Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TNG Rundown: Season Three

TNG Rundown: Season Three

Last time we talked about the rough ride that was Season Two. Some actors were unhappy, Gene Roddenberry was suffering from his cancer, and Rick Berman was assuming more of the Executive Producer mantle. Toss into that rumors that Patrick Stewart was making this his last season, and you've got the makings of a difficult year.

However, this was when the writing and characters finally started coming together. More room was made for meta-plots that would span entire seasons, and more focus was given to internal character development and conflict, things which had formerly been verboten. Also, the writers used the rumors of Patrick Stewart's potential departure to great effect in the events leading up to the season finale.

Several changes became immediately apparent. First, Gates McFadden returned to the show (reportedly by direct request of Patrick Stewart) replacing Diana Muldaur as the Enterprise's Chief Medical Officer. A welcome change by most fans, I myself was a tiny bit disappointed. I wanted them to do more with Doctor Pulaski. They had finally started steering her away from her Bones-like dialog and more into Pulaski territory, with her uncompromising ethics and technophobic (or at least techno-wary) tendencies. But, alas, by all accounts Diana Muldaur was unhappy with the working environment, and her character was disliked by fans. So, we get our red-headed eye candy back. Don't mistake that as denigrating to Doctor Crusher's character in any way. There's plenty of depth to her and being super hot don't hurt none neither.

Smugness like this doesn't happen on accident.
Also, the show got a bit of a cosmetic overhaul with new special effects, better models, and new uniforms. The uniforms I felt were particularly sharp, looking much more 'official' than the skin-tight jumpsuits of the first season. The actors also appreciated the new threads as the jumpsuits were too hot under the lights, too cold anywhere else, and too form fitting to allow for any meals consisting of more than salad and bread crust (Riker, Data, we're looking at you!).

So, how did the episodes fare? Let's find out!

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 understanding future good episodes (or so horrific that they must be endured to fully appreciate the dedication/insanity of Trekkies everywhere.)

49 – Evolution
Ugh. Wesley. What a terrible way to open a season, wherein young Wesley Crusher creates an entire civilization in the Nanites. And yet, I shouldn't be too harsh. The episode won't make you claw your eyes out like some of the dreck from Season Two. Also we can give a nice +1 to the Wesley Loathing Tally (we're up to, what, twenty-thousand points already?) Still, this episode isn't completely horrid, and guest stars Ken Jenkins who would later become Scrubs' own Doctor Bob Kelso. Oddly his personality is pretty similar in that he has two thumbs and doesn't give a crap about microscopic robot civilizations.
Bear It.

Strange! Not a 'weird head' alien!
50 – The Ensigns of Command
Readers of Season Two will know of my fanboy worship of Melinda Snodgrass's writing, and this episode is no exception. This is a lovely expansion of Data's character, wherein he must understand human stubbornness to save the lives of fifteen-thousand colonists. Picard also gets some diplomatic chops, and +10 Badass Points for thumbing his nose at some ridiculously uncompromising aliens. Add to it a super hot technophile with a thing for Data, and you've got a winning episode.
Enjoy It.

51 – The Survivors
This one started out very interesting when the Enterprise responds to a colony distress call to find the entire world obliterated except for a few acres of green surrounding the house of two survivors. Unfortunately the show's writers' tendency to invoke ominpotent godlike beings should have been confined to Q alone, and there's no Q here. You can see what they were trying to do here, and their hearts were in the right place, but, sadly, this one is rather forgettable.
Skip It.

52 – Who Watches the Watchers
A gem of an episode, falling withing the top fifteen, and explores one of my favorite themes of encounters between civilizations of widely varying stages of advancement. Some serious discussions on the importance of the Prime Directive (used appropriately this time), and Picard earning more Badass Points. I don't want to say too much more. This was a fun one.
Enjoy It.

