Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 6

Welcome, gentle reader, to the sixth 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 20 years ago.


So here we get not one but two mid-season two-parters.  In both cases, the episodes feel sufficiently contained and different from one another that I think it's worth handling them separately rather than as complete stories.

The trend of the writers towards grittiness continues.  Picard gets at least one full-on action hero episode this season, as well as one that glorifies his reckless Academy days when he used to get into fights and womanise, just like the Junior Kirk one suspects some of the creative team would have preferred.  The season finale is the peak to date of all their worst tendencies, and it all looks a bit grim heading into Season 7.

Also, Season 6 is the one that puts Deanna Troi in a proper official uniform with a military rank and everything - I'm really not sure if this is a good thing or not.  Yes, fine, she's a part of the militaristic heirarchy on board the Enterprise, but at the same time she's always seemed kind of outside it in her rôle as ship's counsellor, and her previous wardrobe freedom seemed to fit with that.  I imagine that if the Season 6 creative team had been in charge for Season 1, they'd have dropped the whole counsellor angle and made her a Lieutenant Commander Chaplain or something, which would have been appalling.

My overall impression: Season 6 is to Season 5 as Season 3 was to Season 2.  The level of quality is more consistent - and it's a higher level of quality now than it was three seasons ago - but Season 5 has the lion's share of stand-out episodes.

