…And we are back! (Part 1 here) Let’s see where Enterprise-D is headed next, with a selection of Season 5‘s second half (1991-1992):
“Ethics”: Very good
Worf is injured and demands he be euthanized, prompting a discussion on friendship and compassion. Riker‘s move to bring his son Alexander to make him realize what he’s asking of him was a tough but intelligent twist. Alexander quickly arrives (very quickly! aren’t they in the middle of nowhere usually?) to better illustrate the way Worf is pulled between his strict Klingon moral code and the more liberal upbringing among humans that he experienced himself and that his son is now experiencing. Obviously behind the tough facade Worf has made friends among the crew, and it’s no small thing to ask of Troi to take care of Alexander should he die. In 1992 euthanasia was only slightly less taboo than it is today, and as far as episodes on moral issues go it does its job really well.
But the ethics of the title also refer to the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession. Dr. Crusher brings in Dr. Russell who would like to perform experimental surgery on Worf, but what started as medical advice develops into a race for results for a treatment that could bring her fame. The episode provides enough examples of ruthless behaviour to stack the cards against Russell, but the core issue addressed is an interesting one: advances in research often come from repeated failures and bold experiments. How funny then that the episode gets away with taking sides and its cake and eat it too by having Worf die and resurrect — thanks to something mentioned earlier in the episode, that Klingons have backup systems for each organ. True warrior organisms!
Worf: “We will work together.”
Alexander: “Yes, sir.”
“Cause and Effect”: Excellent
Yes, the Groundhog Day episode. But…actually Groundhog Day was released one year after this episode aired! Mind blown! Crusher has déjà vu all over again culminating in the destruction of the Enterprise, until she can figure out a way to push events on a different path and pull the Enterprise out of this temporal rift. This is the absolute crowd-pleasing cult episode, there’s humor, there’s drama, there’s crying “NO!” each time the loop repeats, there are plenty of opportunities for a drinking game! For each iteration there are differences in the positioning of the camera or slight differences in the dialogue to keep things interesting, although there is some repetition (directing by Frakes!). This is not the first time we see the crew playing poker, by now it’s a well-established pass time for them. At first, you would think that the voices Crusher hears would be some fantasy element like “the echo of their souls dying” but it is all wrapped up nicely with a real-sounding scientific explanation. I liked the fact that Data could only transfer a handful of bits of information to himself. Little else to say, classic Trek!
Picard: “All hands abandon ship! Repeat: all hands abandon–” boom
“The First Duty”: Very good
A story focused on Wesley again — it’s ironic how writers were complaining that they didn’t know how to write Wesley and this season he has had two very interesting episodes! Although this episode is an atypical one: set entirely on Earth, concerned with Starfleet Academy and not space exploration. A cadet dies in an accident and his close-knit group of friends, including Welsey and a charismatic leader, are asked to explain. It becomes more and more obvious that they are trying to cover up something, and the episode turns into a trial with Wesley’s heart balanced between loyalty to his group and loyalty to the truth — the script is intelligent enough not to make it as simple as I make it sound, by noting that deep trust within a group and bonding under stress are important qualities expected of officers. This is a different Wesley from the one we knew, and although everything turns out all right it is evident he is undergoing some life-changing experiences, and I hope we will see more of him. Who knows, maybe the writers were testing the waters for that always-rumored series based at Starfleet Academy!…
On the Enterprise side, the focus is on Beverly, naturally, and Picard, while Data and Geordi do some tests. We get to meet Picard’s old teachers and reflect on the not-so-ideal student he used to be and the exemplary captain he has become. But the series forgets that every single crew member has gone through Starfleet Academy! Surely it would have been very interesting to see Riker or O’Brien or whomever stroll around and reminisce or get revelations about their past.
Boothby (to Picard): “You made a mistake. There isn’t a man among us who hasn’t been young enough to make one.”
The deceased cadet’s father is Ed Lauter, also seen as the alien-possessed Lt. Col. Belt in The X-Files‘ Space.
“The Perfect Mate”: Very good
An “empathic metamorph”, Kamala, intended as a gift wife is awakened early and has to wait for her destined husband, and meanwhile she gets to “interact”/seduce the Enterprise’s crew — in particular the most difficult and professional of them all, Picard. Funnily enough, the focus of this episode is not the series’ womanizer, Riker! It is certainly a sentimental episode, starting light-hearted and ending very bittersweet, with Kamala imprinted on Picard showing her true love but still gifted to the alien lord as originally intended. And through all that is Beverly Crusher who has “always has been” there for him, an understated and somewhat tragic love that has been there in the background since season one but has never quite come to the fore. (This is understandable given that this is an on-going series; however time passes and people get older, how long till it’s no longer realistic not to address it head on?)
