Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Gift for Tackiness

On display this week at the Temple of Tackiness down the street:

LIFE IS A GIFT
UNWRAP YOUR PRESENT

No re-gifting, now!

Can I really find any fault with this greeting-card sentiment from the Church of the Lighted Sign? Not as far as what it says goes. What it doesn't say, however, is much more significant. Missing is any specific reference to the incarnation of God's Word. Missing is the once-given and eternally precious gift of Christ, born in Bethlehem to bear the sins of the world. Missing is any meaningful reference to the Christian message, doctrine that increasingly seems to be a thing of the past, at least for some churches. Missing is any indication of our future hope, which is the outcome of that message.

"Life is a Gift" is a message without a message, focused firmly on the present, on what is in man to do, on what is in our world to experience. It can hardly even be taken seriously as a confession of the preciousness of human life, given that the church body behind this sign doesn't support such a confession in its interface with secular politics. So the message from this sign must be interpreted as nothing more than a clever, pun-driven, warm-and-fuzzy way of saying Carpe diem. It's all in the now. It's all about how you feel. Keep the gift receipt. Re-use the ribbon.

Last Book Review of the Decade

X Isle
by Steve Augarde
Recommended Ages: 11+

The author of The Various, Celandine and Winter Wood was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest book after it was released in the U.K. In the U.S., the book won't be released until July 13, 2010. Mark that date on your calendar, kiddos. Or better yet, pre-order it. If you're a boy who likes fantasy featuring guys like you, or a girl (like one I know) who prefers stories where the main characters are boys, get this book. If the climax of the Harry Potter series fulfilled all your hopes for a desperate battle of survival in a ruined school, get this book. If you're concerned about what might happen to mankind if the polar ice-caps melt and the oceans rise, get this book. If you like to squirm like a hooked worm while villains menace and suspense builds, get this book. If you've ever wondered whether your farts could be used as a weapon, get this book. Have I missed anybody? That's all right. Get this book anyway and give it to someone who fits one of these descriptions. Then look for them a day or two later with their nails bitten to the quick and a gleam of haunted triumph in their eyes.

The "reality TV" programs of recent years have taught us to associate "survival" with the question of who gets "voted off the island." In a possible, near-future Britain, this question isn't just a metaphor. The floods have come up and, several years later, they still haven't gone down. All that remains of civilization are a few people scratching a living out of the little dry ground that remains. They depend for survival on trade with the Ecks family - three burly brothers who use their SCUBA diving skills to bring up supplies and tinned food from the murky depths.

Isaac, Luke, and Amos Ecks and their associate Moko are armed and ready to defend themselves, their boat, and the island - formerly the site of the Tab Hill Girls' High School - where they process and store the treasures they obtain by either diving or trading. They are ruled by the iron hand of their father, a terrifying religious fanatic named Preacher John. And they are served by the slave labor of a group of boys whose parents bought their passage to the island, hoping life would be better for them there.

In some ways, life on Ecks Isle (or, as it is more often spelled, X Isle) is better than the mainland alternative. The boys are regularly fed. They have a safe, sheltered place to sleep. They are kept physically active and enjoy the company of kids their own age. But that's the best you can say for an island where the work force is pushed to the limit of their endurance, fed starvation rations, terrorized and abused by a couple of teenaged capos, and kept going through all this by the knowledge that, if they weaken, they will be "voted off the island." And in their case, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make it back to the mainland.

The last boys brought to the island are Baz and Ray, two youngsters who specialize in survival, each in his own way. Baz instinctively moves to protect more vulnerable people like Ray. Ray, for his part, is sustained by an extraordinary talent for keeping secrets, and by a sometimes frightening streak of ruthlessness. In a few weeks, they become part of the tight-knit group of boys who have learned to survive in the nightmare world of X Isle. Nevertheless they bear witness to hideous cruelty and tragic loss. As Preacher John's religious mania reaches the point where human sacrifice may be the inevitable next step, and as the Ecks brothers' disregard for the boys' lives puts them in imminent danger of being drowned in the floodwaters, the boys must move ahead quickly with a desperate, hare-brained plan that is, after all, their only hope.

X Isle will spark a fantastic array of images in your mind. Images of both the best and the worst that people can do to each other in a life-or-death struggle. Images of a world where a change in the color of the water can make the difference between despair and hope. Images of an opportunity for one small group of decent kids to start a new life -- if they can stay alive.

Some of the surprises in the story may not surprise you. I spent the whole book knowing something Baz didn't figure out until the end; and though I had no reason to expect him to be forced on board the divers' boat at the climax of the story, I had already told myself: "That's all this book needs to make the suspense as unbearable as possible." It's sometimes amazing to be right. It's sometimes fun to know something the main character doesn't know. And it's always an intense ride when Steve Augarde is at the controls. If you've read his Touchstone trilogy, you'll know what I mean. But even if you haven't, that's all right. Get this book. It will shake up your ideas about fantasy, flatulence, and young-adult fiction.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Postal Stupidity

I would like to say that I admire and honor the dedication of our nation's postal workers, especially after they pulled us all through such a busy holiday season. But I can't say that, because I've dealt with the U.S. Postal Service too often.

I will say nothing of international packages, shipped in double-thickness boxes and covered with extra-strong strapping tape, arriving in conditions ranging from "This looks like a truck backed over it repeatedly" to "Does AirMail mean they make a low pass over the destination address and drop it out of the plane?" I will not mention packages being returned after the time-limit for a refund because, while they were in transit, the Post Office changed its policies and canceled service to the destination country. Today I will merely complain about "Return to Sender - Not Deliverable as Addressed - Unable to Forward."

I got this message on two Christmas cards I had sent out this year. Both of them were made out to people whose addresses I had recently updated in my contacts list. My brother, for example, had just moved, and I had his new address on the best authority: his own, corroborated by our mother. Maybe the P.O. refused to deliver it because I spelled "Court" Ct. This is acceptable in St. Louis. I should know; I live on a Ct. and mail with that abbreviation comes to me all the time, including my Christmas card to my brother, which has Ct. in the return address. If they can't deliver a letter directed to a Ct. but they can return one that originated in a Ct., the P.O. has the same problem as the phone company - whose computers are programmed to instantly deafen you with an error "beep" if you incorrectly dial, or fail to dial, a 1 prefix. They are clearly smart enough to know what you mean, but they have to be a jerk about it and correct you if you make the tiniest mistake.

This is a tendency that stirs up my innate grouchiness. For another example, I hate it when someone interrupts me to correct my pronunciation of a word. I have accumulated a huge vocabulary chiefly by reading a lot. This put me at risk of knowing how to use a word before I hear it spoken aloud. So when I enthusiastically blurt out my new vocable, I sometimes say it wrong. And sometimes, the person I am speaking to finds it necessary to stop me and correct my diction. Which leads me to observe that he or she perfectly understood what I was saying. Which, in turn, leads me to wonder why it was necessary to correct me. If my meaning got through, what's there to correct? And if there's no point in correcting me, why do it except, perhaps, to put me down?

If I got a blank look from someone - if they stopped me and asked, "What was that word again? I didn't understand what you said" - then I would certainly profit from the chance to clean up my diction. In a language where many words can be pronounced multiple ways, depending on regional dialect and so forth, it's pointless to worry about saying every word correctly unless you're auditioning for a role in Pygmalion.

Sometimes I get taxed on a word I've used my whole life without being challenged. Sometimes it's a word whose pronunciation I learned from parents or teachers. Sometimes I've checked my pronunciation against reliable reference works, or changed it after being previously corrected. None of these precautions are enough to safeguard me from the irritation and humiliation of being publicly interrupted and corrected by someone who believes I've misspoken. I've let one smart-aleck retrain me to say a word otherwise than I originally learned it, only to have the next person who heard me use it tell me I was wrong again.

The worst example of this had to do with the name of the state of Oregon. As far as I know, everyone who lives east of the Rockies says "Oregon" with three syllables, accent on the first, shwa on the second, open-O on the third. Folks who have lived in Oregon, and perhaps also its neighboring states, seem to prefer a two-syllable pronunciation, with a silent E and a shwa in the second syllable. "Ore-gun," or something like that. Well, I can't help the fact that I've said "Ora-gone" since I learned the names of the 50 states by heart in about 2nd grade. But demanding that I instantly remap my brain, to process the change from Ora-gone to Ore-gun and put it into effect every time I mention the state, is about as reasonable as asking me to type more quietly (as one former co-worker did), since I learned to type around the same time I learned to ride a bicycle. Maybe I could manage it, if I unlearned the habits of a lifetime and started all over again, but that's a lot to ask of someone whose typing speed is his most marketable skill. And Mr. "Ore-gun" kept quietly correcting me every time I said "Ora-gone," as though my very understandable slip really ticked him off and he couldn't bear to hear it a single time without saying something about it. I may not have come across to him as the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but frankly, I found his intolerance disgusting. It did nothing to motivate me to accommodate his compulsion to hear Oregon pronounced in two syllables.

This compulsion to correct, as I said, is one of my pet peeves. In spite of my vocabulary's tendency to grow more through reading than conversation - and the occasional oral slips that occasionally embarrass me - I never, even when I use such words, intend to look like I know more than I do. Although I really do know quite a bit, if I may say so. So it isn't really so much the slight at my pride or my intelligence that irks me, as the pettiness and unwillingness to compromise implied by such a mania to correct people. This is why I try not to point out when other people slip, unless I simply can't understand what they're talking about.