53 – The Bonding
This is the first offering by Ronald D. Moore, who is arguably my favorite TNG writer of all time. That said, I'm really glad the producers saw something in this episode, because I sure didn't. The episode deals with the death of a Starfleet archaeologist on a mission under Worf's command. She leaves behind a son who is now completely orphaned. Worf wants to bring the boy into his own family, partly out of guilt for the loss, partly out of his Klingon sense of responsibility. It sets up what could have been a really superior recurring theme wherein Worf is now raising a human child, but entirely vanishes and is never mentioned again. The death of the archaeologist is mentioned to Worf once or twice in TNG and once in Deep Space Nine, so it pays to give this one a viewing. Otherwise, it becomes a very Meh offering from a very talented writer.
Bear It.

54 – Booby Trap
Geordi has trouble with women. Shocking, I know. And the episode's central theme and title make a double entendre that is entirely unintended. Geordi meets his dream girl on the holodeck while trying to save the Enterprise from a lethal radiation trap, a leftover remnant of an ancient war. Picard also earns even MORE Badass Points. One wonders if there wasn't just the tiniest bit of sucking up going on here.
Enjoy It.

55 – The Enemy
What's this? Geordi being badass? Okay, what the hell is wrong with this picture? But no! He really is! Geordi and a Romulan Centurion find themselves in dire straits, trapped on a planet with the Enterprise unable to assist and facing off against a Romulan Warbird in orbit. This one has echoes of Enemy Mine, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the writers took inspiration from that scifi staple film. Babylon Five fans will recognize the voice of G'kar in the Romulan Commander played by Andreas Katsulas, squaring off against Picard. Some minor quibbles with the final solution, but, ultimately, this one's a win.
Enjoy It.

Ladies, I'm talking to YOU! /wiiiink!
56 – The Price
Troi gets laid! And she likes 'em oily and girly. Also we get to see some Ferengi behaving like Ferengi, manipulative, misogynistic, and devious. Quite entertaining all around, even if the episode is somewhat forgettable. This also sets up a very very distant Star Trek Voyager episode, which is arguably one of the best of that particular spinoff. I know that's like saying this particular cowpat is the best in the field, but, really, watching Captain Janeway discover two Ferengi tens of thousands of light years away from where they should be is really priceless (assuming you decide to debase yourself enough to watch Voyager).
Enjoy It. If you want. It matters not.

57 – The Vengeance Factor
Riker almost gets laid! 'Almost?' I hear you ask. 'Is the Bearded One losing his touch?' No, not really. It's just that the red alert sirens are the ultimate cock block. This is a solid story of betrayal, want vs need, and (you guessed it) vengeance. Also more Picard Diplomacy Points.
Enjoy It.

58 – The Defector
Now, THIS is much more like it. Ronald D. Moore doing some of his best work. Also starring James Sloyan as the Romulan defector. You'll recognize Mister Sloyan from his many roles throughout all the Trek franchises. He's an excellent actor, and really makes you feel for his character in this one. I don't want to say too much more, but Andreas Katsulas also returns as Commander Tomalok in what is really an excellent episode. Top ten material here.
Enjoy It.

59 – The Hunted
Worf finally earns some badass points in this one. Seems like, for a Klingon, he sure does get knocked out easily. At least this time he's fighting a genetically engineered super soldier, and the guy has to cheat to take Worf down. Also, an entertaining application of the Prime Directive. It's not a landmark episode, but there's nothing wrong with it either.
Enjoy It.

60 – The High Ground
This is the only Melinda Snodgrass episode I'm not a big fan of. Largely because the MESSAGE will give you a bloody nose. Newsflash, folks: Violence is Wrong! No, really! Also the heavy-handed parallels with Ireland's troubles with Great Britain were completely undisguised. Not that I mind parallels too much, but the antagonist's last name is Flynn. No, really: Flynn. Argh! However, don't let my fist-shaking and cane-waving deter you. This is not a terrible episode by any means. I did like that Riker's 'let's all sit down and talk' Federation Dogma routine blew up in his face. Also the Flynn character's mockery of Federation ethos is spot-on. Doctor Crusher's line of 'I live in an ideal society' seems like clear snark, borne of the writers' frustrations with finding good stories in a perfect Utopia. There's some decent stuff in this episode and yet even MORE Picard Badass Points for a right-cross and tackle that looks like it belongs in a hockey game rather than on the bridge. And speaking of hockey, put on a goalie's mask for that incoming MESSAGE.
Enjoy It. (with caveats)

