Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Next Generation 4x9 "Final Mission"

rating: **

the story: Picard accompanies Wesley Crusher on his way to Starfleet Academy but they end up marooned on a desert planet after a crash-landing.

similar to: "Skin of Evil" (Next Generation), "The Gift" (Voyager)

my thoughts: So few main characters leave any of the series in franchise history with any kind of send-off, it's hard not to think of "Final Mission" as Wesley's farewell as a regular.  The problem is that after his subsequent visits in later episodes, "Mission" loses whatever luster it might have had in that regard, and must rely on its own meager merits.

Unlike "Skin of Evil" (the sudden death of Tasha Yar) or "The Gift" (where Kes departs), the event of Wesley's departure is at once so formal and ultimately anticlimactic it's irrelevant to the episode, meaning the rest of the story has to stand on its own, which means whether or not Wesley himself has grown, or is presented well here, is what counts.  And while Wesley has grown since the beginning of the series, he's actually lost what made him special.  By this point he's become just another presence in the series, about as significant as anyone else who exists in the background, really.  His interactions with Picard are minimal (Picard becomes incapacitated for much of the episode), and so even that is robbed of him for this occasion.

Later Wesley appearances find him in a new dynamic, fending for himself, wrestling with new moral dilemmas and new modes of responsibility.  This is an episode of mere survival, in which nothing is more important than the most basic heroism and generic antagonists (the selfish pilot who sucks most of the life out of the proceedings thanks to a bad casting job or perhaps uninspired directing; the actor portraying him finds a much better role in Deep Space Nine's "Honor Among Thieves").

The problem here is that the sentiment behind scenes is left almost entirely absent in the episode itself.  It was a big deal.  But the episode fails to convey that, unfortunately.  Still, it remains unique in franchise history.  Wesley remains the only series regular (except his mom Dr. Crusher, who left after the first season, and returned in the third, as a regular both times) to leave with the promise, and delivery, of future appearances. 

You can enjoy it, to a limited extent, for what it is, but there was such potential to be something more.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Nick Tate

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Next Generation 4x8 "Future Imperfect"

rating: **

the story: Riker wakes up sixteen years in the future, but discovers all may not be as it seems.

similar to: "The Corbomite Maneuver" (Original Series), "All Good Things..." (Next Generation), "Child's Play" (Voyager)

my thoughts: This is a fun episode that plays with the viewer's knowledge of the series, bringing back characters like Minuet ("11001001") and the Romulan Tomalak while presenting a possible future.  It's most fun as a Riker episode, of course, and possibly the most fun Riker episode of the series (for such a fun character in general, it's odd to admit that so few of his episodes were fun).

By the time you realize what's really going on, it's the end of the episode, and it's a kid who's been abandoned by his parents and forced to make up his own reality.  There are countless episodes like that throughout franchise history.  It's one of the better examples, to be sure, because at least most of it is spent with everyone being able to enjoy the experience, because the alternative can be grim on all scores, or sometimes just for the characters (in a very roundabout way, Icheb's experiences in "Child's Play," where we discover how a different set of parents basically made their own child's life a living hell to escape a bad situation...). 

Alternate futures and/or timelines have an equal mixed bag in franchise history.  "Future Imperfect" has better footing for happiness than most of those, too, except maybe Worf's odd adventures in "Parallels," where he explores dozens of different versions of how things might have turned out differently for himself and the crew.

The somewhat more hackneyed part of it is the Romulan subplot.  The series pressed the Romulans so much and yet only occasionally got something good out of them.  Their presence here is more of a red herring than anything, which is a good thing. 

In the end, relish the good in this "Imperfect" episode, and never mind the rest.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Andreas Katsulas (Tomalak)
Carolyn McCormick (Minuet)
Patti Yasutake (Nurse Ogawa)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Trek Beyond trailer has the trailer for the new movie, releasing next summer (July 22nd).  You can view it here.
The music accompanying it comes from 2009's Star Trek, the debut of the so-called Abramsverse.  A lot of older fans don't seem to like the new movies, calling them action-heavy would-be Treks that have lost the feel of the franchise.  The Star Trek I know and love has always featured character-heavy plots, which is the best way to describe the new movies.  My favorite Trek is Deep Space Nine, and that's about as character-heavy as you can get.  But from the beginning, the franchise was known for its characters almost beyond (heh) anything else.  There's a reason why there was such resistance to the debut of The Next Generation with its entirely new crew, because fans didn't want to accept Star Trek without Kirk and Spock, who dominated six feature films well past the end of their TV adventures.
To say that action was never a part of the Trek formula is to forget the many fight scenes in the original series.  I remember them.  They were badly, badly choreographed.  Anyone should be able to admit that.  From "Balance of Terror" onward, space battles have been a part of Trek lore, well before the advent of the Star Wars era. 
Trek fans tend to be incredibly slow at embracing something new, which is to say resistant to change.  (Or perhaps they're just mad that these are by far the most successful films in franchise history.)  And they can't let go of their cherished memories.  For years, well into the runs of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, they were insisting that the best episodes in franchise history were almost exclusive to the original series.  They still insist the best movie is the second one, The Wrath of Khan, even though there have been ten more released since then.  Any of those that even slightly evoke (it's called an homage, folks) Khan are called shameless ripoffs.  These fans, who are supposed to be the smartest fans in our whole culture, routinely act like the dumbed.
So I'll sit back and enjoy the new trailer, thank you very much, and highly anticipate the new movie.  I've been watching Star Trek for most of my life.  My first exposure was the original series.  But I've been enjoying the rest of it, too.  I'd be very happy for that trend to continue.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Newsweek's Favorite Episodes

Newsweek has a 50th anniversary special available.  Included are its picks for the best episodes from each series.  And here they are, with a few thoughts:

The Original Series
  • "The Doomsday Machine"
  • "Space Seed"
  • "Mirror, Mirror"
  • "The Trouble With Tribbles"
  • "The Enterprise Incident"
  • "Journey to Babel"
  • "Balance of Terror"
  • "Arena"
  • "Amok Time"
  • "The City on the Edge of Forever"
These are all standard picks for favorites from the originals, so I don't have much to say here.


The Next Generation
  • "The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Chain of Command, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "The Most Toys"
  • "The Inner Light"
  • "Yesterday's Enterprise"
  • "Darmok"
  • "Remember Me"
  • "All Good Things..., Parts 1 & 2"
  • "The Defector"
  • "Tapestry"
Like the originals, some of these are standards, but there are a few surprises, like "The Most Toys," which has in the past been among my own favorites, and "Remember Me" (which has the dubious but well-earned distinction of being the best Dr. Crusher episode).  "The Defector" might be considered another surprise, but it's long been well-received by fans.


