Thursday, July 7, 2011

TNG Season 3 Recap


TNG Season Three rockets off to a stellar beginning with the return of Dr. Crusher and a spate of nifty effects shots in Evolution. But things get better still as this season busts out highlight after highlight. Let's break it down, Treknobabble style!

Do cuffs and collars match? Well, they do in Yesterday's Enterprise...

Matthew's Thoughts

OK, so, this season seems like an obvious jump in quality over the previous two. The question is, why? And the answer ought to be something more interesting than "the writing is better." I think there is an across the board "gelling" of all the salient factors that tend towards producing good episodes.

Take "Evolution," for instance. Here is an episode which isn't an action spectacle or even a real mind-bender. But the writers take a concept, nanotechnology; build a story around it, errant nanites endanger a science experiment; work in real and credible stellar science; tell a good character story revolving around Wesley growing up and his mother returning; and nail guest casting in Dr. Stubbs. They even work in a baseball reference!

My point is, previous seasons might have gotten one element right at the expense of the others. In this season, stories are just that much stronger and more cohesive, guest casting is much steadier, and main principal acting gets stories that play to their strengths.

Speaking of guest casting, I'm just going to list some characters from this season:

Ken Jenkins as Paul Stubbs in Evolution
Kathryn Leigh Scott as Nuria in Who Watches the Watchers
James Sloyan as Alidar Jarok and Andreas Katsulas as Tomalak in The Defector
Chris McDonald as Castillo and Tricia O'Neil as Captain Garrett in Yesterday's Enterprise
Hallie Todd as Lal in The Offspring
Charles Cooper as K'mpec and Tony Todd as Kurn in Sins of the Father
Jennifer Hetrick as Vash in Captain's Holiday
Dwight Schultz as Reginald Barclay in Hollow Pursuits
Saul Rubinek as Kivas Fajo in The Most Toys
Mark Lenard as Sarek in Sarek
Elizabeth Dennehy as Shelby and George Murdock as J.P. Hanson in The Best of Both Worlds.

I mean, holy crap! Not only is this a list of great episodes, but one just has to marvel at the quality of the guest acting here. Each of the above performances stands out as a memorable, funny, affecting, creepy, or impressive character. The casting directors on the series have really hit their stride, and the writers have hit their stride in creating great roles that don't completely overrun their episodes.

Kevin's Thoughts

Whereas the virtue of season 2 was a jump in consistency not seen in season 1, the hallmark of this one is a quality not seen in either of the previous seasons. I agree with you Matthew that it is not just a jump in writing, but I think the biggest jump is in that field. We started to get more character focused stories. If the conflict isn't going to derive from the guest of the week, it has to derive from the crew we have, and this season did a far better job, even in episodes where that was not the focus per se, of displaying how the crew interrelates to each other. I think a lot of credit for that goes to Piller and Berman, who to varying degrees dug in their heels with Rodenberry on things that were important to them. A great example is the Stubbs character in Evolution. Rodenberry initially wanted an alien, and Piller stuck to his guns to save the baseball references. If Rodenberry's tenure has one straight up flaw, it's the prohibition of character conflict. The show jumped immeasurably in quality when the crew could have stories with each other.

I wouldn't say the main cast acting jumped in quality per se, but it was better showcased. Patrick Stewart's natural charm plays much better than his curmudgeonly Frenchman did. Riker is much more laid back, and it not only suits the actor, it provides for some awesome character development culminating in BoBW. Other characters actually get moments in the sun, like Geordi in Booby Trap or Worf in Sins of the Father. They proved they could not only keep the focus of the show, but that their characters were more than their occupations. Also, with the increased familiarity, came increased comfort by the actors in how they played scenes with each other. Picard/Crusher and Riker/Troi spring to mind where even if the writing forgets their relationship, the actors certainly didn't, and it reads really well. It elevates ordinary dialogue. As for the guest stars, even ones in weaker episodes, like Tin Man, we still liked and thought they did the best they could with what they were given.

The special effects also saw a spike in quality this season. Not only were they better in terms of raw quality, I think they were better used as well. The planets look MUCH better, which is a difference that doesn't directly impact a given episode, but it does make the season as a whole feel stronger. The Enterprise model also has more detail, like the more textured hull, and it makes even transition shots look awesome.

