When I wrote about the first season of “The Next Generation,” I even knew at the time that I was burying those episodes not celebrating them. The first season of TNG is wildly recognized as one of the worst seasons of any 0f Star Trek’s various series and rightfully so. The first season is trivial, not memorable and has so few decent episodes that its almost a shame.
There’s no doubt that not only were the fans the only one’s to notice how terrible the first season was. By all observations, things changed between seasons. There’s more of a focus on intergalactic politics over the introduction of new races, way less sort of disgusting sexual content that robs the characters of their dignity and a lot less “its magic because its magic” solutions to storytelling problems. Also, there’s no Tasha Yar and now Whoopi Goldberg is playing an intergalactic bartender. Things sound perfect. That being said, there’s a huge problem that holds the second season back from being more celebrated or memorable despite a handful of great episodes.
That problem’s name is Katherine Pulaski and she’s so much worse than Yar for so many reasons. We do have to work our way up to Pulaski though. After the first season, Gates McFadden felt the same need to jump ship that Dennise Crosby felt and she left the role of Beverly Crusher, leaving the Enterprise in need of a chief medical officer. Trying to bring something new to the table, the producers looked to the past and decided to write a character that was closer to the humanistic, conservative Bones McCoy than to the more accessible and modern Crusher.
Now, I would never argue against Bones. I adore the character and love the dynamic he brought to Kirk’s ship but he simply doesn’t work on a more contemporary ship. McCoy was a relic and Crusher worked much better for a bridge that wasn’t predominantly filled with humans. Crusher understood the needs of an alien crew and that was just something that made Crusher feel so wrong on TNG.
Pulaski was definitely designed with a character arc in mind. We’re meant to watch her grow and evolve from where she enters the season as a skeptic of Picard’s multi-ethnic crew in “The Child,” to where she actively distrusts Data and thinks he’s irresponsible in “Elementary, Dear Data,” to her acceptance of Data as someone who may have the same chance at life as a person or being in “Measure of a Man” and finally to her seeing her place and the place of the rest of the crew in “The Emmissary.”
For me, that’s not enough. Diana Muldaur’s performance is uninspired at best and often catty, over the top or snoozy at worst. It doesn’t help that we’re supposed to grow to like a racist, technophobic killjoy who is further slowing down a crew that is already extremely focused on asking lots of questions first and shooting last. That being said, while the name of Tasha Yar brings bile to any Trek fan’s throat, opinions of Pulaski are more mixed. Some people generally like the evolution of her character and the season she’s stuck in is so much more palatable that it makes her failings something that can be a little harder to point to. While Yar was a particularly noticeable failing of the first season, it is hard to blame Pulaski for doing much other than sucking.
And why would you ever want to just blame Pulaski for the problems when there are so many other things to point to? This season has some downright terrible episodes, maybe episodes that are among the worst that the series ever did. Season 2 is bookended by these awful episodes, starting with the rapist-alien-Tinkerbell of “The Child” and ending with the unfathomably lazy clip show, “Shades of Grey.”
Most of the problem with the second season of the show is one entirely dealing with just exceedingly lazy writing. More so than the first season, now we’re stuck with the rough disparity between episodes that are really good and episodes that are on the entire other side of the scale. For every “A Matter of Honor,” there’s a “The Royale,” for every “Where Silence Has Lease” a “Pen Pals” and for every “Q Who” there’s an “Up the Long Ladder.”
Speaking of, “Q Who” is by far the most essential episode of the season. For almost all purposes, it may be the only episode of this season that’s worth actually watching. After the hints of a galaxy wide conspiracy filled up the end of the first season, we finally meet the mysterious force when Q beams appears on the ship and shows Picard a world that men were never meant to go.
“Q Who” is the kind of episode that people like me love to think about. Its an episode that moves the series forward admirably in so many effective ways but, more importantly, it undercuts many of the show’s themes and ideas to show the weakness of Picard and his crew when they come face to face with the unknown. After taking advantage of Picard’s arrogance, Q whisks the Enterprise to the Delta Quadrant, leaving them exposed to the Borg, the tyrannical all consuming cyborg race that now has a taste for humanity. Picard may have been able to escape for now but Guinan is sure to remind him that the Borg remember and they are coming. Its one of the best threats of the series and it is a blade that hangs over the show until their reappearance in Season 3
Season 2 of “The Next Generation” opens everything up further, giving the characters a consistent new enemy to bump up against, new allies to work with and more hints that the world outside of Federation space is increasingly becoming more and more controlled. More importantly, Season 2 is where TNG manages to work out most of its kinks, jettisoning what never worked about the series and filling it back in with the parts that would help the show through its highest seasons.
As of last time, here are the handful of awards we’re giving out for the season, rather than the standard “Random Observations.” Enjoy.
Most Improved Character: William Riker
The rise of the beard essentially seals Riker’s place at the top. That being said, here he feels like more of a partner to Picard rather than just “Number One.” That being said, he still gets mired in some problems.
Most Troublesome Character: Deanna Troi
We can’t give Pulaski this award with her leaving at the end of the season but Troi still causes all sorts of trouble. Whether its another episode with her mother, generally being a sex object or being strangely attached to a mutant child solely for story reasons, she’s still a huge problem the writers don’t know how to solve.
Best Non-Borg Moment – Playing a Dangerous Game, “A Matter of Honor”
As the Enterprise prepares to engage with a Klingon ship, Riker bluffs hard and hopes Picard’s on board to save both the ship he’s on, as well as the one that he loves. I know that I love Klingon shit but this is one of the best moments for the race of the series.
Worst Reminder of Tasha Yarr – So, this one time…, “The Measure of a Man”
Yep, you have to relive that horrible moment from the horribly named “The Naked Now” when Data and Yar had sex. So, that’s something.
Worst Episode – “Up The Long Ladder”/”Unnatural Selection”/”Shades of Grey”
Three episodes so bad I couldn’t pick the worst one. The first is essentially one long joke about how terrible Irish people are, the second features nothing but terrible aging makeup and one of the most sluggish plots to ever make it to air and the last is a clip show. Pick your fucking poison. Also, all of these episodes beat out a episode with Lwaxana Troi.
Best Episode Not Considering “Q Who” – “Where Silence Has Lease”
All problems aside, The Original Series is my favorite Star Trek. “Where Silence Has Lease” takes all of the charm of the first series and updates it. Things are more dangerous, the god like being is more callous and the stakes are unbelievably high. Its a charmingly dark episode with a fun villain and an even better resolution.
Next Up: We make our way back into TOS with the return of Harry Mudd in the android filled “I, Mudd.”