Welcome, gentle reader, to the last in a 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 20 years ago (or of films released more recently!).
Hey, what no Guinan?! Perhaps they spent the whole year's Whoopi Goldberg budget getting her into Star Trek: Generations, I don't know. But still, her absence from this season is noticeable and just a bit miffing.
In terms of quality Season 7 is pretty much on a level with Season 6, but the writers continue to try to turn TNG into a grim, realistic show about hardarse military officers making difficult choices with some character stuff as window dressing, when really I get the feeling the character stuff was originally supposed to be the core of the show and the military stuff was the window dressing. Season 7 doesn't exactly feel like TNG taking one more victory lap - it feels a lot more like the series is consciously winding down.
"Descent, Part II"
Plays out pretty much as the first part would suggest. TNG can and should be better than this.
The one in which Larry, Curly and Moe try to learn about human emotions from the Enterprise crew. Picard's "Misery in space" experience is a particular lowlight.
The one in which Geordi La Forge's mother goes missing, never to be mentioned again. The business of Geordi remote controlling a probe is generally well handled. The story strikes me as two separate ideas that the writers couldn't spin into full episodes on their own, and I don't think they really gel into a cohesive whole.
"Gambit, Part I" & "Gambit, Part II"
A sort of heist story with the Goblin King from Labyrinth leading a crew of bandits on a quest for an ancient Vulcan weapon. Not at all bad, largely thanks to the second episode.
This is the "Data's dream" episode I remember. Lots of nice weird imagery, including a couple of suggestive bits. (So Dr Crusher is sucking Riker's brains out? Ooooookaaaaay. Worf enjoying his slice of Troi cake is easier to factor away in light of later developments.) Data stabbing Troi in the shoulder (because making Data look like a psychopath is important to the current writing team) is an awkward moment, but overall this is a great episode. Bonus points for making Sigmund Freud a figure of fun.
The rather unexpected Lwaxana Troi "tears of a clown" episode. See, this is what I mean about TNG's writers in this season - let's take Lwaxana Troi of all characters and give her repressed memories of having had a previous child who drowned. Gah.
In which it turns out that - gasps! - Picard and Dr Crusher secretly fancy each other! Which must have come as a complete surprise to anyone who hadn't previously seen Season 1. The rest of the episode is wasted to set this up, and it wasn't worth the effort.
"Force of Nature"
The big climate change allegory. Considering how significant a warp speed restriction (even in limited areas of space) would be, it's surprising how little reference is made to this after this episode. I previously remembered the lack of follow-up more clearly than anything in the episode itself.
The one with Data's mother. Dr Soong's biography is getting increasingly cluttered and harder to make sense of - just how much of his cutting edge cybernetic equipment was he able to flee Omicron Theta with, anyway, and exactly how many "unique" androids did he make? (Don't under any circumstances) see Star Trek: Nemesis for further muddying of these waters.
Colourful SF mayhem as Worf finds himself slipping between alternate realities. I suppose the main point of this episode is to underline the possibility of Worf and Troi having a relationship, building on several broad hints over the last season or so. Several nice incidental touches help to lift the episode.
The one with Captain Picard Day! Oh yes, and the illegal Federation cloaking device. A good political drama.
The one with Worf's foster brother, you know, the one we've never heard of before. His solution to his adopted culture's problem may run against the Prime Directive, but it's brilliant; I'm not sure why the Enterprise crew would prefer to sit and watch an entire planet die from the comfort of their bridge.
Dr Crusher's spooky Mills & Boon story. The mock Scottish setting is a risk, but the episode manages to restrict itself to only one really over-the-top cliché Scots character, so it's less offensive than the Irish parodying in "Up the Long Ladder". A strong showing for Gates McFadden, and it's always nice to see TNG playing around in other genres, but still, not a great episode.
An episode that really digs into the characters of some of the junior crewmembers, as well as those of their supervising officers. The strong implication that Picard knew full well that Wesley Crusher's old Academy buddy wouldn't come back from her secret mission is more than a little uncomfortable. But outside of that, this is a lovely episode.
"Thine Own Self"
The one where Data loses his memory and gives an alien village radiation poisoning. Also the one in which Troi becomes a command officer, which looks more like it was surplus material carried over from the previous episode. The whole business of Proper Real Officers having to order crewmembers to their deaths certainly plays into it retrospectively.
A bit like a cross between "The Inner Light" (alien probe co-opts an Enterprise crewmember in order to pass on the details of the culture that created it) and "Darmok" (the crew must work to decipher an alien mode of communication). I really like this one.
"Eye of the Beholder"
The one with the haunted plasma conduit. A good middling episode, but forgettable; even having just watched it, I have to remind myself which one it was.
No, I'm not exactly sure what happened here either. Something something de-evolution something.
The one where Wesley Crusher drops out. Also makes questionable use of Native American characters - as the script itself is keen to point out, there are some unfortunate parallels here with the way Native Americans have been disenfranchised in the past, and this story doesn't really offer a positive response to that. Probably most notable as the episode that sets the scene for the appearance of the Maquis in "Preemptive Strike", and so really the first hint of groundwork being laid for Voyager.