Deep Space Nine
  • "In the Pale Moonlight"
  • "Duet"
  • "Our Man Bashir"
  • "Once More Unto the Breach"
  • "Inquisition"
  • "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light"
  • "Call to Arms"
  • "Far Beyond the Stars"
  • "The Visitor"
  • "Trials and Tribble-ations"
Newsweek's biggest surprise is naming "In the Pale Moonlight" as the best episode of the entire franchise.  Quite a leap!  There's long been a push to acknowledge, at the very least, the cult-within-the-cult of fans who favor this series over the rest of Star Trek, and critics who have tended to go along with this view.  But this puts the phenomenon to new levels.  There are more whimsical picks for the series otherwise, on the whole, sometimes coming off as somewhat random: "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light" is an important two-part episode, but I'm not sure if it's really a good pick.  But "Our Man Bashir" and "Inquisition" are certainly interesting selections.  "Duet," "Far Beyond the Stars," "The Visitor," and "Trials and Tribble-ations," meanwhile, are routinely considered highlights, for those uninitiated.  "Call to Arms" ushers in the long-running Dominion War arc.  For what it's worth, if "Pale Moonlight" weren't the best episode of the franchise, it would probably be "The Visitor."  So Newsweek definitely picked the right series for that distinction.


  • "Year of Hell, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Equinox, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Deadlock"
  • "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
  • "Endgame, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Hope and Fear"
  • "Worst Case Scenario"
  • "Living Witness"
  • "Scorpion, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Blink of an Eye"
The picks are perhaps most interesting for this series.  I think few fans would quibble with "Year of Hell" (the closest Star Trek ever came to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, in the series most relevant to such a comparison).  "Equinox" bares the distinction of being roundly despised by fans, at least the last time I checked, though I always liked it.  "Deadlock" is pretty random, though I'll get back to why it's still probably a good pick later.  "Tinker Tenor" (read a blogger buddy's recent thoughts on this one here) is certainly memorable, but my favorite Doctor episode will always be "Latent Image."  "Author, Author" would also be acceptable.  Newsweek calls "Endgame" the most rewarding finale of a Star Trek after "All Good Things..." (being grossly unfair to Deep Space Nine's "What You Leave Behind," mind you).  "Hope and Fear" is an excellent choice, and so are "Worst Case Scenario," "Living Witness," and "Blink of an Eye."  Finally, the Borg epic "Scorpion" might be starting to gain levels of respect usually reserved for other Borg appearances ("The Best of Both Worlds," anyone?).


  • "In a Mirror Darkly, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "Impulse"
  • "Similitude"
  • "Cogenitor"
  • "Carbon Creek"
  • "Dear Doctor"
  • "Broken Bow, Parts 1 & 2"
  • "The Andorian Incident"
  • "Zero Hour"
  • "The Expanse"
The Mirror Universe (as debuted in "Mirror, Mirror") was clearly Newsweek's favorite return engagement from the series' fourth season tribute episodes ("In a Mirror Darkly").  The magazine suggests that fans are finally starting to appreciate the series in general.  "Cogenitor" is the most-often praised episode from the run, and so it's not surprising to find it here.  It's great to see "Similitude" and "Dear Doctor" in the mix.  I also like that "Carbon Creek" is there.  Aside from featuring a look at Vulcans in 1950s America, it also features a unique moment for the series: the main characters sitting down and telling each other stories (which continues in "First Flight," by the way).  "Broken Bow," by the way, is the premiere episode.  Newsweek touts it as the start of the franchise-wide Klingon feud.  "The Andorian Incident" and "The Expanse" are important series moment.  "Zero Hour" concludes the third season's Xindi arc.

All in all, the selections provide a broad spectrum of the fifty-year TV legacy in its many forms.  Reading through them, I was reminded of something pretty shocking for a long-time fan: how we watch it has evolved over the years.  As someone who has been thinking about why it became so unpopular a decade ago, this introduced a new idea as to why that happened.  Simply put, Star Trek has been many things, and while it evolved over the years in its storytelling, it never lost one of the defining aspects of its origins: an interest in classic sci-fi concepts.  The original series was certainly, in part, creator Gene Roddenberry's hopeful message for the future, but it was also a platform to explore the wildest ideas its many writers could imagine.  Over the years, fans began expecting different things.  By Deep Space Nine, the dawn of the modern era of serialized drama had begun, and anything that drastically deviated from it was soundly rejected.  Voyager and Enterprise struggled because they stood as challenges to this trend, and continued insisting that older sci-fi models were still viable, not just Star Trek's, but as readers had been experiencing it for a hundred years, dating back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Many of Newsweek's picks for standout episodes reflect this.  Fans sometimes think Star Trek is at its most pure when it presents moral allegories, but this has always been just one aspect in the greater storytelling landscape.  You'll note that only a few of the magazine's selections even reflect it (assuming you know your Trek).  There's a greater preponderance for episodes that reflect the strange new worlds edict in the famous mission statement, and then the continuity elements that helped enrich everything.  Really makes you think.  Next time you hear someone complain that the new movies aren't reflecting the franchise accurately, maybe you'll have a better retort...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Next Generation 4x7 "Reunion"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

Not pictured: Gowron
(even though he's the best
Klingon ever!)
There's a lot to know about this episode:

1) It's the return, and death, of K'Ehleyr.
2) Alexander officially becomes a fixture of Next Generation.
3) Duras makes his second and final appearance, but with hugely lasting ramifications.
4) The debut of Gowron!

Besides that, it's the Klingons are their politically operatic best.  For a series that was reluctant to use the Klingons at all, some of Next Generation's best work involved them, not merely because of Worf's presence, but because the series discovered in the classic aliens a rich source of storytelling potential, using them less as villains and more as the springboard for high drama which might otherwise have forever eluded the franchise.  More than in the several film appearances, including the climactic Undiscovered Country, with which "Reunion" shares some blood, this episode was the moment everything came together.

Thus, very easily, a classic.  Both K'Ehleyr and Duras had made impactful appearances before, but seeing them converge, and not even necessarily over their mutual acquaintance Worf, was the catalyst the episode needed.  Alexander, Worf's son with K'Ehleyr, could be even more polarizing than Wesley Crusher before him in later appearances, but here he represents the great tragedy of what unfolds.

And it might indeed be called great tragedy.  When Klingon fan culture began linking them with Shakespeare, it wasn't just Undiscovered Country that brought the Bard to mind, but "Reunion" as well, perhaps more grandly.  Thrust into the mix is the would-be king Gowron, making the first of many welcome appearances in Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine.  I don't often talk about the actors in these reviews, but Robert O'Reilly is absolutely essential in how "Reunion" takes shape and makes history.  He may be the first great Klingon actor, and at times he achieves this distinction merely with his bulging eyes!  It takes considerable talent to produce something under that heavy prosthetic forehead.  O'Reilly was born for the task.

While Worf takes his rightful place in the course of events, it's Picard who truly rises to the occasion.  Long groomed as the true ambassador of Starfleet's peaceful potential, here he's given the unlikely role of mediating in the midst of Klingon egos, which he takes in stride.  With so many moving parts, the captain still finds his chance to shine and is the secret heart of the episode.  It's a defining moment for all involved, including the series and franchise as a whole.

Can you watch it and appreciate "Reunion" on its own?  Sure?  But remember, too, that without it the more serialized nature of Star Trek in the years ahead might never have happened.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * character * essential

notable guest-stars:
Suzie Plakson
Robert O'Reilly

Monday, November 2, 2015

Countdown to 2017

In addition to the forthcoming film Star Trek Beyond, it was just announced that fans will have the first TV series since the end of Enterprise in 2005 arriving January 2017.  Yeah, I couldn't be happier.  The premiere will broadcast on CBS (for the first time ever; NBC, syndication, and UPN/The CW were the franchise's other small screen homes) before airing subsequent episodes digitally.

