by Mike Lunsford, Editor
When you’re looking at all successful television series, there is one season that defines the show. If season 2 was the make or break season for Star Trek: The Next Generation, then season 3 was the heart and soul of the series. It is often defined as the season in which the series “came into it’s own.” It was exponentially better than season 2 and light years better than season 1 (no pun intended…well, maybe it was).
My reason for going back and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation was to fill in the gaps of how I remembered this show. When watching season 3, most of my favorite episodes were from this season. In fact, a good number of my favorite Star Trek episodes of any of the previous and future series to come are from season 3 of TNG. As a child, I was not aware of which seasons were being presented on TV, I just watched the episodes and enjoyed them.
Let’s talk about some of the little changes that made season 3 so good. The first thing that changed were the uniforms. This may seem like a minor change with little significance, but it was very important.
On the surface, what impact does a collar have on a Starfleet uniform? Not much. It’s the material and structural changes that made this important. The original uniforms were very tight and uncomfortable for the regular cast. They were made of a heavy grade of spandex that Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry insisted was the “fabric of the future.” Because they were so form fitting and of a heavier weave, they were not particularly comfortable and they retained odors. Needless to say, the costume room was not a pleasant place to be when it came to the scent of hundreds of spandex Starfleet uniforms. Plus, because of it’s stretchiness, it caused the actors severe back pain. An actor in pain is not going to give their best performance.
Season 3 brought new costume designer, Robert Blackman to the 24th century and he immediately did away with the old uniforms. He ditched the spandex in favor of wool costumes and changed it from a one piece uniform to a 2 piece variant for the main cast (except for Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi, they stayed in one piece uniforms. Might be a little sexist, but facts are facts). The coloring was changed as well, no more piping on the shoulders, they were now solid black. Here are Blackman’s thoughts on the changes.
When you want the characters to look heroic, there are certain things that you must do to make them seem that way: broader of shoulder, narrower of hip, as vertical as possible, chest out, ready to go after evil. At the beginning of that third season, you will see that the uniforms change structure, eventually ending up with an Eisenhower-esque mandarin collar that leaves black yoke and angled color panel on the front, but removes all of the piping, making them essentially, more formal and dignified.
On the side of casting, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) returned from her year of “working at Starfleet Medical.” Her initial departure before season 2 is often attributed to Maurice Hurley, head writer on the show at the time, and his distaste for her. When Hurley left at the conclusion of season 2, McFadden returned to the show (and a letter writing campaign from fans is attributed to her return. Way to go, Trekkies!)
Finally, another piece of housekeeping made season 3 as good as it was: the writing team. Season 3 saw Michael Piller become the head writer and lead the team in a new direction. Many credit him with correcting the course of the series. Season 1 and 2 were “alien of the week” or “situation of the week” episodes, whereas when Piller took over the team, it became character focused. His directions to the staff were 2 simple rules:
every episode is going to be about a character’s growth. And every episode has to be about something.
It definitely worked. Season 3 does not have any of the problems season 1 or 2 did. There are a few weaker episodes, but that is only because there are some of the greatest episodes of any Star Trek series in season 3. Let’s review some of the episodes.
- Evolution – Wesley creates nanites that become sentient and threaten the Enterprise. They start eating the computer core and systems start breaking down. It’s kind of cool to think that Wesley created life accidentally yet the crew still valued the nanites wants and desires as living entities. Dr. Kelso from Scrubs is in this episode…and he’s not as likable in the 24th century.
- Deja Q – I love Q episodes. He’s the lovable trickster, if the trickster was an omnipotent, pan-dimensional, demigod. In this episode, ol’ Q is dropped on the Enterprise completely naked and stripped of his powers (pun intended). The Q Continuum is tired of his screwball antics and wacky hijinks and took his powers from him. He then leads the life of a normal human with an IQ of 2005 (so he says). He eats, he gets back pain, and runs into some aliens he tormented before he lost his powers who are looking for some revenge. Overall, a fun episode that has another Q (Corbin Bernsen, Major League, L.A. Law) show up after Q has learned his lesson and restores his powers.
- Booby Trap – The Piller rules are in full effect for this episode: it’s a Geordi La Forge centric show. The Enterprise is trapped in an ancient booby trap that is sapping power from the ship and threatens to kill the crew with deadly radiation. Geordi, who in this episode is seen striking out with a woman, decides to consult a holodeck version of one of the Enterprise’s engine designers, Dr. Leah Brahms. He ends up falling for the digital doc, but the 2 are able to help the Enterprise escape the trap.
