Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2

Welcome, gentle reader, to the second of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


A surprising number of things have changed in the interval between seasons - this year's opening episode almost amounts to a "soft reboot".  Riker's grown his familiar beard at last.  Troi's got a better hairdo.  Geordi's been relocated from the bridge to the engine room.  Miles O'Brien is a semi-regular character and actually has a name now (having appeared as "Battle Bridge Conn" in the pilot).  Worf's original sash, which looked as if it was fashioned out of wicker, has been replaced with a chunky metal one.  Dr Crusher is ignominiously written out, although tragically she didn't take Wesley with her.  In comes the new Medical Officer Dr Pulaski, who doesn't really have the same chemistry with the rest of the crew but who does at least get a small amount of interesting development in her attitude towards Data.  The opening theme is now the slightly longer version I was expecting.  The effects team have put together a new "warp speed" effect for use in Ten Forward which is just lovely.

And of course, Whoopi Goldberg starts turning up as Guinan, possibly the TNG character I remember liking the most.  She arguably treads on Troi's toes somewhat as a counsellor-figure for the main crew, but she's a lot more fun.

"The Child"
The first occasion on which Deanna Troi is supernaturally raped - but not, sadly, the last.  (Yes, I've seen Star Trek: Nemesis and wish I could unsee it.)  That this is presented as a wonderful, magical form of alien contact that Troi should embrace by having her rape baby only makes it worse.  A bad episode, but still - strictly in terms of its production - better than a lot of Season 1.
"Where Silence Has Lease"
A bit like "Skin of Evil", with a capricious blob killing a bridge officer and threatening to kill off other crewmembers for its own amusement.  (I'll bet poor old Ensign Haskell didn't get a nice funeral in the holodeck, either!)  Car crash stuff.
"Elementary, Dear Data"
A nice bait-and-switch, as a story about Data proving he's sentient becomes a story about Professor Moriarty, Data's holodeck plaything, proving that he's sentient, too.  Anticipates the "equal rights for holograms" material that I recall Voyager playing with at length.
"The Outrageous Okona"
Heavens preserve us from "lovable rogue" stories.  A middling example of the type.  Also notable as the episode in which Data attempts stand-up comedy.  Like "The Child", it just about skims over the surface of Lake Car Crash.
"Loud as a Whisper"
A great episode about communication.  The deaf mediator's telepathic "Chorus" is a brilliant idea, and unusually inventive for a series that typically ignores the whole notion of alternative forms of communication.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, universal translator!)  Finally, an essential TNG episode.
"The Schizoid Man"
The one where an unpleasant old git cheats death by invading Data's body.  Cue scenes of Creepy Data stalking the man's female lab assistant.  Grist to Brent Spiner's mill, of course, but not great viewing.  Most notable for the apparently unrelated opening scene in which Data wears a beard - now what the hell's going on there?
"Unnatural Selection"
The one in which Dr Pulaski rapidly ages, but it's all right because that can be undone by science-magic.  A mildly interesting cautionary tale against second-guessing nature, but more obviously a showcase for Diana Muldaur's acting skills.
"A Matter of Honor"
The one where Riker gets a work placement on a Klingon ship.  An excellent window on Klingon culture, building on last season's "Heart of Glory".  I remembered this one pretty clearly, and no wonder.
"The Measure of a Man"
Perhaps this should have been a flashback episode - the whole question of Data's right to determine his own fate surely should have been cleared up when he first became a Starfleet officer.  But then we wouldn't have had the great scene of Guinan playing devil's advocate to Picard in a quiet bar, which really opens up the episode thematically and elevates this story to the level of top-tier TV SF.
"The Dauphin"
Wesley Crusher in love, yikes.  Cue a lot of awkward nonsense from various characters about What Women Are Like And How To Win Them, although the fact a lot of it is played for laughs does at least demonstrate how ridiculous it is.
"Contagion"
The one where the Enterprise contracts a computer virus.  Captain Picard really should have scanned the Yamato's log before he opened it, tsk tsk.  Notably, the first instance of "tea, Earl Grey, hot", although only as a pretext for showing the replicator malfunctioning.  Overall, a pretty good episode.
"The Royale"
As Quentin Tarantino might say, a Royale with cheese.  Some interesting surreal potential early on gives way to what is, by the script's own admission, the plot of a crappy novel.  Tra la.
"Time Squared"
The one where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  And yet not really a story about time travel or second chances or any of that stuff.  Alt-Picard is really an externalisation of Picard's own doubts, which in itself makes Picard more interesting as too many other episodes present him as the perfect decisive hero.  An interesting way of fleshing out a character.
"The Icarus Factor"
The one about Riker's daddy issues.  Not helped by a scene of Pulaski and Troi spouting a lot of toot about how Generalised Women Just Gotta Love Generalised Manchildren.  A bit of a '60s throwback, this one.
"Pen Pals"
The one in which the Prime Directive supposedly forbids the Enterprise crew from talking to the inhabitants of an alien world, but doesn't prevent them from saving those aliens by forcibly halting all tectonic activity on the planet.  Blimey.  Pleasant but forgettable.
"Q Who"
The first appearance of the greatest threat the Federation has ever faced - Ensign Gomez, who spends her first day in Engineering spilling hot chocolate over Captain Picard.  I mean, look, it's bad enough to see TNG falling back on the "ditzy woman" stereotype for comic relief, but she's supposed to be a qualified Federation engineer.  The undermining of a new character's potential is strong in this one.  Oh yeah, and Q and Guinan and the Borg and all that good stuff.  It's a bit of a non-plot, but a solid middling episode.
"Samaritan Snare"
Unpleasant in its depiction of an entire alien species as "a bit slow".  I really can't think of anything else to say about this one.
"Up the Long Ladder"
The one with the comedy Oirish.  Another '60s throwback episode, and a rotten one.  And yet, tacked on the front and completely unrelated to the rest of the episode is the fantastic business of Worf apparently romancing Dr Pulaski with his tea ceremony after she agrees to keep quiet about his measles.
You know, I think if we could just snip out some of the high quality unrelated opening scenes from some of the low quality episodes of TNG, we'd be able to stitch together an entire new episode.  It wouldn't make a lot of sense, but it'd be very entertaining.
"Manhunt"
Basically a replay of "Haven", with Troi's mother doing her "embarrassing predatory older woman" schtick and chasing after Picard.  Now with added bigotry towards piscine aliens, yaaaaay.
"The Emissary"
And suddenly the quality bounces back!  This episode does a sturdy job of examining Worf's situation of being stuck between two cultures, first by pairing him with a similarly conflicted character and second by having him pose as the captain of a Klingon/Federation fusion Enterprise when dealing with the captain of the time-slipped Klingon ship.
"Peak Performance"
A good ensemble episode, and even though the guest alien is being played for comedy, he manages not to be irritating.  When even Wesley Crusher gets some good character work and it's not even an episode specifically about him, I think we can call the episode a success.
"Shades of Grey"
Really, TNG, you're making your season finale a clips show?  I'd be against a clips show anyway just on the grounds that it shows the writers have run out of ideas, but more than that, it's not as if this has been earned after just two seasons, and doing it as the finale is just begging for a kicking.  And what is the title supposed to mean here anyway?

