But let’s get back to season 6 (1992-1993), with an excellent string of episodes:
Picard dies and sees Q. Is Q God? Is this hell? Is the afterlife the Q Continuum? Do the Q see time and multi-verses in the same way we see our three dimensions of space, and so change anything whenever they want? Was it all in Picard’s mind? Who knows. What matters is that Picard is given the opportunity to explore his life and maybe “correct” it, with unintended consequences. An episode about life, the universe, and everything.
The episode shows that if Picard had not attacked the alien Nausicaan in a bar fight, itself a very anti-Picard move, he would actually not have become the Picard we know! This near-death experience resulted in two things that made Picard: he did not back off from responsibility and danger, but also it made him think more and decide to make the most out of his life in this universe. Does one’s character all boil down to a single event in a lifetime? It’s a bit simplistic to think so, anyone is the result of a long string of events and decisions, but I guess getting stabbed through the heart does count as a particularly traumatic event.
We also see Jean-Luc’s father Maurice, as grumpy as his brother Robert. The scenes where Picard is a cadet again are fun to imagine, his cadet friends immediately sense that he was behaving differently; and young Picard was quite the womanizer! Note also the uniforms, like the ones from the TOS films era. Alternate Picard, who has no initiative and plateaus as a junior lieutenant, is a sad thing to see — and I understand the point of the episode, but it is hard on the thousand of bureaucratic lieutenants out there to hear that Picard would rather die than live like that!
After all this, Picard is reanimated on sick bay, laughing as the timeline corrected itself (and still with an artificial heart, that cyborg!). But actually Picard did remember himself laughing, earlier when Q showed him getting stabbed! This links back to the idea of Time’s Arrow, that the timeline is unique and what has already happened cannot change, although time travel is possible. It’s all coherent!
This was an episode of TNG like no other, entirely focusing on character and really with a catch that could be science fiction, could be fantasy, could be just illustrated psychology. Another success by Ron Moore — a story inspired by A Christmas Carol, or It’s A Wonderful Life. It is an episode that works because we know Picard so well after all these years. We already heard about his misbehaviour as a cadet (last season’s The First Duty) but never saw it; we know who he is today but can’t imagine him being any different before. Yet anyone changes before he becomes who he is, and any viewer will find a lot to chew on whenever he/she revisits this episode.
Q: “You will go on with your life with a real heart.”
Picard: “Then I won’t die.”
Q: “Of course you’ll die! It’ll just be at a later time.”
Picard: “What if I don’t avoid the fight? What if I won’t make the changes?”
Q: “Then you die on the table, and we spend eternity together.”
Q: “I’m glad you think so.”
“Birthright, Part I” / “Birthright, Part II”: Just OK
This is the weirdest of two-parters. There are two completely separate stories, the main one with Worf, which gives the episodes their title, and one with Data, which only takes place during Part I and is not touched upon at all during Part II. They had one story that was bigger than one episode and they couldn’t find a way to stretch the other story to a full episode so they just juxtaposed them together: you can tell it’s clumsy. They are only linked by Data and Worf looking for their fathers, but it’s a weak link. All previous two-parters did in fact feel like stories big enough for two parts, even when they were two independent stories stitched together, like with Chain of Command; Birthright does not feel this way at all. In addition, this is the first (and only) time TNG has two mid-season two-parters, which reinforces the impression that they are running out of ideas and trying to stretch their stories thinner.
But first, we have the Enterpise visiting Deep Space 9! And so until DS9 gets the Blu-Ray treatment (in 2023? in 2033?), this is the only place where you can see the DS9 station in HD, and it’s beautiful! I also met Dr. Bashir for the first time here, he looks quirky and interesting, looking forward for more.
The Data story involves him discovering that he can dream! He has flashes of a metal smith (his creator Dr Soong!) and a crow, and he obsesses about it and does plenty of paintings of his memories — interesting that dreams usher creativity in both humans and androids. The directing is also interesting, with longer lenses and flying shots, but not too dream-like either. Data investigates about dreams in plenty of human cultures, as dreams are a door to the subconscious and include symbolic imagery specific to each culture’s cultural references: here I found it interesting that Picard advised Data to look within instead of without: “You’re a culture of one, which is no less valid than a culture of one billion“, and Data’s subconscious and cultural references are specific to him. Ultimately, he learns he has unlocked a part of his programming that Dr. Soong had kept hidden until he would reach a higher level of computational complexity. This is surprising and very interesting! What else does this brain contain that Data does not know about? What will Data do with this new ability? Are there other chips in there, like the emotion chip from season 4’s Brothers, that will make him more human or even more super-human? The episode leaves you wondering: I expected the story to continue in Part II but no.
