Monday, July 11, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season Two (1988)

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

Star Trek The Next Generation - The Complete Second SeasonDespite the questionable quality of the episodes, the first season of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was a hit in syndication, premiering to some 27 million viewers, and began to average a whopping 20 million throughout the rest of the season.  The nerdy sci-fi show passed over by major networks was outperforming mainstays like "Wheel of Fortune" and hits such as "Cheers."  A second season, obviously, was on its way.

We find the crew of the Enterprise, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), having gone through some changes since their encounter with the Romulans in "The Neutral Zone."  Worf (Michael Dorn) has been promoted to Lieutenant, and is now Security Chief, taking over for the late Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby).  Geordi (Levar Burton) has also been promoted and is now the ship's Chief Engineer.  Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) has left the Enterprise, replaced by Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur).  Wesley (Wil Wheaton) remains on board the ship, preparing for entrance to Starfleet Academy under the tutelage of Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Commander Data (Brent Spiner).  The ship has also gained a bar, hosted by the mysterious, but benevolent, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg).  

In the season opener, Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) discovers that she is pregnant.  But this is no normal child; the fetus grows at a rate much faster than normal, with Troi giving birth in a matter of hours.  The child seems to age years in days, and to make matters worse, seems to be emitting some kind of radiation that is affecting dangerous viral samples the Enterprise is transporting in its cargo bay. 

Throughout the course of these 22 episodes, the starship Enterprise will become trapped in spatial voids and encounter bizarre, non-corporeal life forms.  It will encounter frozen Klingons intent on restarting the war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation.  The crew will do battle with Ferengi pirates.  The holodeck will malfunction.  Q will make a return visit, and hurl the Enterprise directly into the path of the Borg - a race of cybernetic beings intent on destroying or conquering all life in the galaxy. 

The second season of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' has its fair share of stinkers, including a couple of episodes that may pretty well be the series' worst entries, but on the whole is a vast improvement over season one.  That's interesting to say, since the season was plagued with all kinds of behind-the-scenes issues, not the least of which was a writers strike.  The strike is directly responsible for several episodes this season, including the opener, the script for which was originally written for the aborted "Star Trek: Phase II" series that eventually became "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

The season finale, "Shades of Gray" is another money-saving episode that uses clips from previous ones to pad out its runtime.  It's a thoroughly uninteresting hour of television, which is truly unfortunate since there are so many solid or even great episodes in season two.  It's sad that the show has to close out its second season on such a sour note.

Of course, even "Shades of Gray," dull as it is, doesn't come close to the absolute failure of episodes like "Manhunt" and "The Royale."  That latter episode, which features Riker, Data and Worf trapped in a simulation of a Las Vegas casino on an alien world, is jaw-droppingly bad.  It's so bad, in fact, that the final scene is a discussion between Riker and Picard where the two characters literally talk about how what just happened to them made no sense at all.  It's an astonishing end to an episode that has one incredible misfire after another.  There is one scene that is noteworthy, however: when Data becomes a high-roller at the casino.  This scene only works because of Brent Spiner's impeccable ability to make Data hilarious.  

There are episodes that start out quite well, but fall apart by the end, or episodes that don't start well but get much better partway through.  "Time Squared" is fascinating until the last ten minutes or so, when it tops making any real sense.  To make matters worse, the climax features a moment that is wildly out of character for Captain Picard.  But before that, this episode featured some great direction and performances, as well as a fine musical score.

Conversely, "The Emissary" starts out in a fairly ridiculous manner that seems far too overblown for the events that follow.  However, it turns into a great episode to stud and expand the Worf character, giving him a love interest and examining the conflict between his Klingon heritage and his human upbringing.

By far the standout episode of the season is "The Measure of a Man."  In it, Commander Data is ordered to undergo a dangerous procedure at the hands of Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) who wants to figure out a way to replicate an army of androids. When Data refuses, Maddox contends that Data is, in fact, Starfleet property and therefore cannot refuse.  This leads to a hearing with Picard attempting to prove that Data is a sentient being, and therefore has rights.  But Starfleet regulations mean that Riker must act as prosecution, arguing that Data is just a machine.

Everything about this episode is fantastic.  It's the kind of script any writer would be proud to produce, full of interesting characters and great dialogue.  Indeed, an episode that mostly takes place in a courtroom on a starbase could turn out to be incredibly boring.  Instead, "The Measure of a Man" is totally riveting from start to finish.  You can tell watching it that the cast realizes how excellent a script it is, because they attack their scenes with gusto.  Jonathan Frakes has an excellent moment where he discovers his strategy of attack in the courtroom - he has a flash of excitement, until he realizes a moment later what it means for his friend, and his excitement turns into self-loathing.  Likewise, Patrick Stewart puts passion into Picard's courtroom defense that is energizing to watch.

Furthermore, what makes "The Measure of a Man" a real classic is not just its great performances and dialogue, but that it uses those things to extoll its ideas.  Data becomes a stand-in for every minority that has ever been considered "disposable" by a majority.  The desired army of androids are likened to slaves who would be sent out to do jobs to dangerous or menial for humans to do themselves.  And finally, Picard asks how humanity will be judged if it treats other life forms in such a manner - which is a question people should be asking in reality, not just in a TV show.  "Star Trek" has always been at its best when it wraps meaty concepts like this one into its colorful universe.  There are many shows that can do effects-driven action and adventure quite well.  Few of them can do real, lofty drama as well.

"The Measure of a Man" proves that "Star Trek: The Next Generation" had the chops to be more than just a syndicated sci-fi hit.  It's one of the episodes that makes this show so beloved over 20 years later.  Season two might have one of the series' worst episodes, but it also has one of its best.  With a higher overall quality, bigger special effects and some truly great episodes sprinkled throughout, Season Two trumps Season One and sets the stage for some of the show's major events in seasons three and four.

See Also
Season One