Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Four
Well, we finally got that over with. No more groping about trying to find the new Star Trek "style." No more plodding scripts built on ideas that were clichés even before the first episode of Next Generation aired. Thanks in large part to new head writer Michael Piller, at last the writers and actors could feel comfortable giving their characters interesting things to do and say and be from week to week, unencumbered (mostly) by the starched hospital dryness of the first two seasons.
If Season Three saw Star Trek: The Next Generation find its successful space legs, then Season Four proved that it could use those legs to walk confidently and do a little kick-step now and then. (How many series get the luxury of that much time to find their stride?) Some of the best episodes of the series' seven years premiered in Season Four, and many focused not on interstellar heroics and phaser battles (though we got plenty of that too), but on more personal territories that Star Trek old or new had rarely trod before family. Suddenly in Season Four we're reminded that all of our major characters have relatives and backgrounds and intimate histories. Some fans back in 1990-91 grumbled that the show had replaced Space Opera with Soap Opera, and in a few episodes that feels true, but it's a welcome expansion into uncharted reaches, and one that carried on into Season Five and beyond.
The season opens with the cliffhanger resolution to Season Three's rootin-tootin' Borgfest, "The Best of Both Worlds: Part 1." Regrettably, "BoBW" Part 2 falls far short of the grand theatrics of Part 1 and proves that even a great opening can succumb to ST:TNG's damnable reliance on easy, talky, drama-lite conclusions. But that's followed by one of the finest Trek hours of them all, "Family," which brings Picard, Worf, and company back to Earth (literally and figuratively) while keeping the science fictional content refreshingly well in the background. Reconnecting with the captain's bullying elder brother (the extraordinary Jeremy Kemp) in the French wine country village of his youth, Patrick Stewart shines as a man who must come to terms with his own humanity in a powerful, ultimately wistful story.
The next episode unites Data and his evil android twin and their creator, all three played well by Brent Spiner. "Reunion" begins a new Worf arc by introducing his son Alexander and killing the boy's mother (the returning Susie Plakson). "Legacy" even delivers the sister of Tasha Yar, dead three seasons now. Speaking of Tasha Yar, she and actress Denise Crosby return in the series' all-time most moronic "surprise" contract renewal for the season closer, "Redemption: Part 1."
So here's another 26-episode season with its certified top-drawer standouts (add "Data's Day," "In Theory," and "First Contact" to that list), its share of idiotic or simply lazy duds ("Identity Crisis," "The Drumhead," "Night Terrors," "The Mind's Eye"), and a larger selection occupying various points between those extremes.
A years-long story arc about a Klingon civil war plants its leather-clad boots in this season. The silly trifle "Qpid" brings back both the nigh-omnipotent Q (John DeLancie) and Picard's adventuress love interest, Vash (Jennifer Hetrick, who's splendid), and both are welcome. It's been a long time coming, but Wesley Crusher gets the heave-ho off the show in "Final Mission," at a time when the series was at last allowing the character to display real promise. While it seems that only guest-starring women ever got a fair shake, and still no one knows what to do with poor Marina Sirtis' Deanna Troi, this year gives Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) a spotlight in two good stories, the Twilight Zoneish "Remember Me" and one of the most thoughtful and progressive episodes, "The Host."
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Alongside the previous three boxed sets in the series, Paramount's Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Fourth Season DVD ensemble spreads its 26 episodes plus extras across almost twenty hours on seven discs. The clamshell case, hefty as Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is engineered in identical fashion to the previous three, the gatefold digipak unfolding like a long work day. As before, new menus are well designed after Enterprise control interfaces. And again the episodes themselves are as carefully reproduced as the source material can stand, with strong, stable colors and good definition. The usual amount of minor digital artifacting is visible, but no showstoppers or screamers.
New Dolby Digital 5.1 and the original Dolby 2.0 stereo options rack up the clarity, dynamic range, and sound-spread to maintain the high standards of these releases.
On the other hand, yet another pointless marketing flak insert is again no substitute for a comprehensive episode guide.
Disc Seven's five featurettes continue the style and flavor of those found in the earlier sets. Totaling 81 minutes, these high-polish assemblages of new and archived interviews are somewhat more engaging this time around. In Season 4 Mission Overview, producer Michael Piller stresses his commitment to characterization, and attention is given to Worf's development as well as to resolving the setup of "Best of Both Worlds" and seeing its consequences played out in "Family." Jennifer Hetrick talks about returning as Vash, and archive footage of the on-set 100th episode celebration preserves happy moments with the cast and Roddenberry.
Selected Crew Analysis is devoted almost exclusively to actor Wil Wheaton and his character Wesley Crusher. Interviews old and new explore the actor's relationship to the role and his familial working relationship with Patrick Stewart. Also here are Marina Sirtis (displaying fine professionalism at being underused again this year) and Jennifer Hetrick again.
Departmental Briefing - Production looks at actors-turned-directors Jonathan Frakes ("Reunion," "Drumhead") and Patrick Stewart ("In Theory," with some behind-the-camera footage), and producer-director David Livingston ("The Mind's Eye"). Makeup artist Michael Westmore opens up behind-the-scenes footage of Brent Spiner's three-character requirements for "Brothers," plus Michael Dorn transforming into Worf, LeVar Burton's alien day-glo body makeup for "Identity Crisis," and Stewart's "Best of Both Worlds" Borgification. New Life and New Civilizations takes us to exterior location shooting and matte painting work for "Family," "Final Mission," and "The Survivors," then the starship battlefield/graveyard and Borg cube explosion of "Best of Both Worlds: Part 2."
The fifth supplement is one of the best of the whole bunch so far. Chronicles from the Final Frontier brings home writers Ronald D. Moore, Jeri Taylor, and Brannon Braga to discuss the writing of Season Four's scripts from concepts to screen. Viewing all five of these featurettes provides a sense that the unifying thread woven throughout Season Four was a particularly apt one.
Here's a cast and crew that bonded into that most Earthbound of love/hate dynamics a family. You don't have to be a hardcore Trek groupie to enjoy seeing the clan back together at this stage of their life under Star Trek's roof.