Star Trek catch up: The Next Generation (part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

We’re now into season 5, which along with season 4 was TNG’s creative peak. We’ll cover its final years and the four TNG-era movies.

Which is to say, I watched Star Trek Nemesis so you don’t have to.

Episode: “Darmok”

Summary: The Enterprise attempts to open a dialogue with a race whose means of communication is completely unintelligible.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s often held up as the quintessential TNG episode, ie, Picard wrestles with a complicated intellectual concept (and also a special effect), while Riker readies weapons in case Picard fails.
  • We get to see Deanna Troi’s training and cultural insight being used for a change.
  • It is indeed very clever, and the performances are great.

Warnings and caveats:

  • It’s … kind of boring?
  • And hasn’t aged all that well, in that it kind of implies that Data doesn’t know how to use Google effectively. Technology has moved on.

Episode: “Ensign Ro”

Summary: A disgraced Starfleet officer is pulled out of jail and assigned to the Enterprise, but is this a chance for her to do good, or is she a pawn in a nefarious plot?

Reasons to watch it

  • Obvious parallels to Michael Burnham aside, this is just a really good episode which introduces a new recurring female character and lays more groundwork for Deep Space 9.
  • Seriously, all the set-up for DS9 was more or less accidental, and it’s amazing how cohesive it is.
  • Ro was a deliberate attempt to expand the types of roles for women in TNG. Where Deanna and Beverly are both nurturing and gentle, Ro is hard and abrasive.
  • Also has some excellent Guinan scenes, and even passes the Bechdel test. (TNG has a 44.9% pass rate, if you were wondering.)

Warnings and caveats:

  • Honestly? I have none. Unless, like a certain friend of mine, you have a violent and irrational hatred for Michelle Forbes, and my friend is in the minority there.

Episode: “Disaster”

Summary: A space doodad disables the Enterprise, leaving several characters out of their depth.

Reasons to watch it

  • Events leave Deanna Troi in command of the ship, and if you’ve been enjoying the Sylvia Tilly Career Subplot, this is worth catching.
  • For example, Deanna is well out of her comfort zone and doesn’t have the technical knowledge she needs to make informed decisions, but she conducts herself well and — this is key — comes into conflict with Ro about the best course of action. Sadly, that marks the first time two women have purely professional conflict in this franchise.
  • Meanwhile, Picard is trapped in a turbolift with three children. Children make him nervous. Comedy ensues.
  • And Worf has to deliver Keiko O’Brien’s baby.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The childbirth scenes are 100% pure cliche and bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever.

Episode: “Unification” (parts 1 and 2)

Summary: The legendary Ambassador Spock has popped up on Romulus. Has he defected, or is he a pawn in someone’s plot?

Reasons to watch it

  • Mark Lenard makes his final appearance as Sarek. (The WORST.)
  • Leonard Nimoy makes his final appearance as Spock until the reboot movies.
  • Space politics.
  • Worf sings Klingon opera.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This didn’t need to be a two-parter. It’s overlong, padded and frequently dull.
  • It’s also riddled with sexism, from Riker deliberately palming a difficult bureaucrat off to Troi (because she’s pretty) to scantily clad women being sexy lamps. (Worst of all, the script was written by a woman.)

Episode: “Cause and Effect”

Summary: The Enterprise is caught in a time loop which ends with its destruction … over and over again.

Reasons to watch it

  • This is one of those super-clever, “high concept” episodes that TNG was famous for.
  • There are some fun poker scenes. Or, more accurately, the same poker scene, again and again.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Honestly, I prefer the Disco take on a similar plot, which has more characterisation and less … I don’t know, cleverness for the sake of cleverness? It’s very repetitive, which is the whole point, but it’s not fun.

 


Episode: “The First Duty”

Summary: Wesley is involved in a training accident at the Academy, but the Enterprise crew’s investigations reveal that his official account of events doesn’t match up with reality.

Reasons to watch it

  • For a series with no interpersonal conflict, this episode sure is built on it.
  • Great performances all around, from the usual suspects (Sir PatStew) to Wil Wheaton to the supporting cast.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Beverly’s role here is … like, it’s nice that she’s reluctant to doubt her son, but she just seems passive and stereotypically maternal? So, business as usual, then.

