Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Four

Having now definitively come into its own, Next Generation was free to dig deeper than ever before both into its characters and into the future. The fourth season saw the show blossom still further, perhaps able to truly take itself seriously. And why not, as far as Star Trek was concerned, a fourth year was breaking new ground. Anything was possible now.

4x1 “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”
The conclusion to Star Trek’s first cliffhanger (and perhaps epic) took a bold left turn from the kind of mounting suspense that had closed out the previous season, instead of focusing on battle and external forces, drawing attention back inward, as the fight to reclaim Picard brought the action to Data’s laboratory. Any other show might have been content to let the captain become a still greater menace to his apparent former crew, but here, we watch as he remains mostly a passive figure, with a slow, methodical struggle to disconnect him from the Borg, a perfect representation of the show’s philosophy that might is not always necessary.

4x2 “Family”
The bold move of the season was saved for its second hour, which is completely devoted to the everyday lives of the crew, no conflict needed except those they may find within. The highlight is certainly Picard’s trip home to Earth, where he struggles both to recover from the trauma of his experiences with the Borg, and the grudges still found with a resentful older brother.

4x3 “Brothers”
Returning to plotlines left over from “Datalore” in the first season, “Brothers” has a look at what a more mature series can do with artificial siblings, this time adding in the human creator only referenced in the past (all three, of course, portrayed by Brent Spiner). Throw in the debut of the emotion chip, which would only grow in importance, and you’ve got another fascinating, continuity-rich entry for the season.

4x4 “Suddenly Human”
This wouldn’t be the only time Star Trek explored the possibilities of orphans forcibly reunited with races that’ve become alien to them, but it’s a pretty interesting one all the same, forcing Picard to question his own decisions, which is rare enough for the franchise.

4x5 “Remember Me”
Now in her third season, Dr. Crusher finally gets an episode she can sink her teeth into, which is pretty odd, considering every other member of the cast didn’t have to wait this long (which probably explains why she’s got one less season than the others), and allows her to connect in a meaningful way with the man her son Wesley is becoming. Bringing back The Traveler from “Where No One Has Gone Before,” this is one of those weird science episodes that doesn’t end up becoming a throwaway entry, what a random viewer might accept as entertaining, but rather something a fan can really get behind. Another sign that the season, and the series, is really firing on all cylinders at this point.

4x6 “Legacy”
Strangely, it took four seasons and her death during the first of them for Tasha Yar to finally got a proper spotlight. Here it’s her sister, of course, who gets to enjoy that spotlight (which for a long time really bothered me, making this an episode I’d have preferred to forget previously, and I think I only just figured it out for myself why, when I was just explaining it). Probably feels the most dated of all the episodes since the third season, just because they clearly had no idea how to really pull this one off, and so…they made a lot of weird decisions. Key among them: fashion. (Which is also kind of weird, because Tasha herself never seemed to have that problem.)

4x7 “Reunion”
This is an impossibly busy and awesome episode, which probably would only have been possible this season. Worf’s failed paramour K’Ehleyr returns, brings a very young Alexander with her, the family rivalry with Duras comes to a head, and Gowron (Robert O’Reilly) is introduced. Picard gets to be all political, K’Ehleyr and Duras both drop dead, and Gowron becomes new Klingon Chancellor. Did I mention Gowron, right from the start, becomes instantly iconic? Do you see how fantastic this season is yet?

4x8 “Future Imperfect”
This one’s a bit of a cheat, a fake future episode, but it’s still pretty neat. Riker’s in the spotlight, a lot of continuity is featured, and Picard is shown with a goatee. What’s not to like here?

4x9 “Final Mission”
Wesley marks his departure as a series regular, finally heading off to Starfleet Academy, but not before one final bonding experience with Picard.

4x10 “The Loss”
Sometimes, the best way to really illustrate what makes a character special is to wickedly exploit it, so very often, that’s exactly what Star Trek writers do. Here, they take away Troi’s empathic abilities, just long enough to see what they really mean to her. Ah, surprisingly, a great deal!

4x11 “Data’s Day”
Finally, I get to mention O’Brien! Present from the start of the series, Colm Meaney gets a real spotlight, gets married, and is relegated to supporting player in a rundown of a typical day for ship’s android. Needless to say, also Keiko (Rosalind Chao)’s debut.

4x12 “The Wounded”
Perhaps to make up for his big break getting so obscured by that annoying Data, O’Brien strikes again, getting a full-fledged backstory, with the debuting Cardassians playing a key role. In a power hitting season, this is surprisingly one of the most hard-hitting entries, a terrific demonstration of the depth the series has developed over the past two seasons.

4x13 “Devil’s Due”
This isn’t really representative of the season so much, but it’s always been a favorite of mine, a fine spotlight for Picard as he deals with a real witch of a woman. Anyway, great fun.

4x14 “Clues”
This is a real fun one, delving into untapped pieces of Data’s background (isn’t it still weird that he served at all in Starfleet prior to “Encounter at Farpoint,” given how awkward and inexperienced he seemed then?), making a big mystery out of his behavior, but then turning back around and explaining it perfectly well. All in all, the kind of episode the franchise liked to do, but done really interestingly.

