Wednesday, January 27, 2010

TNG Season 5

Season 5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991-92) coincided with my freshman year in college. Although I made sure to stake a claim to the a dorm TV lounge every time a new episode aired, I seemed to have missed a few. Before I saw this season on DVD, I was aware of one episode I had never seen (“The Masterpiece Society”). As I watched this set, however, I realized there were several others I was seeing for the first time, or at least seeing them in full.

Nevertheless I have good memories of TNG Season 5. I remember one of my RA’s watching it with me and saying of Deanna Troi: “She’s my wife. She just doesn’t know it yet.” I remember wondering what the heck was going on in “Conundrum,” because I tuned in late and missed the crucial before-the-credits teaser. I remember groaning with vexation through “Cause and Effect,” in which the Enterprise exploded four times, starting again after the commercial break at the most recently saved restore point. I remember how my eyes were glued to the screen as Famke Janssen shared pre-X-Men scenes with Patrick Stewart. Above all, I remembered a season with a lot of great episodes and very few not-so-good ones. And my recent review of Season 5 confirms that memory.

"Redemption II" completes the two-parter left hanging at the end of Season 4. Worf has redeemed his family honor by going to bat for newly-installed Klingon Chancellor Gowron (recurringly played by Robert O’Reilly of the crazy eyes, until his character was killed in the final season of DS9). Now all Worf has to do is secure Gowron’s victory in a civil war against the Duras family, led by the busty bad-girls Lursa and B’Etor (recurringly played by Barbara March and Gwynyth Walsh, until their characters were killed in the TNG feature film Star Trek: Generations). Meanwhile, Data gets his first command of a starship, and we get our first glimpse of an honest-to-goodness fleet action in Trek history, as Picard leads 23 starships in a blockade along the Romulan-Klingon border. This proves frustrating for Sela (Denise Crosby), who reveals that she is Tasha Yar’s daughter, born as a result of the timeline shenanigans in Season 3’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” My goodness, there’s a lot going on in this episode! It switches point of view more times than the average Trekisode, but it covers a lot of distance in developing the characters (especially Worf and Data) and alien races (especially the Klingons). And the best thing is that, now that TNG is out on DVD, you don’t have to wait a whole summer between Parts 1 and 2!

"Darmok" is the episode that should be required viewing for all linguistics students. In it, Picard and an alien captain (played by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) share an ordeal on a wilderness planet, in spite of the fact that their languages are mutually unintelligible. The “universal translator,” which enables people from distant planets to sound like they’re speaking English with a So. Cal. accent, is no help with a language made up entirely of mythological allusions, such as the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!” After umpty-two repeats of this riff, mixed up with several additional references, Picard learns that his alien abduction is not a hostile act, but a way of making friends. An energy monster kills the alien captain, but it all ends well anyway, with Picard making one of the most ridiculous speeches in the Trek canon and totally selling it. The episode also marks the acting debut of Ashley Judd, who later became a big movie star.

"Ensign Ro" is the episode that introduced the Bajoran people, soon to become very important in the Trekiverse with the development of DS9. It was also meant to introduce a new regular character to the show—edgy Bajoran babe Ro Laren, played by Michelle Forbes, late of 24, Prison Break, In Treatment, and True Blood. For one reason or another, Ro’s role in TNG didn’t last much beyond the half-dozen Season 5 episodes in which she appears. Ro was meant to cross over to DS9, but her character was replaced by Kira Nerys. Then she was supposed to be a regular on Star Trek: Voyager, but got replaced by B’Elanna Torres. Three times unlucky, it’s perhaps a symptom of TNG’s overall lack of success in generating durable, regular, female characters. Apart from Tasha Yar (who died in Season 1), Ro would have been TNG’s only female main character who doesn’t serve in a nurturing role. She could have advanced Trek’s treatment of women by light years. She also could have spiced up the chemistry between Riker and Troi with the makings of an exquisite romantic triangle. But instead, she appeared in only eight episodes, of which this tale of a Starfleet admiral’s corrupt crusade to destroy a Bajoran terrorist cell is typically excellent.

