For many, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is one of the absolute best weekly episodic television series ever produced. While initially dismissed by Kirk and Spock devotees as a soulless ripoff of the original series, it quickly carved its own niche in the established universe as a dynamic, unique, and valuable addition to the Trek mythology that really hasn’t been duplicated in the franchise. While every subsequent series has its fans (some with less than others), nobody can deny the stratospheric heights enjoyed by “TNG” on both the fronts of overall popularity and critical acclaim.
Today, CBS released “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season Five on the high definition Blu-ray disc format, continuing the jaw-dropping restoration work on the series by the folks at CBS Digital. The effort to bring “TNG” into the HD realm is truly unprecedented: since each episode was shot on 35mm film stock and then transferred to video for post-production, using the videotape masters was simply not an option to upscale to the scrutiny of 1080p resolution. So, although daunting and expensive, the team at CBS Digital dove into thousands upon thousands of reels of the film on which the series was shot and digitally restored it into high definition. Then, all of the individual elements including model shots with effects, audio, and music are recomposited into new HD-worthy products, and visual effects like phasers and torpedoes are recreated using digital technology. The short of it is that every single episode has to be reconstructed from scratch in order to truly and correctly enter high definition, and the result is nothing short of glorious.
If you’ve been picking up the season sets, you likely didn’t need me telling you why they’re great: you can experience it for yourself. I’m one of those devoted Trek fans that happens to believe that “TNG” is a show that got better with every season, so picking only five episodes to call the best of this season was no easy task. If you plan on picking up this Blu-ray set and experiencing this season again (or for the first time) – in HD, no less – here are what I believe to be the five best episodes of the monumental series’ fifth season.
5) “The First Duty”
“The First Duty” presented a pivotal moment in my formative years, because it teaches an extraordinarily important message to anyone who’s yet to learn the value of the truth. When Wesley Crusher is involved in a training accident as part of Starfleet Academy’s hotshot pilots from Nova Squadron, a fellow cadet is dead and the other squad members are a little too silent about the circumstances that led them to a formal inquiry by academy administrators. Coinciding with a visit the Enterprise has made to Earth, the crew is more than willing to come to the defense of one of their own in Mr. Crusher, until it becomes clear to Captain Picard that the once promising young cadet might be willfully participating in a lie.
Lying, for so many people, is a casual thing. It doesn’t seem often that the full repercussions of withholding the truth are considered by people who engage in concealing it, and “The First Duty” grabs that notion and vigorously shakes any preconceptions about the relatively passive act of a lie and gives a promising perspective. The absolute best scene of the episode is the one that so grabbed my attention as a young boy, as Patrick Stewart delivers a masterful monologue to Wesley Crusher that is all-at-once fearsome, unforgiving, saddening, and emboldening. You can almost feel Wesley’s heart break as he stands at attention while the Captain tells him, “I was convinced you could be an outstanding officer, and I never questioned that conviction…until now.”
4) “I, Borg”
Acting as a semi-sequel to the events of the pivotal two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Enterprise encounters a crashed Borg ship on the surface of a planet and finds an injured Borg drone. Captain Picard, still fresh with the memories of committing atrocity as Locutus barely a year earlier, orders the away team to leave the drone to die, but on the insistence of Dr. Crusher reluctantly admits him aboard for treatment. As Crusher and Geordi begin to take a liking to the young drone, who even begins recognizing Geordi as a friend, Picard is presented with an opportunity to wipe the Borg form the face of the galaxy by infecting their drone and sending him back to the Borg Collective.
Picard is all too willing to do this, but when the idea is interpreted as genocide, he backpedals slightly. Still not seeing the young drone as anything other than a weapon of mass destruction and a symbol of the beings that violated him, Picard is visited by Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and urged to question whether or not he wants to use a child as a genicidal virus against another race. “I, Borg” is one of those episodes that presents a powerful allegorical message through the lens of contemporary science fiction, all the while progressing the character arcs of many of the major cast members. While Picard doesn’t exactly get over his vendetta against the Borg (remember the First Contact movie?), it’s refreshing to see that his humanity requires more than the satisfaction of bloodlust in order to move on from a heavy trauma. Refreshing, that is, in an undeniably “Star Trek” kind of way.
