Saturday, December 5, 2009

TNG Season 2

Before I proceed with my review of Season Two (1988-89) of Star Trek: The Next Generation, here's an opportunity to catch up on my snarky remarks on the original series (TOS) seasons one, two, and three, and TNG season one.

The second season of TNG brought a lot of changes. I remember anticipating them eagerly after a TV special about the new season, following a remastered broadcast of the original TOS pilot "The Cage" in the summer of '88. First, after the first year's succession of one-off, guest-actor "Chief Engineers" (only Mr. Argyle appeared twice), the Enterprise finally gets a permanent one, thanks to a big promotion for Geordi LaForge. This, in turn, opens up the "ops" chair next to Data on the bridge to be filled by a succession of one-offs and, most often, by the increasingly experienced Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher. Wesley is no longer aboard as a supercargo, since his mother, Dr. Beverly Crusher, has been written off the show and replaced by the tough, prickly, super-competent Dr. Kate Pulaski. And among other cosmetic changes (such as a new sash for Worf, a beard for Riker, etc.), the Enterprise gets a spiffy crew lounge called Ten Forward, in honor of its location at the forward end of Deck 10, together with a mysterious alien hostess named Guinan.

For those of us in real-world 1988, these last few changes were most exciting. Lifelong Trek fan Whoopi Goldberg, by then an Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress and noted comedian, moved into the recurring role of Guinan with an aura of grace and wisdom, and miraculously fitted in with the ensemble cast. Meanwhile, in my humble opinion, Dr. Pulaski was a marked improvement over Dr. Crusher. TNG had hit a rough patch in its treatment of its regular female characters. In the last episodes of Season One, the strongest of the three star-babes had exited the show when Denise Crosby asked to be let out of her contract and, simultaneously, her character Lt. Tasha Yar was killed. In interviews Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) has admitted being uncertain whether her role would continue past the first season.

But I don't think I was alone, among fans, in thinking that the weakest link in the first-season cast was Gates McFadden as Bev Crusher. Not that she was a bad actress; looking back, in fact, I am impressed by her handling of some challenging emotions and deft comic timing. But as a character, I felt Beverly was too soft, too weak, too insecure to convince as chief surgeon on Starfleet's flagship. The contrast to Kate Pulaski was tremendous. As played by two-time TOS guest Diana Muldaur, the middle-aged Pulaski had the strength, the humor, the confidence in her skills, and the brusque common sense of a Bones McCoy, with the significant addition of a feminine sensibility.

I loved Dr. Kate. She was my favorite female character on Trek up to that point. Unfortunately, she never quite "clicked" with the chemistry that held the other characters together, nor (if I correctly interpret the scuttlebutt) did the actress meld successfully into the family atmosphere of the cast and crew. In fact, I gather that she hated doing the show, especially after one episode ("Unnatural Selection") required her to work under a smothering layer of latex prosthetics which took hours to apply and remove each day. I recall hearing or reading somewhere that Muldaur swore she would never do science fiction again. And it seems the writing on the wall was visible from quite early in the season, since she was never given main-title billing as a regular cast member, but was always listed as a "special guest appearance." Alas. But by the end of the year, she had paved the way for a new, improved Dr. Crusher to resume her duties in Season 3.

Pulaski, Guinan, Ten Forward, the beard, Wesley's new purpose for being on board, and all the other big changes had to be introduced somehow. The episode that did the job, and very dramatically too, was the Season 2 opener, "The Child." It was also, according to Marina Sirtis, her first clue that the producers cared about the character of Troi. It is very definitely a Deanna episode. This is the one where an alien entity conceives itself in her womb, develops at a rapid rate, is born, and becomes Deanna's precious little boy. Little Ian isn't around for long, however, since his presence on board complicates the "B plot" in which Seymour Cassel (late of "Homicide: Life on the Street") shepherds a flock of deadly virus samples on the Enterprise's cargo deck. The story is intriguing, but it doesn't get enough space to play out all the possibilities, given that the episode has so many axes to grind. Nevertheless, it's a new beginning for Deanna, as well as all the other changes being introduced.

