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.
Although, as Rick Berman argues in the documentary Making It So, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation “was at least in syndicated ratings terms, extremely successful”, there was trouble brewing behind the scenes. The show lost two-thirds of its regular female cast members, and the season ended with a whimper rather than a bang as the 1988 Writers’ Strike cutting into the development of the final couple of scripts.
The second season was no less plagued by problems, even as the show proved a ratings and commercial success. The show’s writers’ room was in disarray, with conflicts erupting between Tracy Tormé and Maurice Hurley over scripting for the show – leading to the use of both of Tormé’s WGA-approved pseudonyms on consecutive scripts from the writer. Episodes were coming over budget and behind schedule, necessitating a clip show to round out the season.
Even on the set itself, new cast member Diana Muldaur had difficulty fitting in the cast, and did not wish to return after the second season. Katherine Pulaski would disappear from the show (and the franchise) with little fuss – her last appearance being in the rather disappointing Shades of Grey. While The Next Generation was successful by just about any objective external measure, it had yet to really find its own internal balance.
Still, the second season of The Next Generation did show hints of improvement. The show was finding its feet. While the average quality of the episodes was nothing like what it would become in the show’s third season, even the more middling instalments of the show’s second season (like Contagion or Where Silence Has Lease or Peak Performance) were leaps and bounds ahead of where the show had been in the first season. It was getting where it needed to go, but not nearly fast enough.
In a way, you can almost see The Next Generation working through its own issues in this troubled second season. The two strongest episodes from this block – The Measure of a Man and Q Who? – work as compelling narratives in their own right, but they both double as insightful examinations of some of the core problems that The Next Generation really needed to get past before it could consistently produce high-quality television.
The Measure of a Man is a story that asks important questions about what we consider to be alive. However, it’s also an episode about how important conflict is – the role it plays in defining people and society as a whole. It’s a vindication of the right to stand against the majority and a moral tale about the dangers of simply going along with the flow. It’s an episode that smashed through the limitations that Gene Roddenberry imposed on the first season of The Next Generation, insisting on no discord or disagreements between characters.
The Measure of a Man is a necessary step in the evolution of The Next Generation, recognising that Roddenberry’s rules do impede drama and storytelling. Writer Melinda Snodgrass tells an insightful story about how Roddenberry himself trashed the outline of the story, only for Snodgrass to be subsequently told that the show was pressing ahead with the script. That’s pretty much a watershed moment for the development of The Next Generation.
If The Measure of a Man is about the necessity of conflict for drama, then Q Who? explores the arrogance and the invincibility of our cast. It’s another vital moment for The Next Generation, another important examination of one of the problems holding the show back from greatness – a clear demonstration of an issue that the show needs to work through before it can develop into something more substantive and interesting.
So much of the first season was built around the idea that the crew of the Enterprise were superior to just about every other culture out there. In Justice, it’s repeatedly stressed that all Picard needs to do is to beam up Wesley and go on his way. In The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us, the Enterprise crew seems to spend most of the time dwelling on how superior they are to the aliens of the week. In The Big Goodbye, Cyrus Redblock is doomed the moment that he steps off the holodeck and into a much larger world than he could possibly process. He literally evaporates on the Enterprise.
While this is a nice why to reinforce how hyper-advanced our heroes are, it’s a pretty anti-climactic way of storytelling. The crew of the Enterprise rarely feel in danger – there’s rarely a sense of risk or consequence to the action unfolding. Understandably, that makes it very hard to care about anything that is happening on the show. There’s never a sense that our heroes are struggling or fighting against heavy odds.
In contrast, the second season of The Next Generation challenges this sense of invincibility. Q Who? is the apex of this approach, humbling Picard to the point where he has to beg the mischievous Q for assistance after an encounter with a new species claims the lives of eighteen of his crew. However, it’s an approach seeded throughout the second season, playing out repeatedly across multiple episodes – as if to reiterate that this is a crucially important less for the show to learn.
It’s something that’s obvious as early as Elementary, Dear Data. There, Geordi is so relaxed on the holodeck that a simple misspoken command puts the entire ship at risk. The crew of the Enterprise suddenly don’t feel so perfect, when a stray sentence can turn the might of the ship against its own crew. This is something that plays out across the series, even in background elements like Geordi’s suggestion of a design flaw in the Galaxy-class Starship design during Contagion. Ultimately, it turns out to be a computer virus, but even the possibility draws attention to how fallible our heroes actually are.
