Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Top Ten Star Trek: The Next Generation

N. B. Spoilers Throughout

The Next Generation is the best incarnation of Star Trek. There, I said it. Not the Next Generation films, mind you, which are sloppy messes, but TNG really was something special. It exceeded The Original Series not only in technical polish but in consistency of tone, preciseness of execution and simply in inventing unusual situations. It asked more interesting questions than its more serialized and character-driven companion Deep Space Nine. It had a clearer purpose than Enterprise and it wasn't Voyager. It even had the best theme in a rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith. TNG maintained a seriousness of purpose without becoming ponderous like the Battlestar Galactica remake. Its Wagon Train roots and lack of serialization kept the plots simple and the writers free to experiment with what are often little chamber plays from week to week without getting bogged down in various arcs and continuity complexities. With these virtues it came up with many fun technological conundrums and asked some serious questions along the way.

So without further explanation, the 10 Best Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, according to your humble blogger.

10. Encounter at Farpoint Season 1: Episodes 1& 2 / All Good Things. . . Season 7: Episodes 25 & 26 

Humanity on trial.
The Next Generation had some weak episodes the first season but the pilot was not one of them. The slow-moving mystery plot balances out the spectacle of the shiny new Enterprise zipping around. Yet the technological marvel that is the Enterprise won't be enough to fulfill their mission to "explore new worlds and civilizations." An omniscient and omnipotent being halts their progress at the edge of the known and puts Picard and his crew on trial for crimes against humanity, or rather crimes of humanity. You see, this being, whom we'll encounter again under the name of Q, indicts humanity of being a cruel, violent, and barbarous race. Why should such cruel creatures be permitted to spread our violent ways throughout the galaxy? Unable to dissuade Q that despite his power lacks the authority to judge humanity or that the court in which they are tried is unjust, Picard makes an individualist counter to Q's critique of humanity. Humans have been cruel, Picard admits, but we who stand before you are not, and let us prove it. Q agrees, parting with the fatalistic judgment, "Captain you will find that you are not nearly clever enough to deal with what lies ahead of you."

This sets the tone not just for this episode but for the whole series. How do our beliefs reconcile with reality? Can we overcome challenges to our safety and our beliefs without compromising them? Are we doomed because of our nature? By what are we redeemed?

Five card stud, nothing wild, and
the sky's the limit.
Q's return in the series finale All Good Things. . . answers that question to a degree and in a way contrary to the show's mantra and Rodenberry's principle that mankind as a whole had evolved past certain barbarousness. In contrast Q tells them that "the trial never ends" which is tantamount to saying that every generation has both to inherit and animate its principles. The success of the Enterprise crew on its seven-year journey has not redeemed mankind but simply demonstrated the crew's own virtues along the way. It is fitting then that the show ends on a less philosophical and more personal note with a last game of poker amongst the crew we have come to know and care about. 

9. The Best of Both Worlds Season 3: Episode 26 & Season 4: Episode 1

Locutus of Borg
This is surely the best-known episode of Star Trek: Next Generation and it certainly is the series' most action-packed episode. As far as action goes you can't ask for much more. We see the Borg invasion of the Federation, the Enterprise in a desperate attempt to slow them down, and a fleet of starships in a last-ditch attempt to stop the them. Of drama we have Riker dealing with an ambitious rival and some big shoes to fill, and of course the assimilation of Captain Picard into the Borg collective as Locutus. There is some sloppy expository dialogue that could have been handled better. Surely Data doesn't have to explain the plan back to Riker as he's executing it. I think they would have worked that out in advance.

Overall though episode maintains a constant sense of tension from the relentless Borg and the fact that only the increasingly damaged and dispirited Enterprise stands between the agressor and the entire Federation. The show's centerpiece is of course the abduction and assimilation of Picard. This amplifies the above tension threefold, first by suddenly putting Riker in command, second by pulling Picard, the show's bulwark of reason and righteousness, out from under us, and last by turning Picard against us. Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) was spot on to call this ride, "Lightning in a bottle."