One of TNG's creepiest episodes ever was Season 2's second episode, "Where Silence Has Lease." It begins with Picard having a "Horatio Hornblower moment" in the doorway between the bridge and his ready-room, as he agonizes over the danger Riker and Worf are in. Then it cuts to the holodeck, where those very officers are doing a Klingon's idea of calisthenics - potentially lethal calisthenics. This "teaser" (the portion of the episode preceding the main titles) isn't really an effective introduction to the story that follows, though it is typical of the second season writers' apparent efforts to shake the show out of a structural rut. The Worf-Riker dynamic is only relevant to a brief portion of the main episode, when the pair are aboard a replica of the Enterprise's sister ship Yamato where accepted rules of space-time have little meaning. The Yamato ruse is only part of a series of experiments run on the Enterprise crew by an entity that calls itself Nagilum, and that inhabits a strange void in space. And although Wil Wheaton (as "Wesley") looks stiff and uncomfortable in his new costume, his pain is nothing compared to the type of death suffered by crewman "Haskell," and which Nagilum wishes to inflict on up to half the ship's crew, for research purposes. Resistance against a vastly superior intelligence is the order of the day.

In "Elementary, Dear Data," Geordi and Data attempt to rub the smug smile off Dr. Pulaski's face in a wager as to whether Data has the deductive reasoning skills to match Sherlock Holmes. As a result, they inadvertently program the Holodeck to create a sentient image of Prof. Moriarty, here played with incandescent charisma by Daniel Davis, best-known for his role opposite Fran Drescher in the 1990s sit-com "The Nanny." One wonders why they keep using the Holodeck, given how many different ways it can put the ship in jeopardy. In this case, the holographic Moriarty becomes aware of the Enterprise and begins to develop the ability to control the ship - all to furnish Data with a nemesis worthy of him. Whoops! Another whoops: Only after this episode aired did the executives discover that Sherlock Holmes wasn't in the public domain. This complicated negotiations with the Conan Doyle estate, so that fans had to wait several years for Data's much-anticipated rematch with Moriarty.

On the fourth episode in, Season 2 stumbles with an incredibly trivial, sordid, boring, and let's face it, downright lame episode. I am referring, of course, to "The Outrageous Okona." The "A story" has to do with a galactic ne'er-do-well, played by Billy Campbell, who later starred in such series as "Once and Again" and "The 4400." The leaders of two different planets want Okona's head on a platter, but it turns out to have been a misunderstanding, resulting from the illicit romance between the not-so-ill-starred Romeo and Juliet of outer space. Campbell turns on all his charm, in a certain insufferable 1980s pop-singer way, but the supporting players deliver indifferent performances - including a youthful Kieran Mulroney, brother of film-star Dermot. As for the "B story," Data's quest to understand what makes jokes funny is simply painful to behold, even though he has Whoopi Goldberg (as Guinan) and Joe Piscopo (as a holographic comic) to guide him. This is an episode best shaken off, like the residue of a loathesome dream.

"Loud as a Whisper" is a truly unique episode. Deaf actor Howie Seago plays a deaf-mute negotiator who communicates, most intriguingly, through a three-voice chorus of telepathic interpreters (one of them played by Marnie Mosiman, the wife of John de Lancie of "Q" fame). When Riva's chorus is suddenly and gruesomely killed in a peace-talks mishap, the supremely self-assured (not to say arrogant) negotiator goes through a crisis of confidence. Between the moral support of Deanna Troi and Data's willingness to learn sign language, he goes on to develop a new way to reach the warring factions who rely on him to make peace. In many ways, this is a very effective episode, though one does wonder how someone as explosively touchy as Riva could specialize in resolving disputes. It is also, however, an imperfect episode: talky, touched by some below-par acting, and structured less effectively than it could have been, particularly in the low-key ending of its teaser.

