Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: Evolution

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: September 25, 1989
49 of 176 produced
48 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is in the Kavis Alpha sector, preparing to observe a massive stellar explosion in a binary star system. Their task to assist a Dr. Paul Stubbs with his experiments. Meanwhile, Wesley Crusher is as busy as ever, working on specialized nanites for his latest science project, and adjusting to having his mother back aboard the Enterprise. Wesley is fascinated by Stubb's work, but perhaps there is a cautionary tale for him in seeing Stubbs' almost manic devotion to his work. When random and potentially catastrophic malfunctions begin to plague the Enterprise, Captain Picard must deal both with his increasingly disobedient ship and the fragile ego of Dr. Stubbs. How will the Enterprise handle this latest crisis? Is Wesley's experiment somehow related to the malfunctions?
Welcome to the era in which Trek's effects no longer deserve derision!


Kevin: "The Ensigns of Command" was filmed first, but this was chosen to air first, and it was the smart choice. Everything here feels like a season premiere. We'll get to the technical aspects in a minute, but even in storytelling, there are some subtle, but positive changes. Wesley has completed a transition from annoying prodigy to an actual person, albeit a gifted one. The Stubbs/Wesley subplot was really well handled, largely because they no one ever explicitly drew the comparison. The cautionary tale of what happens when you constantly try to best yourself was well acheived. It was nice to see Wesley come to his own realization about what kind of person he was or could become, with some oblique help from Guinan rather than an over-expository speech from Stubbs. The little notes of watching Wesley try to handle things on his own and snapping at Beverly were also great. They felt genuine, and this was always the early seasons' problem with Wesley's portrayal.

Matthew: The "evolution" in this tale is multifold. We have the sci-fi story of the evolution of artificial intelligence, which we'll get to. But as you say, it's Wesley's evolution that is central to the story. His sense of purpose evolves here, from "pleasing others" to "growing for myself." He sees Stubbs as a cautionary example of one who lives to "fulfill his potential," an inherently other-centered motivation, since potential and "wunderkind" status are decreed from without. His relationship with his mother also evolves, from one of adolescence to one of young adulthood.

Kevin: The science fiction is pretty good, and it's my favorite kind in Star Trek, the kind that works with and is part of the story, rather than tacked on or absent. I like the use of a binary star system, they are the most common type of system in the galaxy and the Old Faithful element was neat. The nanite story is pretty well done in my opinion. It built well from the teaser with Wesley's experiment, and unlike other instance of starship breakdown, the comedic ones were actually funny and the dangerous ones actually tense. I like the exploration of intelligence as an emergent quality, and the debate about what is life is always well received.

Matthew: The star system is just plain science, and I am also a big fan, especially since it was a dwarf star siphoning off material from a red giant, which is the beginning of type 1A supernovae. Yay, accurate science! The science fiction here is the nanites - not only a nice exploration of a currently theoretical machine that could change everything for humanity, but also a good way to ask whether intelligence be an emergent phenomenon of increasing numbers of rudimentary cells. At its heart, this is a very similar sci-fi tale to the earlier "Home Soil" and the later "Quality of Life." I think this is the best treatment of the three, purely as sci-fi, since the mechanism for the evolution of intelligence seemed more plausible.

Kevin: There were some lovely character moments all around that I think will come to define Season 3 on. The Crushers has some touching and genuine moments. Picard and Beverly talking about Wesley, particularly his line about Wesley being "his father's son" were really great. Wesley has some more great scenes with Stubbs and Guinan. They both served the story and developed his character.


Kevin: The main cast did an awesome job. All the little character moments, top to bottom, came off without a hitch. It was particularly nice to see Gates McFadden slip so easily back into sync with Picard and Wesley. Wil Wheaton is a good actor and, given credible non-scoffing dialogue, can really sell it. As always, Whoopi Goldberg's presence is comforting, the right mix of serious and comedy, and just the right amount of screen time.

Matthew: Stewart was great in his scene discussing Wesley. There's a richness here that wasn't present in previous scenes. He seems wistful, wishing that Wesley was his own child, and that he had with Beverly what Jack Crusher had. Gates McFadden is radiant in this episode. It's not just her hairdo (which is great) or her nifty cardigan (stylin'!), she radiates warmth and concern and also something like desire, a lust for life. This is a great Beverly episode, and the character rarely feels more real than here.
Welcome back, Beverly! We love you! PS, You are hot.

