Sunday, July 24, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season Five (1992)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner
Created by Gene Roddenberry

"...You're not Niles."
At the end of Season Four, the crew of the starship Enterprise found themselves in quite a bind: Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) had left Starfleet to fight alongside the forces of Chancellor Gowron (Robert O'Reilly) as the Klingon Empire is plunged into civil war. 

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) concoct a plan to set up a blockade along the Klingon border, preventing Romulan Commander Sela (Denise Crosby) from delivering supplies to the Klingon traitors led by the Duras sisters, Lursa (Barbara March) and B'Etor (Gwynyth Walsh). 

After the season opener, "Redemption, Part II," the crew of the Enterprise tackles another year of dangerous missions, saving alien worlds from ecological disasters, meeting shifty time travelers, conspiracies and threats to the peaceful Federation.

Joining the crew is the rebellious Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes), a Bajoran officer helping the crew to track down terrorists who attacked a Federation colony near the Cardassian border.  Afterward, Ro stays aboard the ship as helm officer, and participates in a number of adventures.

Season Five of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" continues on the level of stellar quality from the previous two years.  While the season premiere doesn't quite live up to the incredible turns of the first part, it's still a very worthy opening episode that closes out a lot of storylines that had been building for Worf and the Klingon empire in episodes like "Sins of the Father" and "Reunion." 

Right from there, the show doesn't let up.  The second episode of the season, "Darmok" is another one of the series' best episodes.  Captain Picard is transported down to a barren world along with an alien captain who only speaks in metaphors, forcing Picard to think in an entirely different manner in order to learn to communicate with him.  Along with its fascinating premise and memorable dialogue ("Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!"), it also features great performances from the cast, especially the alien captain Dathan (Paul Winfield). 

In "Disaster," the Enterprise suffers catastrophic damage, cutting off the crew in separate sections of the ship.  While it's not an episode with big ideas to convey, what it does do is tell a good, solid adventure story that gives the entire cast and even its guest actors an equal amount of screen time.  Each group of crewmembers is put in a position far outside their comfort zone and given a problem to solve.  For example, Riker is not an engineer but is given the task of rebooting the ship's systems with little help.  Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) is not a command officer, but finds herself the ranking officer on the bridge.  Elsewhere, Worf is not a doctor, but must tend to wounded civilians and even assist in the birth of a child.  And Captain Picard, who is not fond of children, finds himself trapped in an elevator with three of them, all young and very frightened.

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) returns to the Enterprise in "The Game," which proves to be a fun episode.  Later, the Enterprise returns to Earth when a flight accident claims the life of one of Wesley's friends.  These two episodes are notable because they're both excellent uses of the Wesley character.  For much of the time Wesley spent on board the Enterprise, he was essentially a two-dimensional cartoon, a sort of wish-fulfillment character for little kids who wished they could be super-genius Starfleet officers.  But in these two episodes, and in Season Four's "Final Mission", it seems the writers finally figured out how to make him into a worthy character and tell good stories in which he plays a pivotal role without drawing the ire of the audience.  "The First Duty," in particular, has some excellent scenes between Wesley and Picard in which Picard's disappointment in the boy is palpable. 

"Cause and Effect" is another famous episode amongst fans.  The Enterprise crew begins to suspect that the same events are occurring over and over, and at the end of each loop, the ship is destroyed, killing everyone on board.  I've heard some complaints about this one; the repetition, for one, seems to annoy people.  But I've always enjoyed this episode.  It's got a good sci-fi hook to it, the mystery is intriguing and the special effects are pretty cool.  Opening the episode by destroying the ship is a punchy way to start out, and the end features a fun cameo by "Cheers" and "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer. 