This is the kind of episode that would never have been made in the series’ early seasons, as it is very personal and, well, serious. It has some excellent dialogue and acting, and continues to show that TNG is now a mature series trying to break new ground beyond its formula.
“I, Borg”: Good
I don’t know what to make of this one. Now, I understand what the episode is trying to do and what the intentions of the writers were, but I am not convinced. The Enterprise puts its hands on a member of the Borg collective, and while some see the opportunity to use it as a means to destroy the Borg entirely, some want to help it and make a friend out of him. Picard is with the former, showing a ruthless detachment and cold calculation that might just have a personal revenge dimension to it, excellent acting by Stewart. Dr. Crusher is with the latter, as a doctor she feels bound to assist anyone even if it is their enemy. First LaForge is convinced, then Gainan, and the episode of course culminates with Picard meeting with the Borg, indirectly reopening his wounds from when he had been assimilated. The script drives the viewer into feeling compassion for Geordi’s new friend Third of Five/”Hugh“: away from the collective, this Borg is faced with solitude, the need for friends, the possibility of individualism. I understand all that, and were we not talking about the Borg I would have felt more emotion with that last shot where Hugh seems to have kept something out of all this.
But we are talking about the Borg. Previous episodes that featured them built an impressive aura of invincibility and inevitability around them, they are among TNG‘s most important additions to the Trek universe. Their conception of the world is fundamentally at odds with a concept like a Federation, victory against them cannot come via military conquest or peace treaties like with any other race we have encountered. At most, Beverly and Geordi came to awaken parts of the original host that were overwritten by the Borg when he was assimilated, similar to Picard surviving under Locutus. But hoping that Hugh would convince the collective of stopping assimilation altogether is wishful thinking.
Using Hugh like a computer virus was a really nice idea; to use the very concept of individuality like a virus that would unravel the Borg’s unity is also an idea nice on paper but it is difficult to swallow even for a fiction like TNG. The alternative, a complete genocide, is of course diametrically opposed to Star Trek’s values, and this is exactly this episode’s reason of existence. (I see a direct continuation of these ideas through to Ron Moore‘s Battlestar Galactica and episodes such as Resurrection Ship and A Measure of Salvation!)
I understand why this episode is appreciated among fans, and I imagine it opens the way for later characters like Voyager‘s Seven of Nine — but I did feel “manipulated” by the writers here. I can’t shake the feeling that the writers tried to do the same thing they did with the Romulans and the Klingons, to humanize the Borg, and by doing so they made this enemy much less scary and thus less exceptional. This might be Star Trek, but sometimes not everything can be resolved by being nice to each other.
Third of Five: “You will be assimilated.”
LaForge: “Yes, we know, but before that, we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“The Next Phase”: Very good
Geordi and Ro are believed dead when they become “phased out” in a dimension slightly parallel to ours. Before they learn that though they are very confused when nobody sees them, which makes for some great scenes! It also makes Ro wonder about the afterlife and whether ghosts stories really were real — a rare step for TNG into the supernatural, made by a character who has “ethnic” and more “primitive” characteristics rather than by Geordi who remains a hardcore engineer throughout. All of this happens in parallel to yet another Romulan infiltration plan. The pair manages to draw attention to themselves in an amazing scene at Ten Forward where Ro shoots her disruptor everywhere in the background while nobody seems to be noticing.
One thing that stands out as odd here is how dispassionate the crew seems when they get news of Geordi and Ro’s demise. No cries or dramatic sadness, only cold-blooded following of protocol. I realize Starfleet has removed quite a bit of emotions from the way officers operate in this future utopia, but this seemed extreme. At least we got Riker hinting that Ro meant/means a lot to him. This lack of sadness is counterbalanced by the wake ceremony in Ten Forward, which is purposefully set as a great party with music, which I liked!
LaForge, at his own funeral: “Looks like a great party – mind if we join you?”
“The Inner Light”: Absolutely excellent!
What an episode! This is certainly another fan-favorite and an emotional roller-coaster. Another Picard-focused episode, this one has you guessing for a long while where Picard has been transported and whether the Enterprise will show up to save him. But the episode goes on, and on, and on. Picard adapts to his new life as Kamin, becoming an important member of his community and father to a scientist and an artist — a perfect couple of descendants wouldn’t you say? (The son is played by no other than Patrick Stewart‘s own son, Daniel!) From some point onward, the quick returns to what’s going on on the Enterprise are rather counter-productive and I could easily have done without them: they take away from the emotional engagement with Picard’s story and sort of spoil the ending, hinting that this is all happening in Picard’s head.
