Greatest TV Seasons: Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Five (1991-1992)
What is the greatest season of your favourite TV series? And what makes it stand out from those seasons around it? Every fan will have their own opinion of what is great and what isn't and here at The Digital Fix, our team of writers are going to complete the possibly impossible task of selecting what season of their favourite shows makes the cut above all others.
We recently looked at the mighty fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and now we continue our Greatest TV Seasons regular features with a look at its elder sibling Star Trek: The Next Generation.
For nearly 60 years, the crew of the Enterprise and other sundry vessels have been boldly... well, you know what they’ve been doing and how they’ve been doing it. Nearly 60 years of adventures, some thought provoking, some dumb, some funny and some straight up weird. Everyone has their favourite episodes and characters; perhaps you’re an original series fan and love Amok Time or maybe you’re more into Lessons and watching Picard learn flute with his new girlfriend? It’s hard to pin point what is the best season of Star Trek when split across the seven series (and more to come) and 53 years but I’m going to attempt to highlight what might be the strongest season in what might be the strongest series of Star Trek- Star Trek: The Next Generation, season five.
Back in the day when American TV seasons ran for, well, a full season, you’d get 22-26 episodes of your favourite series split across six months. For a fan of these American imports, that was a good helping of TV throughout the year. Sometimes, if you were lucky, the delay with the UK initially getting a US show would work in your favour, causing a little back up of episodes and season one might run straight into season two! Twelve months of solid episodes!
There was a lot of expectation for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek (TOS) (despite only having three seasons and a short animated series) was an entertainment phenomena, with massive boots to fill. In 1987 the Star Trek films were huge box office draws and taking on the likes of Kirk and the gang seemed a thankless task. But faster than Data could programme a warp core modification the new show and characters became part of the fabric of fandom. Mike Myers as Wayne Campbell once used Star Trek: The Next Generation as an allegory for sparkling wine v champagne; “…In many ways it's superior but will never be as recognised as the original.”
There are a lot of great episodes across Star Trek: The Next Generation's seven season run. Some truly excellent pieces of television and very few stinkers (Beverly’s affair with a grandma shagging ghost!) and even the weakest episodes are great entertainment imbued with the core Star Trek values and conventions. It’s hard, really, to outright say which is THE BEST season as each season contains at least one of THE BEST episodes. But based on sheer volume of great episodes, as well as consistency of good second and third tier episodes and character development and world building, I think season five just beats out the rest. Season six is a close second with episodes like A Fistful of Datas and Tapestry which make it to a lot of people’s top episode lists, but five has underrated gems like A Matter of Time and Ethics.
Season five has some absolute stonkers. Yes, it opens with the lacklustre part two of Redemption and ends with the charming but not especially exciting part one of Time’s Arrow. They really never quite recaptured the mavic of season three's finale cliffhanger of Best of Both Worlds - and while that cliffhanger paved the way for the superb season four episode Family, season five has I, Borg it has Darmok and The Outcast (which really should be in the top five as its such a strong attempt to tackle non-binary sexuality within network confinements using one of the most sexually prominent characters but damn it, I don't have enough space!) And of course it has The Inner Light. As a hardcore Star Trek fan I can’t really pin my flag to any one season as being THE BEST but I’d like to stake my case for why this comes close.
Before I list off my top five, I’d like to give honorable to Ensign Ro, as both an episode and character. She injects something perhaps missing form the series at this point and helps guide the franchise towards some of its more interesting plot beats in the future. Hero Worship (directed by Patrick Stewart) is also a very sweet story that sprigs to mind in season five. A young boy, Timothy, rescued by the Enterprise after his own family and crew have been killed, is terrified of the aliens that attacked his crew. Timothy only trusts Data and throughout the episode Timothy starts to emulate Data as a coping mechanism to deal with loosing everyone from his ship. It’s a nice, bittersweet story showing the contrast of a child trying to remove emotions to deal with a trauma coupled with that of Data, who hopes his experience with Timothy will help him better understand the emotions he finds so elusive. Its especially tragic when we find out that Timothy believes he caused the death of his crew. And lest not forget, not only do we only have to deal with a lttle bit of Wesley this season, we get a break from Q. As much as I love Q and all his episodes, its nice to break from the formula, just a little.
My reasons for this being the best season are based more on the overreaching consistency in quality of the season, with that being said, here are my top five episodes of season five:
This is without doubt one of the most Star Trek episodes in all Star Trek. It feeds into its core values and concepts as a show, with the message behind this story being one of simple communication to bring different peoples together. Stranded on a planet with the captain from a new species who speaks only in allegorical prose (and therefore impossible for the universal translator to decode the language) Picard simply has to listen and learn in order to communicate.
It’s a profound narrative that shows us the lengths Picard will go to as a captain and ambassador. We see Riker and the crew struggling to get to grips with the Tamarian captains crew above the planet, with no one knowing what’s going on it’s a great contrast - and while Riker is never really set up as wrong, his reactions to the situation are more conventional. It takes Picard to really get to grips with the situation. When he and the Tamarian captain need to protect each other against a dangerous beast on the planet, communication finally becomes possible, with the Tamarian showing himself willing to die for the cause of communication and piece. Its touching, moving, thought provoking and excellently acted and rightly takes its place in most people’s top list.
