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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 3 (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.

The third season is on a very short list of contenders for “the best season of Star Trek ever produced.” Maybe one or two other Star Trek: The Next Generation seasons make the list, maybe the first two seasons of the original Star Trek and maybe two seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. From beginning to end, the third season of The Next Generation hangs together remarkably well, churning out consistently entertaining adventures and several runs of truly classic episodes.

There are two main stretches in the season where the show produces episodes that could legitimately be ranked as the best of The Next Generation. The first comes around the midpoint of the season, from Yesterday’s Enterprise through to Sins of the Father, all episodes that would not look out of place on a “top ten episodes of The Next Generation” list. The second runs from Tin Man through to Sarek. And that’s ignoring the wonderful gems scattered throughout the season, from The Defector and The Hunted through to The Best of Both Worlds.

Of course, one of the most impressive aspects of the third season is the fact that the consistent quality visible on the television screen belies the chaos unfolding behind the scenes. The third season was a deeply troubled year of television, with plenty of unfortunate conflicts and moments of sheer desperation from the creative team. Perhaps the most wonderful demonstration of how far the show has come is obvious in the consistent professional quality of the output.

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After all, the first and second seasons were hardly a creatively harmonious time for The Next Generation. Various battles were unfolding behind the scenes, with certain egos coming into conflict about all manner of things. And there were quite a few points in the first two seasons where that creative discord threatened to bleed out in front of the camera – where we got a sense that quite a few people working on the show were unhappy to be there.

As fun as it was, Conspiracy felt like a creature of compromise between Tracy Tormé’s bolder ideas and the conservatism of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. The departure of two of the three female leads at the end of the first season was a pretty worrying statement. Tormé himself would use both of his WGA-sanctioned pseudonyms in the second season for The Royale and Manhunt. Maurice Hurley (and pretty much everybody everybody on the production team except Ron Jones) phoned in the second season finalé Shades of Gray.

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The third season was a lot more professional. Even the episodes were the show seemed to be dealing with its internal issues – for example, treating Sarek’s mental healthy issues as a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry’s problems in Sarek – were low-key and dignified. When Ira Steven Behr was forced by Roddenberry to kill his original idea for a Picard-centric story, he remained professional. Captain’s Holiday may not be a classic, but it feels like Behr genuinely made an effort with the instructions given to him.

While the third season produced more than its fair share of classic episodes, the average quality of the episodes produced also climbed dramatically. This is really the first season of The Next Generation could point a selective viewer who only wanted to watch “the good ones” towards more than half of the broadcast episodes. Even the episodes that didn’t stand out – like, say, Allegiance or The Vengeance Factor or Transfigurations – were still better produced than their counterparts in earlier seasons.

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The average quality of the episodes (or the quality of the average episode) of The Next Generation leapt between the first and second season. It positively sky-rocketed between the second and third. That level of consistency would remain a part of the show until at least the final season of The Next Generation, when things got a little more erratic. That’s a pretty effective measure of how the show had improved.

Even the weakest episodes of the season were still much better than their counterparts from early broadcast seasons. The third season isn’t perfect. It’s a season of twenty-six episodes written by quite a few different voices. It’s impossible for the quality to remain consistent across that length of a season. Every season of Star Trek has its duds. And the weakest episodes of the third season were pretty weak. The Price, A Matter of Perspective and Ménage à Troi were very flawed episodes on a fundamental level.

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And the flaws with two of these three episodes were a systemic flaw in Star Trek at the time. The franchise was horribly sexist. It was arguably less sexist than it had been in the sixties, and less sexist than it had been for the first season of The Next Generation, but it was still a franchise with some very interesting ideas about gender roles and romance. Indeed, you can draw a clear line between Spock’s joke about the attempted rape of Janice Rand in The Enemy Within way back in 1966 through to the awful rape gags in Ménage à Troi in 1990.

In a way, The Price and Ménage à Troi are just the weakest episodes of the season because they push these ideas to the fore. A lot of the offensive stuff is threaded through the season. Riker’s courtship or Yuta in The Vengeance Factor (or even Geordi’s coming on to Chrissie in Transfigurations) both play to the same sexist stereotypes as Devinoni Ral’s aggressive (and grope-y) courtship of Deanna Troi in The Price. The Price just exaggerates that “men should be the sexual aggressive ones” stereotype further, and draws attention to it by having it focused on a lead character as opposed to a female guest star.

