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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Shades of Grey (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Well. That’s over now. Star Trek: The Next Generation limps across the finish line of its second season with a compilation clip show designed to save money and keep the season’s episode count up. Shades of Grey is frequently cited as the worst episode not just of the second season of The Next Generation, but of the show as a whole. While it’s hard to entirely agree with this assessment – Shades of Grey is cynical and lazy, but it’s neither as sexist as Angel One or The Child nor as racist as Code of Honour or Up the Long Ladder – it is possible to see where that argument comes from.

Like the first season before it, there’s a sense that the second season of The Next Generation might have been better had it ended an episode earlier. Indeed, the second season could have ended with Q Who? and the only episode anybody would really miss would be The Emissary. Unfortunately, one imagines the syndication agreements and network policy made this impossible. While one suspects many of those involved would be happy if Shades of Grey simply faded from existence, it remains part of the show’s syndication package.

This is a little like what this episode feels like...

This is a little like what this episode feels like…

To be fair, the production of the second season of The Next Generation was troubled, just as the first had been before it. While the first season lost two thirds of its female cast, the problems with the second season seemed to brewing backstage. Maurice Hurley wrote the bridging material for Shades of Grey knowing that he was on the way out the door. Several episodes of the season had run over-budget and over-schedule, leading to a situation where the studio demanded Shades of Grey be delivered quickly and cheaply.

So it feels a little appropriate, then, to close out the season with Shades of Grey. To any observer paying close attention to the series, it seemed like things were really in trouble. While Tracy Tormé’s feuds with Maurice Hurley had been concealed behind the pseudonyms that he used on The Royale and Manhunt, even the least nuanced television viewer could spot that Shades of Grey was not a testament to the health and stability of The Next Generation.

"He appears to be watching re-runs..."

“He appears to be watching re-runs…”

Sure, the demand for a clip show demonstrated that The Next Generation was still popular and profitable, enough for the network to really want to meet the orders for the season’s episodes. However, it also pointed to behind-the-scenes problems. It was the sign of a show on somewhat shaky ground, creatively. Among the many problems facing the show heading into its third season was the fact that it essentially no longer had a writing staff.

While Melinda Snodgrass would stay on (briefly), the two strongest voices in the writers’ room (Tormé and Hurley) had departed. Michael Piller is fond of remarking how much pressure he was under when he took over the show’s reins during the third season. Shades of Grey is a pretty solid indication of the creative troubles that Piller would be facing when he was drafted in to help fix the show.

The root of the matter...

The root of the matter…

To be fair, clip shows are an accepted part of the televisual medium. They’re part of the reality for shows unable to keep their budget or scheduling under control. Quoted in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, Rob Bowman argued that Shades of Grey was a pragmatic necessity:

It was Paramount saying, ‘We gave you more money for Elementary, Dear Data and the Borg show. Now do us a favor and give us a three-day show.’ So that’s what you do. It’s an accepted part of the medium.

It is a reality of how television is produced. Speaking on episode commentaries, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has explained how Fox would try to pressure the writing team into delivering one clip show per season. The appeal was obvious. According to the network’s bean-counters, the episodes could be produced at half the cost and sold for the usual price in syndication.

Giving the show a bit of a shot in the leg?

Giving the show a bit of a shot in the leg?

As Vulture wrote, responding to the strange decision to air a clip show for The Office in 2010, there was a time when the compilation clip show was an acceptable part of the television landscape:

Sitcoms used to always throw up a clip show about midway through a season. They gave busy writers a breather, and also inspired audience nostalgia for seasons past. (Still works: Aw, remember when Jim and Pam weren’t dating yet? And when Jim’s hair looked slightly different? And when Ryan was actually in the show?) Seinfeld did a few of them through its run; an hourlong highlight reel ran before its 1998 finale. But back then, there was no way other than reruns (and some DVDs) to see your favorite TV scenes; no YouTube, no Hulu, no DVR. Which is why last night’s episode of The Office felt so weird. Yes, it was funny to see Dwight trapping a bat using Meredith’s head, but one Google search will pull up the clip in a matter of seconds. That’s not to say we don’t appreciate an occasional writer-curated clip show in theory, knowing that these are scenes that they wrote that they also find hilarious. But in practice, it felt downright dinosaur-ish.

That’s a very valid argument. Clip shows were a lot easier to tolerate in an era before home media made it easy to revisit past highlights. It’s worth noting that The Next Generation only began to roll out on to VHS in September 1991, for the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary. And that many other shows – like Friends or Stargate SG-1 – continued the tradition of the compilation clip show into the nineties.

Pulaski's acupuncture skills left a lot to be desired...