8. The Measure of a Man Season 2: Episode 9

Lieutenant Commander Data is an android, an artificially created. . . what? Person, human, being, life form? He has no biological ancestors although he has a creator.  He senses but has no emotions. He walks, talks, chooses. He is conscious. What is he? What is the measure of a man?

A Starfleet scientist essentially wants to take Data apart for research purposes, in the name of science if you will, but Data refuses. Before the Starfleet Judge Advocate General, Captain Picard must argue for Data's human right to his life and to Commander Riker falls the unhappy task of arguing that his friend is simply a machine, property of the Federation.

Riker argues that Data is a constructed machine created by an inventor, nothing more. In a shocking display he reaches out and deactivates Data, who simply slumps over. "Pinocchio is broken; its strings have been cut." Picard counters that it does not matter that Data was created, all things are created, but that he fulfills most of the criteria for a life form, namely intelligence and self-awareness. Of the remaining factor, consciousness, who can prove it of anyone? The JAG's verdict errs on the side of liberty but falls short of calling him a life form.
It sits there looking at me, and I don't know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent, nor qualified, to answer those. I've got to make a ruling – to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We've all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.
The JAG wisely backs off of the metaphysical and philosophical questions: indeed how can anyone be assured of another's consciousness? We all must ask the question and few are so bold as to offer an answer, yet we must arrive at some conclusion, however tentative, for our world forces us to act. Does Data have a soul and if not, does he have any rights? What is the measure of a man? Intelligence, awareness, the cause or conditions of his coming into being, or is it his end, his purpose, whatever he chooses or believes it to be?

7. Elementary Dear Data Season 2: Episode 3 / Ship in A Bottle Season 6: Episode 12

This pair of episodes, separated by several years in the series' run due to legal issues, addresses the same question as The Measure of a Man. It is also the least silly of the show's holodeck escapades. Hoping for some recreation, Geordi and Data play out some Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the holodeck. Unfortunately for Geordi, though, Data has all of the scenarios memorized and instantly solves the cases. Exasperated, Geordi asks the computer for a new mystery in the style of the Holmes stories and with a villain capable of defeating Data. The computer responds by creating Holmes' nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, who, whether by his vast endowment of intelligence or some other unknown way, achieves sentience.

The newly self-aware professor begins constructing devices within his Victorian hideout in the holodeck in an attempt to explain his world. Moriarty gradually learns of his imprisonment and his increasingly machines begin to exert real control over the Enterprise. The episode concludes satisfactorily enough since the self-aware Moriarty is no villain like his literary inspiration. It is the sequel, Ship in a Bottle, which is the payoff.

Moriarty is reactivated by accident years later and is not too happy at having been saved in the computer and ignored for so long. He starts to ask questions of his creators. How can you have created me and not known what I am? Do I or do I not even have the tools to understand my world and my self? You created me with desires but I cannot fulfill them. Why am I confined to the holodeck, this one room? I just want  to explore my world. Neatly sewing together these weighty metaphysical questions is a neat sci-fi plot about getting Moriarty off the holodeck that, in a clever parallelism, eventually leaves us too wondering just where everyone really is and who is in control of the ship.

6. Booby Trap Season 3: Episode 6

A thousand-year-old booby trap.
This is the best of The Next Generations's many excellent sci-fi puzzle episodes. The Enterprise, in examining the wreckage of a starship destroyed in an ancient battle, realizes it has wandered into the very same trap that destroyed the ship being studied. The Enterprise tries in vain to flee but even at maximum warp they are stuck. A device hidden in the wreckage drains their power. When they try to destroy it the device begins emitting radiation which will eventually kill them. The more power they throw at this thing the worse their situation gets. It is simply a blast to watch Geordi devising different plans, running simulations, and even creating a holodeck approximation of one of the Enterprise's designers to get the Enterprise out of this booby trap and Picard piloting the ship through the asteroid field at the end is the icing on the cake.

