6.07.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 28: Next Generation (Season 4)

Season Four of TNG saw the series celebrating its hundredth episode. Although Roddenberry had scaled back his day-to-day involvement with the show to naps in his office and watching some occasional dailies, they got him to the set for the occasion.


Two additions to the Trekverse this season that would reverberate in the years to come: Brannon Braga, whom Piller hired as a writing intern,

TNG writing staff in 1992: (l to r) Ronald Moore, Brannon Braga, René Echevarria and Naren Shankar
Braga in 2001 with then-girlfriend Jeri Ryan. (No offense, Ron and the gang, but this is quite an upgrade.) Beyond the "Hey! Hot girlfriend, bro!"ness of it, tho, the rise from intern to co-producer to co-series-creator and feature-film writer is pretty impressive.
and Voyager co-creator and writer/ producer Jeri Taylor.


Personal favorites, from least to most:

25. The Loss, 24. Legacy, 23. Suddenly Human, 22. Final Mission, 21. Identity Crisis, 20. Qpid, 19. Brothers, 18. The Wounded, 17. The Drumhead, 16. The Nth Degree, 15. Galaxy's Child, 14. Half a Life, 13. The Host, 12. Reunion, 11. The Mind's Eye. These last three episodes I quite enjoy, actually, and considered doing a "top 13" so I could discuss them in more depth. But I considered which ten episodes I'd want with me, personally, in a desert island (with a DVD player and electricity, naturally) scenario, and the following won out for me. By all means, discuss the ones you'd like in the comments; I'm all ears.

10.
Directed by Tom Benko, Written by Philip LaZebnik and William Douglas Lansford
The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a science station on Ventax II, where the planet is in chaos over the return of a being who claims to be that culture's "devil."


Man, do people hate on this one. The arguments I've read against are wrapped up in a lot of "This feels like a TOS episode" or other religious/ anti-religious projections. To the first objection, if one can credibly call it that... I mean, so what? If it recalls, conceptually or otherwise, TOS (or "Magicks of Megas-Tu" from TAS) that is perfectly acceptable (and weirdly, this sort of thing is cited as a positive in so many other cases;) my only concern is if it's done well, not that it dares to explore a side-street/ alternate-route to something previously mapped. To the "religious projections" side of it... is this really a big deal, for any side of the conversation? I find it non-controversial, in a good way, i.e. accessible and non-offensive. (Consider the comments Picard makes in "Who Watches the Watchers" - not as accessible.)

Another objection I've never understood is how this episode contrasts with Kang's pronouncement in "Day of the Dove" that the Klingons have no devil. Again, is this such a big deal? Fek'lhr could be any number of comparable deities/ mythological figures without contradicting Kang, but more to the point, these things happen all throughout Trek. (Consider the number of Vulcan's moons, or its relative position in the galaxy, etc.) To harp on one over any other is, at least to me, silly unless it's excessively a gaffe. (Like Kirk - or Spock - forgetting he had a brother, but! We'll get to that one.)

Anyway, not to prove a positive with a negative. And granted, what is shrugworthy to me might be a dealbreaker to others. But for me, this is a very re-watchable episode.


9.
Directed by Les Landau, Written by Shari Goodhartz, Pamela Douglas, and Jeri Taylor
The Enterprise crew is affected when they are adrift in a remote area of space and find themselves unable to dream.

This is another one that generates a lot of vitriol. Sure, Troi's flying sequences look a little silly:


but seriously, is that it? I've read some crazy reactions to this episode. (I know, I know, welcome to the internet, McMillan.) Personally, I find the mystery and the crew's near-miss to insanity quite compelling. I guess people wanted better flying, less madness, or something. Regardless, it works for me.

I like this bit with the hydrogen atom as well.

And this next set of images achieves true creepiness, which is pretty rare in Trek:


Says Martina Sirtis: "I liked the storyline of that episode because it was about the dreamworld, and I'm of Greek descent so I totally believe dreams mean something. And not the Freudian thing, all this hocus pocus. So that was another (episode) I could relate to strongly." I'm not sure I agree with the route she's taking here, but we seem to get to the same destination.

"How do you feel, Worf?" Well spotted! As Keith DeCandido would say, "Thank you, Counselor Obvious."
8.
Directed by Patrick Stewart (his first,) Written by Joe Menosky and Ronald D. Moore
In his latest attempt to understand humanity, Data starts dating a fellow officer, Jenna D'Sora. (Even the humans are getting unnecessary apostrophes now...) In the meantime, a nebula through which the Enterprise is passing causes strange things to happen on the ship.

