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Friday, April 18, 2014

TNG Season Two in HD: Worst to First

Yesterday Sylvia and I finally finished season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation in high definition. Way back in 2012 I finished season one and ranked those episodes from worst to first. Now it's time to see how season two's episodes stack up against each other.

Season two is generally regarded as an improvement over season one, and while I generally agree with that common wisdom, season two has a lot more stinkers than I remember. Still, the show is clearly finding its feet, and a pair of episodes from this season hint at the real greatness to come.

Reviewers with keener eyes than me have said that the quality of the HD presentation in season two falls short of the stellar quality of season one, but these episodes still look better than they ever have. As I've said before, watching TNG on Blu-Ray is like watching it for the first time.

Here's how I rank the 22 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season:

22. "Shades of Gray"
Star Trek's first and only clip show, this episode was clearly made only to round out the season to 22 episodes. For 42 minutes we see poor Jonathan Frakes as a wounded Commander Riker sweating and moaning on a biobed as Dr. Pulaski uses "powerful memories" (i.e. clips from old adventures) to purge the disease that's killing him. Very weak.

21. "Where Silence Has Lease"
This episode has a great title, but the story is pretty thin gruel. A space monster called Nagilum tortures the crew for his own amusement. A redshirt is killed, but Picard and company outwit the beast in the end and sail off into the stars with some homily or other I've forgotten.

20. "The Outrageous Okona"
A cheap Han Solo rip-off rips off the plot of Romeo and Juliet while Data learns how to be funny from Joe Piscopo (ouch). Notable only (for me) for featuring a pre Lois & Clark Teri Hatcher as Lieutenant B.G. Robinson.

19. "Time Squared"
This is one of those dreaded Enterprise-runs-into-a-spacial-anomaly episodes. What's meant to be trippy, mind-bending time travel results, but in the end it's just an incoherent mess. Even Patrick Stewart, playing two different versions of himself, is lost here.

18. "The Icarus Factor"
Riker's absentee father shows up in an effort to reconcile with his son and Worf goes through a silly Klingon ritual. Also features the debut of ambo-jitsu, a nonsensical martial art that's embarrassing to watch.

17. "The Dauphin"
Wesley Crusher falls in love with a shapeshifting alien ambassador, but has to let her go because only she can stop a war. There's a nice scene where Wesley shows his new girlfriend the wonders of the holodeck and the beauty of the universe, but everything else about this episode is pretty forgettable.

16. "The Royale"
This episode features a well-executed atmosphere of surreal dread, and the plight of a long-dead NASA astronaut is genuinely chilling, but in the end it's really just a shaggy dog story of little consequence.

15. "Up the Long Ladder"
I prefer this episode's original title, "Send in the Clones." Not only is it a terrible pun, but it has a stronger connection to the episode's clone-centric plot, in which Picard plays matchmaker to two lost Earth colonies - one made up of offensive Irish stereotypes, the other a rigid society of clones dying out due to replicative fading. This episode has an interesting central concept and includes a strong pro-choice message, but the haphazard execution takes this otherwise promising story down a few notches.

14. "Unnatural Selection"
This episode isn't terrible, but it's laid low by two unfortunate tropes: the rapid-aging gag and the ability of the transporter to fix virtually any problem. The episode's depiction of Federation-approved genetic engineering is also at odds with other Star Trek stories before and since.

13. "Pen Pals"
Data winds up breaking the Prime Directive by striking up a long-distance friendship with a little alien girl whose culture hasn't yet developed warp speed. Both Data's naivete and the crew's churlish reaction make everyone seem a little out of character, and the episode's predictable resolution is hardly ground-breaking. How much more effective could this episode have been if Picard actually stuck to his guns and enforced the Prime Directive? It would have been pretty shocking, at least.

12. "The Child"
You have to give the producers credit: season two's opening has a lot of baggage to explain, and they pulled the episode together in spite of a writer's strike, re-using a script from the aborted 1970s Star Trek: Phase II project and melding it with some necessary exposition explaining Dr. Crusher's sudden replacement by Dr. Pulaski. Despite these obstacles it's a sometimes moving story, and Marina Sirtis' acting has improved enough to carry its considerable emotional weight.

11. "Contagion"
Some nifty special effects, a guest appearance by the Romulans and Geordi's hilarious ride in an out-of-control turbolift give this otherwise unremarkable story about a computer virus some extra punch.

10. "Samaritan Snare"
The infamous Pakleds make their d├ębut. There's something offensive about these slow-witted alien bumpkins, but their hilarious dialogue makes me chuckle to this day: "We look for things. Things to make us go."

9. "Manhunt"
Lwaxana Troi returns, and she's looking for a husband. Every once in a while there's nothing wrong with a light-hearted episode, and this one is pure fluff. Patrick Stewart does a wonderful job as a panicked, fearful Captain Picard playing chicken and hiding in the holodeck to avoid Troi's affections.

8. "A Matter of Honor"
Commander Riker temporarily joins a Klingon crew as part of a cultural exchange. Fun blood-and-thunder nonsense.

7. "Peak Performance"
War games result in a potentially deadly encounter with the fiendish Ferengi! Notable for some clever misdirection and the remarkable Lieutenant Burke, a Starfleet officer who clearly couldn't care less about anything, especially his own job performance. To this day I regret that Burke never reappeared.

6. "The Emissary"
The wonderful Suzi Plakson makes her first appearance as K'Ehleyr, Worf's old girlfriend and eventual mother of his son. And as a bonus, the episode actually has some interesting things to say about cultural identity, belonging, compassion and mercy.

5. "The Schizoid Man"
Brent Spiner offers another great performance as Data, this time possessed by a dead, ego-maniacal scientist. Worth watching for Spiner's magnificent snark alone, and Patrick Stewart's outraged reactions.

4. "Loud as a Whisper"
A nice little parable about disability, dealing with sudden loss, and the difficulties of communication.

3. "Elementary, Dear Data"
Superb production values (including really remarkable sets and costuming), a great guest performance by Daniel Davis as Professor Moriarty, and a fantastic ethical conundrum make this one of the standouts not just of season two, but of the entire series.

2. "Q Who"
Not only does Q return - always one of the highlights of the season - but he introduces the deadly Borg, who are never scarier and more menacing than they are here (more's the pity). It's refreshing to see Picard and his crew taken down a notch by a threat they simply can't understand or fight; in the end, Picard is reduced to begging. And he learns from that.

1. "The Measure of a Man"
This Blu-Ray release features a real treat for fans: an extended version of this, one of Star Trek's very best episodes. The extra scenes add a little extra depth and texture to an already great story, one that asks us to consider the nature of sentience and human rights. This is possibly also the best use of Whoopi Goldberg's Guinan, who with casual but deadly logic leads Picard where he needs to go. Great stuff all around.


Totty said...

For a writer in the 21st century, your article is surprisingly bereft of hyperlinks to the associated episodes on the nigh-ubiquitous IMDb.


Totty said...

Or at least Memory-Alpha