Sunday, July 17, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season Three (1990)

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

After a shaky but much-improved second season, the sci-fi hit "Star Trek: The Next Generation" returned for a third season in syndication.  Several shakeups behind the scenes, as well as the ailing health of series creator Gene Roddenberry led to a show that seemed almost completely different from what came before.

In the third season, the starship Enterprise-D continues to explore the galaxy, coming across new life forms and strange situations.  In the season opener, experimental nano-robots created by Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) become sentient and threaten the ship with destruction.  In later episodes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) will take on a greater role as a diplomat, negotiating treaties and trade with a variety of alien races.  First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) will struggle once again with the idea of taking on his own command or staying with the Enterprise.  Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) returns to the Enterprise after a year away and deal with the fact that her son is growing up.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) will create an android daughter, only to watch her die.  Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) must prove to the Klingon Empire that his father wasn't a traitor.  And Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge will get beat up and knocked out by Romulans.

Throughout the season, the Romulans will continue to play an increasingly dangerous game of chess with the Federation and the alliance with the Klingon Empire will be threatened.  All this will culminate in an explosive season finale featuring the return of the vicious Borg Collective, an unstoppable race of cybernetic beings bent on conquering or destroying all life in the galaxy. 

The third season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" feels like an almost entirely different show.  Behind the scenes, and in front of the cameras, a lot of things changed. Gene Roddenberry was no longer quite in the picture, with Rick Berman taking over as chief decision maker.  Maurice Hurley left the writing staff, with Michael Piller replacing him as head writer. The show's director of photography was also replaced, so the show's visual style changed along with its writing style.  A jump in budget and advances in post-production technology also allowed the show to increase the scope of its special effects, larger sets, and new uniforms for the crew of the Enterprise.

In terms of the writing, a strange trade-off has occurred.  The overall quality of the show is quite improved, with more coherent plotting and much, much better dialogue.  But at the same time, the episodes aren't quite as wild or imaginative as they were before.  I saw it described the best on the Internet: "New civilizations instead of new life," which is an interesting way to put it.  The show feels more grounded and realistic, with fewer episodes dealing with wacky sci-fi premises like evil oil slick creatures, bizarre casinos in space, or viruses that make people act drunk.  Instead, the show takes a bit of a classier route.  In one episode, Picard is mistaken for a god by a primitive culture.  In another, the Enterprise is trapped in a thousand-year-old booby trap and must figure a way out.  Yet further, Riker exposes an assassin during important peace talks.  A number of episodes feature face-offs with the Romulans which have a lot of political undertones.

Sure, there are still sci-fi hooks to a number of episodes.  In "The Survivors," an alien who has fallen in love with a human recreates her after she's killed in a vicious attack on their colony.  "Deja Q" features the return of John de Lancie's hilarious Q, who gets to show a more human side, as well as a cloud of alien energy creatures that want to kill him.  And in one of the season's highlights, a spatial anomaly brings a previous starship Enterprise to the future, altering the timeline into one where the Federation is losing a vicious war with the Klingons.

But again, while the show is perhaps more grounded, the overall quality of the writing and production has taken a giant step forward.  The cast seems to relish the new meat to their roles, especially Patrick Stewart, who gets thrown some truly great scenes.  In "Sarek," the venerable Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard, reprising his role from the original series) comes aboard the ship and Picard must mind-meld with him to stabilize the Vulcan's mind during important peace talks.  Stewart's scene where he feels all of Sarek's emotions is excellent.

There are plenty of excellent episodes in this third season.  "Sins of the Father" explores the politics of the Klingon Empire in a fascinating way.  Worf is forced to make a huge personal sacrifice to save the Empire from civil war, one that will inform his character and Klingon storylines for years to come.  "The Offspring" is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, as Commander Data constructs a daughter named Lal (Haillie Todd), and finds that she is capable of human emotions which he is not.  "Yesterday's Enterprise", which I mentioned before, is one of the series most entertaining episodes and features the return of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) in the alternate timeline. 

The season finale "The Best of Both Worlds" is one of the franchise's most famous episodes, and also featuring what might be one of television's finest cliffhangers.  The Borg have returned, with the full intention of conquering the Federation.  And to do so, they kidnap and assimilate Captain Picard into their Collective, forcing him to lead the attack on Earth.  It is an episode full of tension, loaded with huge action sequences, great performances and an excellent musical score.  And that cliffhanger, man, talk about ending the season on a high note!  Although I remember watching the show as a child, I don't recall my specific reaction to this episode... but I can imagine the frustration of having to wait all summer to see what was going to happen.  

The third season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is a huge step forward for the show, with a greater consistency of good episodes.  At the same time, the show seems to have lost something, but in my opinion that is something far outweighed by what it has gained.  This is the season that cemented "The Next Generation" as a damned great television show.

See Also
Season One
Season Two