A few years back, I had a nice exchange of letters with a theologian whose teachings I regarded as false. It gave me my first experience of having my spelling corrected when it was already correct. I accused my erring colleague of "hubris," spelled with a u, as one can find it in any dictionary of the English language and in many pieces of reputable, English prose. In his response, my opponent repeatedly and pointedly spelled it "hybris," which (I take it) is a direct transliteration from the original Greek. The subtext, at least as I read it: "I offer you this gentle correction as one whose education is far more advanced than yours." So I made sure, when I wrote to him again, to stick tenaciously to the spelling "hubris." The subtext, as I intended him to read it: "I know Greek, you snob. I also know English. And, perhaps more importantly, I can tell the difference between them."

This disease of verbally correcting that which is not incorrect - at least, not so as to disrupt communication - is what chiefly irks me about the U.S. Postal Service. For I have sent letters with the wrong ZIP code, the wrong street number, and even with no street name or number at all, and they reached the person intended. I have sent letters to expired addresses and they were still forwarded. I have sent letters with insufficient postage, and they made it (albeit with postage due). But on the more obnoxious side of USPS, I have sent a letter to the correct name, building, street, city, state, and ZIP, only to have it returned to me because I put down the wrong apartment number. Worse, it had been the correct apartment number, only the addressee had recently moved within the building. And the USPS, though capable of putting a letter in the right box even if there is no apartment number on it (provided the name corresponds to someone in the building), couldn't sort something addressed to Jane Doe, Apt. 4 into the mailbox of Jane Doe, Apt. 2. It had to come all the way back to me so I could send it again, with fresh postage and only one digit's difference in the address.

That's not just stupid. It's mean-spirited. But you won't see private shipping firms treating their customers that way. That's the unmistakable touch of a Federal Agency.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What I'm Up To

What have I been up to lately? I've had to ask myself this question, just for a reminder. The last couple of months have been a lifetime record for me: I have finished an average of only 2 books a month since the start of October! This is due, in part, to a combination of a more time-consuming work schedule, extra seasonal services as organist and choir director, and a couple of big symphony performance weeks. But let's be honest - in past years I've had the same job, done the same musical stuff, and kept up on my reading all at the same time. So what's different?

Well, I don't know. But whatever it is, I think I'm coming out of it. I've got more plans for composing music. I've on more of a roll in writing some ongoing fiction projects. I'm still blogging, enjoying music and movies and books, and getting my various and sundry jobs done. Apparently, for a couple of months, my energy level slipped. Hopefully, thank God, it's coming back up again.

I am currently WAY behind on reading the same books I had bookmarks in some weeks ago. The first one I plan to finish is Steve Augarde's X Isle, which at the time he sent it to me wasn't available in the US. Perhaps I will still get my review out in time for it to count as an advance look, and the author will think kindly of my request to interview him for this blog.

After that, top priorities go to ARC's of Diane Duane's A Wizard of Mars, P. W. Catanese's Dragon Games, and D. M. Cornish's Lamplighter, all of which I had been looking forward to reading before their authors and/or publishers sent them to me. And let's not forget Robert Kroese's Mercury Falls, a free copy of which I "won" in an online giveaway contest by promising the author a review. I love Diesel's blog and I really do look forward to reading his book... but I guess it's too late to have it done in time to send copies to my loved ones for Christmas.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have poked my head out of my lair a couple of times. I went out to see the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side a week before Christmas. The day after Christmas, I saw the Robert Downey-Jude Law film Sherlock Holmes. The former cranked up the shmaltz as only a sports movie can do, but with an extra zing of humor and tough-gal magnetism, thanks to Bullock's performance as a philanthropic mom/wife/lady-who-lunches who takes in a homeless kid who grows up to be NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher. It was nice to see a Christian (and Republican) portrayed as neither foolish and weak nor hateful and mean.

As for the Holmes movie, it was an enjoyable enough action-adventure-comedy to keep you from thinking about how un-Holmesian Downey's portrayal is, as the master sleuth takes on an occult mystery that begins, I say begins, when the villain is hanged. The villain is played by Mark Strong, late of Stardust (where he played - guess what? - a villain), an actor who really has nastiness down to an art. I'm guessing the Conan Doyle estate put up a fuss about it, because the part of the opening titles that acknowledge Sir Arthur as the creator of Sherlock Holmes reads more like a disclaimer than a writing credit. It said something like, "Sir A. C. D. wrote about Sherlock Holmes in a number of novels and short stories," rather than "based on characters by" etc. See what I mean?

I can name a few writers, still living, who ought to envy Sir Arthur, dead though he may be. Having seen movies allegedly based on their books, I imagine they would like to replace their own "based on the novel by" credit line with a similar disclaimer. But when you've sold the film rights, you don't necessarily have that kind of control over your own work. How horrifying it must be to see your creation taken to pieces by a committee of other writers & refashioned into something very different. I think I would rather leave a codicil in my will forbidding anyone from making a film of my masterpiece until the year 2972. But then again, I haven't reached the point where I have to choose between selling my work and eating it. More to the point, I don't have any work to sell!

But I'm working on that. Stand by for updates.

Friday, December 25, 2009

White Xmas

This year, virtually everywhere has been hit by severe winter weather. The west coast. The east coast. The Rockies. The upper midwest. Europe. You name it. But the St. Louis area has been miraculously spared.

I don't know who's been dreaming of a white Christmas in St. Louis, but they got one under the wire. Today was the first day this winter I have had to brush snow off my car. I've only had to scrape frost off the windshield a couple of times. It's been a pretty mild winter. Even during the past couple of days, while many of the states surrounding Missouri have been buried in feet of snow, it only rained last night. It was still raining when I got to church this morning. It wasn't until I came out of church, after our festive Christmas service, that I saw snow in the city.

OK, that's good. It can stop snowing now. We've had our White Christmas already. I've even taken advantage of the empty parking lots at a couple of stores that are closed for the holiday, to whip a few $@%##ies for old times' sake. I've done my penance as a 12-year resident of Minnesota. I'm willing to accept, at a MAXIMUM, a dusting on Christmas day, just to make it nicer to spend the holiday at home. I move that the snow stop now. Any body care to bring it to a vote?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Four Book Reviews

Nick of Time
by Ted Bell
Recommended Ages: 10+

If any 12-year-old boy has the makings of a hero, it has to be Nick McIver. Until now, his daring exploits only go as far as sailing his own small boat around the UK Channel Isle of Greybeard Island, just off the coast of France, where his father is a lighthouse keeper on the eve of World War II.

Opportunities for heroic action are already stirring. German subs are cruising the waters of the channel, possibly arming to invade British soil. An experimental U-boat prowls about, commanded by a Nazi naval officer of fanatical nastiness.

Meanwhile, a pirate from the time of Napoleon has gotten hold of a time-travel gadget invented by Leonardo da Vinci. Billy Blood has come forward to Nick's time, seeking the only thing that can stand in his way: the other copy of his device. So far his nefarious plans only go as far as kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Soon he may hold all of history in his hands.

Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar is at stake. So are the lives of two innocent children, abducted before their father's horrified eyes. Nick's faithful dog Jip has been pup-napped too. So this daring, resourceful boy goes back in time to set things right - and to face the grisly violence, chaos, and danger of a real naval battle.

Meanwhile, his little sister Kate is on an adventure of her own, intercepted along with one of England's top spies en route to deliver crucial intelligence to Winston Churchill. It will take more than a secret agent's wits to escape from a mad crew of Gestapo agents, torturers, and a cunning U-boat commander.

Ted Bell is the author of the grown-up mystery/adventure/action/espionage series featuring Alex Hawke - possibly the same Alex Hawke we see in this book as a small boy. This "adventure through time" seems to be his first book for kids. It already has a sequel, The Time Pirate. It promises to be as exciting and fun as this novel, backed up by its author's knowledge of real-world naval exploits. Though it isn't a flawless book - it has, for example, one of those endings that goes on and on - it is packed with an intriguing combination of Nazis, pirates, salt-spray, danger, slices of history, and shmears of fantasy, guaranteed to keep youthful fingers turning the pages.

The Riddle
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 13+

The second book of the Pellinor quartet continues the quest of a fantasy heroine named Maerad, fated as the "chosen one" to make the decisive choice between light and darkness for the people of a long-lost continent called Edil-Amarandh. Anyone who relishes fantasy with the depth of vision and richness of language of Tolkien's Middle-Earth must have a look at this book by an Australian poet. And if you cut your teeth on the Harry Potter books, you may also find this fare to your taste. Some of its philosophy, at least, should go down well with Potterites, such as this quote from the first US paperback edition, p. 45:
"There's a great force in the renunciation of power that those who are blinded by the lust for dominion cannot understand, because those who love truly do not desire power. Among Bards, it is often known as the Way of the Heart. The Dark understands nothing of this: it is its greatest weakness."
Does that remind you, perhaps, of something Dumbledore might have said about Tom Riddle? The "bards" of which the speaker speaks are the magic-workers of Edil-Amarandh, schooled in arts such as healing, music, and nurturing the fertility of the land. But a "Nameless One" once held the land in his grip during a long, dark age known as the Great Silence. Now the bardic schools, devoted to serving the light, are failing to hold the Dark back. The Nameless One is gathering his forces for another try at world domination. All that really stands in his way is Maerad, who until lately was a slave with no idea of the power she possesses.