You're bleeding on my carpet, Q.
61 – Deja Q
Q is back, and nakeder than ever! Nope, not kidding. Q is banished from the Q Continuum and stripped of his powers. He's stuck on the Enterprise as a full-on human. Believe me when I say this is comedy gold. One-liners and deep introspection abound in this episode, including a very humanizing look at Q's character. We even get a stabbing. Always thought Guinan was more sinister than she appeared. This also begins what develops into a very very long Picard/Q character arc spanning the rest of the series. This is in my personal top ten. I can't recommend it enough.
Enjoy It. A lot.

62 – A Matter of Perspective
Riker's womanizing ways get the better of him. Kind of. This is an unimportant episode in the grand scheme, but we finally see the holodeck used in an imaginative way to recreate testimony in Riker's murder hearing. Particularly fun are the various renditions of Riker's meeting and affair with the femme fatale. For an evening of Trek, this one won't disappoint.
Enjoy It.

Now be tense. Okay, tenser, tenser... No! Too tense! Argh!
63 – Yesterday's Enterprise
Okay, what the hell is Rick Berman's fascination with time travel? Seriously, if you want to work on Doctor Who, move to England. Fortunately, this time, they got it right. Star Trek's big problem with time travel episodes is the inconsistency. People remembering what happened, or not. The present actually changing, or not. Pick one, ya know? Stick by your rules, ya know? Anyway, as I say, they got it right with this one. Denise Crosby returns as Tasha Yar. I hear you asking 'How?' Well, watch it, and find out. More Picard Badassitude, plus he gets into a real argument with Guinan, shouting and all. Plenty to enjoy here, and sets up a recurring character for the future.
Enjoy It.

64 – The Offspring
Data reproduces! Note: he doesn't get laid. He actually builds a new android, his daughter 'Lal'. There is a lot to like in this episode, and we get yet more discussion on the status of android rights in the Federation. Echoes of 'Measure of a Man' in this one, and that's always a great way to get on my good side. The only black mark is the forced antagonism of the Starfleet admiral who wants to take Lal away from Data. Picard is more than accommodating, and the admiral's reasons for denying requests that Lal and Data remain together are thin at best. This could have been fixed in the writing, but, as I say, this is the only black mark here, and you only see it if it's pointed out. As I just did. Hmm. Apologies. Well, the admiral is supposed to come off as an unreasoning douchebag anyway, and in that they got is spot-on. If you don't tear up a bit at the end, you're a friggin robot.
Enjoy It.

65 – Sins of the Father
Ronald D. Moore contributes heavily to this one, and we begin the Worf/Klingon meta-plot. Worf's father is accused of treason which, according to Klingon law, condemns Worf of the same crime. Worf, being the ultimate Klingon, answers the charges, much to the High Council's surprise and lamentation. The intrigue is thick, the plot weighty, and both Picard and Worf earn major Badass Points. A fine episode all around, and a must-see for the many future episodes dealing with the Empire.
Enjoy It.

66 – Alleigance
Ah, finally, a rather boring episode. I was starting to think this wasn't the same TNG I'd suffered through in Season One and Two. Picard is kidnapped and replaced with a doppleganger by aliens exploring the concept of authority. The thing is, the episode isn't bad, but the aliens just don't make a lot of sense. Their species can't bear captivity, but they're happy to do it to others? Just because? And can't empathize with how their subjects might view the captivity? Bah. There are some fun one-liners, and we get to hear Picard's doppleganger singing Heart of Oak, which is priceless, but you can skip this one if you want.
Skip It.

