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July 15, 2009

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3, or The Use of Love, or The Man Is Holding Me Down

CoverA heady combination I faced indeed when I borrowed Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Three DVD box set from my friend Dave recently—nostalgia, geeky excitement, even some trepidation. It had only been perhaps a few years since I'd seen a TNG episode, but it had been ages since I'd seen a block of episodes in order, and perhaps there had never been a time when I'd endeavored to watch such a collection with a critical eye to its totality: I think I'd always been too distracted by my yearning, daughterly affection for Captain Picard, my inexpressible (but well-understood by other dorks) joy at knowing a vast quantity of detail about something internally coherent but utterly unimportant, and my perhaps too-revealing crush on Lt. Commander Data.

But OK, let's put on the ol' Critical Thinking Cap—at least, the Critical Thinking sun visor, more appropriate for summertime projects. Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Three: The Review: Colon: Awesomeness.

According to one of the bonus feature interviews on Disc Seven, the producers and writers of TNG saw Season Three as a kind of transitional awakening—some of the series' supposedly finest episodes transpired in this season, and there was a shift in thinking about the potential focus of the show (from alien-of-the-week space adventures to more thoughtful, character-driven plots) that led to the new stride and ultimate glory of the series as manifested beginning in Season Four.

Well, OK.

Upon viewing the first episode of the season, my thoughts turned toward the importance of guest stars—oh, how they make or break. "Evolution" is pretty broken in general, but man, Dr. Stubbs, you couldn't be less pleasant. Don't remember this episode? Wesley Crusher, that scamp, accidentally lets a bunch of science experiment nanites free on the ship, and then they get sentient, and disrupt this visiting scientist d-bag's own science experiment, and he tries to kill the poor lil' guys, and so they try to kill him, and blah blah blah, happily ever after. I believe this is the first script by Michael Piller, who of course went on to play a dominant role in TNG's writing and production, but man. He leans heavy on comparing Wes to Dr. Stubbs, who is a driven, bitter old guy with a passion for baseball, a comparison that never makes much sense, except insofar as 1) both young Mr. Crusher and Dr. Stubbs are intelligent overachievers, and 2) the script insists over and over again that Wes is pushing himself too hard and isn't making time for such and such adolescent such and such, whatever, we'll forget about it by the next episode. I'm not sure what the point of such a comparison is, except as a cautionary tale for Wes, because as I noted, Dr. Stubbs is a douchebag, pretty front to back. Which brings me to my point about guest stars: Ken Jenkins, perhaps you've done fine work otherwise, but I could've done without your one-note bellicosity for 46 minutes of my life.

Compare this to the fabfuckingtastic guest appearance later in the season by Saul Rubinek, who plays a dastardly space trader who kidnaps Data in the episode "The Most Toys" with such gusto and aplomb that it totally makes up for an otherwise thin plot. Kivas Fajo is just so immoral and so OK with it, so completely selfish and loving life that it's a joy to watch him prance around and indulge his quirks and desires and threaten the lives of those around him with no source of power at all but his wealth and his lusty assumption of power—guest stars: they can make or break you.

From "Evolution," the season rolled forward to "The Ensigns of Command," which finds Data trying to convince some dumbass colonists that they ought to evacuate, no matter how fond they are of their irrigation system, because otherwise they're going to be slaughtered by a vastly more powerful alien race. It's one of those episodes that seems to deserve some credit for dealing with a relevant topic—human attachment to place at the expense of reason or safety—but on the other hand, and I suppose this happens when you're unnecessarily confining all of your themes and plots to self-contained singular 46-minute parcels, the topic tends to be treated so simplistically as to seem absurd. Your claim on this planet is false; the rightful owners are coming to reclaim it; if they find you here, they'll slaughter you—an overreaction, perhaps, but still the case. We'll help you evacuate. Or you could... whine and talk about the pride of your forefathers and refuse to leave.

This episode is noteworthy because a girl gets a crush on Data because she's attracted to his special android nature, not in spite of it or while willfully ignoring it, and I bring this up only because in Season Four Data has a disastrous attempt at romance with the World's Most Vapid Starfleet Officer, and while watching that episode ("In Theory") I thought back to this episode and was like, "Data, you really should look for a girl who likes you for who you are. Like that colonist chick from last season."