The main story has Worf getting word that his father might have survived Khitomer in hiding, a disgrace in this Klingon’s eyes; he follows the lead and discovers a prison of sorts, where Klingon prisoners of war willingly prefer to remain hidden instead of dishonoring their families, and have in fact created new families with children of their own. The Romulan wards present this as a utopian colony where the two races co-exist peacefully, and indeed Worf falls in love with a Romulan-Klingon hybrid, Ba’el — and is appalled when he finds out. Worf refuses to be a prisoner and stirs unrest among the younger generation, awaking their “nationalistic” feeling, telling them Klingon stories around a fire (literally!), practicing Klingon martial arts, doing ritual hunting, and eventually starting a rebellion. Part II is only Worf’s story, interrupted by unnecessary scenes where the Enterprise crew just wonders what happened to him. This whole story lacks some energy but also develops too quick; it manages to feel both longer and shorter than it should have been. It also leaves many open questions: Did Worf keep his word and kill the alien information broker since he found out that his father was not among the imprisoned Klingons? I was not sure whether Ba’el decided to leave the colony after all, thus tearing her family apart. It was interesting on paper but could have been executed better.
Overall, both these stories would have been better served if they had been their own independent episodes.
Picard: “Explore this image, Data. Let it excite your imagination. Focus on it, see where it leads you. Let it inspire you.”
Worf: “A place can be safe and still be a prison.”
James Cromwell is a great actor (and environmental activist), nearly unrecognizable under all this make-up (the alien information broker). He was also Zephram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact, George in Six Feet Under, Jack Bauer’s father in 24, and George Bush Sr in Oliver Stone’s W.!
Richard Herd, also under make-up (the leader of the Klingons), was the commander of the alien Visitors invasion fleet in the two V mini-series from the 1980s!
“Lessons”: Very good
Picard gets laid, again! He progressively falls for the head of stellar cartography Daren, a strong-willed woman who has a way of convincing others to have it her way and who shares with Picard her love of classical music. I love it that this show has fans of astrophysics and classical music! He even opens up to her with something very personal from him, the flute from The Inner Light! Although you know where this is going — she dies or she leaves — this doesn’t mean that the execution is impeccable. Actually, she dies and she leaves, as Picard has first to suffer remorse at potentially having her killed on duty before realizing that he has left his personal feelings interfere with his professional judgement; but she survived, and they separate on good terms knowing fully well that they won’t really keep their promise of maintaining a long-distance relationship. This is the cost of being a captain. You could argue that this is why Picard has resisted starting a relationship with Beverly Crusher — but then he does let himself go at Dr. Daren here! There are some hints of jealousy from Beverly, but the two don’t get a scene face to face to address the underlying tension. Maybe only in the series finale? In the meantime, characters have relationships on the side (Beverly in The Host, Riker with…many…) without letting go of the main relationship and without this being the end of the world, and this loose polyamory is great from Star Trek!
“The Chase”: Excellent
This is a classic high-concept sci-fi story, TNG hadn’t done one of those in a long while, which completely won me over thanks to its ideas. It starts slow, with Picard’s fancy of archeology (I love him!) with his old professor Galen, and after Lessons it’s nice to see him casually have breakfast with Dr. Crusher! And then it evolves into a futuristic Indiana Jones chase between multiple races to complete a four billion years old riddle that, no more no less, reveals the origin of dozens of sentient species! And the message was coded in DNA strands, these DNA strands also somehow mapped to star configurations as they were in the past, and also this genetic code somehow converted into digital code that could configure a device that did not yet exist when it was conceived and use it to project a recorded message! Each of several ideas in this episode would be sufficient to fuel a big feature film.
The revelation is staggering in how ambitious it is: an ancestral race guided the evolution of life in multiple worlds over billion of years in order to create sentient races that are all more or less alike, humanoids, all cousins! This means that evolution was not natural, it was guided, and not by God but by ancient aliens: intelligent design in panspermia. The philosophical and ontological repercussions of this discovery should be huge, normally this should change the societies and beliefs of all humanoid species in-depth, as Professor Galen anticipated. It’s a long-winded plan to explain why all aliens look like humans with make-up prosthetics, for sure.
But when the coded message is revealed, Klingons and Cardassians are disappointed it’s not a weapon of some sort. Only the Romulan representative shows some compassion after the fact, calling Picard and recognizing that they are not that different. That “perhaps, one day” holds incredible promise!
Picard: “Until we assemble it, we will never know its purpose.”
Gul Ocett: “He’s right. As far as we know it might just be a recipe for biscuits!”