She's not smiling just because of the weather.
67 – Captain's Holiday
Picard gets laid! And about time, too. A lovely episode from Ira Steven Behr, whom many folks will recognize as one of the great minds behind Deep Space Nine (and largely credited with making DS9 a solid show against Rick Berman's better judgment). This one is actually a mystery in the noir tradition, but without the noir feel. There's the femme fatale, the mysterious McGuffin and the inscrutable antagonists. All that's missing is Peter Lorre to play the Ferengi. Grand entertainment, all around.
Enjoy it.

68 – Tin Man
Well, sometimes an episode is just sort of there. The trouble is with the central character, a savant-like Betazoid telepath named Tam Elbrun is tapped by the Federation to make contact with an alien vessel at the edge of Romulan space before the sun it's orbiting goes supernova. Harry Groener plays the telepath (many of you will recognize him as the demonic Mayor in the Buffy shows), and he does a terrific acting job, but the show is entirely about him. There are some swipes at Data 'understanding his place in the universe' but meh. Data's always trying to do that. And the character of Tam Elbrun is here and gone in a single episode. So long, and thanks for all the fish. If you watch this, you won't hate it, but, again: meh. I just have a hard time finding anything to care about here.
Skip It.

69 – Hollow Pursuits
Troi gets laid! Doctor Crusher gets laid! And all by the same guy! Well, their holographic images do, that is. This episode introduces the recurring Lieutenant Barclay played by Dwight Shultz (who the older folks will recognize as Murdock on the A-Team, and don't you just feel ancient now). Barclay is a fantastic character, full of flaws, easily relating to many of Star Trek's audience (shy, intelligent, caring, and, ultimately, lonely), and he uses the holodeck for what every last human alive on Earth would use it for: Escape and sex! In the game world, he's out of his shell: dashing, charismatic, romantic, brilliant. Outside the game, he's trapped within his own fears and insecurities. An excellent episode, highlighting one of the biggest flaws in Riker's character as well (that of the overbearing workaholic). Also, again, Lieutenant Barclay is a recurring character, so you don't want to skip this.
Enjoy It.

70 – The Most Toys
Ah, finally! Some real growth for Data. And, you know, I really don't want to say too much more about this one. There are plenty of ups and downs here, and lots of room for spoilers unless I phrase things just right. Even then, most of you (especially the writers) will remember anything I might have said and grok the Reveals way too early in the show. Just trust me. Watch this one. It's in the top twenty, quite easily.
Enjoy It.

71 – Sarek
A great episode with a reprisal of Spock's father Sarek by the awesome Mark Lenard. Suffering extreme old age, Ambassador Sarek embarks on one final mission for the Federation before his retirement. But, unfortunately, he's been suffering the Vulcan equivalent of Alzheimer's, losing control of his mind and emotions. And, being Vulcan, his telepathy is pushing these violent emotions onto others. There's a particularly great scene between Picard and Riker where you kind of want to see who's going to win the fistfight that's been brewing since Farpoint. More Picard Badass Points are earned here, and Patrick Stewart earns personal Badass Points for the superior performance. Well done.
Enjoy It.

72 – Meange a Troi
The space cougar is back as Lwaxana Troi returns to the show for another highly entertaining performance. And gets laid! Rawwr! But with a Ferengi. Hurl! Anyway, unfortunately this is another Wesley Saves the Day episode, but at least it's toned down and his exposure is limited. With Roddenberry having less and less control, the writers were able to take the spotlight off his vicarious stand-in. Although Picard does promote Wesley to full ensign at the end of the episode. Seeing him in his over-large uniform is hilarious enough to offset the Wesley Hate we all feel. You know, I'd have paid real money for an episode dealing with just Wesley and his 'fellow ensigns'. You know, the ones that have BEEN to the academy, worked their asses off, and were lucky enough to get an Enterprise posting? The ones who aren't the captain's pets? Federation values aside, it has got to be soul crushing to see this teenager sitting in the chair you've been working towards your entire life. Anyway, soapboxing aside, Picard's Shakespeare is not to be missed, and you just know that Patrick Stewart (veteran of many classic performances on British stages) just adored this episode.
Enjoy It.

