“Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Quality shows only get better with time, and by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation entered its 5th season it was already beating out most network shows in the ratings. First-run syndication was still quite new, and it was almost unheard of to expect to go up against the networks and survive…let alone win. The Next Generation went where no series had gone before, and it was just getting better all the time.
While the series and film franchise were reaching new heights, 1991 would also become a sad milestone year for Star Trek. The Great Bird Of The Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry, died October 26th, 1991, shortly after a celebration that would dedicate a new building on the Paramount lot as The Gene Roddenberry Building. The Unification landmark episodes were in post-production and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country would reach screen before Gene could see the film’s release. Star Trek lost its creator. The baton would be passed to Rick Berman, a move that would eventually doom Trek for quite some time into the future. Still, Gene’s dream was far from dead, and the franchise did survive Berman’s incompetence and disregard for what it meant to be Star Trek. It had grown too large for any one man to bring it down. Fortunately, there were still many of Gene’s acolytes on the team.
This was an exciting year for guest stars. As Star Trek grew in popularity and respect, many big names were asking to be a part of the series. There were also a few young actors who pretty much made their start in this season of Star Trek. A few years before she became a Bond girl and long before she would reunite with Patrick Stewart as Jean Grey on The X-Men film franchise, Famke Janseen would play a woman being transported to a planet as a mate. Unfortunately, she bonds to Picard when she’s awakened prematurely, which causes all kinds of issues on The Perfect Mate. Ashley Judd’s real first double jeopardy occurred when she played Robin Lefler, a love interest for Wesley on two episodes. For both actresses this would be their very first acting job in films or television. Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, would play an out-of-time troublemaker in A Matter Of Time.
Michelle Forbes would join the series as recurring character Ensign Ro. She would play the show’s first Bajoran. She would be a character with a troubled past who finds a family for the first time among the crew. She was eventually offered the chance to move Ro to Deep Space Nine when it began, but she turned it down. The character eventually became Kira. Forbes did OK for herself. She ended up playing Dr. Cox, a coroner on the critically acclaimed Homicide: Life On The Streets.
Of course the biggest guest spot of the year belongs to Leonard Nimoy, who would bring Spock around for the two-part episode Unification.
The writing and production team were the most stable of any year previously. By now the production was running like a well-oiled machine, and it shows in the quality of the episodes themselves. Writers now felt comfortable enough to push the characters into more compelling drama.
The episodes would rank among the best of the series even though it would be the first year without a Q episode. And there were some real stinkers, to be sure. Episodes like The Game appeared, which signaled the return of Wesley Crusher. A silly game would obsess the crew and be an obvious analogy to drug abuse. It’s used to help some bad guys take over the ship. Unfortunately, no one got to the bad script first. The result is what I consider to be the second worst Trek episode ever behind Casino Royal. Disaster would be yet another truly weak episode. It contains the largest number of goofs and continuity issues of any episode in my memory. The premise of a shipboard disaster that cuts off different sections of the crew was a good idea. Having Troi attempt command was another OK idea. It all falls apart in the execution and is the most sloppy episode to air from the series. Silicon Avatar is an attempt to bring back the crystalline entity but fails on all levels. Too much of the episode is a maudlin story of a mother trying to bond to Data’s memories of her son, lost in the attack on the colony. The episode is focused on the idea that one might be able to communicate with the entity. We already know it understands English, because we saw Lore talking to it rather casually in a previous episode. Ooops. Power Play is another mundane episode that we’ve seen too often. Aliens take over crew bodies in order to commandeer the ship. Yawn!
Sure, there may have been a few stink bombs lobbed our way. But they were far outnumbered by the truly great episodes and moments to make up this set.
This Enemy Mine knock-off is more than that. While pretty unrealistic, the episode pits Picard with an alien played by the late Paul Winfield trying to communicate with each other. The two characters/actors have some wonderful moments together that make it truly one of the most memorable episodes of the entire franchise.
Unification 1 & 2:
The plot would involve a spy photograph from Romulus that appeared to show Spock (Nimoy) on the planet with a Romulan senator (Throne). Picard is tasked with finding out if Spock had defected and bringing him back to the Federation. His first stop takes him to a dying Sarek (Lenard). From there the crew would split up. Picard and Data would borrow a Klingon cloaked ship and go to Romulus where they would encounter not only Spock but a certain Romulan commander-daughter of a former crewmate. Spock is there to lead an underground movement to bring together the Vulcan and Romulan people…unification. Riker is sent to find out how a part of a junked Vulcan ship ended up far away from the scrap yard where it was supposed to be. Of course, these stories are linked and lead to an attempt by the Romulans to invade Vulcan.