Other great episodes include "I, Borg" in which the crew rescues an adolescent Borg from a crashed ship.  At first, they intend to use him to transmit a virus to destroy the Collective once and for all, but once 'Hugh' (Jonathan del Arco) begins to show signs of individuality, the crew is faced with a moral dilemma they weren't prepared for.  The scene in which Hugh refers to himself as "I' for the first time in front of Picard is fantastically played by both actors.  It's great to see the Borg in this light, used in a dramatic fashion, rather than as antagonists in action episodes (which is how the majority of encounters with the Borg will go in the franchise).

In "The Inner Light," Captain Picard is transported to an alien world where he leads an entire lifetime as a man named Kamin on a world that is slowly dying.  It's a warm, gentle episode with great performances from the guest cast, including Patrick Stewart's own son, Daniel.  Though it has a great sci-fi premise, it takes a back seat to the emotional throughline of the episode, which has Picard starting a family and growing old, leaving behind his old life on the Enterprise. 

"Ethics" is a fascinating episode in which Worf is injured in an accident and considers suicide.  He asks Riker to help him participate in a Klingon ritual to kill himself rather than live as an invalid.  The episode features great performances from the cast, especially between Michael Dorn and young Brian Bonsall as Alexander, Worf's son.  The scene where Riker explains his disgust at Worf's intentions is great.  There's a lot of excellent exploration of quality of living themes in this episode, and also some look at medical ethics as a specialist who comes aboard the ship wants to perform risky procedures on Worf more to prove her theory rather than to save his life.

With all of these great episodes, there are a few times where the season falters.  Unfortunately, one of the season's biggest failures is one that had the most potential.  In the two-part "Unification," Captain Picard and Commander Data are sent on a mission to Romulus to locate Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  What should be a great meeting of two generations is instead a flat, uninteresting episode.  There are some good scenes, such as Picard's final meeting with Sarek (Mark Lenard) and between Picard and Spock, but overall the storyline just falls flat.  A subplot involving the Enterprise crew investigating a stolen Vulcan ship wastes a lot of time dealing with "a fat Ferengi" and at a Federation dump yard and mostly feels like filler to pad out "Unification" into two episodes. 

Similarly, the season finale, "Time's Arrow," is disappointing as well.  The Enterprise is recalled to Earth when an archaeological team discovers Data's head buried beneath San Francisco for some 500 years. It's a silly episode, and has some entertainment value, but after such fantastic season enders as "The Best of Both Worlds" and "Redemption," this one falls far short.  The stakes seem small, and the cast hardly seems invested in it.   There's some interesting ideas here, especially having Data facing his own mortality and the amusing concept that he finds having a predetermined time of death makes him feel closer to being human.  This episode would be fine, even as a two-parter, at any other point in the season, but as a finale, it's just limp.

One of the more difficult episodes to review is "The Outcast," which is the show's attempt to take a stand on the idea of homosexuality and LGBT issues.  In it, the crew encounters a race which is gender-neutral.  However, certain individuals do grow up identifying with certain genders.  When discovered, these individuals are ostracized by their society and forced into rehabilitation programs.  Now, the setup of this episode is a great one to deal with this theme, and I applaud the show for trying, but in 1992 either the creators or the audience simply weren't ready for it, and so the episode pulls its punches.  The gender-neutral aliens are all played by women, and while some effort is made to androgynise them, they're still obviously feminine. 

The story's emotional throughline has Riker falling for a J'naii named Soren (Melinda Culea) who identifies as female.  Her impassioned speech at the end is so bang-on and expertly delivered, that I almost can't believe it was written in the early 1990s.  Considering how much vitriol there is toward LGBT individuals today, such a speech is plain ballsy:

It's a fantastically written speech, just as relevant today as the day it was written.  The end of the episode, then, is wholly frustrating because Soren is forced to go through that rehabilitation and has her gender identity erased.  So the episode feels almost like a waste, as the the show was willing to go so far, but not too far, which is a shame considering the franchise's history of extolling virtues of tolerance and progress.

For the most part, however, the fifth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is another winner.  There are lots of great episodes in this batch, including a handful of real classics.  Don't miss this one.