Arrogance and hubris become recurring themes. The Enterprise is never quite as humbled as it is before the Borg, but both Peak Performance and Samaritan Snare reinforce the idea that the Enterprise can be over-confident in dealing with weaker adversaries. Indeed, even in Samaritan Snare, the idea of Picard’s ego is broached – the sense that Picard’s self-image is a little too important to him, and that it blinds him. This was arguably the case in Time Squared, where Picard seems to kill a future version of himself that fails to live up to his own standards, and Q Who?, where his smug dismissal of Q costs eighteen lives.
Of course, Q Who? is also important for introducing the Borg. The Borg are one of the things that The Next Generation really needed. They are a unique creation that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more iconic aliens from the classic Star Trek. The first season of The Next Generation had attempted to give the crew their own unique adversary in the Ferengi, but that didn’t work out for a number of reasons. The most obvious being that “rogue yankee traders” is a pretty one-dimensional and heavy-handed angle for a new race of bad guys.
The Borg stand out for a number of reasons. Most effectively, they provide a wry and cynical reflection of the Federation. The Borg are the Federation as it must never allow itself to be – an expansive all-consuming hegemony that is willing to smother all creative thought or dissent in pursuit of consensus and a universe that moves to one particular drumbeat. The Borg are the arrogance and the superiority of The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us amplified to the hundredth degree. They are a dark mirror, and an effective one at that.
It helps that the Borg were really at the right place at the right time. They tap perfectly into a late eighties zeitgeist, an expression of cyborg fears falling neatly in the gap between Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In a society making all sorts of technological advances, with the world wide web on the cusp of the mainstream, the Borg speak to a very potent subconscious fear about what the future might hold for mankind. They were a strikingly relevant addition to the mythos of The Next Generation, and it’s almost impossible to overstate how important their development was for the show.
The Borg were also alien in a way that so few Next Generation species were alien. Only the parasites from Conspiracy come close to offering the same sort of unsettlingly strange vibe. One of the more interesting recurring themes of the second season is the idea that our protagonists are somehow limited by their humanity, that the universe is filled with questions and problems and riddles that they will be unable to understand due to their finite perspective. Q Who? isn’t a story in the conventional sense. Our heroes don’t defeat the Borg. A magical man with mysterious powers helps them run away, but the threat is unresolved.
It’s only the most obvious example from the season. The Royale ends with the crew effectively shrugging their shoulders after encountering a twentieth century casino on an alien planet – they don’t encounter the race who built the simulation, and there’s no real resolution to the plot. The nature of the organism and the time warp in Time Squared is also left unresolved, with the solution to the Enterprise’s predicament driven more by thematic (drive forward!) concerns than by a rational plot. Even The Icarus Factor features a system bug that the crew can’t quite account for.
The universe a vast and alien place, and the second season reinforce this idea, suggesting that there is a limit to how much our heroes can comprehend of the universe around them – that mysteries remain, that there will be problems that can’t be solved by magical technology or a quick glance through the reference books. This makes the cosmos feel somewhat unknown and unfamiliar, restoring some of the mystery and wonder that made the original Star Trek so appealing.
Then again, the second season of The Next Generation also sees the show trying to figure out its relationship with the parent show. This was always going to be a key concern for the spin-off, and the first season featured a number of points of intersection with the classic show. The Naked Now was an update of The Naked Time. Home Soil riffed on The Devil in the Dark. The Neutral Zone was like Space Seed by way of Balance of Terror, only with more nineties moralising thrown in.
And yet the second season seems to fixate on how exactly The Next Generation should relate to the classic Star Trek. The Child was – by necessity – adapted directly from a script for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II television show. The character of Katherine Pulaski was clearly modelled on “Bones” McCoy. The Emissary featured a Klingon war ship reawakening from the era of the classic Star Trek, brought to life through stock footage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Perhaps the show’s Oedipal anxieties were played out in The Icarus Factor, the story of a son trying to out-do his esteemed and respected father.