That last bit provides my only real objection to this episode: the whole "Only Captain Picard can navigate this shuttle and save the ship" business is a little tinny. (I have the same problem when it comes around again in the Enterprise episode "Singularity.") But the "Data gets a girlfriend" storyline is great fun.


She's Michelle Scarabelli, from the TV show "Alien Nation:"

and the effects of the nebula on the crew and ship's objects are rendered well.

 

But this episode is most notable as a showcase for Brent Spiner.

 
 "Are we no longer a couple? ... I will delete the appropriate program."

A couple of nitpicks are amusing (Spot changes from an Angora to a Tabby, for one) but one is worth mentioning because its underlying premise has always bugged me. Data uses contractions all over the place here, presumably as part of his "romance" program. a) Uhm, what? What in the world does that mean? Would you buy a romance-program that lists "use of contractions" among its aphrodisiac qualities? b) isn't it just silly that Data can't use contractions altogether? Granted it was established, and they should stick with it. (Though the writers had no problem backing away from the Troi and Riker can communicate telepathically thing, so I wish they'd done something similar with this.) But, really, it just doesn't make any sense why he wouldn't would not be able to do this in the first place.

7.
Directed by Cliff Bole, Written by Marc Scott Zicree, Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff, Joe Menosky, Ronald D. Moore, and Michael Piller
An injury to Commander Riker during a reconnaissance mission threatens the prospects for first contact with a culture on the verge of warp travel.

Michael Piller says, "We wrote the first two drafts from "our" point of view and I realized it wasn't working. The thing that was holding us back was a rule, and I'm very much a supporter of the rules of Gene's universe. But I also love to break them if they're in the interest of the show. I went to Rick and said that even though I know he doesn't like to break format, this could be a special show if he would let me write it from the alien point of view. He did, as long as I let everyone know that we weren't going to ever break this rule again. No other show in the history of Star Trek has taken the alien perspective of our characters, and I think that makes it very unique."


I think Piller may have passed away before the Voyager episodes that did this - I could be wrong, there, or perhaps he felt things like "Blink of an Eye" shared enough of the crew's point of view to not fall under this umbrella. Either way, he's right, as it definitely works, here. (And I appreciate, truly, how protective of Gene's rules Piller and Berman were; even when they felt constrained by them, there was always a fundamental respect for Gene's vision in TNG.)

At the time, this was a real breaking-type role for Bebe "Lilith" Neuwirth.

6.
Directed by Cliff Bole, Written by Ronald D. Moore.
and (again, combining a season-finale with its next-season-opener)

Directed by David Carson, Written by Ronald D. Moore
Worf balances his Federation and Klingon duties as new Klingon Chancellor Gowron faces a civil war, and Worf fights to regain his father's honor. As the House of Duras is nearing victory over Worf and the forces of Gowron, Starfleet, led by Picard, works to expose Romulan interference in the Klingon Civil War.

First, a quick confession I may have made before: I was convinced Gowron was played by the other guy from Bill and Ted's for years.

Alex Winter
and not Robert O' Reilly. So for years I kept saying "I can't believe that's the same guy; what an actor!"
This (and "Reunion") continue to develop the Klingon story arc that began in Season 3's "Sins of the Father" and will ultimately reach its resolution quite satisfactorily in DS9. I think Worf is under-utilized in the TNG films, but he did get a hell of a lot of development between the two series. (And I still say a "Star Trek: Worf" would be a grand slam, especially as an ongoing animated series. It would be the best name ever, too, unless they went with Star Trek: K'Plagh! with the exclamation point included, of course.)


I'm not sure why Worf leaves his Bat'leth behind at the end of the first part; you'd think that would be among his most-prized possessions, not left for somebody else to pack and forward along.


 Data's command of the Sutherland provides for some more fine moments from Spiner.

though the whole blockade/ tachyon net doesn't make much sense. "At no point is it ever made clear why a two-dimensional net of limited circumference is in any way effective in three-dimensional space," says DeCandido. Perhaps they were following Nick Meyer's notes on space battle dynamics.
 Ditto for Sela's backstory. But, it was a genuine shock at the time, and a clever enough thing to do. Like the blockade, the story is fun enough to carry me along without worrying too much about that. I'm glad they limited Sela's appearances, though, to here and to "Unification."
5.
Directed by Robert Wiemer, Written by Harold Apter and Ronald D. Moore
In a nice callback to the resolution of "The Measure of a Man," Data records a day in his life for Commander Bruce Maddox, including observations on Chief O'Brien's wedding, and the mystery of a Vulcan ambassador who apparently dies in a transporter accident.