This episode did take on a creepy vibe a bit as certain aspects are no longer… acceptable. Geordi essentially creates a digital facsimile of a woman he’s never met and proceeds to take a lateral run at her forward shield batteries if you know what I’m sayin’. They established earlier that the holograms within the holodeck could be sentient, so he essentially creates a date for himself.
Side note: Im sure when it came to crap details that an ensign or some crewman would be assigned, the worst of them all was sanitizing the holodeck. They had to have been warned not to use black lights in there, otherwise it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. Speaking of the holodeck…
- Hollow Pursuits – This episode gave a new perspective on Star Trek. For the first time in the series’ history, we see life through a secondary character. Lieutenant Reginald Barclay (Dwight Shultz, The A Team) is a mess. He shows up late for duty, he’s not confident in himself, and has an awful time connecting to his peers and supervisor. How does Barclay relieve his stress? By escaping to the holodeck, of course! He has digital mock ups of the entire bridge crew and is able to act out his fantasies (such as knocking out Commander Riker and having some “special time” with Counselor Troi). He is on thin ice until Captain Picard orders Geordi, his direct supervisor, to treat him as a special project and get a better performance out of him. Barclay ends up saving the day when there is a strange problem that is causing ship systems to shut down. His unorthodox way of thinking ended up being a huge benefit to the ship. I love this episode particularly because we see that awkward, introverted, shy people can still contribute in a big way. But seriously…you want to talk about some freaky stuff going on in the holodeck? Barclay has got to have the freakiest file, for sure. I mean…maybe Riker’s was worse.
- Yesterday’s Enterprise – This is one of those amazing episodes I talked about. In fact, from beginning to end this is one of Star Trek’s best stories. Where the previous episodes of this season were great character stories, Yesterday’s Enterprise is an incredible ensemble story. Star Trek loves doing time travel/alternate reality in their universe. This is TNG’s first foray into the category and they knocked it out of the park. The Enterprise is scanning a strange space/time anomaly when a ship emerges. It is the long-thought-destroyed Enterprise C. All of sudden everything is different: the crew’s uniforms are slightly different, the ship is much darker and more militaristic, there is no sign of Worf or Counselor Troi, and Tasha Yar is manning the tactical station. Wait…WHAT????? Tasha Yar back from the dead?? See, I told you she would be back.
Somehow, the Enterprise C has been transported 22 years forward in time and history has been altered. Instead of staying and defending a Klingon outpost against an overwhelming Romulan attack and gaining Klingon respect through their “honorable sacrifice,” a rift in space-time caused the Enterprise C to instantly disappear. The Klingons interpreted this as cowardly, assuming they retreated and it caused the two sides to engage in a deadly war. The only person that knows there is a difference in this alternate reality is Guinan. She informs Picard that the Enterprise C should not be there and that it’s presence has altered history. The captain begrudgingly agrees that they must send the C back to the past and rewrite history as millions of lives have been lost in this ugly Federation-Klingon War.
Not only does Guinan inform Picard of the changes, she also tells Tasha Yar that she died in the “prime” universe. This has a massive impact as Tasha. Now, she wonders what’s the point in her remaining on the Enterprise D if, after their mission is successful, she’ll be gone anyways. While helping repair the Enterprise C, she falls for their navigator, Lt. Richard Castillo (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore). When a surprise Klingon attack leaves Captain Garrett of the Enterprise C dead, Yar convinces Captain Picard to let her return with the Enterprise C to give them a fighting chance. She passionately states that if their mission is successful, she’ll be dead anyway. Why not let her death have some meaning?
After a deadly encounter with 3 Klingon Birds of Prey, the Enterprise C returns to it’s time and all is reset…but I’m sure there will be consequences to Yar going back in time.
- The Offspring – sequentially, right after Yesterday’s Enterprise, we have one of the most emotionally moving episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (I know people love Inner Light but this one is better in my opinion). To think this show has 2 episodes back to back that are such amazing works is astounding. After attending a cybernetics conference, Commander Data spends all of his free time in his lab working on a mysterious project. He reveals to Geordi, Dr. Crusher, and Counselor Troi an android that he describes as his “child.” He proceeds to raise Lal and tries to impart on her all the things he’s learned. There are some great moments as we see Data act as a very non-traditional father to his new android daughter, such as when she pulls Riker across the bar to kiss him and Data asks what his intentions are with his daughter.
