Wednesday, June 8, 2011

TNG Rundown: Season Two

My last post navigated the debris-strewn battlefield that is Season One. I was surprised to find the body-count totaling more good episodes than bad. Yet, factoring the ones that must be endured, Season One still tipped into the 'Awful' category. The show's survival, as I've said, was due in no small part to die-hard fans, likely pressuring loved ones and Nielsen families with both bribes and promises to shower. I know I did. Shower that is. Well, not often.

Anyway, it worked! Paramount renewed, and, so, on to Season Two!

Now, it should be noted that this was a tumultuous season for several reasons. First off, Roddenberry's cancer was starting to get the better of him, which is horrible. Rick Berman was shouldering more and more of Roddenberry's burden, which might be argued as equally horrible. While cancer is never a good thing, we did get an easing of the iron-fist that Roddenberry had on the writing and direction. Factor in Patrick Stewart being somewhat unhappy with the show's direction, and we have the makings for a rocky ride.

The results? Let's see!

As always, shows are rated as Enjoy It, Skip It, or Bear It. A further reminder: Bear It shows are ones I would skip were they not important to the meta-plot. Watch them with a bucket and a towel handy.

As Doctor Miranda Jones
27 – The Child
We trade in the delectable Gates McFadden for the lovely and talented Diana Muldaur. She's a great actress, and I wish they'd done more with her. Her character was, essentially, a re-hash of Doctor McCoy, all the way down to distrusting technology and hating the transporters. An entertaining throwback, but less-is-more with that approach. She should have been a featured guest on a few episodes rather than a full-time cast member. On top of it all, she starts out by getting in Data's grill.
As Doctor Pulaski
As Data was so loved by the fans, the same fans took an instant dislike to her, alas. Oh, as for plot, Troi gets the 24th century version of immaculate conception or some other nonsense. The whole thing could have been solved with a shuttlecraft, but, hey, I'm just a human with a brain. Oh, and Whoopi Goldberg and her impending-workplace-disasters-disguised-as-hats joins the crew as the bartender. (She's actually a pretty decent character, though she does little more than say Howdy! in this one. She might talk to Wesley or something, but you know, whatever.)
Bear it. (And apologies in advance.)

28 – Where Silence Has Lease
The Picard Maneuver never gets old. … No, wait, that's wrong. It gets old the second time he pushes the button. Which is this one. Seriously, if you're going to threaten everyone's death and the destruction of the ship, leave it for the season finale. And, preferably, let us actually SEE the explosion. Otherwise it's very humdrum.
Skip It.

29 – Elementary, Dear Data
What's this? An actual attempt to explain Data's intelligence using actual logic?? Doctor Pulaski hits it on the head that Data is a slave to his programming. Unfortunately, the episode's kickoff conflict is inherently flawed, as a properly programmed computer is the perfect deductive reasoning machine. On top of it, the holodeck computer creates what is, in essence, a new human life, complete with wants, needs, and emotions. If the Enterprise computer can do that for a holodeck character, why can't Data have emotions again? (/handwave “These aren't the plot holes you're looking for). Anyway, these aren't the plot holes I'm looking for. I'll move along. Not a bad episode, and makes a good stab at a Holmes-style mystery.
Enjoy It. (Barely)

How YOU doin'?
30 – The Outrageous Okona
Picard earns some diplomatic chops, and we want to punch Wesley in the face. Wait, that's almost every episode. Ummm, let's see... Oh! Teri Hatcher is in this one (for all of two minutes), at the tender young age of twenty-four, before time and the knife take their toll. Yowza! Other than that, the episode is rather forgettable, but you won't kill yourself watching it. Well, probably. I make no promises.
Enjoy It.

31 – Loud as a Whisper
An interesting premise with a deaf telepath who uses a 'chorus' of three telepathic interpreters to speak for him. They end up vaporized, and he's left without a way to communicate. Oh, wait, except that Data can learn anything in about five minutes. Ultimately, I think this one started out with a solid concept that ended up undermining itself. They settle for a 'believe in yourself' ending, which is, well... okay. I guess. More could have been done here.
Skip It (though you can Bear It if you're a completionist.)