Moving on.

We learn that pacifism only leads to heartache ("The Survivors"), Religion=Regression ("Who Watches the Watchers?"), little kids emoting can't carry a television episode even in the 24th century ("The Bonding"), sometimes you just have to destroy an archaeological relic or two ("Booby Trap"), and even sworn enemies can cooperate and get along ("The Enemy")! Then Troi falls in love with a charming asshole ("The Price") and Riker falls in love with a crazy bitch ("The Vengeance Factor").

Then there's "The Defector," which features a fine guest star in James Sloyan, and actually treats a man's military and political defection with subtlety. A Romulan defects to provide the Federation with information that he thinks will forestall a war; he maintains his patriotism despite this "traitorous" action—it is his belief that such a war would be ruinous to the empire he loves, and so he will take whatever steps necessary to prevent it. It's a thoughtful look at loyalty and sacrifice, with a sad twist at the end.

From there we get a nicely "Star Treky" episode about a planet not as ready for Federation membership as it seems, featuring James Cromwell as a guest star ("The Hunted"). By "Star Treky" I mean, there are aliens, there are broad moral lessons, and there's some smug satisfaction at the end. Somehow, some episodes like these are good, and others are bad, like the next episode, "The High Ground," that explores that oh-so-overlooked trope (Overlooked trope? That's not possib ... waaaaaait, I see ...) that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." But can't we all just get along?  Shouldn't we just stop the violence? Yes. Unless pacifism only leads to heartache (see "The Survivors.")

At this point, it's time for a break. Send in Q!

Is there enough good to say about John de Lancie? Not so much a villain as an annoying house guest, he raises the character of Q above crowd-pleasing gimmick to become a worthy match even for Captain Picard/Patrick Stewart. In "Deja Q," Q has been stripped of his powers and is presented naked on the Enterprise bridge, a hapless and mewling human being. A troublesome distraction in the midst of a very run-of-the-mill peril-of-the-week, Q finds a friend, or at least a non-enemy, in Data, and is pushed into a good look at humanity and his own character. Q's self-honesty and de Lancie's acting is great; when he is forced by his own conscience to confess his shame at his cowardice to Picard it feels like an earned self-revelation, even though Q's only had to soul-search for half an hour or so of TV time.

Man, I love the Q episodes. But who doesn't? Anyway, he gets his powers back, thank goodness for future seasons.

"A Matter of Perspective" is a fun procedural jaunt—sort of Star Trek: Criminal Intent. Riker's accused of murder, and with the help of the holodeck, we can watch the events from everyone's perspectives—his, the grieving, whoring widow, the scientific assistant... good times. Don't worry, Riker didn't do it.

Then—holy awesome writing, Batman!—back to back we get "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "The Offspring."

Personally, I never missed Tasha Yar, though I do concur that her death in Season One was lame (maybe that's what you get for the folly of "pursuing your film career"). But then, Star Trek hasn't always been good about killing off the folk who, for foolish reasons, wish to leave its warm embrace: wouldn't it have been SOOO much better if Worf had chosen his duty over his wife in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Change of Heart," rather than the very banal death of Jadzia Dax later at the hands of Crazy Possessed Gul Dukat (never mind the absurdly bad judgment involved in ruining such a great villain with Crazy)?  Anyway, my point here is that Tasha gets her day in the sun—regrets much, Denise Crosby?—when the Enterprise C comes through a time warp and to no one's surprise but Guinan's, the Enterprise D is suddenly a battleship, at war with the Klingon Empire.

Sometimes time traveling is lame, and sometimes its awesome, and I'm sure you other fans remember that this time, it's awesome. It turns out that the Enterprise C's ultimately fatal role in a battle between the Klingons and Romulans was a hinge point in time, and with their retirement from battle when they come through the time rift, the course of history is changed—war between the Federation and the Klingons! And it's not going well for the Federation. But since no one ever thinks they are living in the alternate universe, no one thinks this is wrong—but Guinan, beloved space witch of mystery, knows, and luckily Picard listens to her. Time is set straight and Tasha Yar, who learns that she was not meant to be, goes back in time and gets a hero's death at last as she helps the doomed Enterprise C set the timeline to rights.