Maerad and her teacher Cadvan are on the run now, both from the Dark and from the Light, whose leadership has betrayed them. They must seek the answer to an ancient riddle: What is the Treesong? How was it broken? And how must Maerad restore it in order to defeat the Nameless One? She learns the answers to these questions during a journey full of terrifying peril, heartbreaking loss, and bone-chilling despair. She encounters strange cultures and powerful beings. She discovers new powers and weaknesses within herself. And she comes to realize that the greatest threat to her quest lies within her own confused, contradictory heart.

The Pellinor quartet is a substantial chunk of reading. It could be used as a doorstop. Doing so, however, would be a terrible waste. For it is also a page-turner, full of beautiful language, powerful imagery, and a story whose unfolding is marvelous to behold. I am eager to get into Book Three, titled The Crow.

The Life and Death of Classical Music
by Norman Lebrecht
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you're a narrow-minded, snobbish, stick-in-the-mud devotee of classical music -- like me, bless you! -- you might be put off by the title of this book. Don't be. It's not really a prophecy of doom for musical high culture. It's actually a brief, very readable, and rather gossipy history of the classical recording industry, which for most practical purposes began and ended with the Twentieth Century.

In the "recorded century," many of the great innovations in recording technology were engineered for, and tested on, classical music. Though it was never the top-selling branch of the recording industry - and grew less and less profitable as time went by - classical music had a gigantic impact on the development of the record business, radio, electrical recording, stereo and digital sound, the whole wax cylinder. Or tape, or CD, whichever you prefer.

On the other hand, the currents of change flowed both ways. The recording industry also influenced, and in some ways radically changed, the way classical music was performed and appreciated. In some ways, arguably, the change was not for the better. But primarily, the tragedy of the classical recording industry is the inevitable result of business practices that could not be sustained. The sordid melodrama of big-spending executives, big-name artists, and egos of cosmic proportions, makes fascinating reading. And the story itself is backed up by a review of the 100 most important classical recordings (in Lebrecht's view), along with the 20 ditto that should never have been made.

I have heard many of these recordings, good and bad. Lebrecht knows whereof he speaks. Going by clues sprinkled throughout the text, I would guess that he was there when a lot of this stuff went down. I found it really fascinating to see some of my musical heroes (and villains) reduced to mortal dimensions, and all the many parts of a complex picture related to each other. Lebrecht does this with wit, skill, and a nose for stories that will sometimes move you, and frequently stick in your memory. Perhaps it isn't the last word on what happened to classical music in the 20th century, but it's an enjoyable introduction that may stimulate you to seek out some great records.

Ramage
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

I have read every word C. S. Forester wrote about Horatio Hornblower. I have navigated all twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian. I can add several other novels of naval adventure to this list. Each one that I read makes me want more. Where can I turn next?

I decided the answer would be this book, the first in a series of 18 novels following the career of Hornblower contemporary Nicholas Ramage. Set amid the saltwater battlefields of the wars between Napoleon and George III, they build on Dudley Pope's experience as a naval historian, journalist, and wartime sailor.

I was not at all disappointed. Ramage is an intriguing commander. He doesn't have Jack Aubrey's mathematical genius or Hornblower's tortured conscience, but he nevertheless brings the instincts and conflicts of a born naval captain to vivid life. Young Ramage lives under the stigma of his father's court-martial conviction (loosely based on the notorious Byng case). His political enemies within the service are nearly as dangerous as the French. But not quite.

We first meet Ramage coming out of a daze after being struck on the head by a large splinter. A bigger and better-armed French ship is in the process of sinking his ship. The captain and first lieutenant have been killed, which puts Ramage in command just in time to abandon ship. He and his surviving crew make a daring escape and attempt to carry out their assignment on the coast of Italy, in spite of not having a ship to do it in. One of the nobles they rescue from certain death on the guillotine turns out to be the love of Nicholas's life. Whatever happens to him afterward - whether narrow escapes, or courts martial, or a daring rescue under the guns of a much larger ship - his life will be all the more precious, because it is no longer his own.

What a delight it is to be back at sea, even if only a sea of words! The winds, the canvas, the timbers and cordage, the salt and the sun, the smell of smoke, the boom of guns! Yes, yes, yes! I can hardly wait to begin on Ramage & the Drumbeat, next in this series. Plus, the edition I own carries a huge list of historical novels by a variety of authors, all apparently in a nautical vein. If most of them are as good as this series promises to be, they'll keep me happy for years!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TNG Season 4

Season Four of Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired during my senior year in high school (1990-91). For reasons I have previously mentioned, I missed most of it at that time. I picked up many of the episodes later in reruns. Foaming-at-the-mouth mad about Star Trek though I may be, I'll be the first to admit that missing this season was no great loss. It has some terrific episodes in it, but over all I consider it TNG's weakest season. In fact, there is such a streak of lameness through it that, in terms of The Original Series, I feel it would compare best to the disastrous TOS Season 3. But Star Trek survived, and this turned out to be the middle season of seven.

"The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2" wraps up the cliff-hanger that ended season 3. Picard has been borgified. Riker has trained the Enterprise's biggest guns at the Borg ship piloted by "Locutus" and ordered Worf to fire. What happens next? Er... nothing. The Borg are not affected by the weapon. They cruise right on by and take on the whole Federation fleet at Wolf 359. Remember that battle in case we ever get to "Deep Space Nine" Season 1. As if you can forget it, after seeing all those starships smashed and burned. You don't actually see the battle, but its after-effects are grisly. Starfleet will have a limp for the rest of the season at least. Luckily, the Enterprises capture Locutus, and Data figures out how to use his neural link to the Borg "hive mind" to send the whole lot to sleep. The Borg cube blows up in a truly excellent explosion, and Picard comes to with a nasty headache.

But soft! "Family" proves that, even in Star Trek, things aren't always back to normal by next week. Trek continues the process (begun in Season 3) of breaking out of its episodic straightjacket where each separate story is confined to its own hour of TV. This episode goes to heroic lengths to show that TNG's characters have depths, and history, and humanity, and can be changed by their experiences. While the Enterprise undergoes repairs following the Borg incident, Picard sees to his own need for healing by visiting the French village he came from, and the vineyard still run by his crusty brother Robert. The big crisis of the story is whether Picard will take a career offer from a "raise Atlantis" project on Earth, rather than return to the final frontier. He finds his answer in a muddy tussle with his brother. There really is no A story to this episode, but it's got two B stories and a good, solid C. The other B story is a visit from Worf's human foster-parents, memorably played by Theodore Bikel and Georgia Brown. The C story has to do with a holographic message Wesley receives from his dead father. There are no scenes on the bridge. No aliens. No clones. No rifts in space-time. It got the lowest ratings in TNG's history. But can you imagine not knowing what this episode reveals about Picard and Worf? Uh-uh.

"Brothers" is the one where a circuit goes "pop" in Data's brain, and he locks everyone out of the bridge and hijacks the Enterprise. It's pretty cool how he stays one step ahead of everybody while they try to get back in control of the ship. Turns out Data isn't really responsible for this, however. He has been summoned by his maker, the presumed-dead Dr. Soong, to receive a parting gift before the old guy kicks off. Soong has created a chip that should enable Data to experience human emotions. But before they can plug it in, the family reunion is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lore. Remember the evil twin from Season 1's "Datalore?" That guy. There is a three-character scene in which everybody is played by Brent Spiner. Neat stuff. While Soong is looking the other way, Lore knocks out Data, steals his uniform, claims his birthright, spits in the pottage -- OK, so it isn't exactly the story of Jacob and Esau -- and leaves with the chip after mortally wounding Soong. The aged cyberneticist dies in Data's arms. But stay tuned! You haven't seen the last of either Lore or Dr. Soong!

In seasons 1 and 2, the Talarians were frequently mentioned. "Suddenly Human" is the episode where we finally see them. I thought they were a very interesting race, with fierce yet honorable customs and funky foreheads. Strangely, I don't recall that they were ever seen or mentioned again after this episode. The only reason I can think of is that the Talarian code of honor (not to mention the skull) resembled that of the Klingons, whom the series went on to develop in great detail. Anyway, the guy in the picture is a Talarian. I thought he was cool. He threatens to go to war against the bigger and better-armed Enterprise when Picard refuses to return a human boy to him along with several young Talarians rescued from a wrecked cadet ship. The boy is the lone survivor of a Talarian raid on a Federation colony, so understandably Picard wants to return him to his family. But he is also the adopted son of the Talarian captain, whose cultural traditions allow him to replace his own dead son with the child of a slain enemy. The dilemma is particularly acute because, on the one hand, Jono is a very cute boy (played by Chad Allen of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"); while, on the other hand, he is also an irritating twit. When he splatters Wesley with ice cream, you start digging through the credits to see if David Gerrold was involved (because all Star Trek needed was a gay subplot). But then Jono stabs Picard in the chest and makes it all better. Sigh... Can you tell I don't care for this episode?

"Remember Me" is the episode in which Dr. Crusher delivers the best Star Trek line ever: "If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe." By the time she figures this out, you've been pounding your head against the TV screen for at least 15 minutes. It begins when one of Wesley's warp-field experiments has a "hiccup" while his mother looks on fondly. Afterward, as she goes about her duties, Dr. Crusher notices that people are disappearing around her. Not only are they vanishing off the ship, but all record of them, all memory of them, seems to have been erased from existence. Except in her mind. Is she going crazy? Or has the universe gone mad? Well, I'm staying out of that one. But I can tell you that Wesley's warp-field experiment is involved, and so is the Traveler (in his first appearance since Season 1's "Where No One Has Gone Before"), and those sideways whirlwinds that keep trying to suck Beverly into them are actually attempts to rescue her from sure and certain oblivion. It's a rather lame episode, but it does put Dr. Crusher and "fun to watch" in the same room for a while.