Ultimately, this is a whole civilization’s cry not to be forgotten. Cosmic chance had it that they did not survive to colonize the stars like humans did, and this jewel-shaped probe is all that survived. Remember us! This is the mark we leave in the universe! This is a themes that comes up in several science fiction stories, from Icehenge to Interstellar, and even in the real world, from the Pioneer/Voyager probes to the Long Now clock and the mysterious Georgia Guidestones. This in itself is already a very emotional message to convey, and this episode manages to turn this abstract concept more relatable by making it Picard’s personal story. The difference with this time capsule is that instead of objects or recordings of the lost civilization, it allows the receiver to experience that life in that civilization!
At the end of this episode, Picard has lived a full life to its very end of old age, and is returned into a body in its fifties with still many years of life ahead of him. This should certainly have a strong long-term psychological impact on him, similar to his experience with the Borg, and as much as I know that the next episode will have a reset button I hope that some future episode will mention it. After all, he knows plenty of things about agriculture and drought, and can now play the flute!
A word of congratulations to the wardrobe department: similar to Season 4’s Family, the dresses here are very tasteful and could come from a less technologically advanced society as well as from a society advanced enough that it can hide its technology in the background and showcase its aesthetics.
Such a memorable episode, and it was written by a newcomer to TNG and one writer with just two other credits to his name, both did very little else! An all-time classic, this episode will have you whistling flute tunes!
Eline (to Picard/Kamin): “Now we live in you. Tell them of us… my darling.”
“Time’s Arrow, Part 1”: Excellent
At this point TNG has already made a number of time travelling or rather time rift shows: Yesterday’s Enterprise, Cause and Effect, even TOS‘s The City at the Edge of Forever. The writers devised of a story ambitious enough for two episodes, and it’s clear that everybody is enjoying themselves here, taking the time to make the most of the “Data in 19th century San Francisco” story!
That part of the episode is exactly what you would expect: Data like a fish out of water but not being particularly disconcerted. He uses his skills in poker, gained with so many games on the Enterprise, to get those little bits of paper everybody’s crazy about: money. He spends some time explaining technology to his hotel valet that I get the impression that the second part will reveal that this will become some famous inventor. The science enthusiast Mr. Clemens also seems to be set up so as to reveal him as a well-known historical figure (otherwise why the makeup?) but I don’t know who that could be — at the time of writing this I haven’t seen part 2.
We finally get some more background for Gainan, who has been a mysterious character from the start. She has a father, and has been an envoy on Earth or observer of some sorts; the Borg haven’t still destroyed her civilization. I hope we’ll learn more in the next episode! So there were Ancient Aliens in Star Trek’s Earth!
I have to say that the concern that the Enterprise crew showed towards the certain death of Data is in stark contrast with the external impassiveness for the death of Geordi a few episodes before (The Next Phase). At this stage of the series, there might still be occasional episodes focused on such or such character but the series has arranged itself around the emotional core of Picard and Data.
The time-shifted aliens look like something magical: stealing life “energy” or “spirits” and swallowing them through their third eye, Star Trek had not accustomed us to something so supernatural-looking! (Nice special effects, though.)
In short, an excellent first part to a big adventure, perhaps less galaxy-spanning than previous season cliffhangers like The Best of Both Worlds and Redemption, but it definitely made me look forward to next season!
Troi (impersonating Data defining friendship): “As I experience certain sensory input patterns my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated and even missed when absent.”
Behind that makeup (why the makeup?), Mr. Clemens is Jerry Hardin – a.k.a. the Deep Throat from The X-Files!
All in all, an excellent season that is hard to distinguish in my mind from Season 4 in terms of quality. The production values are undeniably higher to earlier seasons, the actors are all on top of their form, and episodes vary from high adventure to experimental. There is little repetition (at least from the episodes I’ve seen) and when the series falls into a routine (e.g. with the Romulans and Sela) it has much to offer besides. This is the season during which Gene Roddenberry died (pictured: Roddenberry at the shooting of the 100th episode, Redemption Part 1) and the last movie with the TOS crew was released (The Undiscovered Country); it is the last season before another spin-off series is launched (DS9); at this stage, The Next Generation is Star Trek’s proud flagship. With no transition, let’s plot a heading to Season 6!