Monday, January 2, 2012

TNG Season 5 Recap


Seasons 3 and 4 were pretty much awesome, so how does season 5 stack up? There's a definite focus on emotional story lines and development, and the actors and writers are clearly more comfortable in their roles. Does that familiarity give them the room to explore new things, or have things gone stale? Let's find out together.
Ludicrous Speed... GO!!!

Matthew's Thoughts

Well, one of the big things this season has to be the introduction of a big recurring character, Ro Laren. On the one hand, I applaud this kind of experimentation with format, and the desire to bring in new blood for conflict among the principals. On the other hand, it kind of stunk that Ro got almost all of the extra character development, while Chief O'Brien was kind of left out in the cold after a good run in Season 4.

Either way, Ro was a fun character, appearing in 6 episodes, all of which were pretty good. Her character was written well, with a serious chip on her shoulder and a past that helped develop the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict that would be one of the major bases of DS9.  As was the intent of the Berman and Piller, she did introduce tension into an otherwise placid (some might argue boring) main cast, and thus gave us a chance to see how various characters would interact with a "black sheep." Picard had a mentor role with her, which was nice to see. Riker kind of hated her guts, except when his memory was erased, and then he wanted to get jiggy with it. I personally think it might have been a good move to create a romance with Ro and Geordi - it seemed like a natural development during "The Next Phase," when they were the only people the other could touch. It would have been nice for Geordi to actually score one in a while, even if the relationship would be doomed eventually by her peripatetic nature.

Another interesting trend on the relationship front is the split of sorts between Troi and Riker.  After a very heavy-cannoodling vacation in Season 3's "Menage A Troi," this season features Riker hitting it with Ensign Ro, a colony babe named Carmen, and falling for an androgynous J'Naii; while Troi relives a psychic rape featuring Riker, and has a romance with Aron Conor at the genome colony. The characters remain friendly, but there seems to be a concerted effort to take them out of a romantic relationship with each other and to place them firmly in the friend zone. Do I oppose this? Not within the context of this season. But knowing where it's going to go in Season 7, I'm more cool to the idea.

Another big character change is Worf being saddled with the dead story weight of his son, Alexander. I'm kind of perplexed on this. I get the feeling that the producers thought it would be interesting to see how a character deals with parenthood. Well, in theory, this is interesting. The Sisko relationship in DS9 is an example of an interesting set of stories and scenes. Alexander and Worf? Not interesting. No scenes in which they experience conflict are taken far enough, Alexander is downright stupid and annoying in his intro this season, "New Ground," and external factors conspire to de-legitimize their relationship ("Cost of Living," discussed below.)

The Wesley character receives some development after his "farewell" last season. He visits the ship, saves the day by avoiding video games, and bags Ashley Judd in "The Game," but then falls hard with academy disciplinary issues in "The First Duty." I have to say, I really liked both of these developments for the character. He seemed like less of a tool in "The Game," and then was humanized quite a bit by failure in "Duty." Both were entertaining episodes, and it was nice to see "the chosen one" act get toned down a bit.

This season begins an unusual (but not unwelcome) trend of featuring more two-parters. There are three in this season, with the conclusion of "Redemption," mid-season event "Unification," and the first part of "Time's Arrow." It seems like there is a desire to create more continuing stories. Sela is a villain in three episodes this season, "I, Borg" gives us a story thread that will be picked up next season in a two-parter.

Generally speaking, this season features the emergence of Brannon Braga as a major voice in Trek. Whatever his later sins might be, (e.g. "These Are the Voyages...") I for one am a fan of his work thus far in the series. "Cause And Effect" is on the short list for best TNG episode ever, while his work on "The Game" and "Power Play" shows him to have a good handle on the characters. Two minor cosmetic changes, which both kind of suck in my opinion, were the captain's fugly non-functional jacket, and the "warp trail" behind the logo in the title sequence.

Kevin's Thoughts

I think a hallmark of the season, moreso than even the stellar third and fourth season is the ease with which everyone, cast and crew alike, seem to approach their roles. It's not just the skill they bring, but the effortlessness they show as well. The heavy-handedness of season one is a happily distant memory. The benefit is that the friendships, which we have both cited as a cornerstone of the show, really seem their most organic. Episodes like "Cause and Effect" really highlight this. At the core of the crisis is a group of people who really seem like friends and coworkers.

Between the continued presence of Jeri Taylor and the increase presence of Brannon Braga, there is a definite focus on character development and emotional stories. The show definitely benefits as a result. Many episodes in the first two seasons had a novel idea or concept but fell flat because I didn't care about the people involved. Keeping the focus on the emotions and the relationships of the characters makes sure that I stay invested even in less well developed stories, and it raises the stakes in the really good ones. One of my favorite moments of the season was in "Power Play" when the being inhabiting Troi coolly assesses her relationship with Picard and how it can use it to her advantage. Having such a close relationship used as a weapon had notes of the violation of "The Best of Both Worlds," and for all the episodes other minor flaws, that part really shone.