4x16 “Galaxy’s Child”
Remember Leah Brahms, the engineer La Forge conjured holographically last season in “Booby Trap”? Well, meet the real thing. Ah yes, fun for viewers and La Forge alike!

4x18 “Identity Crisis”
Another La Forge episode, sort of like “Clues” and “The Wounded,” in that it gives viewers other career associations to make with the featured character, but this time with species changing action!

4x19 “The Nth Degree”
Barclay makes a welcome return, in an episode that purposefully inverts everything “Hollow Pursuits” originally established about him.

4x20 “QPid”
Cashing in on the last big Robin Hood movie (Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves), this one brings back Vash and some other character for a fun little lark that sees the show really cutting loose.

4x21 “The Drumhead”
After seemingly exhausting every other possibility, the season finally returns to continuity-rich territory, plunging Picard and crew into a witch hunt that finally circles back to fears that the captain himself may have been compromised by his experiences with the Borg. Long one of my favorite episodes, for any number of reasons.

4x22 “Half a Life”
Lwaxana Troi returns, taking over perhaps more completely than usual, entangling herself in the affairs of an alien culture that deems old people good enough to euthanize, to save on embarrassment. But this one’s really notable as Michelle Forbes’ debut in the series. But she’s not Ro yet…

4x25 “In Theory”
Data programs romance into his life. I’ve struggled with this one for a while, but I think I’m on the side of the fence that feels it was worthwhile exploring, even though it’s still baffling that the girl who thought she could handle it really couldn’t (sort of like The Blair Witch Project, where these goofs go looking for the witch, and then are surprised when they find her).

4x26 “Redemption, Part I”
Klingon drama, it turns out, is always good. The Duras sisters, Lursa and B’Etor, debut, while the long promise of conflict between Klingons and Romulans (since it was first suggested a relationship of some kind existed between the two empires during the original series) is finally delivered. And is that Denise Crosby, erstwhile Tasha Yar, as a blonde-haired Romulan? Why yes it is!

You can practically hear Deep Space Nine being created during the season, as ‘Next Generation’ struggles to break free from the episodic nature of the franchise and most of television programming at the time. Those in charge of the franchise are becoming more and more comfortable with all that has been accumulated in the history of Star Trek. This is good for Next Generation, but also indicates the direction Paramount will soon be headed in, believing the audience will be as interested as the writers in basically taking up permanent residence in the playground. That’s what this fourth season really represents, after all, what all this confidence leads into. But darned if it doesn’t seem really worth it at the time, right?…

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Three

The costume change in the third season of Next Generation is a cosmetic distinction, but it might as well represent how the series suddenly seemed to embrace a newfound confidence. Behind the scenes, it was as if Nicholas Meyer were stepping into the muddled pre-production of Star Trek II again, with the rise of such familiar creative names as Michael Piller, Ira Steven Behr, and Ronald D. Moore, all of whom would, along with Rick Berman, help guide the franchise for much of the next decade. It was 1989, the beginning of a new season, and just perhaps, the true beginning of a new era.

3x3 “The Survivors”
This has always been a favorite of mine, and is truly indicative of the confidence the show now emanated. While it doesn’t do much of importance for any of the cast regulars or establish anything new, it’s a good reminder that even a standalone episode can be truly outstanding, something Next Generation had been struggling with from the beginning.

3x4 “Who Watches the Watchers?”
This is the kind of subtle storytelling that probably only would have been possible in Star Trek at this point, built entirely around the concept of the Prime Directive, and the perils of skirting it. It serves as one of those episodes people might have been thinking about when Star Trek: Insurrection was released to a tepid response, and gives us the opportunity to see some primitive Romulans.

3x6 “Booby Trap”
Here’s an extremely interesting one, featuring La Forge in a rare (for pretty good reasons, because he’s not very good at it, as exemplified here) romantic scenario, with a twist only Star Trek could pull off, a holographic representation of Leah Brahms. What’s awesome is that later in the series, La Forge gets to meet Brahms in person…

3x7 “The Enemy”
A variation on a common enough story (which Star Trek itself would do several times), but notable as another Romulan episode, the first one of the series to directly address the frequent Federation foes (aside from “The Neutral Zone,” which might as well have featured talking heads in a Ken Burns documentary), laying much groundwork for future and greater storytelling. Features the first appearance of Tomalak, portrayed by Andreas Katsulas, who would later attain greater fame in Babylon 5, before popping up again in the franchise.

4x8 “The Price”
The unstable wormhole seen here helps link two Star Trek shows (three, if you count the artificial wormhole featured in a certain series), but it’s all the maneuvering from various factions visiting the ship, including the Ferengi (looking slightly less pathetic than in the first season), that’s the real high point of the episode, the kind of thing the series often tried to do but seldom pulled off with quite as much aplomb.

3x10 “The Defector”
James Sloyan was a featured member of the Star Trek acting troupe, you might say, popping up again and again, but it might be argued that he was never more effective than as the Romulan tricked by his own people to wreck his own career. Probably the best Next Generation Romulan episode.

3x13 “Deja Q”
Given the title, you know exactly who shows up this episode, which is the first time the character truly gets to be taken seriously, when he requests asylum, having been spurned by the Q Continuum for one too many misadventures. But what really helps make this episode is Q’s unexpected connection with Data, which gives both characters some extra depth.