5. Tapestry Season 6: Episode 15

Tapestry wears its purpose on its sleeve as a rather frank riff on A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life. The omnipotent Q allows Picard to re-live a moment from his life that he a considers a mistake: an impulsive brawl that nearly killed him. The diligent and moderate adult Picard regrets a youthful indiscretion, his foolish challenging of two physically superior and violent aliens over a trifle. Picard wants to pull these strands out of the tapestry of his life. Q gives him this opportunity and Picard takes it, not only righting one wrong in avoiding the fight but taking a missed chance and pursuing a romance with his then only-friend Marta. The result of pulling on these threads, though, is that the rest of Picard's life unravels. His relationship with Marta destroys other friendships and doesn't blossom the way he'd hoped, and playing it safe in that brawl never gives Picard the gumption to pursue the captain's chair. He ends up a middling science officer instead. Seeing the damage he caused, Picard gladly lets history pan out the way it did and, seeing the knife pierces his heart, smiles with the knowledge of what it means and the life that awaits him. Indeed self-knowledge is the theme of the episode. Even as an older man, and a prudent and reflective one at that, Picard didn't realize what had shaped him and how he had shaped himself. Simply put, it is hard to get "outside of oneself" and look in, however necessary it is to do so. The ever-playful Q, repeatedly chiding Picard's pretenses of knowledge, is the perfect vehicle for such an exploration.

4. Sarek Season 3: Episode 3

Vulcan tears.
Ambassador Sarek, Spock's father and one of the diplomats who shaped the Federation, boards the Enterprise to complete long-standing negotiations with some delegates. He comes with a disease, however, one unique and shameful for Vulcans who pride themselves on the exercise of pure logic and the suppression of all emotions. This disease causes sudden and uncontrolled emotional outbursts. At a concert, the Vulcan who should be intellectually admiring the structure and form of the music instead weeps at its beauty.

Unfortunately for everyone else on the Enterprise, Sarek's extreme Vulcan emotions are spilling over to the rest of the crew, causing violent outbursts amongst the people we have come to see as quite normal over the past few seasons.  These scenes ask an uncomfortable question: do we look so foolish, so out of control, so out of place, when our emotions get the better of us? In the final scene Picard has volunteered to shoulder the burden of Sarek's emotions while the Ambassador completes his mission. The two men share each other's thoughts, Sarek sustaining himself through Picard's discipline and Picard enduring the onslaught of Sarek's unchecked emotions. The torrent of love, sadness, regret, and anger pouring out of Picard is both drama and spectacle to behold, a frank reminder that no slave to passion is free or happy. Yet we cannot close off our emotions like a Vulcan nor if we could would we then be happy, rather it is our lot seek the moderate path.

3. The Inner Light Season 5: Episode 25 & Lessons Season 6: Episode 19

The inner light
The premise here seems like your typical sci-fi fodder: Picard's mind is infiltrated by an alien probe and he begins to live a life within the world created by the probe. The episode certainly could have been a flop but it is the sense of internalization maintained throughout that makes this episode succeed so far beyond the premise. You see, we the audience know the world on the Enterprise in which Picard lives and from which he has been cut off and when he moves into his new world we move with him. We make the same assumptions and take the same risk of leaving the old world behind. When Picard returns at the very end to the world of the  Federation and the Enterprise we identify most strongly with him and only then realize the intimacy that has developed between us and him We feel connected and almost bound to Picard and quite alienated from the rest of the crew that "we and Picard" left behind. This is dramatically compelling but also supports a philosophical spin. How "real," if you'll pardon the philosophically imprecise word, are the experiences from the life induced by the probe? Are they every bit as real as experiences induced by other phenomena? Are they just as real because they are experienced, or thought? Lastly, as individuals, that is, isolated beings who can never share the intimacy we feel with Picard, how isolated are we, truly and unavoidably? How much of others', even beloved persons', inner worlds are beyond our reach?

Lessons picks up this question and uses the theme of music to address the question. Picard was given a flute as the only physical token of his life lived by means of the probe. It becomes a symbol of his internal life and when he plays it, in fact it is more. When he plays it Picard re-creates that world. (It is also the only way he can do this.) When Picard falls for a new crew member, a multi-talented science officer as forthright as he is reserved, he feels strongly enough to share his music with her. To share his music is to share his innermost world. The scenes of them playing music together take on a great dramatic and philosophical significance as well as a bittersweet beauty.

