Friday, September 30, 2011

TNG Season 4 Recap


Season 3 knocked our socks off with its increased production values and deeper, more exciting sci-fi and action-oriented stories. Now season 4 kicks off with Picard covered in mud and crying for his mommy. Huh? Can this radical new direction possibly lead to happy returns?

Post-collar, post-Wesley, pre-Chunky Riker. That can only mean one thing - it's Season 4!

Matthew's Thoughts

Some people have called this the "family" season, whilst others have called it the "serial storytelling" season. Well, I don't know who these people are. It's just un-cited stuff on Memory Alpha. But whatever. I can see how and why the authors of those statements felt that way, but I think that these are somewhat simplistic assessments, and I'd personally describe things a bit differently.

Yes, "Family" was a prominent theme early on. But it is not really accurate to say that it pervaded the whole season. The same is true of "serial storytelling." Sure, there are a few stories that are picked up from episode to episode. But it's nothing of the likes of DS9's Dominion war tales, or, even more extreme, RDM's BSG.

So how would I describe this season, Mr. Smartypants, you ask? I'd call it a season of character focus. So many of the stories in this season focus on a particular character, and the characters who receive focus are more diverse and wide-ranging than previous years. By my count, the breakdown of character focuses in this season are:

Picard 6
Riker 2
Data 5
Worf 2
Geordi 3
Crusher 2
Wesley 1
Troi 2
Lwaxana 1
O'Brien 1
Barclay 1

I mean, do you see how diverse this range is? For one thing, it's extending to characters who wouldn't have received the time of day in seasons 1 or 2, and for another, it's all 26 episodes of the season. It was easy to identify a character who received the bulk of focus or development in an A or B story within an episode. Previous seasons had some episodes that were much more "plot driven" as opposed to "character driven." And plots driving matters is fine to some degree, but it can go awry very easily. Some plots are great, others are stinkers. Take the Star Wars Prequels, for instance. There are practically no human motivations or elements of character growth in those movies. So the plots carry the entire weight of viewer interest. And the plots suck, thus the movies suck. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, has a bit of a retread plot in which not a lot happens. But we care about the characters already, so it's not so bad to sit through. OK, so, back to Trek - many plots in previous years lived or died on the alien of the week, or the sci-fi concept. And they tended to fail as often as they succeeded. This season, even a weak-ish plot like "Data's Day" was more than made up for by the development of Data's character, and the same can be said for an episode like "Galaxy's Child" with Geordi and Dr. Brahms.

It's just generally a rule of good writing that the character drive the story, and not the other way around. Things feel more organic and real - real "people" are reacting to events, as opposed to some writer choosing particular character types to fill the needs of a story. Season 4 of TNG runs with this synergy of characters in a big way, and I think things benefit quite a bit. The number of 2 ratings has shrunk considerably, and the 1's have been banished altogether.

Kevin's Thoughts

I agree with Matt that calling it a "family" season is a narrow way of interpreting the shows. I think that label will be more aptly applied to season 7, but we'll get there in the fullness of time. I think what calling this a "family" season means, like Matt points out, is a code word for genuine character development. The core staff of Piller, Berman, Braga, and Moore was in place by season 3, but with season 4, we get the addition of Jeri Taylor. Like DC Fontana in TOS, I think the addition of a woman in the core staff adds a valuable voice to the show, and helps to round out a lot of characters.

I don't know if it's fair to attribute the increased focus on emotions entirely to her presence, but this season engaged big emotions directly and credibly in a way Star Trek had never done before, and it paid dividends for all the characters. We loved Lwaxana's turn in Half a Life, and the scene in the transporter room is heartrending, and I can't picture earlier seasons even trying for it. Even a more subdued episode like The Wounded has two guest stars wrestling with their experiences in wartime.

This season also does an awesome job of showing our characters being vulnerable. It humanizes them and makes them more sympathetic. Like we talked about with Barclay in Hollow Pursuits, it's easy to be awesome if you are just innately awesome. Overcoming imperfection to be awesome is both more praiseworthy and more interesting. Watching Picard breakdown in Family or O'Brien grabble with his own unrealized bigotry is fascinating, and both men come out of the episodes with more of my respect than they started with.

As for serialized story-telling, I think having recurring plots months apart is not quite serialized story-telling, it's just good story-telling. One of the most annoying things episodic television does is have a life-shattering event forgotten by the next episode. Discommendation should shatter Worf. He should talk about it, or at least display its effects on a semi-regular basis, or there is no way for his character to grow credibly. And I don't think you need to hit DS9 levels of "Stay tuned for the continuing story" to achieve credible story development. There are a total of five stories in the Klingon arc to date (not counting Heart of Glory, which while relevant to Worf's character development doesn't feel like part of the larger RDM story) and we gave them an 8, 9, 7, 8, and an 8, respectively. They're among the best in the series. The follow-up on important events and relationships makes me care more about them. And in terms of episodic television, each of them stands on their own as a self-contained, well developed story with enough exposition to inform a casual viewer, even if they won't necessarily be as invested as fan. That's something DS9s serialized stories don't usually do. That's not a sin; I love DS9, but I think it refutes the "serialized" label. It's not serialized, it's just well developed.