"Silicon Avatar" brings back the life-force-draining Crystalline Entity, previously seen in Season 1’s “Datalore.” This time it attacks a new colony while several Enterprises are present, somehow only managing to kill two people. The Federation’s expert on the Crystalline Entity, Dr. Kila Marr, joins the Enterprise to study the entity’s trail while it’s still fresh. At first, Marr distrusts Data, suspecting that (like his “brother” Lore) he might have lured the Crystalline Entity to the colony. When she learns that he carries memories of her late son, a victim of the entity’s previous attack, she grows closer to him. Nevertheless she never overcomes her anger and hatred of the creature, turning Picard’s attempt to learn to communicate with it into an opportunity to destroy it. It’s one of those episodes that begins with intense action and ends on a note of deep, personal sadness.

"Disaster" is the episode that puts every character on the Enterprise outside his or her comfort zone. After running into a cosmic filament, whatever that is, the ship is badly damaged and members of the crew are cut off from each other. Deanna Troi finds herself unexpectedly thrust into her first command. Worf delivers Keiko O’Brien’s baby (“Congratulations. You are fully dilated to 10 cm. You may now give birth”). Picard gets trapped in a stuck turbolift with three small children. Geordi and Beverly are forced to expose themselves to the vacuum of space. And Data’s head proves capable of talking while separated from the rest of his body. It’s a neat little “stir up the formula” episode, revealing lots of the fiddly bits of the ship that you never usually see because they’re hidden behind a bulkhead. The production designers must have had a field day!

"The Game" is one of TNG’s small handful of paranoid conspiracy episodes. It is also the first of Wil Wheaton’s two Season 5 guest appearances as Wesley Crusher, and furnishes Ashley Judd with her first film kiss. Wheaton really looks the part of the BMOC come home for the holidays, and he gets a good workout as he runs from his friends and loved ones, who have become hooked on a brainwashing game. It’s an interesting treatment of the theme of addiction, along with some romance, action, “you can never go home” family drama, and a pleasant surprise (Wesley doesn’t save the ship after all). The ending (in which Data snaps out of his coma just in time to prevent the whole ship from becoming a glorified drug mule) gives new meaning to the phrase Deus ex machina.

"Unification I" is the first half of a two-parter in which Picard and Data, as seen here, go undercover to chase down a prominent Federation diplomat suspected of defecting to the Romulan empire. Though his identity is revealed right off the bat, it isn’t until the last shot of the episode that we see Spock (TOS’s Leonard Nimoy), just in time for a title reading “To Be Continued . . . ” Meanwhile, a parade of big-name guest stars crosses the screen, including Mark Lenard as Sarek, Stephen Root (late of “News Radio”) and Erick Avari (late of Stargate and The Mummy) as Klingons, Malachi Throne (who guest-starred on TOS) and frequent Trek guest Norman Large as Romulans. While Data and Picard visit the Romulan homeworld, Riker & Co. follow a trail of clues connecting a crashed Ferengi shuttle to a derelict Vulcan ship.

"Unification II" features Trek’s nearest approach to the bar in Star Wars, another attempt by Romulan villain Sela (Denise Crosby) to get one over Picard, and a suggestion that the Romulan people might be moving toward reunification with their distant Vulcan cousins. Or maybe it’s all a ruse to enable the Romulans to invade Federation space. In a loose, sprawling, big-casted two parter, TNG attempts to do for the Romulans what “Redemption” did for the Klingons. And with the help of Spock, it mostly succeeds. The exterior views of Romulus are quite impressive. Of course, like any episode focusing on the divergent evolution of Romulans and Vulcans, it leaves lingering questions behind . . . such as: How can the common ancestry of these two races be shrouded in prehistory when at least one of them, at some subsequent point in history, moved houses to another planet? Wouldn’t the development of interstellar travel occur after the invention of writing and non-mythological literature? Oh, well. If it wasn’t goofy, it wouldn’t be science fiction . . .