I think we've also gone farther of the lines established in episodes like Family, where everyone was brave enough to give a main character a real weakness. "The First Duty" didn't just humanize Wesley; it humanized the universe.

I agree with what you said about the introduction of Ro, and I think it exemplifies my point as well. From the moment Ro steps on the screen, we get a credible personality and a credible motivation. As a result, her scenes with Guinan really sing, as well as her scenes with Picard. A lesser writer and a lesser actress could have reduced Ro to a shrill two-dimensional harpy. Instead, we get not just an interesting character, but a new lens to examine the Star Trek universe.

Here's what it boils down to. The success of seasons 3 and 4 was due to a lot of new things they were doing in terms of storytelling and production. They managed to avoid the risk of it becoming old hat by turning the potential pitfall into a pretty good advantage. Instead of the familiarity of the characters being a burden or a bore, they mined it expertly to double down on creating a fully fleshed out, real universe, second maybe only to that of Tolkein in terms of exhaustive attention to fine detail.



"The First Duty" runs very close to "Cause and Effect" as my personal favorite of the season. I love the way it fleshes out Starfleet Academy as a real place that makes sense, has a history, and follows its own rules. The visuals of the Academy against the San Francisco backdrop are really cool. But beyond that, it makes Wesley a much more real-seeming character by showing us his vulnerable and fallible sides.

"Silicon Avatar" is a very Star Trek story, giving us an ethical debate over whether a creature should be allowed to fulfill its own biological imperative, even if it puts human lives in peril. The animosity between Doctor Kila Marr and Data made for really good drama, and we learned more about Data's past on Omicron Theta.

"Cause and Effect" may just be a perfect episode. Its only flaws are endemic to not lasting twice as long, which most fans might like. The episode seamlessly weaves science fiction, character drama, and "Twilight Zone" style tension into a massively entertaining whole.This is Brannon Braga at his best.

I may have given "The Perfect Mate" a 4, but it still rates very highly on my list of highlights this season. It features a perfectly cast guest star and an interesting story for old baldy - will the crusty old man be seduced by the empathic metamorph?

"The Inner Light" is another essentially perfect show. It tells both a great sci-fi story as well as an essential character story for Picard, granting him the long-abandoned wish of having a family and settling down. This was a wonderful tonal shift for the series.


When it comes time to draft this section, there are always two lists for me. The ones that are objectively amazing, and the ones that for more subjective personal reasons, are my favorites. In the objectively awesome column, we get Inner Light, Cause and Effect, and the First Duy, for the reasons Matt expounds. I would add "I, Borg" to the list, for being such an interesting retake on the Borg that manages to revisit one of the most interesting aspects of the story, Picard's victimization, without diluting too much the nature of the threat the Borg present. Add we got some interesting exploration of Federation ethics in the face of an overwhelming threat.

I would also add "Darmok" to the "Very Good" list. I know the set up is a little complicated and the pacing a little funereal, but, damn it, I could watch Patrick Stewart recite Gilgamesh any day of the week. The core idea is so interesting and so fundamentally a Star Trek story that I can't help but rate it among the series' best.

In the more "personal favorite" column, I loved Redemption, Part II. Lots of interesting action, political drama, and some character moments for Data, not to mention a cast of awesome Klingon actors in Gowron, Kurn, Lursa, and B'Etor. Watching both episodes together is always a great way to pass an afternoon. I also loved the twist on Yesterday's Enterprise. It's a neat twist on a neat twist to Yesterday's Enterprise's take on alternate timelines.

I'll round out the list with "The Next Phase," which had some awesome technical execution, and some neat-o energy and character moments. If nothing else, Ro shooting Riker in the head with the invisible phaser always cracks me up.



Any discussion of the bad parts of this season has to start and end with "Cost of Living." It is a terrible episode in its own right, but is made even worse by the fact that it sabotages the very nice development we got for Lwaxana Troi in last season's "Half a Life." It is astonishing that the same person wrote both episodes. In this tale she is grating, childish, neurotic, and almost entirely unsympathetic. The fact that the surrounding story sucks doesn't help, either.

"Imaginary Friend" shows us Brannon Braga in a weaker moment. Often, he seems to get jazzed up by a far out idea, but fails to wrap it up in an interesting story. Seeing the Enterprise from the perspective of a child is interesting in theory. The way it is played out here is just kind of a yawner. A wasted opportunity.