Obviously, nothing has been announced yet as to setting or casting, but the reports so far have suggested an all-new set of characters. 

A decade has passed since Star Trek has had new adventures in its original format.  Since then, a lot of thing have changed, not merely with the most successful films in franchise history, but a much more broad genre audience than has existed in decades (ever?).  In addition, the parameters for success have shifted considerably (remember the anecdote of ratings that looked better in hindsight for the original series?), and the digital format alone promises less concern about such things.

It's entirely likely that the new series will take into account the grumblings that plagued the fan community in the final years and last few series of the previous era.  Then again, it's ironic that procedural drama picked up considerable momentum in the last decade.  Imagine a crime-oriented Star Trek!

For now, though, we have a little over a year of anticipation, and updates, to enjoy...

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

To watch or remember, that is the question...

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, when I write a review, it's not on an episode I've just watched.  If anything, a fresh viewing can have a distorting effect.  If you have a good memory, an episode falls into all the right contexts, and that's what I want my focus to be, the context.

I take for granted that if you're watching Star Trek at all, and if you care what I think, you're not a hate-watcher.  I don't like hate-watchers.  I mean, I've been that kind of viewer myself.  Not of Star Trek.  But other things.  It's just not fun.  So I've tried to not express hate-watching thoughts.  I don't see the point.

If you're watching Star Trek, chances are you know what other fans think about the franchise.  You know what's popular and what isn't.  The distinction I try to make is, just because something is popular, or isn't, doesn't mean it's good (or not).  Granted, I tend to make that distinction change course with episodes that aren't.  If it's popular, there's probably a good reason.  Star Trek fans, especially with the older shows, are good for acknowledging what needs acknowledging, what's generally good in the franchise.

The problem is, the newer material usually gets left behind.  That's where I see my greatest contribution to the discussion.  Since every Star Trek episode at this point is at least a decade old (Enterprise ended in 2005), that's a lot of material an existing fan has to consider.  Watching an episode all over again, whether previously loved or otherwise, opens room for a new evaluation.  That's what I'm trying to do, but I'm also attempting to see what has truly stood the test of time.  Which means, for all the older fans who lived for years with episodes that have long been considered classics, it's time to admit new ones into the fold.  Star Trek fans can be surprisingly reluctant to do so.  Over time, as the franchise grew less and less popular, it grew virtually impossible.

And so, it's no longer about popularity, but rather quality, about adding something of genuine value.  Sometimes, again, all this can be one and the same.  But sometimes it just isn't.  For someone watching, piecemeal, the franchise whether for the first or a multiple time, they get caught up, in the same way fans did when these episodes originally aired.  They lose perspective.  When you have a franchise with hundreds of episodes, it becomes a dialogue.  One experience resonates with another, across series, across decades.

What else is there to say?  Watch Star Trek however you like, but a broad appreciation is what you're after, hopefully I can help.

Monday, September 28, 2015

How to read a review...

Recently I've been rewatching Next Generation's first season.  I've already reviewed, episode by episode, it here.  When I left off, I was in the midst of reviewing the show's fourth season.  Slowly, I've been making my way through every episode of the franchise.

Now, I've sort of rediscovered the first season.  Traditionally, it's been considered one of the worst seasons of Star Trek ever, a bad start to an otherwise excellent series.  It had a lot to accomplish, not the least being to prove that the franchise could be viable on television again, twenty years later, and with an entirely new cast.  After a somewhat equally shaky second season, Next Generation came into its own and officially entered the books with the landmark "Best of Both Worlds."

I've got two ways to read my reviews.  I've got the star system, and I've also got the franchise/series/character/essential designations I award as I deem warranted.  The start system should be easy enough to interpret.  Movies have been using them for decades.  The designations, which I've attempted to explain in the past, are always trickier, but in their way what I believe to be the best way to interpret Star Trek for new fans, and even open-minded existing ones (in this Internet age, very few people are open-minded, alas).  People tend to coalesce around existing opinions, which tend to the extreme.  You either love it or hate it.

At some point I found myself drifting toward "hate it" for Next Generation's first season.  In the rather brief way I talk about most episodes, you will know pretty quickly whether I recommend it or, well, hate it.  I don't bog myself down with in-depth analysis.  The whole point of what I've doing is to provide helpful shorthand, so you can decide for yourself everything else.

When it comes to judging an episode, the first thing I consider is whether it's worth remembering in the grand scheme of the franchise, if it evokes another episode, whether fairly or poorly.  Since most viewers can't be expected to watch the whole franchise and like it, the next designation is for the series itself.  If it's a particularly good episode, it can earn an "essential" distinction.  Because I've found Star Trek to explore its characters profitably, this is the fourth designation.  In case an episode doesn't stand out any other way, if you like a particular character (and they've all got a standout story or two), I figure that's another way in.

To speak of the story, its execution, that's implied in whether or not it's a good representation of the series.  A good episode reflects well on the series.  Very rarely have I given episodes no stars at all, no designations.  And even among those I have, cases could be made for one or other designation.  The point of omitting a designation is that the story is so run-of-the-mill, there are plenty of other episodes worth considering well before, if you must, you consider taking that particular one seriously.

Next Generation's first season is emblematic of the complaints fans have had against the least popular episodes of the franchise.  It tends to feature a lot of bad decision-making, not by the characters but in the storytelling itself.  And yet, even an episode like "Justice," which has always been one of my least favorite, the story seems perfectly self-aware of this fact.  The season knew it had a lot of work ahead of it, and that's worth remembering, too.

Reviews are hardly ever as cut-and-dry as they seem.  They're always laced with personal bias.  I like to remind any readers I might have of my Star Trek reviews exactly how I'm approaching them, in case it doesn't come through in the reviews themselves.  The truth is, the series has plenty of episodes deep into its run that are less than fully-inspired, and much of the love Next Generation has experienced over the years is as protective as hate-watchers love to follow something just to join in the hate.

Make sense?  Here's a handy guide to how people watch stuff like Star Trek (which is to say, anything, which is to say, how they read or listen, generally experience life):

  • Pleasure-watcher (These guys will like anything.)
  • Critical-watcher (These guys are the nuanced fans.)
  • Fan-watcher (These guys are usually the ones who don't have strong opinions of their own.)
  • Hate-watcher (These guys think they're nuanced, but they're really just piling on after someone else said how much they hated it.)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Next Generation 4x6 "Legacy"

rating: *

via Trekcore
Data is dubious about this
early debut of T'Pol's catsuit...
The most awkward thing that ever happened to Tasha Yar was that they finally made a Yar-relevant episode...three seasons too late.  Because Denise Crosby left in the first season, and so the character was dead, leaving "Legacy" to feature her sister.  And the result is generally terrible.

Well, like I said: awkward.

The timing is even more awkward.  Flush with the creative reboot that was the third season and the chance to build on that with the fourth, Next Generation became more interested in exploring its cast of characters.  But "Legacy" is less about Yar's legacy and more a generic con job that sucks in Data for a while (because of the bond he developed with Yar) without ultimately saying much about Data or the late Yar, and a whole lot of nothing at all about her sister, whose legacy quickly comes to just that.

