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Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season Four

Hallelujah!

Season 4 is upon us, and Star Trek: The Next Generation has *arrived*. At last.

Till now, through this tour of Next Gen, I’ve mainly worked at imploding popular myths. For instance, the myth that Season 1 is some festering cesspool of unwatchability. It’s not at all.

Oh, sure, Season 1 has its stinkers. But when we take into account the context of Season 1 -- that, for instance, it’s a first season, and first seasons almost always struggle to find their identity -- a lot of it winds up being not so bad. And some episodes are really pretty good.

The next major myth dealt with “growing the beard.” That, somehow, Seasons 2 and 3 represented some sort of transcendent leap in quality from the malregarded initial offering. Not! So! Seasons 2 and 3 are just as inconsistent, with some episodes shining brightly, and others stinking up the joint. Let’s not forget that the episode considered by many to be the worst of the entire run, "Shades of Grey," was in Season 2. And the only episode worse yet -- "The Hunted" -- floats in its own personal Season 3 toilet bowl.

And so, what myths does Season 4 offer us to lay bare? Actually, I’d like to take a step back, and examine something alluded to, but not discussed, in my review of Season 3: "The Best of Both Worlds." The myth? That "The Best of Both Worlds" -- the epic season 3 finale wherein Picard is captured by the Borg and turned into Locutus -- is the pinnacle of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The truth? It’s a good episode, but it’s not all that.

Heresy, right? I know! But I’m not here to lie to you; I’m here to say it like it is, and "Best of Both Worlds" doesn’t live up to either its hype, or our collective memories.

Hey, I was right there alongside you in June 1990, as Borg-Picard stared through the viewscreen and Riker said “Fire”... right on the edge of my flippin’ seat! At the time, it was the coolest thing ever (up there with Transformers: The Movie), and I still regard it as one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. But the bulk of the episode itself, and especially the second part (which forms the premiere for Season 4) fails to live up to that climactic moment.

Much of these episodes, honestly, are a little ho-hum, dealing in Riker’s unwillingness to spread his wings, an unlikable rival for him in command, and a Borg threat that is mostly off-screen, implied or imaginary, but never truly brought home, except for Picard’s temporary transition. Dramatically, it just kind of feels flat.

In fact, it’s enough to make me wonder if there was any possibility that Picard’s transformation might have been permanent; that perhaps they were hedging bets against Patrick Stewart not coming back, and having to promote Riker to Captain with Commander Shelby as his “number one.”

*That* would have made sense. It would have sucked, losing Picard, but it would've been a better story. But without that resolution--with the Riker and Shelby storylines not really amounting to anything--part 2 just works at bringing things back to the status quo. It’s good. It’s lightyears ahead of "Shades of Grey," and "The Hunted" (naturally), but it’s not the best.

Indeed, the *second* episode of Season 4, the astonishingly low key and reserved “Family,” is a better hour of television than "The Best of Both Worlds, Pt. II." But then, "Family" is really quite good. And that’s the true legacy of "The Best of Both Worlds": it is a bridge, from the inconsistent and struggling first three seasons to the reliable quality of Season 4.

For you see, Season 4 is that point where Star Trek: The Next Generation stops messing around and accepts its mantle as one of the greatest shows in television history.

"Family" is particularly significant in this: it is not the second half to a two-parter, and yet, without understanding what has come before (in "Best of Both Worlds"), "Family" will make no sense. It’s a daring and risky move, to allow for such continuity -- to have episodes that cannot be watched in any given order -- and especially it was for a series at that time.

Following "Family" is "Brothers," which expands on the themes of family and reaches into Data’s past, bringing back evil twin Lore. A few episodes later and we meet Tasha Yar’s sister, and then Worf’s child, product of an earlier on-screen tryst. This is Star Trek tying into past material, which gives its stories resonance, and developing thematic material (concentrating on familial connections) while also deepening the characters and, oh yeah, spinning off some pretty good sci-fi plots, too.

Neat stuff.

The past keeps coming back, as the season progresses, including a return-to-form Q episode ("Qpid," which gives us Worf’s immortal line: “I am not a Merry Man!”) and the return of treasure hunter Vash, Barclay and Lwaxana Troi episodes, the arrival of the *real* Dr. Leah Brahms (with whose holodeck simulation Geordi LaForge carried on a halting almost-romance), and... wait... who is that shadowy Romulan giving orders from behind the scenes? This, suddenly, is a rich universe, and much more than just a backdrop for some random weekly plot.

That universe expands, too, as we meet the Cardassians and the Trill -- important for the eventual development of Deep Space Nine -- and then there’s the matter of the Klingon Civil War, and the restoration of Worf’s family honor.

Whew.

Not to say it’s all roses, exactly. Some of the episodes miss the target, which is probably to be expected of any long-running series. But even the worst episodes are fairly entertaining, and there’s finally the sense that we’re watching a series that knows what it’s doing, and where it’s headed. Which is because, apparently, it does. Unlike Season 3, where "The Best of Both Worlds" shows up apparently from nowhere, Season 4’s climax in Redemption, Pt. 1, is effectively built up to throughout.

Next Gen isn’t suddenly a serial -- there are still a good number of “stand alone” episodes -- but it lays the groundwork for more serial storytelling later on, and in television in general. As to those stand alone episodes, some of them are quite good, too.

So now, the five best and worst of the season. First...

