Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5

Welcome, gentle reader, to the fifth 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.


The year of the shiny, shiny logo.

It's also the first season to include a two-part story mid-season.  I don't intend to be consistent about how I approach these mid-season two-parters - I think this season's works best if considered as a single story, but next season we'll get two that really work better as discrete episodes.

I can't not mention the appearance of Picard's new "smart casual" look, with his grey shirt under an open-fronted jacket.  Strangely, no one else on the Enterprise seems to be wearing a uniform in this style.

Ignoring the season-straddling cliffhangers for a minute, this season is bookended by very strong episodes, and I think (sneaking a look ahead to the remaining two seasons) it might be my overall favourite season of TNG.  It is, however, notable that it contains three stories ("Silicon Avatar", "I, Borg" and "Time's Arrow") that raise the idea of killing off an entire species or unique life form because nobody (on the Enterprise or on the writing team) can think of an alternative way of supplying their feeding habits.  Late period TNG's writing team seem to want to take the series into darker, grittier territory, and I can't say that it's a direction I want to see this series go in.

"Redemption II"
Federation starships for everyone!  The best thing about this episode is the way Data pressures Picard into giving him one of the temporary commands on offer; the Hornblowerish adventure of Captain Data and his prejudiced first officer offers a lot of dramatic potential, but sadly no time is spent on the aftermath of that adventure.  Meanwhile blah blah Klingon Empire blah.
"Darmok"
I'm amazed it took this long for someone to point out the flaw in the "universal translator" idea - it's all very well presenting a word-for-word translation of a foreign language, but it won't mean much if you don't know the context.  If only every "first contact" story could be as good as this.
"Ensign Ro"
The one that introduces the Bajorans.  Some of the regular characters are a bit off (when did Guinan become so pushy?), but it's hard to say whether Ro is off here, where she's cartoonishly insubordinate, or in every other story she appears in, where she behaves more or less like any other Starfleet officer.  The story of underhanded dealings within the Starfleet admiralty is nothing we haven't seen before, but plays out well.
"Silicon Avatar"
A pretty good episode.  Of this season's three "kill 'em all!" stories, this is the hardest one to judge because it's so unclear whether or not the Crystalline Entity is acting maliciously and whether Picard might actually have been able to talk it into finding a way of feeding that doesn't involve destroying entire inhabited planets.
"Disaster"
The one with Captain Picard trapped in a lift with three kids.  A compelling 45 minutes of peril for several characters in a variety of situations across a crippled Enterprise.  Notably sees Troi stepping up to act as Captain on an isolated bridge with (count 'em!) three crewmembers under her.
"The Game"
Oh yeah, the '90s was the time when people really started panicking about the possibility that computer games might be damaging and addictive, wasn't it?  Exploring that idea in a Body Snatchers plot starring Wesley Crusher does not make for my favourite episode ever.  Icky.  Also, the whole business of "Robin's Laws" is just too twee, like some kind of off-the-shelf manufactured character quirk.
"Unification I" & "Unification II"
The one with the dedication to Gene Roddenberry on the front.  Probably the first notable crossover of a major TOS character - McCoy only had a blink-and-you'll-miss-him (I certainly did) cameo in "Encounter at Farpoint", and even though Sarek got a whole episode named after him I wouldn't have said he was a major character in that sense.  I'm pleased to note the script isn't too fawning around Spock, with its cheeky references to "cowboy diplomacy" (as if TNG hasn't indulged in that itself once or twice).  Probably the best bit is the random levity in the second episode with the 4-armed club pianist.
"A Matter of Time"
The one with Matt Frewer.  It's largely thanks to his performance that this episode punches above its weight.
"New Ground"
The one about Worf's parenting issues.  Eminently missable.
"Hero Worship"
The one about the little orphan boy who imprints on Data.  Nice metaphorical mirroring of his coping/denial in the business of turbulence outside the Enterprise being made worse by the Enterprise's own defences.
"Violations"
Oh dear, another supernatural rape for Deanna Troi.  I mean, all the telepathic attacks are explicitly described as a form of rape, but only Troi's is overtly presented in a rapey way.  I'm sure this episode was well intentioned, but it's horrible viewing.
"The Masterpiece Society"
By numbers stuff with a colony built on eugenics.  The dilemma for the colonists and the Enterprise crew is explored well, but I just don't care enough about the guest characters and their society.  Deanna Troi's romance with the colony leader feels contrived, and why she would want to holiday there is a mystery.
"Conundrum"
Even though there's very little character work or thematic depth to this episode, I am a complete sucker for stories that suddenly introduce a mystery character into the line-up of a SF series like this.  (See also the Torchwood episode "Adam", or the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
"Power Play"
Well, I suppose it's been a while since we had a possession story.  Narratively more routine than other examples of the type, but the performances and the production are pretty darned good.
"Ethics"