32 – The Schizoid Man
Bwahahahahahahaahaaa! Ooooahahahahahahaaheheheheheeee!!! Hhaahahahahaahahahaa!!!! Data gets possessed. Literally. Oddly, the premise holds up if we think of Data as solely a programming construct and apply the same definition to the human soul. How very Roddenberry. Yet, short of an intentionally and spectacularly bad eulogy from the possessed Data, there's nothing to see here. That is unless my raucous laughter has you curious. But is Eric laying a trap for you? That doesn't sound like him, does it? Noooo... surely not! (Shut it, Ackbar!)
Skip It.

33 – Unnatural Selection
Once more, an entertaining premise utterly undermined by the goddam transporter. While the problem of a mutant virus that causes unnatural aging is fixed by the transporter, they fail to explain why the damn thing can't fix every last little health problem. The episode sets a precedent for transporter abuse that is quietly, and rightfully, swept under the carpet.
Bear It.

34 – A Matter of Honor
Klingons! And fun ones, too. We learn a fair bit about how the Klingons live and work aboard their ships when Commander Riker serves as first officer aboard one of their vessels. Pretty believable all around, and pretty fun. I liked it. I'll say little more so as not to spoil it.
Enjoy It.

Picard objects. (No, as a verb, not as in 'Picard artifacts.')
35 – The Measure of a Man
Ah! A masterpiece. Easily one of the top five Trek episodes in the entire franchise. A beautiful episode by the wonderfully talented Melinda M. Snodgrass. I'm an unabashed fanboy, and, if you watch this episode, you will be too. I refuse to add spoilers, so, essentially, Data's existence is at stake, and a hearing is called to determine if he is a person or property. Perfectly executed, and brilliantly written. And, yet, if Roddenberry had had his way, this one would never have been written. But that's Melinda's story, and not mine.
Enjoy It. Truly. Best episode of the season!

36 – The Dauphin
Ugh. Wesley. Our little man grows up and gets his first kiss. It's cute to watch and remember our own first crushes. You probably won't lose sleep over this one, whether you watch it or no. Oh, and Anya is badass, though Worf starts to get the reputation as kind of a wuss.
Bear It.

37 – Contagion
I enjoyed the mystery in this one, as lost civilizations from the dawn of time are one of my twitches, but the resolution is incredibly annoying. As if 'reboot it' isn't the very first goddam thing you do when you suspect you're having computer trouble. I know the Enterprise computer doesn't run on Windows (or does it??), but, seriously, switching the problem component off and back on is the FIRST thing any engineer should try.
Bear It.

38 – The Royale
A fun episode! One wonders if the writer (Keith Mills) didn't use one of his own early novels as the setting for this one. Given that the episode is entertaining and clever, the fictional novel comprising the setting must have been one of his earliest attempts. His writing prowess definitely increased by the time he authored this episode.
Enjoy It.

39 – Time Squared
Vomit time. 'Travel far enough and you meet yourself' is taken literally for Picard. Oh and the ship is in danger. And there might have been an explosion or two. Or something. Dull. Forgettable.
Skip It.

40 – The Icarus Factor
Bwahahaha!! Oh man, you've GOT to see this one just for the hokey 'ultimate evolution of the martial arts' scene. Anyway, Riker gets offered his own command, and we get to meet his father, who is every bit the arrogant ass that Riker is. The 'fathers and sons' message is apt, and acceptable, but, really, the chuckle-factor of the 'fight' is the best reason to watch this.
Bear It.

41 – Pen Pals
Another fine episode by Melinda Snodgrass and Hannah Louise Shearer. A solid look at the application of the Prime Directive, although Picard's decision seems rather arbitrary. Honestly, I would love to have seen a followup episode wherein Picard gets called into question over this one. I did raise a brow over the 'meeting' in the captain's quarters to discuss the situation. Wasn't LaForge an ensign? And Worf a lieutenant junior-grade? Why were they even in the room? The writer in me knows it was for the counterpoints, but the military enthusiast rolls his eyes. Still, that's easily ignored given the entertainment factor. Well done, all around. Even the Wesley segment. No, really!
Enjoy It.

Knock knock. Q's there?
42 – Q Who
FINALLY! An enemy the Federation can't talk their way out of fighting. Everyone likely knows what species I'm talking about, but I won't spoil it. As you can tell from the title, Q guest stars, and steals the show. And the ship. And the only weak point is Guinan squaring off against Q. Psht. As if.
Enjoy It. Truly.