2. Darmok Season 5: Episode 2

What does it mean to communicate? What is so important about communicating? The Enterprise encounters a people whose language is totally incomprehensible and despite a fervent desire for cultural exchange neither side can make any headway. The alien captain hopes to break the impasse and beams Captain Picard, against his will, down to the planet along with himself. There and together, the alien hopes, the two men will learn to communicate. Why? There is a monster there and the alien captain hopes this shared struggle will bring the two strangers together.

"Gilgamesh and Enkidu... at Uruk."
"Darmok and Jalad... at Tanagra."
"Picard and Dathon... at El-Adrel."
It doesn't seem likely for a while as the two repeatedly misunderstand one another. Finally Picard discovers that the alien communicates by metaphor and is able to piece together the story the captain is using to speak to Picard. In that story two enemies come together to a lone island where they face a danger together and leave as friends. That night over a campfire Picard is asked to tell one of his, that is, our, stories to the alien captain who lies wounded. Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the Earthly analogue to the alien's story. As Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh we see that just as in the stories the shared danger has brought the two strangers together and we sense the human and humanizing authenticity of the experience of sharing those stories.

1. The Masterpiece Society Season 5: Episode 13

No episode of Star Trek raises so many political, moral, and philosophical questions and with as light a touch as The Masterpiece Society. The Enterprise, tracking a stellar core fragment, discovers an inhabited planet in the fragment's path. This is no ordinary civilization, though, but one wholly self-contained and sealed in a hermetic dome. They don't wish to contact outsiders and they don't need to because they are also genetically engineered "to perfection." Congenital diseases are screened out before birth and each member of this "Masterpiece Societyis designed for his purpose in the society. A judge interprets their laws and advises always that the wishes of the founders be honored. Yet without the help of the Enterprise their society will be destroyed by the stellar fragment.

This setup produces quite the pay off. Is the society's isolationist policy to be followed if it dooms the people? What allegiance does the current generation owe the founders? Can individuals opt out of this social compact? Is the genetic screening moral? Certainly not to the blind Geordi, who would have been "screened out." Captain Picard and Counselor Troi debate the merits of their engineering program and conclude that knowing one's lot in life with certainty is undesirable. Why, though? What in fact is such ambiguity? Is it truly liberty?

In the final act Hannah asks why they, if they are so advanced, have not invented the technology aboard the enterprise. Geordi replies that necessity really might be the mother of invention. Is this really true? It doesn't seem to be necessity per se that spurred on the technology of the Federation. If it did then why wouldn't it help the society right now? The actual issue is either the quantity or diversity of scientists available. Hannah is the only astrophysicist whereas the Federation has the benefit of many minds. Does this mean that if she were truly the best she could accomplish any feat in any given amount of time? Surely not. Does this imply some sort of social necessity for progress?

Yet it is Hannah who seeks asylum, an act which would spell doom for the planned society in which each member is necessary. Too, the society's leader, Aaron Conor, falls for Counselor Troi. He too lets his personal interest supersede not only his political responsibility to his people but his genetic programming to protect them. Is this an argument for a liberal society or an indictment? On the one hand their society was doing just fine before the Enterprise came and on the other it could not continue without adapting.

In the final debate, when Captain Picard asks if those seeking asylum would consider waiting a few months until passions subside she asks, "Would you live in a ship in a bottle? You live to explore. We only ask for the same privilege." Aaron replies by asking her to consider staying with her people, her family. Hannah is arguing that the free exercise of her will is necessary for. . . well she doesn't say precisely. To that Conor argues not that she is wrong, but that the result of her choice in this case will definitely have catastrophic results for others.

Though the Enterprise has saved the lives of the colonists, the society was not saved. Picard concludes not with any neat bow tying matters up, but the frank admission that, "In the end, we may have proved just as dangerous to that colony as any core fragment could ever have been."

A technical sci-fi plot in which Geordi and Hannah tinker with the tractor beam, the warp core, and Geordi's visor in an attempt to move the fragment neatly knits together all of these moral, political, and philosophical issues. Perfect Trek.

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