Welcome, gentle reader, to the fourth 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.
All right, now I'm confused - the opening theme reverts to its original shorter version after Wesley Crusher is dropped from the credits mid-season, and as far as I can tell it stays that way for the rest of the series. Now I have no idea why I should remember more of the later seasons of TNG than of the earlier, yet associate them with the longer version of the theme.
A spot of online research suggests Deep Space Nine didn't start airing until after the next season, but it looks as if the groundwork is being laid here - both the Cardassians and the Trill are introduced in TNG Season 4, and I confidently recall that they're hugely important to DS9 in a way that they don't seem to be so much to TNG.
My overall impression of Season 4 is that it's a big step up in quality after Seasons 2 and 3. The writers seem to have worked out how to build on Season 3's steady baseline while simultaneously reaching for the occasional stand-outs of Season 2.
"The Best of Both Worlds: Part II"
Can TNG stick the landing? Yes, apparently it can. A convincing and exciting resolution to the story.
I still say having Riker as Captain and Shelby as First Officer would have made for an interesting alternative Season 4.
A necessary bit of recuperation after the previous two episodes, which also nicely carries on with the idea that Picard might still leave the Enterprise. It's obviously just a feint at this point, but it is very well done. A lovely character-driven episode. Of the two parts of "The Best of Both Worlds", I think the third might be my favourite.
The one that puts Data, Lore and Dr Soong in the same room together. I'm not entirely sure what merit this episode has, apart from moving a couple of the pieces in the longer-term Data story arc and allowing Brent Spiner to play multiple parts. Nice script, though.
The one with the human boy raised by warlike aliens. I can't help feeling Picard et al could have approached this whole matter more diplomatically and with the starting assumption that just maybe the kid did belong with the aliens like he said, and it still could have made for an engaging TNG episode. Not exactly a bad episode, but off-key.
The one where everyone except Dr Crusher starts to disappear from existence. A nice science fiction puzzle episode, but short on character work - most of the episode is focussed on Dr Crusher, and what have I learned about her at the end that I didn't know before? Also picks up the suggestion from Season 1 that Wesley might one day metamorphose into some kind of science god - as with "Brothers", this looks like a bit of story arc movement without any organic character development, a bit like watching stage hands redress a set without then watching the actors play on it.
The one set on Tasha Yar's home planet. We get to meet Tasha's sister, who looks and acts nothing like her, and everybody says how much she reminds them of Tasha. Very little happens, and it's hard to believe based on his performance in the previous three seasons that Data could possibly have needed the "moral of the week" he gets at the end. And my word, those street gangs all have very clean, very Eighties hair.
The one that fridges Worf's female equivalent from Season 2's "The Emissary" and introduces his half-Klingon son. Also notably introduces Gowron and his mad, staring eyes - the Bug-Eyed Earl of Klingons. (I think this is also the first appearance of Background Crewmember With Androgynous Eighties Hairdo, who becomes increasingly noticeable in successive seasons to the point where she's in the front row at Data's poetry reading two seasons from now.)
Plays out a lot like Season 3's "Sins of the Father", and like that episode it's an OK but not stellar instalment in the Worf Saga. A damn shame to have written K'Ehleyr out like that, though. I'm not even sure there was any need or good reason to use the character here except to overegg Worf's revenge story.
(One further small, niggling thought occurs: from all the carrying on about it, I didn't think Worf and K'Ehleyr were supposed to have had sex before "The Emissary" - just how old is Alexander supposed to be?)
The "Captain Riker" fake-out episode. The set-up is more interesting than the resolution - I almost wish this had been a straight-up time travel story. Why, knowing in hindsight what they ended up doing with Voyager's Doctor, they might even have gotten away with giving Future Captain Riker a holographic wife.
The one that strands Wesley Crusher on a desert moon with Picard, just before he's due to leave for Starfleet Academy. "You'll be missed," Picard tells Wesley - bahahahahaha, haaahahahahaa! In fairness, he has been less annoying recently than he was in the first couple of seasons. Still, away with him.
The one in which Deanna Troi temporarily loses her empathic abilities. As a story about coping and denial, it feels like it's walking a fine line between meaningfulness and clunkiness. Some of the characters seem to be having a bad week too - the portrayal of Riker is particularly off-key. On the other hand, Guinan's scene is predictably great. Perhaps the episode works better as a more literal comment on the importance of empathy.
A lovely slice-of-life episode filtered through the character of Data. The framing device of Data corresponding with the cyberneticist who tried to commandeer him for research in Season 2 is also a nice touch.
