ST:TNG:5x26: Time’s Arrow

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“It has occurred. It will occur.”

We’ve arrived at the point in modern Trek where a year-end cliffhanger episode is a given, rather than a storytelling flourish arrived at organically. “Time’s Arrow” should be perfectly wired for me – it’s Next Gen’s Back to the Future III episode – but like most of post-Season Four TNG, it’s lackluster and weak-willed, which I’ve described as “beige storytelling” over the course of this year. There’s less charisma and definition to the drama, and the beats play softly and without much impact. “Time’s Arrow” is perfectly serviceable as an idea for a story, but it’s not very exciting as an episode of a space adventure series.

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ST:TNG:5x25: The Inner Light

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“Tell them of us, my darling.”

Here’s another canonized episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about which I am highly conflicted. Even now, having watched the episode again for the first time in ten years or more, I can’t quite figure out where to land on it. It’s unarguably well-made and is as unique a story as Next Gen ever told, but it also feels dauntingly incomplete and underscaled for the scope of its idea. Which translates to: I don’t like it as much as everyone else seems to.

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ST:TNG:5x24: The Next Phase

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“Now I suppose I’ll never know what you were gonna say about me.”

Finally, Season Five gives us an episode that actually feels like a Next Gen episode. And thankfully, it’s a grand old time to boot, an admittedly flyweight science fiction adventure romp in which Geordi and Ro get “phased,” rendering them invisible to their colleagues, and able to walk through bulkheads, doors, and other people – but not, in classic ghost story fashion, through the floor apparently. No matter. I love this episode because it plays to all of the series’ core strengths: inventive (and VFX-enhanced) adventure; a good sense of fun throughout; and, in direct opposition to many of the other episodes this season, it’s thoroughly rooted in character.

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ST:TNG:5x23: I Borg

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“We are Hugh.”

I fucking hate the Hugh the Borg episode. I always have. Everyone else loves it; I absolutely loathe it. As you’ve probably realized by now, a) I was a huge fan of the Borg as they were originally conceived in “Q Who,” and b) I couldn’t stand watching them get thoroughly de-fanged by Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: First Contact, and Star Trek: Voyager.

Fuck, they were such a good idea at the beginning. But the writers chickened out completely on just letting the Borg be the Borg, preferring instead to simultaneously bring them down to our level (an understandable side-effect of needing, pragmatically, to find a way to defeat them every time they showed up) while upping their “cool” factor as one of Star Trek’s signature villain races. They accomplished the latter by massively expanding (and thereby de-mystifying) the Borg’s entire tech-noir backstory. Nanoprobes, assimilation tubules, the Borg Queen, Unimatrix One… all of this explain-the-Borg claptrap was the Midichlorians before there were Midichlorians. Don’t even get me started on Seven of Nine.

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ST:TNG:5x22: Imaginary Friend

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“I think she’s real for you. And that’s real enough for me.”

We’ve spent a lot of time with the children of the Enterprise in Season Five. This is largely Alexander’s fault, and it steers the complexion of Star Trek: The Next Generation into a disappointingly bland amalgam of family entertainment, with all of the teeth taken out. (Imagine Doctor Who if it were never allowed to be scary.) The final child-centric episode of the year is “Imaginary Friend,” and it’s far and away the weirdest. An alien being poses as a little girl’s imaginary friend in order to explore the Enterprise. In an outright reversal of the approved structure of a Next Gen episode, the little girl in question – Clara Sutter – is not only a guest star, but is a guest star with almost no connection whatsoever to any of the principal characters.

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ST:TNG:5x21: The Perfect Mate

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“Who she is changes when the next man comes into the room. And I find myself hoping the next man won’t come in.”

Space whore! The Next Generation! The oldest profession comes to Star Trek c/o a deeply skeevy premise wherein an alien empath naturally, willingly turns herself into the perfect woman for whatever male she happens to be in front of. And she happens to be in front of Captain Picard.

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ST:TNG:5x20: Cost of Living

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“Well that’s a conversation-stopper if I ever heard one.”

This aimless little ditty appeals to me precisely because it’s so far off the beaten track. It’s the fifth season’s annual Lwaxana episode, and it’s about… the importance of having a good time? On paper it’s an absolutely awful idea for an episode, but against all odds, it largely works. The lion’s share of the credit, once again, goes to Majel Barrett. These latter appearances for Lwaxana on Next Gen were surprisingly complex from her standpoint; at precisely the moment that the character was within striking distance of becoming a one-note joke (“Menage a Troi,” I guess), the writers turned into the wind and actually started writing Mrs. Troi as a richly-realized mature woman. Which, then as now, is somewhat of a rarity on television.

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ST:TNG:5x19: The First Duty

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"At the time I thought you were a mean-spirited, vicious old man."

Hidden among the general mediocrity of Season Five are a few of the most memorable episodes Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced, and right up on the top is “The First Duty,” if only because Picard’s line in the fourth act – “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth!” makes pretty much every Next Gen clip reel ever. (And, of course, it’s in The Picard Song.) It’s Jean-Luc’s A Few Good Men moment, and as we’ve come to expect from Picard/Stewart, it’s also the performance highlight of the episode; hell, of the whole back half of the year. “The First Duty” is also far and away the best Wesley episode ever, although I suppose that’s not saying too much. Nonetheless, it’s a really solid piece of drama, showing us Starfleet Academy for the first time, and giving Wes a moral dilemma whose resolution is pretty much the series’ final (useful) word on the character.

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ST:TNG:5x18: Cause and Effect

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“ALL HANDS, ABANDON SHIP! REPEAT! ALL HANDS, ABAN—“

Here’s the episode of Star Trek that taught a generation about a key trope in time travel fiction: the recursive time loop. (Remember, this was a year before Groundhog Day.) For some reason, this seems like the episode of Next Gen that pretty much everyone, everywhere, has seen. I don’t know why. But if I ask the noobiest Star Trek noob who ever noobed about Star Trek: The Next Generation, he’ll probably pull out the one where the Enterprise blows up four times – possibly, in fact, because the Enterprise blows up four times. Once, even,  before the credits!

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ST:TNG:5x17: The Outcast

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“For humans, the sexual act brings a closeness, an intimacy. It can be a very pleasurable experience. Inseminating a husk…”

“The Outcast” is Star Trek: The Next Generation’s LGBTQ episode, and it has aged well by aging badly, if you will. People hate this episode. It is very dated in its conception of the gay struggle; but then, it also earmarks such a specific time and place in the evolution of that struggle that it remains a memorable piece of television. It achieves very little, and makes a few serious mistakes. But Jeri Taylor writes, all in a row, four exceptionally great dialogue scenes between Soren and Riker, and they carry the balance of the episode for me. The rest is historical window-dressing.

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