73 – Transfigurations
Ah, here it is, the steaming turd wiping a greasy brown smear all over what should have been a sterling season. Too graphic for you? I make no apologies. I feel that strongly about this flaming bag of dreng left on my doorstep. Simply awful. Don't believe me? Get a load of this: Jesus is an alien and is rescued by the Enterprise and nursed back to health. They never say 'Jesus' but, for fuck's sake, the guy can heal with a touch, has an otherworldly aura of serenity, wants to bring his people into the a future of hope and peace, and develops the kind of superpowers that should be reserved for Q. Hurrrrlllll!!! Run. Flee. Screaming. This is Trek at its worst.
Skip It. Oh, God, SKIP IT!!

Well now, that CAN'T be good...
74 – The Best of Both Worlds: Part One
And here it is, the season finale. Remember that this was rumored to be Patrick Stewart's last season. We had just spent the entire year building up Picard's Badass Score, and it was at precisely one million points. The arguments on message boards and the fledgling internet flew fast and furious as to who was a better captain, Kirk or Picard, and this season had given the Picard-o-philes plenty of reinforcements. Remember Guinan's prophecy way back from the Season Two episode Q Who? That the Borg would be coming? Well, here they are, and they want Picard, Earth, and the Federation, in that order.

This episode introduces Commander Shelby (rawwr!) who is a fantastic offset for Riker. She's everything that he used to be, brilliant, impulsive, and irrepressible. Riker has been offered yet another command, and she's here to make the best impression on Picard she can. This throws her and Riker into direct contention with the office of First Officer as the prize. And then, Picard gets kidnapped and transformed into a Borg.

All things considered, this is the best of all the TNG finales (though the series finale gives it a run for its money). We didn't know if Patrick Stewart would be returning, Riker is in a position to become captain of the Enterprise, and we've got a clear successor to the first officer's role, one with a character who conflicts with Riker. These factors all made for a VERY tense off-season, let me tell you. This is a must-see episode, and aren't you modern viewers just so very lucky you don't have to wait a full nine months before finding out what happens?
Enjoy It. A lot!

So, what's the final count for Season Three?

Skip It: 4
Bear It: 2
Enjoy It: 19

Wow! Season Three is where it all started coming together. Characters finding their place in the show, the metaplots branching out into new territory, and some actual tension among the crew and spotlights on the black marks of the Federation's monolithic utopia. This was damn fine television, and the entire cast and crew are to be commended for their efforts.

Borg. Why did it have to be Borg?
The secret battles that brought this fantastic season to us were not without their casualties however. We lost a few of the better writers to this season, and, potentially, the most important character. Now, I'm doing an awful job of creating tension here, since we all know how many season Trek ran, and who was on the cast for the entire run, but, for those unsure, I'll just leave it unsaid until next time.

All told, this season gave me some of my favorite episodes, and some of my fondest Trek memories. Grand and glorious, to be hailed at every opportunity. Well done.

Now, the big trick: Can they repeat this success in Season Four?


  1. Hey, Eric! Have you ever read the Wild Cards books? Lots of people you know have stories in there, and Melissa Snodgrass was a major architect.

    In fact, when I read her novel in the series, I was thinking, "This is really Star Trekky." When I started reading these posts, I said, "No wonder."

    Wild Cards is a lot of fun, especially the early books, if you're in a superhero mood.

  2. I've read a couple of Wild Cards, and I should probably read more. Have you read her 'Edge of Reason' books? Also quite Trekky, and some pretty solid urban fantasy.

  3. I have to say that your praise for "The Most Toys" is spot on. That is definitely one of my favorite episodes for Data. The end of that episode forever changed the way I viewed him, and I mean that in a good way. After that, you never quite knew what to expect from him.