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…

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