And do you really want to know the most awkward thing about the episode?  The bad fashion on display.  The horrible, horrible fashion...

Still, the effort was made.  But this is a classic instance of too little, too late.  Thankfully, this is nearly the worst stumble of the season (see, or really, don't: "Night Terrors"), so the rest of it delivers much better material, everything that the show runners hoped to accomplish, and everything the fans could really appreciate.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Next Generation 4x5 "Remember Me"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via Planet Shannon
"Do the Crusher," alas,
fails to catch on either
as a pop song or a dance,
the latter being far crueler
to our dear light-footed doctor
Arguably the best Dr. Crusher episode and one of the best concept stories of the franchise, reminding everyone that Star Trek is science fiction not just because it's set in the future, but because it can execute some cool ideas when it wants to as well.

As a Crusher episode, "Remember Me" is crucial to the character's legacy.  Easily the weakest of the Next Generation ensemble, dropped for an entire season (the second), Crusher was eventually a near-complete non-factor in the movies, and in the series was mostly interesting either as a mother (to Wesley) or sometimes-lover (Picard).  As a doctor she could be shrill ("Ethics") and even surprisingly close-minded ("The Host"), putting her at the bottom of the profession in the franchise as a whole, too.

All of that meant that she was a hard character to write for, receiving the minimum of spotlight episodes throughout Next Generation's run.  So to make her shine, considerable effort had to be made, and on this occasion, the writers truly went above and beyond.  This is the episode that includes the classic line: "If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe!"

Think of it as kind of the inverse of Deep Space Nine's "The Visitor," which was an episode about Jake Sisko dealing with the loss of his father to a freak anomaly.  Here it's Crusher attempting to reconcile the loss of, progressively, everyone!

The big payoff for the whole experience is that it becomes part of the Traveler cycle, which was kind of like Next Generation's version of the later Enterprise Temporal Cold War, something neat that popped up every now and then but never really got the focus it needed to leave the lasting franchise impact it deserved.  Which also means that this is the only time Crusher is relevant in her son's biggest arc.

The only other time Crusher has an episode nearly as compelling is "Suspicions," which in fact seems designed to try and recapture the magic of "Remember Me."

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Eric Menyuk
Colm Meaney

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Next Generation 4x4 "Suddenly Human"

rating: *

Memory Alpha summary

via Lockerdome
"And you're sure we can't
convince Jane Seymour to join you?"
There's nothing much wrong with "Suddenly Human" except the later, similar Deep Space Nine episode "Cardassians" makes a much stronger case for your continued attention.

This is the story of a human boy who ends up raised in an alien culture, and Starfleet's subsequent attempts to reunite him with his human family.  It doesn't go well.  I don't know if it's Stockholm Syndrome, exactly, or merely the fact that he's lived most of his life with the alien culture, and whether or not it amounts to the same.  Either way, that's basically all you need to know about this episode.  Which is to say, it really doesn't have much more resonance than that, for any particular character (this would perhaps have been an excellent spotlight for Worf).

In "Cardassians," meanwhile, it's very much series-specific, one of the episode that addresses head-on the continued ramifications of the Occupation on the Bajoran population, and its subsequent relationship with the Cardassians, when a Cardassian youth who has been adopted by a Bajoran family is subject to a Cardassian effort at repatriation.  This was a context that spoke directly to the heart of Deep Space Nine as originally conceived.  Meanwhile, "Suddenly Human" shows the limitations, if you choose to view them that way, of the more episodic approach that had originally Star Trek's calling card.  With Next Generation having begun a deeper storytelling approach, an episode like "Suddenly Human" will always be a challenge to reconcile as to its ultimate worth, especially near the beginning of a season that made a concerted effort to delve more deeply into the characters of the series.  You can view it as a refreshing change of pace, or one of the less challenging, ultimately, episodes of the season, no matter what it happens to accomplish in its own right.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Chad Allen
Sherman Howard

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Next Generation 4x3 "Brothers"

rating: ***

Memory Alpha summary

via Star Trek - Sci Fi Blog
I me my I me my I me my!
Picking up where the first season episode "Datalore" left off, "Brothers" features Data along with his "twin" Lore as well as their creator Noonian Soong in what is essentially the Jacob and Esau story from the Bible, introducing the concept of the emotion chip that would become a vital aspect of Data's further exploits both with Lore ("Descent") and without (the movies).

It is also Next Generation's chance to redo "Datalore" in a more mature form (even though "Datalore" itself was one of the better, which is to say less embarrassing, first season episodes).

And one of several instances where Brent Spiner plays multiple individuals or personalities ("Fistful of Datas," "Masks"), not just Lore but Soong as well (the latter unfortunately depicted in bad old age prosthetics).

The awesome potential for Data to defeat the entire crew is a highlight.  Less so the melodramatic circumstances in which Data does so, one of those instances where a perfectly good story is undercut with needless additional drama involving a young boy in dire need of special medical attention that is prevented by Data's family reunion.  Deep Space Nine's "Change of Heart" is generally a better example of interrupted priorities.

Mixed bag, but does what it needs to when it counts.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Brent Spiner
Colm Meaney

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Next Generation 4x2 "Family"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via Ode to Jo & Katniss
Picard's happy thoughts include
his brother being cloned by Pakleds.
"We need wine.  Wine is good."
The only episode that could possibly have topped "The Best of Both Worlds Part 2" as a follow-up to the dramatic third season finale in fact followed it, making that three classics in succession, surely the best of times.

Unless you're Picard and your efforts at recuperating from the Borg ordeal somehow find you at great odds with your brother all over again, just like the old days, very much another thing best left in the past.  Except the experience becomes wonderfully cathartic.  (By the way, if you've never seen "Family" but have seen Star Trek Generations, watching the episode helps make sense of Picard's emotional troubles there.)

Other than Picard, the big winner of the episode is Worf, whose human foster parents we finally meet, and they're just about what you'd expect for how he turned out.  It's every bit a strong continuation of Worf's ascension to the forefront, along with Picard, of the series.  If you're wondering where Data, the third member of Next Generation's big three, is during the episode, because he's the only member of the cast left out, you'll have to wait until the next episode, "Brothers."

The legacy of "Family" is keen.  Enterprise reprises the concept in "Home," following the events of the Xindi third season (it's another classic, by the way).  In a lot of ways, it's also a template of how Deep Space Nine would operate throughout its run, taking a more thoughtful approach to the lives of its characters, something Voyager did in a much more insular fashion (by necessity), while Enterprise was a mix of both.  In a sense, it's the birth of what the franchise would become, a flowering and broadening of the storytelling capabilities so that the main characters weren't so often lost in the shuffle of a given episode, needing to rely less on gimmicks for dramatic heft.  Who better to kick it off than Patrick Stewart?

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney
Whoopi Goldberg

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Next Generatio 4x1 "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

Star Trek TNG Episode Guide
"I am thinking of calling it
Picard.  What do you think?"
The most famous story from The Next Generation concludes, featuring the famous Battle of Wolf 359 (to that point and arguably remaining the most famous starship battle of the franchise, depicted again and serving as the basis for Sisko's origin in the Deep Space Nine pilot "Emissary") as Locutus (the assimilated Picard) and the Borg are defeated.

