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I think I already stated my general opinion of Star Trek: The Next Generation pretty well when I reviewed the first season Blu-ray collection last year, but, for the sake of clarity, I’d like to reiterate a few things. I grew up mostly on Star Wars, but there was an enduring family tradition of watching the original crew Star Trek films (usually at Christmas, for some reason). Later, I discovered the joys of the original series and loved watching Deep Space 9. The Next Generation has, unfortunately, never really floated my boat. I’ve found its refusal to develop characters frustrating, its categorical absence of conflict boring, and its usual lack of serialization has made it difficult to overlook these issues for the sake of narrative. I understand that all of these ‘problems’ defined Gene Roddenberry’s intentions for the series and, as such, don’t think they should necessarily be taken as criticism; rather, just not something I personally enjoy watching. However, once the characters were firmly established and the writers were more willing to have some kind of continuity sometime around the third season, Next Gen became somewhat more inviting for people like myself. For this season four review, I’ve decided to treat the episodes as standalones, as they were usually written. I’m afraid I’m not industrious enough to write full reviews for all 26 episodes, but have chosen eight, based on the recommendations of my Trekkie buddy Jena, who you may remember also helped me out when she interviewed Bruce Boxleitner for the site.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

The Best of Both Worlds: Part Two


The series was still largely un-serialized throughout its seven season run, but did start to end seasons on cliffhangers with season three’s The Best of Both Worlds, which leads directly into season four’s premiere episode. Even as a general non-watcher of Next Gen I was familiar with The Best of Both Worlds, because I’ve seen the First Contact feature film and its recap of the two-parter’s events. But I hadn’t actually seen the episodes yet, so I was sure to watch the non-HD version of part one on Netflix before starting here. The first part is a bit clunky in terms of direction, but, even without the vested interest of watching an entire season I can’t imagine waiting an entire year to see how that turned out. Part two is the superior episode. Besides better pacing, more action, and all the climax that was missing from part one, it also has the more distinctive theme. Part one acts to remind the audience that the Borg is/are scary, but part two asks the more interesting question – how can the Enterprise can function without Captain Picard? The writers are brave enough to establish that, though they love him and his presence is preferred, Picard’s crew is still pretty damn efficient without him. Everything is set back to the status quo by episode’s end, but there’s at least a sliver of character development left to be used in future episodes and movies (including the season’s second episode, Family). And any excuse to watch Patrick Stewart prance around in those Borg undies is worth taking, right?

Note: Because I watched the first part in SD, I was in the unique situation to directly compare the original footage to the remastered footage here. The re-done special effects really do make all the difference, especially shots of the Borg ship model and all of its minute details.

Brothers


Episode three, Brothers, is a Brent Spiner tour de force wherein the actor plays three roles – Data, Data’s creator Dr. Noonien Soong (who is introduced for the first time in person here), and Data’s ‘brother,’ Lore. Now, I’m not very fond of Data as a character, so the prospect of seeing three times the Data wasn’t particularly agreeable. Still, I recognize the value of this episode in terms of the greater Next Gen lore (no pun intended), I wasn’t bored by the Roddenberry-ian philosophical mumbo-jumbo and was even impressed by Spiner’s ‘one man show’ performance. The information revealed in this episode eventually leads into Data’s extended part in Star Trek: Nemesis, but we won’t hold that against it. The problem here is one of future continuity, which is my constant issue with the non-serialized show. The writers end up over-powering Data a bit during the first act. He commandeers the entire ship, travels its corridors unmolested by programming force fields, and beams down to his daddy’s planet from the outside of the designated beaming area in a matter of minutes, basically proving that he’s a ticking time bomb of a character. I assume this must come up again at some point, but, even after three seasons of relationship building, it’s hard to justify not leaving Data on Terlina III. Or nuking Terlina III from orbit, just to be sure.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

