Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 4 Review
Paramount’s rapid release strategy means that Season 4 is with us already. Price not withstanding, I must congratulate Paramount on the releases being quick and painless. No release dates have been missed and very little controversy has been generated. As you will know I am a huge TNG fan and have been waiting for these sets with bated breath. So now let’s see what season 4 has in store for us.
This season has a lot to live up to, as Season 3 was an absolute triumph with very few low points. Fortunately for the first time ever the writing/creative team seemed settled. The writing staff issues and lack of scripts that plagued the first 3 seasons were all but over. Michael Piller was asked and accepted a longer contract to continue leading the writing staff through Season 4. Roddenberry’s influence continued to wane as Berman took the driving seat. The writing staff was relatively unchanged with Ronald D. Moore returning whilst Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga were added.
Not only did the writing staff and production crew remain stable for Season 4, the cast also remained the same for the first time. Wil Wheaton did leave the series part way through but this was a natural progression for his character (leaving for the Academy) and he did return for several guest appearances in later seasons. Not only did we see the cast and crew remain virtually unchanged but we also welcomed back a few familiar faces. Amongst others Susie Plakson returns as K’Ehleyr, Jennifer Hetrick reappears as Vash and to remain spoiler free I won’t explicitly mention the other important returning character who provides a good jolt to the Season.
Now that they had a good 74 episodes under their belt the cast was well established and the characters seemed comfortable without exception. The majority of awkward and wooden performances of the earlier seasons were all but forgotten. Stewart and Spiner as usual lead from the front with faultless performances. However LeVar Burton and especially Michael Dorn were snapping at their heels with some excellent work here. Meanwhile Sirtis had finally settled down and her histrionics were a distant bad memory whereas Frakes was beginning to come into his own building on his excellent work in Season 3 with episodes like Best of Both Worlds Part 2. Ironically enough Wil Wheaton does his best work in this Season and the character of Wesley is the least irritating I have ever seen him. His final episode as a regular, appropriately named “The Final Mission”, is a great episode for him to bow out with and he shows real maturity as an actor when tackling it. Finally Gates McFadden still irritates me but I feel this maybe due to my dislike of the wishy washy character Beverly Crusher. She has a chance to shine in “The Host” but this episode is one of the few poorer ones in the season.
This stability in the cast and crew shows through in the quality of the episodes. The two main features of season 4 are easy to spot. Firstly it is the season of sequels with many guest stars making return appearances. Secondly it is quite obvious that the show is heading towards a more character-based formula (Piller mentions this in the extras). Both of these combine to make the season feel homely whilst developing the characters more than any other season. Due to the lack of behind-the scenes shenanigans I will cover a few more selected episodes than usual in this review.
The season starts off with an impossible task (Michael Piller’s words), how to end Best of Both Worlds and defeat the Borg. Michael Piller wrote the first part thinking that he was quitting the program and therefore leaving the problem to another writer. His return meant that he had to solve the unsolvable and he hadn’t a clue how to do it. Unfortunately this shows, as the conclusion of this cliffhanger was a bit of a damp squib. There were some wonderful character moments for Riker but the resolution seemed very weak and unbelievable (even for Star Trek). Not a great start to Season 4 by any stretch.
Fortunately the series immediately bounced back with the superlative “Family”. This is the only episode of TNG to be filmed without a single scene on the Enterprise bridge. Due to repairs being made to the Enterprise the crew get a much-needed rest after their encounter with the Borg. Picard visits his Brother at his family’s vineyards in France. Worf on the other hand is visited by his human foster parents whilst Dr. Crusher and Wesley have an encounter with her dead husband, Jack Crusher. The three stories are interwoven for the entire runtime and whilst they may appear slight they are fantastic character pieces. The impact of the Borg experience on Picard is obvious and moving despite being underplayed by Stewart for the most part. This is definitely one of the highlights of Season 4.
The first of many returning favourites appears in “Brothers”. Data seemingly malfunctions and manages to take control of the Enterprise whereupon he sets course for a distant planet. The subsequent appearance of Lore is a surprise to everyone concerned and Spiner is fantastic here playing three different roles. Unfortunately there is a weak B story tacked on to try and instil some sense of danger, a bit more work here would’ve made this the perfect episode.