Where the first part focused on Riker's unwillingness to assume his own command, the second part is a full depiction of what it would look like.  Naturally he's completely competent.  He's willing to take advice from anyone, even Guinan, who offers the chilling thought that maybe Picard really is gone for good.  Except that's not good enough for Riker, who quickly undertakes a bold plan to kidnap him back, using the Borg's own passivity against unperceived threats against them.

From there it becomes what even the creators of the episode sometimes fretted as an anticlimactic way to end the epic: inside Data's lab.  Except it's a perfectly Next Generation thing to do, perfectly characterizing the more cerebral aspects of the series and allowing its logic to play out in ways that maybe were never quite pulled off with the same aplomb again.  Picard offering, at a subconscious level, the Borg command that is in effect synonymous with the computer virus of Independence Day (there's really nothing wrong with either means of victory), is a clever way to avoid a merely physical conclusion, thought instead of fought.

Then the episode ends in a way that would later become a trademark of Deep Space Nine, and sometimes featured in Enterprise: with the emotional damage of the preceding events felt.  Next Generation itself would only do it once more, at the end of "Chain of Command."  Both times are brilliantly realized in their complete understatement.  Picard emerges as more and more relatable because of moments like these, as he expresses rare vulnerability in a leading man.

This is how you tell big stories in Star Trek.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Elizabeth Dennehy
Whoopi Goldberg
Colm Meaney
George Murdock

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Next Generation 2x22 "Shades of Gray"

rating: **

Memory Alpha summary

via Treks in Sci Fi
Pulaski: "Just one more minute."
Producers: "You realize this is
a clip show, right? And you want to
waste some of that valuable non-clip
time on you?"
Pulaski: "Dammit, I'm a doctor
not a screenwriter."
The clip show.  For some fans, this has always been an unforgivable waste of an episode.  They don't particularly care that the whole second season was compromised by the '88 Writers Guild strike (if you can't remember that, how about the '07/08 one?), just that this particular episode made for a poor season finale at the very least.

But there's more than one way to view "Shades of Gray," one of which being hindsight, which actually turns out to be quite valuable.

In context, "Shades" is pretty valuable.  It's one last reminder of how the whole second season seemed poised to make Riker the lead character over Picard, if need be to fix continuing creative ailments, find the show's true voice.  Of course, later the voice turned out to be just fine with the characters as they were, more or less, just more properly balanced.  Nobody knew that at the time.  Something more radical was considered.  This is pure speculation on my part, but the evidence of the second season speaks for itself.

"Shades" also serves as a testament to everything the first two seasons tried, a best (or perhaps best and worst) of the series to that point, which might actually serve as an excellent way for fans who don't otherwise want to wade into the complete experience to get a feel for what the show was like before the third season brought it into what everyone remembers best.  

For anyone looking for more nuanced opinions of Star Trek than what immediate, gut reactions said at the time and continue to inform general thought, "Shades" is everything you need to know in a nutshell.  In one sense, a clip show for a series two seasons old with every indication of continuing seems improbable even now, and creatively it couldn't have been very fulfilling, but conceptually it ends up doing a lot more than it seems.  This is where perspective comes into play.  No, I am not saying it's a classic, but it's far more significant than a lot of other episodes that try to do a lot more and fail more spectacularly.  And it's character-focused, in ways the second season routinely tried to be and in fact was generally at its most successful when it was, which is exactly the lesson the third season took, that Next Generation was better when it focused on its rich cast of characters rather than, like its predecessor in the original series, just throwing concepts at fans and hoping they'd stick, with the odd amusing commentary from a handful of memorable personalities.

That's how you defend an otherwise maligned episode.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Next Generation 2x21 "Peak Performance"

rating: ***

Memory Alpha summary

via Tim Lynch Reviews
Picard vs. Riker...
need I go on?
Consider this, if you are going to be a fan terminally disgruntled with the clip show season finale "Shades of Gray," the real end of the second season.  The fight that seems to have been pitched metaphorically between Picard and his first officer, Riker, finally happens.  Sort of.

"Peak Performance" boasts significance for a number of Next Generation creations aside from the leading officers of the Enterprise.  The whole episode is predicated on preparations for further Borg encounters.  It's also the only Ferengi episode of the season.  (Fun fact!  The Borg were created to make up for how lousy the Ferengi turned out to be, at least initially.)  And that strategist from the Zakdorn.  Yeah.  The episode didn't quite nail the strategist or the Zakdorn, unfortunately.  If you have an unfavorable opinion of the episode, it's because of that guy.

But you can almost ignore him, because the crew rises to the occasion, easily the best ensemble effort of the season.  The stars, however, are the ones simulating war in opposing starships, Picard and Riker.  I've been postulating in my thoughts throughout the season that it seemed somewhat likely that the creators had seriously entertained the idea of finding a fix for the series by replacing Picard with Riker as the lead character.  Riker had an excellent head-start with "A Matter of Honor," and generally came off better than Picard throughout the season, though they notably both shined in the series standout "The Measure of a Man," which may have also been the point where they started to realize, maybe Picard is not such a lost cause after all.  And so both are put to the ultimate test at last in "Peak Performance."

Picard retains the Enterprise in this scenario, while Riker is given command of a far lesser ship, which again puts the emphasis on where they currently stand, Riker having to prove himself while all Picard has to do is prove competent, a little opposite of the dynamic from the rest of the season, but by this point completely earned, and exactly as it should be.

And the funny thing is, much as in "Measure of a Man," standing between them, as it were, is Data, who also finally has a culmination of the odd relationship he's had with Pulaski throughout the season.  Data is challenged to defeat the master strategist (never mind that the challenge itself looks silly), can't do it (leading to a precursor of his self-doubt in Star Trek Generations and even The Doctor's internal conflicts in Voyager), but finally manages a draw, a novel solution to what is otherwise something of a variation on the famous no-win scenario known as the Kobayashi Maru test (as featured in the second and eleventh films).

Well, as I said, an excellent alternative for concluding the season.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Armin Shimerman

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Next Generation 2x20 "The Emissary"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via Treknologic
"Today is a good day for style!"
When Next Generation's second season nailed it, it really nailed it.  And thus we reach the last great episode of the season, "The Emissary."

Which means we've finally reached the point where the series has figured out how to present Worf, a character whose importance not just to the series but the franchise would grow exponentially.  So basically what I said about "Manhunt" in regards to Lwaxana Troi.  This was a season dedicated to figuring out the characters.  Sometimes it worked exceptionally ("The Measure of a Man") and other times not as much ("The Icarus Factor").

In terms of lasting significance, "Emissary" may have the second greatest legacy of the season after "Q Who?" (which introduced the Borg) as it features K'Ehleyr, perhaps the best of the franchise's periodic efforts to feature "a former lover" (seriously, this is a whole Star Trek trope, and yes it's a fiction trope in general but Star Trek embraced the idea almost as enthusiastically as Space Nazis...and now we will end this parenthetical phrase...).

K'Ehleyr herself only survived to make one additional appearance ("Reunion"), but it completely opened up Worf's possibilities, not just because of the son they had together (Alexander, who would become a recurring character), but after "A Matter of Honor" (another second season classic, which actually featured Riker rather than Worf) stands as the birth of true Klingon nuance, a culture that flourished throughout the rest of the franchise until reinvention in the reboot era.

