Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Six

In 1992, Next Generation had half a season to be the last Star Trek TV show to air alone before the end of the millennium, which to anyone looking back, and realizing just a decade later the final film featuring its cast would face a great amount of ambivalence, would look pretty strange, because at this point the franchise is just about at its peak of popularity, at least in this incarnation.

6x1 “Time’s Arrow, Part II”
Mark Twain steals the show. Do you really need to know much more?

6x2 “Realm of Fear”
Barclay returns once again, and this time the audience is able to sympathize with his eccentricities, because there’s no doubt he’s really got a problem with transporters in this episode. Speaking of the franchise staple, this is the only time we see what it’s like inside a transporter beam.

6x4 “Relics”
With all due respect to Spock, this one always seemed like the most significant appearance of an original series cast member to me. There’s no question that (aside from Leonard Nimoy’s usual aloofness that was on full display in “Unification”) it was simply good to see Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) again, especially since this is pretty much his most significant appearance in the franchise. It’s weird to think that Scotty was almost to par with Kirk, Spock, and Bones, at least until the movies. This episode makes him prominent once more, emphasizing everything that made him so special to begin with, and deals with the passage of time no Vulcan could ever properly handle (though Jolene Blalock, with make-up, does a pretty good job some years later). Even stranger, since this is only one year after Scotty’s last big screen adventure with his old crew, and two before he’s seen again, this time really for the last time. Anyway, always been a highlight of Next Generation for me. Should also mention that it helps make a pretty clear contrast between Scotty and La Forge, two of many notable Star Trek engineers.

6x5 “Schisms”
This is a pretty interesting mystery episode, with a notable use of the holodeck as a means to recreate the scene of the crime, so to speak. Again, this kind of episode isn’t all that uncommon, but that doesn’t mean when it’s done well, it isn’t worth remembering.

6x6 “True Q”
It’s funny that most Q appearances aren’t really about Q himself, that John de Lancie so easily and quickly forged himself into a de facto member of the cast that the writers only had to figure out an excuse to use him and there he is again. For years, I failed to appreciate this one, but Olivia d’Abo is appropriately charming and precocious as a woman just now learning that she’s a member of the Q Continuum.

6x7 “Rascals”
This one’s pretty much nonsense, the kind of episode that the writers dream up when they’re really kind of grasping for straws (also see the later franchise example: “One Little Ship”), but de-aging Picard (among others) has the benefit of the amusing ruse the crew works out of posing him as Riker’s son. Hey, it works in a pinch.

6x8 “A Fistful of Datas”
When fans talk about holodeck episodes, this is probably a prime example. Basically an excuse to let loose a little, Alexander and Worf get trapped in a Wild West program, Troi gets to show a completely different side of herself (henceforth to be referred to as Durango), and Data appears in a series of wildly inappropriate guises.

6x10 “Chain of Command, Part I”
To be known as the Captain Jellico half of the famous two-parter, a reconnaissance mission go awry, leaving Picard missing and in need of replacing. Jellico shows up and pretty much turns the Enterprise upside down, even forcing Troi to finally start wearing a real Starfleet uniform (those who still find the catsuits of Seven and T’Pol offensive really would do well to remember that for more than five seasons, Next Generation featured a constant display of cleavage from its resident Male Audience Magnet).

6x11 “Chain of Command, Part II”
To be known as the Gul Madred half of the famous two-parter. The final Next Generation episode before the debut of Deep Space Nine cannily features a Cardassian squaring off in a contest of wills with Picard, but the treat really lies in watching Patrick Stewart in one of his finest Star Trek hours acting alongside David Warner, as Madred, in his signature franchise performance. Truly a highlight of the season, and the series.

6x12 “Ship in a Bottle”
Moriarty (“Elementary, Dear Data,” from the second season) returns, in another contest of wits, a hologram’s attempt at autonomy, about two years before The Doctor makes his bid (out of a bit more necessity). The character is an element of the series I’ve often feared would be overlooked in time, but has always been one of my favorites.

6x14 “Face of the Enemy”
Troi commands the spotlight in this outing, a follow-up to “Unification,” another fine Romulan episode. By this point, you’d have to be a pretty big fool not to be taking her seriously.

