Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Three
As evidenced here on Paramount's latest set of seven smartly packaged discs, everyone involved finally seems to be having fun, and therefore so do we. Everything from the opening credits sequence and crew uniforms to the budgets, production values, and quality of the scripts is so improved throughout these episodes that for some fans this is the series' strongest of its seven years. Whether it is or not, the 1989-90 season established a superior template that informed each season thereafter.
The two most far-reaching changes occurred behind the scenes, and they are manifestly connected to one another. The first was the firing of the original writing staff to inject new creative energy into that crucial aorta. Shooting was forced to begin without a complete set of scripts available. So, adversity being the mother of opportunity, some of the best stories emerged from that frisson of last-minute panic and the producers' willingness to accept scripts from creatively charged fan writers. The second seismic shift came when series creator Gene Roddenberry besotted by a "visionary" status that had grown larger than his actual abilities was moved to a hands-off position. The production reins passed to Rick Berman while Michael Piller headed up the writing staff. At last the writers were freed to create new adventures without Roddenberry's meddlesome micromanagement. The resulting crackerjack scripts give us plenty of action, humor, and occasional thoughtfulness (for TV at least), and give all the first-tier actors plenty to do as they continue to make their characters people rather than mere types.
Series gold cards Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner receive stories that spotlight their range and appeal ("Captain's Holiday," "Sarek," "The Offspring," "The Most Toys"), as do Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, and LeVar Burton. The second-tier regulars, though, still get the short straws. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden, regrettably returned after a year's absence) and Ship's Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) remain blandly appealing in their respective Earth Mother ways, but the series never quite knows what to do with them. Troi in particularly has it rough as the creative team struggles to give her (not to mention her ever-changing uniform) a proper fit.
As for Wesley Crusher, Boy Deity (long-suffering Wil Wheaton) everyone's trying, but he can't recover from the bad start they handed him in the first two years. Whoopi Goldberg shines in her guest appearances as enigmatic Guinan, a more useful ship's counselor than the Ship's Counselor.
These 26 episodes play a strategic hand by bringing back canon components such as Spock's father Sarek, assorted Romulans and Klingons, Q, and Troi's mom, and by introducing Lt. Reginald Barclay, the likable surrogate for every socially awkward Trekker watching at home. While there's little that's startlingly new here, it's all done noticeably better than before.
For a galaxy-spanning series with a staggering paucity of aliens reflecting inventiveness or imagination, "Tin Man," "The Ensigns of Command," and "The Survivors" hint at possibilities occasionally realized again in later years. The very best adventures make the rare transcendence from being good Star Trek to being damn good television, period. Two all-time favorites show up in this set. "Yesterday's Enterprise" is a first-rate action story that throws us into a wowza alternate Trek timeline and resurrects Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby, whose Security Chief died unceremoniously in Season One) via a well-tuned, wham-bam script.
Then the season ends on a positively operatic high note with "The Best of Both Worlds: part 1." This cinematic thriller brings back the galactic cybermenace, the Borg, and gives viewers already leaning forward on the sofa a white-knuckle cliffhanger that withholds its money-shot until Season Four. Although later years saw some of the series' best introspective, slower-paced stories, it's hard to beat Season Three for these ratings-saving action-adventure installments.
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Matching its two boxed-set predecessors, Paramount's Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Third Season DVD ensemble offers 26 episodes and four extras spread across almost twenty hours on seven discs. When removed from its thick-as-a-brick clamshell case, the handsome gatefold digipak opens to the length of a Louisville Slugger. Slide a disc into the player and the new menus designed after Enterprise control interfaces are slick and effective. The episodes themselves again look and sound simply, well, stellar. They're as carefully reproduced (and often improved) as the source material can stand. The prints are sharp and clean, the colors are strong and vivid, and specks or digital artifacts are minimal.
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 and original Dolby 2.0 stereo options aren't showy, but their clarity, dynamic range, and well-used sound-spread are again mighty appealing. Optional English subtitles are available.
Disc Seven's supplements are direct extensions of those found in the earlier sets. Four featurettes, each running between 12 and 20 minutes, feel like four-color glossy fan magazine pieces translated straight into pixels. Not much substance, but they're fine in the way that a Three Musketeers bar is fine. They're continuations of the same new and archived interviews with actors and production personnel that comprised their predecessors. Mission Overview serves up Stewart, Frakes, Burton, Whoopi Goldberg, Associate Producer Peter Lauritson, Exec Producer Michael Piller, and others discussing this season's highlights, including "Yesterday's Enterprise," McFadden's return, Frakes' directorial debut with "The Offspring," and an on-set visit by the Dalai Lama.
In Selected Crew Analysis, the cast plus Lauritson, Piller, and producer-writer Ira Steven Behr explore the welcome growth displayed in the continuing characters. Cast and crew members, in Departmental Briefing: Memorable Missions, once again reminisce about specific episodes. Departmental Briefing: Production features interviews with Piller, production associate Eric Stillwell, visual effects supervisor Dan Curry, chief artist Mike Okuda, composer Jay Chattaway, and other production staff for their insights into the new writing team (including the successful fan writers), new special effects, and the music scoring.
We still wish the supplements weren't so fluffy and that the pull-out slipsheet came with episode synopses, but Paramount is clearly holding a true and dependable course, and this third entry in its ST:TNG box sets delivers a collection of episodes that many loyal followers regard as among the best of all Treks old and new. Because some fans feel that the series really began in Season Three, it's safe to say that those who've held off purchasing the previous DVD sets will at last begin with this offering. As has been said on other appropriate occasions, resistance is, indeed, futile.