Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Five
With its successful fourth season in syndication, it was clear to all that Star Trek: The Next Generation was aging better than the original Star Trek series, which had been canceled after only three years. This new show had proved that it could go strongly (if not more boldly) where its predecessor had gone before. By Season Five (1991-92), the writers, cast, and production crew had settled on what made Next Generation not just a fan-accommodating addition to Trekdom, but a ratings-happy TV series in its own right. As demonstrated within this boxed set of seven discs of 26 episodes, the fifth year maintained the cruising altitude established during its previous two seasons.
The good news is that some hours here are among the best Star Trek the franchise ever offered. Season Five is, in fact, many fans' favorite. The bad news is that the series as a whole settled into a take-no-risks approach to its characters and storytelling. Not much of any real significance changed during Seasons Five, Six, and finally Seven, so a feeling of "same ol' same ol'" is unavoidable, especially when a full season's episodes are available altogether with no week-long separations. From story to story the writing is uniform and reasonably strong, if tepidly "safe," with the expected amount of peaks and dips in its EKG line.
Fortunately, the interstellar ennui is lifted in this set by exemplary episodes such as "The Inner Light," one of a small handful of Next Generation stories that are genuinely original and powerful, and is so thanks in part to a strong performance from Patrick Stewart and a relaxed reduction of the Trek-tech and lazy plotting that contributed to the "same ol' same ol'" factor. Regarded by many as one of the series' finest hours, "The Inner Light" won the fan-voted Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention.
By now Stewart has become so comfortable in Capt. Jean-Luc Picard's skin that he is one of Season Five's keystone highlights from start to finish. Indeed, every actor on board is shining, even if some LeVar Burton as Geordi LaForge, Marina Sirtis as Counselor Troi, and Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher come to mind still aren't given enough to do or be.
Guest stars visible here include Whoopi Goldberg (whose bartender Guinan is the series' strongest semi-regular), Ashley Judd, Paul Winfield, Mark Lenard, Leonard Nimoy, Kelsey Grammer, Stefan Gierasch, and Famke Janssen.
Besides "The Inner Light," highpoint episodes in this set include "Darmok," a literate and intelligent Alien First Contact story supported by always-reliable Paul Winfield. "Unification" Parts 1 & 2 elevate an otherwise humdrum plot with our first close-up look at those nasty Romulans and the much-huzzah'd reappearance of Leonard Nimoy as Ambassador Spock (proving that Vulcans and some humans age damn well). Newfledged Starfleet Academy cadet Wesley Crusher returns to redeem himself and the school colors in "The First Duty." The Klingon civil war and Worf's personal angst finally find resolution in "Redemption Part 2."
Speaking of newsy contemporary issues, the series almost takes a brave (for TV) progressive social stance in "The Outcast," which earnestly wants us to question rote assumptions on sexual identity and love, but rocks no boats with its wishy-washy copout ending and by not casting the central alien character with a male actor. The marriage of politics and terrorism looms large as "Ensign Ro" introduces a new crewmember (Michelle Forbes) who is, thank heaven, not the usual starchy Starfleet graduate. A nifty "what the hell?!" plot keeps us guessing in "Cause and Effect," with the Enterprise trapped in a time-loop of repeated obliteration before even the opening credits roll.
Flatline dips this season include actress Denise Crosby's still-ludicrous return in "Unification," the annoying soap opera cloyingness of Worf's son in "New Ground," the most irksome return yet of Troi's mom in "Cost of Living." A premise stupid even by Star Trek standards gives us "The Next Phase." Are the staff writers deliberately goading us to flip channels in "The Game"? (Although give that one points for letting Wil Wheaton share some lip time with Ashley Judd.) Star Trek's galaxy-assimilating cyber-baddies are given a schmaltzy boy-band face in "I, Borg," and they're never the same again. The series' most ho-hum season closer, a story that also trots out TV's most over-the-top Mark Twain impersonation, is "Time's Arrow, Part 1," a story not much impoved when Part II starts up Season Six.
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Paramount's seven-disc Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Fifth Season DVD set is, as expected, in every significant way a clone of its predecessors. Inside its identical clamshell case is the gatefold digipak that stretches out like a trip to the DMV. As before, new menus are well designed after Enterprise control interfaces. Maintaining the high visual and audio standards of these sets, the episodes themselves are in their original full-framed (1.33:1) aspect ratio and 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.
Still apparently aiming only for hardcore fans who have www.startrek.com bookmarked, once again there's no guide to episode synopses, but there is another superfluous "collectible booklet."
Disc Seven's five featurettes continue the style and flavor of those found in the earlier sets glossy assemblages of new and archived interviews but this season's are given added weight by a tribute to series creator Gene Roddenberry, who died during the course of these episodes.
This set's Mission Overview (18 minutes) focuses on the wide appeal the series had garnered and its connections to the original series as embodied by Nimoy's two-episode return. "The Inner Light," "Darmok," and "I, Borg" also get spotlight time. Departmental Briefing looks at this year's Production (15 mins.) and Visual Effects (17 mins.), with emphasis on advances in special visual techniques. Memorable Missions (18 mins.) hits some of the aforementioned notable highlights. Finally, A Tribute to Gene Roddenberry (28 mins.) brings together new and archived footage of the cast and crew's homage to the man who was the reason Star Trek, any generation, exists at all. There are clips from a 1988 interview with Roddenberry, a look at the opening ceremony of Paramount's "Gene Roddenberry Building" with a tearful Leonard Nimoy, and moving testimonials from cast and crew old and new (including his wife, Majel Barrett).
Plus, the prize in this Cracker Jack box is Patrick Stewart, fully suited up as Capt. Picard on the bridge of his mighty starship, literally tipping a hat to Roddenberry by strutting into a very un-captainly Maurice Chevalier song-and-dance number complete with cane and straw boater. You gotta love it.