Thursday, 21 February 2013

All Grown Up: Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Five

I've always considered there to be two eras to The Next Generation - the pre-Piller years of '87 to '89 and the remaining five seasons from '89 to '94.  Of the latter, season five is the one I approach with the most trepidation and following my re-watch over the last couple of months I still hold the same view.  

Of the "later" Piller years I find this to be the most uneven batch of episodes.  There are some out and out classics in here that would make it onto everyone and anyone's top list of TNG episodes and possible even a few that would challenge for some of the best installments ever but they are slightly tarnished by those they sit alongside and more-so than other seasons. 

So what's this season about? Originally I was going to call this blog Mortality and Morality as Sarek dies ("Unification"), Worf dies ("Ethics"), Geordi and Ro "die" ("The Next Phase"), Data 'dies' ("Time's Arrow"), everyone dies over and over again in "Cause and Effect" and that's just the main cast! You're hard pressed to find an episode where someone isn't on the verge of death or ending up on the slab during this year - and then there's the morality bit. The dangers of addictive gaming ("The Game"), homosexuality and conformity ("The Outcast"), mental rape ("Violations"), euthanasia ("Ethics"), enforced parenthood ("New Ground"), slavery ("The Perfect Mate") and dealing with horrific trauma ("Hero Worship") all get an airing this season but there seem to be chunks of these more serious and personal stories through the season providing that uneven keel and perhaps making it quite a hard series to access in some respects.

So what did I actually like about Season Five?  Quite a lot if I'm honest.  While it is uneven in places, it's still a cut above TNG's first two seasons. More importantly the fact that it's willing and able to tackle such difficult subjects through the year shows that TNG had really come of age. The first two years of the child learning to walk were distant memories, seasons three and four marked the show making itself stable, polishing the finish and then embarking on season five as a grown up; well experienced and prepared. However the placing of the more thought provoking episodes to the action-orientated installments could have done with a little bit more planning but on the whole it's a good effort.

The opening conclusion to "Redemption" was never going to live up to the hype of the previous season's cliffhanger but it's still an enjoyable start to the year. Commander Sela arrived and returned Denise Crosby to the Trek fold, popped up again in "Unification" - and then was promptly never seen again. It's OK but there was much better to come - virtually from the next episode when we encountered Picard in his trendy new captain's jacket and Darmok, at Tenagra of course. For me this was the real sign that TNG had grown up, as was the introduction of the semi-regular character, Ensign Ro in the eponymous episode. Semi-regular is perhaps a bit strong for Ro as she only made a series of fleeting appearances from here to "Preemptive Strike" right at the end of TNG's seventh year (mental note that I should do something about her in the future). The promised conflict wasn't to the levels that we would see from Major Kira in DS9 but her arrival did add a different edge that the Enterprise hadn't seen since its inception in 1987. It also introduced us to the Bajorans - a race whose actions and involvement with the fish-like Cardassians would affect the back stories of the two series that followed.

Indeed, as a year for "big" events such as the creation of the Bajoran back-story  they were pretty massive - and all I need to say here is Spock and probably "The Inner Light". The latter of which is, of course, rated as one of the great TNG moments. No question can be made of Patrick Stewart's performance here and no matter how many times I've watched it I still get a bit of a lump in my throat at the end. The story has everything that Picard can't have and all in less than 25 minutes. In the case of the former, what can we say - the return of a legend and finally a point where TNG became comfortable with its past. For more on this one, I would refer you to my recent blog on the seminal two-parter.

It was quite a season for returns in fact. The Crystalline Entity came back (and shattered), Sarek came (and went), Sela turned up (and went twice), Wesley came back (twice), Lwaxana appeared for her customary story and wouldn't be back until season seven (luckily); all that was missing was Q - but he would receive two installments the following year to make up for his notable absence. Another returnee who would be sticking around in the same "recurring" vain as Ensign Ro was Worf's son, Alexander. He would pop in and out over the course of the next two seasons and a few occasions on DS9. Alexander had the enviable ability to age at a phenomenal rate and also sadly gets lumbered with a heavy weight family stories this season. While they aren't my favourite installments by several country miles they do provide a lot of development for Worf as he becomes more comfortable with parenthood. Out of the whole cast he's probably the most used character this year however the shame is that the stories he is provided with are either Alexander related or honour related which is a shame because in other seasons we see much more to the character than these two facets which he becomes bogged down with in season five.

