Last week CBS Home Video continued its meticulous and expensive restoration of Star Trek: The Next Generation, begun earlier this year, with the release of the complete second season on Blu-ray. The popular consensus over the years has been that Star Trek: The Next Generation (or, for brevity’s sake, just TNG from now on) was a more or less crappy show in its first two seasons, and only really got good and became the TNG we all know and love from season three forward. That’s kinda true….and also kinda not. Yes, season one of the show was mostly a hot mess, with only a handful of episodes really any good. Truth is, Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a large hand in that first season of the show, and (blasphemous as it may sound) the more Roddenberry had to do with the franchise, the worse it usually was. His idea of a future where humanity was perfect, and therefore no conflict existed between “elevated” future humans, was a ridiculous notion that he came to in old age and was not present in the original series. But the first season of the show is filled with these bland “perfect” 24th century drama free people. But despite all the creative issues in that first year, the show was a massive ratings success for Paramount from the get go; the trick was to be both popular and good in the following season, which meant lots of changes would have to be made for year two.
Unfortunately, season two was hampered by a lot of problems going into it; the WGA writer’s strike of 1988 happened right as the series ended its first season and lasted six months, delaying the start of production. Denise Crosby, who played security chief Tasha Yar, had left the series at the end of season one. And not long after season one wrapped Gates McFadden, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher, was unceremoniously fired from the show. The special features on this Blu-ray set cover this situation pretty candidly for the most part, but don’t go into great detail. But it has been reported over the years that McFadden was let go due to rebuffing the alleged unwanted sexual advances of one of the producers of the show, Maurice Hurley. If that is indeed true, it makes me throw up in my mouth a little that Roddenberry and co-executive producer Rick Berman would have allowed such a thing to take place. Sexism was, I guess, alive and well in the 24th Century after all. None of this is covered in special features on the set, but a quick Google search will provide all the salacious gossip you need.
Season Two Cast and Crew Changes
Of course, the two biggest changes to the series were the cast additions; Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast on a recurring basis as Guinan, the alien bartender on the ship’s new crew lounge called Ten-Forward, and Diana Muldaur as the new Chief Medical Officer,Dr. Katherine Pulaski. The addition of Whoopi, who at the time was an actual big time movie star was a huge boon to the series. To this day, I remember watching episodes when they originally aired, and non Trek people wandering in the room, jaws agape that such a legitimate movie star would want to be on a syndicated sci-fi show (cut to two decades later, where Whoopi hosts a daytime talk show and is a recurring guest star on Glee. My, how times have changed) Goldberg’s character, who was a cross between Yoda and a bartender on Cheers, could have been gimmicky, but more often than not she worked extremely well with the cast and was a huge asset to the series.
The addition of television staple Diana Muldaur was less permanent, but still changed the show in a fundamental way in the long run. After the firing of Gates McFadden, Roddenberry begged Muldaur to come out of retirement and join the series, as she had been a guest star on the classic show and therefore had goodwill from the fanbase for this reason. She complied, but she refused to ever sign a standard multi-year contract, and was never even in the opening credits. Instead, she was always listed as “special guest star’, which makes me think she was never planning to be permanent. Pulaski was older than Crusher by at least decade, was a lot more opinionated and far less likely to make doe eyes at Picard. Personally, I loved her, but fans (specifically, young male fans) wanted the sexier MILF of Starfleet back, and eventually got their wish once McFadden’s nemesis, producer Maurice Hurley, left the show. To this very day, fanboy opinions of Pulaski fall under “she wasn’t hot enough, and therefore needed to go.” Strangely though, a lot of Pulaski’s personality traits, like her backbone when dealing with the Captain, were transferred over to Crusher when she returned. So while Kate Pulaski is only ever mentioned again once after she departed the show, in a strange way her character lingered on in a revamped and better written Beverly Crusher.
Aside from the new faces on board the ship, underutilized characters from the first season found new roles that better suited them. Levar Burton’s character of Geordi Laforge was not much more than a blind version of Sulu from the classic show in year one, so in year two he was promoted to Chief Engineer and suddenly had a lot more to do. Also finding a much bigger role now was Worf, who was now Chief of Security (which, as Patrick Stewart ponders on the special features, makes you wonder just what WAS he doing in season one??) Commander Riker grew a beard and got a lot less stiff, and the transporter chief got a name, O’Brien. He’d eventually grow so much as a character that he’d be spun-off to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine some years later. All the pieces of the show were finally starting to fall into place.
TNG On Blu-Grading The Contents
Season two probably gets its rep as not being very good probably due to the fact that some of the very worst episodes of the entire series are among its number. I’m speaking now of shows like The Outrageous Okona, where Data is instructed by 80’s comedian Joe Piscopo how to be funny (he fails. So does the episode.) There was also Manhunt, an excruciating show where Deanna Troi’s mother comes on board looking for a husband, and bad sitcom shenanigans ensue (really, that’s the whole plot.) And worst offender of all is the season finale Shades of Gray, which was the first and only “clip show” in Star Trek history. A clip show of course is that tired old television trope of characters pulling a “remember when?” moment, and flashbacks occur which are just clips from older shows. It’s is the kind of tedious television making that was the stuff of bad sitcoms like The Facts of Life or Webster, and beneath a show like Star Trek. And there are one or two other groaners this season too.