But aside from legacy, again, the episode itself works miracles for Worf, who until that point had languished under writers who seemed about as eager as Gene Roddenberry to have a Klingon in Picard's crew.  Worf's own alienation was previously poorly defined and depicted, until he had another strong Klingon to play off against (and in subsequent Worf episodes, having other strong Klingons to play against proved to be a continuing source of strong material).

All of which makes the ending ironic, because Worf's not the only one who has a hard time being Klingon, his lover does, too, but they have to pretend to be exactly that, just a couple of regular warriors.  But after this, it's much, much easier for regular Klingon warriors to populate Star Trek.  For the first time, being Klingon means something other than cunning or prowess.  And that is a very good thing.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Suzie Plakson
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney
Diedrich Bader

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Next Generation 2x19 "Manhunt"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via The Viewscreen
"And then, sir?"
"Then we eat them."
We first meet Lwaxana Troi in the first season episode "Haven."  But this is her proper introduction.  It is an out-and-out classic, and every subsequent appearance, whether in Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, is an effort to recapture exactly this magic.  Only in her DS9 appearances, actually, does Lwaxana get to do much that's substantially different, thanks to her odd relationship with Odo (though Next Generation's "Half a Life" serves as something of a preview for that).

In short, she drives everyone crazy.  Usually you need Q to accomplish that, but then, maybe Lwaxana always was Q without all the omnipotence.  She's just omnipresent.  Yay!

In fact, let's take that a step further.  Q episodes before "Manhunt" feature Q in the role of a challenger.  Q episodes after "Manhunt" feature Q in the role of a trickster.  Is this a coincidence?  I think not.  Now, just imagine an episode with Q and Lwaxana...Thankfully this never, ever happened.  Everyone would've gone insane...

"Manhunt" also features the prism of Picard and Riker contrasting against each other, which "Peak Performance" two episodes later also does (not to mention the preview from "The Measure of a Man").  In that sense, it's the culmination of a season's worth efforts to distinguish the two and make it less of a competition, perhaps the tipping of the scales away from Riker and back toward Picard, as the second season had clearly flirted with early on.  The show's creators knew there was a problem.  They didn't necessarily know what the problem was, but they did considerable work trying to figure it out.  Again, as I've stated previously, the revelation that was the third season would not have been possible without all the work from the second.  "Manhunt" is so casual about it you probably wouldn't even expect that kind of effort behind it.  

But then, like Q, Lwaxana was a character designed to find stress points.  She just happened to be the first of the two to actually push the series to its best all on her own.  

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry
Diana Muldaur
Robert O'Reilly
Carel Struycken
Colm Meaney

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Next Generation 2x18 "Up the Long Ladder"

rating: [no stars]

Memory Alpha summary

via Trekcore
And then she takes that skirt off
and there's one that rides much lower
beneath it.  Sexy Trek.
Clearly the idea of a society strapped for new DNA was something of a cherished trope.  Suffice to say that if it were at all possible to recommend this episode for actual viewing, I'd cite that.  But I won't even give you further franchise examples.  Just skip this one.  Run screaming over the hills.

And the funny thing is, this horrendous "Irish episode" (if you have any memory of this episode at all, assuming prior viewing, that should tell you all you need to know; well, that and the caption text to the left) is not even the "Irish episode" that fans tend to call a terrible, terrible episode.  That dubious honor goes to Voyager's "Spirit Folk," a follow-up to its own "Fair Haven."  I never understood the problem with Voyager's version of the "Irish episode."  Because it couldn't possibly be this bad.

And it bad on a number of levels, and offensive on a number of them, too.  Some of them are not even cultural.  This is a huge step back for the entire series, really, the proof that everything needed to be thoroughly re-examined so something like this could never, ever happen again.  It's bad like the worst of the first season.  It is the worst of the second season.  In its faint defense, it's not as bad as the worst of the first.  But it definitely belongs in the first, although its presence in the second, as I've suggested, is a sign that things really did need to change, no matter how much the second season started turning things around.

And well, anyway, it's even a bad episode for the original series, which "Up the Long Ladder" seems desperate to evoke in a quasi-Next Generation way (even the title leans that way).  When you have Scotty or Chekov using ridiculous accents it's one thing.  When you visit alien cultures or evoke clearly identifiable human cultures, it's much more advisable to consider what you're about to do.  The original series usually had some reason to do this sort of nonsense.  No such excuse here, even. 

And it's another huge step back for Riker, casting him in all the wrong light, just as "The Icarus Factor" before it.  And I stress again, the second season was in most other ways such an excellent showcase for Riker.  But I guess I understand why the season finale, the infamous clip show "Shades of Gray," despite being a Riker episode, is generally considered poorly by fans.  Because by that point, all the commander's good will had virtually dried up.

And to top it all off, there's a tepid Worf subplot that's like a bad rip-off of Picard's from the previous episode, "Samaritan Snare."  Just overall completely baffling.  And yet when fans talk about the worst episodes in the franchise, they generally bring up episodes in which they're basically quibbling with the premise.  When you talk about bad episodes, talk about the ones that are absolutely, unquestionably, executed poorly.  Like this one.

And the absolutely saddest part?  O'Brien is in this episode.  You know, the most famous Irishman in Star Trek history.  The one who is perhaps the character in Star Trek with the most dignity imaginable, even though most of his episodes did horrible, horrible things to him.  What were they thinking???

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Next Generation 2x17 "Samaritan Snare"

rating: ***

Memory Alpha summary

via Star Trek
Geordi and friends!
Let's just get this out of the way: the idiotic Pakleds are all but Next Generation acknowledging and apologizing for how poorly the Ferengi turned out in the first season.  And in their idiotic way, they're brilliant.  A species that gleefully steals everything they have, it's genius.

And to watch La Forge interact with them, it's kind of the beginning of the series realizing he works best when he's immensely frustrated.  Frustrated La Forge is different from how virtually any other character would be.  He doesn't get angry.  He works around it.  In fact, it's strong motivation for him.  And it proves that you don't have to be a miracle worker to be a great engineer.  (Although to be fair, in contrast to the Pakleds, anyone would be a great engineer.  Or a miracle worker, for that matter...)

Putting all that aside, however, this episode ought to be known for one thing: the big reveal concerning Picard's artificial heart.  Later (in "Tapestry") we get a vivid look at how exactly that happened, but like La Forge among the Pakleds, this is a major character breakthrough as well, another sign that the second season really was the turning point of the series, where the pieces began to fall into place and greatness began to enter the discussion.

What's great about Picard's dilemma is that it's also good for Wesley, putting him into a new and better context as well, not to mention the moment where Picard and Wesley finally move past that whole awkwardness of Picard not exactly being comfortable with someone so young being around.  And it's not just Wesley who benefits from the events of the episode.  In fact, it nicely contextualizes Picard's relationship with the whole crew, something the whole series had been waiting for since the start and possibly very necessary indeed (right up until "Best of Both Worlds" it's entirely conceivable that Next Generation actually had Riker around as a kind of backdoor option).  This is to say nothing about Patrick Stewart but rather the character as it had been used to this point.  Finding a reason why he behaves the way he does, not just that he's the opposite of Kirk but why and why that's not a bad thing, is the first step in what then amounts to a very short journey.  Because as of the third season, with Picard finally in shape, the rest of the series is, too...