The one about Worf's spinal injury.  Covers some similar ground to "Half a Life" but takes almost the exact opposite position, with Riker and Dr Crusher refusing outright to make concessions to Worf's request for euthanasia.  It's particularly astonishing that Riker of all people, who's spent more time in closer contact with Klingon culture than any other character barring (possibly, and only arguably) Picard, should be so vehement.  I mean, it would have been a huge shame to lose Worf, but even so.
"The Outcast"
Not only do I remember previously seeing this episode, I remember the British press getting excited about it beforehand because it supposedly had something to say about homosexuality and was therefore tremendously newsworthy in some way or other.  A bit like Season 4's "The Host", this episode has two distinct messages.  The one conveyed by the big set-piece monologue, by the whole legislative aspect of the story and by the writers to the press is about homophobia, but the one conveyed overtly by the episode itself is about the unrelated subject of transgenderism.  Actually, it seems odd that a species with no gender distinctions would have a concept of gender strong enough for them to experience it and legislate against it, but that's just one of this episode's many problems.  It's a muddle of garbled messages and flubbed opportunities.
"Cause and Effect"
A hugely popular episode back in the day, for the simple reason that you get to see the Enterprise blow up several times.  (In fact, it's possible I only watched repeat broadcasts of "Time Squared" and "A Matter of Time" because the titles led me to suppose that they might have been this episode.)  A hugely popular episode for me now, too.  All this SF mystery goodness, and some lovely character scenes too, hooray.
"The First Duty"
The one in which Wesley Crusher is exposed as a great big fibber.  It's nice to see Starfleet Academy on scenic old Earth, and it's nice to see Picard chatting with the oft-mentioned groundskeeper, and the story itself is done well - it just isn't a story I was tremendously interested in seeing.
"Cost of Living"
The one where the Enterprise starts turning to jam.  Meanwhile Lwaxana Troi takes Worf's son Alexander on a holodeck tour of the Planet of the Mudbathing Clowns.  None of this is particularly inspirational.
"The Perfect Mate"
Sweet Jesus, what have we done to deserve this sexist nonsense in the fifth year of this series?!
"Imaginary Friend"
The "imposter human" and "creepy child" tropes play out pretty much as expected.  Nothing startling here.
"I, Borg"
Ends with the nice thought that introducing the Borg to concepts of individuality and friendship might be a more effective way of defending against them than committing genocide.  Unfortunately we go through the whole genocide conversation first to get there.  Picard and Guinan are won over eventually, but not before they've spent half an hour speaking in terms of total war and looking like uncharacteristic bastards.
"The Next Phase"
The one where Geordi La Forge and Ro Laren attend their own funeral.  A competent middler, but I don't really have much to say about it.  One niggling question: how come Geordi and Laren don't pass through the floor?
"The Inner Light"
The first TNG episode to win a Hugo Award, and quite right too.  Like "Darmok", an unusual and engaging story of contact with another culture.  Also like "Darmok", it focuses heavily on Picard to the detriment of other regulars, but not much can be done about that.
"Time's Arrow"
The one with Samuel L Clemens.  A nice SF mystery and some juicy character work in the first half as everyone comes to terms with Data's mortality, leading into a solid runaround for the remaining half episode.  I think (sneaking a peek ahead to the end of Season 6) that this might be my favourite of the TNG season cliffhanger episodes.  It's got a touch of Doctor Who about it, which probably helps.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Darmok"
"Cause and Effect"
"The Inner Light"
"Time's Arrow"
"Hero Worship"
"Conundrum"
"Disaster"
"A Matter of Time"
"I, Borg"
"Silicon Avatar"
"The Next Phase"
"The First Duty"
"Ensign Ro"
"Unification"
"Power Play"
"Redemption II"
"The Outcast"
"Ethics"
"The Masterpiece Society"
"Imaginary Friend"
"The Game"
"Cost of Living"
"Violations"
"New Ground"
"The Perfect Mate"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 7 ("Darmok", "Ensign Ro", "Silicon Avatar" - three episodes in a row? must have been broadcast during a school holiday in the UK - "A Matter of Time", "The Outcast", "Cause and Effect", "The Inner Light").

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Darmok", "Cause and Effect" and "The Inner Light" are very fine episodes; to those I'd add "Time's Arrow", "Hero Worship" and "Conundrum".  Perhaps another half dozen or more episodes below those that I'd rank in the second tier.  It's a very strong season.

3 comments:

varalys the dark said...

Hey, the Perfect Mate has Professor X macking on Jean Grey you know! Funny, I remember when I used to think this was the weakest post-season two season IMO but when I actually came to rewatch the whole series via dvd boxsets I realised that most of my highest rated episodes came from it. I think it's because the clunkers really are clunkers and that dragged everything down a bit. Glad to see someone as bored with Klingons as I was, Worf was far better utilised in comedy episodes and endless Klingon stories in DS9 helped put me off that show for a while.

Bruce Ngataierua said...

Awesome season summary John - love the strong stories as you say and the series is getting better as time goes by. Of course you will get the occasional dumb episode...

John Toon said...

There's no escaping the dumb episodes, every series has 'em. The important thing is that the overall quality of the season can carry them (or, at least, can offer enough variety that there'll be enough material in the season for everybody to find something good in it). I think these last three seasons are on safe ground there.