The problem was that the second season of The Next Generation seemed to have a bit of trouble figuring out how best to pay tribute to its predecessor while carving its own path. It was all about striking a balance between the need to establish The Next Generation as an interesting and compelling show in its own right, and also confirming that this was part of the same franchise that had produced the classic and much-loved Star Trek. Given that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was being filmed at the same time, that synergy must have seemed particularly important.
And yet the show struggled with that balance. The Child was horribly dated when it was written in the seventies; as a product of the eighties, it was unforgivable. Unnatural Selection features a member of the cast contracting a disease that makes them grow old faster. The Icarus Factor plays out the troubled father-son dynamic of the ship’s first officer. The Royale feels like a weird homage to the “planets that look suspiciously like Earth” stock plot that the classic Star Trek would wheel out from time to time.
For all the fine work that Diana Muldaur had done during her guest spots on the classic Star Trek, her very presence providing a strong link to the show’s past, Pulaski had trouble fitting in with the cast. Attempts to have her banter with Data like McCoy did with Spock didn’t work well. It often seemed like Pulaski was bullying her workmate. Indeed, it was only when the writers stopped treating Pulaski and Data as a stand-in for McCoy and Spock that their dynamic showed progress. The penultimate episode of the season, Peak Performance, has quite a nice subplot for the pair that doesn’t feel too tied to presenting Pulaski as “Bones 2.0.”
Indeed, the more successful episodes of the season realised that it was more important to be true to the spirit of the classic Star Trek than to try to emulate the show note-for-note. Contagion, for example, feels like a riff on many of the classic Star Trek storytelling tropes – a rogue captain, a dead world, a Cold War analogue – but all delivered in a style that feels unique to The Next Generation. The successful interpersonal interactions of The Measure of a Man were the result of Melinda Snodgrass trying to strike up the same sort of dynamic that had worked on Kirk’s Enterprise – characters unafraid to interact and converse.
Even Q Who? feels like an attempt to give a classic Star Trek story the Next Generation treatment. Kirk and his crew would frequently stumble across Lovecraftian horrors littered through the cosmos. The Borg feel like the same sort of fundamentally alien threat as the Old Ones from What Are Little Girls Made Of? or the Planet Killer from The Doomsday Machine. The Borg are just updated for the eighties, and to fit within the context of The Next Generation.
And, yet, for all these improvements, there are some things the second season just can’t get past. The second season of The Next Generation remains one of the weaker seasons of the show’s seven-season run. It’s an improvement over the first season, but we haven’t reached the point where it has come entirely into its own yet. Part of this is doing to a staggering inconsistency in quality. This is a show where the same writer can produce The Measure of a Man and Up the Long Ladder.
It’s also show that is still struggling with gender issue. You would imagine that losing two of its three female cast members would make the show a bit more conscious about its treatment of female characters, but you still end up with episodes like The Child or Manhunt. The Child is an episode about an alien that chooses to invite itself into Troi’s body and grow as her child, while the episode tells us repeatedly how wonderful that is. Manhunt is an episode about how hilarious it is when a middle-aged woman dares to be sexually active.
These are serious problems, and The Next Generation does gradually improve – even if its female characters are never quite as strong as those that would be featured on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Still, it’s a reminder that there is much done and a lot more to do for The Next Generation. We aren’t completely out of the woods yet, and it’s troubling how blasé The Next Generation seems to be about these problems.
That said, there’s also a more banal problem with the second season. There’s a sense that The Next Generation isn’t yet everything that it needs to be. The most obviously missing facet is the lack of focus on the characters at the core of the series. There’s still a sense that the writers are adhering to the model of classic Star Trek, where something happens to the ship and the character development is incidental.
The weaker episodes feel completely disconnected from the crew, as if we’re watching a show about guest characters that just happens to feature our leads. The Outrageous Okona is a story about a conman who helps two young lovers bring peace to their corner of the universe, with the regular cast doing nothing but watching from the sidelines. As Loud as a Whisper is an issue-driven story about a deaf and mute negotiator who has to overcome adversity to help end a war.