The one that deals with the aftermath of the previous year's war with the Cardassians, about which we have previously heard nothing. (Perhaps it's a consequence of the historical shenanigans in "Yesterday's Enterprise"?) The business of chasing after the rogue Federation ship is great, the contrast between diplomatic Captain Picard's response and hawkish Captain Maxwell's response to the Cardassian situation is great, the scene between the two captains is great... Basically, it's great.
What's a TOS throwback like this doing in TNG's fourth season? And yet, quite well handled. My impression is that the baseline for "average" TNG has risen over the past three years to the point that even the below average stuff like this works. On a note barely related to the main story, the idea of Data using a kind of reverse method acting to study emotions is a nice one.
A nice SF mystery story. It's more mechanistic and less character driven than I'd like, but it works well.
The one where Riker is held in an alien hospital and propositioned by a UFO nut. Probably a better first contact story than "Who Watches the Watchers" - at least here nobody's hiding behind a duck blind. Also very obviously taps into the UFO conspiracy tropes that were all the rage in the '90s, so it's somewhat of its time.
The one about how you shouldn't meet your heroes. Actually, as regards Geordi's holodeck activities, I'm with Dr Leah Brahms - what he did with her likeness and personal data isn't very far removed from what Barclay was doing back in "Hollow Pursuits". Basically he's her stalker. This episode is strangely reluctant to acknowledge and deal with that side of the story.
A high middling episode - one of those SF mysteries that TNG is getting good at. Gets extra points for noting the interesting overlap between the effects of sleep deprivation and the tropes of ghost stories.
The one where Geordi La Forge mutates into an alien creature that glows under UV light. All the better to stand out at the alien mutant disco, I suppose. Like "Devil's Due", weak yet competently made.
"The Nth Degree"
Charly rewritten with Reg "holodeck perve" Barclay. Another example of how Season 4 has raised the standard of "average" TNG.
Oh, please, remind us about the episode "Captain's Holiday", said no one ever. So, a fitting sequel, then. I'm sure the cast had a ball doing a Robin Hood episode, but... feh.
"Coming of Age" reworked for Season 4 and done with more flair. I particularly like the way that Worf, with the accusation of his father collaborating with Romulans still hanging over him, throws his lot in with the inquisitors like he needs to prove something.
"Half a Life"
An episode that deals extremely well with questions of culture clash and personal ethics in cross-cultural relationships. The return appearance of Lwaxana Troi didn't bode well, but this episode reins in her worst excesses and adds surprising depth to her character. Nice guest turn from That David Ogden Stiers Off Of M*A*S*H, too.
This episode appears to want to convey one message, but ends with a ham-fisted monologue that suggests the writers had a different message in mind. On the positive side, both messages are applicable to the episode and both are perfectly sound. The writers' message is that love should be about the essential character of the people involved and not about their physical appearance. (It could be read specifically as Dr Crusher being unwilling to accept her love interest changing sex, but she's not exactly thrilled about the symbiont temporarily wearing Riker's body either.) The episode's own message, and the one that I think is more applicable, is that in this situation, the people involved are entitled to disclosure in advance. I mean, the Trill guy actually deliberately hides the fact that he's a symbiont wearing a host body (could have volunteered an explanation whenever the transporter was mentioned, but ohhh no), and then implies Dr Crusher's in the wrong when she discovers he's not who/what he led her to believe he was. Not in the top rank, but an interesting episode.
"The Mind's Eye"
The Manchurian Engineer. Less interesting than it should have been.
The one where Data gets "a passionate kiss in the torpedo bay" (I've never heard it called that before, nudge nudge, etc etc). "Data experiments with romance" is an arguably interesting premise but horrible in practice - the scene in which he acts out a string of sitcom clichés is particularly foul. Stomp on that Lieutenant's heart, stomp on it! A watchable middling episode if you can refrain from caring about the characters at all.
First of the "team-up" cliffhangers. This year, it's the Romulans and Evil Tasha Yar against the Klingons, building on groundwork laid down in "The Mind's Eye". Also featuring the Duras sisters and their absurd boob-windows. If the truth be known, I'm starting to get Klingon story arc fatigue; I wouldn't mind so much if this two-parter were to be the end of it, but I suspect it won't be.
Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"The Best of Both Worlds: Part II"
"Half a Life"
"The Nth Degree"
"The Mind's Eye"
Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("The Best of Both Worlds: Part II", "Night Terrors", "In Theory")
Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Data's Day", "The Wounded", and "Family" as part of a three-part story including "The Best of Both Worlds". "Half a Life" and "The Drumhead" would also be likely choices. I'd rank a few episodes below those as stuff that I'd be happy to watch but wouldn't personally reach for.