3x14 “A Matter of Perspective”
It’s another common theme in Star Trek for a main character to be falsely accused of some crime, and for the ensuing episode to take great pains in explaining why they’re innocent, and why they were set up. This is a good example, featuring Riker.

3x15 “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
Wow, so there’s a lot of things to say about this one. First of which is, it’s probably exactly the point where everyone realized the new direction was definitely working. It’s probably the first episode of the series, after “Measure of a Man,” to be an instant timeless classic. “Q Who?” can come off dated these days, by any number of standards. But having a look at the basic rights of a main character, or doing some truly transcendent exploration of times past, in several ways, that will make any viewer stop and pay attention. Probably Guinan’s single shining moment in the series, when her ambiguities and status really come to mean something, without actually taking away any of her mystique, this is also the return of Tasha Yar, in an alternate reality created by the sudden reappearance of the previous Starship Enterprise, a ship out of time, with a single harrowing solution available to make things right again. It was an episode I had to wait years to see, after hearing all of the hype many times over, but it was worth it.

3x16 “The Offspring”
A curious sequel to “Measure of a Man,” Data actually creates his own daughter, who ends up better than he is. But because the series is still basically episodic, her fate is already sealed.

3x17 “Sins of the Father”
The first truly great Klingon episode of the series, and the best to date spotlight for Worf, we meet his brother Kurn (Tony Todd) for the first time, and get our first taste of Klingon politics. Oh, there would be more.

3x18 “Allegiance”
I’ve always liked this one, just to watch Picard try and figure out what’s going on, who’s not telling the truth, in a prison room full of strangers.

3x19 “Captain’s Holiday”
You can feel the warmth of the season, the sudden intimacy of the series, really creep in with this one, as Riker tricks Picard into taking a vacation on Risa, which seems to represent everything the captain isn’t, only for a lovely young woman named Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) to make the first of three franchise appearances (Ira Behr’s first great contribution to Star Trek lore), embroiled in a plot with a Ferengi to locate an artifact from the future.

3x20 “Tin Man”
Even though Deanna Troi has been a member of the cast from the start and her mother Lwaxana has made several appearances already, Next Generation doesn’t really begin to explore Betazoids until this episode, when an entirely separate representative shows up, deeply embroiled in one of those interesting non-humanoid aliens Star Trek likes to trot out every now and again.

3x21 “Hollow Pursuits”
Enter: Reg Barclay. Probably one of the most unlikely recurring characters, much less franchise icons, imaginable, Barclay is supposed to be exactly the opposite of what you think about when considering typical Star Trek individuals. In short, he’s not especially perfect. But he is, all the same. By the end of the hour, Dwight Schultz made the viewer forget he was ever best known for The A-Team. (And, enter: Sharlto Copley!)

3x22 “The Most Toys”
Data once again takes the center stage, most unwillingly, having been kidnapped by a collector specializing in the most rare things in the galaxy. This unscrupulous chap does end up with one permanent distinction by the end of the episode: he drives Data into a decidedly emotional act, something the android sought but believed he was incapable of throughout the series.

3x23 “Sarek”
If “Yesterday’s Enterprise” played around with history viewers either weren’t familiar with or came directly from the show itself, this one punched through the fourth wall for the first time since Bones McCoy made a cameo stroll in “Encounter at Farpoint.” The title, of course, says it all. In lieu of an appearance by a major member of the first incarnation of Star Trek, Sarek (Mark Lenard) was more than satisfactory compensation. Also notable for one of Patrick Stewart’s most affecting performances as Picard, when he’s forced to channel all the emotion Sarek can’t show in the culmination of his life’s work.

3x24 “Ménage a Troi”
Troi and mom and Ferengi. Only good can come from this! The best has to be Picard putting on a show of affection for the dreaded Lwaxana in order to come to her rescue.

3x25 “Transfigurations”
Sort of like “The Survivors,” but transplanted from isolated individuals to a whole society, with a twist, a clear argument for the controversy of evolution, as only sci-fi can do it.

3x26 “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I”
At the end of an auspicious year, Next Generation takes its next bold step into the future, threatening everything! Riker’s position as first officer is challenged, the Borg return, and Picard is assimilated into their Collective. Of all the hallowed moments from the series, this has got to be the most famous, how it cemented its position in franchise lore, a highwater mark that in many ways subsequent series continually struggled to match.

I should also probably note that Gates McFadden returned as Dr. Crusher starting this season, marking her temporary replacement, Dr. Pulaski, as the second one-season wonder of the series. I never had a problem with Pulaski, but it’s a little telling that I didn’t really mention her in my second season survey. Following McCoy and Scotty seemed to be a problem for Next Generation for its first couple seasons (Pulaski was all but a female version of Bones, after all, and La Forge didn’t graduate to chief engineer until the second season). But like everything else, all that was really falling into place during the third year.