"Legacy" is the one where the Enterprises visit Turkana IV, the planet Tasha Yar escaped from. It's a lawless place, run by corrupt gangs who care about nothing except killing each other. One of those gangs has taken the survivors of a Federation shuttle crash hostage. The rival gang offers to help. And one of their members develops an unlikely relationship of trust with Data, aided by the fact that she is Tasha's kid sister. Ishara Yar turns out to be scamming the Enterprise folks, though. Poor Data, how he does get kicked around!

"Reunion" reunites us with several Klingon characters we have met before. Chancellor K'mpec reveals to Picard that he has been poisoned. He anoints Picard as the arbiter who will choose his successor as head of the Klingon Empire, warning that one of the claimants will be his killer. Assisting Picard in navigating the labyrinth of Klingon law will be K'Ehleyr, Worf's mate, who shows up with a cuddly little Klingon in tow: Worf's son Alexander. Worf is upset about this, because he cannot acknowledge the boy as his son without bringing disgrace on him (see Season 3's "Sins of the Father"). And finally, Duras (whose false accusation dishonored Worf's family) arrives to claim the throne. His only rival is the crazy-eyed Gowron (Robert O'Reilly in a recurring role that would cross over to DS9). What happens when all these players are on the board? I don't even know where to begin. Let's just say it ends in blood. Lots and lots of sticky Klingon blood.

Nearly everything that happens in "Future Imperfect" turns out, in the end, not to have really happened. Which, in a way, is a pity. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Riker beams down to some planet or other... and wakes up in sickbay 16 years later. What happened? Nothing much. He got promoted to captain of the Enterprise. Got married, had a son (named "Jean-Luc" after the Admiral, don'tcha know), lost his wife, lost his memory all the way back to the away mission where he picked up the virus that caused the whole memory loss problem. Now he's got to take part in diplomatic talks with the Romulans, with no memory of what led to that point. Luckily, it turns out to be a Romulan ruse to get the Enterprise's access codes out of him. He's really their prisoner in a holographic interrogation facility, along with a boy who looks exactly like young Jean-Luc but is really just an orphan named Ethan. But--whoops!--Ethan slips and calls Commander Tomalak "Ambassador Tomalak," and that gives away the fact that the Romulan base is another holographic ruse, and that it's really a young alien's way of... whatever. I thought Chris Demetral (late of "Dream On") was fun to watch as Riker's ersatz son, and found myself wishing it hadn't all been a cheat after all. Unlike certain other young guest actors this season (coughChadAllencough), this kid really would have made a nice addition to the cast.

Don't worry. "Final Mission" isn't the end of the series. It's just the end of the run for Wesley Crusher, apart from a handful of guest appearances in later seasons. Some fans celebrated his departure, but they were jerks. They sent Wesley off with a really good episode, though. For his last mission before going off to the Academy, he gets to accompany Picard and a local pilot on a diplomatic mission. Their rickety craft starts coming apart, forcing an emergency landing on a moon that looks suspiciously like Death Valley. Their survival is hampered by the stupidity of the local dude, the deadly force field surrounding the one fountain of water they find, and the captain's injuries in a rock fall. Wes mans up and gets them through until rescuers arrive. Awwww. Ickle Wesley is all growed up! In a way, I feel it's a shame he left the show. It left a lot of character potential unfulfilled. But people grow in different directions. If he hadn't left TNG, perhaps Wil Wheaton wouldn't have had time to formulate "Wheaton's Law" of online gaming ("Don't be a dick"). Where would we be then? (Hint: Where are you right now?)

"The Loss" is the episode where Deanna Troi loses her empathic abilities. She doesn't take it very well, either. I find it hard to believe that a trained psychologist like Deanna wouldn't be able to continue counseling people without her Betazoid crutch to lean on. But Deanna seems determined to quit her job and spend the rest of her life being miserable about her disability - which only, after all, puts her on the same level as everyone else on the ship! Luckily, it turns out that her problems are caused by a flock of 2-D critters who have surrounded the Enterprise. Caught in the flow of their migration, the ship is in danger of being pulled into a piece of Cosmic String, which apparently got chewed off and left lying around by a Cosmic Kitty-Cat. Seriously, though, it's like being dragged toward a black hole, only the special effect is purple. Luckily, the Enterprise is able to distract the 2-D thingies with a cosmic-string decoy, long enough for them to break free of the num num num -- sorry, I'm fresh out of technobabble.

"Data's Day" presents 24 hours in the life of the Federation's favorite artificial life form. Narrated by Data as a letter to Dr. Bruce Maddox (see Season 2's "The Measure of a Man"), it blends humor, irony, and warmth with the android's observations of the progress he is making in understanding human ways. He stands as "father of the bride" at the wedding of Miles and Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao's first appearance as Keiko). He takes dancing lessons from Dr. Crusher. He investigates the apparent transporter-related death of a Vulcan ambassador, who ultimately turns out to have been a Romulan spy faking her death as she returned to her people. The 24-hour cycle of this episode, its observations of mundane crew activities, and its development of the O'Brien couple (who eventually crossed over to DS9) make this an interesting episode, albeit a little off-formula.

"The Wounded," on the other hand, is an exceptional, classic episode. It also shows signs of being a step toward making O'Brien a principal character on DS9. But more importantly, it's the episode that introduces the Cardassians. Marc Alaimo (later "Gul Dukat" of DS9 fame) plays the first Cardassian captain in Star Trek, who comes aboard the Enterprise with two subordinates to observe Picard's pursuit of a renegade Starfleet captain. The peace between the Federation and Cardassia is too new and fragile to allow a hotshot like Capt. Maxwell (Bob Gunton of "Shawshank Redemption") to destroy it. When Picard catches up to him, Maxwell claims that the base and ships he destroyed were arming the Cardassians for an offensive against the Federation. Tragically, even though Maxwell turns out to be right, Picard is obligated to arrest him in order to prevent another war with the Cardassians.

"Devil's Due" takes another Star Trek-sized dump on religion as Picard matches wits with a con artist posing as the devil. Marta Dubois plays Ardra, or rather an alien grifter playing Ardra, the incarnation of evil on the planet Vendax. The locals believe they owe their late millennium of peace and prosperity to a bargain with Ardra, who was supposed to return at the end of that time to claim what was hers. Unfortunately, the Ventaxians are quite convinced that the signs and wonders that have been happening in their world correspond to predictions of Ardra's return. It's up to Picard to prove under Ventaxian law - under the supremely unbiased judgeship of Data - that Ardra, while no angel, is also no devil. It's really a fun episode, its goofiness excused by the twinkle in everyone's eye.

I think "Clues" is the episode that begins with Picard sharing his Dixon Hill holo-program with Guinan, a.k.a. "Dolores from Cleveland." He soon puts his sleuthing skills to better use when the effect of a wormhole suddenly opening near the Enterprise knocks out the entire crew except Data. When they all wake up, Data claims they were only unconscious for a few moments. But strange inconsistencies quickly multiply around Data's story. A laboratory specimen shows a day's growth. Worf's wrist was apparently broken and mended. The ship's clock has been tampered with. These and other disturbing clues make Picard increasingly unsure whether Data can be trusted. It turns out that he has simply been following captain's orders never to discuss what happened in an incident whose very memory means death to the entire ship. It's an intriguing episode, but after so many "Data scares," one wonders how Picard can keep trusting him.

"First Contact," not to be confused with the TNG feature film by the same name, is the fourth-season episode where Riker is injured while paying an incognito call on a xenophobic, pre-warp alien race. At about a present-day state of development, these folks are not quite ready to entertain visitors from outer space. So it comes as a shock when Riker's doctors discover that their patient is an alien. This complicates the process of "first contact" with a society at the threshold of space travel. Cultural and political forces at work in this particular world threaten to make Picard's mission a disaster. Guest star Carolyn Seymour ("Mirasta Yale") also appeared on TNG as two different Romulan commanders, and also played a character in Capt. Janeway's holonovel in two episodes of Voyager. Michael Ensign ("Krola") appeared once in each Trek spinoff series, twice as a Vulcan. George Coe ("Chancellor Durken") was one of the original cast members of "Saturday Night Live." And yes, the alien chick who tells Riker, "I've always wanted to make love to an alien," is played by Bebe Neuwirth of "Frasier" and "Cheers."

"Galaxy's Child" brings back Leah Brahms (see Season 2's "Booby Trap"), one of the Enterprise's designers. This time, however, it's the real Leah and not a hologram. Geordi gets all sweaty and confused as he tries to deal with the reality behind his fantasy. The real Leah is brusque, jealous of her design, and skeptical of Engineer LaForge's reasons for fiddling with it. When she discovers her holographic double, look out! Nevertheless, the two engineers form a workable partnership when it comes time to save the Enterprise from the obligatory power-drain crisis, this time coming from a deep-space alien baby that has imprinted on the Enterprise as its mama. The void-cruising critter looks like an elaborate piece of home-made ravioli. OK, maybe that's cruel. Manicotti? It's up to Geordi and Leah to wean "Junior" off the Enterprise's power supply before (A) the batteries are completely drained and (B) the approaching group of adult space-ravs get nasty. Sci-fi has never been so appetizing!

