Of all the tidbits on the new Blu-ray of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Three, the tastiest comes from writer Michael Piller. He planned to leave the show at the end of the season until Gene Roddenberry himself appealed for him to stay. Before that happened, he conceived of one hell of a final act: a dilemma for the crew of the Enterprise so insurmountable that even he didn’t have the slightest idea how they were going to get out of it. Of course, he came back and subsequently came up with a corker of a solution. But without that go-for-broke fearlessness – without the desire to write a beginning that no ending could possibly match – we wouldn’t have had The Best of Both Worlds. And not only TNG, but television in general would have lost one of its unquestioned high points. Hit the jump for the full review.
That episode stands out in the Blu-ray set too, setting the crew against the seemingly unstoppable Borg and ending with the horrific revelation that Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) has been assimilated into the enemy’s ranks. The cliffhanger sent fans into a tizzy… and more importantly, raised the very real question as to whether or not this was the end for Picard. The series could quite easily have continued with Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) as Captain, along with newcomer Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) as the new Number One. Dennehy marks one of the episode’s other selling points: brash, prickly, and perfectly willing to throw Riker under the bus if he got in her way. The show’s refusal to bring her back constitutes a grievous waste of potential, and one of the few genuine black marks you can hold against it.
The most amazing thing about The Best of Both Worlds is how it presents an epic canvas using little more than a few carefully-placed effects shots. The bulk of The Best of Both Worlds takes place on the show’s usual sets, with just one more added for the Borg ship. We sense the cosmic threat of the Borg, as well as the Federation’s do-or-die response to it, but it mostly comes out in the dialogue and delivery. It feels cinematic – so much so that Fathom Events screened it in theaters last week – and yet it doesn’t need anything we don’t see in any other episode of the show. The strength of the writing and performances lets it stand alone, while confirming TNG’s status as first-rate science fiction.
Naturally you won’t get the concluding episode until Season Four (not unless you want to shell out an extra $25 for the stand-alone Blu-ray). Thankfully, Season Three contains more than enough high points to make the wait for the next Blu-ray worth it. With increased confidence and an improved sense of daring, the writing staff found new ways to explore its central characters. We saw Worf (Michael Dorn) comes to grips with his Klingon heritage, Data (Brent Spiner) create a daughter in an effort to become more human, and even the return of Tasha Yar (Denis Crosby) in one of the season’s other high points, “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Each focal point built on the first two seasons while opening up marvelous possibilities for the future. Perhaps more importantly, the writers never got bogged down in minutia or technobabble: allowing the stories to develop organically and the characters lead the way.
This was true of the guest stars as well as the regulars. Shelby was the most prominent, but the season also included sterling episodes based around other stand-alone figures such as James Sloyan’s Admiral Jarok, a Romulan who defects in order to stop what he believes will be a catastrophic war. We witness the return of Sarek (Mark Lenard), Spock’s father, in the first of the show’s largely successful curtain call for original series cast members. Holodeck fetishist Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) showed up for the first time this season, while John De Lancie’s always-welcome Q returned to deal with life as a mere mortal. On a quieter note, the great Saul Rubinek shows up in sly dig at fanboy collectors (he wants to add Data to his stash), and a pre-star James Cromwell cuts his chops in anticipation of his First Contact performance six years later.
Behind the camera, a quieter landmark took place. Frakes stepped into the director’s shoes for the first time with “The Offspring,” which covered Data’s efforts to create an android child. It was quiet (and quietly touching), but more importantly, it opened the door for other cast members to direct as well. Frakes helmed another dozen or so episodes of various flavors of Trek, followed by Stewart, LeVar Burton and Gates McFadden. Frakes’ sure hand and good touch with actors made it more than just a vanity project; he went on to helm the highly successful Star Trek: First Contact feature film, and now works primarily as a TV director.
Every one of them adds to the season’s unimpeachable pedigree, as TNG fully comes of age. There isn’t a bad episode in the bunch here, marked by the assured segue between the serious and comedic, high concept and simple escapism. Future seasons never quite duplicated its quality, which was enough to turn casual viewers into die-hard fans and give die-hard fans all the joy they could ever hope for. TNG had already found its own voice in the second season, as it stepped out of the original series’ shadow and stood alone as its own entity. Here, it fully developed its potential for the first time, and gave us all a reason to tune in every week.
As we’ve come to expect from these collections, the Season Three Blu-ray is absolutely stellar. Image and sound quality are fantastic, and the rich array of supporting features almost justify the purchase all on their own. They’re scattered throughout the set’s six discs, which makes finding them a pain in the butt, but the search is invariably worth it. The best of it is found on the sixth disc, which contains an hour-long roundtable of the writers hosted by Seth MacFarlane (I’m always a little perplexed at his presence on these discs) as well three additional documentaries covering the show’s creative development during this season. They include insights and commentary from all of the principal creative forces, charting the behind-the-scenes story in intricate (if somewhat piecemeal) detail. There’s a lot of honesty in what we hear, covering rifts in the writer’s room and actors’ concerns among other topics. Several of the episodes include audio commentaries (specifically, “The Bonding,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “The Offspring” and “Sins of the Father.”) The most quietly touching is a series of cut scenes of the late actor David Rappaport, who committed suicide during the shooting of “The Most Toys” and had to be replaced by Rubinek.
In any case, the set continues CBS’s high standard of quality for The Next Generation releases, and gives viewers all the justification they need for a purchase. Even better, the remaining TNG seasons look to be on the fast track for release… though none of them could quite match the standard of quality that this one did.