"Time's Arrow, Part II"
Yes, that'll do nicely.  This episode's basically all runaround, apart from the scenes where it uses Clemens' cynicism to restate TNG's uncynical intentions.  I might mention here that doing a backstory for a fundamentally mysterious character like Guinan is always a risky move, but the writers were smart enough not to spoil her by blurting out too much information.
"Realm of Fear"
The one with flying worm monsters living inside the transporter beam.  Howlin' Mad Reg Barclay is a hero now, so hooray for that.  Average.
"Man of the People"
TNG does The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Oh look, Deanna Troi is mentally assaulted and demeaned by a predatory male, again.  Didn't we get all this out of our systems in Season 3 and Season 5?
"Relics"
The one with Scotty.  We're obviously invited to draw parallels between him and the Dyson Sphere, but given the size of James Doohan here, that's rather cruel on the part of the writers.  Starts out by putting some distance between TNG and (as represented by Scotty) TOS, but ends up reconciling the two.  I imagine card-carrying Trek fans probably rate it highly.
"Schisms"
The one where several crewmembers unearth repressed memories of having visited the dentist.  TNG has already done at least one "alien abduction" episode, but here it goes into full-on X Files mode.  The mysterious set-up is a lot more interesting than the resolution.  Notable for featuring Data's poetry recital.
"True Q"
The one with Olivia d'Abo.  I don't have much more to say about this one.  Given a brief of "there's a Q adopted by humans on board the Enterprise", this episode turns out pretty much exactly as I would expect.  We're falling back on our baseline of mere competence again.
"Rascals"
The one where four crewmembers are youthed by a magic explosion, or something.  Shush, science.  TNG has been lucky so far with its child actors, for the most part, but it's a very risky move to ask a bunch of child actors to stand in for some of the regulars.  I think they just about get away with it.  The choice of Keiko O'Brien, Guinan and Ro Laren offers the opportunity for some interesting character work that is barely touched on before it's completely shelved in favour of an action runaround.  Hilarious scenes between little Picard and "Daddy" Riker.  A lot of fun, but it was looking a lot more interesting before those Ferengi showed up.
"A Fistful of Datas"
The TNG Western episode, but far more importantly, the start of the very short-lived Geordi's Beard Arc.  Alexander inviting Troi in on the Worfs' family time makes it look suspiciously as if he's trying to set her up with his father - watch this space.  Another fun episode.  Very cheeky last shot with the Enterprise moseying off towards the setting sun.
"The Quality of Life"
The one with Exocomps.  A bit like Season 1's "Home Soil" - mining outpost, machinery with a mind of its own, unconventional form of intelligence - but with the resources of Season 6 behind it.  Some unfortunate wirework on the Exocomps, but hey, it was the early Nineties.
"Chain of Command, Part I"
Another one of those episodes that shows why the series is what it is by showing how wrong it would have been if it had been done differently.  Captain "1400 Hours" Jellicoe is the sort of over-aggressive by-the-book captain that I can imagine some viewers might have expected to see in command of the Enterprise, but he clearly shows by contrast that cuddly man-of-the-world Picard is the right captain for TNG.
"Chain of Command, Part II"
The one with four lights.  The Captain Jellicoe material carries through into this episode, but the real focus here is on Patrick Stewart and his gargantuan acting skills.  Also very nice to see genre favourite David Warner.  A small-scale but powerful episode.
"Ship in a Bottle"
The other one with Holographic Professor Moriarty.  I was expecting this to reprise a lot of "Elementary, Dear Data", but it builds on it quite nicely.  That Moriarty has been forgotten for four years (notwithstanding real-world problems with the Conan Doyle estate) and has to fight for his rights is very much on the nose.  The resolution that apparently leaves everybody happy is actually a bit of a bum note.  We're still a couple of years away from properly autonomous holograms in Star Trek.
"Aquiel"
Murder mystery on a relay station.  Once it becomes clear that this episode's main inspiration is The Thing, it isn't hard to see what the next twist is going to be.  Unremarkable stuff.
"Face of the Enemy"
The one with Deanna Troi posing (against her will) as a Romulan.  Again, unremarkable.  The whole resolution is very pat.  Still, interesting to see this side to Troi.
"Tapestry"
The one where Picard apparently dies and meets Q in the afterlife.  A well-constructed story about accepting one's past mistakes, another nice showcase for Patrick Stewart and possibly the best Q episode.
"Birthright, Part I"
The rather modest crossover with Deep Space Nine.  Also the one where Data first dreams.  Lots of nice off-kilter imagery around that.  It's a shame there wasn't enough of this to sustain a whole episode in itself, because the material that sets up the next episode is pretty dull.
"Birthright, Part II"
The one with the lost colony of Klingons and Romulans peacefully cohabiting.  This could have been the setup for a much more optimistic episode, but instead the writers present it as a social prison based on lies that Worf must undermine with his authentic warrior ways.  I'd like to have seen the more optimistic episode.
"Starship Mine"
Die Hard on the Enterprise.  The scenes of Data first observing Commander Hutchinson and then practising his small talk on him are priceless, but - as seems to be the way with Season 6 - this material is dropped cold once the action plot kicks in.  Hutchinson disappears completely after he's been shot (stunned? killed?) and is never even mentioned again.  Still, it is a very good action plot, even though the John McClane stuff feels out of character for Picard.
"Lessons"
The one about Picard's doomed love affair.  This is a really nice episode up until it flubs it by suggesting that Picard, almost uniquely among his crew, is apparently unable to form a meaningful romance with a fellow officer because reasons.
"The Chase"
The one that explains why the galaxy is full of humanoids.  I imagine that to some fans this question may have seemed important enough to spend an episode answering it.  (Actually, I'm pretty sure TOS already did.  Maybe there's one of these for every Star Trek series?)  Biggest point of interest: spotting Maurice Roëves out of Doctor Who story "The Caves of Androzani" as a Romulan.
"Frame of Mind"
Kafkaesque shenanigans with a lot of nice surreal visuals.  I particularly like the scene where various TNG regulars stand in for aspects of Riker's subconscious.  This one would probably reward repeated viewing just from the standpoint of trying to spot clues in earlier scenes that I might have missed.
"Suspicions"
The one where Dr Crusher turns detective.  Actually develops her character meaningfully by showing her first taste of mission command.  I'm pretty sure it's the first TNG episode to tell a significant part of its story in flashback with voiceover narration - a choice that feels a bit odd.  I think I'd place this one somewhere on the border between the top and second rank for this season.
"Rightful Heir"
He's not the Klingon messiah, he's a very naughty boy!  Better than a number of other Worf-centric stories so far, with an unusual and interesting focus on Klingon religion.  I like that, even though this story inevitably has to give the mystical premise a science fictional debunking, it refuses to invalidate Worf's own spiritual experience.
"Second Chances"
The one with two Rikers.  So, like "Tapestry", another story about regrets and paths not taken - is there something the writers would like to tell us?  It's a neat idea, but what really caught my eye is the way debut director LeVar Burton gives background extras the centre stage in the first couple of scenes.
"Timescape"
Another one of those episodes that fools around with time, so naturally I expected to like this one.  There's a fun moment when Picard draws a smiley face on a frozen billow of smoke coming out of the warp core, but by and large this story just didn't grab me.  And it's all over far too suddenly, with the Romulan ship just magically disappearing.
"Descent"
The other big team-up season finale.  This year, it's the Borg and Data's evil twin!  Feels as if TNG has been assimilated by a different series - possibly one of the unpleasant "gritty" alternate versions hinted at in a few earlier episodes.  Data's first emotion is anger and he turns out to be a closet psychopath, which is the worst kind of teenage angsty fanfic guff.  Honestly, who needs Data's evil twin when you're making Data himself evil?  Rotten pulpy dialogue all over the script, too.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Tapestry"
"Ship in a Bottle"
"Starship Mine"
"Chain of Command, Part II"
"Rascals"
"Rightful Heir"
"Time's Arrow, Part II"
"A Fistful of Datas"
"Frame of Mind"
"Lessons"
"Suspicions"
"Timescape"
"Chain of Command, Part I"
"Second Chances"
"Relics"
"Birthright, Part I"
"Schisms"
"The Quality of Life"
"The Chase"
"Realm of Fear"
"True Q"
"Aquiel"
"Birthright, Part II"
"Face of the Enemy"
"Descent"
"Man of the People"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 6 ("Relics", "Rascals", "Chain of Command, Part II", "Ship in a Bottle", "Tapestry", "The Chase")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Tapestry" and "Ship in a Bottle", certainly.  I'd probably rank "Starship Mine", "Chain of Command, Part II" and "Rascals" in a sort of mezzanine tier between the top and second rank - close borderline stuff.  Perhaps another half dozen or so episodes below that in the second tier.

