With six seasons already in the book, fans were greeted with some awful news: Season 7 would be the final one for TNG, since this show would be packing up its things to make movies, instead making room for DS9 and the soon to premiere Voyager to dominate the airwaves. Would Season 7 be a swan song or a triumphant conclusion? Maybe a little of both?
Beam us onto the big screen!
So, everybody seems to think Season 7 was a letdown. Are they right? Probably. The real question is why. To me, as I scan the list of episodes, what I see is a bunch of shows that seem to be a "let's wrap up this character's story arc" kind of episodes. Now, is that necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. "Inheritance" is quite good, and "Journey's End" was pretty OK as character stories go. But some times they feel really rushed, forced, and arbitrary, like "Preemptive Strike," "Bloodlines," or "Interface;" while other times... well, let's just say: "Dark Page."
Another feature of this season is what I like to call the "change of pace" show. This is a show in which the customary settings, tone, or characters established by the series are not featured. Sometimes, like in "Lower Decks," or even "Gambit" to some degree, this is a smashing success. Other times, you get shows like "Sub Rosa" or "Masks." But succeed or fail, I don't really fault this kind of trend at all. It keeps things fresh and exciting.
I think this season saw the real emergence of "kooky Braga shows." Braga always seems to be keen on a surprising story twist, usually delivered by the end of the teaser. Riker's crazy! The Enterprise blew up! But this season, some of the efforts are a bit strained in my eyes. "Emergence" in particular is kind of a half-baked idea. "Parallels" works pretty well. "Genesis" is a wild departure, but it kind of works. We also liked "Eye of the Beholder."
What all three of these trends do indicate, perhaps subconsciously, to the viewer, is that "things are winding down." These are the things that long running shows do when they know they are ending. So you can't help but feel it as the viewer. This isn't bad necessarily - for every "Happy Days" that literally has Fonzie "jumping the shark," you have a series that really winds itself up well, like "Seinfeld." Well, perhaps it's not a 1:1 ratio - I can think of a lot of shows that really started tanking in late seasons (The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Simpsons). So let's give credit where it's due. Even during "Masks," I never felt like TNG had jumped the shark. They held it together and had it still feel like it was in the same ballpark of quality. Maybe it's just a solid single to the wall, where previous seasons have been doubles, triples, and home runs.
I tend to divide the show into three "epochs." Seasons 1 and 2 are stumbling, but promising; seasons 3 through 5 are unadulterated awesome; and 6 and 7 are solid, but don't reach previous heights. I still think this having reviewed everything recently. I agree that season 6 is better than 7, but there is a similar tone in both seasons, both visual and substantive. I agree generally that they may have gone a little too far in trying to wrap up too many characters and stories. Certainly episodes like Bloodlines and Firstborn suffered from trying to do that. That being said, I don't mind the idea as much as Matt does, as least as a concept. I love continuity, and done in such a way that does not require seeing the previous material, it can make for great fan service. I think if I had to articulate a problem with these episodes is that they don't quite stand alone as much as they should. Episodes like Yesterday's Enterprise have more punch if you've seen Skin of Evil, but sufficient punch on its own. Episodes like Bloodlines almost have to borrow whatever tension their predecessor stories had to work.
The other issue I have with the season is what I've been calling "senioritis." The cast and crew were wrapping up a season and filming a movie at basically the same time, and when you know you're done, you tend to check out a little. Between stress and the (entirely understandable) desire to just get through the last few months in one piece, I think some episodes weren't as polished as they could have been. The episodes certainly weren't bad. I would say the average season 7 episode is miles ahead of the average season 1 episode, but it lacked the freshness of seasons 3, 4, or 5 and the competent, efficient gloss of season 6.
All that being said, the show, as Matt points out, never jumped the shark. The characters are intact by the end, and even if I wasn't as ecstatic as I was in season 3, I was still having a good time and would certainly watch a season 8 or 9 of TNG as opposed to another round of The Bachelor. Also, a lot of the sins are made up for by a stellar finale. If that's where their efforts were focusing, it clearly paid off. Both narratively and emotionally, the finale paid dividends and rewarding long term viewers with an incredibly satisfying experience.
In the end, the things I miss from season 7, and even season 6, are things I couldn't have no matter what they did. I simultaneously want the gloss of an experienced, well-oiled machine AND the freshness of new and exciting and untested things. And that just can't happen. So for whatever its flaws, season 7 is a solid season of Star Trek, and as it says on all our letterhead here at Treknobabble, even bad Star Trek is better than average television.
Matthew: "Gambit" is one of those shows that certainly mixes things up. It starts off with the "Picard is dead" teaser. It puts the rest of the crew in the relatively unlikely circumstance of murder investigators. Then, it winds up with Picard and Riker swashbuckling as pirates, and pretending they hate one another. If that's not a change of pace, I don't know what is. Despite a somewhat anemic conclusion, the vast bulk of this two-parter is really brisk and entertaining, and it gives us a neat look at the seamy underbelly of the universe.