"A Matter of Time" stars Matt Frewer (the 1980s’ “Max Headroom”) as Berlinghoff Rasmussen, a time traveler who visits the Enterprise. He claims to be a historian from a future century, dropping in to see history in the making at first-hand. While Picard ponders a plan that may either save a planet’s ecosystem or destroy it completely, he finds it hard to accept Rasmussen’s anti-spoiler policy, though as a sort of temporal “Prime Directive” it moos just like Picard’s sacredest cow. Eventually it transpires that Rasmussen is really a struggling inventor from the past, and he doesn’t scruple against a bit of industrial espionage, whereby he might (for example) steal a 24th-century tricorder, go back in time, and take credit for inventing it. Wisely, the writers made sure Rasmussen’s time machine didn’t fall into the wrong hands . . . e.g., the crew of the Enterprise . . . Now that Frewer’s star has faded, so has some of the luster of this episode; nevertheless, it’s reasonably entertaining and it does provoke thought.

"New Ground" brings back Worf’s human mother (played by Georgia Brown, and previously seen in Season 4’s “Family”). Mrs. Rozhenko pays her foster-son a surprise visit, and brings along an even bigger surprise: 10-year-old Brian Bonsall (who played Andy Keaton on “Family Ties” during the late 1980s), got up in Klingon makeup as the second actor to play Worf’s son Alexander. Suddenly forced to take responsibility as a single parent, Worf takes a break from his regular duties to establish discipline, enroll the kid in school, and cry (after a Klingon fashion) on Counselor Troi’s shoulder, while the rest of the crew copes with a potentially disastrous experiment in warp-speed propulsion. Yes, folks, the “villain-free jeopardy” plotline is back! All told, it’s not a bad episode—though perhaps a little on the dull side.

"Hero Worship" follows a pattern, established in previous seasons, of episodes featuring children being presented back to back. This time the kid is a human boy named Timothy, the sole survivor of a disaster that wiped out the entire crew of a starship, including both his parents. Timothy copes with the trauma by imprinting on Data—who, by the way, saved his life—and adopting android mannerisms. On advice from Deanna, Data plays along . . . until it becomes clear that whatever destroyed the boy’s ship now threatens the Enterprise. The young actor who played Timothy put in a touching performance, particularly in the scene where he confesses to destroying his parents’ ship (though he didn’t). Nevertheless, after a second consecutive villain-free jeopardy episode (unless you count resonance waves in a nebula as a villain), any Trekkie might understandably scream: “Enough with the cute kids, already!” EDIT: According to the special features included with these DVDs, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry died during the filming of this episode. A title in Roddenberry's memory still graces the opening of both halves of "Unification," which evidently aired at that time.

"Violations," on the other hand, is a very adult episode exploring the concept of rape. In sci-fi terms, that translates into a series of psychic assaults perpetrated by a telepath with a sociopathic streak. The telesociopath in question is a member of a team of historians who specialize in helping people recover lost memories. For a few extra kicks, Jev likes to enter a mind uninvited, insinuate himself into a certain memory, and mess with it until its owner goes into a coma. The relevance to rape is underscored by the nature of the first memory he so abuses, when he attacks Deanna. Nevertheless, he seems likely to get away with it due to his ability to plant false memories implicating another member of his team—until Data and Geordi do a little old-fashioned detective work. This is one of TNG's more visually disturbing episodes, thanks to its three nightmarish “mind-rape” sequences.