One of the great Data episodes is "The Schizoid Man." First off, it features a sci-fi legend, W. Morgan Shepard, whose credits include guest appearances in Star Trek: Voyager, the sixth Trek feature film as well as the recent Star Trek; plus Babylon 5, SeaQuest DSV, Biker Mice from Mars, etc., etc. In this episode, he shines as an egotistical cyberneticist who claims to be, in a manner of speaking, Data's grandfather. He soon claims much more than that, as the dying scientist transfers his memories into Data's positronic brain. It's sort of like "Data Does the Exorcist," with a high-tech case of possession. Thus, when you hear Data whistling the tune to "If I only had a heart," it makes your spine tingle. And while "Data" delivers perhaps the funniest-ever funeral oration, you can't help but squirm. Contributing nicely to this top-quality episode is Suzie Plakson's one-time appearance as a Vulcan medical doctor, historically the first effective portrayal of a Vulcan in TNG.

In "Unnatural Selection," Pulaski's aging process goes out of control. This turns out to be the result of the dangerously aggressive immune system programmed into the DNA of a colony of genetically-engineered children. My, aren't those kids gorgeous? It's too bad they can never be allowed off their planet, because they are death to earlier-model humans. Transporter Chief O'Brien, played by Colm Meaney since TNG's very first episode, gets his first big role in this episode - though his character has been growing noticeably throughout this season. Unfortunately, the cause of his prominence is the ill-judged solution to this medical mystery: using the transporter as a "reset button." Letting such a precedent creep in can be dangerous to a story-telling franchise like Star Trek. More impressive, however, is how the episode ends with a very solemn ritual that involves blowing up a quarantined ship.

Riker, by means of a crew exchange, becomes the first officer of a Klingon ship in "A Matter of Honor." It's a brief but eventful assignment, in spite of the low-key and somewhat hokey teaser set on the Enterprise's phaser range. The plot, like a good sauce, is thickened by an abrasively cocksure Benzite exchange-officer, whose cultural practices regarding analysis and reporting gives a certain space organism time to grow on the hull of both the Enterprise and the Klingon ship. Action-film character actor Brian Thompson cuts an imposing figure as Riker's Klingon second-officer, though a mouthful of prosthetic teeth seem to impede the speech of the Klingon captain, played by the late Christopher Collins (best known for his voice roles in the "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" animated series). After appearing in several more Trek episodes and other TV roles, the hard-living Collins died in 1994, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, aged 43. Meanwhile, his next role in "Star Trek" came later in this same season, in the episode "Samaritan Snare." EDIT: I just have to add, the Klingon food depicted in this episode is really a feast for the eyes. I wouldn't feast on it any other way!

In terms of dramatic shape, the teaser of "The Measure of a Man" - focusing on an officers' poker game - leaves a lot to be desired. Historically, however, it was the beginning of a series of poker games that contributed greatly to TNG's continuity. The teaser ends with a truly weird exchange between Picard and a Starbase JAG officer, played by the same Amanda McBroom who co-wrote the popular song "The Rose." Other guest stars include Clyde Kusatsu, who memorably played a priest on "All in the Family," and Brian Brophy as the mean scientist who keeps calling Data "it" and wants to disassemble him and study how to build more like him. This plan, backed up by Starfleet orders, triggers a legal battle over Data's status either as property or as a self-determining life-form. For an episode made on the cheap, with few special effects and no action sequences, it is remarkably powerful and important for Data's development as a character.