I think Michael Piller more than anyone should be especially commended for preventing Data from becoming the "Super-Spock" of TNG, i.e. a character whose unique abilities save the crew/ resolve plot conflicts on such a regular (and ever-expanding) basis as to make you wonder how the hell the Enterprise would function or get anywhere without him. Episodes like this underscore the best aspects of this approach. 

There are wonderful character moments that emphasize the endearing aspects of his lack of humanity:


and there's a genuinely interesting b-story that illustrates similar limitations in (at this point in the series) understanding or even suspecting subterfuge.


We also get the first appearances of Spot (see "In Theory," above) and Rosalind Chao as Keiko Ishikawa.


(Of Spot, Spiner has said, "He was the stupidest actor I ever worked with. Never took direction at all. But he never broke character.")

A guy I used to watch TNG and DS9 with in the late 90s always said his main problem with the former was "Too much Data." The episode he always used as an exception was this one. I knew what he meant, but Spiner-to-Data is just one of those perfect weddings of actor-to-part. I can't imagine the series without him and without an excess of him, to boot. So, if there was on occasion too much, episodes like this one go a long way to balancing the books.

4.
Directed by Cliff Bole, Written by Lee Sheldon
Following an anomaly in a warp bubble experiment, Dr. Crusher finds that crewmembers are beginning to disappear, while she is the only one who seems to notice.


This one is better-regarded than, say, "Devil's Due," but still doesn't seem to get its proper accolades. It's probably personal preference. I think this is the sort of story Trek did pretty well (see "One" in Voyager or "Vanishing Point" in Enterprise, as two quick examples.) Obviously the story is meant to work on multiple levels, and I think it succeeds.


"If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe!" I can relate, Beverly.


Additionally, this cracked me up:


The show did a good job of giving a good amount of stories to each cast member; this is probably Crusher's best of the ones allotted to her. Ditto (for Riker) for this next one:

3.
Directed by Les Landau, Written by J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carren
After an away mission interrupts Commander Riker's birthday party, the first officer awakens in sick-bay 16 years later in the future where he is the Captain of the Enteprise and about to negotiate a peace treaty with the Romulan Star Empire.

 

He has no memory of his life between the away mission and waking up in SickBay. It is only when he sees an image of his deceased wife (someone from a holodeck fantasy back in season one) that he realizes something is amiss. The future scenario turns out, of course, to be only a hologram designed by the Romulans:


This, too, proves to be a deception, and it is really the end of this episode that packs most of its punch. Says Les Landau, "The final moment where Riker sees the alien being in the caverns of this other world and says 'I will take you with me and you will always be a part of me,' goes back to the basis of what Star Trek is all about. It's the caring for the human condition, love for the universal being. It sounds very esoteric and snobbish to talk this way, but that's when Star Trek is at its best."

"You don't have to be alone anymore."
"My name is Barash."
"To me, you'll always be Jean-Luc."
I agree. There's a fundamental recognition of loneliness and how we can alleviate it in other people (not to mention why we should) in Trek that sounds sappy in print/ when said aloud, but it's essential, in my opinion. Trek is not a show that should over-appeal to our "Where are the detonators?!" instincts over empathy. (Of course, we never see or hear about Barash again, at least in canon, so maybe Riker put him in the brig.)

A different (but mutual) friend of the guy who had the "Too Much Data" rule had his own rule that was "Unless it's a Picard, Worf or a Data episode, it's probably mediocre." This was always the episode he'd cite as an exception. As an absolute rule, I disagree, though admittedly most of my favorites are episodes with an a-story focusing on one of those characters. I can understand where he was coming from. At any rate, this is probably my favorite or tied-for-favorite Riker episode. (I like the Enterprise episode "Twilight," which recalls this in several aspects, but the concept works better here.)

This is Patti Yasutake's first appearance as Ensign Ogawa, although she is not so named until later in the season.
2.
Directed by Les Landau, Written by Ronald D. Moore
Captain Picard takes leave on Earth and visits his family while recovering from his assimilation into the Borg. Worf's human parents visit the Enterprise and help him deal with his discommendation. Dr. Crusher finds a message for Wesley recorded by her later husband, and he watches it in the holodeck.

This last part is handled pretty well, one of the few times Wesley gets such a moment in the series.