As Lal grows as individual, she is growing at an exponential rate, accomplishing things even her father couldn’t (such as contractions). A Starfleet Admiral boards the Enterprise and demands that Lal leave with him to be studied at a Starleet science center. Both Lal and Data are not interested in such a move but the Admiral orders Data to do so. Lal surpasses her father again and shows emotion, confiding in Counselor Troi fear. She abruptly leaves Troi’s quarters and heads to her father’s lab, where she was instructed to go in the event of a malfunction. Data and the Admiral are both notified of Lal’s malfunction and rush to the lab.
Data and Admiral Haftel find that her emotional outburst is the result of a “cascade failure” in her positronic brain. The two work feverishly to repair Lal and save her life. They are unsuccessful as Lal begins to shut down. Data apologizes to his daughter who’s only response is a thank you for letting her exist in the first place. The Admiral who turned from insistent on taking Lal to assisting Data in attempting to save his daughter has one of the most heartbreaking lines in all of Star Trek history:
She… she won’t survive much longer. There was nothing anyone could have done. We’d repolarize one pathway and another would collapse. And then another. His… hands were moving faster than I could see, trying to stay ahead of each breakdown. He refused to give up. He was remarkable. Just… wasn’t meant to be.
In season 2, Star Trek: The Next Generation explored the question “what does it mean to be ‘alive.'” In season 3, after establishing that Data was indeed alive, they explored the nature of parenthood and the heart break of losing a child, even if you don’t have the capacity for emotion. I’m not crying, you’re crying!
- Captain’s Holiday – Captain Picard gets lucky! Thats essentially what this episode boils down to. The crew force Jean-Luc to take a much needed vacation and he ends up on the “vacation planet” Risa. What ensues is an Indiana Jones-esque adventure story involving an attractive woman, backstabbing Ferengi, time travelers and Captain Picard in some booty shorts.
- Sarek – One of Gene Roddenberry’s rules for TNG was to leave the original series alone for the most part. In season 3, he loosened the reigns a bit and allowed for a great piece of convergent Star Trek. The famous Vulcan ambassador and father of Captain Spock, Sarek is on board the Enterprise to initiate peace talks with another race. However, the legendary negotiator is also quite advanced in age and his condition is deteriorating. He is no longer the emotionless standard for Vulcans, he is suffering from Bendii syndrome which causes uncontrollable, violent, emotional outbursts. His assistants and even his wife try to hide this fact but it eventually becomes unavoidable and the conference is in jeopardy.
Sarek’s wife Perrin suggests a mind meld with Picard as a way to help Sarek finish the negotiations. Sarek will be able to borrow the captain’s mental stability as their minds become one and finish the summit. While Sarek is calm, cool, and collected in the negotiations, Picard is an emotional wreck, feeling and emoting Sarek’s deepest regrets: his inability to share tenderness or emotion with his current wife Perrin, his deceased wife Amanda, and his famous Starfleet officer son, Spock. This episode bridges the gap between the original series and the Next Generation perfectly. It also takes a classic character that many thought was untouchable and gave a vulnerability to him. It showed us all that even heroes age and that we are all mortal, regardless of our stature.
- The Best of Both Worlds Part 1, Part 2, and Family – Yes, I know this is 3 episodes and, in fact, are the first 2 episodes of season 4. Since this is the last Summer Viewing List article, I couldn’t just leave you on a cliffhanger like Star Trek: The Next Generation did with Season 3. And, to be completely selfish, these are my 3 favorite episodes of the show, period. They need to be viewed together, in succession. Even TNG executives Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller agreed that they make a sort of trilogy.
I mentioned in my season 2 review that I didn’t remember that in the first Borg episode that they were ONLY interested in technology. The Best of Both Worlds is why I didn’t remember that. This 2 part episode changed everything about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Shall I give you the recap? The Enterprise is going on there merry way through space when they find evidence that the Borg are coming. Captain Picard and company run into the Borg cube that they met the previous year. Instead of immediately attacking the Enterprise, they instead have a demand; they want Captain Picard. He flatly refuses and the space battle begins. The Enterprise is no match but manages to escape with some quick thinking from visiting Borg expert and vying-for-Riker’s-first-officer-spot Commander Shelby. You see, people are wondering why Commander Riker won’t take the captain spots he’s being offered and Shelby wants the spotlight of first officer on the flagship of the Federation. All of that is pushed to the back burner as the Enterprise hauls ass to get away from the nearly indestructible Borg ship. Their escape is only momentary as the Borg come calling again. This time, their request for Picard’s presence is no longer as nice as they abduct the captain and move away from the Enterprise. The Borg ship speaks with a unified voice and informs Jean-Luc that he will be the mouthpiece of the Borg in an invasion of Federation space. He will ease the transition for humanity as they assimilate Earth. Picard warns that humanity and he will fight back which is met with the first and infamous “resistance is futile.” The Enterprise crew manages to catch up to the Borg ship and beams an away team on board in an attempt to rescue their captain. They can only find his uniform and comm badge and when they finally do see Jean-Luc, he is not what they expected and they are not able to get to him because of a powerful force field. After they return to the Enterprise, the captain addresses his ship…only in a much different way.