Episode: “I, Borg”

Summary: Beverly and Geordi rescue a young Borg drone who has been separated from the Collective.

Reasons to watch it

  • Great performances all around, including Whoopi Goldberg.
  • Blah, blah, big Trekkish ideas, you know how it goes.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This was a great episode at the time, but it feels simplistic now.
  • Not least because Voyager is going to go over the same ground, but better and deeper and harder, and also with women.

Episode: “The Inner Light”

Summary: Picard experiences a lifetime in a span of twenty minutes.

Reasons to watch it

  • High-concept, bittersweet science fiction with Big Ideas grounded in a domestic setting, with Patrick Stewart giving a masterful performance.

Warnings and caveats:

  • It’s quite slow. This is one of those episodes that I admire but don’t love, if that makes sense.

Episode: “Time’s Arrow” (parts 1 and 2)

Summary: Data’s head turns up at an archaeological site on Earth … as an artifact. Time travel shenanigans ensue.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s a lighthearted time travel romp…
  • …except for the bit where Data comes to terms with his own mortality…
  • …okay, that’s also pretty great, in that he is DELIGHTED to know he’s going to die…
  • It’s not even metaphorically earth shattering, it’s profoundly silly in places, but it’s easily watchable and fun.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Did we need two male giants of American literature in this episode? Really?
  • The whole “explaining to people from the past how great the twenty-fourth century is” routine is self-congratulatory and annoying, but also it’s over quickly so that’s not so bad.

Episode: “Rascals”

Summary: A transporter malfunction transforms Picard, Guinan, Ro and Keiko into twelve-year-olds.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s a fic trope come to life, right?
  • The de-aged characters still have their adult personalities and memories. Hilarity ensues as Picard faces the horrors of a second childhood.
  • Two of the child actors (Picard and Guinan) are really great.
  • Picard claiming to be Riker’s son (“He’s my Number One dad!”) is pure gold.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Amidst the hilarity, the Keiko subplot attempts to take a realistic approach to the whole “I’m a wife and mother and suddenly I’m in the body of a twelve year old and my husband’s freaking out” thing. This isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, but it strikes a discordant note.
  • And it’s not helped that the two kids with the Serious Plot (Ro, having grown up in a series of refugee camps, isn’t eager to experience a second adolescence) are the weakest actors.
  • Ugh, the Ferengi. I think I’ve managed to mostly avoid them in this highlights tour of TNG, but ugh.

Episode: “Chain of Command” (parts 1 and 2)

Summary: Picard is reassigned and ordered to lead a covert operation in Cardassian territory, while the Enterprise crew chafes under their hardass new captain.

Reasons to watch it

  • Part 2 sees Picard captured and tortured by Cardassians, which was groundbreaking at the time for its realistic (though not explicit by contemporary standards) depiction of torture, and also gives us an amazing set of long conversations between Patrick Stewart and David Warner.
  • Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, Captain Jellico does Shocking and Unreasonable Things like ask Troi to wear a proper uniform and act less than impressed by Riker.
  • #TeamJellico
  • Introduces Vice Admiral Alynna Necheyev, my Second Favourite Starfleet Admiral and Third Favourite Space Vice Admiral.

Warnings and caveats:

  • There’s a weird bit where it’s strongly implied that Crusher is offering sexual favours with a Ferengi smuggler in exchange for a ride into Cardassian space, and it’s played for laughs?
  • Some of the Very Serious Acting is getting a bit too Very Serious by the end. Someone may have nibbled at the scenery just a tiny bit.
  • In classic TNG fashion, it all wraps up at the end and is never spoken of again, which is particularly grating after a Very Special Episode About Torture.
  • Related: I did mention the realistic depiction of torture, right? That’s the sort of thing this whole ‘warnings and caveats’ section is for.

Episode: “Face of the Enemy”

Summary: Troi wakes up to find she’s been abducted, surgically altered to appear Romulan, and forced to pose as an agent of the ruthless Romulan intelligence service.