Temba, his arms wide.
5.07, 5.08 Unification (parts 1and 2)
So, a bit of a cheat, as these are two episodes and both are actually quite different. Part one is actually probably the better of the two, with the focus being on the, erm, search for Spock who may have defected to the Romulans. We get a lot of Sarek in this episode and get to explore the ideas of Vulcan senility and the loss of emotional control, a strong theme across all of Star Trek.
In many ways the journey – in this case, looking for Spock – is more fun than the destination and part two isn’t as dynamic an episode as part one but part two, is all Spock. We all get to squee with excitement when Spock likens Picard to Kirk and watching these greats of the franchise interact was always going to be a highlight of the Trek universe. The story also, in hindsight, did became part of the groundwork for the 2009 reboot movies as well as, from the looks of it, elements of the upcoming Star Trek: Picard series. Part two is also the episode that carries a tribute to Gene Roddenberry, who had recently died, making it a doubly poignant episode.
5.19 The First Duty
The First Duty is an excellent episode that takes us back to Earth and Starfleet Academy as Wesley Crusher is investigated for his part in an accident that caused the death of another student. It’s a strong story that examines the behavior and character of the Enterprise’s Golden Boy. Wesley is shown to have behaved impetuously and selfishly and now refuses to do what is right but covering up his and his classmates’ involvement in the accidental death and while he does, of course, eventually do the right thing its ne of the few occasions a character’s actions have lasting consequences on the show. Not just for the character but for how we perceive the character.
The scenes where Picard chastised Wesley, shouting at him even, are a highlight of the episode and Wesley’s entire character arc. Like many, I’m not a Wesley fan and a big part of what makes him so annoying is constantly being told how exceptional he is. To now see Picard angry with Wes, disgusted by him even, is not only satisfying from the viewpoint of wanting him to experience his comeuppance, it also allows for genuine depth and development; Wesley isn’t interesting until the other characters see his fallibility.
5.23 I Borg
I Borg builds on the exploration of the Borg and our understanding of how they operate; it's an episode that not only continues the ideas presented by Picard’s assimilation and escape from the Borg, it lines things up for the later introduction of Seven of Nine (and now, it would seem, the imminent Star Trek: Picard series). Seeing other Borg capable of leaving the Collective actually help us understand that Picard wasn’t some kind of super hero, it also changes our perception of who the Borg are - it’s not so easy to see them being killed when you know they can be cured. The Borg of the story is soon named (Hugh )and makes friends with the crew of the Enterprise, especially Geordi.
A lot of the story focuses on the what is love? trope of robots and androids trying to process their own existence. The greater moral question comes when Picard, who is anger abut his own assimilation, wants to use Hugh to ‘poison’ the Collective by returning him to the Borg with a programmed virus. But after a chat with Guinan, Picard offers Hugh asylum in the Federation. The tragedy comes when Hugh decides to return to the collective to protect his new friends, especially Georde with whom he develops a strong bond. Its later hoped that Hugh’s individualism will feed into the Collective and perhaps, allow more Borg to un-assimilate. Several storylines explored in Star Trek; Voyager (and a later episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation suggest that this plan worked.
5.25 The Inner Light
And that brings us to the unassuming filler episode, a Picard centric story dropped casually towards the end of the season; The Inner Light. Now of course there will be those dissenters who tell you they don’t really like The Inner Light, the same way some ‘too cool for schoolers’ reckon The Wrath of Khan is over rated or Tom Baker was the worst Doctor. But there is a reason The Inner Light shows up in most Star Trek fans top ten (usually top five if not the top spot itself).
It's a superb piece of television with a top of his game performance and some excellent writing. The episode isn’t concerned with tricking the audience into believing Picard’s new life is real nor is it interested in showing him fighting against this fake life. Instead, he settles into it and we start to learn about and care for Kamin, to such an extent we feel loss at his and his people’s extinction and we feel loss at Picard’s own loss, as he looses a life so real yet so unattainable for him. By this point in the show and in the lives of these characters we the audience know, just as Patrick Stewart knows, exactly who Picard is. To see that thrown upside down, to see it switched like this only works because we know the characters so well and I’d argue you couldn’t have done that episode - and have it been so effective - earlier or later in the show’s run. Too soon and we don’t know Picard well enough and too late and it feels like a gimmick so Sir Pat can do some old man acting. But it sits, perfectly at the end of a near perfect series. The closing scene of Picard, in his quarters on the Enterprise clutching the flute he learned to play during his life as Kamin is one of the most lasting moments of the entire franchise and if you can hear Jay Chattaway’s flute melody without a tear in your eye, well then you’re just dead inside.
Season five is maybe not the flashiest or the sexiest season of Star Trek: The Next Generation but it’s definitely one of the most Star Trekiest.
Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below...