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Next Generation 2x16 "Q Who?"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via Pinterest
Of particular interest in this debut of the Borg the clash between Guinan and Q!
This is a Q episode.  This is the debut of the Borg.  And surprisingly, this makes perfect sense.

Let's start with Q.  After his debut in the series pilot "Encounter at Farpoint" and follow-up appearance in "Hide and Q," the god-like being to end all franchise god-like beings is on-hand to help shove the series to new and greater heights, like a cue (heh) for everyone to acknowledge that to this point Next Generation had not really lived up to its potential.

Everyone loves Q, though, right?  Do I have to do a hard sell for him here?  Yet this is perhaps the only other time besides the concept of the trial in the pilot and reprised in the series finale ("All Good Things...") where he gets to be something other than an imp, can be taken seriously, because he forces Picard to acknowledge once and for all that humanity has much to learn.  And it's the one and only time he scores on that point, too, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

By introducing the Borg.  Yes, the first season teased these most formidable of foes, but it took until "Q Who?" to not only to know what they actually look like, but what they are, what they represent, and that, yeah, they really are like nothing Star Trek had seen before.

I call this a classic although it's to be understood that "Q Who?" doesn't really compare to the series high point, "The Best of Both Worlds," in which the Borg make their biggest-ever impact, in effect giving Next Generation its lasting legacy.  For one the look of the Borg isn't quite nailed, although everything else is, including their cube ships that are perhaps more distinctive and menacing than any drone could ever hope to be.  The menace of the cube is amply demonstrated all right...

Besides Q and the Borg, there's also Guinan.  Throughout the series but especially in her debut season the amiable bartender existed in an impenetrable air of mystery, and only sometimes is there any real attempt to dispel it.  Even after two additional appearances in the movies, the portrait remains unfinished, even though she emerges as less than she's suggested to be in moments like the one that helps make "Q Who?" that much more impactful.  She is in fact presented as a legitimate threat to Q.  Which ends up being, for anyone knows based on all remaining evidence, a wild overstatement, but in this moment it does more than any prior appearance to prove how important Guinan really is.  Like Q she ultimately transcends any efforts to limit her despite growing familiarity doing its keen best.

So that's a lot to chew on.  Aside from "Measure of a Man," it's hard to conceive of another episode from the first two seasons as significant or worthy of significance as "Q Who?," and that's really all you need to know if you're looking for a simple enough recommendation.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
John De Lancie
Whoopie Goldberg
Colm Meaney

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Next Generation 2x15 "Pen Pals"

rating: *

Memory Alpha summary

via CBS
This is a better image for the episode
than Candy Apple Girl.  Just trust me.
The image I've chosen, and you can see for yourself how I've chosen to caption it, is actually two-fold in its significance.  Picard riding a horse.  Hey, so remember in Star Trek Generations how Picard rides a horse?  You can point to this episode as the origin of that.  So much has been made of William Shatner's interest in horses, but Generations depicted Picard and Kirk on horses not as a concession to Shatner but because it has every relevance for Picard.  It's a whole movie that tries to depict Picard as dynamically as possible.  And seeing Picard on a horse is perhaps the second time the second season (his brilliant defense of Data in "The Measure of a Man" being the first) finally nailed him.  The first season had been so anxious concerning him (see just how anxious as he drops random French enthusiasm into his duties early early on...), and Riker had a brilliant head-start in the second.  I mean, things were bound to turn around, right?  (Yes, a bit of a pun, there.)

But this is not a Picard episode.  It's a Data episode.  The one featuring the Candy Apple Girl, otherwise perhaps identified as the worst make-up job of the franchise since Next Generation's own "Too Short a Season," otherwise known as the little girl who joins Data in the eponymous relationship.

No photographic evidence here!

But what about the rest of the episode?  Right, there's another character trying to horn in on the action.  This time it's Wesley Crusher, in another of those stories that try to develop his...non-career.  And yes, I get that there's some logic to his ship duties, but if you're not especially kind about it this is easily the most ridiculous thing about the whole series.  And I like Wesley!  Anyway, that's kind of what happens.  He trains for greater responsibility.  Even though technically he has no responsibility.  As far as Starfleet's concerned, anyway...I'm not sure the series ever really nailed that aspect of the character.  Early on his status as boy genius was botched horribly, and then there was a whole episode explaining how he didn't rate as a boy far as Starfleet's concerned, anyway...So to persist with this was perhaps the leading problematic element of the series (and why quite pointedly he's not seen in this light past the second season).

What else?  What about Data???

Right.  His story is tied up in a Prime Directive dilemma.  This should make for excellent drama.  It doesn't.  Instead it offers an uncharacteristic story concerning a little girl he forms a relationship with.  The series somewhat surprisingly liked this story type enough to repeat it twice, another time with Data ("Hero Worship") and one with Worf ("The Bonding").  Every single time it's awkward, but it's most awkward in "Pen Pals."

All of which is to say that when people say the series did not officially become good until the third season, it's episodes like "Pen Pals" that should be understood as standing in the way of a second season that otherwise makes great strides toward that future...

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney
Nikki Cox

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Next Generation 2x14 "The Icarus Factor"

rating: **

Memory Alpha summary

via Let's Watch Star Trek
All the other memorable shots involve either
Klingon painsticks (yay!) or
stuff that kind of resembles Tron.
So I went with this one.
"Icarus Factor" is somewhat problematic.  It's a character-centric episode that on the one hand probably helps establish Worf better than at any other prior point in the series as an alienated Klingon, as well as some actual background information on Pulaski.

And it introduces Riker's dad.  Who at one point actually looks far more significant to Pulaski.

And it is, until "The Best of Both Worlds," the most prominent exploration of why Riker stays onboard the Enterprise rather than accepting his own command.

On these two scores, then, I call the episode problematic.  As psychological insight goes, it's rarely a bad thing to see where exactly a character came from.  What made Riker than man we know?  Apparently a father who actively competed with him, but who failed in forming a decent relationship with him because both of them were grieving the death of Riker's mom.  And they're more alike than they'd like to admit.  That sort of stuff.

Which is all well and good.  Except Riker's dad becomes a complete nonfactor in the rest of the series.  A series that repeatedly returned to Troi's dear old mum (yay!), even introduced every conceivable member of Data's "family," and just about anyone else you could imagine as relevant to a series that otherwise spent a minimum amount of time in the day-to-day lives of its characters.  That's got to count for something, right?  That Riker's dad leaves an uncomfortable legacy?  That a season that to this point had looked like the best possible showcase for Riker turns in an episode like this?  

And about that promotion deal.  Part of the problem of an ensemble is wanting that ensemble together together as long as possible.  Next Generation kept its ensemble as relatively intact as possible.  This meant Riker was never going to leave the series except under very unlikely circumstances.  So to draw attention to the likelihood and the in-universe reality of this situation not once but several times (the earliest such moment actually coming in the first season!) brings with it a different set of specifications for legacy potential.  And actually, "Icarus" is a more nuanced view of it than "Best of Both Worlds."  But there's no competing with "Best of Both Worlds."  There just isn't.  