6x15 “Tapestry”
The second and more significant Q episode of the season, Picard is given a chance to revisit his past, make different decisions, and discovers, just like Jimmy Stewart, that it was better for things to work out as they did than for the apparent sober second-guessing of a more advanced perspective to have its way. Another of my all-time favorite episodes, of any series.

6x16 “Birthright, Part I”
Like “Chain of Command,” this two-parter has two distinct acts. The first features Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine stopping by to help promote the new series and give Data a chance to reflect on his past. James Cromwell also appears, in one of many Star Trek appearances before he truly leaves his mark. If you have to ask…Well, in a couple of months, I’ll remind you.

6x17 “Birthright, Part II”
The second act focuses on Worf’s adventures in a colony that features Klingons living side-by-side with Romulans, a fact that rattles him considerably (his parents died in a Romulan attack, after all, and he was lured here by the promise that they’d survived and were living in the colony). I never really considered this one a highlight of the Next Generation Klingon episodes.

6x18 “Starship Mine”
Commander Hutchinson, if he may, has a few words to say about this one. (Sorry, unavoidable inside joke.) Otherwise known as Picard’s Die Hard moment, featuring Tim Russ in one of the many franchise roles he took before becoming Tuvok.

6x19 “Lessons”
It’s kind of weird to look back at Next Generation and realize that Picard had so few romances, mostly because Kirk had been so notorious about having one just about every week. But with Jean-Luc, it was pretty much “We’ll Always Have Paris,” Vash, and this episode, which I would venture to say was the best of the lot. Recalling “The Inner Light,” he finally finds someone to play music with, but as his luck would have it, it just doesn’t work out, but it was fun while it lasted.

6x21 “Frame of Mind”
Still probably my favorite Riker episode, the good first officer finds himself locked away in an insane asylum. One of his fellow inmates is Susanna Thompson, another Star Trek regular. For those cynics who will continue to insist that Brannon Braga could do no right, this is another of his episodes, after the equally notable “Cause and Effect,” demonstrating both range and his considerable talent, no matter what the prevailing opinion might be.

6x22 “Suspicions”
Probably my favorite Dr. Crusher episode, following her as she attempts to justify actions that seem to, in a framing sequence, have cost her her career. The rare Next Generation episode to feature a Ferengi who needs no defending (at least from the audience).

6x23 “Rightful Heir”
A properly operatic Klingon affair, this is a better Worf episode than “Birthright,” featuring the modern appearance of Kahless the Unforgettable (after his debut in “The Savage Curtain” in the original series, where he was, ah, forgettable).

6x24 “Second Chances”
Otherwise known as the Riker Transporter Duplicate episode, or the debut of Thomas Riker, this is no doubt the most successful of many attempts to flesh out the backstory of the first officer, at least until the final season.

6x26 “Descent, Part I”
It’s weird to look back at the season and realize that not a whole lot of important things were done with Data, but I guess this oversight was made up for with the cliffhanger being devoted to the resident android, along with the long-awaited return of the Borg, plus Data’s twin brother, Lore.

Looking back at the season, and as incomprehensible as it may seem to the fans, Next Generation was struggling to keep itself occupied during the season. Clearly, Patrick Stewart had been asking for a little more interesting material, and he certainly got it. Arguably, this was Picard’s finest season. But where the captain shined, the show was clearly looking around for some good material, and while “some” good material was found, there definitely seemed to be some padding going on. This isn’t to say that the quality of the series dropped, only that it was clear at this point that the show would not go on forever, and it had nothing to do with the launch of another series. If anything, having franchise competition only seemed to improve the game of Next Generation. Aside from “Relics,” all the best episodes of the season came tumbling along towards the second half of the season, starting with the strong push of “Chain of Command.”

It was only at this point that the show seemed to realize that it could probably use to spotlight its characters a little more, after having lapsed since the fifth season back into a more episodic format, the push of the fourth having lasted so long in the other direction. In hindsight, it was the last such push of the series, which isn’t to say that the final season disappointed…

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