"The Masterpiece Society" closes with a crushing moment in which a heartbroken man tells Deanna, “I'm in love with you, and I will be until the day I die.” There have been other attempts to give Counselor Troi a romantic storyline – who doesn't shudder at the memory of “The Price”? – But this is the one episode that I can think of where it really worked. The (un)lucky guy in this case is Aaron Conor (played by the same John Snyder who guested in B5 Season 1), the leader of a hermetically sealed, genetically engineered colony. By helping the colonists survive an impending natural disaster, the Enterprise inadvertently – but irreversibly – contaminates the culture. Now that the long-sheltered colonists have seen the wonders of the outside world, some of them want to leave – which would be a disaster for a world where there is a place for every person, and a genetically ideal person for every place. In spite of the poignancy of the story, however, I couldn't help wanting to shake the earnest, tragic Conor by his shoulders. What's wrong with this guy? If letting people leave is going to disrupt their planned environment, why not just open their society and let other people in? Sure, that genetic purity won't be there, but at least all the important jobs will be covered. Hotels, casinos... heck, a place like that could be a tourist magnet! But never mind... and forgive my irreverence.

"Conundrum" begins with an itty-bitty alien ship scanning the Enterprise with a weird energy beam that erases everybody's identity. While Picard and crew stagger around the deck doing variations on “Who are you people? And who am I?” a complete stranger insinuates himself into their midst. Later, when they manage to pull up a crew manifest out of what's left of the ship's computer, they discover that this new person is Kieran MacDuff, the first officer of the ship (above Riker, even!). While the officers enjoy the benefits of a shared case of amnesia – benefits such as a steamy affair between two normally antagonistic people – MacDuff rigs things so that the Enterprises think they're at war with somebody or other, and that they're on a hush-hush mission to blow up the enemy command center. Unfortunately for MacDuff, Picard realizes that their so-called enemy is so ridiculously outgunned by the Enterprise that they couldn't possibly be at war. Like Season 1's “The Naked Time,” it's a fun episode for the way it shows what happens when the characters forget themselves.

"Power Play" begins, as so many Trekisodes do, with a shuttle crash. Starfleet really should look into shuttle safety issues. Nevertheless, the only casualty is a broken arm, which ironically spares Riker from being possessed by an electrical-storm-borne entity. Troi, Data, and O'Brien aren't so lucky. They develop nasty new personalities, brutal types who attempt to take over the ship and eventually settle for a hostage situation in Ten Forward. The entities claim to be the souls of a starship crew who perished in a crash long ago. Actually they're convicts in a really cool type of penal colony – sort of like hell, actually. Seeing Data turn into a creep is nothing new; but what's really impressive about this episode is how it brings to light an entirely new, butch side of Deanna.

"Ethics" is the title of Season 5's sermonette on medical ethics and the ethics of death and dying. An injury reduces Worf to a paraplegic. He decides that he would rather commit ritual suicide than live with this disability. His friends, and particularly his son, disagree with this decision. While their debate keeps him momentarily breathing, a maverick medico beams aboard, claiming to have in her bag of tricks an operation that can restore 100% of Worf's mobility. The trouble is, it has never been tested on real people. Dr. Crusher understandably takes issue with Dr. Russell's methods, especially when the latter treats a triage patient with an experimental drug, and the patient dies before conventional meds can be tried. You know those bumps on Worf's forehead? This episode reveals that they continue all the way down his back and even to the top of his feet.

"The Outcast" is Season 5's thinly veiled homily on gay rights, complete with a character who wraps up a long harangue with the words, “What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?” Soren actually belongs to an androgynous race that considers gender identity of any kind aberrant. When she takes a shine to Will Riker, her lifelong secret is revealed and she is subjected to “psychotectic therapy.” Doesn't that sound rotten? It's a very sad episode, leaving Riker brokenhearted, and the whole androgyny thing is an interesting concept. For all that, however, it's a bit of a bore, with too many too-long speeches by the rather low-key actress Melinda Culea (late of “Knot's Landing” and “The A-Team”).

