hair! Riker not only became Captain of the Enterprise (enhanced with a third nacelle!), he is also an Admiral, and in the process he has lost his smile. Worf still struggles with his double identity, serving for the Klingon Empire but at an outpost bordering the Federation. The Crusher-Picard relationship did develop into a marriage then a separation, but they still appear to be on good terms, with Beverly being Captain Picard (!) of the USS Pasteur (how fitting!). Geordi got rid of his VISOR and enjoys a happy married life. Data is an eccentric British professor with dozens of cats, more and more resembling Sherlock Holmes. Troi died early. All these fates ring true to the characters and seeing what they become some 25 years later feels like a last chapter in a long book and provides some closure, a la endings of The Lord of the Rings or Six Feet Under. It is also bittersweet, as the future we see is not the brightest for many. The characters getting older or dying and Picard’s neurological disorder makes you wonder about mortality and the passage of time, yet the Federation still goes on. Of course this is but one future, and the events of this episode erased it from existence — the direction of the feature films will be quite diffferent from what I know! Actually, with the future Picard series coming more or less 25 years later it will be interesting to see what the Prime (?) universe future holds in store for these characters.
But this future exercise is not futile, as it is a love letter to these characters. The same is true to their versions in the past: seeing them again how they were seven years ago make us realize how much they, and the show, have changed and matured while we were watching. Troi and her mini-skirts straight from TOS; Data and his lack of understanding of English expressions; Riker and his lack of a beard. The Enterprise crew was still young, and by series’ end it is a well-oiled and experienced machine. Then there are all the callbacks to the series’ history, like a TNG retrospective: not only Q and the presence of Tasha Yar and Miles O’Brien in the past timeline; but also Admiral Nakamura (from season 3/4’s The Best of Both Worlds), the Romulan Tomalak (from season 3’s The Enemy and The Defector), the Warp core designer Leah, who is probably Geordi’s future wife (from season 3’s Booby Trap), Nurse Ogawa.
Ultimately, our hero figures things out with the help of Q, the ever-excellent John DeLancie, proving his worth. However, humanity’s trial never ended and never will end; Q’s staged trial serves as a parable for humanity’s evolution as a species and its endless strive to something better, towards utopia. Just as the trial never ends, so the journey towards inner self-improvement and the journey of outward exploration never ends. With this return to Q’s initial challenge, the finale gives the series more structure than what was perhaps initially planned! Indeed the trial bookends the series very nicely. More importantly, it re-states what is essentially Star Trek‘s optimistic mission statement: that humanity can overcome any challenge it faces and become better and better.
The epilogue has Picard joining the poker game that has been a recurring meeting of the officers since season 2, and we pull back, leaving them to continue their lives and the Enterprise’s “continuing mission”. In short, it is difficult to find anything negative to say about this. It certainly tops off magnificently an uneven season 7. All Good Things is one of the best TNG episodes overall and one of the best-written, well-balanced and satisfying series finales out there!
Crusher: “Do you really think he’s moving through time? I’m not sure I do, either. But, he’s Jean-Luc Picard and if he wants to go on one more mission that’s what we’re going to do.”
Q: “That is the exploration that awaits you; not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”
And so season 7 and TNG as a whole wraps. The actors would start filming Generations barely a week after the series finale! TNG would transition to a feature film series while DS9 and Voyager would run concurrently on TV, an impressive feat for a franchise. Despite some weaknesses I found in even this selection of “best of” episodes, TNG season 7 still gave us some amazing episodes — not least of which its finale. TNG ended when it was still massively popular; despite some slightly decreasing viewership figures since season 5, TNG was being re-broadcast in repeats and sold all around the world, becoming THE face of Star Trek for a whole generation. And so TNG was cancelled not because of popularity but because of increasing production costs (and actors’ salaries), and an expectation that feature films would prove more profitable. The jump to the big screen is always a big risk and few franchises have been truly successful, but that is a story for later.
TNG changed a lot since its beginning. There’s still a lot to like in the first couple of seasons, I find, and much of the overall feel and design and core ideals were there since the very pilot. But there was some wooden acting, the stories were quite formulaic (and TOS-like, I think), and the production values did become considerably better starting from season 3. That season 3 finale, The Best of Both Worlds, was really the turning point for the series; building up on an already excellent season 3, season 4 was incredibly fresh, spending a significant amount of time building characters and experimenting with the formula. Things continued from there, with a strong balance between the pure science fiction stories, the idealistic/utopian elements, and character pieces. From what I saw, seasons 3-6 were the true golden age of the series. Other shows follow this general trajectory: finding its identity, increasing in quality, experimenting with the formula, struggling with creativity, ending.
There was more and more continuity from season 5 or so, with multiple references building on top of each other, but at its core TNG remained an anthology series with largely self-contained episodes; this format gave way to the serialized DS9, following the general trend of the 1990s (see The X-Files and Babylon 5, which both started in 1993). The anthology format has been wrongly maligned lately, but it is a form of storytelling that has a lot of qualities to it, and the fact that you can rewatch a single episode any time and enjoy it fully has a lot to do with TNG’s longevity, I believe.
The most developed characters were certainly Picard, Data and Worf, for different reasons. Picard is iconic for his cool-headedness and insistence to do peaceful diplomacy instead of resorting to violence. Data very subtly became more and more human-like as the seasons passed, but his android demeanor and extremely enjoyable insights in human nature make him a truly memorable and loveable character. Worf started as the token alien(/black) character and the writers gave him and the Klingons a lot of episodes in which he blossomed, giving rise to some of the most emotional and dramatic scenes in the series. The rest of the characters were less fleshed out, although all of them were highly likeable. Troi in particular was more useful as the ship’s psychologist rather than the exotic bimbo empath. Some characters were so little developed in the minds of the writers that once they were written out they were not replaced: Tasha Yar, Wesley Crusher. I wish one of the characters had kept something of Dr. Pulaski‘s edginess.
From the get go, TNG presented itself as even more optimistic and utopian than TOS, being set some 80 years later, and being created by Gene Roddenberry with the benefit of thinking about and hearing others talk about his own creation for twenty years. As Rodenberry’s influence decreased, writers fused more character elements in the scripts, while still retaining the principles of Starfleet is always right and there is a minimum friction between crew members. As time passed, from about season 5, TNG started becoming more ambiguous, with episodes such as The High Ground (season 3), Ensign Ro (5), Chain of Command (6). All those instances where Starfleet is not entirely in the right but not wrong either are often praised as accurately representing the complexity of real situations and I can understand that; however there is something to be said for a message as simple as that of TOS and early TNG: humanity is capable of doing good, and doing good is what Starfleet does. As TNG went on, more and more episodes started putting shades of grey to that, and that early simple purity disappeared. Thus conceptually it makes sense to draw a line between the first half of TNG, more or less, and the second half, in which the themes and approaches to storytelling change and transition into DS9.
And so I started out these reviews asking the question whether ST:TNG is a series that can still be seen and enjoyed in 2018, whether it holds up as genuine intelligent entertainment in 2018 and not as a piece of interesting but has-been sci fi history. After these 100 (out of 178) episodes, I can resoundingly say: YES!