The Greatest Generation
I have been (and always shall be) a die-hard Star Trek Fan. But this past decade has been a rough time to be a Star Trek Fan. The last two Star Trek TV series have been terrible (Star Trek: Voyager) and mediocre (Star Trek: Enterprise). The last two Star Trek movies have been mediocre (1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection) and terrible (2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis). There is a new hope (ahem) on the horizon with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek
relaunch scheduled for next summer, but that’s a long ways away.
These days Star Trek seems to be, in many ways, dead dead dead. My
sci-fi passions are fueled by other shows like the amazing Battlestar Galactica and the late lamented Firefly. But this past weekend, while working on a variety of illustration projects, I popped my DVD set of Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3 into my player. And while drawing and painting away, I proceeded to tear through the entire season. What a magnificent season of science-fiction, and of television period. My goodness I had forgotten.
These episodes originally aired in 1989-90. This was a groundbreaking season for Next Gen. For the first two years, the show had struggled to find its footing. It was popular, but the quality of the episodes were wildly uneven. The writing staff went through constant upheavals. But in Season 3, a talented writer named Michael Piller took over as the show-runner, and proceded to do two important things. One, he re-focused the show on the CHARACTERS. Two, he brought on board a number of incredibly talented writers who would proceed to guide the Star Trek franchise for many successful years to come. These include Ronald D. Moore (who, post-Trek, would go on to create and run the new Battlestar Galactica), Rene Echevarria (The 4400), Jeri Taylor, Brannon Bragga, and many others.
What’s incredible about Next Gen‘s season 3, looking back on it, is just how well it holds up today (as opposed to, say, season 1, which today I find to be pretty much unwatchable). Here are just a sampling of the greatness of this season:
Yesterday’s Enterprise — The Enterprise C travels to the future and accidentally changes history, creating a tme-line where the Federation and the Klingons are locked in bitter, unending war. And Tasha Yar dies again. Time travel has become a much over-used TV sci-fi device, but this dark tale is one of the best.
The Offspring — The android Data takes it upon himself to create a child. Haunting and poignant, its a classic.
Deja Q — The omnipotent Q loses his powers and becomes mortal. What starts out as a comic romp (Q:”What can I do to prove to you that I’m mortal?” Worf: “Die.” Q: “Oh, very good, Worf. Eat any good books lately?”) actually takes a sharp turn into powerful drama when the once infallible Q is forced to confront a harsh lesson about his failings. His “gift” at the end to Data is priceless.
Sins of the Father — Worf must return to the Klingon empire to confront an accusation made by the Klingon High Council against his late father. Twenty years of Star Trek Klingon stories began here. There’s an extraordinary amount of “world-building” accomplished in this 44 minutes, as we learn an awful lot about one of Star Trek’s most famous alien races. But the real drama comes from Worf’s conflict between his duty to his people and his pursuit of the truth about his family. It’s also Tony Todd’s 1st appearance as Wor’s brother Kurn.
Sarek — For the first time (with the teensy tiny exception of Deforest Kelly’s brief appearance in the Next Gen pilot), Next Gen crosses over with classic Trek. An aged ambassador Sarek (Spock’s father) struggles with a debilitating illness. Its a potent look at the effects of a diseasea like altzheimers as it affects a beloved character. This episode is also a showcase for the great acting of Patrick Stewart. In the episode’s climax, Captain Picard mind-melds with Sarek, taking all of the Vulcan’s suppressed emotions onto himself so that Sarek can complete one last mission. What follows is a powerhouse of a scene in which Picard must struggle to control an overwhelming tide of Sarek’s long bottled-up feelings. The scene is breathtaking.
And, of course, there is The Best of Both Worlds. In this season finale, the cybernetic Borg begin their assault on the Federation, and Captain Picard is captured and assimilated into their collective. An astonishing showcase for great writing, acting, visual effects, even music, this is one of the greatest season finale cliffhangers ever. (Its closing was even recently saluted in the Family Guy “Stewie kills Lois” two-parter.) This was Next Gen‘s finest hour, and I still remember with extraordinary clarity the long, long summer wait for part two.
The below list has only scratched the surface — other great episodes include The Defector (a terrific potboiler about possible war with the Romulans), Captain’s Holiday (which introduces Vash), Hollow Pursuits (in which we meet the introverted Lt. Barclay), and so many more. There really isn’t a stinker in the bunch.
There’s nothing fancy here. The episodes are all stand-alone stories, and the visual effects are, for the most part, pretty simplistic. The shows stand on great writing and great acting. It was a pleasure to revisit, and I hope against hope that the coming years will bring some new Star Trek adventures of equivalent quality.