Maybe the best way to summarize season 3 is that everything felt more "real." The character interactions were more organic. The conflicts were more natural. Even the uniforms looked more like something a real organization would wear. We've all extolled the quality of the Star Trek universe to feel like a real place, and this season does the most both in terms of writing and appearance to give credence to that idea.


Matthew: This is the first time it's gotten really difficult separating out highlights and favorites. There are just so many! I think there are four (count 'em four!) legitimate contenders for best show of the season.

Deja Q is a wonderful Q episode. It is frequently hilarious, especially Q's interactions with Guinan, but also tells an interesting sci-fi story of an omnipotent being humbled, and the repurcussions for his human acquaintances.

Yesterday's Enterprise is a spectacular sci-fi alternate universe tale mixed with a stellar action episode. And not only is the alternate history brain-bendingly pleasant, but we also get stellar performances, great guest cast, and the return of Tasha Yar!

The Best of Both Worlds is generally viewed by fans as the peak of the season, and the series as a whole. As I say, I like other shows a little better, but BoBW can't be denied as far as tension, excitement, and pure gripping entertainment value go.

Hollow Pursuits is my personal favorite of the season. It tells a great sci-fi story - what would people really do with a holodeck? It also introduces a wonderful character in Barclay, finally showing us someone in the future who is not super-heroic.

Shall we... have at them?!?

But the greatness of this season isn't limited to these four shows, either. There are just so many highlights, even among "quieter" episodes.

Who Watches the Watchers finally tells a good "prime directive" story, showing us a bronze-age culture that is secretly under observation by Federation anthropologists, leading to a great quandary - should we sacrifice ourselves to preserve another culture?

Captain's Holiday mixes a fun time travel story revolving around the Tox Uthat (perhaps the ultimate Trek MacGuffin) that also gives Picard an Indiana Jones style romance with a fun femme fatale.

The Most Toys is a creepy thriller revolving around Data's kidnapping by a sociopathic collector of rarities. The guest casting here is superb.

I really truly could go on and on. I've missed a few obvious ones, but I'm going to leave them for Kevin to extol.

Kevin: I think you've pegged the best of the best pretty well, but in terms of other favorites, I would have to add:

The Offspring: The conflict with the Admiral is artificial, but who really cares? Scene after scene are charming and quietly moving. I still get choked up when Beverly wonders aloud why she finds it hard to believe Data is incapable of giving his daughter love.

The Defector. Awesome guest stars in Sloyan and Katsulas, and its easily one of, if not the, best Romulan stories in the franchise. Take notes, JJ. This is how it's done. The personal and political dramas interplay really well, and the tension and resolution in the final scene is just plain kick ass.

Sarek. Mark Lenard's performance alone makes this episode, but I'm going to find the Vorgons, go back in time, and hide Patrick Stewart's Emmy for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series on Risa, so one day, he'll find it and then have the award he so richly deserves. I'm still blown away he could deliver the mind meld scene in one go several times over the course of a day.

The Sins of the Father. This is a personal favorite of mine, as I love the Ron Moore Klingons and stories about them. We get a pretty well-paced political thriller and character development out the wazoo for Worf. And Tony Todd, who is awesome. And tall. Very tall. Couple it with that matte painting of Qo'nos I would give my eyeteeth for, and you have a top notch episode.

I'm really just going to end up listing 80% of the episodes in season 3, aren't I? I'm going to stop now. If I had to pick an outright favorite, it would probably be Yesterday's Enterprise. The science fiction is awesome; it does time travel with an awesome (and lasting) twist. The character modifications and interactions really sing. The episode has it all, and it's still gripping after twenty years.



Even the best of seasons has a stinker here or there. And, as usual, one of the main suspects is Lwaxana Troi. Sigh. These episodes are marked by a lack of follow through. Most of them actually have the germ of a good story within, but suffer from poor development.

Transfigurations is a half-baked snoozer. We keep getting teased about a romance between Crusher and John Doe, a jealous Picard, and a senses-shattering evolution to a higher being. We get none of it. Very frustrating.

