Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Three—The Best Season!
Star Trek: The Next Generation is rolling into season three in the nightly airing on the H&I cable channel, part of their Star Trek block—although annoyingly the classic Trek was just moved to 1AM, with Walker, Texas Ranger (why?!?) slotted at 8pm.
Unlike the Original Series, which went downhill in its third season due to a bad time slot, hack showrunner and budget cuts, Star Trek: The Next Generation triumphantly found its path in season three. If not for this turnaround, the show—and franchise—might have petered out.
This stuff is like bedtimes stories, isn’t it? “And then they hired Michael Piller [pic above], but the script cupboard was bare…”
Season three remains my favorite of The Next Generation. The writing became mature and sophisticated, the tone gained dramatic weight—but they were still experimenting, so it was fresh and vibrant. There wasn’t a ton of technobabble that plagued the show’s later years (and the Rick Berman sequel series); it wasn’t quite as familiar and “safe” as it became, with so many relatives of crewmembers showing up.
I want to reminisce on what it was like as a fan to watch this transformation. It was entirely unexpected, and totally awesome!
We had been so looking forward to The Next Generation in 1987, but when it began (under Gene Roddenberry’s direct control) it was largely a mess, which I wrote about before. It stabilized in the middle of season one as Maurice Hurley took over the writing staff. But the 1988 WGA strike crippled the end of season one, and when the show returned in season two, it was short four episodes and badly behind schedule.
Season two, under Hurley, was more consistent than season one…but it was disappointing. There were some great episodes—“A Matter of Honor,” “The Measure of a Man,” “Q Who” and “The Emissary”—but also a bunch of annoying stinkers (“The Royale,” “Man Hunt,” and “Shades of Gray,” the infamous season-ending clip show).
Hurley was a kind of an odd duck given to unleashing cosmic vengeance upon the crew. The second-season episodes seemed to revel in a kind of “space is horrible” angst where the point was there was no point: you could never hope to figure out the cosmos, so just suck it up and bear it. “Where Silence Has Lease,” “The Royale,” “Time Squared” and “Q Who” (only the latter of which was great) fell into this pattern. Combined with Diana Muldaur as the frosty Dr. Pulaski—a terrific actress who never gelled with the cast—the season had a bleak, mean-spirited tone even as a number of episodes tried for comic relief. (Joe Piscopo? Why?!?)
So by the time season three premiered—with Gates McFadden returning as Dr. Crusher, and Muldaur finding a way better job on L.A. Law—we had just come to expect that the show would forever be lame.
It was like, obviously, there must be some important television reason why the show has to be so disappointing—but far be for us ever to understand Hollywood!
Each TNG season (except season two, because of the writers’ strike) started in late September/early October with nine new episodes airing weekly straight through Thanksgiving. The fall of 1989 was truly amazing for us Trekkies, because this is what we saw:
Evolution: The season started out seeming like “more of the same.” Annoying Wesley lost control of his science experiment, an upgrade of “nannites” which broke the ship’s computer—we had just seen the ship crap out in season two’s “Contagion,” and didn’t need to see it again. It just seemed like, “Here we go again.” So we didn’t notice that there was a more sophisticated attempt at drama with Wesley and Beverly’s return, and Wesley and curmudgeonly scientist Paul Stubbs (played by Ken Jenkins). We did notice the new uniforms, with two-piece wool outfits replacing Bill Theiss’ original spandex one-piece spacesuits (which the actors found uncomfortable). Early season three episodes had a bulkier prototype, with seams visible down the chest.
The Ensigns of Command: This too seemed like a continuation of the second season’s pattern of soft and tedious installments. Melinda Snodgrass wrote it—we liked her from “The Measure of a Man”—about Data finding his command abilities on an away mission at a troublesome colony, while Picard negotiated with a race of legalistic bug creatures. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. Apparently guest star Grainger Hines was so bad, they had to completely dub his character, and he took his name off the episode. (This episode was actually produced first, but aired after “Evolution” to allow for the re-introduction of Dr. Crusher.)
The Survivors: Whoa!!! This is where the show started to get not just good—but AMAZING. It started out, like, okay…investigating a mysterious old couple on a distant planet…Troi starts to hear music in her head. Ho-hum, whatever. Remember: We had been conditioned to be disappointed. No matter how cool a concept was, we could be sure it would be developed in a steadfastly mediocre and unsurprising way. But gradually…it became clear this episode was SOLID. Worf had some good one-liners. The plot unfolded logically. There were some good spaceship VFX battles. And then…act five! Picard confronts the husband of the elderly couple. I won’t bother to summarize it. I’m sure Trekkies know it—and if you don’t, you should watch it. The acting between Patrick Stewart (of course) and guest star John Anderson was first-rate. And the writing—it gave you chills. There was such dramatic weight to the reveal, and the emotions, and the characters…it was like, holy crap, man. This was by a real writer.