Michael Piller has this to say on the story's development: "(After "Best of Both Worlds) For a show that prides itself on its realistic approach to storytelling, how can you have a guy who's been so violated be fine for next week? There's a story in a man like Picard who's lost control. Delving into the psychological crisis that a man like that has to face, and what does he have to do?' Finally, I was persuasive enough to talk Gene and Rick into taking the chance, and I think everyone is glad we did."

I remember how much this episode stuck out when it first aired. It was truly unexpected, and, to Piller's point, it was the right tone to strike after the events of "Best of Both Worlds." The bits at home with Robert Picard - much like Picard's action sequences back in "Sins of the Father" - added considerable nuance to Picard's character.

I also liked the glimpse of 24th century Earth and the hints at what kind of non-Starfleet life/ career one could have on it.
Picard greets his "uncle."
Ron Moore recalls, "(I pitch the story and) Gene hates it. He goes through this whole thing about how much he hates the script: It says terrible things about Picard's parents; these brothers don't exist in the 24th century; they have such profound personal animosities; this would never happen, I don't buy any of it AND THIS IS NOT STAR TREK. (...) I was shell-shocked. We walked out of the office, and I remember Rick and Mike looked at each other and said, 'Don't worry about it; we'll take care of it. Go write your script.' I never heard another word."

Thankfully, this is of the "We can work around Gene" period of the writing room, as one of the best episodes of the series. And the ending, as on-the-nose as it is, is about as Star Trek as it gets, folks.

David Tristan Birkin (nephew of 60s chanteuse Jane Birkin and a noted photographer/artist these days) returns in "Rascals" to play a young Jean-Luc.
And finally:


1.
Directed by Les Landau, Written by Bruce D. Arthurs and Joe Menosky

The crew wakes up after apparently passing through a wormhole, finding mysteries surrounding their blackout. Data begins to act suspiciously, prompting the command staff to wonder if he has been compromised.

Man oh man have I gotten into many arguments over this episode over the years. The general impression seems to be it's fine the first time around and then falls apart on subsequent viewings. As is obvious from its placement in my personal favorites here, I completely disagree. This is a superbly executed mystery, and simply knowing how it ends does nothing to unravel it. It's like complaining that knowing who killed everyone in And Then There Were None - or any of Agatha Christie's works - negates its considerable quality. It's just such a non-argument, to me.

The episode begins with some tongue-in-cheek exploration of the nature of mysteries and why we tell them to ourselves (as well as some Klingon yoga:)
 
 

And from there we begin (along with Picard) to suspect Data's involvement in a cover-up of some kind. Sure, "mystery" is said many, many times, and that gets a little distracting, but it's such a mild distraction compared to the strength of pace and performance surrounding it that who cares?


It is slightly disconcerting that Picard threatens Data with disassembly, though, isn't it? What about all that rhetoric from "The Offspring" and "The Measure of a Man?" Does Starfleet routinely rip the officers whom it court-martials from limb to limb to find out what went wrong? Granted Data's an android, but it's an odd threat to begin with, as how is Starfleet going to figure that out? If they could, they'd make an army of Datas. Anyway.

As many times as I've seen this episode, I always find time to watch it when it comes round on cable.


The way Patrick Stewart emphasizes "cluuuuuues" in his explanation of the human mind to the Paxans is great, as is the bit about it being a dress rehearsal. All the world's a stage and we are merely players; the human mind loves a mystery.

This "I think we're pulling it off!" look on Data's face is great, as well.
It's not a perfect episode - there are a few gaffes here and there, as are well-explored elsewhere - but it's my personal favorite nonetheless. Quality-of-production or "importance" wise, perhaps "Family" or something else should get the top spot, but the overall effect of "Clues" exceeds any of its individual limitations.

NEXT: The King's Highway re-opens for a trip to Joyland.

9 comments:

  1. Boy, there are some great episodes on this list...

    I think my personal favorite of the bunch would be "Family." As you say, it stuck out big-time when it first aired, but in a good way. At least as far as I was concerned. I think the way Picard's story from this episode is continued in "Generations" is one of the most successful elements of that movie, too (although I can grant that there is room to see that movie as a complete betrayal of the episode).

    I cannot imagine any Trekkie disliking "Data's Day." I'm sure they're out there. They and I are not on the same wavelength.

    I have very vivid memories of seeing "Devil's Due" at my grandparents' house while visiting them. I always liked that episode; seems like vintage Trek to me.

    No judgment here, but...damn, how gay do all those writers look in that one photo? I can practically hear Pet Shop Boys playing in the background.