43 – Samaritan Snare
A solid episode, generally. It sets up what I consider to be the finest TNG episode of all time in Season Six. Also: Pakleds! These guys are great. They're exactly what happens when you give someone brawn over brains. The one flaw in the episode is Picard's reason for taking his trip is rather arbitrary, and poorly supported in his character. I won't say more, but, leaving that one tiny bit aside, this one is Good Clean Trek.
Enjoy It.

Brain... off...
44 – Up the Long Ladder
Another Snodgrass episode, and a controversial one. Some loved it, some hated it. Very few have a middling opinion. For my part, the cloning science and inherent troubles was spot-on and well-researched. The 'old Irish townsfolk' analogs were entertaining and believable. The humor was perfection, especially after such a long, dark soul-sucking wasteland of heavy themes and plodding topics that has been Seasons One and Two. Other highlights: Riker gets laid, Charlie Murphy shows up in triplicate (not actually played by Charlie Murphy, but hilarious) and Worf impresses an Irishman with booze. That last bit is worth double the price of admission, and I would pay real money to try one of those beverages.
Enjoy It.

45 – Manhunt
Space Cougar on the prowl! A funny episode, though it's over-the-top humor rather than subtle. Picard dons his sweet hat again for another holodeck jaunt, but, otherwise, not much goes on in this one. It's okay to have a 'downtime' episode, but this sort of crawls along. Watch it if you want. I'll say Bear It, but I'll leave you off the hook if you don't.
Bear It (but only if you want to).

Worf likes his ladies hot & angry.
46 – The Emissary
Worf gets laid! And, for a Klingon babe, not bad! Suzie Plaksin plays Ambassador K'Ehleyr (pronounced 'Kaylar' and really should have been spelled that way), and I'm betting she was cast primarily for her impressive height. She can look Worf in the eye. The fact that she's a great actress is a double bonus. She makes several appearances in a couple of Trek franchises, but this is her most memorable role. The plot is solid, the resolution is clever, and this is good Trek. Quite recommended.
Enjoy It.

47 – Peak Performance
Believe it or not, I liked this one. Yes, yes, I'm a heretic, but I could totally see an android having a loss of confidence. Also, Picard delivers what was a bit of a life lesson for me. “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a failing. That is life.” Considering I was sixteen watching this, that was an important one to absorb. Plus, we actually get to see some ship-to-ship combat. I know that the focus of Trek isn't the blasty-pow-pow, but it's still fun to see once in a while. The biggest flaw was the resolution. Worf could trick Enterprise sensors thanks to his knowledge of their command codes. So, how did he fool the Ferengi? Eh, a minor quibble.
Enjoy It. (Or not, but you have to at least Bear It.)

48 – Shade of Gray
Okay, whose goddam idea was this? A clip show? In Star Trek? If Jonathan Frakes was leaving the show, then fine. Riker's death would have been the only way to redeem this one, and guess what? He didn't die. I can't make my displeasure at this farce more plain.
Skip It. (Or Bear It, if you want to share my rage.)

You know, we didn't have one 'rogue admiral' all season? What the hell, Season Two? Slacking already? Let's tally it up:

Skip It: 5
Bear It: 6
Enjoy It: 11

Of twenty-two episodes, half are enjoyable. Better ratio than last season (which was 26 episodes), and featuring, once more, Measure of a Man, easily one of the finest Trek episodes of all time.

Bad parking job. Seriously.
For me, Season Two showed me what the show was capable of in terms of plot, characters, and scope. Problem was, it had been a rough two years. By all accounts, the producers and execs were not the easiest people in the world to work with, and rumors began to rise about Patrick Stewart making Season Three his last. Small wonder, as there were scant few acting challenges in this season, and the writing was helter-skelter.

It's not like I'm building suspense here, since everyone knows just how many seasons TNG ran, but, at the time, the whole thing was greatly in question. A show like Star Trek can survive the loss of a relatively minor character (with apologies to Doctor Crusher). Yet, it would be very hard-pressed to survive the loss of Captain Picard.

The writers knew this, and played a trick on us in Season Three.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

TNG Rundown: Season One

My buddy Sean Craven had perhaps the definitive review of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Episode One. He nails it on the head. I would describe it as awesomely horrible. TNG was one of the first attempts at a 'reboot' by Hollywood. With seven seasons and two spinoff series (some might say three, but Enterprise doesn't count), it can't be denied that TNG was a groundbreaker.