“Frame of Mind”: Excellent
Riker finds himself trapped: is he being held captive in a mental institution by aliens, or is he crazy and his visions in a starship called Enterprise are a fantasy, or is he really on the Enterprise and his visions of the alien planet a sign he’s going crazy? Just when you think you know what’s going on, the episode goes one step further and explore its ideas to the fullest. Like with the holodeck-within-a-holodeck in Ship in a Bottle, the ending has multiple dreams/hallucinations breaking apart one after the other. An excellent episode for Jonathan Frakes! The alien psychologist was very convincing with his calm compassionate voice. While in the Enterprise, Riker has to be in a theatre play where he is indeed tortured and his sanity is put into question, which further increases the confusion in him. Whether it’s intentional or not, this part echoes Picard’s earlier experiences at the hands of the Cardassians in Chain of Command! And it is just as dark. This is much better than a previous Riker-in-a-simulation episode, season 4’s Future Imperfect. With all these mind games, I was reminded of the oldie-but-goldie series The Prisoner!
Data (to Riker): “Commander, I must congratulate you on your performance this evening. Your unexpected choice to improvise was an effective method of drawing the audience into the plight of your character. You gave a truly realistic interpretation of multi-infarct dementia.”
Susanna Thompson, the paranoid alien also imprisoned in the mental facility, was the NASA engineer Michelle Generoo in The X-Files‘ very 1990s episode Space!
“Second Chances”: Very good
Two Rikers for one Troi! A transponder buffer issue during an emergency evacuation years ago left a second Riker stranded there (or is “our” Riker the second one?). This was directed by LeVar Burton, another cast member behind the camera.
This episode really answers questions any Trek fan should have, and creates new ones. How does the transporter work? The original is scanned then destroyed, and a new body is recreated based on the information — à la The Prestige. Does the existence of a buffer mean that any scanned object can be stored indefinitely? Can anyone be recreated from any moment in their life when they used the transporter in the past, essentially meaning that it’s not a big deal if you die? Is the transporter like a replicator? Does that mean that there is no soul and we’re all just atoms structured in a specific pattern? Etc, etc. But I don’t think that was the point of the episode!…
This episode is for Riker what Tapestry was for Picard: to wonder about the path not taken. Could have things gone differently between Riker and Troi if he hadn’t given precedence to his career? Would Riker be Riker if he hadn’t made that decision? And on Troi’s side, would she take a Riker still devoted to him, even if the other Riker assures her that he will make the same decisions as he did? There are some soap opera elements here and it’s a type of story the writers are not accustomed to, so the dialogue is not the sharpest; plus, with Troi and Beverly discussing it it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test either. Even so, the themes are very interesting. I don’t think we ever got so much background on Riker and Troi’s past relation. There’s some self-loathing, with Riker and Riker that do not get along well at all. There’s a nice callback to season 2’s The Icarus Factor too, where Riker and his father somewhat resolved their issues. Same as with Lessons, the episode builds to a point where you expect that the death of the guest character will be the resolution, but surprises you by this not happening; and again the episode ends with a conscious choice to leave the Enterprise. “Thomas” Riker has some difficult times ahead of him, with no second Troi in his life and several years of “career gap” to catch up to. And Troi takes the decision to remain, not taking this second chance, as she has invested too much of herself in the Enterprise and its crew and this Riker; things between them are not as simple as “together” but they do share a lot. This is certainly a better ending than the original draft, which had “our” Riker die and “Thomas” Riker take his place!
“Timescape”: Absolutely excellent
In this episode, time is still, time goes forward, time goes backward, and nothing is as it seems. As Picard, LaForge and Troi return from a conference, they come across time dilations and an Enterprise time-frozen in an attack with a Romulan vessel, and everything is wrong: the Romulans are invading, the warp core is exploding, Riker and Crusher are hit or shot! For a large part of the episode we don’t quite know what’s going on nor how they will get out of this mess, the episode had really pulled me in. There’s some goofy humor too, with Picard drawing a smiley on the cloud from the exploding warp core, but that quickly turns into drama as Picard was losing his mind because of the localized time dilations.
It turns out that there are time-manipulating aliens feeding on the Romulans’ quantum singularity core, and that they are doing this in self-protection — what a far-out idea! Reminiscent of past Trek episodes like Home Soil. What I also like in this is the surprise that the Romulans are actually not the enemy here as initially assumed, they are genuinely cooperating with the Enterprise crew to be evacuated (unlike in the fake evacuation in The Next Phase). It’s been a few episodes now that the Romulans (or at least some of them) are presented in a good light — Unification, The Face of the Enemy, The Chase — and I wonder whether the show is heading towards a relaxing of the tensions.
It was written by Brannon Braga, who likes to experiment with time it seems (last year’s Cause and Effect, where the Enterprise also exploded!), and directed by Adam Nimoy (Leonard’s son)! This is a very strong science fiction adventure, classic Trek, perfectly paced and helped by the short time length of one episode. It is also bookended by Riker and his fear of Spot, Data’s cat!