My personal favorite of the season is "Remember Me." It's a tour de force for Beverly as a character (and Gates McFadden as an actress), but it's also a really good mind-bender of a sci-fi story. It reprises the Traveler/Wesley story arc, and it's chock full of "gee whiz cool!" moments. I never tire of re-watching it.

"First Contact" is a great sci-fi story in the vein of "The Day The Earth Stood Still," and it features a fun reversal of formula - this time, we're the aliens. It's got great acting, nice production values, and snappy writing.

"Family" is also a formula breaker. It doesn't have any scenes on the bridge, and takes place mostly on Earth. The focus on Picard's emotional struggles after his Borg ordeal is gutsy and rewarding.

"Half a Life" is the Good Lwaxana Episode. Wow! All the previous mistakes in handling her character have been rectified here - not the least of which is making sure to marry her hijinks with a truly engaging and interesting story of cultural relativism.


I can't believe Matt didn't include "Nth Degree" in his list, and assume he was saving it for me. The episode is the perfect return to the Barclay character, and an awesome exploration of some great sci-fi concepts. Plus, Cyrano de Bergerac. Who doesn't love that?

I like "Mind's Eye" a lot. I always like when Star Trek does an homage to a film or genre, because they usually succeed, and I am delighted by both a good episode and a novel presentation.

"Redemption" is a personal favorite of mine. It's just a damned fun episode to watch, and even after repeated viewings, it still holds my attention.

Lastly, I love "Devil's Due" and "Qpid". They lack the grand perfection of other comedy outings, like Trouble with Tribbles, but they are always a hoot, and they always make me happy when I watch them.



"Night Terrors," a tale about sleep deprivation, is ironically quite the opposite when it comes to the viewer. ZZZZZ. Somnambulent pacing and poor development of the central idea render this episode forgettable, and perhaps regrettable.

"Legacy" is a flashback to the "alien of the week" episodes of the first two seasons. We are embroiled in the struggles of a culture that we are just introduced to and don't really care about. Throw in some bad mullets and some left-over 80's movie costumes, and this is an unpleasant reminder of things we though were behind us.

"Suddenly Human" also suffers from "alien of the week" syndrome. This time, it's the Terrellians. OR Terayliens. I really can't remember. But this episode then adds the double whammy of a kid actor. Once you make that kid actor whine at the top of his lungs to "make the B'nar?" This episode's fate is sealed.


"Identity Crisis" is a small chain of missed opportunities. Geordi had great rapport with Susanna and it would have been great if it had been placed in a better episode.

I think that rounds out the lowlights. You know it's a good season when the worst you can say about the bad episodes are "eh."


Kevin: This is the best season of TNG and by far the strongest season of the franchise yet. Looking over the 10s in this season and the 10s in last season, I think season 3's best episode may make up the top of the top ten, but season 4 clearly has a larger run of awesome, if not transcendental episodes. There's a 10-episode run in the middle and an 8-episode run in the end where nothing goes below a 6. We gave out only a handful of twos and no ones at all this season. And for the visual learners amongst our fanbase, GRAPHS!

Kevin: The most obvious tell of the season's quality is that that chart you're looking at is not a bell curve. Not even close. If all seven seasons were like this, we'd have to recalibrate the whole damn rating system. What I think marks season 4 in terms of quality is that there aren't really any stinkers. There are poorly realized but still nifty ideas, or episodes that at worst have a pacing problem, but they never miss the mark to the degree they did in seasons 1 and 2. 

Matthew: Well, my curve is more like a bell. But there are no 1's at all, in either of our graphs. That says something. Any by way of explanation, the only thing I'd add is a reiteration of my earlier point - I think that there are plots in this season which are just as weak as previous years. But since they're married to involving character dramas, they're a lot easier to let slide when it comes to evaluating an episode.
Kevin: This graph is also pretty useful to see an up-tick in quality. From season 1 to 4, there are an increasing number of tens. Also, if you look at the 5 and 7 ratings, you see that 5s practically disappear over the series to date, while there are a lot more 7s. Matt and I have gone from disagreeing from how bad an episode is to how good it is.


Matthew: Season 3 was a real step up in quality from the previous two, and had some serious highlights. But our evaluations have shown that Season 4 is stronger, and as I state above, I think it's due to the character focus. Now that we've seen two seasons like this in a row, it becomes an inescapable conclusion that TNG has hit its stride.

Kevin: Agreed. The increased character focus really propels the season, and the franchise. I think the increased character development goes hand in hand with returning to the interesting and important stories, even in a "non-serialized" way. Can Season 5 keep up the good work? We'll find out next time on

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