Wesley Crusher get his first boner in "The Dauphin." Wait, I didn't say that. I meant his first kiss! It's a sweet little romance between Starfleet's youngest ensign and the hereditary ruler of a wartorn world, who hitches a lift home on the Enterprise from the planet where she has been raised in isolation. The girl, played by Jamie Hubbard, is really cute, though it was Mädchen Amick (of "Twin Peaks" fame) whose career got a boost from her brief appearance in this episode. The late Paddi Edwards, best known for her voice roles (in Ghostbusters, Disney's The Little Mermaid, and the first-season TNG episode "The Big Goodbye", to name a few), casts an icy presence across this episode as the princess's protector. Perhaps it was the way her wardrobe immobilized her head, combined with the actress's expressive voice and mobile features, that gave the character of Anya such a weird intensity. When she looks up at Worf, who stands not merely head and shoulders above her, but chest and torso as well, you somehow feel a little afraid for him. It's interesting to note that the "alasomorph" shape-changing effect was done, not with CGI (which hadn't been invented then), but with a series of oil paintings! All right, it's not a great episode. Wesley doesn't get much action, and he comes off looking like a bit of a jerk. But it has one of the funniest scenes of the year, with Riker and Guinan in Ten Forward demonstrating to Wes how to make "happy talk" with the girl. Guinan: "Shut up, kid. [Turning to Riker] Tell me more about my eyes."

"Contagion" stands out as one of the coolest and most important episodes of Season 2. It introduces Picard's interest in archaeology and Earl Gray tea. Irish actress Carolyn Seymour, who appeared in several subsequent episodes of TNG and Star Trek: Voyager as well as Space 1999, The Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, and Babylon 5, makes her first Trek appearance here as only the second Romulan commander in TNG history. And it contains one of Riker's great lines: "Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise." But that's not why it's such a cool episode. It's cool because of the spooky aura that surrounds a long-extinct, almost mythical race called the Iconians, whose homeworld has been located in the Romulan Neutral Zone. It's cool because the Enterprise's twin, the Yamato, blows up after its captain discovers a weapon that must not be allowed to fall into Romulan hands. Tailed by hostile Romulans, the Enterprise investigates Captain Varley's claim, as well as the cascading glitches in the ship's systems that at first seem to be a fatal design flaw, but later turn out to be a piece of millennia-old alien software uploaded by what may be the oldest operating computer in the galaxy. It's cool because it has a stargate in it, because Data has a stroke, because Picard risks his life on split-second timing, and because it pushes the suspense literally to the last minute of the episode. Wow!

Season 2's streak of pretty-good-to-exceptional episodes reaches Number 8 in "The Royale," a hilarious episode that beams the dream team of Riker, Data, and Worf down to a tiny pocket of earth-like environment on a planet otherwise covered by cyclones of liquid methane. They find themselves in a pulp-novel vision of a 20th century Earth casino, unable to leave, and equally unable to divert the seemingly real but non-living people around them from the melodramatic plot-line they have lived out, over and over, for hundreds of years. Guest star Noble Willingham, who died in 2004 after a seven-year role on Walker: Texas Ranger, is only one of several flamboyant guest stars in this episode. I laughed and laughed. Riker: "Looks like the poor devil died in his sleep." Worf: "What a terrible way to die."

I'm sorry to say, the streak was broken by "Time Squared." It isn't a really bad episode, but it's hard to wax enthusiastic about it. Picard meets himself coming and going when an unknown anomaly sends a copy of himself back in time from several hours in the future. Evidently he and his shuttlecraft were all that survived when a sort of time-space tornado destroyed the Enterprise. Or will destroy it, unless Picard can figure out what went wrong (or will have gone wrong). Frankly, trying to explain this episode makes my head hurt. While Picard #2 tosses and turns in his hospital bed, unable to say anything sensible until the ship has passed the point of no return, Picard #1 searches his soul for whatever shred of cowardice could have led him to abandon his ship, alone, just before it was destroyed. In the end... well, actually, I can't remember how it turned out. That alone must mean something, considering that I saw this episode recently and took notes. The ship didn't explode, evidently, because it wasn't the last episode they ever made. Beyond that, I can't say much except that I would be surprised to see this episode on anyone's list of favorites.