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(Indeed, both Booby Trap and Hollow Pursuits are problematic from a gender point of view, both about men who create computerised girlfriends for themselves, modelled on real people. In both cases, the story hinges on the male character and how tough it must be for them to interact with real people. The fourth season episode Galaxy’s Child would confront this directly when Geordi’s holographic love interest stumbles across his fantasy, but it’s all handled very blandly. Both Leah Brahms and Deanna Troi are willing to forgive Geordi and Barclay without any lingering frustration or upset about how their images have been used.)

To be fair to Piller and the writing staff, they were at least trying. Captain’s Holiday might not have been a great episode, but it at least allowed its female lead some agency – there was something refreshing in seeing Picard lead on a flirtatious and merry chase by a female character. The Best of Both Worlds introduces the character of Commander Shelby, one of The Next Generation‘s more memorable female guest stars. (Although she does get brushed aside a bit in the second part.)

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The Piller era would really be the first time that Star Trek seemed to get female characters right. Ensign Ro would introduce one of the franchise’s most enduring and nuanced female characters early in the fifth season. Piller would help create Kira Nerys for Emissary, crafting the franchise’s best-written female lead. Even in the fourth season of The Next Generation, Piller made a conscious effort to strengthen the female characters and to improve and increase their role in the ensemble. Even if the effects weren’t instantaneous, at least he recognised a weakness and attempted to correct it.

Still, that doesn’t excuse The Price or Ménage à Troi. It’s hard to argue that those instalments are any less sexist than The Child, which set the benchmark for “Troi gets stuck in sexist nonsense” episode. At the very least, however, they are better-produced pieces of television, from a strictly technical standpoint. The script writing is tighter and the cast are stronger. There’s a sense that sexism is more down to the way certain ideas are handled than to any intrinsically offensive ideas. You could re-write the romance in The Price to make a decent episode, while something like Up the Long Ladder or Angel One is doomed from the concept.

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Barring these minor missteps, the third season works phenomenally well. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is the fact that the show has made a conscious decision to focus on character. It seemed like quite a few of the first and second season episodes were just things that sort of happened, with no real bearing on the characters stuck in middle of this big adventure. The actors worked quite hard, but there was a sense that the crew was really secondary to whatever was unfolding that week.

Consider, for example, the relatively strong episode Time Squared, in which Picard finds a doppelgänger of himself from the future. This version of Picard abandoned the Enterprise before it was destroyed. Patrick Stewart does a wonderful job conveying Picard’s frustration and uncertainty and insecurity, but the script is really less interested in what this discovery means for Picard than it is in all the temporal phenomenon happening around the Enterprise.

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From the very first episode of the third season, the emphasis is on character. And Piller really pushes the less-developed members of the ensemble to the front. Evolution, Piller’s first credit on the show, is quite possibly the series’ strongest Wesley episode. Booby Trap is really the first time that the show focuses on Geordi as a character in his own right, barring his involvement in episodes like The Arsenal of Freedom or Samaritan Snare. Worf got a whole host of subplots in the second season, but only one or two character-driven episodes. In the third season, Worf is really promoted to a focal character.

Indeed, it’s easy to forget that – for all the scale and spectacle – The Best of Both Worlds is really a character-driven story about Riker’s unwillingness to take his own command. Sure, there’s a Borg invasion and the abduction of Picard, but these are both very much in service of demonstrating Riker’s character. Given how the first two seasons struggled with exploring Riker’s character – The Icarus Factor, anyone? – this can’t seem like anything except a tremendous success.

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(It’s also worth pausing here to note that while Michael Piller deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the success of the third season, he wasn’t executive producer for the whole run. Michael Wagner was in charge of the scripting for the first four episodes of the season. While it’s very hard to draw any inference from four scripts, it is worth noting that the four stories produced under Wagner’s watch are well-liked by fans, if not quite loved. Wagner tends to get glossed over in retrospectives of The Next Generation, and it’s understandable if a little unfair. Although his role was not massive, it was important.)

There are several fascinating things about the production of the third season, each contributing to the success of the run. For one thing, quite a lot of the third season seems downright subversive. It’s not quite as overt as Deep Space Nine‘s occasionally sceptical attitude towards Roddenberry’s utopianism, but it’s still present. You can see the show probing the edges of what is accepted as Star Trek. Many of the stronger episodes of the season take something that we think we know about Star Trek, only to twist it sharply.

