The Star Trek Chronological Binge – Next Generation Seasons 4-5

Locutus of Borg
Resistance is futile

When last we left Star Trek: The Next Generation at the end of Season 3, there was some question whether Picard would survive the cliffhanger. “Best of Both Worlds, Part I” was the Borg hacking humanity by assimilating (somewhat) Picard to create Locutus. Why? Well, we pesky humans and our Alpha Quadrant playmates don’t really go quietly into the night, do we? Put up a roadblock, and humans will go all Leeeeroooooy Jenkins on your ass.

“Best of Both Worlds, Part II” flips the tables. (No crying about spoilers. You’ve had 36 years. I’ve been patient.) Once it’s clear anything Picard helped plan is now part of the Borg’s knowledge, Riker and crew throw out the book. They boldly go where a few away teams had gone before and kidnap Locutus. Then Data hacks the Borg via their captured drone. Once Picard is allowed to wake up, he tells Data what this button does, and the Borg… Well, they learn insistence is futile. You’d think they know already. They got pasted by the very primitive Enterprise NX-01 200 years earlier. But then that script is about a decade into the future. They haven’t even tried to take the sky from Mal Reynolds yet. (Yes, I know. Different franchise. Great decade for TV scifi. So say we all.)

So Star Trek ends its first three seasons of its revival with a bang. And, to paraphrase the great Keith Richards, they open with a bigger bang.

This allows Star Trek: The Next Generation to be its own thing. Right out of the gate, they have strong episodes. Picard must deal with his crisis in “Family,” proving a prophet is never honored in his hometown. Jean-Luc’s brother Maurice ain’t cottoning to this space business. He’s got a vineyard to run. And, he believes, so does Jean-Luc. But Jean-Luc is tapped for a major project here on Earth, a possible welcome break from traveling the stars and escape from his ordeal. Jean-Luc is the adventurer and, as we find out in Picard, not really at home on a farm. Sort of like Luke Skywalker minus the light saber, homicidal nephew, and those droids you’re not looking for.

Dr. Soong

Family, in fact, dominates Season 4’s first seven episodes. Data meets his father and loses him to the murderous Lore in “Brothers.” In “Suddenly Human,” Picard has to decide whether to repatriate a boy raised by hostile aliens with his human family (Shades of a novel called A Light in the Forest about an English boy in frontier Ohio raised by the Shawnee and sent back to his family in early America.)  Beverly Crusher wants desperately to get back to her son (and reality) when she’s trapped in a warp bubble in “Remember Me” (hilariously called back by Boimler in the Strange New Worlds episode “Those Old Scientists.) Tasha Yar’s sister shows up and manages to actually wound Data emotionally in “Legacy,” though Data denies this. And “Reunion,” which sets up the cliffhanger and Season 5 premier, sees Worf meet the son he never had, lose his mate, and, blissfully, kill the second dumbest Klingon whoever lived. The first is Klaa. Fight me.

Virtually everyone gets a meaty storyline this season, including O’Brien, who gets married and has to talk his former captain off a ledge before he restarts the Cardassian War. And we meet the Trill. Now many ask why Odan’s hosts have funny facial ridges (Answer: Michael Westmore’s patented lumpy head makeup) and Jadzia and Ezri have spots. Simple. For one episode, that makeup works. For series shooting 20+ episodes a season, often with up to sixteen-hour days, the makeup did not work. Plus, it saves time if all Terry Farrell and Nicole de Boer have to do is have spots on their face.

It’s around this time Peter David’s Imzadi came out. Suddenly, there’s a noticeable uptick in the quality of Counselor Troi’s scripts and her lines. She’s no longer the “Captain, I feel something” woman. Her empathic abilities still play a role–It’d be stupid to ignore them at this point–but they actually do more to enhance, or even drive, the plot. In “Night Terrors,” she’s not only the one person on the ship actually getting sleep (Data hasn’t learned to dream yet), but her dreams reveal a line of communication.