"The Icarus Factor," however, is the first truly obnoxious episode since "The Outrageous Okona." It does have one iota of merit. Worf to Data: "With all due respect, BE GONE! ...Sir." You can always count on Worf for a good laugh. But the only trace of science fiction in this episode is buried in the "B plot" about Worf going through a patch of depression when the 10th anniversary of his "rite of ascension" finds him far from his fellow Klingons. His friends on the crew conspire to throw him a little party, Klingon style, complete with a gauntlet of holographic Klingons armed with "painstiks," one of them played by singer and sometime "Entertainment Tonight" host John Tesh. The "A story," meanwhile, pits Will Riker against his estranged father, played by widely-credited TV character actor Mitchell Ryan. The result is pure soap opera, with tons of blah-blah-blah, a romantic angle for Dr. Pulaski, and a wacky martial art called "anbo-jytsu" that requires protective gear cannibalized from Motocross outfits. At times, the melodramatic cliches were almost physically painful. In brief, this episode hardly qualifies as Star Trek.

Following it, however, is "Pen Pals" and the beginning of another winning streak. In spite of yet another low-key teaser, this episode packs a significant punch, beginning when Data unwisely answers a radio voice asking, "Is anybody out there?" Picard gets another hobby (horseback riding). Wes gets his first taste of command. The special effects department tries to produce volcanic eruptions. But most importantly, the episode ruminates on the implications of the Prime Directive, and the complex factors involved in deciding whether or not to save an inhabited planet from dying. The staff conference on this question is one of the great ensemble scenes of Season 2, playing the characters off each other in a really effective way. But the most winning aspect of this episode is how it allows Data to grow and learn, while allowing him to retain his beautiful innocence and vulnerability.

After a basically pointless teaser introducing a minor recurring character named Sonya Gomez, John de Lancie returns for a third outing as Q in "Q Who?" Q isn't the only character this episode helps to develop. It adds a lot to our sense of who or what Guinan is, beginning with her uneasiness before Q makes his presence known (which suggests a level of sensitivity beyond ordinary humans), and going on to include her hostile standoff with Q and her background with the Borg. Oh, yes! This is the episode that first introduced the Borg! Hinted at in earlier episodes, such as "The Neutral Zone," they meet mankind for the first time with an assist from Q. The Borg are presented as the "ultimate consumers," intent on gobbling up any resources they can use and flinching not the slightest from whatever destruction and death they may cause. Their hive-mind behavior, unstoppable determination, and rapid adaptation place them among the most terrifying enemies in Star Trek. And to think that Q uses them simply to make Picard beg! Bottom line: "They will be coming." Ready or not!

A lot is loaded into the front end of "Samaritan Snare." Wesley departs on a shuttle to take another Starfleet Academy entrance exam. Picard goes along reluctantly, under doctor's orders, and eventually reveals that he is going to have his artificial heart replaced. The story about how he got the first one is priceless! Then the Enterprise is diverted from its mission by a distress call from the Pakleds, who are like big, slow, chubby babies. "We look for things to make us go," they gabble. But they're not as thick as they look. Nearly, but not quite! The Pakleds have gotten ahead of their time in technological terms, chiefly by cheating and stealing from other aliens. Currently, they have set their unexpected guile on stealing Geordi from the Enterprise, using their evident stupidity as a ruse to get him to help them fix their ship. Once he's aboard, they try to coerce him into getting Starfleet weapons for them. Poor Geordi goes through a wringer in this episode, but he still manages to turn the tables on the Pakleds with a ruse of his own. "Crimson force field" indeed! This episode is a goldmine of trivia for Trek fans. I think it contains the first mention of Nausicaans, whom we later see in the flesh. It reuses the day and night matte paintings from "Angel One," this time representing Starbase 515. And it also contains record amounts of incomprehensible "technobabble," such as the following string of medical gibberish: "Dammit, I can't stop the heterocyclic declination!" The actors in the surgical scenes, including Daniel Benzali of L.A. Law and N.Y.P.D. Blue, must have had a hoot.