4 comments:

varalys the dark said...

From a purely shallow point I found Deanna much more attractive in the blue uniform, same as I did the one time they allowed Seven Of Nine to wear it. "Frame Of Mind" is my favourite of this season, a trippy mind-fuck and shows Frakes actually has some acting chops which I'd never have believed back in season one.

Bruce Ngataierua said...

Another great season John - Picard kicks ass in Starship Mine and I enjoyed Tapestry as well. Roll on Season 7!

Sarah said...

What's this John? Star Trek?! Exactly how bored are you?! :-)! I've tried watching TNG but end up only watching TOS crossovers. Yes the TOS crossovers are what I classify as brain candy, easy to watch and don't require too much attention...which is probably what I like about TOS!

John Toon said...

Bored enough, clearly :p I'd been meaning to marathon at least one entire Star Trek series for a while now - it only seemed fair if I was going to continue to make remarks about Star Trek in casual conversation. And what better time than while spending months unsuccessfully job-hunting?

Re TOS, I think what you mean is that it's best if you don't pay too much attention while watching? There are some good episodes in there, but there's also a lot of sexist Sixties filler. The light relief? Spock and McCoy insulting each other in borderline racist ways. Hrrm.

Hopefully I've pointed out some good non-crossovery TNG episodes that you might try another time.


Edit: I've just been asked to identify pictures of waffles as part of an anti-robot test on my own blog. That's just plain weird.