"Cause and Effect" is the episode where everything happens four times, leading inevitably to the Enterprise blowing up in a remarkably hokey manner. The crew keep re-living the same day over and over, complete with a host of trivial incidents whose repetition proves almost as maddening for them as it does for us. It's deja vu all over again, until Data figures out a way to send himself a simple, subliminal message that may get them all out of the loop. In the final scene, Kelsey Grammer (late of “Frasier”) puts in a cute cameo as the captain of the ship that has been caught in the same time loop, only for much longer than the Enterprise.

"The First Duty" brings Wesley Crusher back for a visit – or rather, the Enterprise goes to visit him. It's commencement time at Starfleet Academy, and Picard is set to deliver the keynote address. Meanwhile, Wesley and his flight team are caught up in a scandal over the death of one of their teammates during maneuvers. The charismatic, take-one-for-the-team squad leader is played by Robert Duncan McNeill, who went on to play Tom Paris on Voyager – a character probably inspired by this role. Boothby, the Academy's longtime groundskeeper, is played by Ray Walston of “My Favorite Martian” fame. In spite of their great performances, the guest star who leaves the most indelible mark on the memory is Jacqueline Brookes as the Academy commandant whose intense scrutiny would make even the most honest cadet squirm.

"The Cost of Living" is another reasonably boring episode playing up the family dynamics of the characters. Worf's struggle to bring discipline to his son's life collides fatefully with Deanna Troi's trials with her mother. In mentally preparing herself to marry a stiff, prudish alien she has never met, Lwaxana whisks Alexander off to a holodeck version of the freethinking Parallax Colony, which bears comparing with Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. Their mud-bathing is interrupted only by the harping of her intended's protocol expert, the persistence of Worf and Deanna, and yet another villain-free jeopardy featuring glittery space-dust that eats nitrium (a metal found in the Enterprise's computer components) and poops a reddish slime. Boy, if the Enterprise is susceptible to so many computer-baffling organisms, maybe it should be redesigned!

"The Perfect Mate" co-stars Tim O'Connor (late of “Peyton Place”), Max Grodenchik (later to play a recurring role on DS9), and best of all, Famke Janssen in her first TV appearance. Wearing the spots that would later characterize the Trill race (typified by DS9's Jadzia Dax, a role that nearly went to Janssen), she plays Kamala, an alien peace-bride whose empathic ability to adapt her personality to suit her mate is about to come to full maturity. She is meant to imprint on the leader of the other planet involved in the peace talks, though all he cares about are the trade concessions. Unfortunately, a couple of nosy Ferengi unzip her stasis pod earlier than planned, and she imprints on Picard instead. The captain's discomfort is exquisitely apparent as the (by definition) most irresistable woman in the galaxy throws herself at him, and his duty requires him to resist. The moment when she reveals that she has imprinted on him, rather than on her intended, is at least as gut-tearing as the equivalent bit in “The Masterpiece Society.”

"Imaginary Friend" is a strong candidate to be TNG's “Spock's Brain.” It is such an atrocious episode that it's actually funny. I truly, heartily laughed when the little blond girl stared woodenly at the camera while a special effect turned her eyes bright red. It is such an egregiously bad piece of television that it deserves to be studied. Noley Thornton, who played Clara (the “real” girl), was actually all right; she went on to guest-star in a DS9 episode and held a recurring role on “Beverly Hills 90210.” The spooky Isabella, cut from the same cloth as about a thousand hellspawn brats in the horror film genre, is portrayed – perhaps appropriately – with nary a flicker of humanity by Shay Astar, who had a recurring role on “3rd Rock from the Sun.”