Gene Roddenberry himself, along most notably with Maurice Hurley, had done what he could in the first two years of the show, but it was when a true next generation came aboard that it finally took off, marking an obvious transition, a place in the popular culture, and the start of a bold new decade…

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Two

Following a debut season that anyone might have characterized as “instructive,” Next Generation made a few changes for its second year, moving into more confident writing, giving Riker a beard, and replacing Dr. Crusher with Kate Pulaski (Diana Muldaur, who like “Lwaxana Troi” Majel Barrett had acted in the original series twenty years earlier). When I say “more confident writing,” I mean the quality of the episodes was infinitely more even, though still not quite representative of the show fans would grow to wholeheartedly embrace. Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) signed up, too, during this season, proving to be the second most enduring addition, after some Swedish dudes named the Borg.

2x1 “The Child”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, however, was its first episode, which took a marked departure from the first season by building itself around Deanna Troi, who had been probably the least utilized member of the cast previously. It was an opportunity actor Marina Sirtis was ready for, and probably helped set the tone for the season, and the show’s quest for a new and better direction.

2x2 “Where Silence Has Lease”
Representative of the material the writers would often depend on, but were still not yet capable of fully exploiting, this is a strange little adventure that sees the crew trapped in an impossible situation and asked to endure the study of an entity that has no concept of the human condition. Ah, yeah, sounds pretty generic, but still pretty fun to watch.

2x3 “Elementary, Dear Data”
Turning Data into Sherlock Holmes in 2009 probably would have been easier, but they tried it in 1988, and were told to never do it again. Dixon Hill was better, anyway. But we got Moriarty out of it, and that would turn out to be pretty awesome later.

2x4 “The Outrageous Okona”
I think I’m pretty much the only person who still remembers this episode at all, but I don’t mind. I thought Okona was a pretty unique Star Trek character, probably the closest the franchise will ever get to Han Solo. Unless you count Chris Pine’s Kirk.

2x5 “Loud as a Whisper”
The memorable “deaf people society” episode, and probably one of the show’s best efforts at making diplomacy seem dramatic, which was something Picard would do pretty well with two separate Vulcan icons later, among other examples.

2x8 “A Matter of Honor”
Riker participates in an officer exchange program, giving us the first real Klingon highlight of the series, and Riker’s best episode to date as well.

2x9 “The Measure of a Man”
The show’s first classic finally sees everyone firing on all cylinders, because performance happens to rest on Data’s right to continued existence! Not only does the android get his first sober exploration, but Picard and Riker are pushed to the limit as well, particularly since the latter is forced to represent the prosecution. Probably the moment viewers realized this crew was worth following after all.

2x10 “The Dauphin”
You know Wesley is getting older when he gets an episode that revolves around a girl instead of his genius, and that pretty much explains this one.

2x12 “The Royale”
This would be the overlooked “Piece of the Action” for Next Generation, in which the crew stumbles into a planet that has patterned itself after a thriller a long-dead astronaut brought with him on a flight. Not much to say about the characters, but it’s still pretty fun, and probably would be remembered if later seasons didn’t greatly alter the basic appeal of the show.

2x13 “Time Squared”
Another unappreciated gem from the season sees Picard in a time paradox come back to the ship and try to help himself and his crew avert certain disaster. As far as Picard was concerned, this probably didn’t register as well as it could have, like the first two seasons in general, thanks to a general lack of warmth from the character, which was one of the first things changed for the third year. But don’t worry, Patrick Stewart. Avery Brooks suffered the same problem in the next series.

2x14 “The Icarus Factor”
One of the curious things about Riker was that no matter how appealing Jonathan Frakes could make him, repeated attempts at developing his backstory never really seemed to work, at least for the most part. There was the aloof attempt at his past romance with Troi, and then this episode, which introduced his dad, which probably belongs in the depository most fans keep their memories of the early Next Generation years.

2x16 “Q Who?”
This would be the other signature moment of the second season. Q’s appearance was almost beside the point, because here is that introduction to the Borg that I alluded to earlier. There might almost have never been another Borg episode, not even “The Best of Both Worlds,” and their legacy in the Star Trek franchise would probably have been already assured.

2x17 “Samaritan Snare”
This might be considered the reverse “Q Who?,” featuring a bunch of idiots stealing their way to prosperity and giving La Forge a terrible headache while they were at it.

2x19 “Manhunt”
Well, combine Lwaxana Troi and Dixon Hill, and doesn’t that pretty much say everything?

2x20 “The Emissary”
Finally Worf has an episode he can be proud of, even if his troubled relationship with K’Ehleyr is never quite resolved happily, the kind of story Spock never got, exploring the effects of trying to live in two different worlds and never quite succeeding.

2x21 “Peak Performance”
A war games scenario that ends up providing a surprisingly fun ensemble adventure, nothing too dramatic, but like the second season as a whole, pretty pleasant on the whole.

With a bunch of really good maneuvering, the season helped foster the kind of affection that would eventually lift Next Generation to new levels of success, while also demonstrating that a little more work still needed to be done…

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season One

After the completion of the animated series, there were four Star Trek movies released before 1987, more than twenty years after the debut of the original series, when The Next Generation premiered. Featuring Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, a seeming polar opposite of Kirk, ready to talk where his predecessor was all cagey calculation, not to mention a good deal older, this new incarnation was meant to feel at once completely familiar ,and yet, quite different at the same time. Just what that meant as a working reality would be the focus of the shakedown cruise that was the first season.