For more on that episode be sure to check out our review of the individual 2-part Blu-ray release.
Cause And Effect:
This episode takes a huge risk that pays off. The pre-credit teaser leads to the destruction of the ship. As we would have come back from each commercial break we begin at the same place. Each act then leads to the ship’s inevitable destruction. They are trapped in a time loop, and each replay they discover a new clue to their situation. Frakes directs. The episode also featured Kelsey Grammer, who had been begging to do an episode. Coincidentally, the part was originally going to feature Grammer’s Cheers co-star Kirstie Alley as Saavik, but she was unavailable.
The First Duty:
This is perhaps Wesley’s best episode. He’s now a Starfleet Academy cadet. He was involved in an illegal maneuver that resulted in tragedy. He’s faced with being loyal to his friends or to what Picard teaches him is his first duty…to the truth.
The episode featured Robert Duncan McNeill as Cadet Nicholas Locarro. He would end up in prison for the move. The episode would inspire the character of Tom Paris played by McNeill in Star Trek: Voyager. I never understood why the name was changed. They used the same kind of circumstances and Paris was taken out of prison to assist in the Voyager mission. A photograph of him used on the episode is even recycled on the Voyager pilot. It’s the same guy. Maybe he was being placed in witness protection.
When the crew finds a single Borg who has been cut off from the collective they adopt him, calling him Hugh. Picard wants to use Hugh to infect the Borg with a deadly computer virus but comes up against the moral implications. Some fans were not so delighted that the Borg appeared to lose their high-tension persona with Hugh, but it actually makes the race stronger in my book.
The Next Phase:
LaForge and Ro are subjected to a new Romulan device that puts them out of phase with their own ship and people. Ro believes they are dead and need to make their peace, while LaForge struggles to come up with a more uplifting and scientific answer. They do get to attend their own memorial services. The episode shows how much evolution the Ro character had undergone. It’s a shame she didn’t stick around for more.
The Inner Light:
This is another of those “best of the franchise” episodes. Picard is struck by the beam of an unknown beacon in space. He ends up living an entire life as one of the beacon’s native people. Patrick Stewart puts in what should have been an award-winning performance to be sure. His son Daniel Stewart plays his character’s son in the episode. The episode ends on an emotional note as the probe delivers to Picard a flute he had learned to play during his alien “life”. This is Roddenberry’s dream at its very best.
The season ends with a cliffhanger. When Data’s head is found during an excavation on Earth, it’s clear he has been to the past. The cliffhanger finds the crew hanging out with the likes of Mark Twain. But there is an alien threat to this past Earth that raises the stakes.
The episode is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. The image is sharper than it has ever looked for this series. Colors have a rich texture that I found quite impressive, particularly the deep reds and blacks of the new uniforms. This episode takes advantage of the image’s texture. The Romulan culture has a texture of its own, and it shines here. Because the episode stands alone, the bit rate is high and quality is superb.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is not near as ambitious or impressive. Surrounds attempt to remain true to the original production, so nothing here is aggressive. The theme certainly has more punch, as does the dialog. The big winner here is the sub, which tends to add depth to the overall effect. The original sound is still available for purists.
All of the “Mission Archives” from the DVD remain, including a wonderful 30 minute tribute to Gene himself.
The final disc contains a two-part new feature in high definition:
Requiem – A Remembrance Of Star Trek: The Next Generation: This one is in two parts.
The Needs Of The Many: (29:58) This one focuses on the writers.
The Needs Of The Few: (28:58) This one has two parts. The first half is another tribute to Gene. The second half looks at recurring characters and milestone episodes.
Again CBS has done just a remarkable job on these releases. From top to bottom this is something every Star Trek fan needs on their shelf. Of course, we’re all eager to see if the quality continues on the next subbed out collection coming soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio doesn’t eventually take a pass at the second season which is more and more standing out as the one low point in the release of these episodes in high definition. This was indeed the year we lost Gene. These new high-definition releases assure that his dream is still alive. “That commitment meant more to him than his own life.”