OR DOES SHE???!?!?!?!?!!?!!

Anyway, more on that in later seasons. The point is, "Yesterday's Enterprise" uses sci-fi plot points to great effect in a character-driven narrative, and that's what I like to see.

I also like to see Data being unfairly persecuted and making Self Discoveries.

An abiding theme of TNG was the contradiction between Data's protestation, "I am android. I have no emotions," and the clear, constant evidence to the contrary. Had I had the chance, I would have liked to ask Data, "What do you think love IS?" By this I mean, for years on TNG, Data routinely enacted the manifestations of all of our best emotions—he was loyal, thoughtful, generous, self-sacrificing, supportive, fun, self-sufficient, and undemanding while holding high standards. If I had ever dated Data, he'd be the second-best person I ever dated—by A LOT. Thinking that emotion is significant only insofar as your personal, internal experience of it is solipsistic and reductionist—anger, like fear, is pointless unless it drives action; love is worthless unless it can be directed positively outward, and in fact all feelings when confined to an individual's inner isolation can turn destructive, even feelings of love and friendship. The idea that humans must be complete in isolation—that we must "go off on our own to 'find ourselves,'" that we must "love ourselves before we can love someone else," et cetera and ad nauseum—seems a relationship- and community-destroying symptom of the breakdown of our attachments to place and household, a breakdown driven by industrialism and post-industrialism, capitalism, and the fatally flawed hierarchy of institutions making their money in the present by the selling nothing but the future as they preach the doctrine of Progress at the expense of experience, history, and understanding (tip o' the pin to Wendell Berry). My point is, Data didn't know that he had achieved something many humans have abandoned at the cost of their perpetual loneliness and distress: the USE of emotion for positive action in his community and the building of meaningful relationships between he and his "loved" ones, even though he claimed the emotion wasn't there. Well, fine, Data, but you're still doing better than most humans as they wallow around and feeeeeel things and then, those feelings endlessly mulled over but compartmentalized away from any purpose in the world, go about their emotionally destructive, isolated little lives.

I'm sorry, I got off track, there.

In "The Offspring," Data builds himself a daughter. Starfleet promptly tries to remove the new android from his care, apparently forgetting that Data has been legally awarded the rights of personhood clear back in Season One's "The Measure of a Man," and, one would think, therefore, the right not to have his children taken from him on whims. As a sidebar, so many episodes of TNG, though not usually explicitly, hinged on what were actually legal points: we don't get to know much about the justice system and legal codes of the Federation in Star Trek, but it is apparent in many of the show's narratives that legal adjudication would settle the matter at hand. I'm not necessarily saying I miss the spin-off Star Trek & Order, but I am saying that rewatching these shows, it is clear to me that the Enterprise needed permanent, on-board legal counsel.

I'll be done with law school in three years: call me, Jean-Luc!

Again, back to the matter at hand. TNG did another casting call for douchebags, and came up with a humdinger in Nicholas Coster as Admiral Haftel. Again, since we've only got an episode, he has to embody the unyielding, douchey counterpoint until the very end of the episode when he suddenly has a change of heart (which is rendered moot, so congratulations, you're still a douche). Haftel wants to take Data's android daughter, Lal, back to Starfleet to be studied and developed, believing Data incapable of raising her; meanwhile, Data leads her on the path to sentience, and is generally heartwarming, but not in a smarmy way. Not to ruin anything for you, but Lal dies at the end because of some sort of programming error. And though Data professes to feel no grief ... well, fuck that. I mean, really. It's an emotional episode, and it invites you to consider the nature of family and the use of emotion, and think about human rights, and who has them, and who can take them away from whom. It's also the first episode directed by Jonathan Frakes, who later went on to direct a great deal, of course, and also directed the movie Star Trek: First Contact, by far one of the franchise's best films. So. Yay!