Having said all that, there are some true gems of episodes in this season, far more than in season one, starting with the Sherlock Holmes themed Elementary, Dear Data. Other highlight episodes are A Matter of Honor, where Riker joins a Klingon crew in an exchange program, Peak Performance, where the Enterprise plays in war games with an eighty-year-old derelict ship, and Pen Pals, a Prime Directive-themed episode centered around Data’s friendship with an alien child. The Emissary is another terrific episode that introduces Worf’s half Klingon/half human lover K’ehylar to the series. Even so-so episodes like Samaritan Snare are worth watching for scenes like the usually erudite Jean-Luc Picard having sandwiches while on a long shuttle trip with Wesley, all while talking about his wayward youth as a brawling hooligan.
But the two highlight episodes from that season have got to be The Measure of a Man and Q Who? Measure is not only the best episode of the season, it is one of the best episodes of the series, period. The episode is essentially a courtroom drama, where Data is put on trial to determine if he is indeed a sentient being or merely Starfleet property, with Picard defending him and Riker being forced to prosecute. Many consider the first truly great episode of TNG, including actor Patrick Stewart. And as a bonus for this Blu-ray set, since the series had to undergo a top to bottom reconstruction for HD, an extra twelve minutes were discovered and re-inserted into the episode making for the first extended version of a Star Trek episode ever. And Q Who? is beloved for not only returning fan favorite nemesis Q to the series, but introducing one of Trek’s most famous villains in the form of the Borg. If I had to grade on a curve, I’d have to give the season two episodes overall only a slightly above average rating, if only because some of the bad ones are just so bad. Grade: B
The High-Def Restoration
Just like season one, TNG season two was shot on 35mm film but edited on video tape, so the same complete re-scanning of the film elements in high def had to be done for this season. Trek veterans Mike and Denise Okuda were back on board to oversee the entire restoration, and make sure it matched the original effect shots as much as humanly possible. For the restoration of season two however, CBS Digital turned over the film elements to another company rather than doing it in-house like season one. I believe the idea here is to alternate between seasons, so these season sets can come out faster. For the most part, the effect is the same..the live action footage looks great, miles better than what it was before on DVD or broadcast, but certain effects elements, usually planets and starship shots, are not quite up to the same standard CBS digital displayed with their season one restoration. It’s a minor issue, as 90% of an episode is on-set footage. But I’ll be glad to see CBS Digital return for season three, which is in my opinion, the show’s best season. For a huge TNG fan like me though, I have to say these episodes have never, ever looked better regardless. But objectively, I have no choice but to give it a lower grade than I’d give the season one set in terms of restoration effort having seen the superior effects in year one. Grade: B+
Once again, director Roger Lay Jr. and editor Robert Meyer Burnett do a bang up job on the special features, just as they did with season one. The crown jewel on this set in terms of extras is the 25th Anniversary cast reunion called Reunification, which was filmed in Calgary earlier this year at a Star Trek convention. This was the first time the entire first season cast was together again at a convention in many years, and CBS wasted no time in sending Burnett and Lay to record the group together for an intimate panel discussion on the show and its legacy. The cast of TNG clearly love each other and are a true family, and it really shows. Moderator Rob Burnett asks good questions here, and wisely lets most of the cast steer the course of the conversation during the reunion. Grade: A+
The other major new documentary feature, Making it So: Continuing The Next Generation, is divided in two parts. Part 1: Strange New Worlds, goes into detail about the problems with season one as it was winding down. Everyone from series producer Rick Berman to most of the main cast members reflect on the highs and lows of that first year, including the death of Tasha Yar, and the near departure of Michael Dorn, who was tired of going into several hours in the make up chair mostly to stand around and do nothing. Ironically, the departure of Crosby allowed Worf to take over her role as chief of security, and the following season Worf’s part grew and he eventually became a fan favorite. Other topics covered are the failure of creating formidable new villains in the form of the Ferengi, who ended up coming across as a joke, which would lead to the creation of the far more successful adversaries the Borg in year two.
In Part 2: New Life and New Civilizations, they go into great detail about the troubles going into getting the second season off the ground. Patrick Stewart is very candid about the fact that Gates McFadden was fired, and how upset this made him, as well as the rest of the cast. Wil Wheaton, who played Dr. Crusher’s son Wesley, was almost certain he would be next to go. Everyone was made to feel expendable. Also talked about was how due to the writer’s strike still going on as production began on the second season, old scripts for the aborted 1970’s series Star Trek: Phase II had to be used, but with the old characters changed out for their TNG counterparts. The second season premiere episode- The Child –was an old script from 1977, recycled eleven years later. Only some costume tests and some random test footage was ever filmed for Phase II before the series was scrapped and replaced with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but what footage there is can be found in this documentary. For this fan though, the biggest delight was the inclusion of Diana Muldaur in the cast interviews, as she has been (more often than not) the red-headed step child of TNG, almost never referred to in any series retrospectives, almost as if she wasn’t part of the series’ legacy. This documentary corrects that oversight. Also included in this nearly 90-minute two part documentary is a treasure trove of archival footage, and even a small appearance from Family Guy creator (and hardcore Trek geek) Seth McFarlane. All in all, this documentary really covers all the bases for any true Trek geek. Grade: A.
Also included in this set are all the old features in standard definition from the old DVD sets, as well as a pretty damn funny gag reel (in HD too) and other bits and pieces, like Levar Burton’s PBS series Reading Rainbow’s trip to the set of TNG in a vintage episode. There’s also a brief feature on the new high tech upgrade to the old effects called Energized: Season 2 Tech Update, as well as other odds and ends, all providing hours of entertainment for any hardcore Trekker.
Overall Grade: A. Season two might not be the show’s highest point (in my opinion, that would be the next season) but If you love Star Trek: The Next Generation at all, then this set belongs on your shelf. In this fan’s opinion, season three can’t get here soon enough.