The magic of Star Trek: TNG’s third season

As this is Star Trek’s golden anniversary year, and with the pending release of Star Trek: Beyond, I’ve decided to look at the effect of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season, which many feel had an impact not only on TNG but the subsequent Star Trek shows as well.

TNG’s first season is often regarded as the series’ worst, and indeed, a number of those early episodes don’t do anything the original Star Trek didn’t do better. But even then, elements of the greatness to come were present. If I had to pick my favorite episode from TNG’s first year, it would be a tie between “Heart of Glory” and “Conspiracy”.

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The former was not only the first of what became a very long line of Worf/Klingon episodes for both TNG and Deep Space Nine, but it also allowed us a wonderful first glimpse into Worf’s character. “Conspiracy” was, intentionally or not, a nice (and even gory) homage to the 1956 classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ironically, we never saw a sequel to this story, even though the ending clearly left the door open for one.

TNG’s second season, likewise, gave us gems such as “The Measure of a Man”, “Contagion”, and of course, introduced us to the Borg with “Q Who”. It’s almost a miracle that the series was able to put out any good stuff during these two years when you consider the behind the scenes turmoil that was going on. This turmoil entailed not only the departures of Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) and Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher), but also a writing staff that was basically a revolving door.

The magic of Star Trek: TNG's third season

The third year of the series, however, provided a welcome respite from the disappointment of that summer’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and also saw the start of a stable crew being put in place on both sides of the camera. The man who got the most credit for giving TNG this second wind is the late, great Michael Piller. He began his career as a journalist before selling scripts to series such as Cagney & Lacey and Simon & Simon. Piller became a producer on the latter show, before being offered a chance to work on TNG. Piller wasn’t familiar with Star Trek, so he basically looked at what worked in TNG’s earlier seasons (such as Q and the Borg) and kept those elements in place, while also making TNG more of an ensemble series. This included McFadden returning as Crusher.

One of his masterstrokes during this season was the great way in which he brought back Tasha Yar. Crosby was dissatisfied with how her character was being utilized and asked to be released from the show before the end of TNG’s first season. But Piller basically took the lemon of the episode in which Yar was killed off, “Skin of Evil”, and turned it into the lemonade that was “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.

One of the best parts of that episode was that, even though much of the action takes place in an alternate reality, the aftereffects of the story would come back to haunt Picard and his crew in the show’s later seasons. This episode would also be tied in with the show’s ongoing Worf/Klingon storyline, giving us more insight into that culture than Trek had previously shown.

The magic of Star Trek: TNG's third season

Hence, the third season finale “The Best of Both Worlds” was not only a culmination of TNG’s third year; it was the culmination of what TNG had achieved by this point. One of my colleagues wrote an interesting two part article, “Should Picard have died in ‘Best of Both Worlds’?”, which asked how not only TNG but Star Trek altogether would have fared if Picard had died in that story. This also reinforced the fact that “The Best of Both Worlds” generated the biggest drama series buzz since “Who shot J.R.?” on Dallas. I’ll never forget the sight of my cousin Matt pounding the floor in frustration when Picard appeared as Locutus, and then the screen went black and the words “To Be Continued…” appeared at the end of this seminal episode.

All three of the subsequent Star Trek shows have attempted to duplicate the tension that “The Best of Both Worlds” created at least once. Indeed, in the beginning, fans of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise were often found saying to wait until the third season of each of those shows, because that’s when they would get good just like TNG did at that point. Alas, none of those three series managed to give us the same impact in their respective third seasons.

DS9’s second season ended promisingly with “The Jem’Hadar”, which introduced the Dominion (hinted at in previous episodes of the season). Naturally, this development was picked up in the show’s third season premiere “The Search”. Let’s just say that if “The Best of Both Worlds” was science fiction’s answer to “Who shot J.R.?”, then “The Search” was definitely the genre’s answer to “Bobby Ewing in the shower”. This is because Sisko and his crew attempt to have talks with the Dominion’s leaders, only to be ambushed and later informed that Starfleet is basically kissing the Dominion’s ass from now on. This prompts Sisko and company to collapse the wormhole in order to keep the Dominion from obtaining any more troops and supplies. Alas, the ending of the story reveals all of this as an illusion placed in the minds of the crew as part of the Dominion’s plan to see how they would react to such a scenario.

