Star Trek: The Next Generation Fifth Season
Original air dates: September 1991 – June 1992
Executive Producers: Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, & Michael Piller
Captain’s Log: There are a lot of ways to look at the fifth season, not all of them charitable—but not all of them bad, either.
For one thing, it seemed to be the season of children. Besides Wes Crusher returning twice (“The Game,” “The First Duty”), the birth of Molly O’Brien (“Disaster”), and making Worf’s son Alexander a regular (“New Ground”), there were no fewer than four episodes that focused on small children: the aforementioned “New Ground,” as well as “Hero Worship,” “Cost of Living,” and “Imaginary Friend.” Plus one of the plots of “Disaster” was Picard stuck in turbolift with three little kids.
It was a season filled with episodes that got viewers talking. “Darmok” remains, twenty years later, a polarizing episode that tends to prompt lengthy conversations about language. “The Outcast” was Trek’s first attempt to deal with homosexuality, an episode that remains controversial to this day.“I, Borg” was a major shift in the focus of TNG’s most brutal villains. And “The Inner Light” is rightfully considered one of the great Trek episodes, and won TNG its first Hugo Award.
This season also showed a concerted effort to expand the cast somewhat, with not only the additions of Molly and Alexander, and the expansion of the role of Nurse Ogawa, but also the introduction of Ensign Ro Laren, who was a welcome dose of acerbity to a fairly homogenous cast. (One can throw Ensign Robin Lefler in there, too, since she appears in both “Darmok” and “The Game.”)
Probably the most important thing about the fifth season, though is that it began on the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, had a tie-in with the new Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, and had a two-part episode that brought Leonard Nimoy’s Spock onto TNG, thus completing the generational bridge begun by DeForest Kelley’s cameo in “Encounter at Farpoint” and Mark Lenard’s appearance as the titular guest star of the episode “Sarek.”
And, of course, the fifth season was the last one that creator Gene Roddenberry got to see before his death in October 1991. He never got to see “Unification,” never got to see the release of The Undiscovered Country, never got to see “The Inner Light” win that Hugo.
Most Comments (as of this writing): In any other season, “The Perfect Mate” with its 73 comments discussing the episode’s gender roles would’ve gotten it. Hell, in most seasons, “The Inner Light” (58) or “Cause and Effect” (55) or “The Outcast” (52) would’ve topped the list. But they can’t hold a candle to “Darmok” and its 98 comments on the ins and outs and ups and downs of the Children of Tama’s odd linguistic structure. (And hey, just the fact that we’ve topped 50 comments five times is pretty damned awesome. You guys are great!)
Fewest Comments (as of this writing): “Hero Worship” with 11. That kid really wasn’t that interesting, was he?
Favorite Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity? From “The Next Phase”: Somehow, the interphase device enables someone to be sufficiently out of phase with reality to move through walls, doors, and other objects—but still are able to stand on a floor and sit down on things and fall onto the deck and stuff without falling through. Also they can somehow breathe, even though the air should just phase through their lungs. SCIENCE!
Favorite Thank You, Counselor Obvious: From “Disaster”: Troi gets her first command experience rather by accident, as she’s the only ranking officer left alive on the bridge when the filament hits. Her struggles with keeping up with the technobabble are amusing, in particular when she tries to analogize a quantum filament to a cosmic string, because she knows that one (following the events of “The Loss”). She’s crestfallen when O’Brien tells her that that’s a totally different phenomenon.
Favorite What Happens On The Holodeck, Stays On The Holodeck: From “The Perfect Mate”: Of course, after backing slowly out of Kamala’s quarters, Riker informs the bridge that he’ll be on Holodeck 4. Wah-hey! Let’s face it, you know that’s what most people use the holodeck for. (Something Deep Space Nine would embrace a bit more openly.)