Some of the characters still struggle. Wesley seems like the lead of his own teenage sci-fi drama. Counsellor Troi seems particularly redundant since Guinan came on board. Rather tellingly, Troi spends the first episode of the second season serving as a host for an alien that occupies her uterus, and the final episode of the season freaking out by Riker’s bedside. There’s never a sense of who Troi is as a character in her own right. To be fair, the show would never really get a proper handle on Troi, but the second season is particularly awkward in its use of her character.
Even some of the stronger episodes of the season suffer from this difficulty with the main cast. For all that Data’s interest in Sherlock Holmes causes the problem in Elementary, Dear Data, Data does not resolve the plot. The focus of the plot shifts at the halfway point; Picard has to arrive and negotiate with Moriarty. While Picard’s interest in archaeology is pushed to the fore in Contagion, he’s not really the focal point of the episode. While we get an insight into Worf in The Emissary, the episode is much more interested in the guest character of K’Ehleyr.
We get nice little vignettes of the crew hanging out together, but there’s still a sense that The Next Generation is a show about strange stuff happening to the Enterprise rather than to the crew. The season’s best Picard episode, Time Squared, is driven more by Patrick Stewart’s performance as a troubled man than by Maurice Hurley’s economical script. Given that The Next Generation unfolds in a futuristic world that is foreign to the audience, the characters are essential to introducing us to and guiding us through it.
Even when episodes do try to focus on character, there’s a sense that The Next Generation isn’t yet ready to be that kind of show. The Icarus Factor is what happens when The Next Generation tries to develop into a character-driven drama, and that just doesn’t work. The scripting isn’t up to scratch. The conversations between Wesley and Picard in Samaritan Snare should be intriguing and captivating and exciting, but they ultimately feel rather stale. The Next Generation doesn’t yet have writers who can do character-based storytelling in the context of Star Trek.
That’s why – for all the advances that the show makes during this stretch of episodes – the show still needed Michael Piller to shake things up during the third season. Piller’s revolutionary approach to The Next Generation was to insist that each and every episode be built around a main character – that every episode should tell us something about our cast and crew. That, more than anything else, explains the dramatic leap in quality between the second and third seasons of the spin-off.
Sure, Piller’s approach wasn’t overly rigid. The Survivors, for example, is a third season episode not driven by a particular character. Piller’s insistence on tying each plot back to the main cast was also occasionally a bit self-sabotaging. Reunion, for example, decided to kill off K’Ehleyr to generate angst for Worf. However, it did change the way that The Next Generation looked at its cast. They were no longer pieces to be moved around a board. They felt like real characters.
And, to be fair, that approach begins to bleed into the show during the second season. We get little snippets of interaction. We see Worf’s exercise programme in Where Silence Has Lease. We relax with Data and Geordi in Elementary, Dear Data. The poker game is introduced in The Measure of a Man. We even get see Picard going horse riding in Pen Pals. The cast are growing comfortable in their roles.
One of the defining attributes of The Next Generation was the way that this cast felt like a family. They felt more well-rounded and more developed than the ensemble on the classic Star Trek. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but we are slowly getting there. We just need a little extra push to get us across the line.
You may be interested in our overviews of various seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- The Child
- Supplemental: Phase II (1978) – The Child
- Where Silence Has Lease
- Elementary, Dear Data
- Supplemental: Embrace the Wolf
- The Outrageous Okona
- Loud as a Whisper
- The Schizoid Man
- Unnatural Selection
- Supplemental: Deep Space Nine (Marvel Comics) #3-4 – The Cancer Within
- A Matter of Honour
- The Measure of a Man
- Supplemental: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: Brave New World by Chris Roberson
- Supplemental: The Measure of a Man (Extended Cut)
- The Dauphin
- Supplemental: Masks by John Vornholt
- The Royale
- Time Squared
- The Icarus Factor
- Pen Pals
- Q Who?
- Samaritan Snare
- Up the Long Ladder
- The Emissary
- Peak Performance
- Shades of Grey
Filed under: The Next Generation | Tagged: Big Goodbye, borg, Diana Muldaur, gene roddenberry, Geordi La Forge, Katherine Pulaski, Next Generation, picard, Rick Berman, Samaritan Snare, star trek, Star Trek Next Generation, star trek: the next generation, Tracy Tormé, William Riker, Worf |