"I, Borg" is one of TNG's most enduringly popular episodes. It humanizes the unlikeliest villain—the machine/human hive-mind known as the Borg—and forces the most understandably prejudiced characters (Picard and Guinan) to reconsider their feelings. First, a young Borg drone is rescued from the crash of a small scouting vessel. The Enterprises nurse him back to health, partly with a view toward using him as “Patient Zero” to infect the Borg Collective with a computer virus. But one by one, they start having second thoughts as “Third of Five” (later named “Hugh”) develops an individual personality and even a friendship with Geordi. There is a crushing scene in which Picard tests Hugh's individuality by pretending to still be “Locutus” and plotting the assimilation of mankind. Eventually, Picard realizes that the “personality bug” that Hugh has developed on his own might be far more pernicious on the Collective than any computer virus his crew can devise. Sadly, Hugh has to return to the Collective in order to save his new friends from being absorbed. But even after being rejoined to his cybernetic homies, Hugh manages to sneak a private look in Geordi's direction... a promising sign!

"The Next Phase" brings tragedy to the decks of the Enterprise... or almost does. While assisting a crippled Romulan ship, Ro and Geordi are apparently killed in a transporter accident. In reality, they have been “phased” into a state of matter in which they can pass through solid objects and are visible only to each other. This turns out to be the result of an experimental cloaking device, which the Romulans are so keen to keep secret that they plan to blow up the Enterprise as soon as their repairs are completed. The only people who can stop this plot are unable to get the message across to their friends... unless Data stops to think about all those chroniton (?) fields popping up all over the ship... It's a fun episode, exploring a weird state of existence which Ro initially interprets as the afterlife. As a result, it does a lot to develop the Bajoran culture, which in another half-year or so would be spotlighted on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unfortunately, it was the last we saw of Ensign Ro apart from one episode in each of the remaining seasons of TNG.

"The Inner Light" won a Hugo Award – an honor shared by only three other Star Trek episodes – and it remains one of TNG's best-loved outings. An alien space probe zaps Picard, knocking him unconscious for about 25 minutes, during which he relives 45 years in the life of a man named Kamin whose culture perished in a supernova over a thousand years ago. At first Picard fights to hang onto his identity as the captain of the Enterprise, but after a while he goes with the flow and experiences a side of life he might otherwise have missed – marriage, fatherhood, grandfatherhood, community service, and a struggle to preserve something of a dying culture. He even learns to play a sort of alien penny-whistle. This graceful and poignant episode, guest-starring Patrick Stewart's real-life son Daniel, ends in scenes that will wring your tear glands.

"Time's Arrow" – Season Five concludes with this cliffhanger in which Data's head turns up in a cavern underneath San Francisco, where it appears to have lain since the late 1800s. A microscopic clue leads the Enterprise to a planet where, on a plane of existence .004 seconds out of phase with ours, something strange and alien appears to be threatening the well-being of 19th-century Earth. In spite of Picard's hope to keep Data safe during the investigation, the metal man gets blasted into the past. There he makes a wad of cash playing poker, befriends a charming bellhop, meets Mark Twain, and bumps into Guinan – though, as she is no time traveler, she doesn't know him! This must somehow be connected with the reason Guinan (back in the 24th century) tells Picard that if he personally doesn't go back in time to search for Data, their friendship will never happen. Guinan: "Do you remember the first time we met?" Picard: "Yes." Guinan: "Don't be so sure."

What a fine season of Trek that was – a tribute to the memory of the series' creator, who passed out of this world during it. Roddenberry enjoyed a career as a posthumous astronaut when his ashes took a ride on the space shuttle. Meanwhile, the starship he launched went on to explore the territory covered a couple years later by the film Groundhog Day ("Cause and Effect"). It played a riff on such film genres as disaster movies ("Disaster"), action ("Power Play"), horror ("Imaginary Friend"), and romance ("The Perfect Mate"). It generated episodes that should be required viewing for linguists ("Darmok") and naval cadets ("The First Duty"). It tugged the heartstrings ("The Inner Light"). It pontificated on medical issues ("Ethics") and gay rights ("The Outcast"). It touched more lightly on rape ("Violations") and addiction ("The Game"), using those issues as a starting point for disturbing and exciting stories. And in its fifth season, TNG proved that it had matured enough to stand on its own – so the visit from TOS's Mr. Spock is a pure gift ("Unification").

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, three, and four.

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