"Up the Long Ladder" begins with Worf collapsing on the bridge. Klingons don't faint, he insists in the face of the evidence; so Dr. Pulaski keeps digging until she diagnoses him with a childhood disease, sort of like Klingon measles. For keeping his shameful secret, Dr. Kate is rewarded with a Klingon tea ceremony (deadly to humans without an antidote) and a recitation of Klingon love poetry! That's not what the episode is really about, but I love that part. There's a lot more to love, however. Not one, but two forgotten Earth colonies are discovered, and right at the point where both societies desperately need help. The Bringloidi need a new planet to raise their sheep, pigs, poultry, and pygmy goats on. The Mariposans need fresh blood (or, to be more specific, DNA) to enrich their gene pool, after getting by on too many clones off the same five people. The Bringloidi are hysterical, with Irish brogues and a taste for the drink, to say nothing of a spitfire redhead who shepherds the colonists with her sharp tongue. (Worf says she reminds him of a Klingon woman.) Her "footwashing" routine also proves to be an effective way of getting Riker into bed. Meanwhile, her father merrily informs us that "every moment of pleasure must be purchased by an equal moment of pain" - demonstrated by his first taste of Klingon booze. On the Mariposan side, however, the episode waxes deadly serious, with a sinister sequence in which Pulaski and Riker become unwilling tissue donors and a line about "the right to control our own bodies." Ironically, after the two colonies are merged into one, it may turn out that Riker's DNA plays a role in their future, considering how he sowed his seed among them. The episode's sermon on reproductive rights and sexual ethics doesn't go over well with everyone (myself included), but it's hard to hold bad feelings against an episode that contains the line: "Send in the clones!"

"Manhunt" is the whimsically appropriate title of the second episode featuring Lwaxana Troi. Why? Because, thanks to a midlife "phase" Betazoid women go through, her sex drive has more than quadrupled! To a proud woman like Deanna's mum, there is only one way out of the shame of being in heat: marriage. So, while riding the Enterprise to a diplomatic conference (oh yes, she's Ambassador Troi now), she spends her ample spare time scoping out prospective husbands. Picard is an early favorite, and continues to be stung by her embarrassing claim to have received lewd thoughts from him. Further candidates include Riker (who is surprised to learn of their engagement when she announces it on the bridge) and a holographic bartender (played with Brad Pitt-like sex appeal by Rod Arrants). This is such a funny episode that I scarcely know which line to quote; maybe Lwaxana's remark about the fishlike Antedeans: "I still say they'd look better in sauce," or maybe Worf's ditto: "What a handsome race!" Of course, in the final moments of the episode, the Antedeans turn out to be assassins and are arrested just in time to save the conference. There's no way to tell, under all the prosthetics, but one of the Antedeans was played by Mick Fleetwood, late drummer of Fleetwood Mac. I could also mention several other members of the guest cast, if I had more space; let me settle for Karel Struycken as Mr. Homn, Lwaxana's recurring valet; you may remember him as Lurch in the Addams Family films of the early 1990s. The Dixon Hill holodeck program returns, bookending writer Tracy Tormé's contributions to the show, which began with "The Big Goodbye" and ended right here. Data provides after-dinner conversation of a comedically solid gold. Majel Barrett talks to herself in the scene in which Lwaxana exchanges pleasantries with the ship's computer, voiced by the actress. And if I counted correctly, I believe this episode shows Picard changing his uniform 5 times in one day!

