Friday, July 29, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season Six (1993)

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

At the end of season five, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise traveled back in time to San Francisco of the 1800s to rescue Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and to stop the phase creatures of Dividia II from stealing the life-force of humans of that era. 

Their wacky adventure through time and space will bring them into contact with a past version of Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), a young boy named Jack London (Michael Aron) and eccentric novelist Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain (Jerry Hardin).  Picard and the others must figure out a way to get back to the future, save Data's life, and save 19th century Earth from life-sucking aliens. 

Over the course of the sixth season, the starship Enterprise will go on more galactic adventures, meeting new alien life forms, battle dangerous enemies and discover the secret origins of life in the galaxy.  Commander Riker will lose the ability to discern reality from hallucination. Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) goes on a journey to discover the truth about his father's supposed death at the hands of the Romulans.  Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) is kidnapped and forced to participate in a dangerous undercover mission aboard a Romulan ship.  Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) tries to solve the murder of a Ferengi scientist who has invented a revolutionary new type of force field.  And Captain Picard will journey into the afterlife and discover that the regrets of his past are too much a part of the fabric of his life to remove.

And at the end of it all, the unstoppable Borg will return.  But this time, something has changed.  No longer drones, these Borg are vicious and blood-thirsty, and their goal is to eliminate all organic life in the galaxy.  On top of that, Data will have a momentous moment: his first emotion.

I won't lie, I was disappointed by this sixth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  I felt that seasons four and five were pretty near perfect.  Yet, watching this season, there were episodes that felt like chores to get through.  The stories seem weirder, with a greater reliance on solutions of a technical nature rather than being more character-driven. 

"Man of the People," an episode in which an alien ambassador imprints his negative emotions on Troi, is the first flat-out terrible episode the show has produced in a couple of years.  Marina Sirtis is directed to dress in revealing clothing and throw herself like a whore at every man she sees, and somehow this is supposed to mean something.  The messy script and terrible performances drag down the entire episode.

The season opener, "Time's Arrow, Part II" is also weak.  It suffers from all the same problems as the first part, in that it's just too silly and light-weight for its own good.  The Samuel Clemens character is obnoxious, played in an almost clownishly absurd manner by Jerry Hardin.  Hardin is typically an actor whose work I've enjoyed elsewhere, such as on "The X-Files," but I just can't get behind his characterization of Clemens. 

Other failures include "Rascals," a bizarre episode in which Picard, Guinan, Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) and Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) are reverted into their childhood bodies by a transporter accident and then must save the ship from Ferengi pirates.  In "Acquiel," Geordi once again falls for a woman and it nearly gets him killed when it turns out that her dog is some kind of shapeshifting parasite creature.  The two-part "Birthright" drops a major subplot in the first half, and the second half is a boring, jumbled mess of redundant Klingon cultural exploration.

"Suspicions," in particular, is an episode I fail to understand entirely.  In it, Doctor Crusher becomes excited about the prospect of a new shield technology called "metaphasic shielding," developed by, of all people, a Ferengi scientist named Reyga (Peter Slutsker).  Of course, Reyga ends up murdered and Crusher disobeys orders and risks getting drummed out of Starfleet to solve the case.  What makes no sense about this episode is not how the plot progresses, but in the episode's premise itself: I see no reason why Doctor Crusher would be so interested in shield technology.  The way the episode is set up and written, it should be Geordi (Levar Burton) as the focus of this episode, and thus, the whole episode just ends up feeling wrong.

Like Season Five's "Unification," this season features a crossover with the original 'Star Trek': Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) is found, in stasis, aboard a crashed Federation ship.  Stuck out of time and feeling obsolete, Scotty is depressed but must team up with Geordi to save the Enterprise from destruction.  There's some decent work here, and the idea is sound, but like "Unification," comes across as flat. 

But there are still a good number of good and even great episodes in this collection.  The two-part "Chain of Command" is an excellent example.  Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher and Lt. Worf are sent on a secret mission into Cardassian territory to destroy a dangerous weapon, but Picard is captured and tortured by the sadistic Gul Madred (David Warner).  The scenes between Picard and Madred are some of the best acting the show's ever presented, and also excellently written.  The way Madred continues to manipulate Picard, and Picard's ability to withstand just about everything thrown at him is hugely entertaining. It's also a fascinating exploration of torture as a means of extracting information from someone; of course, Picard doesn't actually know the information Madred wants to get out of him, which only makes Madred's attempts to get the information more devastating.  The end of the episode, when Picard reveals to Troi that he was only saved by the arrival of the Cardassian guards is a chilling moment for a character who had always been presented as a pillar of strength and resolve.

Q (John de Lancie) makes a return visit in "Tapestry," appearing to Picard and claiming to be the god of the afterlife after Picard's death.  Q gives Picard a chance to travel back to when he was a young, impulsive Starfleet officer on the eve of his first posting.  But Picard's attempt to undo an event he'd always regretted brings him back to a present where Jean-Luc Picard is a meek, unhappy and unremarkable man with no future.  Another great performance from Patrick Stewart, who once again shows great chemistry with de Lancie.  Sure, it's essentially just a sci-fi take on "It's a Wonderful Life," but it's a well-made episode all around.

Counselor Troi has the spotlight in "Face of the Enemy," in which she goes undercover aboard a Romulan ship to help defectors escape to Federation territory.  It's a tense, well-made episode with good performances across the board, and a great musical score by guest composer Don Davis.  We also get to see a different side of Troi, where she must use her abilities to traverse dangerous situations as she poses as a Romulan intelligence officer.  She also gets to be darker, and more ruthless.  This is a great use of Troi's abilities, rather than, as TV Tropes put it, telling Picard that the howling Klingon throwing furniture is angry. 

In "Second Chances," the Enterprise discovers a transporter duplicate of Commander Riker who has been living along on an inhospitable world for the last eight years.  Bringing him aboard stirs up trouble, for this Riker is still deeply in love with Counselor Troi.  It's a very nice look at the relationship between these two characters, and a look at the "what might have been" story in a manner different than "Tapestry."  

There are number of solid B-level episodes throughout the season as well, action-adventure stories that are competent and fun though lacking in depth.  "Starship Mine" lets Picard run around the Enterprise John McClane-style, battling terrorists intent on stealing valuable trilithium from the warp engines.  "Ship in a Bottle" brings back Professor Moriarty (Daniel Davis), who traps Picard, Data and Barclay (Dwight Schulz) in the holodeck while the Enterprise is dangerously close to a planetary collision.  In "Timescape," Picard, Troi, Data and Geordi discover that the Enterprise has been swallowed by a temporal anomaly in which time nearly stands still... and is under attack by Romulans.  "A Fistful of Datas" sees Troi, Worf and Alexander stuck in an Old West holodeck program.

Though loaded with action and adventure, the season finale, "Descent," is pretty disappointing.  The story is messy, and essentially goes nowhere for 45 minutes.  The opening scene in which Data plays poker with Sir Isaac Newton (John Neville), Albert Einstein (Jim Norton) and Stephen Hawking (Stephen Hawking) is a lot of fun, and the following action sequence as the crew comes under attack from the Borg is also very entertaining.  But otherwise, this episode just isn't all that good.  It seems to take forever for the crew to figure anything out, and the last act is a jumble of strange twists and turns that don't make a lot of sense.

So while there are a lot of highlights, season six is much more uneven than previous episodes.  There are a number of disappointing shows in this season, but also a number of good ones.  I might attribute this to the departure of showrunner Michael Piller for 'Deep Space Nine,' but that's not something I can say for certain.  This is still an extremely entertaining show, but one that seems to be showing its age.