BUT! (And that's a big, bloated BUT!) Not all TNG episodes were created equal. I won't get into causes and effects. The influence of Rick Berman upon the various shows has been debated ad nauseum. This is an analysis of results, and it should be noted that Gene Roddenberry was in full command during Season One.

Now, these are my opinions, but they are qualified opinion, both as a writer and a fan.

I'm working from memory and wikipedia's very handy list of TNG episodes. If you've forgotten what an episode is about, check the link. Each one has a very brief synopsis.

I'll run through them ALL in the coming days, and give you an Enjoy It, Bear It, or Skip It rating.

1&2 – Encounter at Farpoint
The Pilot. Well, you know, win some lose some. It got us the series, so I guess it won some. People had to watch it, so I guess we lose some. Q, as always, steals the show.
Bear It.

3 – The Naked Now
They wanted to answer the BURNING QUESTION: Can Data get laid? Answer: Yes. And by a hottie, no less. Rawwr! Otherwise, this episode's only function is to give Wesley some screen time (Ugh. Wesley.) and to show us who wants to pounce on whom.
Bear It.

4 – Code of Honor
It's not the worst Trek episode ever. Some excellent throwbacks for the fight music. You can tell that Roddenberry's hand is still on the tiller. In a good way with this episode.
Enjoy It.

5 – The Last Outpost
And in a bad way with this one. Sure, we get to see the Ferengi for the first time, and there's the great line about our females being forced to wear clothing (such inequality we still force on our women, even in the 24th century!), but, do we still need Sun Tzu hammered over our heads?
Skip It.

6 – Where No One Has Gone Before
Wesley. Ugh. Roddenberry's middle name was Wesley. Did you know that? Writers often put themselves into their works, but very rarely as a Mozart-like super-genius. When I write myself that way, I end up as Wyle E. Coyote. Which reminds me, I'd like chicken for dinner.
Skip It.

7 – Lonely Among Us
My eyes. Oh man, my eyes. Someone tell me why Picard would still be in command after this? Please? Some entertaining Data-as-Holmes quotes, but... I'm afraid I don't hate anyone enough to recommend this one as even a 'Bear It' episode.
Skip It.

8 – Justice
My eyes! And by that, I mean YOWZA! Lots of eye candy in this one. And not too bad a story, either. Not great, but not bad. You can actually watch this one on mute and still get most of it.
Enjoy It.

9 – The Battle
Gives us The Picard Maneuver. Unfortunately, we stole the term and applied to another all-too-often-used maneuver of his. See episodes 15 and 28 for more info.
Skip It.

10 – Hide and Q
Ah, Q. He's starting to really get his personality now. The premise is a little silly, but if you've got a Jedi handy to say 'This is not the narrative you're looking for,' then you can actually enjoy this one. If for nothing else, Q has some great one-liners.
Enjoy It.

11 – Haven
We introduce Lwaxana Troi, the ultimate Space Cougar! As I had a massive crush on Nurse Chapel as a teen, I enjoyed this one quite a bit (as a somewhat older teen). However, the actual story plods along, with no direction at all. Some actual conflict, please? Anyone? Please?? At least Mister Homn gives us someone to root for. (And, if you've seen this one, you know just how much I'm grasping here.)
Bear It.

12 – The Big Goodbye
Picard talks morality with a fucking windows app. Are we playing God here? 'You only exist for as long as I keep this holodeck turned on!' Muaahahah!! I would totally do that to a bunch of holographic villagers. Yet, Federation values being what they are, one apparently must console your team members in Mass Effect 2 that, yes, the universe vanishes when you shut it down, but you'll be back to resurrect them tomorrow after work. Other than Picard's sweet hat, some entertaining Data one-liners, and Doctor Crusher's great legs (of which there's never nearly enough action) there's very little to recommend here.
Skip It.

13 – Datalore
Mixed feelings on this one. Lore is a solid villain that they could have done so much more with in later episodes. They set him up reasonably well in this one, and he threatens Wesley, so there's much to recommend, but the story has enough handwavium to render you sterile.
Bear It.

14 – Angel One
Riker gets laid. But the story moves along nicely. The heavy-handed moral message might give you a concussion, but at least you'll lose all the brain cells that disliked it. Also, eye-candy for the guys.
Enjoy It.