The next episode with a returning character is “Remember Me” although the Traveller has a minor part to play. This is one of the first mind-bending ideas that normally spring from the pen of Brannon Braga (This one comes from Lee Sheldon). Beverly Crusher is present during an unsuccessful warp field experiment. After this event members of the crew vanish and no one remembers them except Crusher herself. The plot is a clever one and McFadden puts in her best performance here (for once she didn’t wind me up).
The “sequels” come thick and fast, as “Reunion” is the next one in the series. Susie Plakson returns as K’Ehleyr providing us with two great stories that have to be squeezed into 44 minutes. Firstly the Klingon Leader has been poisoned and a new successor must be chosen. This sets up the story arc that continues through to the cliffhanger “Redemption”. The second is a consequence of Worf’s last intimate meeting with K’Ehleyr. Dorn gets a chance to shine brightly in this episode and he grabs it. Episodes exploring the Klingons and their culture are always welcome and this one is no exception.
“Data’s Day” is my next choice and this gives us a wonderful insight into the life of Data and his shipmates. Presented as a sort of narrated diary this episode is also notable for giving Chief O’Brien a first name and developing his character more than the previous 84 episodes ever did (This is continued in “The Wounded”). Again this is an excellent character piece like “Family” and shows how much TNG has grown in 4 years.
“Devil’s Due” is a delightful little piece, which shows the comedy that only TNG can provide. A god, Ardra, has returned to claim the planet of Ventax III, which she saved from pollution and war. Of course this “God” is not what she seems and via some excellent legal and amusing interplay between Picard and Data (who is the judge) we get some great comic moments, which are always welcome amongst the heavier episodes.
“Redemption” provides us with our Season 4 cliffhanger and follows on from “Reunion” earlier in the season. This covers a civil war that is breaking out amongst the Klingons due to the unpopular choice of Gowron as the Klingon leader. The Duras family is naturally involved which in turn involves Worf who makes a surprising decision before the end of the season. Also a return character makes an unexpected and spectacular appearance. Whilst this isn’t a patch on “The Best of Both Worlds” cliffhanger it certainly sets up an interesting wait for Season 5.
Looking back over my chosen episodes I seem to have missed out a lot. However whilst space is unlimited, my time and your patience probably isn’t. I haven’t covered some of the outstanding episodes like Q and Vash’s return in the sublime Qpid (I protest… I am not a Merry Man!”), the dramatic “Drumhead” featuring a tour de force display of acting by Patrick Stewart and Jean Simmons and a touching development of Data in “In Theory”. By the same token there are a few weaker episodes that haven’t been mentioned. The Host is a weak Crusher based story and more unfortunately “Identity Crisis” gives Geordi La Forge some much needed character development, however the story and execution are hopelessly weak.
Given the hit to miss ratio of this season I can’t give it anything less than 10. It is easily on a par with its immediate predecessor and fully deserves the accolades I’m heaping on it. The question is whether Seasons 5, 6 and 7 can keep up the quality through to the end. Star Trek fans of course will have their opinions already worked out for this whilst the rest will have to wait and see. Fortunately due to Paramount’s release schedule we won’t have to wait long (All three will be out before the end of the year).
The main problem with my reviews is not how to write so much about TNG (this is a pleasure and relatively simple for me) but how to find new ways of describing the discs themselves. This is actually a huge complement to Paramount who have ensured that each set fits in perfectly amongst the others with a similar look and feel throughout. Following the rainbow colour theme we have a green tinted set this time (Blue, Indigo and Violet still to come). The box is well constructed whilst the green shade is suitably muted. The digipack and discs conform with previous sets and keep the green theme. The episode listing is in its usual place inside the cover of the box detailing the contents of each disc. The foldout sheet inside gives the episodes in alphabetical order along with a short paragraph about Q and his return in Qpid.
As is customary the LCARS system menu has undergone yet another subtle change. The intro shows pictures from season 4 and the episodes are again listed top to bottom but with different graphic designs.
There is not a huge amount to report here as differences between this and season 3 are minimal but gratifying. The picture is resolutely 4:3 non-anamorphic as it should be and the print is free from damage. The aliasing and shimmering in the space based effects shots seems to have almost vanished whilst the irritating colour bleed seems much reduced this time round. Overall the picture is fairly sharp (surprising given the director of photography’s penchant for a softer look) and this is certainly the best-looking season so far.