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"The Measure of a Man"
"Loud as a Whisper"
"The Emissary"
"A Matter of Honor"
"Peak Performance"
"Time Squared"
"Elementary, Dear Data"
"Contagion"
"Q Who"
"Unnatural Selection"
"Pen Pals"
"The Dauphin"
"The Schizoid Man"
"The Royale"
"The Outrageous Okona"
"The Icarus Factor"
"Manhunt"
"Samaritan Snare"
"The Child"
"Where Silence Has Lease"
"Up the Long Ladder"
"Shades of Grey"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("A Matter of Honor", "Time Squared", "Q Who")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: Certainly "The Measure of a Man" and "Loud as a Whisper", probably also "The Emissary".  And it'd be no hardship to watch "A Matter of Honor", "Peak Performance" or "Time Squared" again.  The overall quality of this season is a clear improvement on Season 1.

3 comments:

varalys the dark said...

I have mixed feelings on season two, on the one hand I appreciate the upsurge in quality that lead to season 3 being such a revalation and inspired the trope "Growing The Beard" on TVTropes to refer to a series suddenly improving.

In the other hand the spiteful writing out of Gates MacFadden, who I fancied a lot and was the reason I confessed my teenage lesbianism to my sister, rankled a lot. Apparently she refused the sexual advances of one of the highers ups (not Gene for a change) and he got rid of her. When he was fired, she was bought back.

The clip show and some of the dodgier scripts are because there was a writers strike in 1988, so they had to dust off some scripts written for Star Trek Phase II in the late 70's.

John Thomson said...

Re: "The Measure of a Man", I remember really enjoying this episode, but isn't it striking how the legal profession has collapsed in this future utopia? Similar to the also excellent episode 'The Drumhead' (Season 4 maybe?) all representation and judging seems to be done by random crew members who just happen to be hanging around in the future.

John Toon said...

Var - I'm trying to approach these episodes from the perspective of the layman viewer, but yeah, I'd picked up some details of the writers' strike from the Vaka Rangi blog. My feeling on it is that, from my falsely naive position, I'd write off the dodgy scripts as just what happens in the early years of a TV show, but I really can't forgive a clips show. Metatextually, since they were going to run 4 episodes short anyway, I'd rather they'd run 5 episodes short and just not do "Shades of Grey" at all.

John - there's an explanation given in the episode that I'm prepared to allow, that there just aren't any qualified legal professionals within easy reach and therefore the judge has to co-opt the highest ranking Federation officers available, who happened to be Picard and Riker. Presumably they could have waited a couple of weeks for the rest of the court staff to arrive on site, or diverted to a properly equipped court a couple of weeks away, but at the expense of garaging the Federation's flagship for longer than anyone would accept. Can't comment yet on "The Drumhead", although I am just about to watch that one.