Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 – “If the cause is just and honorable, they are prepared to give their lives.”

If a show hasn’t hit a groove by the third season, it is undoubtedly in trouble. There’s been time to set a tone, develop a coherent world and have had a chance to craft characters that an audience would be able to connect with. All of this needs to be done while giving audiences a variety of plots that they’ll be willing to stick with for years to come. I’ve said before that it was occasionally a surprise that TNG made it to a third season after an atrocious first showing and a disappointing second season but there’s no mistaking why the show stayed on the air after season three. This season is what took a low-budget show about galactic politics and turned them into one of the well-loved science fiction shows ever in the span of 26 mostly great episodes.

It isn’t initially clear what makes the third season so strong. Episodes are tighter, more focused and take increasing cues from the well established Star Trek lore. Some of this could certainly be because of changes in the formerly tumultuous writer’s room. Michael Piller would take over writing duties for the show, contributing five satisfying episode, including two of the most memorable episodes. Piller was definitely a hard sci-fi writer; he’s mostly focused on explainable robotics, character motivations and the universal humanity of people forced together on a mission. This becomes increasingly clear as the season goes, as there’s less of a focus on magical races, goofy sci-fi gimmickry and hand waive explanations and more of a focus on how all races, characters and nations have clear and understandable motivations for their actions.

Piller had a tool on the staff with the appearance of a man who would go onto become a sci-fi legend, Ronald D. Moore. Moore, who would go onto father the relaunch of “Battlestar Galactica,” came onto the scene with the episode “The Bonding,” an interesting, if deeply flawed episode, but he shows his interests more clearly in the fantastic episode, “The Defector.” There, the Enterprise intercepts a Romulan deserter who claims to have information about the empire’s plans for attacking several Federation colonies. However, there are holes throughout his stories, none of his information can be proven and he fails to cooperate fully with the crew. Everyone is on edge over whether he should be trusted and what the cost of not trusting in his warning could be for the Federation. Its a great, particularly tense episode of characters being forced to make compromises and leaps of faith, where everyone has a hidden motive and a fail safe.

While Moore’s great script built off the increasing tension between the Federation and the Romulans wonderfully to examine the splintering of governments, the show would later work on improving on other well established parts of the Star Trek universe to great effect. In “The Hunted,” Picard and his crew are forced to deal with a military prisoner who escapes to break away from a government that has found it more convenient to forget about its’ soldiers. In an otherwise forgettable episode, Picard manages to show how thoroughly he is guided by the Prime Directive, memorably leaving an under siege planet to deal with its coup rather than have the Federation intervene. Its a stark difference between the way that Captain Kirk would have handled the situation and it shows us how different and more engaging of a show we’re watching.

Season three gains most of its power by drawing on these established themes and characters. After two years of the show, it becomes increasingly clear that TNG was focused on not only showing itself as a program that was separate from the Original Series but also one that could be a companion piece to that iconic show. Sarek reappears here, played again by Mark Lenard, in an episode that makes extensive reference to the first show. Ronald Moore also takes Worf’s back story, hinted at in previous episodes, and expands it dramatically in “Sins of the Father.” There, he gives the Klingon lieutenant a dramatic and tragic arc that both colors his relations with his home and sets up the troubles that the Klingon empire will face in the future. Admirably, he also draws off the way the Original Series turned a familiar race into a hostile and alien force that the human characters would have trouble understanding. The sequences where Worf and Picard face the trials as well as the decision to exile Worf are reminiscent of the way in which Kirk and McCoy are baffled by the ways that Spock interacts with other Vulcans in “Amok Time.”

As much as I’d love to do nothing but praise this season but it does have a couple of real, genuine problems. First off, there’s an enormous focus on Data episodes. Now, I don’t have a problem with this. Data’s an engaging character who has a built-in and interesting series of quirks that could make for engaging episodes but none of the attempts here doe much of anything new. Whether he’s crafting a new robotic child, being kidnapped by a person who views him as nothing more than an object to be collected or having characters mistakenly see his condition as something to be valued, the writers were never able to find anything new to say about the android here. I get it, Data may be an android but he is capable of being a human and we should view him as such. I don’t need to be told this every 5 or 6 episodes.

