The fifth season of Next Generation saw everyone grow comfortable with the quality and possibilities of what they’d been doing since the third season. It was the final time one Star Trek series would be on the air during a single TV season until the fall of 2000. It was 1991, and everyone was in love with the franchise. There was going to be no stopping it this time.
5x1 “Redemption, Part II”
Basically exactly what it seems, a continuation of the fourth season finale, everyone figures out what’s going on, Romulan Tasha is revealed to be Sela, the daughter Yar from “Yesterday’s Enterprise” got to have before another horrible end, and the series continues its confident strides forward.
In contrast to the earlier season, the show seems ready to propose really interesting episodic scenarios again, and this is the first of a season returning to that kind of work, what Star Trek is best known for. Picard gets to enjoy his most interesting diplomatic assignment ever when his crew gets to figure out that some people really like metaphors.
5x3 “Ensign Ro”
Michelle Forbes returns, this time in the debut of her familiar persona as the eponymous character, thereby introducing Bajorans to the franchise and bringing back the Cardassians. Once again, you can hear Deep Space Nine being formed in the background…
5x4 “Silicon Avatar”
My sister likes to call the Crystalline Entity the “giant snowflake,” but like Picard and crew, you’ll probably take it fairly seriously this episode, its second after “Datalore” in the first season.
Another trademark ensemble episode, notable for the birth of Molly O’Brien and Picard getting to shepherd a bunch of crying children.
5x6 “The Game”
I like to think of this one of Wesley’s triumphant return. No, as the Ashley Judd episode. No, as the Ashley Judd and Wesley episode! Either way, you might also consider it as the video-games-are-probably-evil episode.
5x7 “Unification, Part I”
I’d say this is the real payoff of the “Redemption” cliffhanger, bringing us into Romulan politics via the most famous Vulcan in Star Trek. But, before we reach him, there’s one last stop with his dad, Sarek, the first iconic character in franchise lore to receive an on-air death (no, David doesn’t count, and neither does the non-permanent one of that particular Vulcan).
5x8 “Unification, Part II”
Otherwise known as Sela, Curses! Foiled For Real This Time! Oh, and for Spock’s first episodic adventure since the animated series. Leonard Nimoy makes his momentous guest appearance (to help promote the release of the original crew’s final film, Star Trek VI), helping to set some further contrasts between the two casts (note how different Data really is from Spock, for instance), but mostly as the biggest event to hit Next Generation since “Best of Both Worlds.”
5x9 “A Matter of Time”
Sooner or later, Star Trek had to feature a time traveler who really, really wasn’t what he seemed, and here’s that episode, basically a long way to doing “The Most Toys” in a slightly more exploitative way.
5x10 “New Ground”
With the debut of Ro earlier and the official unveiling of Alexander here, it’s easy to view this season as the start of the show’s third act. Isn’t it weird to think of Worf, who started out with so much anonymous and shapeless characterization, as arguably having the most defined family life in Star Trek history?
5x11 “Hero Worship”
I skipped an episode from earlier in the series that was basically exactly this episode but with Worf, because it seems to work better with Data. I mean, who doesn’t love it when the boy starts pretending to be an android?
This is a pretty creepy episode (worse than what happens to Troi in Star Trek Nemesis), when you really think about it.
5x13 “The Masterpiece Society”
Every now and again, Star Trek allows the possibility that its characters don’t always have a positive influence. This is probably the episode that nails that idea best, even while keeping the door open for ambiguities, making you wonder what it would have been like to revisit the colony after it had been basically pillaged, like a sports team getting its best players looted and left to try and succeed without them.
This one’s absolutely brilliant, making the crew lose its memory of identity and then seeing what a little manipulation will do to push a far less peaceful agenda. Plus, Data as the bartender. Naturally!
5x15 “Power Play”
Marina Sirtis gets to play Troi with a hard edge for a change (okay, while possessed by an evil criminal mind), O’Brien threatens his own family (see above), and Data roughs up Worf (because he doesn’t want to be the bartender!). Seriously, what’s not to love?
Ha! You’d be a fool indeed to think this is a Worf episode. It’s actually a Crusher episode, disguised (very cleverly) as a Worf episode. In other news, Crusher can be really preachy, can’t she?
5x17 “The Outcast”
Not an uncommon template, a romance that goes really wrong for any number of reasons (okay, so the template doesn’t always specify romance, but a relationship of some kind), featuring Riker and an allegory for homosexuality.
5x18 “Cause and Effect”
Hear that? It’s the sound of Brannon Braga being awesome. This episode is awesome. What else is there to say? Sure, it’s the basic, time keeps repeating kind of story, but it’s awesome. And Kelsey Grammer pops up at the end, like a cherry on top.
5x19 “The First Duty”
Robert Duncan McNeill shows up in a role that is definitely not Tom Paris, but really, this is our first attempt to take Wesley seriously as an adult, even though he’s taken the opportunity to screw up royally. On the bright side, Boothby (Ray Walston) shows up, but not for the last time in franchise lore, as Picard’s improbably Starfleet Academy mentor. Also, please note the debut of Sito, another troubled Bajoran. It’ll prove relevant.
5x20 “The Cost of Living”
Just in case Worf didn’t think Alexander was trouble enough, Lwaxana Troi shows up to make the little warrior even worse. Please note the incomparably awesome Tony Jay as Troi’s hilariously mismatched intended new spouse.
5x21 “The Perfect Mate”
Famke Janssen, about a decade before returning to the popular consciousness in the X-Men films (where some dude named Patrick Stewart portrayed Professor X, another character with a curious mental connection to her), is the latest in a long line of Star Trek beauties making it tough to be a Starfleet officer.
5x23 “I, Borg”
Like “The Drumhead” last season, a completely unexpected follow-up to “Best of Both Worlds,” putting Picard in the completely uncomfortable position of feeling sympathy for the Borg.
5x24 “The Next Phase”
Everyone thinks La Forge and Ro are dead, when they’ve really fallen victim to a convoluted Romulan plot.
5x25 “The Inner Light”
A truly transcendent episode, in the patented Next Generation manner, looking inward. Picard experiences a lifetime on an alien world, courtesy of the most notable Star Trek probe since Star Trek IV, easily the show’s answer to “City on the Edge of Forever.”
5x26 “Time’s Arrow, Part I”
This cliffhanger may or may not answer the question of how Picard and Guinan first met (it would certainly do the trick from Guinan’s perspective, in a way that would completely be in character for the enigmatic bartender, the real one; not Data), incredibly the only real time travel adventure of the series.
The fifth season was certainly a continuation of the quality established in the third season, but it was also a dramatic turnabout, a return to episodic storytelling that focused more on the stories than characters, in most instances. Where the fourth season seemed to draw most of its material from continuity, the series started to retreat a little, not all the way, but enough so that it seems obvious in hindsight that no one had really anticipated how much work they were really assuming. After all, none of the names now in charge had created any of it. Gene Roddenberry himself died during the season, marking a huge transition for the franchise. It was during this time that the third Star Trek series entered into development, which again, shouldn’t seem like such a surprise in hindsight. Just as Voyager would later be created to get another ship in episodic adventures, it already felt like Next Generation was ceding the continuity-rich territory to Deep Space Nine, well before it had even begun…