"Night Terrors" is a somewhat slow episode. Watching it, one guesses the folks who made it were having trouble figuring out how to fill an hour with the material. Amazingly, I have read that they actually had to cut scenes from this episode to save time. The uncut episode would surely be a cure for anyone's insomnia, which is precisely the problem in "Night Terrors." No one on the ship can sleep, and they're starting to go crazy from dream deprivation. Only Deanna can catch any Z's, but she keeps waking up sweaty from terrifying nightmares. The same thing happened before, to another starship trapped in the same area of space; the entire crew died except for one Betazoid officer, who remains catatonic, driven insane by the nightmares. Now it's going to happen to the Enterprise, unless they can find their way out of the time-space rift that holds them. Luckily, Deanna realizes that her nightmares are a sort of signal from the crew of an alien ship trapped on the other side of the rift. Once communication has been established (via a bit of "directed dreaming"), there may be a chance of both ships working together to escape from the rift. If not, it will be the last episode ever. I'm sorry if my grouchiness offends you. I didn't get enough sleep last night. And besides the one scene where Beverly turns around and finds all the corpses in the morgue sitting upright, this episode isn't as scary as advertised.

Well, clearly they got out of that rift, because that episode was followed by "Identity Crisis." This one's another creepy mystery, focusing on the crew of an away mission five years ago. One by one, the surviving crewmen are disappearing, and the trail of clues leads back to the planet where they all apparently caught whatever is causing them to disappear. Geordi and his friend Susanna Leijten are the last ones left. And now they're starting to go too - starting to morph into invisible lizard-people whose major arteries glow bright blue under UV light. I remember the shiver that went down my spine the first time I saw the scene where Geordi used the holodeck to reconstruct the source of the unexplained shadow in the old mission records. The other lizard-folks were played by syndicated radio hosts Mark (Thompson) & Brian (Phelps). How better to show a "face for radio" on TV than under one of the heaviest make-up jobs in film history?

Reg Barclay returns in "The Nth Degree," where an alien probe zaps him and super-accelerates his intelligence. Pretty soon Barclay has connected the ship's computer directly to his brain, using a crazy-looking chair surrounded by flashing laser-beams which I probably should have put here instead of this picture. But I thought the Cytherian was so cute that I coudln't resist using his picture instead. The Cytherian who, you ask? The Cytherians are aliens who live in the center of the galaxy. Their strategy for exploring the universe is to send out probes like the one that zapped Barclay, and bring other beings to visit them and exchange knowledge. Until this is made clear, it looks like Barclay may fall victim to a tragedy similar to Captain Kirk's good friend in the TOS second pilot episode ("Where No Man Has Gone Before"): namely, he grows so far beyond humanity that he becomes a threat and must be destroyed. Luckily, once Barclay has brought the Enterprise to meet the Cytherians, his super-smart condition is reversed. Mostly. Deanna: "Reg, I didn't know you play chess." Barclay: "I don't!"

"Qpid" brings back not only John de Lancie for his fifth appearance as "Q," but also Jennifer Hetrick as "Vash" (see Season 3's "Captain's Holiday"). When both come to visit just when Picard is about to address the Archeological Society on the mysteries of a planet whose treasures are off-limits to off-worlders, the captain doesn't know which one to worry about most. Sure, Vash is probably going to steal some priceless artifact, or die trying. But Q can do so much more. For example, he can turn a boring episode about an archeology conference into a hilarious visit to Merrie Olde Englande. Q whisks Picard and his crew off to Sherwood Forest and sits back to see whether "Love conquers all." With Jean-Luc as Robin Hood, Vash as Maid Marian, and other members of the crew playing various roles -- Worf: "Sir, I protest. I am not a merry man!" -- there's no telling what might happen. Maybe Marian will change her mind and decide to marry Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Maybe Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis, the only cast members who could actually fence, will have to break jugs over men's heads because, ironically, sword-fighting is for guys. Maybe, when Worf smashes Geordi's "Allan a Dale" lute against a tree stump, you'll laugh so hard that the mead shoots out of your nose. "Star Trek does this" and "Star Trek does that," not always successfully; but when "Trek does Robin Hood," it does it with humor, romance, and fine swashbuckling style.

"The Drumhead" is the episode that addresses McCarthyism, and ideological witch hunts in general. It starts when a Klingon exchange officer on the Enterprise is caught selling secrets to the Romulans. Unfortunately, this incident coincides with an explosion in Engineering, which at first looks like the work of a saboteur. Eventually it turns out to have been just an accident, but not before Admiral Nora Satie (played by Oscar-nominated actress Jean Simmons) begins an investigation of possible conspiracy in the Enterprise crew. The paranoia spreads: Worf believes Satie's claim that the threat of a conspiracy must be rooted out. But Picard risks his career trying to stop the witch hunt. It finally ends when Satie lets down her guard and tears into Picard in an irrational speech in front of Starfleet's head of security. Besides Simmons' magnificent performance, this episode also boasts appearances by Bruce French (Satie's Betazoid aide), who also appeared in the pilot for Voyager, as a Vulcan in Enterprise, and in Star Trek: Insurrection; Henry Woronicz (the Klingon J'Dan), who appeared as two different characters on Voyager; and Spencer Garrett (the young officer ruined by Satie's investigation), who also appeared on Voyager.

Lwaxana Troi makes her annual appearance in "Half a Life," also starring M*A*S*H regular David Ogden Stiers as an alien scientist who is close to finding a way to reignite his world's dying star. Just when Lwaxana seems to have found her soulmate, she learns that Timicin is nearing his 60th birthday. On his world, it is customary to commit suicide at that age. Their romance instantly flares into a furious and deeply moving portrayal of the life debate. Michelle Forbes, who later returned in the recurring role of Ensign Ro, makes her first Trek appearance here as Timicin's daughter, who comes aboard to beg him to do his duty for his family's sake. It's a balanced and thought-provoking hour of Star Trek that does what you never expected a Lwaxana episode to do: reduce you to a miserable puddle of tears.

"The Host" introduces a race that will become very important in DS9: the Trill. In their first outing, their appearance is quite different - bony facial ridges rather than spots on the skin, etc. - but the concept is nearly the same. The Trill negotiator Beverly loves turns out to be a "joined life form," consisting of a large, worm-like "symbiont" who lives inside a succesion of humanoid "hosts." The host dies in a terrible accident, but the worm -- good-looking feller, isn't he? -- lives on, at first in Riker's body, then (more permanently) in a Trill humanoid who happens to be female. This puts a serious strain on Dr. Crusher's ability to carry on the romance. So Trek's first lesbian kiss (also resulting from a succession of Trill hosts) would have to wait until the DS9 episode "Rejoined." Actually it's a fascinating dilemma, and any sci-fi enthusiast should be thrilled to consider it... but the subtext says: "Beverly just isn't an advanced enough humanoid to set aside a little matter of gender when it comes to being in love." Like, gag me.

In "The Mind's Eye," Star Trek does The Manchurian Candidate. En route to Risa, Geordi is abducted by Romulans and brainwashed to serve their nefarious purposes. Once back aboard the Enterprise, he takes orders through the gizmo that connects his VISOR to his nervous system. His mission, unknown even to his own conscious mind, is to break up the alliance between the Federation and the Klingons. Eventually he is supposed to assassinate a Klingon governor, while Data races to get to the bottom of what's going on. It's an extremely weird, suspenseful episode: most entertaining. This was the first Star Trek episode directed by sometime producer David Livingston. He went on to direct a total of 62 episodes over four Trek series (though only one other TNG episode). Larry Dobkin, who directed the TOS episode "Charlie X," guest stars as the Klingon ambassador. The Romulan who brainwashes LaForge is played by John Fleck, whose Trek credits include three appearances on DS9, one on Voyager, and a recurring role on Enterprise as the villainous Silik. Edward Wiley (the Klingon governor) played a Cardassian once on DS9. And that female Romulan who stays in the shadows? Now, who could that be...?

"In Theory," the penultimate episode of TNG's fourth season, explores Data's chances in the world of dating. Data's friend Jenna, who works with him in the torpedo bay, has been crying on his shoulder for months over her the ups and downs of her relationships with men. Now she realizes Data is the kind of romantic partner she really needs. Finally: a guy who isn't out of touch with his feelings, because he doesn't have any! Data does what any good, positronic friend would do. He designs a program to provide Jenna with the appropriate responses to her couple-oriented stimuli. At first it really seems to be going well, but Data soon proves that he really doesn't know what he's doing. I'm paraphrasing, but my favorite exchange went something like this: *smooch!* Jenna: "Data, what were you thinking just now?" Data: "I was calculating pi to the bazillionth decimal place, running a diagnostic on the Enterprise's waste-recycling systems, calculating the precise amount of pressure I should apply to your lips, and arranging the piano works of Brahms for string quartet." Jenna: "Well, I'm glad I was in there somewhere." It's not the most fascinating piece of sci-fi to come out of Star Trek, but it does take Data's development to the next level. AND, it has one of those villain-free jeopardy situations (I believe the third one this season), resulting in the crewwoman's death pictured here. And it was the first of 5 TNG episodes directed by Patrick Stewart!