TNG’s still having tons of problems working with its most troublesome race, the Ferengi. Look, I know that they’re a one note race meant to examine Roddenberry’s problems with capitalism run rampant but the writers overdo everything about them. They’re not only greedy but ugly, gross, dumb, sexually forward, treated with disdain by everyone in the Federation and not trustworthy. In as show that affords ever race at least some modicum of respect, its a shame that no one is willing to make the Ferengi anything more than a punch line and an unwilling one at that.

With all that out of the way, there’s still a pair of episodes that desperately need discussing and they’re two of the most important, most well-loved episodes that the show ever did. Both written by Piller, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” are undisputed classics of TNG, Star Trek and science fiction as a whole. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” succeeds with its premise executed expertly. Thriving on subverting expectations in one memorable way, similarly to what was done in “Mirror, Mirror,” we are able to view the sacrifices that the Federation goes through to craft a peaceful universe. Plus, it manages to give Tasha Yarr a fate that’s worthy of the character she was intended to be.

I’ve written about my great love of “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” before. Its a damn near perfect example of slow, character driven escalation leading to a grand conclusion. Watching it free of needing to worry about the story reveals, the structure of the episode shines through. Watch as Piller pairs Riker’s control being assaulted again and again, weakening his position, with the way in which the Borg threat continues to escalate. These events are put together at virtually the same time, forcing him to make the inevitable decision by episode’s end. Its the Enterprise at its weakest point so far and it places Riker in the one position he’s ever been afraid to be in.

A few missteps can’t hold back the third season of one of the best sci-fi shows of all time. This is Star Trek at its most memorable, most intense and most thrilling, giving us characters we care about, situations that push them and a world that I have never wanted to leave.

Most Improved Character – Deanna Troi

Ok, I’m not saying she’s perfect but I didn’t think that I’d be giving Deanna this award after two seasons of her being the most disappointing part of the show. However, she just feels better here. She’s not being randomly attached to villainous aliens, raped or treated like a sex object. Sure, the costuming is still pretty bad but she feels competent. Even in “Ménage à Troi,” she and her mother, Lwaxana, are both treated like characters, not caricatures or sex objects. That’s worth a lot in this universe.

Most Disappointing Character – Data

When everything else is moving forward, it is painful to watch a character that is standing still. As I stated earlier, the writers haven’t done anything with Data for years that wasn’t already established in the first season. Now, nothing is done with him and what’s worse, there are problems with continuity, as no one acknowledges Lore’s existence.

Best Moment of Potential Ass-Kickery – Data’s got a gun, “The Most Toys”

Star Trek master recapper Zach Handlen and I agree on this one. Data drawing the gun on his captor and deciding that he must kill in order to satisfy his programming is an exhilirating and tense moment that changes our whole interpretation of what Data is capable of. In a deeply flawed episode exploring themes we’ve vastly covered, it is impressive to see that there is so much that we still don’t understand about the android.

Best Moment of Shatner-esque Scenery Chewing – Vulcans with Alzheimer’s, “Sarek”

Patrick Stewart is able to really sell the mind meld, but Lenard just can’t handle the way that Sarek breaks down as his emotions overwhelm him. We’re supposed to believe that he’s doing as much work as possible to keep his emotions in check but he’s mostly just yelling a lot. If he spaced out his words uncomfortably, it might as well be Shatner talking a computer to death.

Worst Episode: “A Matter of Perspective”

Lots of television shows are guilty of the trial episode: putting a character the audience knows is innocent in a trial situation where all evidence points to their guilt. Accusing Riker of murder and rape is a particularly embarrassing example of this phenomenon and it makes for a particularly and memorably rough episode. Runners Up: “Who Watches the Watchers” and “Captain’s Holiday”

Best Episode: “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1”

You knew it was coming. The way Piller constructs the season finale is masterful and the way the whole season feels like it is leading up to this makes everything resonate so highly that there isn’t another episode to even slightly compare to this one. Runners Up: “The Defector,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Hollow Pursuits” and “Sins of the Father.”

Advertisements

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 – “They’re nothing compared to what’s waiting.”

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.

I mean, we could complain about this.

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.

This is the bad guy. Its delightful.

Next Up: We make our way back into TOS with the return of Harry Mudd in the android filled “I, Mudd.”