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  2. What's interesting is that Clues is among my least favorite episodes of any iteration of Star Trek. That's specifically because of the way the episode is resolved. The rest of it is intriguing, and I was fascinated, but I just could not get past the way the conflict was resolved. I think I get why you like it, though, and my dislike of it doesn't mean it's bad.

    Family is a solid episode. I disliked it for a long time, or at least aspects of it, but I eventually realized that I disliked it because of Robert Picard. Then it hit me that he is supposed to be unlikable, at least from the perspective of someone for whom Picard is the protagonist. Further, I came to see that the relationship between the two brothers was uncomfortably realistic to me, which made me shy away from the episode. Brothers can have some complex relationships, as we see here. There are just some things that can only be shared between brothers, regardless of how antagonistic they are towards each other. I also dug how for all of Picard's heroics and power as a Starfleet officer, his brother wasn't particularly impressed, or at least never admitted to be so. For all this and more, it's yet another reason I'm still angry about Generations.

    The kid was a crappy actor, though, in my opinion.

    Future Imperfect and Remember Me both lingered in my mind. Both improved as time went by and I thought about them and rewatched them. I think Remember Me impressed me more of the two, which are vaguely similar in that they are meditations on solipsism, if you think about them.

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    1. I don't know if I agree that Remember Me or Future Imperfect are at all meditations on solipsism, actually. But, I'm listening. How so?

      I remember a few of our email exchanges re: "Clues." I still cannot fathom your reaction to that one, but it's one of the few areas where we just have totally different takes on what transpires. Which, of course, is all well and good.

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    2. Both Remember Me and Future Imperfect are about characters living within their own minds, or realities constructed from their memories and thoughts. Regardless of how that comes about, the lives they live over the course of the episodes are completely constructed from their own consciousness. The same goes for Picard in The Inner Light, to an extent, though that's mostly imposed upon him rather than drawn out. By the end of each, it's not necessarily clear that they have escaped back into the outer world. The assumption is there, of course, but the implication is that reality is very subjective,reliant upon what the characters accept is the "real" reality, whether it's Moriarty and his lady living out adventures in an electronic cube, Riker's girlfriend from the holodeck, or Beverly living in a bubble of reality drawn from her own memories.

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    3. I'm pretty 180 from you on this. I would not characterize the plots or the message of those episodes that way at all. Not that one of us is right or the other wrong, just one of those cases, I guess.

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  3. Boy, there are some great episodes on this list...

    I think my personal favorite of the bunch would be "Family." As you say, it stuck out big-time when it first aired, but in a good way. At least as far as I was concerned. I think the way Picard's story from this episode is continued in "Generations" is one of the most successful elements of that movie, too (although I can grant that there is room to see that movie as a complete betrayal of the episode).

    I cannot imagine any Trekkie disliking "Data's Day." I'm sure they're out there. They and I are not on the same wavelength.

    I have very vivid memories of seeing "Devil's Due" at my grandparents' house while visiting them. I always liked that episode; seems like vintage Trek to me.

    No judgment here, but...damn, how gay do all those writers look in that one photo? I can practically hear Pet Shop Boys playing in the background.

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    1. I imagine Jeri Ryan gave Braga a rash of shit for that photo, to be sure.

      It is because of "Family" that I HATE how the Picards were killed off in Generations, haha! But, I've learned over the years that that reaction isn't shared by very many Treksters. So, I only object mildly. (Though I'll spend some time with this when I get to that movie, absolutely.)

      Glad to hear you like "Devil's Due." For the most part I enjoy DeCandido's Tor.com TNG rewatch, but that's one where he and I might as well be from mirror universes.

      But, as is always the case, these things just hit us all in different ways.

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  4. Good to see "Family" getting its due. What a fantastic episode. In my top 10 for sure. The ending, as you said, is PERFECT. Too bad it was invalidated (and insulted) by the shittiness that was Generations.

    "Remember Me." Gates McFadden was pregnant during filming. Think of that the next time you see her bouncing around the bridge. Wesley makes everyone vanish while playing with warp bubbles. Why can't this asshole just smoke pot behind the transporter like other space brats? Yes, I know, Crusher was the only one who actually disappeared. But still...

    Have to disagree about "Clues." I thought it was one of the weaker episodes but that's what makes horse races, as they say.

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    1. "Why can't this asshole just smoke pot behind the transporter like other space brats?"

      A genuine lol - thanks for that. Nice.

      Forgot to mention that about Gates. Yeah after doing all these stunts, she discovered she was pregnant. That had to make Cliff Bole feel two feet tall after finding out...

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