Brannon Braga is definitely one of the heroes of this season from a writing perspective. While "The Game" is a fair segment his real highlight is the mind-bending repetitive "Cause and Effect". Jonathan Frakes also deserves a fair amount of praise here for the direction here. It can't have been the easiest to work on especially as the whole episode effectively happens over and over again. Somehow Frakes comes up with something slightly different for each cycle to keep the audience attention and keep the story fresh each time. This is probably one of my favourites along with the classic "Darmok", Ronald D Moore's "The Next Phase" (which we would see a twist on in season seven) and "Conundrum" - if I'm not mistaken this was a few years before Buffy dropped Dawn into its fold without any explanation. It's also a wonderful occasion for the cast to play out of character and add a new "regular" for 30 minutes. Worf decides he's captain, Data mans Ten Forward and the mismatched Riker and Ro take their relationship to another level. If it had been made in the first two seasons it would have been an instant classic but dropping as it does in the middle of the fifth, it's overshadowed by others mentioned here. Still, one that is certainly on my "To Watch Again" list for the future.

I've mentioned it already but there are some highly moralistic episodes in season five, perhaps more than any other year of TNG. While this gets a bit of a drag later on, it's not the lowlight of the year. That honour has to be shared between two installments later in the year. First, "Cost of Living" , for the amusement park and mud bath sequences as well as the double hit of Lwaxana Troi and Alexander in the same 45 minutes. Way too much for me to deal with as I'm not a flag waver when it comes to Deanna's mother. I will watch them but it's against preference. I find this a particularly grating story that does damage to the character of Worf in some respects and is another Alexander/Worf family story where they have some issues to resolve in their father/son relationship. Writing this now I think this is why I'm not a great fan of this year. There's a lot of schmaltz and that goes for another story too.

Then there's the misfire that is "Imaginary Friend". While the story is solid enough I think the tragedy is that it is built around a young girl, Clara, who is not one of the cast and as such the emotional bond that has been built over years isn't there. In essence what happens to her isn't going to have much effect on the series on the whole. A nice little space filler but a shame when compared to some of the shows surrounding it. Kids are great; I'm happy to admit that, but the writers of TNG never really got to grips with them and in these two pieces it is very evident. Honestly, I feel a little sorry for Brian Bonsall getting lumbered with some of the scripts here in season five. Luckily he got "Rascals" and "A Fistful of Datas" in the following year which made up for it.

These are probably the only two episodes I could point to as being disappointing in the 91 - 92 season. My re-watch has discovered that "Unification" is a lot better than I remembered and "The Masterpiece Society" is a far better story than I thought aged 15. While we're mentioning that, it's also worth dropping in "Violations" - what a great story and so well played out. It's something a little edgy for TNG and the whole cast do a superb job with a great script from  Pamela Gray and Jeri Taylor. Not a bad result I would say considering this was a season I was not overly enthused to start watching again.

Getting later into the season the final four episodes are back-to-back brilliance; fast paced and jaw dropping sci-fi. The Borg are back; Geordi and Ro get to walk through everything in the budget-smashing "The Next Phase" and then there's the oft mentioned Picard-fest of "The Inner Light". However I must reserve my favourite moment of the entire year for the pre-credits sequence in the season finale, "Time's Arrow". While you just know it will be a cliffhanger and that there is absolutely no hope that the conclusion is going to do the first part any justice it contains one image that has stayed with me for many years and totally shocked me when I first saw a picture of it in the Star Trek Chronology (blast from the past!). It is of course Data's head on the ground in a cave under San Francisco. Apart from the face of Locutus on the Enterprise viewscreen at the end of season three I don't think that there's another image in TNG history that is burned into my mind as well as this one. I still get a chill seeing it now!

So what's next? Well, season six and the conclusion to Data's time-travelling predicament. Now I enjoyed season five but I have quite fond memories of its successor as all fans do. Will they be the same this time around and what episodes will cause a change of heart?

Oh - and what the HELL is going on with Riker's hair in Season Five?!

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