The Romulan taken over by the time aliens was Michael Bofshever, who was Jesse Pinkman’s dad in Breaking Bad, and was prey to the devilish Lucy Butler in the Millennium episode Saturn Dreaming of Mercury!
“Descent, Part I”: Just OK
We come to the end of the season with an episode that promised big but has several issues. It is difficult to discuss this one without talking about the second one, since the first part is essentially one extended tease to the reveal at the cliffhanger. The Enterprise encounters a group of Borg that behave oddly, and it turns out they have Data’s brother Lore as their leader.
There is a whole first half here where Data experiences a feeling for the first time, anger, and wonders about his morality. (What about his hysterical laughter in season 3’s Deja Q?) If he were able to fully feel, he would indeed be more human, but would he be a better person or transform into a bad person? Do feelings complete someone, like most humans would say for their good feelings, or are they a bad influence that one must get rid of, like the idealized Vulcans? Such questions are at the core of Star Trek since the beginning. But then it all gets very simple when with the help of a “bad feelings transmitter” the Borg convinces Data to turn to the dark side within one minute.
Another nice aspect was the callback to I, Borg, an episode I found really interesting in what it tried to do with the Borg but that also simplified the Borg and made them much less threatening than the almost Lovecraftian horror of their first appearance in Q Who?. Here, Admiral Nechayev confronts Picard with his decision then not to take advantage of the situation to potentially exterminate all Borg and eliminate that threat; the moral debate in the viewer’s mind from I, Borg is something that really took place in Starfleet. As with Data, good and bad are juxtaposed to moral and immoral, and the lines are blurred: “It may turn out that the moral thing to do was not the right thing to do.” But what does the episode ultimately tell us about the goodness or morality of Picard’s decision on the Borg? We will only see in the next episode, as apart from the revelation about Lore there’s little more information here. This set up made me expect that the leader would be revealed to be Hugh from I, Borg, but that was not the case!
Then there is a number of questionable scenario decisions. The Borg escape through a wormhole and Geordi figures out in just ten minutes how to copy that super-advanced technology that allows them to travel ten times faster than their warp drive. The second half of the episode is an extended hunt for Data leading to the cliffhanger, with not much happening. On the hunt for Data, Picard decides that not only will he, the Captain, leave the ship, but also that nearly everybody will leave too, naming Crusher as acting Captain, a very weird decision; it seems this was motivated by the plan to have the Enterprise crash land on the planet, the titular “descent”, with Crusher (Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis had not yet signed for a seventh season!), but this was postponed to TNG: Generations. All of these little things point to writing that is not as sharp as it used to be, which is disappointing for a season finale.
Overall, this first half is an interesting attempt to do something new with the Borg and Data, but it leaves all the “meat” of the plot to the second half. It must have been a frustrating summer between seasons!
Around the poker table in the teaser there’s Data, holodeck Albert Einstein (same actor as in season 4’s The Nth Degree), holodeck Stephen Hawking (the very real Stephen Hawking!), and holodeck Isaac Newton (British actor John Neville, the unforgettable Syndicate elder Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files)!
From what I saw from season 6, there are some greatly enjoyable episodes but also signs that perhaps the TNG crew is getting tired. It might be just an overdose on my side as well, any viewer can grow tired of too much of a good thing, and 26 episodes are so much. There is a move towards double episodes when the story does not necessarily justify that length. There are many more episodes that focus on character rather than on story or science fiction or utopia; while in the early seasons that was in doses (season 2, The Icarus Factor) or fresh in its contrast with the rest (season 4, Family), here there is a lot of it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, we are far from a complete soap opera and the character episodes I saw were still good, but it does mark a change of focus that is often the sign that the writers are running out of original ideas. The season alternates between these character pieces that look back to the past for inspiration (Tapestry, Second Chances) and space adventures where the story is like the earlier seasons but where production values and pacing have reached their best level (The Chase, Timescape) and episodes that play with the nature of reality and identity (Schisms, Ship in a Bottle, Face of the Enemy, Frame of Mind).
It is a season of change: DS9 launched in parallel, and we have the O’Briens‘ last TNG appearance (Rascals), we have Worf change his hair to a much better ponytail (from Face of the Enemy), we have Troi letting go of her décolletés and finally wear a uniform (Jellico’s order in Chain of Command is never put into question!). Behind the scenes, plans are in motion to continue the TOS films with TNG films, and so to wrap up TNG as a series, although it was still not during season 6 whether TNG would end with next season or if it would continue with season 8 and beyond. We are in 1993, there is a host of tie-in novels and comics and figures, the franchise is bigger than any one person, and that means creativity must fight with business interests. It is with caution that I am approaching TNG’s season 7. One half impulse power.