"Redemption" ends Season 4 with the first half of a two-parter. It also closes the circle of Worf's discommendation, which the Klingon Chancellor Gowron finally reverses in this episode. Gowron has been having trouble taking control of the Empire. Worf takes a leave of absence from the Enterprise, and prepares to bring some support to Gowron's side when he really needs it, hoping that the grateful Chancellor will do just what he does. We see Worf's brother Kurn again, and we meet Duras's wickedly sexy sisters Lursa and B'etor, who themselves become recurring villains. As for Picard, as soon as his duties as arbiter of succession are fulfilled, he backs away from the situation, knowing the Federation dare not become involved. So the episode, and the season, ends with Worf resigning from Starfleet, joining Gowron's crew, and facing the pro-Duras forces in what promises to be a nasty civil war. The last thing you see before "To be continued..." is this blond Romulan chick stepping out of the shadows. Does she seem familiar to you?

Season Four has its weaknesses. It has episodes that are scarcely science fiction at all. It repeatedly falls into a pattern of focusing on secondary characters and extracurricular interests, rather than on the main thing. It even gets a bit repetitive, because whenever the writers felt obligated to "stick in" a sci-fi concept in what little space the people-oriented "A story" left for it, the gimmicks they came up with took on a certain nondescript sameness. One episode ("First Contact") really took the point of view of the alien culture the Enterprise was visiting. Other obvious attempts to break out of the formula merely throw icewater on the viewer, such as "Family" (with its lack of bridge scenes) and "Data's Day" (with its decidedly anti-dramatic structure). On the other hand, it was also a season that brought a deeper background to the characters, and that bonded them to each other in new ways. It came in and went out with strong two-parters. And it brought laughter ("Qpid") and tears ("Half a Life") into our lives. I'm glad the other seasons were not like it. But I'm also glad Season 4 happened.

Want a refresher course on previous seasons of Star Trek? Click the following links to see my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three, and of TNG seasons one, two, and three.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Horns o' Moses!

Today, while my pastor and I were picking hymns for the Epiphany and Pre-Lenten seasons, the topic of Moses came up. Specifically, the story about Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the law, his face aglow from the presence of God. The people were terrified. And so, at their request, Moses put a veil over his face before speaking to them.

Being nothing if not a know-it-all, I asked the pastor, "Did you know this story is the reason Catholic art depicts Moses with horns on his forehead?"

"Of course," the pastor replied knowledgeably. "He had to hang the veil on something!"

TNG Season 3

The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989-1990) turns 20 years old this year! It's a season that has aged well. Some of latter-day Trek's most important writers joined the show that year, including Michael Piller ("Evolution"), Ronald Moore ("The Bonding") and Rene Echevarria ("The Offspring"). Dr. Bev (Gates McFadden) made her comeback, and stuck with the series until its end. Even Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) came back for one episode ("Yesterday's Enterprise"), which afforded her character a more meaningful death and the series one of its finest hours. Loads of solid stories developed the characters, explored important issues, and made fun watching all at the same time. Many unforgettable guest characters and actors crossed the screen, some not for the first time, some not for the last. And, for the first time in the franchise's history, the idea of continuing storylines -- as opposed to each episode being its own self-contained, one-hour story -- began to take root.

Where was I in 1989-90? I was a junior in high school in the small town-cluster of Crosby-Ironton, Minnesota. Because the town was surrounded by mountainous heaps of magnetic ore, TV reception was poor. I first saw many of these episodes on VHS tapes recorded by my brother's girlfriend - not that her TV reception was much better. I later saw some of them more clearly in reruns after I went to college. A few of them seemed quite new to me as I sat through the DVDs over the past couple of weeks. If I ever saw them before, I didn't form a clear memory of them until now. So it's been like discovering third-season TNG for the first time!

It began with the episode "Evolution," guest starring Ken Jenkins (late of TV's "Scrubs") as a scientist who has devoted his entire career to preparing a probe to analyze a stellar phenomenon that recurs every 196 years. Just as the big day is about to arrive, however, plans for the Enterprise to launch the probe are held up by a ripple of malfunctions across the ship's systems. It turns out Wesley let an experiment in nanotechnology get loose and infect the computer. The self-replicating "nanites" have mutated into an intelligent life form, and they consider the crew's attempts to regain control of the ship to be acts of war. Basically it's a re-do of Season 1's "Home Soil," only with a cool speech about baseball. Whatever shortcomings one may find in the story, however, Ken Jenkins makes up in his memorable performance - a trade-off that became somewhat of a theme during this season.

This creepy critter belongs to a species called the Sheliak, featured in "The Ensigns of Command." The Sheliak like humans about as much as you like cockroaches. So when they decide to colonize a world belonging to them by treaty, you can imagine their irritation to discover humans already living on it. This colony is news to the Federation, especially since the planet is saturated with deadly radiation. No one can beam down, and only Data can safely visit the planet by shuttle. But the inhabitants won't listen to his warnings that they must prepare to evacuate the world where they have triumphed over 90 years of hardship. It's a tricky mission both for Data, who must convince the colonists to change their mind, and for Picard, who must somehow get the intractable Sheliak to give them more time for the evacuation.

In "The Survivors," the Enterprise investigates a human colony where all life has been wiped out, except for a neat little rectangle of grass and trees with a house on it and the elderly couple who live in it. Why they have been spared is as much a mystery as what happened to everyone else. The heavily armed, hostile aliens who apparently destroyed the world repeatedly come back to chase the Enterprise away, but Picard is increasingly convinced that they are an illusion. There was really only one survivor: an immortal, non-violent alien of virtually unlimited power, who must now live alone with his tormented conscience. The guest stars were Anne Haney, who later played a Bajoran judge in the Deep Space Nine episode "Dax," and John Anderson, whose other credits include one of the most memorable episodes of "The Twilight Zone." And for those of you who have trouble telling these episodes apart, this is the one where Deanna almost goes nuts because she can't get a music-box tune out of her head.

An anthropological "duck blind" on a primitive, proto-Vulcan planet loses its holographic shielding in the opening scenes of "Who Watches the Watchers?" By a series of mishaps, the local natives begin to revere Captain Picard as a god, and the rapid development of a religion threatens to derail all the nice progress their culture has been making. Plus, they have captured Deanna and are considering killing her to appease the anger of "the Picard." It's classic Roddenberryist ideology, taking a dump on religion and (most importantly) making it fun to watch. Who wouldn't enjoy watching Picard's agony as the Prime Directive crumbles before his eyes? Among the guest cast are horror-film maven Ray Wise, best known for his recurring roles on "Twin Peaks," "24," and "Reaper"; he also guest-starred in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Playing the leader of the Mintakan villagers is Kathryn Leigh Scott of the classic series "Dark Shadows," dating back to the era of the original Trek.

In "The Bonding," a crewwoman's death leaves her 12-year-old son an orphan on the Enterprise. Eventually, Worf -- who feels responsible, since the boy's mother died under his command -- forms a bond with young Jeremy Aster, making him part of Worf's Klingon clan. But first, Jeremy must resist the temptation to be coddled and mothered by an alien presence from the planet where his mother died. Whatever this thing is, it has the ability to create the illusion that it is Jeremy's mom, and that they are at home back on earth. In order to save the kid from living out his life in an empty illusion, his Enterprise "family" must convince him to face the reality of his mother's death. It's a solid Star Trek story featuring a kid whose ears earned him the nickname "Clark Gable Jr.," but with less-than-exceptional guest acting it scores as only an average episode. Perhaps not strangely, Jeremy Aster never was never seen again.

"Booby Trap" is the first of two consecutive episodes focusing on Geordi LaForge. In this outing, the Enterprise gets stuck in a type of galactic flypaper, alongside an alien ship that perished there a thousand years ago. Aided by surviving records from the alien ship, the crew works out what has caught them: a passive weapon, disguised as an asteroid field, that drains all energy the ship puts out and converts it into deadly radiation. Now it's up to Geordi to figure a way out of it. To do this, he goes to... well, the Holodeck. But this is not entirely for escapist reasons. Sure, the hologram of Leah Brahms, one of the Enterprise's designers, is pretty. Sure, holo-Leah digs Geordi in a way other chicks don't. But her help is really essential in getting the ship out of its predicament. Really! Susan Gibney reprised her role as Leah Brahms in a fourth-season episode, and played a different character in two episodes of DS9. The alien captain is played by Albert Hall, whom you may (or, thanks to prosthetics, may not) recognize from his recurring role as a judge on both The Practice and Ally McBeal.

The second Geordi episode running is "The Enemy," Trek's take on The Defiant Ones. Only it isn't manacles binding Geordi to a Romulan centurion on the inhospitable planet where they are both marooned. It's a case of rapid neural degeneration, caused by something in the planet's magnetic field. As Centurion Bochra loses the ability to walk, Geordi goes blind all over again -- his brain no longer receives singals from his VISOR. Unless they can figure out a way to spot a neutrino beacon provided by Wesley Crusher, they'll never get home. Meanwhile, "home" means an armed standoff between the Enterprise and a Romulan ship. Bochra is played by John Snyder, who returned to TNG as another character in "The Masterpiece Society." Tomalak, commander of the Romulan ship, became a recurring adversary in three subsequent episodes, played by Andreas Katsulas. Katsulas also appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, besides starring in "Babylon 5" and playing the one-armed man in the 1993 film The Fugitive. A third Romulan in this episode is played by Steve Rankin, who also appeared twice on DS9 and once on Enterprise.