Reasons to watch it

  • This is Troi’s greatest episode, and a reminder of what an interesting and valuable character she could have been if the writers had been less sexist and more imaginative.
  • She ends up clashing with a Romulan captain played by Carolyn Seymour, so this whole episode is just full of women disagreeing about politics and the role of the military, and Star Trek just didn’t do this back then!

Warnings and caveats:

  • The Enterprise side of the plot is full of men. It’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, just, you know.

Episode: “Tapestry”

Summary: After Picard dies, Q offers him a chance to rectify a youthful mistake.

Reasons to watch it

  • Picard and Q reach new heights of homoeroticism.
  • We get insight into Picard’s youth as a womanising asshole.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Although this is a very popular episode, it actually doesn’t work for me — we don’t really see young Picard, we see Patrick Stewart hanging around with a bunch of twenty-somethings.
  • It especially falls apart when he hooks up with The Girl That Got Away, where the age difference is palpable and uncomfortable. And I say that as a person who really enjoys a good age difference!

Episode: “Starship Mine”

Summary: It’s Die Hard on the Enterprise, and Picard is Bruce Willis. Really.

Reasons to watch it

  • UM, it’s Die Hard on the Enterprise!
  • Picard spends most of the episode wearing velour leggings and riding pants.
  • It’s also hilarious, with the rest of the senior staff trapped at a boring reception, and Data trying out his new small talk subroutines.
  • Okay, there’s no Hans Gruber, but the leader of the terrorists is a woman who is absolutely ruthless and completely unsexualised.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Sadly the boring reception turns into a hostage situation and stops being fun (for the audience or guests).
  • Male privilege: even Picard’s velour leggings have pockets!

Episode: “Lessons”

Summary: Picard falls in love with an officer under his command.

Reasons to watch it

  • Picard’s love interest is played by Wendy Hughes, and although her accent is rather peculiar, she’s still the only Australian in Starfleet.
  • (It’s the same accent she used playing an Australian in the US in Homicide: Life on the Street, and really does sound like an Aussie who has spent a lot of time around Americans.)
  • ALSO: it’s an age-appropriate love interest!

Warnings and caveats:

  • We learn that Starfleet has no rules against captains sleeping with subordinates (#just90sthings), but what feels especially dated is the concern around the relationship being that Lieutenant Commander Darren will misuse her influence over the captain — the possibility that she might be the one exploited never comes up.
  • It ends on a weird note of, “Well, we could put the work in to have a long-term relationship that doesn’t bring our careers into conflict, but that sounds too hard.” And the issue really is that Picard doesn’t want to do the work, something something men and emotional labour.

Episode: “Parallels”

Summary: A space thingo causes Worf to jump between parallel universes.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s a Worf plot that doesn’t involve Klingon politics.
  • And it lets him be funny.
  • I just really like parallel universes, especially the way every jump Worf makes sends him to a universe more different from the last.
  • One of ’90s Trek’s things was a weird late-series romance between two previously unconnected characters. Worf/Troi was the first, and the best, and this is where it starts.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Why did Worf ask Riker for permission to date Troi? Why does Data know about this? Why did the writers think that was a reasonable thing to contemplate in the year of our Lord 1993?

Episode: “The Pegasus”

Summary: Captain Picard Day is interrupted by the arrival of Riker’s first captain, and a twisty plot involving a lost starship, a mutiny, and a tiiiiiny little major treaty violation.

Reasons to watch it

  • Another great episode to wave in the face of anyone who says Discovery isn’t proper Star Trek.
  • Captain Picard Day. “It’s for the children. I’m a role model.”
  • Terry O’Quinn as Admiral Pressman, Yet Another Shady Flag Officer.
  • We learn why Starfleet ships don’t use cloaking devices, and a time when Will Riker was a raw newbie faced with a terrible choice, and it even looks like there will be long-term consequences for his career.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Spoilers: there are no long-term consequences for Will’s career.