Four also saw TNG embrace its TOS ancestry for the first time. Instead of fanboyish mentions of Captain Kirk, Spock is central to the two-part “Unification,” the beginnings of Vulcan-Romulan reconciliation. Most of it’s a ruse, but that’s the political intrigue. The real sauce is a TNG episode that advances Spock via Picard. And of course, we see the long-awaited meeting between Spock and Data, who realize the other has rejected everything they’ve sought all his life. Spock pursues logic even while having to assimilate human traits while Data aspires to move beyond logic. The episode was timed to coincide with the release of Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, both of which have Cold War-ending themes.

Four ends with one of the best season finales in all of Trek. No one is ever going to top “Best of Both Worlds,” and wisely, they don’t try. Instead, the Klingon civil war and Worf’s journey to redemption are brought to a climax in the two-part “Redemption.” Like Troi, Worf has gone from a one-note wonder to a finely nuanced character who eventually will appear more than any other character in Trek across three series.

Worf leaving for Klingon fleet in Redemption

Season 5 expands on this. Worf is a hero to the Federation and the Klingon Empire. He saves the alliance, but can he navigate being a single father? Not really, and while Alexander as a character faces some of the same challenges as Wesley Crusher, being the annoying kid. Unlike Wesley, who aged in real-time and leaves the series as a believably fledgling adult, Alexander ages via the “kid trick” from soap operas. Dorn and Frakes both did soaps earlier in their careers, so I can only imagine their eyerolls when a preteen Brian Bosnall arrived on set only a year after Worf and Kheylar had sex. Carried to its logical conclusion, Alexander could easily have been a middle-aged man by the end of season 7, reimagined as Worf’s uncle in Deep Space Nine, and again as his grandfather in Picard. Fortunately, the writers room showed restraint and let Bosnall age naturally.

If Season 4 fleshed out the cast and gave Wil Wheaton a graceful exit from the show, Season 5 took TNG back into classic Trek territory. “Darmok” predicts (and spawns) a society which communicates in memes. “Disaster” takes out the Enterprise as the ship’s safe haven. “The Game” (featuring this new actress named Ashely Judd) and “Violations” mess with the crew’s heads. And we meet one of the most compelling recurring characters, Ensign Ro Laren. Openly hostile at first, she doesn’t slavishly follow Picard and Riker, which allows some interpersonal friction and maybe some heat between Ro and Riker. Played by Michelle Forbes, she might have become a regular, but the actress’s career, like Ashely Judd’s, blew up rather quickly. This kept her off Deep Space Nine, and eventually, she disappears until we see her heroic fate in Picard Season 3.

Wesley Crusher’s penultimate episode, one still paying creative dividends today, is “The First Duty.” This sees Wesley blunder big time and have to deal with the consequences. At the same time, it introduces Robert Duncan McNeill as Not Tom Paris, aka Nick Locarno. Why wasn’t Nick Locarno his character on Voyager? Well, all through the development, the character of Paris was described as a “Nick Locarno-like character” right up to casting. With Tom’s backstory scripted, someone said, “Hey, you know who’d be great in this part? The guy who played Nick Locarno.” They were having enough problems casting Janeway, so retrofitting Locarno might have sent writers scrambling for the exits with the additional workload.

Season 5 ends with what I consider the weakest of the finales/next season premiers for TNG, “Time’s Arrow.” Data’s 500-year-old head is found in a cave. Soon after, Data is zapped back to 1890’s San Francisco, where he meets Jack London and passes his odd appearance off as “French.” As soon as Data speaks French, Marc Alaimo’s skeptical card sharp buys it. On paper, it’s a good story. Why is Data’s head under the Presidio? And who are these creatures out of phase with reality ingesting human energy? But, when we get to Seasons 6 & 7, we’ll see it’s ultimately low-stakes and a bit lightweight, despite the (Spoiler alert!) presence of Mark Twain.

So TNG has gone from a shaky start under Roddenberry’s tutelage to a worthy continuation of Star Trek to an outstanding scifi series in its own right. But TNG’s monopoly on televised Trek will end with Season 5. Midway through Season 6, Rick Berman and company will attempt the first Star Trek created without Gene Roddenberry: Deep Space Nine.