3) “Unification” I-II
While I love all of “Star Trek,” I make no bones (no pun intended) about the fact that the original series is my favorite. I’m freely willing to admit that efforts in “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” are probably objectively better television shows overall, but the softest parts in my Trek heart will always be for the irascible Doctor McCoy, the logical Commander Spock, and the unflappable Captain Kirk. Although I was pretty young while “The Next Generation” was on the air, I always wondered why they rarely even mentioned the cast of the original series when it was obvious, to me at least, that the crew of the NCC-1701 should be considered rockstar trailblazers by the late 24th century.
As a result, I always get goosebumps, even to this day, when I watch the closing seconds of “Unification I.” “I am on an urgent mission from the Federation,” Picard says. “I’m looking for Ambassador Spock.” “Indeed,” a voice calls out from the darkness. Then, walking into full view is the undeniable face of that heroic Vulcan we know so well. “You have found him, Captain Picard.”
Released in 1991 to both coincide with Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary and to serve as a quasi-teaser/promotional tie-in for the upcoming feature film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Unification” tends to hit a more somber note in the minds of fans since it was the first “Star Trek“ episode to be released after the death of Gene Roddenberry. “Unification” coincidentally gives us a great crossover story that honors the vision of Star Trek‘s creator, while also tipping the hat to the fans for sustaining the franchise for a quarter-century.
As a huge “Trek fan, I had nothing but joy during college when I walked into a humanities class, and saw that we would be watching “Darmok.” If ever there was a popular representation of the value of language, diplomacy, and language in diplomacy (along with cultural sensitivities), then this episode was it. As the Federation dispatched the Enterprise to open diplomatic relations with a race they have difficulty understanding, that same race transports both their own captain and Captain Picard to the surface of a dangerous planet. Although from two very different worlds and languages but sharing similar goals, Captain Picard contributes to a diplomatic victory that is not only cleverly written, but manages to feel epic in scope since it is so clearly drawn from the timeless Epic of Gilgamesh.
Mine isn’t the only class in which “Darmok” is used, as it seems to be a prime choice in classes focusing on things like traditional mythology and communication studies. “Darmok” is one of those special kinds of episodes that distills a complex concept into an easily digestible story, and it stands as not only one of the best of this season, but as one of the best of the entire series.
1) “The Inner Light”
When you want to talk about total series standouts, though, for many, that conversation begins with “The Inner Light.” When the Enterprise happens upon a mysterious alien probe floating amidst a dead planet, a light shines and Captain Picard falls unconscious. When he wakes up, he’s confused since he has a new life, a new name, a wife, and the Enterprise is nowhere in sight. He begins to settle into this new life, doing the things as “Kamin” of the planet Kataan that Jean-Luc Picard never made time for: with his wife, he started a family. He devoted himself to a quiet life as a local scientist, trying to find ways to help his new community through a devastating drought. Eventually, as he grows old and sees his children become men and women, he knows that his planet is about to die.
In some ways, “Inner Light” can be interpreted as an allegory to the heinous events of the Holocaust. When a civilization is pushed to the brink of extinction, how far will it go to be remembered? What effect does that have on someone who lives an entire lifetime amid a civilization long dead? “Inner Light” is a powerfully emotional story not just because of the subject matter and the way it is written, but in the emotions it elicits from viewers and in the powerful performance by Patrick Stewart. For these reasons, it stands as the best episode of the season, and one of the absolute best of the entire series.
But, this is just one Trek fan’s opinion. What are your favorite episodes of “TNG” season five? Will you be picking up the Blu-ray? Feel free to leave your thoughts below, and if you’re so inclined, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season Five is available on the high definition format now!
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