The magic of Star Trek: TNG's third season

But like Dallas, DS9 managed to go on after this fiasco, which included a retooling in the fourth season, the same season in which Worf became a regular. Viewers did eventually get that Federation/Dominion conflict, but while it gave us gems such as “In the Pale Moonlight”, I’ve sometimes wondered if the series may have fared better if that war came sooner rather than later. I must also note that Piller, whose success with TNG had led to him being given the chance to develop DS9, left the show in the middle of the third season in order to focus more on the next Trek series Voyager.

I once noted that Voyager basically gave up on its premise in its second season and decided to just become a logic-free action show. Indeed, that show’s second season finale, “Basics”, finds the entire crew stranded on a barren, hostile planet by Klingon knockoffs the Kazon. Another of my colleagues cited the Voyager episode “Alliances” as the moment where both Voyager and the Star Trek franchise died. “Basics” essentially reinforced that notion by not having one single crew member confront Janeway during the entire episode, even though she lost crew members in prior dealings with the Kazon, and her unwillingness to do anything with them led to their exile.

The magic of Star Trek: TNG's third season

Not surprisingly, the crew gets their ship back (with Janeway doing absolutely nothing to make that happen) and merrily resume their seven-year mission. The good news was that we were never bothered with the Kazon again after this. The bad news is that Voyager never took its premise of a ship stuck on the other side of the galaxy with limited manpower and resources seriously again. Nope, we just had to accept that the ship was always pristine and working perfectly with crewmembers that could be pulled out of the production team’s asses on a moment’s notice, despite the fact that there were no starbases around to supply the ship with this stuff.

The only time Voyager generated any positive buzz again was with the addition of Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine in its fourth season. That character, a Borg drone forced to rediscover her humanity after Janeway cuts her off from the collective, generated a lot of press. Sadly, this required the producers to drop the character of Kes (Jennifer Lien, who in recent years has had to contend with issues more serious than getting laid off, because of her numerous arrests). Garrett Wang’s Harry Kim was originally chosen to get the axe, but People magazine changed the producers’ minds when Wang made that magazine’s list of “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” for that year. I also suppose the producers didn’t want to get rid of Ethan Phillips’s Neelix, because they were in denial that Neelix was as hated as Jar Jar Binks (you have to love how both those characters were groomed to be as embraced as much as Spock and E.T., but in both cases, the opposite occurred).

Ironically, Piller left Voyager at the start of its third season because, among other things, he actually wanted to develop the Kazon storyline more (why, I’m not sure, given how lame they were). Sadly, his final contribution to the Star Trek franchise was the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection.

I must confess, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Enterprise. But the fact that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga gave this show the same mentality as Voyager didn’t surprise me. The episodes of the show I did see reinforced that notion.

I suppose it would be too simplistic to state that Piller not being involved at all with Enterprise meant it had no chance of being good. But the fact that Voyager, somehow, got the same number of seasons as TNG and DS9 probably made the producers think that Enterprise also going the same purely action series, premise-be-damned route Voyager did would’ve assured paychecks for another seven years. Alas, Enterprise got the axe after just four seasons.

Maybe there is no single answer for why TNG’s third season became the magical, pivotal season of television that it did. But the creative ambition that came together in that year made it clear that Star Trek without Kirk and Spock was not the inconceivable thought it had been just a few years prior.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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  • Gallen Dugall

    Conspiracy “Ironically, we never saw a sequel to this story”
    Not true the “blue gills” get their backstory completely fleshed out in the online game episodes. Well worth a play through and it’s free. The writing generally hits around a 7 on the scale of trek writing never hitting the lows the shows often hit. Yes, it’s completely playable for free. In fact you shouldn’t put money into it unless you’re just trying to support the game or really know it well enough not to be wasting your money.

  • Gallen Dugall

    Here we are on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and not more than a mention about that series, nope let’s talk about TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise which are not celebrating their 50th anniversaries. Hey, it’s the 25th anniversary of Terminator 2! Let’s celebrate Robocop! They did a crossover in the comics and I really like Robocop! The blind rabidness of later series fans, not to mention their creation of the accepted pop-culture perception of TOS through a Big Lie campaign of distortions and whole cloth fabrications, are what drove me away from the fandom.