"The Price" was written by Hannah Louise Shearer, about whom I have expressed myself in the past. Unsurprisingly, I don't think it's a very strong episode. As Trek episodes go, it's a total chick flick, with Beverly and Deanna engaging in girl talk while stretching in their leotards, and Deanna rolling in the hay with a bare-chested and sickeningly pretty Matt McCoy (late of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, etc.) -- or rather, Devinoni Ral, one of this season's succession of interestingly named guest characters. Ral is on board to take part in negotiations for the sale of what is supposedly the universe's first known, stable wormhole. It turns out to be less stable than advertised, as two Ferengi find out to their cost (hint: they turn up in the Delta Quadrant, masquerading as gods, in the Voyager episode "False Profits"). It also turns out that Ral has been manipulating the negotiations by means of his empathic sense, inherited from his Betazoid grandma. Deanna rats him out, then passes when he asks her to run away with him "beyond the rim of the starlight," or wherever. It's totally Deanna's episode, but it barely rates as Trek. You know that really tall alien? He was played by Kevin Peter Hall, best known for his role as the title alien in Predator and Predator 2. The actor died only a couple years after shooting this episode, at age 35, of complications from a contaminated blood transfusion.

"The Vengeance Factor" is one of those episodes I couldn't remember ever having seen before... at first. It became a little more familiar as it went along. I reckon the reason it was so hard to recognize is that it took way too long to make up its mind what to be about. It would have been much more memorable if it had gotten to the point faster and stuck to it. First the Enterprise finds a science station that has been ransacked by pirates. Then it traces the pirates, who call themselves "Gatherers," to their homeworld, from which they were driven by clan wars a century ago. The clans have made peace, but the Gatherers continue to run wild, the black sheep of the family, embarrassing their planet at every turn. Picard persuades the leader of the planet to make peace overtures to the renegades, then persuades one of the high-ranking pirates to take them to his leader, then... (yawn) have we gotten to the point yet? No. Actually what it's really about is a vendetta that one seemingly young woman has been carrying out, on behalf of her decimated clan, for over a 100 years. Which puts Riker in the emotionally wrecking situation of having to shoot down a girl he digs. Too bad this came after the second-season clip episode.... The guest cast included the late Nancy Parsons, who starred in all three Porky's films, and Lisa Wilcox, who starred in two of the Nightmare on Elm Street features; besides some rather gross male costars we would all rather forget about.

"The Defector" is about a Romulan who... all right, you're way ahead of me! It's a pretty good episode, but I can't think of anything to say about it except to remark on James Sloyan's first Star Trek appearance. He also appeared as a Klingon in TNG's "Firstborn," as a Bajoran in two episodes of DS9, and as the title character of the Voyager episode "Jetrel."

"The Hunted" is an episode I have always liked. Jeff McCarthy plays Roga Danar, a maximum-security convict who escapes from prison while the Enterprise is reviewing his planet's application to join the Federation. His escape attempts are so clever and daring, his ability to elude capture so weird, and his ability to deal swift death so formidable, that he could easily have been no more than a fiendish enemy. But the fact that he was conditioned by his planet's army to fight in its wars, then discarded from society as an undesirable element, also makes him a sympathetic figure. This ambivalent character puts his society to its ultimate test of survival in the TNG episode that most entertainingly deals with veterans' issues. Gee, that chase through the decks of the Enterprise is fun! Also starring as the planet's leader is one James Cromwell, who later played the inventor of warp drive in Star Trek: First Contact. Cromwell also starred in such films as Babe, LA Confidential, Eraser, W, and Murder by Death. McCarthy, for his part, also appeared in the Voyager pilot (as the ship's original medical officer, whose death cleared the way for the holographic Doctor).

"The High Ground" stands out as one of the third season's most unsatisfying episodes. TNG's only episode to take aim at terrorism, it doesn't say much beyond the obvious, and sometimes painfully obvious. The only reason it's at all watchable is the performance of Richard Cox as terrorist leader Kyril Finn, whose Ansata separatists use a form of interdimensional transport that gradually destroys them. Finn takes Dr. Crusher hostage, and later captures Capt. Picard as well, providing them with an opportunity for the recurring "Jean-Luc, there's something I've been meaning to tell you" gag. He's a contradictory character, with artistic talent, a wry sense of humor, and a willingness to commit cold-blooded murder in the pursuit of his fanatical ideals. There can be no satisfying ending for such a character. Ultimately, inevitably, he ends up face-down with a phaser-hole in his back. And the viewer shakes his head in disgust, mutters "What's the point?" and changes the channel.... EDIT: There was a furore over this episode in the UK, because Data has a line stating that terrorism helped bring about Irish unification in the year 2024. As a result, this episode is banned from broadcast TV in Britian. Was it worth it, guys?

"Deja Q" brings back the galaxy's naughtiest entity in his funniest episode yet. While the Enterprise tries to correct the decaying orbit of a populated planet's moon, Q appears naked on the bridge and announces that the Continuum has stripped him... of his powers, that is. He has nowhere else to go, no one he considers more friendly than the Enterprises, who don't trust him one bit. Nevertheless, as a regular member of the crew he provides enough help solving the moon problem that they decide not to jettison him from a torpedo tube. Their choice becomes less clear when a group of vengeful Calamarain (i.e., intelligent swirls of ionized gas) gang up on him and the Enterprise into the bargain. When Q flees the ship in hope of drawing the Calamarain away, this uncharacteristically selfless act earns his readmittance to the Continuum. Corbin Bernsen, late of "Psych," appears as another Q (billed as "Q2"), and an actual mariachi band appears as themselves in this episode that proves (in my opinion for the first time) that Q can be part of a good story after all.

"A Matter of Perspective" is the episode where the holodeck is programmed to play a simulation of each witness's testimony in a trial to extradite Riker on charges of murder. The victim, a scientist working on some piece of unmemorable technobabble, turns out to have murdered himself while attempting to kill Riker. But while we're all figuring this out, the evidence looks like it might go against Riker. It just goes to show how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Wait! Did I say that? Crap! This wacky Roddenberryism is starting to get to me! I mean, if eyewitnesses are unreliable, what's your alternative? Computer evidence? I believe TOS's "Court-Martial" put paid to that possibility. Anyway, guest actor Mark Margolis ("Apgar") played the crook who shot Paul Sorvino in Law and Order. Craig Richard Nelson ("Krag") appeared in the Voyager episode "Living Witness." Gina Hecht ("Manua") held a recurring role on TV's "Mork and Mindy." And Julianna Donald ("Tayna") also appeared in a DS9 episode as a weird female alien who gives oo-mox to Quark.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" is widely considered one of TNG's best episodes. Conceived as a way to cut the bad aftertaste of Tasha Yar's meaningless death in season one's "Skin of Evil," it brings the Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) of TNG face-on with an earlier ship (ditto-C) via a hole in space-time. By leaving its own time, just when it was on the point of being destroyed by a Romulan fleet while attempting to defend a Klingon outpost, the Enterprise-C failed to prevent a war that was never supposed to happen. History has so changed that Tasha Yar is back from the dead, the Enterprise-D is a battleship, and the Klingons are beating the daylights out of the Federation. Only Guinan can remember the way things were supposed to be. On her say-so, Picard sends the surviving Enterprise-C's back to their own time to fight their hopeless battle so that history will go right, and the war with the Klingons will be averted. And Tasha goes back with them so that her death can have meaning -- or so that she can die beside her guy. Whichever. The guy in question is played by Christopher McDonald, who is otherwise known for playing unpleasant characters, such as Shooter McGann in Happy Gilmore. The female captain of Enterprise-C is played by Tricia O'Neil, who also played a Klingon in the TNG episode "Suspicions" and a Cardassian in DS9's "Defiant."

One of the great Data episodes is "The Offspring," in which the android's rights as a sentient being (legally defined in season 2's "The Measure of a Man") are put to a new test. When Data decides his growth as a life-form requires him to experience reproduction, he builds another android with a positronic brain. Lal at first appears as the unisex thingummy depicted at the top of this post, played by an uncredited actor under a colossal amount of makeup. I mean, he was literally covered from head to toe. The poor guy! Lal eventually chooses a female appearance (played by Hallie Todd of TV's "Lizzie McGuire"), but her rapid assimilation of experiences soon goes beyond anything Data can prepare her for. Along comes a Starfleet Admiral (played by soap opera maven Nicholas Coster) who wants to separate Lal from Data in the interest of cybernetics research. Before the ethical dilemma over Data's rights as a parent can be fully resolved, Lal's first emotions overload her circuitry and she dies. Father and daughter's final scene together is very touching, within the confines of Data's emotionless character. Lal: "I love you, father." Data: "I wish I could feel it with you." EDIT: This was the first of 8 TNG episodes directed by cast member Jonathan Frakes. Frakes also directed episodes of DS9 and Voyager, as well as 2 TNG feature films.

"Sins of the Father" is the episode that turned the corner for Star Trek. When Worf walks out of the Klingon High Council, stripped of his family honor, and there very pointedly isn't a card saying "To Be Continued," you know Star Trek has grown to the point where it has room for an ongoing storyline. This was a risky move for a syndicated show whose episodes, ideally, could be aired in any order a broadcaster saw fit. It basically meant that, besides the free-standing stories, the show would have larger plot arcs woven into it. It meant that a series like Deep Space Nine, in which a single story stretched across as many as ten episodes, could finally be envisioned. And Worf had to suffer for it. First he catches disrespect from a Klingon exchange-officer who turns out to be his long-lost brother Kurn (Tony Todd in the first of his numerous Trek appearances). Then he has to face the high council, headed by Chancelor K'mpec (Charles Cooper, who played a Klingon ambassador in Star Trek V), and answer for the treason supposedly committed by his late father. The real traitor turns out to be the father of Worf's bitterest rival, Duras. To protect the empire from civil war (because the Duras family is so powerful), Worf must accept discommendation. He will be a Klingon without honor until... Well, I'm not telling you. You'll have to wait and see what happens in Season 4! EDIT: You get to see the "Klingon homeworld" in this episode, for the first time. It's a funny thing: now you know what it looks like, but you still don't know what it's called!