Pulaski’s acupuncture skills left a lot to be desired…

However, there’s a catch here. There are – and always were – alternatives to the clip show. As Michael Piller noted to Cinefantastique, a clip show isn’t the only response to a budget crunch:

“The studio asked us for a clip show to help them out with financial problems and to make sure we balanced our budget, since we spent a lot of money on some of our shows,” said Piller of the fourth season’s budget woes. “Rick and I discussed it. We both hate clip shows. We think they’re insulting to the audience. They tune in and then you create this false jeopardy and then flashback as their memory goes to the wonderful times they’ve had before they got trapped in the elevator. That’s bullsh!t.”

Despite the show’s budget problems in its fourth season, it didn’t produce another clip show. In the audio commentary for I, Borg, Rene Echevarria joked that one of the reasons Michael Piller was so fond of bottle shows was the it meant the series would never have to produce another Shades of Grey.

The space EPA will be all over them...

The space EPA will be all over them…

Indeed, for all the arguments that one can make justifying a clip show as part of the television landscape of 1989, there’s really no excuse for the generally shoddy quality of the episode. The framing episode is incredibly weak – hastily thrown together and contrived, feeling incredibly cynical. According to Great Birds of the Galaxy, even those who worked on it were disappointed:

Pretty much everyone has agreed that it was the weakest episode of the series. “Piece of sh!t,” Hurley concurs. “It was supposed to be a bottle show, and it was terrible. Just terrible, and a way to save money. I was on the way out the door. I wrote it, and then the story editors did the rewrite.”

It’s worth noting that – despite the defeat and resignation emanating from the production team – it is possible to be creative when it comes to clip shows.

This is all Riker's fault...

This is all Riker’s fault…

For all that Fox badgered them into producing clip shows, The Simpsons were at least able to turn out a few interesting episodes from that premise, stitching together deleted scenes as part of The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular! and writing an charming short April-Fools-themed prelude to the ironically titled So It’s Come to This. Even South Park had fun with the idea with The City on the Edge of Forever, playing with audience expectations by having the flashbacks skew radically from what the audience remembered.

This isn’t just something unique to comedies. When the classic Star Trek ran into this problem midway through its first season – at a point where a compilation clip show wasn’t necessarily viable – the show responded by constructing a clip show out of an episode that never aired. The Menagerie may not be a franchise highlight, but it demonstrates a degree of ingenuity and creativity entirely absent from Shades of Grey.

"Why don't you sit this one out?"

“Why don’t you sit this one out?”

The only vaguely interesting aspect of Shades of Grey is the decision to focus on Riker. Riker is hardly the show’s breakout character, and so it seems strange to build a flashback episode around the character. Indeed, the structure of the flashbacks in Shades of Grey reveals the decision to be somewhat pragmatic. Riker tends to be a character who is around for interesting events without being the focal point of them.

So it’s amazing how many of the scenes in Shade of Grey – an episode about Riker’s memories – feature Riker as the least interesting character in a given scene. We get his introduction to Data in Encounter at Farpoint, for example, and an extended conversation from Symbiosis where Riker is stunned and held hostage. I have to admit, Riker’s recollection is surprisingly clear for a guy who was being electrocuted during that entire scene.

"Is it over yet?"

“Is it over yet?”

In a way, Shades of Grey feels like a criticism of Riker’s character. It presents him as a character who was simply always there, in the background, but who seems to seldom get his own plots that don’t revolve around him seducing beautiful women. It’s essentially Riker’s blandness that allows Shades of Grey to work as a clip show, presenting him as a character with an identity so weak that most of his memories amount to memories for the ensemble.

That said, it is also pretty telling that as soon as Pulaski “intensifies” Riker’s memories, his mind wanders back to his sexy encounters. That feels perfectly in character for Riker, even if you’d imagine having Troi in the room would be a bit awkward. “It’s just that Commander Riker’s emotions are rather passionate,” she explains. “As in erotic?” Pulaski responds, unwilling to let her friend away with a euphemism like that. “Very much so,” Deanna concedes.

Will they Troi again?

Will they Troi again?

Shades of Grey is hardly the best use of Deanna imaginable. She remains one of the more problematic characters on the show – indeed, perhaps the most problematic character to last all seven seasons of The Next Generation. The second season has not been kind to her – bookended with two less than flattering uses of Deanna. The Child featured an alien intelligence using her as an incubation chamber before forcing her to watch her son die. Shades of Grey reduces her to the role of fretting girlfriend. For bonus sexism, it even works in that crying clip from The Icarus Factor.

Still, there’s really not that much to talk about. Shades of Grey is a lazy and cynical piece of television, but it’s a lazy and cynical piece of television that makes it possible for the show to produce Q Who? or Elementary, Dear Data. Under Michael Piller, the franchise would get much more inventive about making those sorts of financial and scheduling decisions, but there’s at least a plausible argument that Shades of Grey is a necessary evil executed in an unnecessarily shoddy manner.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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