Dude… I remember being maybe 7 or 8 and seeing this for the first time. I was blown away. The captain of the USS Enterprise is now a bad guy? And I wouldn’t find out what happens until later that year???? It still has an impact watching it now after all these years. It’s been rated as one of the most memorable moments in Star Trek history and the history of television. This was a gutsy move by the entire team and boy, did it pay off.
Part 2 picks up right where we last left our heroes. Riker, now in command of the Enterprise fires a massive deflector blast at the Borg cube hoping to destroy the ship…and his corrupted mentor, now called Locutus. Unfortunately, everything Picard knew, the Borg now know and it does no effect. The Borg leave the crippled Enterprise floating in space as they proceed to Earth to assimilate the Earth. A fleet of Federation ships is no match for the cube as it proceeds to his mission. The Enterprise finally regains warp power and races for a final confrontation with the Borg.
Captain Riker has been told by many to leave Picard and consider him dead, but the former first officer has no such plans. He engages the cube again, using unorthodox battle strategy and manages to get a recon team of Worf and Data over to the cube to retrieve their compromised comrade. The Borg do not continue to fight after losing Picard and proceed to Earth again. They know what he knows and can accomplish their goals without him…or will they?
Data, Counselor Troi, and Dr. Crusher attempt to get through to Jean-Luc and find a way somehow stop the Borg using Locutus as a transmitter. After numerous attempts to go after critical systems such as weapons, shields, power and propulsion it is Picard himself who breaks through the assimilation and suggests “sleep” to Data.
The Borg cube powers down and halts it’s progress within sight of Earth. The unexpected sleep command causes the cube to feedback on itself and self-destruct. Hooray! The good guys win, the Earth is safe and they got Captain Picard back! Everything is okay again!
As it would turn out though, not everything was okay. Star Trek: The Next Generation took a direction that many other shows of it’s genre would not take and dealt with the aftermath of such a traumatic event. It created a precedent for shows after it to do the same: you can’t simply have your heroes go through Hell and emerge unscathed on the other side. The season 4 episode Family delves into this in great detail.
After the traumatic events of The Best of Both Worlds, Jean-Luc Picard goes to his family home in France for some much needed rest and relaxation. He meets his nephew Renè for the first time and upon seeing his older brother Robert gets a chilly reception. As we come to learn, Jean-Luc was their father’s favorite and always the shining star in all aspects. Robert was horribly jealous of this and it culminates in a fist fight. Robert says maybe Jean-Luc needed the Borg to assimilate him to “teach him some humility.” The two fight fiercely and roll in the mud, eventually stopping and laughing. Jean-Luc eventually breaks down and sobs that he tried to stop the Borg but he wasn’t able. He wasn’t good enough or strong enough to resist their assimilation and he felt guilty for all the horrible things he had done. The two pull each other out of the mud and Robert tells him that as his older brother, he is here to help him and coming home was necessary. They eventually get drunk and sing songs because what good sibling fight doesn’t end like that?
These 3 episodes changed the face of Star Trek, and most importantly, Captain Picard. Family also has some subplots that focus on Worf and Wesley, but the Picard element was the highlight. His brother may have been a dick about it, but he was in fact correct. After his assimilation and subsequent return from Borg captivity, Picard was a much better captain. He was also a much more interesting character as he had some vulnerability and the writers managed that perfectly. He wasn’t invincible like so many action heroes, but he also was not broken. In fact, he may have been stronger after.
In looking back at Season 3 (and part of season 4), these 28 episodes of Star Trek are the best any of the series have put together. It was the soul of the series, the subsequent films and other installments that followed. Every character had a chance to showcase who they were, and they all shined when given that opportunity. As I’ve done in these previous 4,000 or so words, I can’t recommend this season enough as the best Star Trek out there.
ComicsOnline gives Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 3 – 5 Final Frontiers out of 5.
As the summer is now officially over, I want to thank you all for reading my viewing recommendations. Stay tuned for more from me because I got lots more television to watch!
Whether it’s reviews of classic sci-fi shows on Netflix, comic books, video games, or movies, we’ve got you covered at ComicsOnline.com. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our podcast on iTunes for everything geek pop culture!