The “real writer” was named Michael I. Wagner, and he was hired to replace Maurice Hurley as the writing Executive Producer (showrunner). He lasted all of three weeks before Roddenberry—who was still around and approving stories—drove him nuts and he flat-out quit. “The Survivors” is Wagner’s only solo writing credit. He had his hand in the stories and scripts of the first four episodes of the season—that’s what a showrunner does, oversees the writing and usually polishes the shooting scripts—plus the sixth, “Booby Trap” (where he cowrote the story).
Very little is known about Wagner outside, I presume, the circles of people who actually did know him. He died in 1992 from a brain tumor; he was only 44. He spent five years on Hill Street Blues (a super prestigious credit), and co-created the short-lived 1988 sci-fi show, Probe.
I’m sort of fascinated by Wagner because his take on The Next Generation was a little bit different from Michael Piller’s, who succeeded him. But it’s subtle. Wagner’s version is a little more procedural, a little bit drier. There’s less music scoring—not that the showrunner oversees music (he doesn’t), but that the tone lent itself to a more “naturalistic” approach.
Wagner did have one tic in two episodes (assuming he was respoinsible for this in the Snodgrass script): the captain knows the answer to something, but doesn’t tell anybody else—he just goes and does it. In “Ensigns in Command,” Picard figures out how to trip up the aliens via their own contract. In “The Survivors,” he solves the mystery—but doesn’t tell his bridge crew first (quite unlike Picard).
When Wagner quit, the show brought in Piller to replace him—Wagner and Piller were friends, and Piller had already cowritten “Evolution” as a freelancer—but one more Wagner-supervised episode aired:
Who Watches the Watchers: Home run! This episode is so great. A Prime Directive episode written by Richard Manning and Hans Beimler (who had freelanced for the first two years, and joined the writing staff in season three), it took a stand on religion (and, to be honest, against religion) that was so bold, I couldn’t believe I was watching this on television. Just a fantastic episode, with great location photography (at the Vasquez Rocks), an evocative and unusual score by Ron Jones, and super emotional scenes between Picard and the alien leader, Nurya. One of the best installments TNG ever did.
So that was two back-to-back spectacular, upscale episodes and we were like, whoa. Something different is going on here!
The Bonding: The fifth episode was the first overseen by Piller, hastily hired to replace Wagner. It was also the first writing credit of any kind for Ronald D. Moore, who has gone on to be a major television creator (the new Battlestar Galactica, For All Mankind). It was a “spec script” by Moore—he wrote it as an amateur—that he slipped to the show via a personal relationship, and Piller found it in the “slush pile”: the writers had virtually no viable scripts to shoot, a terrifying prospect for any television series.
“The Bonding” is low-key but emotional: When a crewwoman is killed by an alien booby trap (off-screen), the alien feels guilty for the woman’s orphaned son, and recreates her image to please him. The crew has to get the kid to accept his mother’s loss, and get the alien to accept that the kid will be okay. The kid is played by the drug-dealing brat from RoboCop 2, Gabriel Damon, who’s a little stiff, but has a great wide-eyed look. The episode has sort of forgotten: the kid never came back, even though Worf (also an orphan) pledged to look after him—because Worf’s actual son, Alexander, took precedence. But it’s a solid, well-crafted episode, with good performances, and pivotal for setting out Piller’s direction.
The final episode script wasn’t by Moore, but Snodgrass and Piller. Moore’s version had the kid recreating his mom on the Holodeck. Roddenberry said, “No, by the 24th century, we accept death.” So they changed it to be the alien recreating the mom. This was an example of how Roddenberry’s dogmatic input was often annoying to the writers—but it forced them to come up with better ideas and not be lazy.
Michael Piller saved The Next Generation. I have no doubt of that. He decreed: every episode we do is going to be about character. Whatever the sci-fi plot is, it will tie into one of our characters. This seems like an obvious point, but the first two years the show had been more a procedural action-adventure. Leaning into character changed everything. And Piller tended to have very good taste, even though I understand in person he could be a bit shy and aloof, and not everybody liked him. But he was the real deal. (He died from cancer in 2005.)