15 – 11001001
A fun episode, all things considered. And Picard has a good reason for setting the self-destruct. Unfortunately, he talks about it often enough (and does it often enough) that blowing up the ship became the quintessential 'Picard Maneuver'. One big positive was the character of Minuet. She behaved exactly as a hologram should; totally aware of her false existence as a program. Nicely written, and shows the program/user relationship in its proper light.
Enjoy It.

16 – Too Short a Season
And so we set our feet on the long, horrifying road of broken and corrupt Starfleet admirals. And in an awful way. If we were supposed to see Admiral Jameson as a man of grit and mettle, then he should have been in at least one episode prior. As is, we could really care less.
Skip It.

17 – When the Bough Breaks
Ugh. Wesley. Still, as far as Wesley episodes go, this one won't make your eyes bleed. And the heavy-handed message won't send you to the hospital. Not knowing how your tech works is one thing. Being willfully ignorant of it is another.
Enjoy It.

18 – Home Soil
Data earns some badass points. Still, this one could have been only half an hour long. Possibly fifteen minutes.
Enjoy It. (But keep the fast-forward button handy)

19 – Coming of Age
Ugh. Wesley. At least he's portrayed at the proper age and maturity level in this one. A very fun conversation with Worf about the nature of fear. Also, sets up a later episode. Not a great later episode, but worth a look.
Enjoy It. (Barely)

20 – Heart of Glory
Kingons! We could do without the Geordi Visor Monologues, but we get some insight into Klingons. Worth a look.
Enjoy It.

21 – The Arsenal of Freedom
Another episode where they got the computers right. Established Geordi as more than just a red-shirt. Finally. Plus some fun Catpain/Doctor interaction.
Enjoy It.

22 – Symbiosis
The best episode of this season. The morality only gives you a bloody nose, and only in one scene, and it's delivered by Wesley, so its easily ignored. A very entertaining employment of the Prime Directive.
Enjoy It. More than most in this season.

23 – Skin of Evil
Dear, Denise, 
I know the first season was rocky. Horrid, in fact. But, it was a paycheck. What else was so important? Didn't want to get 'type-cast'? Would a life sentence as the super-sexy Tasha Yar really have been so awful? Alas. It's the talking tar pit for you, my dear. Now, I suppose I have to rely solely on Marini and Gates for my eye-candy. With regrets and love,
Bear It.

24 – We'll Always Have Paris
One of the first attempts to give Picard some backstory and personality. It didn't take well. Data gets more badass points, but not enough to recommend this one.
Skip It.

25 – Conspiracy
Roddenberry's attempt at a meta-plot conclusion. Unfortunately, he didn't seed the earlier episodes nearly well enough. Admiral Jameson (and his untimely death) could have been a big piece here. Alas, 'Starfleet officers never have conflicts with each other'. Even when they do. Bullshit. You have to see this one, but only barely.
Bear It.

26 – The Neutral Zone
In a way, this is a very good episode. The execution stumbles a bit, but it does hold the people of the 20th and 24th centuries up side-by-side. I enjoyed Picard's attempt at superiority being handed back to him by the 20th century businessman. Also: Romulans, and the first appearnce of Marc Alaimo in Trekdom.
Enjoy It.

So there we have it. The Good, The Bad, and The Worf. Thinking back on the crap-tasitc television we had back in 1987, I'm still surprised that TNG survived season one. Looking at the rundown we've got:

Skip It: 8
Bear It: 6
Enjoy It: 11

Which I did not expect. Seems I skip more episodes that that, when I watch the series again, but the numbers don't lie.

We have the fans to thank for keeping TNG alive during its shaky infancy as it groped with both hands to find its feet. If not for the fans, the show would never have survived a heavy-handed producer and hamstrung writers (and a few sub-par writers, in all truth). It's always hard to tell exactly how much crap gets slathered on an episode in the writers' room and how much gets shoveled by the director and producer. Sometimes they polish it up. Other times, it's still sweating and attracting flies.

Season One gives us a bit of both. If you're a Trek fan, you've probably seen most of these. If you're not, you've got a map to the minefield. I'm warning you now: do NOT be tempted by the Skip It episodes. If you watch one and end up in the emergency room, you have only yourself to blame. If you've seen some of the Skip It episodes either on accident or while very intoxicated or during your brief (yet explainable) stay at Guantanamo, I'm sure you can relate.

Up next, Season Two. There are some true gems in that one, on both ends of the spectrum.