Favorite No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: From “Silicon Avatar”: Riker and Carmen set a dinner date in what, of all the Riker-hits-on-women scenes, is quite possibly the most painful to watch. (Its primary competition for the dear-God-make-it-stop prize being his falling into bed with Beata in “Angel One.”) After Carmen boasts about her “most memorable desserts,” and Riker proclaiming dessert to be his “favorite part of dinner,” the crystalline entity showing up to kill everyone frankly comes as something of a relief….
Favorite The Boy!? From “The First Duty”: Wes is the voice of reason throughout, the first to go for telling the truth, and the one who agonizes most about lying. But ultimately he goes right along with the coverup, going so far as to plead the fifth to Picard, which is, to say the least, ballsy. (And Picard totally looks like that’s where he wants to kick him when he says it.)
Favorite If I Only Had a Brain… From “The Next Phase”: Data believes it is his responsibility to organize the memorial service as La Forge’s best friend, and he confides to Worf (with La Forge listening) that Data didn’t know what a friend was until he met La Forge. He also figures out what happened after the big-ass anyon field makes La Forge and Ro briefly barely visible, all the while being cheered on by La Forge (“C’mon, Data, put it all together, now!” “Oh, Data, please be right!”).
Favorite There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: From “Disaster”: Worf gets to play midwife, and he doesn’t suck too badly at it, mostly following the steps in the textbook (and reading those steps out in his stentorian voice, adding to the hilarity). On the Deep Space Nine episode “Accession,” when Keiko reveals that she’s pregnant again, Worf panics and announces that he’ll be on vacation on Earth when she’s due. (He isn’t, as it happens, but neither is he put in a position to midwife the O’Briens’ second child in “The Begotten,” which always struck me as a missed opportunity.)
Favorite Syntheholics Anonymous: From “Time’s Arrow”: After getting pissy Guinan in “I, Borg,” things go back to normal as the ship’s bartender is all metaphorical and mysterious and stuff. We also get to meet Guinan when she was 500 years younger, and Whoopi Goldberg plays her beautifully, much more eager and curious.
Favorite In the Driver’s Seat: From “Disaster”: Poor Lieutenant Monroe. She probably figured she had light duty, running the bridge with a skeleton crew during downtime. Instead, she got herself crispy fried, just so Troi could have some command experience. (Also: what happened to her body? The bridge was cut off, so what did they do with it? Stick it in Picard’s ready room?) When it’s all over, Ro’s back at conn.
Okay, yeah, there were others. We had returning guests, like Majel Barrett (Lwaxana Troi in “Cost of Living”), Georgia Brown (Helena Rozhekno in “New Ground”), Denise Crosby (Sela in “Redemption II” and “Unification II”), Mark Lenard (Sarek in “Unification”), Barbara March (Lursa in “Redemption II”), Robert O’Reilly (Gowron in “Redemption II”), Carel Struycken (Mr. Homn in “Cost of Living”), Tony Todd (Kurn in “Redemption II”), Gwynyth Walsh (B’Etor in “Redemption II”), .
We had some excellent performers in Marc Alaimo as Frederick La Roque in “Time’s Arrow,” Erich Anderson as “MacDuff” in “Conundrum,” Jonathan del Arco as Hugh in “I, Borg,” Shanon Fill as Cadet Sito Jaxa in “The First Duty,” Erika Flores as Marissa in “Disaster,” John Christian Graas as Jay Gordon in “Disaster,” Kelsey Grammer as Captain Morgan Bateson in “Cause and Effect,” Jerry Hardin as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in “Time’s Arrow,” Jeffrey Hayenga as Orta in “Ensign Ro,” Tony Jay as Campio in “Cost of Living,” Ashley Judd as Ensign Robin Lefler in “Darmok” and “The Game,” Tim O’Connor as Ambassador Briam in “The Perfect Mate,” Richard Riehle as Batai in “The Inner Light,” Stephen Root as K’Vada in “Unification” and “Unification II,” Margot Rose as Eline in “The Inner Light,” David Sage as Tarmin in “Violations,” Max Supera as Patterson in “Disaster,” Noley Thornton as Clara Sutter in “Imaginary Friend,” Malachi Throne as Pardek in “Unification” and “Unification II,” Ray Walston as Boothby in “The First Duty,” and the great Paul Winfield as Captain Dathon in “Darmok.”