1x1/1x2 “Encounter at Farpoint”
Unlike Kirk’s crew, where everyone seemed to know each other pretty much from the outset, Picard’s first mission brought his team together for the first time. While much of this was simply a matter of everyone converging on the Enterprise, some immediately stood out, such as the android Data (Brent Spiner), clearly the new show’s attempt to recreate Spock, an outsider figure that’s hard to overlook and yet easy to embrace. Spock always had Kirk, and yet, Data seemed quite content with himself (it wouldn’t be until later that certain relationships, notably with Geordi La Forge and Picard, would surface). But the real big gun of the episode was Q (John de Lancie), a new version of an old Star Trek template, a godlike being meddling in the affairs of mortals. Except Q was quite unique. Thanks to de Lancie, he had a lot more connection to the audience, thanks to his incessant witty banter. He was more important to the pilot than the Farpoint mission itself. He also put mankind on trial.

1x3 “The Naked Now”
But as to what the series would be on a regular basis, well…This was a straight-up adaptation of “The Naked Time,” from the original series, notable in an encounter between Data and Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), a moment that would continue to remain significant in surprising ways.

1x5 “The Last Outpost”
One of the original edicts of the show was to develop its own array of aliens for the crew to mingle with, and this was the introduction of the Ferengi, predictably primitive in presentation, as were many things in the early days of the show. It’s probably best to keep that in mind, because in two seasons, the show developed a remarkable ability to render its own history quaint.

1x6 “Where No One Has Gone Before”
One big difference between Kirk and Picard’s ships was the presence of families on the latter’s, which from the start was represented by Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), the son of the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). Wes quickly became known as something of a boy wonder, advanced beyond his years in ship operations (weird that the Enterprise didn’t have a chief engineer, weirder still that a boy more or less filled that role). This is the best episode to see him in action in this capacity, which also happens to bring him into contact with the Traveler, the being who would one day help him fulfill his potential.

1x9 “The Battle”
If the Ferengi came off as something of a joke the first time around, this was an attempt to bring them back around as a legitimate threat, at the same time fleshing out some of Picard’s backstory, his previous command experience. On the whole, a fairly remarkable effort, one that may have played a lot differently if later seasons had expanded on it.

1x10 “Hide and Q”
The first sign that the strange being in the first episode wasn’t going to be just another of those pretty much generic beings that had festered in the franchise previously, Q returns and tries to give everyone what they want, helping to define some of the central arcs for the cast of characters in the process.

1x11 “Haven”
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) didn’t have a ton of interesting material in the first season, but this has got to be a highlight, a sort of “Amok Time” crossed with “Journey to Babel.” We meet her indomitable mother, Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife in her defining role. It may be a bit eerie at this point to note that the man she was supposed to marry is portrayed by Robert Knepper, who would go on to far more sinister roles in Prison Break and Heroes

1x12 “The Big Goodbye”
The first big holodeck episode and the introduction of Picard’s favorite private eye, Dixon Hill (whom he happens to play), is an exceptional romp that stands apart in the season as an unqualified success.

1x13 “Datalore”
Picard had “The Battle,” Troi had “Haven,” but the backstory episode with the most traction throughout the series had to be this one, which introduces Data’s, not to mention his evil twin, Lore (also portrayed by Spiner). Another episode from the season that needs no apologies.

1x15 “11001001”
This one would have been a highlight of the show as well, but seems to have been forgotten when later seasons produced more consistent results. Aside from a good Riker (Jonathan Frakes) plotline that riffed on his ladies man reputation (a nod to Kirk that Picard probably would have been inappropriate to take on), the best attempt of the season, there’s also the binary species that helps give the episode its name. Definitely still waiting to be rediscovered.

1x16 “Too Short a Season”
This one’s more memorable than it’s actually good, an example of the kind of standout the first season usually produced, when it was operating at less than full capacity. Basically the opposite of “The Deadly Years,” this one sees a visiting admiral attempt to complete one last mission by taking drugs to reverse his aging. Predictably, he takes it too far. Come to think of it, the dude really dominates the episode, which is kind of baffling in itself, especially because he’s important to no one in particular…

1x17 “When the Bough Breaks”
Heh. I think I just got the title (as in, “the cradle will drop”). I don’t know why it took so long. Always thought it was memorable, though, the title. The story itself takes another look at the concept of the families aboard Picard’s ship, by way of getting them involved in a plot by a dying world to rejuvenate itself with fresh citizens, which itself isn’t very unique. But Wesley isn’t annoying in this one, so it’s worth noting.

1x19 “Coming of Age”
He’s better in this episode, even though it features a baffling Starfleet Academy admittance exam that seems to pit a bunch of overqualified candidates against each other. It’s a strong entry in the way of continuity, which clearly this series was more interested in maintaining than its precursor.

1x20 “Heart of Glory”
Even though Worf (Michael Dorn) had been a part of the show since the start, he had initially been a victim of the edict to focus on fresh aliens, leaving his Klingon heritage high and dry, and himself as well. This was a pretty brilliant first effort to reverse that trend, even if Worf as we would come to know him was still to wait for that day to come.

1x21 “The Arsenal of Freedom”
One of the interesting character dynamics that had been written into the show from the start was Picard and Beverly Crusher’s prior relationship, which held in its promise a future one as well, and this episode does a fine job of reminding everyone about that, even if the series as a whole never really capitalized on it.