"Attached" has flaws. These flaws were mentioned in our review. They involve a serious lack of payoff. But it also has some wonderful, intimate scenes between Crusher and Picard, very ably acted by McFadden and Stewart. We learned a lot about the characters and finally had their shared backstory filled in. The B plot of a paranoid species was also fun.
"The Pegasus" really helps the Riker character feel more three dimensional. Instead of being completely straight laced, he has regrets in his past. We also get a cracking story of political intrigue, giving us detail about the Federation and its treaties with the Romulans. I really like how this story puts the friendship between Picard and Riker to the test.
"Lower Decks" is basically perfect, and fills in a lot of nice world detail when it comes to life on the rest of the Enterprise. If you're not on the bridge all day, what is it like? Who gets promoted? Who tends bar and why? It's also great to see Ensing Sito again. I'm not a big fan of what happens to her, but that doesn't diminish a great show, too much anyway.
"All Good Things..." is full of, well, uniformly good things. We just reviewed it, so I won't go on and on, except to say that it is easily the best series finale in the franchise, and stands among the very best in TV history. It's also better than the forthcoming movie, for what it's worth. It's really, really good.
Kevin: I agree with all those, obviously. I would add "Inheritance" as a personal favorite. The emotional core is very good, and the scene with Soong along is worth the price of admission.
"Eye of the Beholder" has grown on me over the years. I've really come to appreciate Marina Sirtis' acting chops and they are full display here, The addition of the nacelle set and some genuinely creepy staging and plotting make this a sleeper hit for me.
And in terms of breaking the mold with positive results, "Genesis" is definitely high on my list. Gates McFadden's directorial debut manages to use horror film tropes without feeling tired or a retread, and though the central idea is one step removed from "radioactive spider bites cause superpowers, and not...you know...cancer," it's still thoughtfully scripted enough to keep it from being flat.
Matthew: "Dark Page" could not be more aptly named. It not only puts an unfortunate gloss on a character replete with unfortunate glosses, but it also suffers from some inscrutable story logic. So, her brain is... shutting down? But also defending itself? Huh?
"Descent Part II" represents the nadir of the Data character's irritating tendency to be used as a puppet by writers. Oh look, he's evil! Oh look, he's good again! The mechanism for this switch really calls into question Data's character over the remainder of the show. This would be sin enough, but it also makes the Borg kind of lame, to boot. They've adapted to everything else, haven't they come up with a subroutine for "separated from the collective?" All you Voyager haters out there, stay on notice.
Skipp · a · ble
a: not worthy of attention.
b: deserving of scorn.
c: "Masks," written by Joe Menosky.
There are a host of other ho-hum episodes in this season, but the ones above raise my ire particularly. I'm sure Kevin can add to the list.
"Sub Rosa" is creepy. Really, really creepy. I don't even want to go into specifics. That's how upsetting those elements are. It's one redeeming facet is that wherever I am for the rest of my life, if I am with someone about to light a candle, I can tell them urgently "Dinna light tha' candle," and laugh and laugh.
"Liaisons" was snoozer. It's not a bad idea per se, but maybe it would have been better as a TOS episode, where Kirk's penchant for falling for the babe was a little more expected.
I'll add "Bloodlines" as another (ironically) bloodless outing. It just kind of sits there, doesn't it.
Finally, and I know I gave it a 3, but I really disliked "Journey's End." It was heavy handed and I wanted to slap Wesley in the face the entire episode. He was more insufferable than when he muttered "Adults," in "The Battle." Bleh.
So, 6.24 is entirely respectable. It's above average. It's also .45 drop from season 6. Let's look at all the seasons together:
Season 1: 5.76
Season 2: 6.134
Season 3: 7.0769
Season 4: 7.1538
Season 5: 7.0385
Season 6: 6.693
Season 7: 6.24
Again, my own memory of seasons 1 and 2, seasons 3-5, and seasons 6 and 7 making up three "eras" of TNG, seems to hold. An awkward youth, a rock star adulthood, and a quiet but still dignified and lucid twilight years. If all goes according to plan, that's how they'll describe my life.
And here are some brightly colored graphs...
This graph compares all the seasons together, and its easy to see why seasons 3, 4, and 5 get such praise by relative comparison.
Matthew: This is as good a place as any to discuss TNG as a whole, now that Season 7 has come and gone. In fact, one of the strengths of Season 7 is that it did provide some closure on various character stories, and not just in All Good Things. I think it is quite fair and easy to say that characters are one of TNG's great strengths as a show. Season 7 does a lot to cement this. We see Data evolve from a subject of fun to a fully functioning rational being, with hopes, dreams, fears, and weaknesses. Riker goes from brash Kirk wannabe to mature adult man with an eye on his happiness, not just his career. Both of these character arcs would not be complete without "The Pegasus," or "Inheritance." Troi especially grows from awful cliche to fully realized character. Worf also really grows, becoming less a caricature and more of a wise, respectful, searching, yet still fully alien character. Episodes like "Thine Own Self" and "Firstborn" are key to this. So really, what can be viewed (and I still think fairly) as a weakness of Season 7 in particular, does strengthen the show in general.