Plus Rosalind Chao put in some of her best work in this season (a superbly comic turn giving birth in “Disaster,” a touching scene of childhood remembrance in “Violations”), Michelle Forbes started the recurring role of Ensign Ro Laren in “Ensign Ro,” Brian Bonsall took over the role of Alexander in “New Ground,” Patti Yasutake’s role as Nurse Ogawa expanded tremendously, Ken Thorley showed up twice as a Bolian barber (“Ensign Ro”) and a 19th-century poker player (“Time’s Arrow”), and Robert Duncan MacNeill warmed up for Tom Paris as Nicholas Locarno in “The First Duty.”
Favorite I Believe I Said That…: From “Imaginary Friend”: “First it was a fish, and now it’s a Mintonian sailing ship.”
“Right there! Don’t you see the two swirls coming together to form the mast?”
“I do not see it. It is interesting that people try to find meaningful patterns in things that are essentially random. I have noticed that the images they perceive sometimes suggest what they are thinking about at that particular moment. [pause] Besides, it is clearly a bunny rabbit.”
Guinan and Data having their version of the Peanuts cloud conversation where Charlie Brown thought he saw a duckie and a horsie.
Favorite Trivial Matter: The one for “Redemption II,” just ’cause it was so danged long….
Make it so. Quite the roller coaster, this. It was certainly an eventful season, starting with the resolution of one cliffhanger to explain why Denise Crosby is a blonde Romulan, ending with another cliffhanger that puts Data in 19th-century San Francisco alongside Mark Twain, and in between those, Spock returns (as does Sarek, tragically). Some of TNG’s best episodes are from this season, from fun romps like “Disaster,” “Conundrum,” “Power Play,” “Cause and Effect,” and “The Next Phase” to thought-provoking scripts in “Darmok,” “The First Duty,” and “I, Borg” to one of TNG’s finest hours in “The Inner Light.” Plus “Ensign Ro” not only gave us a new recurring character but also the setup for the next spinoff, as the roots of Deep Space Nine were planted in that episode.
And yet, after watching two episodes a week of this season, I’m left with a feeling of “meh.” There’s a lot of dead weight here: “Silicon Avatar,” “The Game,” “A Matter of Time,” “New Ground,” “Hero Worship,” “Violations,” “The Masterpiece Society,” “The Outcast,” “Cost of Living,” and “The Perfect Mate” are all just awful.
On the one hand, Paul Winfield was brought in for a guest shot and knocked it out of the park in “Darmok.” On the other, Matt Frewer was brought in for a guest shot and utterly wasted in the leaden “A Matter of Time.”
On the one hand, their attempt to deal with the Borg resulted in a great episode in “I, Borg.” On the other, their attempt to address homosexuality in “The Outcast” was an abject failure on pretty much every possible level.
On the one hand, we got the great Michelle Forbes as the acerbic Ensign Ro Laren. On the other, we got Brian Bonsall as Alexander, who mostly served to be annoying and tiresome. (He was actually at his best when he got away from his father—scenes between Alexander and Worf got shouty and repetitive right quick, but Bonsall came across much better when paired with Troi in “Ethics,” with Lwaxana in “Cost of Living,” and with Clara Sutter in “Imaginary Friend.”)
On the one hand, Wil Wheaton gave one of his best performances in “The First Duty,” an episode that took what we knew about Wes and turned it on its ear. On the other, he was ridiculous in his other appearance this season in “The Game,” which embraced every negative stereotype of the character, with the added bonus of him getting the girl on top of saving the ship.
I considered going with a 5 for this season, given the peaks and valleys, but a season that includes “Darmok,” “Ensign Ro,” “Disaster,” “Cause and Effect,” “I, Borg,” “The Next Phase,” and especially “The Inner Light” needs a bit of a bump from that….
Warp factor rating for the season: 6
Keith R.A. DeCandido is what he is.