May 15, 2019
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 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.
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.
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.
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.