Episode: “Lower Decks”

Summary: The Enterprise from the perspective of four junior officers.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s extremely cool to see the regular cast from an outsider point of view.
  • Sito Jaxa, one of the disgraced cadets from “The First Duty”, makes her return, and it’s a great storyline about second chances, asserting yourself, and … okay, everything else I could say is spoilery.
  • Worf is the best mentor ever.

Warnings and caveats:

  • With everything Discovery gave us in terms of women mentoring women, it’s super frustrating that the only such storyline here — Beverly and Nurse Ogawa — basically goes, “Oh yeah, you’re doing great professionally, my only concern is about your love life.”

Episode: “Pre-Emptive Strike”

Summary: Ro Laren goes undercover in a terrorist organisation made up of former Federation citizens fighting the Cardassians.

Reasons to watch it

  • TNG — and, concurrently, DS9 — have been setting up Voyager by establishing the Maquis, former Federation citizens whose home planets were ceded to Cardassia in the peace treaty. Spoilers: they’re not thrilled. I skipped the first TNG episode about this because it was (a) terrible; (b) also racist, but this is a really great Ro story.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Once again, a character bonds with a kindly old father figure, and, like, just once can’t they run into a grizzled old lady instead?
  • There’s a scene where Ro and Picard pose as a sex worker and her client, and while it’s handled much, much better than anything in the series up to now, it still makes some people uncomfortable.
  • (Not me, I accidentally found myself shipping it.)

Episode: “All Good Things…”

Summary: Picard starts bouncing between his past (his first day on the Enterprise), present and twenty-five years into his future, when he’s an old man suffering a degenerative brain condition. Also Q is there.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s the last hurrah!
  • Patrick Stewart acts the hell out of it and everyone else manages to keep up. Barely. I mean, he is Patrick Stewart.
  • If you’ve enjoyed TNG, this is a love letter to the series. (If you’ve not enjoyed TNG, how did you even make it this far?!)

Warnings and caveats:

  • The Worf-Troi-Riker triangle continues to be weird, with future!Deanna dead and Riker and Worf still fighting over her.
  • Seriously, if anyone would regard polyamory as the solution to a love triangle, it’s Deanna Troi and Will Riker. (Worf would be scandalised at first, but would absolutely come around, you know it.)
  • Future!Picard’s could be hard to watch if you have loved ones with dementia.
  • Parts of this do work best if you have a passing familiarity with the premiere episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, but please don’t inflict that atrocity on your innocent eyeballs. Here’s the Memory Alpha summary, if you need it.

It’s movie time!

Four TNG-era movies were made. One was actually good. I saw them all at the cinema, though, because that is how I roll.

Movie: Star Trek: Generations

Summary: Captains Kirk and Picard team up to fight Malcolm McDowell. Feeling that he has gone as far in his exploration of humanity as he can, Data installs the emotion chip he picked up in an episode I didn’t cover here because it was terrible.

Reasons to watch it

  • Various people give really good performances. Including Malcolm McDowell, who delivers some terrible dialogue with utter conviction.
  • Updates TNG’s aesthetic with darker, deeper lighting and a couple of great new sets.
  • The Duras sisters have their final outing.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The good performances I mentioned? None came from William Shatner.
  • Oh my gosh, this movie is so badly written. The structure is messy, Picard’s “perfect world” fantasy is creepily regressive, the resolution is disappointing. It’s a good thing it’s pretty.
  • Everything about Data’s plotline is terrible, and even tragic, and the worst part is, the writers don’t seem to realise it. He installs his emotion chip because he doesn’t understand humour, but it just turns him into an asshole who still doesn’t understand humour, but does laugh at his own jokes.

Movie: Star Trek: First Contact

Summary: The Borg use time travel to destroy humanity in the past.

Reasons to watch it

  • This is the one good TNG-era film!
  • It’s creepy — outright scary at some points, if you’re a wimp like me — but also has great character moments, and is a fantastic follow-up to “The Best of Both Worlds”.
  • Deanna has a really amazing comedy scene.
  • Alfre Woodard plays Lily Sloane, a woman of the post-apocalyptic twenty-first century who wakes up in a twenty-fourth century nightmare. And she’s wonderful.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Body horror.
  • Like. So much body horror.
  • And it’s much more violent than Star Trek usually gets.
  • The Borg Queen’s relationships with Picard and Data are not, shall we say, driven by enthusiastic consent.
  • Beverly is barely in this, and it’s a shame.