1x22 “Symbiosis”
Notable as much for guest actor Merritt Butrick, who had portrayed Kirk’s son David in the movies, this one’s also probably the only allegorical episode of the season to hit its mark, a conflict of species that still resonates today, one dominating the other, and using dirty tricks to do it.

1x23 “Skin of Evil”
How much differently would the series have played out if Denise Crosby had been happy? Her Tasha Yar, security chief during most of the first season, was killed off in this episode in order to help fulfill the unsatisfied actress’s request to disembark. Just try to imagine later seasons with her in it, what her later dynamic might have been. Anyway, it’s hear we learn how much she meant to Data, drawing on the memories of “The Naked Now,” which helped to humanize the android in ways the rest of the season never really tried to, while Troi has her finest hour, contending with the monster that did Yar in. I wonder if the irony of any of this hit Crosby, who only wanted the show to have a little more meat, for herself, obviously, but probably in general. I think it all started here.

1x25 “Conspiracy”
This was the continuation of an earlier episode, the only time the first season consciously followed an arc to conclusion, still memorable with its creepy effects and paranoid distrust within Starfleet, which would have been so much more significant with more supporting material, either before or after. Still, always worth watching again, a hallmark of the first year.

1x26 “The Neutral Zone”
Much of this episode is squandered on material that really has nothing to do with Romulans, but the Romulans are here, at last, all the same, helping to end the season on a mark of at least continued promise.

A lot of people, perhaps in hindsight, remember the first season of The Next Generation to be pretty embarrassing, but I’ve never been part of that camp. Certainly, after seeing what the series would become, there’s not a lot here that really contends with the later material, but there’s still a lot, within its own context, that can actually startle you to think actually happened. It’s still weird to think about Yar. There were the same seeds planted in her backstory that might have sprouted. Hers was among the earliest that the show explored, but unfortunately, she didn’t get an episode of her own to do it in, and to Crosby’s credit, there wasn’t a lot else going on for her, either. How Worf later assumed her role, and commanded it, puts a lot of the contrast others see in the season as a whole to far better comparison.

As a show with obvious precedent, Next Generation wasn’t as free as the original series to experiment and explore, to spontaneously come up with a “Balance of Terror” or “City on the Edge of Forever” in its first year. Still, the seeds were there. Q was there from the start. Even annoying Wesley had his Traveler to help guide him, put him in some useful context, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent that someday he might be viewed with nostalgia. There was good material, and some outstanding episodes by any standard. But yes, the best was yet to come…

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Star Trek The Animated Series

In 1973, four years after Star Trek was cancelled, it returned. Well, sort of. For one season, fans had a chance to revisit their old friends in animated form, with most of the original cast (except Andrew Koenig, beloved as the Russian boy wonder Chekov) intact, all the designs exactly as they were remembered, with a few things thrown in that only a cartoon could deliver (a feline bridge officer, plus a dude with a bunch of extra limbs).

1×2 “Yesteryear”
The episode most fondly remembered from this experience, Spock’s childhood is visited, with a strange plot of the Vulcan becoming his own inspiration.

1×5 “More Tribbles, More Troubles”
The Tribbles return! Anything more might make the actual episode sound silly. So I’ll leave it at that.

1×6 “The Survivor”
A Romulan episode and another in a series of original series-era episodes to feature notable contemporary historical figures (episodes I didn’t include in my surveys involved such men as Richard Daystrom, Zephram Cochrane, and Captain Garth, each of whom would have warranted their episodes being listed, had I had much experiences with those particular episodes). Here it’s Carter Winston, who becomes involved in his own convoluted incident in less famous later years.

1×14 “The Slaver Weapon”
It’s easier to pick and choose from episodes that were merely entertaining from this series. This one features another of those alien artifacts from an long-extinct culture that causes a fair bit of grief for our crew.

1×18 “Bem”
Another benefit of an animated series was an unusual guest-star, like the ambassador who can separate his body into independent parts, which is the least of the ways he wearies our crew with his odd behavior.

1×20 “Albatross”
It was always a good episode that centered on McCoy, whichever original crew iteration it was, and this one was, of course, no exception. Here his past comes back to haunt him, his relief medical efforts apparently having come up short for the liking of the indigenous population.

1×22 “The Counter-Clock Incident”
The reverse of “The Deadly Years” (before a certain other Star Trek did it), more history is established here when the predecessor to Kirk’s predecessor (Christopher Pike, remember), Robert April, gets to save the day.

Mostly, the animated series is a pleasant revisit of Star Trek, not exactly capable of duplicating the highpoints of the live action series with half the time, but still quite amusing. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an instant treat, because it’s still so obscure, it’s bound to be an unexpected treat, no matter how familiar you are with it. At times no considered officially to be a part of canon, because every other recognized piece comes from live action entries, there’s still much here that has helped establish the things fans have come to know. There’s no doubt in my mind that it belongs in the same context as the others, not for the least reason that there are standout hours worth noting here…

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Star Trek Season Three

After two seasons, Star Trek had developed enough fans to win a third year, but as much as those fans were forming a community, they weren’t multiplying. In 1969, the show broadcast its final episode.

