Thursday, August 4, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season Seven (1994)

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

Seven seasons.  "Star Trek: The Next Generation" lasted seven seasons.  A massive hit, breaking records for syndication, it rightly cemented its place amongst the greatest television shows in history.  By the time it ended, it had spawned a spinoff, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," with another, "Star Trek: Voyager" on the way... dozens of tie-in novels, comic books, action figures, and production had begun on a feature film continuation.

As the seventh season opens, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton), and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) have been captured by the android doppelganger Lore (Brent Spiner), who has manipulated his twin brother Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) into joining him on a quest to eliminate organic life in the galaxy along with a gang of vicious former Borg drones.  Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) are stranded on the surface of the planet, searching for their comrades.  In orbit above, Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) commands the starship Enterprise with an inexperienced crew of junior officers against the Borg ship.

That is only the beginning of this last batch of television adventures of the Enterprise-D.  This year, the crew will face a host of new dangers.  Captain Picard and Commander Riker will find themselves in a race against time to find an ancient Vulcan weapon before a group of vicious space pirates.  Geordi faces the loss of his mother, and the incredible hope that he may have found her on the surface of an inhospitable world.  Data will learn how to dream.  Worf will find himself thrust into parallel worlds, each more different and farther from home than the last.  Counselor Troi learns about a tragedy buried deep in her mother's past that could kill her.  Picard and Crusher must finally face their long-buried feelings for each other while trying to survive on an alien world at war.

And at the end of it all, the series finale will throw the crew into an adventure spanning decades that could mean the end of mankind before it even has a chance to exist. 

The seventh season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" sounds pretty damn epic, and at times it is, but it's also very problematic.  It's a season of television that shows a series growing long in the tooth, struggling to come up with new stories, and the departure of its primary creative forces isn't helping matters, either. 

If there's one bitingly obvious weakness to this season, it's the over-reliance on stories related to previously unknown or unseen family members for each of the crew.  In this season, we discover Troi's long-dead sister, Worf's half-brother (and a future version of his son), Riker's transporter twin, Data's mother, Crusher's zombie grandmother (you heard that right), and Picard's genetically altered son.  While the show thankfully spends its last few episodes closing out some long-running story threads, these preceding episodes with random family members are troubling.  A couple of them are actually quite good, such as "Dark Page," in which Troi must enter her mother's mind, which is slowly destroying itself.  "Second Chances" features Riker discovering a transporter duplicate trapped on an alien world, is also pretty good, as it explores the long-dormant relationship between Riker and Troi. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, "Sub Rosa" tries to be some kind of gothic ghost story, but is just an absurd mish-mash of genres that doesn't work.  And whichever writer thought having the body of Crusher's dead grandmother come back to life and try to strangle Geordi must have been inhaling something that day.  "Homeward" wastes some fine guest casting with Paul Sorvino as Worf's step brother Nikolai in a dull story about trying to transport a group of alien survivors from one world to another without their knowledge.  Data meets his mother in "Inheritance," a mediocre episode with a fairly predictable turnout. 

Still, there are a number of good or fun episodes sprinkled throughout the season.  Though not quite up to the dramatic heights of earlier seasons, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" remains thoroughly entertaining overall.  "Parallels" is a good time, with Worf transported to increasingly strange and interesting alternate worlds.  The glimpses into different realities are fun, including one in which the Borg have dominated the Federation and the crew of the Enterprise are desperate for escape, and another where Worf is first officer and married to Counselor Troi. 

One of the most fun episodes, "Genesis," has the crew de-evolving into lower life forms.  Captain Picard and Data come aboard the ship to discover Riker transformed into a neanderthal, Barclay (Dwight Schulz) into a spider (don't even ask me why that happens), Troi into an amphibian, and Worf into a huge armored monster that stalks them in the dark.  I'll be honest this episode is pretty over-the-top, but it is tons of silly fun.  It's very well directed by series star Gates McFadden, with great atmosphere, some cool action sequences and excellent makeup effects. 

Also fun is the two-part "Gambit," which has Picard and Riker joining a group of space pirates to find an ancient Vulcan weapon that allows the user to kill with their thoughts.  Patrick Stewart chews the scenery, pretending to be a pirate named Galin, squaring off against an equally over-wrought alien captain named Baran (Richard Lynch).  These two actors work excellently off each other, and are clearly having fun hamming it up together. 

But the real highlight of the season is the series finale, "All Good Things..."  In this double-length episode, Captain Picard discovers himself moving back and forth through time.  He's transported back seven years to his first mission as captain of the Enterprise (seen in the pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint"), where he finds a crew that doesn't know him and doesn't trust him, lacking seven years of experiences together.  Picard also finds himself sent some 25 years into the future, where he is retired, an old man suffering from a degenerative neurological disease similar to Alzheimer's.  In each of these three time periods, Picard investigates a strange spatial anomaly that seems to grow bigger as it moves backwards in time.  It's a fascinating episode, tautly written and well-acted by the cast. 

"All Good Things..." isn't just a series finale, but a fantastic bookend for the series as it concludes the Q trial storyline begun in the pilot.  Q (John De Lancie) once again returns, guiding Picard through his travels in time.  De Lancie and Stewart, as always, work excellently together.  Q's grudging respect for Picard, tempered by his jests, is fantastically entertaining to watch. 

And the final scene of the episode, in which Picard, for the first time, joins in on the crew's regular poker game, is perfectly written and played by the entire cast. 

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" stumbles a bit in its final season, but goes out on a high note with "All Good Things..." which today remains the best series finale the franchise has to offer for its five television series.  It's not just the best episode of the season, but one of the best episodes of the entire "Star Trek" franchise, and makes the entire season worth watching.