Movie: Star Trek: Insurrection

Summary: Discovering that a Starfleet admiral is planning a genocide, the crew ask themselves, “What would Michael Burnham do?” (The answer is not, “impromptu Gilbert & Sullivan performance”, but then, this is not one of the good Star Trek movies.)

Reasons to watch it

  • It has some very nice character moments, especially in the early scenes as Deanna, Beverly and Will help Picard prepare for a diplomatic function.
  • The location scenery is gorgeous.
  • Somehow, First Contact and this movie do what seven seasons of TNG never managed, and turn me into a Riker/Troi shipper.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The moral is heavy handed, the plot doesn’t really hang together (why do they even need to relocate a population of just 600 when they could just … ask permission to build medical facilities or whatever on a whole different continent?) and it pulls its punches in addressing what is described as a rot in the core of the Federation.
  • Like, not only did DS9 do this better, even TNG did it better.
  • Having belatedly realised that Marina Sirtis is hilarious, the writers give her … a weird scene where she bonds with Beverly about the state of their breasts? “How do women speak to each other? We just don’t know!”
  • (You probably won’t be shocked to learn that the writing process for this film was torturous. Michael Piller wrote a book about it, which was allegedly suppressed by Viacom for revealing too much about how the sausage was made. It’s available for an exorbitant sum on Amazon, but I remember it was around in ebook form as well at some point, if you’re curious — at one point, I think not long before he passed away, Piller just dumped the PDF online.)

Movie: Star Trek: Nemesis

Summary: Dualities ahoy as Data meets B4, a simple prototype, and Picard meets Shinzon, a young clone of himself who has taken over the Romulan Empire.

Reasons to watch it

  • There are some lovely character moments in the first act, as Riker and Troi get married and prepare to leave the Enterprise as Riker finally takes command of a ship of his own.
  • Tom Hardy does a very good Patrick Stewart impression.
  • There’s a Picard/Crusher scene that warms my cold, black heart.

Warnings and caveats:

  • It’s the last hurrah for the TNG crew, so of course they had to get in one last telepathic sexual assault on Deanna.
  • The only redeeming feature of which is that, I think for the first time, she manages to get revenge herself.
  • It’s still completely unnecessary.
  • About half the movie, maybe even more, is a series of action scenes with minimal characterisation of anyone but Picard and Shinzon.
  • Shinzon gets so much characterisation, and if this was a nice, leisurely TV serial, that would be great. But it’s not. It’s a movie, and it’s our very last chance to spend time with the characters we know and care about. And Shinzon doesn’t even tell us much that’s new about Picard.
  • The thing about the Riker/Troi wedding is that it highlights just how much the movies don’t care about Worf. This is set after the end of DS9, which saw him leaving Starfleet to become the Federation ambassador to the Klingon Empire. Now, four years later, he’s back in Starfleet, doing the exact same job he did on the Enterprise, with no acknowledgement that he ever left.
  • Like. He’s at the wedding, right? And he’s miserable, and it’s played for comedy, but here’s a guy who got married five years ago (none of his friends from the Enterprise came), was widowed about a year later (none of his friends from the Enterprise acknowledge it), and now he’s at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
  • Similarly, Data’s emotion chip hasn’t been a factor since First Contact, it’s only mentioned to reassure us that it’s not currently in use. Which … look, Generations was quite bad, but I don’t think the solution was to pretend it didn’t happen?
  • Really this insistence on recreating the status quo of 1994, in 2002, is almost too neat a metaphor for TNG’s faults!

And so we come to an end of my brief tour through TNG! I hope it entertained and informed, and left you with some ideas on what to watch next time your Netflix queue looks bleak and empty.

Coming up in the near future: a brief essay on why I decided not to do a post like this on DS9, more book blogging, maybe some talk about media that’s not Star Trek, and, in a few months’ time, hopefully a tour of Voyager.

If you’ve enjoyed these posts, why not buy me a coffee?

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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