Kevin: Ken Jenkins is a great actor, and he really imbues Stubbs with a tension that is palpable. His delivery of the baseball speech is great. Michael Piller had to argue his case to Rodenberry to not make Stubbs and "alien of the week" in order to keep the baseball bit as a logical part of Stubbs character, and I'm glad he did. If nothing else, given that the character was described as a veneer of confidence of a well of insecurity, I think Jenkins actually portrayed that and gave him a little more depth than Officious Federation Bureaucrat of the Week.

Matthew: Stubbs is a tough role. The dude is a jerk, pure and simple. His exchange with Troi underscores that. But Jenkins treads a fine line playing him, and almost makes him sympathetic. Given the lines on the page, he plays it as well as anyone can. I wish there had been maybe one more scene establishing an underside, a secret pain, something. Dr. Daystrom in "The Ultimate Computer" is a similar character, and was given some sympathy by lines given to other characters, talking about his inability to live up to his first achievement. Something like that would have helped Stubbs out. Anyway, Jenkins does as well as he can, and deserved kudos.

Production Values

Kevin: The effects aren't really a central part of the episode, but they really sing. From the opening scene with the binary stars and the shot of the Enterprise immediately indicate that we have better effects this season. The lighting and texture on the Enterprise were crisp and gave the ship real depth and veracity. Having just watched Star Trek V, I can say the effects are already several notches above. The set for the computer core were also nifty. It implied technological advancement and a size to the room with few, economical set pieces.

Matthew: This is the first episode where I stopped and marveled at an effect for being gorgeous. The composition of the shot with the Enterprise and the binary stars was just lovely, and it looked realistic, instead of having that very "video toaster" feel to it (i.e. no dimensionality, jagged graphical edges, overly bright colors). In addition to visual effects, sets get upgrades. The shuttle bay earns a new upper level with a control room, making it feel like a real place, instead of just a room. The bridge gets some stylistic touch ups, including new seats under the main arch, a new carpet stripe, and some other little details. All in all, the visual look of the series takes a huge leap with Season 3.

Kevin: The changes to the uniforms are among my favorite changes this season. The wool makes them appear more like actual fabric, since they are. The higher collar combined with the more fitted shape make them appear more like uniforms and less like pyjamas. Especially on Picard, it just looks more..dignified. Among other changes I like are the nebula opening credits. The solar system was neat, but always looked like two dimensional pictures layered over a star field. All of the changes clearly indicate a higher quality of production from the word go, and it really sets the season off on the right foot.

Matthew: This season saw a change in head costumers from W.W. Theiss to Bob Blackman. Now look, we all love Bill Theiss, and his contribution to the franchise deserves recognition. But I think it's fair to say that the look of the first two seasons was a bit too "glitz" and "glam," at least in spots. For example:
Poor, poor Langor. She could have looked so much better. And narrower.

"Evolution" sticks out in that, suddenly, there is a much more "nineties" feel to the costumes, with muted, organic colors, textured fabrics, and a much more "ready to wear" aesthetic. Stubbs' suit is a perfect exemplar of this trend. It looks almost like something today's people would wear, it just has a few oblique angles to make it read "futuristic" on screen. On this topic, in searching form images, I found a very funny (but very slow loading) blog about TNG fashion.


Kevin: This gets a four from me. It's not the most bombastic of episode, but that's almost why I like it so much. It shows that an episode can be truly thoughtful in terms of both science fiction and character development and make a solid, well-executed show. Its quiet competence is a nice harbinger for things to come. Without knocking season 2, I still say TNG truly comes into its own in this season, and all the reasons why are nicely encapsulated in this episode. Well done, all around.

Matthew: I think this is a 4. It works on so many levels. It also portends great things from TNG in general, and Michael Piller in particular. Principal characters seem like real people and grow in real ways. Science and sci-fi are both present and done well. The guest star seems like a real person, despite being kind of a douche. It may not be a sweeping and ambitious as some of TNG's greatest highlights. But it's quietly above average in all three of our categories. That brings our total to an 8.


  1. Loved how the fit Baseball into Trek and mocked those who find it too slow!!!

  2. It's really the perfect marriage. There are plenty of poltroons out there who think Star Trek is too slow, too.

    I can just imagine JJ Abrams in a meeting, discussing how to make baseball "cooler" with rockets, chase scenes, lens flare, and explosions.