Booby Trap: Piller cowrote this episode with the Enterprise trapped in an asteroid field after investigating a lost, ancient warship. Geordi goes onto the holodeck to work with a computer simulation of one of the Enterprise’s designers (and falls for her). This episode isn’t so great—the ship broke yet again—but the VFX are first-rate, as is the score by Jones. And the emphasis on character plays well with Geordi and the simulation of Leah Brahms developing a weird, high-pressure non-romance on the holodeck.
Patrick Stewart wears the final, revised two-piece Starfleet uniform. In “The Enemy,” half the crew have the new ones, half the initial, bulkier ones with the chest seams; in “The Price,” they all have the final ones.
The Enemy: Geordi is trapped on the surface of a stormy, dangerous planet with a Romulan soldier while the Enterprise faces off against his enemy ship, commanded by Tomalak (the late, great Andreas Katsulas, in his first appearance). This episode is fantastic! And it has the single moment where we, the fans, knew for sure that this was a new, better Next Generation, for good: There’s a Romulan prisoner aboard the Enterprise who needs a blood transfusion or he’ll die, causing a major diplomatic incident. Worf is the only possible donor, but he hates Romulans (they killed his parents) and refuses to help. So we’re all going, “All right, give us the bullshit moment where Worf comes around to the corny speech and does the Starfleet good deed”…but he doesn’t! Picard won’t order him—and before the scene ends, the Romulan dies! We’re like, “Whoa!”
It was totally fantastic. They stood up for Worf’s integrity as a character, to hell with the story problem. I cannot stress how exciting this was for the audience. From that moment on, it was a different show.
Incidentally, Gates McFadden’s hair suddenly gets long in this episode, as I suspect they let her try an episode with her natural hair—more here.
The Price: Okay, so this episode was…not so good. It has a messy plot about a bidding war for a wormhole; the annoying Ferengi come back (as comic relief, at least); and Troi has a fling with a negotiator who should have been cast with some hot dude like Lorenzo Lamas, but instead was a smarmy, slightly goofy Matt McCoy. This was rumored to be a hot, sexy, steamy love-affair episode for Troi—I think it was even talked up in TV Guide—but it ended up just having some silly oil-spreading scene in bed, and a gratuitous exercise routine with Troi and Crusher that definitely failed the Bechdel test. It was like, “Whoops. That sucked.” But like I said, they were still experimenting.
The Vengeance Factor: This episode is good and yet forgettable. Something to do with warring alien tribes, and Riker falls for an alien servant woman who is actually an assassin. Jonathan Frakes does a good job, and it’s fine, but the ending is poorly directed and makes no sense: if they knew the woman was an assassin, why didn’t they just beam her into the brig? Why have this long, extended confrontation where people just stand there, watching and waiting?
The show then took its December hiatus, and came back in January with “The Defector,” Ron Moore’s second script and a corker of an episode about a possible Romulan defector leading to Cold War/Neutral Zone conflict. It’s the closest the show ever got to Le Carré and it’s awesome. That episode was the first to use a new four-foot model of the Enterprise—easier to shoot than the six-foot one built for the pilot—which allowed the filming of many more customized ship shots going forward, as opposed to relying on the original ILM VFX library.
The rest of the season is great. There are some clunky episodes—“A Matter of Perspective” is a botched take on “Rashomon,” “The High Ground” is pedantic but does feature a terrific terrorist attack on the Enterprise—but “Deja Q,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “The Offspring,” “Sins of the Father,” “Captain’s Holiday,” “Hollow Pursuits” and “Sarek” are classics.
Then there’s the first and best season-ending cliffhanger Star Trek has ever done: “The Best of Both Worlds.” That one rocked our worlds and really felt apocalyptic.
Apparently, the season was very difficult for Piller and his staff, as they were perpetually behind schedule—but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of the work. Piller remarked that, to him, subsequent seasons were more consistent, but I still prefer season three.
By the summer hiatus, the show was a smash, and we were dying to find out how the Borg cliffhanger would resolve. There were rumors that Patrick Stewart’s contract was up—this was before the Internet, so how would we really know except for fanzines and “that guy at the convention”?—and we genuinely thought it was possible that Picard would die and Riker would permanently become the captain.
Unfortunately, Piller had written himself into a corner with the cliffhanger—he had no idea how to conclude the story at the time he wrote it, and was ambivalent about even returning to the show—so Part II felt a bit abrupt and a let-down. But it’s still the best two-parter ever.
I guess this blog is evolving into my thoughts about whichever sci-fi franchise comes to mind...but thanks for reading!