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?…

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