"Violations" is not terrible. It just has serious pacing issues that render it quite a snooze to watch. Stories that involve delving into characters' memories are inherently provocative. Unfortunately, this episode gets bogged down in the uninteresting set dressing as opposed to staying in the meaty portions that we all want to enjoy, juicy details about the characters.

"New Ground" basically spells the end of interesting Worf stories on TNG. Alexander is dead weight. As mentioned above, he was not written in an interesting way by the creative staff, acting more as a hindrance than a character with his own internal life and motivations. DS9 and Voyager would get much better at writing child characters.


"Ethics" is not bad by any stretch, but there were such opportunities to expound on Federation ethics, law, and medicine, and it just got too muddled. It was one step away from great, which makes landing in average territory sad.

"The Outcast" is another sad disappointment which I will not dwell on for obvious reasons.


Kevin: Well, the bell curve definitely slumps to the right. What I find most interesting in the higher number of odd numbers this time. We've finally stopped agreeing on everything! :) Like the breaks in seasons 3 and 4 though, we get more sevens and nines than fives, and no threes at all. Our disagreements seem to be about how good an episode is, rather than if the episode is good or bad. 
Kevin: So, there's a drop off in eights and tens, but a pick up in nines, so that's a bit of a wash in comparison to season 4. I would say this is probably the most consistently good season so far. It lacks the frequency of the heights of seasons 3 and 4, though certainly has some barn burners in its own right. We average out a little lower than season 4, but not by much, and a lot of that is probably due to the statistical carcinoma that was "Cost of Living." I reran the numbers assuming that episode was an average 6, and the season average became identical to season 4.

Matthew: Think of it this way - there are probably an equal number of individual 5 ratings given by the both of us, they were just given to different episodes. So I don't think there is a drop off in quality from Season 4. There is one 4 rating and one 2 rating. All season. That's it!


Kevin: I've made no secret of the fact that I respond more to well developed character story that may falter on sci-fi credentials than the reverse. Happily this season does not present with the choice of one or the other too often. Inner Light may be one of the finest hours of television ever, and it succeeds because of the flawless integration of character and science fiction story.

I said it above, but I think it bears repeating. Many a show stumble in later seasons. Either they repeat themselves, or they try to "mix things up," and destroy the delicate magic that made us like the show in the first place. Instead, they took the familiarity and rather than let it weigh down the show, they used it expand the tapestry of the universe. Seasons 3 and 4 may have had a tad more raw excitement, but part of that was the newness. Season 5, sans Cost of Living, really works out to be the most consistently "above average" season thus far.

Matthew: I think you are quite right that Season 5 is more consistently good than any previous season, despite what the overall average turned out to be. Looking at the ratings, the first 19 shows of the season do not dip below a 5, meaning that at least one of us found every episode in that stretch to be an averagely entertaining Trek tale. In fact, only two episodes all season dip below a 5. This tells us that whatever else Season 5 is, it's consistent. Maybe it doesn't have some of the delirious highs of previous years, but it chugs along, with entertaining episode after episode.

This is probably due to the strong character focus, a continuation of last season's thematic elements. Looking at my comments above, it seems apparent that I focused mostly on character changes, whether new characters or developments of established ones. That's fine, as long as the stories themselves maintain a good science fiction flavor - and they do. "The Inner Light," for instance is both very strong science fiction and very strong touchy-feely emotional stuff.

The only really disturbing development is the return to form for "The Lwaxana Episode." "Cost of Living" cements the character into a Vulcan death-grip of irritation and uselessness for the franchise. It's really too bad, because Majel Barrett was a good actress and by all accounts a heck of a lady. Instead of acting as a showcase for her talents, from here on out The Lwaxana Episode will be an onerous chore for the viewers to surmount.

Any way you slice it, though, with the consistent quality of seasons 3-5, TNG has cemented itself as one of the all time great television shows, and certainly the very best science fiction-based show of all time. I can't think of any other series that has put together such a run of superb stories. Ron Moore's Battlestar did OK for about two and a half seasons, but then devolved into a parody of itself with stunningly convoluted plot-lines and bad character developments. TOS had two great seasons in a row, but fell off a bit on its third and final year. TNG, by contrast, is in its golden age, and if you'll excuse some prognostication, will not drop off all that much in its remaining years.


  1. I was surprised to see how favorably you thought about this season. I agree that there were some great episodes but I also thought the lows were pretty low. As I read the overview though I have come around to your opinions. BTW when do you review Star Trek VI?

  2. I'm watching Season 5 on Blu-Ray now, and I am struck by how much Troi is being rehabbed/emphasized. Episodes 9-13 are a really strong run for her character, as were Darmok, Disaster, and Imaginary Friend.