The one with Future Alexander. Alexander's story here is actually pretty ridiculous, and it's a long-winded way of getting Worf to be a less pushy parent.
Unexpected sequel to Season 1's "The Battle". I can't see that it adds anything much to that story or to this season.
In a series where fictional characters on the holodeck and Wesley Crusher's science project can achieve sentience, it's about time we had an episode where the Enterprise itself becomes sentient. I really wanted to like this episode more than I actually did - somehow the execution of the ideas falls a little short for me. But it is a good idea, and there's some nice weird imagery here.
Oh yeah, Ro Laren, she used to be a character on this show, didn't she? This episode is fine in and of itself, but kind of depressing. It's a shame that Picard can't seem to find a way around the ethical minefield the Federation has created with the Maquis, and essentially ends up driving Ro away. TNG's days as a whimsical series about wonder and self-exploration really are up.
"All Good Things..."
A high note on which to finish (and, lest I forget to mention it, the other TNG episode to win a Hugo Award). The cast are all giving their best in three distinct time periods, Q is well used, and although the story has an air of "It was all a dream", it hangs together well. Q's final message, that the real voyage of discovery is an inner one that never ends, resonates with several of my favourite (and therefore, the best ;) ) TNG episodes.
Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"All Good Things..."
"Force of Nature"
"Eye of the Beholder"
"Thine Own Self"
"Descent, Part II"
Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 4 ("Phantasms", "Force of Nature", "Masks", "All Good Things...")
Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Masks", "Lower Decks" and "All Good Things..." are in the top rank. I'd place "Phantasms" on the borderline, and "Parallels", "Emergence" and "The Pegasus" in the second rank.
So now I can skim back through the other 6 posts and compile an overall Top 15 TNG Episodes list:
"All Good Things..."
"Ship in a Bottle"
"Cause and Effect"
"The Inner Light"
"The Measure of a Man"
"Loud as a Whisper"
Just pulling the titles out of the blog posts here - it'd be tricky to actually arrange them in descending order of preference. How would I rank the seasons overall? Probably 5, 7, 6, 4, 2, 3, 1. Not that that means very much, but there it is anyway.
The later seasons are undeniably better television than the earlier seasons, or at least better made - there's a clear progression in quality across the series, and Seasons 5, 6 and 7 are all very strong. And yet Season 1 has a charm that Season 7 lacks. The earlier seasons - with Roddenberry's hand still on the tiller, and the concomitant caveat around some of his lingering pre-'70s tendencies - are far more clearly about the thirst for exploration (both outward and inward) and joyful diversity of humanity than the later seasons, which are far more about the SF adventures of an increasingly rigidly defined crew. The Enterprise in Season 1 is essentially a venue in which a broad and rich family/community (I think New Zealanders would say hapū rather than whānau in this context) can be formed; in Season 7 it's essentially a military starship with all the crew's family on board and a remit to chart the galaxy, and some of the stories are about how close the crew are to their military buddies.
I realise that I'm generalising there. There are still plenty of individual episodes in those later seasons that fit in with the expectations of TNG that Season 1 gave me, it's just that by that time they seem to happen more in spite of the writers' efforts than because of them. Watching the behind-the-scenes material on the DVDs, I was struck by just how widely Ronald D Moore's vision of TNG differed from the TNG I thought I'd been watching. Knowing that this would be the creative mentality going in from the start, I'm less keen than I previously would have been to attempt a marathon of Deep Space Nine or Voyager.
As a final bit of frivolity, let's touch on the TNG films, which I have no intention of ranking alongside the TV series. By cracky, they're a mixed bag.
Star Trek: Generations
So here's the thing: the old Enterprise crew have continued to appear in TOS films while TNG was on TV. So now, even though TNG has spent 7 years climbing out of TOS' shadow and establishing itself as the current brand of Star Trek, it has to prove itself and stake its claim all over again in the cinema. Appropriately, it doesn't spend a lot of time waiting to be handed the torch by its forefathers but steps right in with a story about not giving in to the insidious lure of nostalgia. I actually think this film is the closest to my newly formed concept of what TNG ought to be, and therefore my favourite of the quartet.
Star Trek: First Contact
A shameless riff on things the creative team think they got right on the TV series: ooh, the Borg; ooh, time paradox shenanigans; ooh, Data being morally ambiguous. They also seem to be testing the limits of their vision of Picard as a slambang action hero. Nice cameo appearance of the holographic Doctor. This is a perfectly watchable film, but it's not All That.
Star Trek: Insurrection
Yeah, screw that Prime Directive. If any of the films deserves to be described as "just a double length TV episode", I think it's this one. And it would have been a pretty good TV episode, too. It's a bit hum-ho as a film. Starting to get that feeling of diminishing returns.
Star Trek: Nemesis
Incredibly, on a cinematic budget and with a decade of previous experience, it's still possible for the Star Trek creative team to turn out a narrative car crash. The wedding scene at the start says it all: we've run out of new ideas and we're going to turn back the clock to somewhere around Season 3, when Riker and Troi were still a potential item and Wesley Crusher was still wearing a Starfleet uniform. And of all the worn-out should-have-burned-the-tapes-forever ideas to dredge up again, they had to go with a Deanna Troi mind rape story. Wankers. What an utterly tragic note to end on.