Friday, July 9, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Seven

In 1994, Next Generation concluded its run, a fact that seemed completely incomprehensible to fans, a premature end to a series that had eclipsed the length of the original series by four seasons already, and seemed capable of continuing for so much longer. It was more than a quarter century into the franchise, though. Things were changing.

7x1 “Descent, Part II”
Data and Lore hash it out for a final time, with the ultimate prize, the emotion chip, in the middle. This was also theoretically the last time the Borg would ever be seen, a far cry from the Collective that had been seen in “Best of Both Worlds,” but you’ll still hear fans who wish it would have stayed that way. Even more incredibly, when the franchise tried to end a threat like this again, with Species 8472, fan efforts (in this case, the Pocket Books spin-off franchise) actually attempted to duplicate the same apparently unfavorable design. But that’s what happens with success.

7x2 “Liaisons”
One final episode of diplomatic lunacy, Picard, Worf, and Troi each become involved in peculiar relationships with representatives of an alien race trying to figure out Federation life.

7x3 “Interface”
After six seasons and many stories of his childhood, La Forge finally gets some tangible connections to family seen in this one, in the form of both father and mother, one of them slightly less complicated than the other.

7x4 “Gambit, Part I”
Perhaps Patrick Stewart’s own ultimate gambit, looking for that story that would really put a fresh twist on his performance, here he gets to slug Riker, as part of his infiltration into a ship of pirates. Is that Saavik (No. 2), Robin Curtis, as the Romulan? Why yes, it is.

7x5 “Gambit, Part II”
With the power of positive thinking, the Vulcan artifact the pirates have been reassembling that turns out to be the ultimate weapon is defeated. But the real highlight is when Picard and Riker take their show on the road, visiting the Enterprise while maintaining their cover story with said pirates.

7x6 “Phantasms”
More surreal than his experiences in “Birthright” (though no doubt inspired by them), Data serves Troi cake (with mint frosting!) and has a phone in his chest, consults with Freud, and generally has the run of the episode without really getting anywhere. Basically a really roundabout way of telling a familiar Star Trek story.

7x7 “Dark Page”
The final Next Generation appearance of Lwaxana Troi reveals hidden family secrets and guest stars a young Kirsten Dunst!

7x8 “Attached”
Finally, seven seasons in, the series deals with all that sexual tension and history between Picard and Dr. Crusher in a completely direct way!

7x9 “Forces of Nature”
This one could easily be interpreted as the kind of episode the franchise thought would be necessary when it seemed as if TV Star Trek might actually end with Deep Space Nine, so getting a little conclusively expansive, this hour acts as if warp travel is ultimately bad and will probably be coming to an end. Ah, right…

7x10 “Inheritance”
Before she became an icon in Lost as Eloise Hawking, Fionnula Flanagan was a member of the Star Trek acting troupe, and this was probably her most notable appearance, because, well hey howdy, she turned out to be Data’s “mom”! The widow of Dr. Soong stops by for a visit, during which Data figures out she’s an android herself, having replaced the real one some years earlier (slapping Data himself in the face, because she’s also obviously far more advanced than he is, but we’ll overlook that).

7x11 “Parallels”
Worf travels through dozens and dozens of alternate realities, at least one of which includes a Wesley Crusher still serving aboard the Enterprise. It’s a highlight of the season, and probably series, an episode just having a little fun with established facts (and teasing new ones, at least concerning a relationship between the Klingon and Troi).

7x12 “The Pegasus”
Finally, no gimmicks or excuses or apologies needed, Riker gets a backstory episode that rises to the level of an instant classic, just because Terry O’Quinn in along for the ride (seriously, why did it take John Locke to make this guy a cultural icon?), as a former captain looking to bring our first officer back into the fold, but secretly, because Starfleet ain’t supposed to have no cloaking technology. So good, the franchise would later directly revisit the episode, albeit a tad controversially.

7x13 “Homeward”
Just in case you were thinking they’d run out of family members for Worf to revisit (wouldn’t it be awesome if he were to have one last opportunity, a time travel story, and finally meet dear old Mogh?), here comes the human foster brother, played by Paul Sorvino. Penny Johnson, who would later appear as a certain freighter captain on another series, also appears.

7x15 “Lower Decks”
With hardly a Ro appearance since the fifth season, another troubled Bajoran, Sito from “The First Duty,” is revisited, and thought the episode does a lot to tell more story around it, the ending makes it pretty clear who the focus was all along. Still, the most significant appearance in the series for frequent background player Nurse Alyssa Ogawa (Patti Yasutake).