3x2 “The Enterprise Incident”
The second big Romulan episode of the series takes a fair amount of risks. Kirk and Spock lead an atypical Starfleet mission, one that apparently sanctions espionage and thievery. What’s worse, Spock seems to fall for the Romulan commander. Though he eventually reveals his true allegiances and ditches the girl with his typical cool, it’s still a bit unnerving to believe our heroes are capable of this kind of behavior. Later developments in the franchise, however, will prove this to be less than unusual.

3x7 “The Day of the Dove”
Here’s another Klingon episode, without any Tribble interference.

3x8 “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”
Aside from having one of the most awesome Star Trek episode titles ever, this is the rare hour that concentrates on the good doctor, Bones McCoy.

3x9 “The Tholian Web”
Besides featuring one of the best visuals from any incarnation of the franchise, this entry is another one that sets up a lot of Star Trek lore, and happens to feature tough command decisions for McCoy and Spock when Kirk goes missing.

3x10 “Plato’s Stepchildren”
Plenty of episodes dealt allegorically with topical issues of the day, but this one toppled one of television and contemporary society’s most entrenched barriers when Kirk, through alien coercion, kisses Uhura. Not that he wouldn’t have anyway.

3x23 “All Our Yesterdays”
Lots of episodes also dealt with time travel, but this was one of my favorites, featuring an archive of portals, which predictably disastrous results.

At six episodes, at least from my own survey, I guess it’s no real surprise that the show failed to win enough support for additional seasons. No other series, I might add, will feature such a small ration of episodes from the total count to feature in these overviews. Though Star Trek was the first one I watched, in 1980s syndication, it’s also the one I have the least amount of recent experience with, partially because it’s become increasingly difficult to watch a show from such a comparatively distant mindset. There’s a lot more entertainment, and more hours certainly worth watching throughout its three seasons than are represented here, but as far as those that I would go out of my way to watch again, these are the ones I’d turn to without hesitation. There’s a lot more of what later shows reflect as the strengths of the franchise than what may have been typical of the series, but I think by any standard, the best hours are here, without a doubt.

Based on the diminished returns, again, it’s no surprise in hindsight that Star Trek was cancelled so quickly, despite every other explanation that’s been brought forward over the years, including the oft-referenced Time Slot Change Syndrome. But at the same time, the strength of its best hours makes it easy to understand how so many people found it so hard to let go of an apparent failure. Since there’ll be a lot more episodes in the retrospective surveys of later shows, it’ll probably be apparent why a lot of fans have continued to find it difficult to view any other incarnation with as much fondness. Simply put, when there’s less competition, it’s easier to feel nostalgic. Good feelings and a select number of great episodes, that’s a tough act to follow…

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Star Trek Season Two

The first season of Star Trek certainly set a definite tone to what became an instantly iconic television experience. In many ways, I think, it was a tough act to follow, at least as reflected in the second installment of my favorite episodes from the franchise.

2x1 “Amok Time”
The season started out on a strong note, and perhaps an obvious one, once again putting Spock in the spotlight, in a rare instance of the series exploring directly some of the working texture of its universe, plunging the Vulcan into mating heat that not only allowed Kirk another epic battle (with his own best friend!), but one of the finest closing moments in any Star Trek story, as Spock learns he hasn’t actually killed his captain. He lets slip a smile, and then returns to his stoic poise.

2x4 “Mirror, Mirror”
An episode that eventually spawned a whole subplot in the franchise, a parallel universe where everything is basically the reverse of how we know it. Kirk leads an away team that inadvertently transports onto the ship of their counterparts, switching places, leaving the captain to grapple with a more ruthless version of Spock, who must be persuaded to fully implement his famous logic. Another instant classic.

2x6 “The Doomsday Machine”
I guess this is what the series did best when it was at its best. Here, another Starfleet captain becomes obsessed with a planet-killer, forcing a confrontation with the Enterprise crew, producing a dramatic hour that capitalizes on the possibilities of Gene Roddenberry’s creation while remaining true to his ideals of a more perfect future.

2x8 “I, Mudd”
Fans of the show recognize this as the second appearance of Harry Mudd, after an earlier one in the first season, making this a rare occurrence of the series, normally as episodic as any other contemporary TV experience, acknowledging the events of a prior adventure. Mudd commands a population of artificial life-forms, something ‘Star Trek’ routinely handled, but the franchise would explore in greater details in later incarnations.

2x10 “Journey to Babel”
Andorians, Tellarites, and Spock’s dad Sarek all debut here, in a tale of intrigue and interplanetary politics that takes a big slice of franchise lore into its plot.

2x12 “The Deadly Years”
This is a pretty straightforward entry, and has been a favorite of mine since I originally saw it. Kirk and McCoy lead the charge to…old age, when an away team comes back with an infection that leads to rapid aging, some form of which would become a staple for the franchise.

2x15 “The Trouble with Tribbles”
After “City on the Edge of Forever,” there’s probably no more famous an episode of the show than this one, which takes a clash of cultures between Kirk’s Starfleet and the Klingon Empire and puts fuzzy little balls of fur squarely in the middle. A few episodes have been revisited directly, but only this one managed to produce a second franchise classic years later. The hour also happens to be the show’s definitive ensemble moment, with a moment for just about everyone, especially Scotty, who picks a fight not out of pride for his captain, but for his ship!

