Jan 24, 2020
Star Trek: The Next Generation “Shades of Gray”
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A long, long time ago, when the Agony Booth’s list of Star Trek recaps was called the Worst of Trek and only consisted of recaps of bottom-of-the-barrel episodes like “Spock’s Brain” and “The Outrageous Okona”, there was one episode that seemed like a no-brainer to be included on the list. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the franchise knows exactly which episode is the most hated. Looking at the IMDb ratings for every single Trek episode, “Shades of Gray”, the second season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, comes in dead last by a significant margin.
Which is mainly because it’s a dreaded clip show. In 1989, clip shows were a pretty common practice on TV, wherein for budgetary reasons, a series (typically a sitcom) would air a “new” episode that would consist of the characters sitting in one location and reminiscing about old times as a framing device to reuse footage from previous episodes. Back then, clip shows were viewed less as a cynical cost-cutting move, and more of a way of reliving classic moments from a series before such things were readily available on demand. But while the tradition of clip shows has endured in more modern times, TV writers now understand that viewers are a bit more savvy about this type of thing than they were in the ’80s, and have responded by putting actual effort into the framing stories. Sadly, “Shades of Gray” does not come from this era of television.
A lot of Trek fans are under the misconception that “Shades of Gray” came about because of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, but in fact the strike had already ended before the second season of The Next Generation began filming. The two major impacts the strike had on Next Generation was that a script from the aborted Phase II series was repurposed into the second season premiere “The Child” (with Troi getting supernaturally impregnated in the place of Ilia), and to make up for the delay in the start of the season, a two-hour special aired that was mostly about Patrick Stewart introducing a newly discovered full-color print of “The Cage”. (That’s of course the original pilot of Star Trek, footage of which was used in the original series’ two-parter “The Menagerie”. While technically not a clip show, “The Menagerie” showed that unlike our current entry, it was entirely possible even back then to create a compelling framing story around preexisting footage.)
So “Shades of Gray” had nothing to do with the writers’ strike, and was just a simple case of a couple of episodes earlier in the season going over budget, and the studio demanding an episode that could be shot in a few days to make up for the cost overruns. The result was, as co-writer Maurice Hurley later said, a “piece of shit” that was “terrible, just terrible”. Associate producer Peter Lauritson called it “probably the worst we ever did. It was like, ‘Never again.’ ‘Shades’… I don’t even want to remember it.”
To be fair, the first twenty minutes or so aren’t that awful, particularly by TNG season two standards. I’d certainly watch the first half of “Shades of Gray” any day over Lwaxana Troi lusting after Picard in “Manhunt”. Still, there’s no doubt this episode belongs on what we here used to call the Worst of Trek, so in honor of the occasion, I brought back the old banner.
So why did it take so long for me to finally get around to this one? Well, identifying all the reused clips in this episode would have necessitated doing a full rewatch of every episode of season one and two, which 15 years ago wasn’t as simple as just logging into Netflix. If you wanted to see the full, unedited episodes in 2005-ish, you had to shell out cold hard cash for the DVD sets, which were pretty expensive at the time compared to other TV season box sets, especially considering the dismal quality of the episodes contained within. Basically, I would have been spending hundreds of dollars for DVDs that I would have watched once, all for the sake of writing one recap. I’m dedicated, but not that dedicated.
Well, it was certainly cost-effective to wait; now that all of Star Trek: The Next Generation is available with a push of a button—and you can even get the entire series on Blu-ray for under $100—I’ve started on my first full rewatch of the show since it went off the air in 1994. And with the first couple of seasons fresh in my mind, I can at long last take on “Shades of Gray”.
One last thing before I get started: if you’re wondering why it’s called “Shades of Gray”, according to production assistant Eric Stillwell, it’s because “it was a really bizarre episode that wasn’t black or white; it was just shades of gray.” Well, I agree it’s a bizarre episode, but I’ll have to disagree on it not being black or white. It’s definitely a black mark on TNG and the Trek franchise.
Cheesy synth “suspense” music plays (man, the scoring of the first couple of seasons was abysmal) as the Enterprise orbits an Earth-like planet, and we cut to La Forge and Riker down on the surface in a swampy studio set—I mean, an alien swamp. Riker is sitting down when Geordi happens upon him, and Will’s looking bummed out because something stabbed him in the leg, leaving a bleeding wound.
Geordi contacts Chief O’Brien in the transporter room and tells him to beam Riker up. It seems they can’t take a chance on Riker continuing on with even a minor wound, due to the two of them being the first ones to survey this planet, and having no clue what they’re dealing with. Which really, really makes you wonder why the only people they sent on this away mission are the ship’s XO and its Chief Engineer and absolutely no medical or scientific personnel.
In the transporter room, O’Brien is experiencing some manufactured suspense to kill time, saying he can’t beam Riker up due to the “unidentified microbes” in his body that the transporters can’t filter out. He calls Dr. Pulaski to the transporter room and explains the situation, so Pulaski agrees to beam down to check Riker out. And she does all sorts of sighs and grimaces before beaming down, just to remind us that Pulaski hates being transported, a detail that (much like several of Pulaski’s character traits) was ripped off from Dr. McCoy, and which really only became significant in like one episode.
And here, O’Brien even does some light teasing where he pretends he might not have the right coordinates. He tells Pulaski it was just a joke, because he knows how much she loves the transporter. Pulaski replies, “About as much as I love comical transporter chiefs!” You know what? I’m on Team Pulaski. Miles deserved to be tormented for six seasons of Deep Space Nine.
On the surface, Pulaski examines Riker’s wound, and just like that, she contacts the ship and orders a “medical override” of the biofilters so they can all be beamed up. Apparently, one quick wave of her tricorder was all it took to make those unknown microbes no longer a concern. How does she know that whatever wounded him didn’t just give him a highly contagious disease?
They get to Sickbay, and things are already getting worse for Riker, who reports that his leg just went dead. Pulaski passes a tricorder over his wound again, and on that exciting note… we go to credits. Wow, they just used numbness in the extremities as a teaser. Maybe when we come back, Pulaski will tell Riker to get more vitamin B in his diet.