"The Offspring" is followed by "Sins of the Father," another noteworthy episode because it introduced the plot line of Worf's discommendation from the Klingon Empire when he accepts the false dishonor of his father, who is accused of being a traitor to the Romulans at the Khitomer Massacre that orphaned Worf, a blow Worf accepts to try to halt the fractured Klingon council's march to civil war. It wasn't Mogh, of course, that was the traitor, it was Duras, whose son and family is powerful enough to frame another soul for their dishonor. Worf also learns he has a brother, Kurn, in this episode. What's important about this, apart from all the Klingon political maneuvering, if you're interested in Klingon politics (and who isn't?), is my earlier use of the term "plot line"—the plot of this episode is picked up again later! It was the first time that Star Trek felt empowered to abandon the stand-alone episode format, and thank God. Eventually, Duras assassinates the leader of the High Council, Picard oversees the selection of the new Klingon leader, Worf kills Duras for killing K'Ehleyr, his son's mother, the House of Duras attempts to overthrow Gowron, Worf and Kurn make a successful play to regain their honor, et cetera et cetera et cetera. What really matters is that TNG felt emboldened to remember what had happened before, and this eventually led to great, long-running story arcs. In 1990 Worf gets a discommendation from the Klingon Empire, by 2007 you can't miss an episode of Battlestar Galactica and ever be able to watch the show again!  Science Fiction on TV is saved, hooray!

Following this, Picard gets kidnapped ("Allegiance") for an alien behavioral experiment, and not-quite-right Picard doppelganger gets to lead a rousing chorus in Ten Forward. Then Captain Picard gets to go on vacation to Risa ("Captain's Holiday"), where he meets and gets it on with Vash, a sexy, dishonest archaeologist—this episode is noteworthy almost entirely for Jean-Luc's little tiny vacation shorts. "Tin Man" deals with a lost and lonely intergalactic starship and how it finds a friend in an obnoxious, psychologically damaged Betazoid—good riddance. "Hollow Pursuits" introduces us to the painfully awkward engineer Reginald Barclay, and I'm glad, because honestly, it was sort of irritating to think that in the future, everyone's got their shit together—I mean, who can believe that? Now, the fact that in the here and now they have medication for people who have crippling social anxiety disorder and apparently they've forgotten the formula in the 24th century has to be overlooked, but Reg's holodeck programs include Deanna Troi as the Goddess of Empathy and a MiniRiker, so I'm willing to do some overlooking.

We've already talked about "The Most Toys," and again, I must repeat how awesome Saul Rubinek is. Following this is "Sarek," featuring the return of Spock's dad, who is in declining faculty and needs Picard's mind-melding help to complete a final diplomatic mission. There are so many episodes wherein the diplomatic mission is SOOOO crucial and I cannot help every time but to think, "Why haven't we heard of this SOOOO crucial diplomatic conflict before? And why will we never hear of it again, since it's SOOOO crucial?" I realize these are stupid questions to spend my Star Trek brain time on, but still. Regardless, this episode of moving in the way it treats the degeneration of age—how mortifying, how terrifying, to be brought low by your own creeping incapacity; how utterly saddening to simply be abandoned by yourself. Mark Leonard is comforting to watch in his old, beloved role, and Patrick Stewart gets to pull out some of those Shakespearean acting chops when Picard is channeling Sarek's runaway emotions so the diplomat can complete his (crucial) mission.