2x17 “A Piece of the Action”
Kirk and company visit a world that has taken gang culture to the extreme, assuming its entire social identity from an old book describing early 20th century Chicago mobs. Another instantly identifiable entry.

2x26 “Assignment: Earth”
I think one of the forgotten legacies of the show was this attempt at a spin-off, that wouldn’t have had “Star Trek” in the title, but rather feature time cop Gary Seven. As a season finale to a year with these kinds of episodes, it was about as ambitious as the show could get at this point, which of course failed, but to even begin to imagine how Star Trek as a franchise might have turned out differently if it hadn’t.

But as far as the network was concerned, that failure wasn’t much of a surprise, because, frankly, it was probably surprised that Star Trek itself was still on the air. The good episodes in the second season were probably better than the best of the first season, but at least as my survey goes, there were fewer of them, which probably helps explain how, even with so many memorable moments, the show was still failing. For those who already loved it, Star Trek was doing a great job of keeping them entertained, but maybe it wasn’t doing so well attracting a wider audience…

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Star Trek Season One

Star Trek debuted in 1966, after one failed pilot and an extensive casting overhaul that secured William Shatner as the iconic James T. Kirk. In the first of a series, I begin exploring the episodes and films of the ensuing franchise that helped make me a fan, a narrative and chronicle that attempts to capture the mounting impact of the material, and how it combined to make the franchise continually irresistible.

1x3 “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Given the complicated production schedule, the second pilot wasn’t broadcast until several episodes in, but more than demonstrates the charm Shatner brought to the role of Kirk, making it easy to understand how Star Trek finally made it to television.

1x4 “The Naked Time”
The first of a series of iconic episodes, the crew of the Enterprise find their personalities amplified and distorted, notably characterized by Sulu’s shirtless fencing, setting a strong ensemble tone that helped establish the cast.

1x7 “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
The earliest instance of a supporting, non-regular character, in this instance Nurse Chapel (played by the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett, who had played the controversial female Number One in the original pilot), sneaking in and commanding an episode.

1x9 “Dagger of the Mind”
One of Star Trek’s hallmarks has been allegorical storytelling. This episode brilliantly explores the issue of criminal reform.

1x11/1x12 “The Menagerie”
Incorporating the original pilot, “The Cage,” which featured a more cerebral approach and Jeffrey Hunter’s Christopher Pike, this was perhaps the first true utilization of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, who was the sole character to survive both of Star Trek’s earliest incarnations.

1x14 “Balance of Terror”
Introducing the Romulans, a brother race of Spock’s Vulcans was this subtle entry of battle tactics and bigotry, probably Star Trek’s first attempt to elevate the material to its highest potential.

1x15 “Shore Leave”
Another iconic episode that allows the show to properly exploit the ensemble, the crew on a pleasure planet that is predictably more than it seems.

1x16 “The Galileo Seven”
Considering that it was basically Spock the network really wanted to lose originally, to stick with the character and develop him as an outsider, especially in an episode like this, was undoubtedly Star Trek’s boldest move.

1x18 “Arena”
Kirk developed a reputation as a lady’s man and futuristic swashbuckler; it was the latter firmly in the spotlight this episode, which happens to pit him in battle against the distinctive Gorn.

1x22 “Space Seed”
Honestly, I don’t know how important this episode was at the time, but eventually it became the basis for the most popular of the original cast films, ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,’ and inspired several episodes in later series as well.

1x25 “The Devil in the Dark”
Just in case anyone was wondering how intricate its storytelling could get, Star Trek won sympathy for what was basically a rock, with Spock again taking on the pivotal role of interpreter and intercessor.

1x26 “Errand of Mercy”
The first Klingon episode, setting the tone for a rivalry between Empire and Federation that would last and thrive throughout each incarnation of the franchise.

1x28 “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Star Trek was essentially a science fiction series, of course, and many stories were generated on the basis of earning that label, but the first and arguably greatest example swept Kirk, Spock, and Bones (DeForest Kelley) through a time portal into a heart-wrenching dilemma in the past: save the girl Kirk loves, or let her die, as history records it?

It isn’t difficult to see how the first season of Star Trek helped foster a rabid fan following, one that persisted for three seasons, cancellation, conventions, an animated series, a series of films, and finally four TV spin-offs and a wildly successful movie revival in 2009. How this particular fan kept pace with the franchise, how his admiration for Star Trek persisted, despite heavy criticism that doused the interest of so many contemporaries, that story is just beginning…

Friday, June 11, 2010

Introduction to the Fan Companion

The Fan Companion is a look back at the Star Trek franchise, from the unusual perspective of a fan who happened to enjoy each of its incarnations, where the usual sludge of opinions (which episodes/series/movies/characters must be avoided at all cost!) won't be found. Instead, this is a guide both for the old fan looking to revisit favorite memories, and the new fan trying to find out what all the fuss has been about.

Every season of every show, every film, and probably every significant character will be referenced, with overviews and the favorites of the Fan Companion's Tony Laplume will be unveiled in the coming weeks, posted here and at Lower Decks, where Tony has been posting as Waterloo for the past decade.

Let's see what's out there...
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