So much for Season 7. What makes TNG so great overall? Besides characters, a few more things spring to mind for me. One is mind-bending sci-fi. Another is its deep, philosophical core of reflection. Thirdly is its creation of a cohesive world that is very attractive. But the last, and probably most important, is sheer entertainment value.
TNG was great and still remains great to me because of how thought provoking it is for me. When Beverly Crusher says "Computer, what is the nature of the universe?" in Season 4's "Remember Me," I am utterly sold for as many more episodes as they want to make. But they did it from the start. Q represents a level of being so far beyond ours in "Farpoint" that it defies imagining. Time, space, and thought become one in Season 1's "Where No One Has Gone Before." The show is just replete with sci-fi like this, and I would argue that it is better, or at least more consistently good, sci-fi, than any other show in TV history (including Dr. Who and The Twilight Zone).
TNG is also a deeply moral and philosophical show. I can't think of many other shows for which this is true. What is the meaning of life? When should we be willing to sacrifice ourselves? What place should reason have in our lives? When is too much help a bad thing? Are values relative or absolute? These are not questions that are asked and discarded lightly on TNG. They run through the entire core of the show, and crop up in new iterations over and over.
We've both waxed rhapsodic on how much we would like to live in the world TNG presents. Wouldn't anyone? Free from material want, human prejudice and greed, and liberated to explore the stars, the questions mentioned above become the field for human endeavor and growth. Sounds pretty stinking great to me. And we get replicators, holodecks, rayguns, force fields, and starships with the deal. TNG is certainly a utopian vision. Now look, I like dystopian sci-fi as much as the next guy. But how many times do I want to watch Blade Runner or Terminator 2? Or, really, for that matter, Battlestar Galactica? There is something comforting, like a bowl of mac and cheese, or your favorite slippers, that TNG offers. Happiness. Warmth. Goodness. Or, as Quark would say, "root beer."
But none of these would matter if the show were dull. It's not. TNG has the same formula that TOS delivered in spades - action, a bit of sexiness, quiet character drama, explosions, romance, revenge, political intrigue, personal growth. The list could go on. Whenever we criticized an episode, it was almost always because it failed to deliver on one of these fronts. But the vast bulk of TNG does deliver. It's just a darned entertaining television show, and then when you add the aforementioned lofty qualities, it becomes, in my estimation, the best show in the history of television. There's nothing I'd rather watch. I'll be buying it on Blu-Ray, after having had it on DVD and VHS tapes recorded from broadcast. I love it that much, and I don't expect to ever stop.
Well, obviously I agree with what Matt outlines there, so I have to do some work to say something on top of that. Thinking about my comments on TNG as a whole, I keep going back to my essay on why I like Star Trek in the first place. Everything that drew me to Star Trek is embodied by this series. The character development, the camaraderie, the thought provoking science fiction, the optimism about the future. It's all here. I was curious when we started to see if TNG would stand up to my treasured childhood memories, and if anything, it got better. I relate more to the more mature story elements and came to appreciate a lot more of the subtle acting choices by the cast. There's a reason the show got me hooked in the first place, and it's still kicking after seven seasons and going on a quarter century of aging. Matt made an apt comparison to comfort food. With the possible exception of The Golden Girls, I can't think of another show that I return to so often, and for whom the familiarity never turns to fatigue. I can watch about 90% of these episode over and over in fairly rapid succession. I still get chills when Picard whispers that "the war is going very badly for the Federation." I still laugh my ass off at "He's my number one dad!" I read something in an article on spoilers arguing that people should not take them so seriously, as if all a show has going for it is the shocking-ness of the twist, it's not that good anyway. I kind of agree with that. Even know what's coming, I don't feel less entertained, I just appreciate the skillful build to the dramatic moment coming.
Ultimately, something that shines through, even in the shows lesser outings, is that everyone in front of and behind the camera seriously cares about the quality of the work they produced. The Blu-ray preview revealed a world of details that we never got to see, and they (read: the Okudas) knew we couldn't get to see, but they still put there. It's just hard to overstate how appealing that makes a show. Their love and enthusiasm is infectious. Even when the show broke from the specific strictures of Rodenberry's vision, the desire to actually construct and tell a story is there. What I think separates Star Trek from a lot of other television is it was trying to tell its own story, not merely produce a show that hit the bumpers of its genre. Also, with a list of exceptions I could count on one hand, I never patronized or talked down to by this show. It wasn't assumed that I would watch whatever they stitched together without complaint and it was assumed that I could keep up with a complicated story. On some level, can you imagine any other primetime drama tackling "Yesterday's Enterprise"? There's something lovely and compelling about that combination of ambition and respect for the audience.
So, in short, in addition to Matt's list, I will add infinite replay value and obvious respect for the audience that radiate from every facet of this show as to what makes TNG so awesome. I love other outings in the franchise, but nothing will match my love for this one.