The Worst:

#5 -- In Theory

Some of the episodes in “The Worst” might not actually be all that bad, depending on the overall strength of the season. Season 4 is strong, and "In Theory" isn’t nearly an awful episode. As its title suggests, "In Theory" *ought* to work, as it is an interesting examination of Data attempting to maintain a romantic relationship. But the actual product is, at times, cold and off-putting: Data is at his best when he’s able to make connections to humanity, however attenuated. Concentrating on his lack of humanity is understandable matter for an episode, but it naturally lacks warmth, and doesn’t leave the viewer feeling good. And the other “Enterprise in danger” plot isn’t interesting.

#4 -- Night Terrors

Again, this isn’t a bad episode, per se. It’s only not very interesting, as it mainly revolves around the Enterprise crew feeling cranky and Troi having dream-visions (again).

#3 -- The Loss

Another Troi episode, and actually, this one is arguably better than "Night Terrors" in that the matter is more inherently compelling -- Troi loses her empathic abilities and must learn to deal. However, the main plot is rather silly (involving, uh, two dimensional creatures a la Flatland), and a good chunk of this episode is Troi being shrill and bitchy, which isn’t as entertaining as it sounds. (And note: it doesn’t sound at all entertaining.)

#2 -- Devil’s Due

This is the difference between Seasons 1-3 and Season 4: Had this shown up earlier, it would have been a disaster. "Devil’s Due" involves a Satan-like entity who shows up to collect on a contract and tries to seduce Picard in the process. Awful, right? But there’s enough skill and subtlety by this point that they manage to pull it off without inducing too much cringing. And actually, the plot’s resolution is fairly clever, as Picard manages to see through the false claims of the entity and demonstrate that she’s just a huckster. And *that* is maybe the difference between Original and Next Gen; in Classic Trek, the creature just would’ve been the Devil incarnate, and Kirk still would’ve outwitted her, or kicked her ass. (But first he would’ve slept with her, unlike Picard with all of his restraint and morality.)

#1 -- Legacy

Oh, I wanted this episode to work. And it was a nice idea, as mentioned earlier, in bringing back Tasha Yar’s sister -- delving into the Yar backstory that we never really could while Crosby was a main cast member. But this is a bad episode. Not for any particular reason, and it’s hard to say exactly why it failed, but it doesn’t have the same core quality as most of the rest of the season. The guest star acting is wooden, and the plot is predictable, and slow, and not well written.

Many of Tasha Yar’s episodes are accounted as some of the worst of Star Trek: TNG; in that way, I guess this episode does remain true to her legacy.


The Best:

#5 -- Qpid

“Hey! You got your Q mischief in my Robin Hood story!”

“No, you got your Robin Hood in my Q!”

Two great tastes that taste great together.

While some of the absurd comedy of the situation is like to put a few folks off, I think it’s a welcome break every once in a while. I mean, seriously, Deanna Troi accidentally shooting Friar Data with an arrow? Priceless.

#4 -- Family

As introspective and small scale as Star Trek gets, this is really just a character study. When I first saw it (I remember distinctly), I found it really, really boring. Most of the time we’re not even on the Enterprise, but hanging out in the French countryside. *This* is how you follow up to the Borg invasion?

But really, I just wasn’t mature enough at the time to get it. The Borg episode produced true aftermath, and it needed to be dealt with. The courage to pull back, and just concentrate on Picard the character without the usual sci-fi shenanigans, is commendable. And commend it, I do.

Oh and yeah, that Patrick Stewart guy? Pretty good actor, turns out.



#3 -- Brothers

Oh Lore, you bastard. What a great/awful villain. And this episode... what an act of villainy!

By the way, as much as I go on about Stewart’s acting (and justifiably so), how about a little love for Brent Spiner? He plays Data so well, it’s easy to forget that he’s acting at all. But here, in "Brothers," he competently plays three people in the same scene, and instead of most like Eddie Murphy who usually just play that trick for laughs, Spiner aims for suspense and pathos. And he delivers.

#2 -- Future Imperfect

I’m a sucker for these kinds of mind trip episodes. Season 4 happens to have a few great ones, including "Remember Me" and "Clues" (even if it *is* a touch similar to that one great episode of Red Dwarf). This is the best of that bunch.

Riker wakes up and it’s the future. He’s Captain. Also a widower with a kid. A Ferengi’s on the bridge as a Star Fleet Officer. Oh, but Riker’s dead wife looks strangely familiar... where have we seen her before...?

Great little rabbit hole, just a lot of fun.

#1 -- Redemption, Pt. 1

So, I started out tearing "Best of Both Worlds" down a little bit. Now it’s time to build up "Redemption" which (I’ll say it) is actually the superior Season Finale. While it doesn’t have *quite* the same cliffhanging punch as its predecessor, it’s none too shabby to see the half-Romulan babe step from the shadows. "Redemption" benefits from being the capstone on a plot that has been slowly building in the Star Trek background, which is really a terrific step forward for the series and universe as a whole.

If it hadn’t been clear before, "Redemption" is the final proof that Star Trek: The Next Generation has made the transition from “inconsistent show with occasionally great episodes” to simply “great show.”

As I look forward to Season Five, I can only hope it continues in that kind of quality.

So, enough talking. Let’s boldly go already!
1 comments:

Good stuff Ty. I will have to sit down and watch this season. I have been systematically watching every episode but because it's syndication, it's been completely out of order. Regardless, I think I am just fortunate to be watching them. When I can afford the sets, I will be buying the indidivudal seasons.


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