If I find it difficult to say new things about the picture then it is almost impossible to say anything about the sound. The 5.1 mix is as good and as subtle as the previous seasons. I still have a nostalgic yearning for the original stereo mix so I am glad it is present. .
Whilst I thought that the extras were getting stuck in a rut last time they seem to have thrown us a couple of different features this time although the extras are all short featurettes as before.
Season 4 Mission Overview. This featurette runs for 16-minutes and is split into 5 distinct sections. The first couple cover how Michael Piller solved the Best of Both Worlds problem and the subsequent fallout episode, “Family”. During the latter of these he explains why Star Trek has a “reset switch” and no plot arc over the season (until DS9 that is). The piece on “Reunion” also covers the story arc and the development of Worf. It is here that we see the first confirmation that Piller is very fond of characterisation. The next section covers Qpid and the return of Vash with a welcome interview with Jennifer Hetrick (shot recently). Finally there is a delightful little piece of archive footage covering the 100th episode celebrations including on set interviews with a few of the stars. The saddest part of this is seeing and hearing Roddenberry as it is fairly obvious that he is now a frail old man. The one thing I take away from this whole featurette is a real sense of family amongst the cast and crew.
Selected Crew Analysis. As opposed to previous releases this 17-minute section spends the majority of its time on one cast member, Wesley Crusher. This is understandable as he leaves the Enterprise in season 4. This is actually a very nice piece that includes interviews with Stewart and Wheaton (both recent and archive) and this shows a great working relationship between the two. Stewart even mentions that the fans didn’t like Wesley because he saved the ship too much! The rest of the featurette is devoted to two further characters. Sirtis tries to explain that she didn’t mind being sidelined for most of the time and explains her fear of heights (fascinating). Finally Vash is explored again (see previous featurette) in a very superficial way. However her anecdote regarding a faulty tricorder is very funny.
Departmental Briefing – Production. This 17-minute piece covers two main areas… direction and makeup. Frakes discusses his return to the director’s chair for Reunion and Drumhead. His memories of Jean Simmons are a delight and he always sounds like a very enthusiastic and committed director. Patrick Stewart briefly discusses his directorial debut with “In Theory” but he never sounds as committed as Frakes. Finally David Livingston relates his great story of how he switched from Producer to Director. The Makeup section is very interesting with extensive interviews with Michael Westmore. Behind the scenes footage of makeup application are included as we see Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn being transformed. This section also covers the full body makeup used in Identity crisis for Geordi and two KLOS radio DJ’s! Finally there is a short discussion on Stewart’s makeup up for Best of Both Worlds part 2.
New Life and New Civilizations. This rather short 13-minute piece is a new general featurette that covers two main areas. The first is exterior location work. Episodes such as “Family”, “Final Mission” and “The Survivors” are dealt with and their exterior locations are explained. The fusion between real world and matte painting is fascinating. The second section covers the ship graveyard and Borg cube destruction in “Best of Both Worlds II”. This featurette feels very light and doesn’t really hit any great heights.
Chronicles From the Final Frontier. This time we get 5 featurettes, not 4! This final 18-minute featurette is one of the best as it covers the writing process surrounding TNG. Three main script-writers are covered Ronald D. Moore, Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga. The last two are brought in purely because they are new and Jeri Taylor imparts some great information regarding Michael Piller’s focus for the show. This section covers the writing of several season 4 episodes and the ideas surrounding them. Braga himself is surprisingly open and he explains how the Trek fans regard him as the anti-Christ because he admitted that he came to the show without having watched a single episode (Best of Both Worlds was his first). He also relates his meetings with Gene Roddenberry although I am sure his detractors will claim he is lying (such is their hatred). The other amusing anecdote is the reaction from Ronald D. Moore to the idea of Denise Crosby’s latest return. She came to them and pitched the idea and Moore’s initial reaction was “That’s Insane!” (Trust me it’s funny when you see it).
After setting itself a high standard in Season 3 it was gratifying to see Season 4 match it. The disc package is as good as ever with a slightly improved picture (again) and great sound. The extras are longer this time (81-minutes all told) and seem to have slightly more depth than the last set (my calls for commentaries are probably in vain though). All in all this is a must-buy for the Trekker’s amongst us and for those who regard it as a geek’s domain? It’s your loss…