So where does that leave the episode?  How does it fail if it seems to go to great lengths to expand the boundaries of what the series typically does, before during and after this moment in its run?  Again, the answer is in the series itself.  Riker's dad is never seen again.  The writers were scared enough to pursue the notion of Riker and Troi's romance (which finally culminates in Star Trek Nemesis, released more than a decade after this episode).  Which is to say, the implications of this episode are...problematic.  There's every chance you can consider it as a bold character statement.  And there's also the chance, the more cautious one, that "Icarus" makes a strong character look uncharacteristically weak.  And that's what family tends to do, right?  Except when it happens to Troi, there's never such a dilemma.  The series owns that relationship.  This one looks like it was culled from a soap opera.

I don't know.  This is the kind of experience that demonstrates the birthing pains the series undoubtedly was still experiencing.  For everything the second season did right, there's a reason the third season was still necessary to do everything...more right.  "Icarus Factor" might be considered to be the episode, more than any other, where this can be seen playing out.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney
Mitchell Ryan
John Tesh

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Next Generation 2x13 "Time Squared"

rating: **

Memory Alpha summary

via Den of Geek
"Still no cure for baldness?  Damn."
Picard and Picard, what is Picard?  "Time Squared" is more like "Picard Doubled."  The opening scene, by the way, is also endlessly duplicated in every single Neelix meal ever from Voyager.  But more importantly, there's a definite franchise trope being featured in the episode, someone meeting themselves.  And the viewer having to figure out along with the crew what's going on.  A big time travel mystery.

There are ways this could be more memorable.  One such way is from Next Generation itself, the later "Cause and Effect."  Even Deep Space Nine's "Visionary" is much more interesting, and even features multiple O'Briens running around.

The biggest drag on "Time Squared" is that it inadvertently represents Picard in the cold-fish light that typified much of his early appearances, part of what really helped make Riker pop in the second season, because Riker was presented anything but cold fish.  The time travel gimmick leaves one Picard difficult to interact with for much of the episode.  None of this is to say the episode is bad, but that it treats everything, including the viewer and the characters, from a distance.  It would become the trademark of the series to feel much more inclusive, which was what helped separate new Star Trek from what it had once been, when it was much more typical for Kirk and Spock to be nearly the only characters worth investing in.  Picard's crew truly became a family, which was why that final season in the final episode ("All Good Things...") with Picard finally joining the poker game, is so affecting.  The Picard from "Time Squared" is about as far from that moment as he can possibly get.  Which in turn typifies how the second season is usually considered.  Even though poker came from this season, the series wasn't quite ready to embrace it, so to speak.  

Which is to say, "Time Squared" is squarely from a period of the series where it hadn't quite reached its level best.  And this is an instance where it shows.  Enjoyable, but trust me, things get better.

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Next Generation 2x12 "The Royale"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

via Tor
Later it would be a fistful.
For now, merely a hatful.
Like "Contagion" before it, "The Royale" is very much Next Generation doing an original series episode (not quite as literally as "The Naked Now," mind you), plunking the crew in the midst of a situation that draws them out of their normal future context into something more familiar.  In this instance, a casino.

Hey, baby needs a new pair of shoes!

Actually, "Royale" is a much, much less convoluted version of "A Piece of the Action."  Both are about books that somehow totally transformed societies.  Not religiously, mind you, just culturally.  "Piece of the Action" made gangsters out of a planet exposed to a book about...gangsters.  "Royale" is an extrapolation of a book an astronaut had with him.  Actually, this is kind of like a holodeck episode.  It's kind of like a lot of episodes, really.  For a change, I will not list every episode it reminds me of.

Suffice it to say, but "Royale" is a fascinating little entry.  It's kind of a humble little experience, but it's also kind of a classic.  No.  Not "kind of."  It is a classic.  It just might be the episode that proves that the second season is not as much of a bust as fans can sometimes suggest, that a huge portion of what the series ultimately became did in fact come from this season.  

Because, wouldn't you know, but "Royale" boils down to a poker episode.  This is an element of the series that had only just been introduced in "The Measure of a Man," and was in fact the last thing anyone saw the crew do in the series finale, "All Good Things..."  It's also a sign that the season had found a winning hand for Riker (who's so important, in fact, that the season finale, the controversial clip show "Shades of Gray," in fact revolves around him), who's perhaps the happiest he is all series when he realizes he gets to play poker in order to resolve the crisis at hand.  I mean seriously! 

Deep Space Nine had a baseball episode ("Take Me Out to the Holosuite") and even a casino caper of its own (Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang"), and the character of Vic Fontaine for a time allowed a PTSD-stressed Nog to find some relief in a fantasy ("It's Only a Paper Moon").  Of course, Reg Barlcay tried that, too ("Hollow Pursuits").  I'm sorry, I said I wouldn't do that.  (Here's another!  Spock allowing Pike a kind of happy ending from the illusions of the Talosians in "The Menagerie.")  And the funny thing is, "Royale" is a story told entirely in hindsight.  The whole thing's a mystery.  By the time we find out what really happened to create the casino, it all makes perfect sense.  The poor astronaut was tortured to death!  By a recreation of a bad novel!

Like I said, fascinating.  And I think it's an episode that has been easy to overlook.  But I've loved it since the first time I saw it.  It's a surprisingly smart story even though it hangs on a lot of elements that don't seem to add up to such a thing.  And it's a wonderful way to find the series coming into its own, even though it seems so easy to dismiss as a nonsense gimmick that should be more appropriate for an earlier time in franchise history.

Well, don't take my word for it.  Take a gamble and watch it for yourself...

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney
Sam Anderson

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Next Generation 2x11 "Contagion"

rating: **

Memory Alpha summary

via Den of Geek
"You see here by my demonstration
that everything about this episode
is completely harmless."
"Contagion" is Next Generation doing an original series episode, the crew trying to figure out what went wrong with another ship and hoping the same won't happen to them.  In fact, the franchise later adapted the model so that the problem was a little more direct, and so this is a general trope you'll find throughout Star Trek.  And this is otherwise not a particularly notable example.

There's also an ancient civilization leaving its technology laying around to create havoc, another franchise trope.  And the thing about this one is that it's revisited, much more on-point, in the Deep Space Nine episode "To the Death."  So there's that going for it.  Sort of.

The most memorable moment of the episode, and this is very telling about how generic and mostly forgettable "Contagion" otherwise is because I would never have been able to place the scene without a reminder of its context, is when La Forge takes a wild ride in the turbolift, getting his VISOR knocked off in the process, and literally gets shot onto the bridge at the end of it.

This is also a Romulan episode.  But otherwise, except to note this, you can forget all about that, because there's really no point.  The series ends up doing a bunch of good and noteworthy Romulan episodes.  This is not one of them.

What more do you need to know?  Oh, and it also contradicts what happens to Data just a few episodes earlier in "The Schizoid Man," although this is probably the only element "Contagion" can boast about.  Here the android deals with a corruption of his system a lot more logically.  

That's pretty much it.  The whole thing is an experience in the series desperately trying to find its voice, something you'd expect from the first season.  But essentially, Next Generation had two first seasons.  Or depending how much you value the third season, three of them...

four quarter analysis
franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Diana Muldaur
Colm Meaney
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