Suzie Plakson makes her second guest appearance of the year as the half-human, half-Klingon title character in "The Emissary," not to be confused with the similarly-named first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But first, the episode begins (again) with poker. Good for character development, bad for dramatic structure, the poker scene goes on and on until you're thinking, "How much of this do we really need to see? And why?" Enter Plakson as K'Ehleyr, Worf's ex, who flies to meet the Enterprise inside a coffin-sized space probe and urges the destruction of a shipload of Klingons. Whoa! I mean, why? Well, because these Klingons are just now waking up after being on cryogenic ice since their people were at war with the Federation. Worf comes up with a clever alternative which allows the Klingons to live, but his affair with K'Ehleyr does not end so well. OK, it's a little soapy, somewhat on the order of "The Icarus Factor," but there's a lot more going for this episode. First off, it has an interesting sci-fi concept in it. Second, Suzie Plakson brings a certain zest to the role, compounded of humor, toughness, and sexuality, which makes her every scene fun to watch. Of course, there is a lot of the same ludicrous talk TOS used to swim with, about one's Klingon (or Vulcan) half making one feel one way, one's human half the other. How can these people keep one half of themselves separate from the other? Are they individual persons or not? That gripe aside, it's also interesting to look back on this episode and see guest actors such as Anne Elizabeth Ramsay (lately Helen Hunt's sister on "Mad About You") and Dietrich Bader (late of "The Drew Carey Show"), both appearing on the bridge and making you do a double-take of recognition.

The last successful episode of TNG's second season was "Peak Performance," in which an obnoxious alien of the "Zakdorn" race referees a war-game simulation pitting the Enterprise against Riker and 40 other crewmen on a smaller, crippled starship. Kolrami is played with flamboyant nastiness by accomplished character actor Roy Brocksmith, whom I remember particularly for his role in the sci-fi action film Total Recall. Things get really complicated when the Ferengi show up as an uninvited audience, played by Armin Shimerman (a frequent TNG guest who went on to play "Quark" on DS9) and David Lander ("Squiggy" on Laverne & Shirley). This episode is full of fun touches, such as Worf's aborted attempt to build a model ship, Kolrami's apparent flirtation with the Enterprise's studly tac officer (played by frequent guest and CSI alum Glenn Morshower), and a mindblowingly weird board game called stratagema. Data's last word on beating Kolrami at stratagema: "I busted him up!"

Boo. Hiss. Season 2 came to a premature and, frankly, abysmal end with "Shades of Gray," which is really only half of an episode. The rest of it is padded out with clips from the show's first two seasons. The original part of the story seems to exist primarily to provide a rationale for Riker's flashbacks as he lies in sickbay, fighting for his life against an alien infection. Most of the original footage shot in this episode consists of Troi wringing her hands, Pulaski (in her last appearance) spouting technobabble, and heroic efforts by director Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire, X Files movie) to keep the sickbay looking interesting. According to Bowman, the episode was shot in three days, both to save money after such big-spending episodes as "Q Who?" and to patch holes in the availability of finished scripts during a Hollywood writers' strike. The episode thereby thumbs through a visual index of first- and second-season highlights from Riker's point of view. Although it does this as effectively as can be, the problem remains: only half of this episode really happened. It was a cheap shot to devoted fans, and a low ebb for a season that was already coming up short - only 22 episodes!

Nevertheless, why should I complain? Only three episodes of TNG's second season really and truly sucked: "The Outrageous Okona," "The Icarus Factor," and "Shades of Gray." Even if you throw in a decidedly mediocre "Time Squared," that leaves a virtually unequalled record of excellence - 18 terrific episodes out of 22!

Where was I in my life when these episodes came out? I was in 10th grade. My family moved that spring to a remote area where we did not get good TV reception. Season 2 was the last year of TNG that I saw with a clear picture until I was in college. Basically, that means that I caught up on Seasons 3 and 4 through syndicated reruns. My sense of having followed the series consecutively ends here. So in my coming reviews of the later seasons, I will be rediscovering the show essentially as I never saw it before: as an ongoing story, set in a hopeful future, that continually grows and develops across its entire seven-year span.

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