"Allegiance" is a fairly crappy episode, but it has lots of cool aliens in it. It introduces us to the Bolians, those chatty bluish fellas with a narrow ridge running down the center of their face. [EDIT: OK, that one guy in season one's "Conspiracy" was a Bolian, I guess. But he wasn't blue!] It gives us our one glimpse of the Chalnoth, whose size, savagery, and dentition are formidable but (one gathers) self-defeating. And it rolls out the gray-skinned Mizarians, frequently seen in the background after this episode, but never studied as close-up as here. And that's besides the really weird aliens, who turn out to have kidnapped Picard and these other critters in order to study command structures. Meanwhile, a fake Picard is running around on the Enterprise, putting the crew's loyalty to the test by issuing inexplicable commands and treating his officers in a bizarre fashion. The "something's not right about the Captain" talk between the officers, as a preface to mutiny, may seem familiar to those who remember season one's "Lonely Among Us." The scene where Picard tells Riker he may be losing it seems lifted almost verbatim from that earlier episode.

"Captain's Holiday" features Max Grodénchik (best known for his recurring role as the Ferengi "Rom" on DS9) as--guess what!--a Ferengi. It introduces the treasure-hunting adventuress Vash, played by Jennifer Hetrick in the first of several Trek appearances. And it displays the spectacle of Jean-Luc Picard trying to read on a verandah on the pleasure world of Risa while, unbeknownst to him, the souvenir he has picked up at Riker's request serves as an open invitation for the women of the planet to offer Picard jamaharon. Whatever that is, it sounds delicious! Vash is looking for an artifact from the future, which has somehow come back in time and gotten lost on Risa. The Ferengi feller is trying to get to it first. Picard gets caught up in the chase, partly at the instigation of a couple of "security officers" from the 27th century. If the "tox uthat" falls into the wrong hands, it could be really bad news. It looks like a smokeless ashtray made out of clear crystal, but it can snuff out a sun. Nasty! This episode took a big step toward transforming the bridge-bound, talky, preachy, stuffy Picard into a sexy action hero. And it's a pretty good show!

"Tin Man" is Starfleet's name for a new life form that has been detected at the edges of explored space -- an intelligent being that is also, somehow, a spaceship. Since the Romulans want a piece of Tin Man, the Enterprise races to make first contact with it. On board as a mission specialist is an extremely gifted Betazoid telapath named Tam Elbrun, played by Broadway dancer-actor Harry Groener. Elbrun is a troubled individual with a history of isolating himself from humanoids and developing a rapport with strange aliens, the stranger the better. His checkered past includes a diplomatic incident that cost 47 lives and a stretch of therapy while Deanna was studying psychology at the U of Betazed. Now she is concerned that he will lose himself in his mental rapport with Tin Man. In the end, Elbrun welcomes this, finding a shared sense of peace and belonging with the ship/creature that has never gotten over the death of its crew. Incidentally, this was the first episode with music by composer Jay Chattaway, who won an Emmy in 2001 for his work on Star Trek.

"Hollow Pursuits" introduces the recurring character of Reginald Barclay, a low-ranking engineer who has one big challenge to his Starfleet career: his personality. Shy and insecure, he has trouble relating to others and doesn't seem cut out for a career in a disciplined environment like the Enterprise. Yet when, very grudgingly, LaForge takes an interest in him, he turns out to have just the right mind and skills to solve a mystery that could threaten the Enterprise. On the other hand (and more to the point of this episode), he also suffers from "holo-addiction." As the presurre on Barclay mounts, he increasingly takes solace in a holodeck fantasy in which he can take down his superior officers a notch or a few. They're none too pleased to find out about it. Holo-Deanna: "I am the goddess of empathy..." The existence of someone like Barclay must violate some tenet of Roddenberry's vision of the future, but it sure makes an entertaining hour of Star Trek. Look for him in later seasons of TNG, as well as Voyager! EDIT: Barclay was played by Dwight Schulz, whom I would have described at the time as "the guy who played H. M. Murdoch on 'The A Team.'" Twenty years later, I find that he is probably best known for playing Barclay on Star Trek!

"The Most Toys" is a troubling episode with a tragic story behind it. First the tragedy: Character actor Saul Rubinek ("Unforgiven," "The Contender") was brought in on short-notice when the actor originally cast in his role (David Rappaport of "Time Bandits") committed suicide during filming. In spite of his last-minute preparation, Rubinek delivers one of the series' most distnctive performances as the ruthless and flamboyant collector Kivas Fajo. Fajo "collects" Data by faking the android's death in a shuttle explosion, then tries to coerce him into accepting his new role as part of an exhibit of rare, and in many cases stolen, objects. One of those objects is a nasty ray-gun that delivers a slow, painful death. Perhaps the fact that, at the moment he is beamed up to the Enterprise, Data is discharging said ray-gun in Fajo's direction, is a sign that he is getting closer to understanding emotions such as anger. Thus Data's parting shot to the captured Fajo -- something like "I feel nothing; I'm just an android" -- is devastating in its irony.

Mark Lenard headlines the episode "Sarek," named after the character he first played in TOS's "Journey to Babel." So yes, this is the Sarek, father of Spock, ambassador of the Federation. Now, at age 202, he boards the Enterprise to undertake a final diplomatic mission before he retires. But a rare degnerative disease is robbing Sarek of his emotional control. And his telepathic powers are projecting his violent Vulcan passions onto the ship's crew. Senseless violence begins to break out: not the best prelude to a diplomatic palaver. Picard has difficulty penetrating the protective layers of wife, chief of staff, and personal aide which insulate Sarek from the truth, but when he finally does, he volunteers to hold Sarek's rampaging emotions in his own mind (via the famous Mind Meld). It's a touching episode about aging, and it sets up a return visit by Sarek in a later season, leading to a crossover appearance by Spock himself.

"Ménage à Troi" is the episode where an amorous Ferengi captain refuses to take "no" for an answer. Smitten with Lwaxana Troi, he kidnaps her along with Deanna and Riker. As one might expect of a Lwaxana episode, it is hysterically funny, with a touch of naughtiness thrown in. The Ferengi are particularly well cast. Frank Corsentino ("Daimon Tog") appeared as three different Ferengi betweem TNG and Voyager, including "Bok" in season one's "The Battle." Peter Slutsker, as the chess-playing Ferengi "Nibor" (I love that name!), also played three different Ferengi, all in TNG, besides another alien in two episodes of Voyager. Even Rudolph Willrich (who here plays a Betazoid official) came back to Star Trek more than once, as a Bolian in Voyager and as an alien hologram in Enterprise. But most significant is Ethan Phillips as the Ferengi doctor. Phillips played another Ferengi in Enterprise and a human in Star Trek: First Contact, but he is best known for his seven-year role as Neelix on Voyager.

"Transfigurations" is the episode that shows us what it looks like when a humanoid reaches the point of evolving into an entity. Mark La Mura plays "John Doe," an amnesiac alien found barely alive in the debris of a crashed escape pod. As he recovers from his injuries under Dr. Crusher's care, he gradually exhibits amazing powers -- healing wounds, even bringing Worf back from the dead. But his body tissues are mutating into who-knows-what, and a painful and frightening surge of energy keeps building up inside him, with increasingly distressing results. Finally, as the Enterprise is confronted by a ship from John Doe's world, it all becomes clear. The Zalkonian people don't tolerate those who are "different." They want nothing to do with the Federation. They just want to destroy John Doe because he threatens the status quo. But they're too late. Before the Zalkonians can fire on the Enterprise, John Doe achieves the higher state of existence he has been building up to. He glows all over like the aliens in Coccoon, transports people through space at will, and finally zooms off into the cosmos as a blaze of pure energy. The overall message of the episode seems to be something about accepting people's differences, but I can't help wondering whether John Doe's fate is the ultimate realization of all Gene Roddenberry's hopes for mankind.

Season 3 ended with a knock-out cliffhanger, featuring Elizabeth Dennehy as Commander Shelby, an ambitious young officer who out after Riker's job. Riker, on the other hand, is considering his third (!) offer of his own command. But it is Picard who makes the biggest career move in this episode, when the Borg recruit him as their spokesman for the invasion of Earth and the conquest of the Federation. It ends with Riker, knowing that Picard is on board the Borg ship, ordering Worf to "Fire!" It was TNG's first cliffhanger, and the two-parter (concluded at the beginning of Season 4) remains one of the series' most popular stories.

Thus ended a season dominated by thought-provoking, politically relevant, character-driven stories. Nevertheless, except for a few groaners like "The Price," one can hardly complain of a lack of action, excitement, and thrilling sci-fi concepts. It was a transitional season that laid the groundwork for later seasons where Picard was stronger, Worf and Data more richly developed, Q and Lwaxana Troi were handled more skillfully, and narrative arcs spanned broader ranges of episodes. It was a milestone season, too; beyond this point, next-gen Trek proved itself more lasting and successful than the original series.

Want a refresher course on previous seasons of Star Trek? Click the following links to see my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three, and of TNG seasons one and two.