The High Ground could have been really good, telling a tough tale about terrorism from Trek's sci-fi perspective. Instead, we get a toothless and preachy bore-fest in which no hard points are really made.

Tin Man is another near miss. It's got a slam-bang sci-fi concept with its space-borne "whale." But the writing fails to raise the stakes at crucial moments, leading to a somewhat perplexing swing and miss. It isn't saved by an otherwise good guest star, either.

Menage A Troi is not a near miss. It's an unmitigated disaster. A weak story, a grating turn by the guest star, and a total whiff on the Riker/Troi romance make this one a skippable dud in my book.

Found on some random person's flickr account.

Kevin: I think you've definitely summed the worst, and even then, with the exception of Menage a Troi, would you really rate any of these as The Worst? TNG's lowest points (Code of Honor and Angel One) are certainly behind us, and it says something about a season when it's weak points are good ideas that falter in execution rather than merely bad ideas. I might add Vengeance Factor, The Bonding, or The Hunted that were basically okay, but stopped short of being really stellar because of mediocre conflict resolutions.


First, some data:

Kevin: I didn't realize season 3 would score an average of 7 until I assembled the chart for the blog post. That's really amazing. I think the score is well earned, to be sure. It's just a jump from the margins around 6.0 that the previous TNG seasons have scored. The highest we gave a TOS season was 6.8 for season 1. TNG won't surpass the TOS total number of episodes until next season's "Legacy," but it definitely pat itself on the back for hitting the ball out of the park more often.

Matthew: What stands out for me is the run of episodes 13-23. Nothing dips below a 6 total, and most everything stays in 7-10 range. It's just a super-strong run of shows, one we mentioned several times while podcasting. There are some discs in this season that have 4 extremely strong shows on them - making them good "lending" candidates. Or burning and lending, as the case may be.

And now some pretty, pretty graphs:

Kevin: As you can see, the bell curve gets a pleasant bump to the right this season. This is the first season where the great number of episodes are in the 8 column instead of the six, and there were only two episodes below a five this time around. The season comparison chart is pretty illuminating, and backs up our general descriptions of the seasons. Season 1 has a lot of okay episodes, but wild swings in both directions. Season 2 is far more evenly distributed, a more of more consistent writing, and Season 3 is the one ring to rule them all, no two ways about it. It should be interesting to see how season 4 compares.

Matthew: Yeah, season One shows the most consistent statistical distribution. Which indicates that it is, pretty much, an average television show. I imagine most seasons of Friends, Three's Company, or Law and Order would show a similar distribution. Season 2 shows fewer lows, but not the dizzying heights, so it bumps up closer to average (I had it at 3.18, you had it at 3.04, for a total of 6.22). Season Three is the sort of season that enters shows into the "fondly remembered" category. A big skew towards 4 ratings from the both of us indicate a strong increase in quality, making this a distinctly "above average" show. And what sends a show from "fondly remembered" into the "fodder for obsession" category? Well, I don't want to spoil too much - but if you string 3 or 4 seasons like this together in a row, nerds start getting obsessive and naming kids after things.


Matthew: This season has it where it counts. It's the first season that surpasses TOS in terms of consistent quality and entertainment value. The cast and the production staff really come into their own. The string of greats that get peeled off over this season is truly impressive, with 3 or 4 shows that will probably make the top ten of the series. If you were to lend one season to a non-Trekkie friend, hoping to hook them on the show, this might be the season you pick.

I could go on. Waxing rhapsodic on the virtues of Season Three is fun, fun, fun. But I'll stop here and say "bring on Season Four!"

Kevin: Agreed. I think you hit the nail on the head, Matt, calling season 3 "fun." Even in serious or sad episodes, there is an energy that pervades the season. Everyone has hit their stride and it shows. Watch any interview, cast or crew, and they talk about what a pleasure it was to work on the show, and it really shines through in Season 3. These are the episodes I can watch over and over and not feel any differently than I did when I was a kid watching them for the first time. They are still inspiring and interesting and undiminished by my adult cynicism. Will it continue in Season 4? Spoiler Alert: Yes.

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