"Sarek" is followed up by the Ferengi romp "Menage a Troi," featuring Majel Barrett Roddenberry as Troi's overbearing mother Lwaxana. I always cringe at the old Ferengi episodes, because over the course of Deep Space Nine Quark and his family did so much to expand the race into a rich and important source of insight—the Ferengi were more like present day humanity than any other race in Star Trek, including the humans, and even if they were still better than us in many ways, it was instructive to see Quark's supposedly "smaller" life unfold alongside those of all the Heroes of the Federation that populated the space station because really, we're mostly all leading Quark-sized lives ourselves (if we're lucky—I never got to fight the Jem'Hadar). I realize that Star Trek's intent was to postulate the future of humanity as being one of peace and reconciliation, but in point of fact, every week can't—and to my mind, shouldn't be—a musing on our bright future. To make stories relevant to the lives of people trapped in the 20th and 21st centuries, one must address the current human condition—the Ferengi of DS9 were good for that: they were greedy, petty, cynical, and frequently close-minded. But they were also self-assured, they kept faithfully to their own moral code, they cared for each other in a recognizably mutually frustrated way, they were wise enough to be self-preserving but they were brave enough to step up when it mattered; they were better models for modern humanity, perhaps, then the distant-future model of humanity Captain Sisko and his ilk presented. I mean, really, America's not going to get in line with the brave new world any time soon—we live greedy and selfish like a religion. Anyway, with all that in mind, seeing the Ferengi treated as mean-spirited, somewhat bumbling caricatures of Ebenezer Scrooge is boring, so let's move on.

Onwards to "Transfigurations." To quote from The Star Trek Encyclopedia, Updated and Expanded Edition: "Beverly Crusher saves a mysterious fugitive who is transforming into a noncorporeal energy being." The rest of his people weren't ready and so were hunting him and his fellow transforming folk down. Considering that in modern times the hierarchical financial and government institutions that control our education, our healthcare, our food supply, and 95% of our media hold entire nations as well as most of us as individuals in permanent vassalage by ensuring our overall helplessness through forced skill specialization, pricing the necessities of existence out of reach of most people, and making debt practically inescapable, it's not surprising to me at all that the Powers That Be on Mr. Noncorporeal's world were a little unwilling to see people evolve out of their clutches.

And that's it.

Except, of course, for "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1."

While writing the rest of this opus I'd been wondering whether or not to address this final episode of Season Three in this piece, or wait and discuss it in totality with it's other half when I get around to discussing Season Four. I think I'll wait. It should be taken as a whole, and "The Best of Both Worlds" is actually better seen as a jumping off point for Season Four and what came after, I think, than as a coda for Season Three. So let's leave it with the conspiracy to keep us all in perpetual thrall to the powerful.

Oh, Nostalgia! On one hand, it's damaging—I love Star Trek: The Next Generation so much inside my own head, remembering it but not watching it, that it can in some ways be disappointing to go back and watch it, and have to realize that, Oh, noes, sentient nanites! What is the ship to do? Perhaps Wesley Crusher will save the day. But despite these flaws, I still love TNG. And here's why.

At the same time we had Season Three in our house, my husband and I also had Disc 3 of the final season of Battlestar Galactica sitting around to watch. We'd sit down in the evening to watch something before bed, and we'd be faced with a choice: Battlestar or Star Trek. Now, of course, no one can sing enough praise for Battlestar Galactica. The acting ranges from good to fantastic; it's beautifully shot, with tremendous production values and great effects; it's plot is pleasingly complicated; it's world is satisfyingly rich and complex; it addresses grand themes like faith and destiny without forsaking the small human dramas of press versus politician or workers versus managers or sons versus fathers; and it resonates with current political and social problems easily, without hamhanded preaching or big winks and nods in the viewer's general direction.


Every day on Battlestar Galactica is literally the worst day ever. EVERY. DAY. WORST. DAY. EVER. Watching it is exhausting. And depressing.

But Star Trek: The Next Generation is a clean, well-lit place. There are problems, but they get resolved. People have flaws, but they want to, and strive to, be the best versions of themselves. Occasionally, nothing permanently emotionally damaging happens at all during an episode! And while the new Star Trek movie underwent Battlestar Galacticaification, and Kirk and Spock and everyone else are profoundly emotionally damaged and it's the worst day ever and I guess that's what the kids these days are into, my husband and I still found ourselves, for like, two weeks, reaching for the Star Trek instead of the Battlestar. Because our world is not a clean, well-lit place, but the bridge of Captain Picard's Enterprise is, and I would rather sit there for 46 minutes and enjoy the minor peril handled by competent souls than suffer the dank realities of jeopardy and self-doubt and treachery.

Call me crazy.

~ Sabrina Spiher Robinson

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