    • RockyDmoney

      Your analogy doesnt really make sense as they are two different franchises. Most would say it is the 50th anniversary of the franchise and not of one particular show

      • Gallen Dugall

        You might as well have posted “I disagree” and saved the wear and tear on your keyboard.

        • RockyDmoney

          Have you ever had the phrase “loathesome cunt” used to describe you? cuz you should have by now.

        • RockyDmoney

          Yeah says the guy who posted nearly a novel’s worth of bitching and moaning. Fuck you!!

  • Gallen Dugall

    On the subject of “what killed Trek” I would like to say – bad writing. One thing the shows have always had is consistently great casts. Give them decent material and they can make it work. Unfortunately they were given terrible material and couldn’t do anything with it. All the franchise’s problems stem from bad writing.
    In part the bad writing comes from science fiction being hard to write. The only thing on par in writing difficulty is comedy. As a result the series (including the Original) frequently delved into Science Fantasy (where tech tech solves everything) or just straight fantasy.
    In part the bad writing comes from a narrowing of the field of writers. The Original Series (and GASP! season three TNG) benefited from some world class writers, and some talented enthusiastic amateurs, contributing thought provoking scripts to it. Later series access to fandom got strangled by writers unions cutting off access to fan generated scripts and placing many roadblocks and hurdles for established writers to overcome in order to write for TV and thereby forcing studios to rely entirely on their in house writers who quickly burned out.
    In part the bad writing comes from the ’90s great age of dark and gritty-ification of everything. You see when everything is in conflict with everything else it’s all drama! This encouraged lazy writing in all of television and film. Why have a traditional plot when you have built in conflict? Subtlety was abandoned in favor of hand holding the audience through melodrama. Consistent characters were abandoned in favor of plot contrivance. Sanity was abandoned for madness.

    • RockyDmoney

      DS9 easily had the best writers and best written characters in the entire franchise.

      • Gallen Dugall

        Okay name one of their writers who is better than Harlan Ellison.

        • RockyDmoney

          Ummmm….are you nuts? Hello? Ron Moore?

        • Timerider Swann

          Better than as a human being? All of them.

          • Charlie

            Although Ira Behr is an asshole

    • SimpsonsGoldenAge

      I disagree that the shows suffered from bad writing. Even Voyager had plenty of wonderful episodes with good writing in them but there was no cohesion or any kind of meaningful creative control over the show as a whole, just a hodgepodge of different writers doing episodes of the week with no thought to continuity or character development. Voyager was essentially mismanaged.

      • RockyDmoney

        Agreed. SFDebris does a great job I think of illustrating the problems of Voyagers writing. His main bugaboos are Janeway’s decisions are never challenged, too much techno babble,and the fact that there is hardly any difference between the Maquis crew and the Starfleet crew

      • Gallen Dugall

        When do you know that you can’t have a rational conversation with someone online?
        When they tell you that there was never bad writing in Star Trek. That person is clearly either insane or trolling. There wasn’t a single series that didn’t manage something abhorrent and unwatchable.

        • RockyDmoney

          you are a fucking worthless human being.

        • RockyDmoney

          I seriously hope you get your ass kicked on a regular basis

        • SimpsonsGoldenAge

          I’m not saying there wasn’t bad writing, I’m saying that was not the main problem Trek suffered from, at least until the Enterprise era.

          • RockyDmoney

            Dont bother with him.. He is clearly a maladjusted cunt

  • Zarco Rey

    Voyager was always going to have pristine ship and reset buttons because the
    studio wanted an episodic series, the series’ premise was flawed from day
    one because it was not compatible with Paramount’s “vision”. (Enterprise didn’t get interesting until season 3’s not-quite-Starblazers-meets-9/11 storyline, by then it had already been decided behind-the-scenes to end the series with season 4)

    DS9 somehow got away with the war arc, probably because other hands were developing Voyager instead of micromanaging Deep Space Nine. Or maybe to compete with Babylon 5.

    How is one DS9 two-parter a fiasco comparable to an entire of season of Dallas being retconned into a dream? DS9’s 3rd season was strong, I’d say Worf temporarily derailed the show in the 4th. It would be like if the 4th season of TNG had some TOS cast member sign on permanently.

    Though, that said, the reset button/all a dream/simulation/alternate timeline story was a card played by the spin-offs too many times.

  • Forrest

    I remember looking forward to “Encounter At Farpoint” and watching it, then not looking at it again until 1990. That would be season three.