7x16 “Thine Own Self”
Data, now equipped with radioactive accessories, loses his memory on an away mission and is adopted by a local village. A fine standalone spotlight for the character.

7x17 “Masks”
How to do you get an actor like Brent Spiner really excited? Tell him he gets to portray dozens upon dozens of characters! The Enterprise bears the brunt of Data’s ability to represent an entire civilization, and Picard gets to put on a mask.

7x18 “Eye of the Beholder”
The Enterprise itself gets a little backstory, while Troi gets to solve a murder mystery. Throwaway, but still entertaining.

7x19 “Genesis”
I guess this one has been the victim of a certain amount of ridicule, but I’ve always enjoyed watching the crew de-evolve into a whole variety of species (given the disdain directed toward “Threshold” later, I think the audience simply hates seeing our characters changed into any animal-based variant species). Incredibly, the only Barclay appearance of the season.

7x20 “Journey’s End”
Wesley Crusher officially returns for his last big episode, the inevitable conclusion of his series arc with The Traveler. Also known as another episode that people might be thinking of when they call Insurrection an extended TV hour.

7x21 “Firstborn”
The final Worf and Alexander episode is probably the best of them, mostly because it doesn’t necessarily hinge on Brian Bonsall so much as the idea of the character. Franchise troupe player James Sloyan portrays an older Alexander that attempts to alter history and redeem himself, mucking with the Duras Sisters in the process.

7x22 “Bloodlines”
The final effort to make a proper Ferengi presence in the series, a sequel to the first season episode “The Battle,” probably still fails to provide Picard with a single foe, but does tease the captain’s latent desire for a family, which would resurface in ‘Generations.’

7x23 “Emergence”
The best of the show’s ridiculously frequent attempts to find another means to spotlight artificial life besides Data, mostly because the episode masquerades as the final “holodeck run amok” story.

7x24 “Preemptive Strike”
Though conceived as one of several attempts to establish the Maquis in the franchise prior to Voyager, this one’s really best viewed as Ro’s final appearance, a fitting bit of closure that returns the character to her roots. Incredibly, Michelle Forbes had already passed on continuing the character in Deep Space Nine, but would later get her best post-Star Trek material based on the very work she wanted to get past, in 24 and Battlestar Galactica.

7x25/7x26 “All Good Things…”
The season’s big highlight was appropriately the series finale, an ambitious story that brings back Q, the trial he started in “Encounter at Farpoint,” and three separate time periods for Picard to navigate in order to solve one final space science mystery. Tasha Yar, Miles O’Brien, and Tomalak make appearances, all leading up to a perfect conclusion, the first time a Star Trek TV show would get to do one, setting an unenviable bar for the franchise in years to come.

Those wondering why the series had to end only really have to look back in hindsight and consider what kind of stories the show was doing at this point, the sudden lack of ambition. I would venture to argue that what really happened with Next Generation was that the crop of franchise creators that appeared to rescue the show in the third season realized at some point that this show hadn’t been its baby. The cast had already been around, and had developed its own ideas about what Star Trek now meant, that history had been made well before the audience truly embraced it, and that the increased quality only enhanced this legacy. The problem was that, with renewed success, and an audience apparently now ready to embrace it, the franchise mutated into something that in the end couldn’t support itself. Longevity on TV meant the Next Generation crew never really needed movies to extend the memories, but the movies came anyway, and more TV shows followed. Fans became a little confused, both the old ones from the original series, the ones cultivated by the new generation, and the ones who were supposed to develop around the extended era.

Anyway, the seventh season was an entertaining one, helping to finish out a lot of storytelling begun at the start of the series, but there was also a distinct impression that a lot of it was being done simply to fill out a season, that it wasn’t all that necessary. Even the hours meant to represent typical episodic material felt overly theatrical, which in itself wasn’t a bad thing (because, as you can see, I basically liked the whole season, with the notable exception of “Sub Rosa,” which is what happens when the writers try to give Crusher an episode when they haven’t tried to mask that it’s a Crusher episode), but a clear indication that the series was running on fumes. If the show had gone on, it’s conceivable that Star Trek might actually have been unwatchable, a charge directed at several of the later shows, unfairly. It might have ended up looking like the original series’ third season…

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