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Evolution starts with the premise that Wesley might be a wunderkind, which is the basis of a rake of episodes like The Naked Now and Datalore, but that the expectations imposed by himself might not be healthy. The Bonding is an episode mourning the loss of a redshirt. Sins of the Father takes a sledgehammer to the concept of Klingon honour. Hollow Pursuits hints at what it must be like to be a background extra surrounded by these hyper-competent officers. (Indeed, both Hollow Pursuits and The Most Toys flirt with explorations of obsessive Star Trek fandom.)

These are all ideas that take something that is essential to the Star Trek mythos, only to turn it all upside down. The third season of The Next Generation never abandons or directly criticises Roddenberry’s utopian ideals, but it does question them. In essence, the third season takes the freedoms granted by The Measure of a Man and Q Who?, both of which make it clear that the Enterprise inhabits a universe full of challenges, and runs with that concept.

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As a result, the third season feels rather introspective and insightful. It’s telling that the climax of The Best of Both Worlds doesn’t end on the Borg unveiling a new weapon or laying waste to a Federation fleet. Instead, the episode’s cliffhanger is rather intimate. It’s about Riker moving to the point where he is willing to give an order that will kill his commanding officer and his friend. Similarly, the teaser of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II doesn’t end on the failure of Riker’s attempt to kill Picard, but in Locutus’ rather taunting use of Picard’s affectionate nickname. “Number One.”

The third season also saw a wealth of talent drafted in behind the scenes. As an act of desperation, Michael Piller actively solicited scripts from outside the system. This was a move motivated by the strength of the speculative script produced by Ronald D. Moore, The Bonding. This open-door policy was unique in Hollywood, and a rather bold creative decision. It was an attempt to keep the show on the air, but it was also an endearing demonstration of Piller’s willingness to try new things.

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The writers working on the third season are some of the best in the franchise’s history. Although Melinda Snodgrass never produced anything on par with The Measure of a Man, she was a stalwart influence on the third season. She conducted a page-one re-write of The Offspring, with Michael Piller. Ira Steven Behr was able to manage the staff efficiently enough to churn out Yesterday’s Enterprise after a fevered Thanksgiving weekend. Ronald Moore quickly established himself as one of the most interesting writers in the history of the franchise. Future staff writer René Echevarria got two screen credits.

It’s telling how many of these people worked on Deep Space Nine. Ira Steven Behr quit after the third season of The Next Generation, but Michael Piller aggressively pursued him to run Deep Space Nine a couple of years later. Hans Beimler also left the show at the end of the third season, but eventually returned to Deep Space Nine. Similarly, Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria would both work on the writing staff of The Next Generation before jumping ship to Deep Space Nine.

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In many ways, the roots of Deep Space Nine were laid down during this third season. There’s an obvious continuity of talent here, but also the same sense of willingness to play with Star Trek storytelling conventions. Ronald D. Moore’s long-form Klingon epic that concludes in Tacking Into the Wind during the final season of Deep Space Nine really begins with Sins of the Father. It’s no surprise that Emissary chooses to open in the midst of the season-bridging two-parter, The Best of Both Worlds. (Although, admittedly, the Battle of Wolf 359 does take place during the second part.)

In contrast, the roots of Voyager were very firmly rooted the fourth season of The Next Generation. But we’ll talk a bit more about that when the time comes. For the moment, let’s just appreciate one of the strongest seasons of Star Trek ever to air. This was the season where The Next Generation stopped being the dopey younger brother of a much-loved franchise and started to be its own thing.

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Positioning a cliffhanger at the end of the third season was a bold statement of purpose. The original Star Trek had only lasted three seasons. Ending the third season of The Next Generation with a big blue “to be continued…” was a way of reminding the audience that The Next Generation had now officially outlasted its direct predecessor – at least in terms of years on television. This wasn’t a series that was going to be strangled in its sleep by the studio, but a television show that was finally (and proudly) coming into its own after two years in the wilderness.

Perhaps that’s the most wonderful thing about the third season. It was worth the wait.

You may be interested in our overviews of various seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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

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One Response

  1. I love all your season overviews, hopefully there’ll be more TNG eventually! I’ve been rewatching season 3 for the first time in full since the 90s and found it surprisingly strong and consistent, a rival to my favourite DS9 years (as you pointed out, partly thanks to the same talent being involved). You can see the series evolve before your eyes as Piller works out what he likes – thankfully after we’ve already had a few good technobabble/ship-in-danger episodes that he wasn’t so fond of, so there’s a nice mix.

    Maybe seasons 4-6 are just as good, but those episodes blur together more in my memory, aside from the big hits, now they’ve worked out what works and can coast along confidently without the exciting freshness of this season.

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