Reunion


In my opinion, Worf (Michael Dorn) tends to work better aboard Deep Space Nine than he does aboard the Enterprise, but I will concede that the Worf-themed Next Gen episodes were usually better (the Klingon-centric DS9 episodes were pretty dull, characters aside). Season four was a big one for Worf overall and his journey sort of begins here when his ex-lover, Klingon Ambassador K'Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson) beams to the Enterprise with a son Worf didn’t know he had. Surprise! Then K'Ehleyr is murdered, putting the boy in Worf’s custody. Surprise! Reunion is also a good episode for its political melodrama, most of which revolves around Picard instead of Worf. It’s the season’s Tom Clancy meets Shakespeare episode, which makes it a sort of companion piece to my favourite of all the original cast movies, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Clues


Following a fun glimpse at the crew’s leisure time activities (Klingon Tai Chi, playing 1920s detective, etc.), Clues takes a turn into hard sci-fi territory, unveiling a typically Star Trek-like mystery when a surprise trip through a wormhole appears to have jettisoned the Enterprise ahead a day in time. What first appears a harmless phenomenon quickly grows more dangerous. Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek didn’t really include traditional villains or conflict. The best original series and Next Gen episodes created drama out of the unknown and Clues is a prime example of the writers circumventing traditional conflict with a science fiction gimmick. The whole thing is, of course, a little silly if you stop to think about it, but the cast and director Les Landau do a great job selling the whole thing with a straight face right to its satisfying conclusion. Clues is also an atypically tightly-paced episode for one with very little on-screen action.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

The Nth Degree


Like Clues, The Nth Degree begins in a funny and unexpected place – Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lt. Reginald Barclay staging an incredibly awkward costume drama play. Barclay, who apparently suffers from social anxiety, is terrible, but even a terrible performance is proof of emotional progress. Following the performance, Barclay (a character I barely remember anything else about) is zapped by an alien probe and knocked unconscious. He awakens a genius and starts fixing all of the Enterprise’s mechanical problems. More suspiciously, his acting and social adeptness have also improved. But, because this is Star Trek, Barclay’s gifts come at a price. In this case, he transforms himself into the Enterprise’s computer, effectively taking total control of the ship. The Nth Degree is a very strong character study and a fine showcase for Dwight Schultz’ undervalued acting prowess. As I stated in the intro, Next Gen works best for me, the casual viewer, as a character-based exercise rather than a narrative-based one. Director Robert Legato does a very good job creating a moody, semi-Kubrickian tone on a tiny budget as well. My only problem here is the fact that the writers aren’t really sure how to end this particular conflict in the customary Next Gen ‘everything goes back to normal, because it isn’t a season finale’ fashion. Still, even if its silly, the ending is at least charmingly silly.

Qpid


I always like a good Q episode (the same way I like a good Mr. Mxyzptlk issue/episode of Superman) and, even as a DS9 fan, admit he works much better with the Next Gen crew. Qpid’s first act is pretty dull, featuring Picard’s former love interest, Vash (Jennifer Hetrick), wandering around the Enterprise while people react uncomfortably to her. But then Q (John DeLancie) appears and everything begins to pick up. Q offers to reward Picard for previous kindnesses and, when refused, decides to ‘fix’ Picard’s problems by sticking the Enterprise crew into a re-creation of ‘Robin Hood.’ Because, obviously, that’s the best way to make a man appreciate the affection of a good woman. What follows is a mix of costumed melodrama and delightfully bad jokes about the crewmembers being shoehorned into their Sherwood Forest roles. If more Next Gen was this enjoyably goofy I would’ve probably been a lifelong fan.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

The Host


I was immediately suspicious of The Host, because it is a Dr. Crusher-heavy episode and I find her pretty boring. But then, pre-credits, Crusher’s new alien boy-toy’s stomach begins to protrude with some kind of throbbing mass and the David Cronenberg fan in me begins to take notice. The boy-toy is an ambassador named Odan (Franc Luz) who has been brought aboard to help arrange a peace treaty between two warring planets. Odan doesn’t even make it to his meeting, however, because he and Riker are attacked while shuttling to the planet. Odan is critically injured and suddenly I realize why Jena, knowing I like DS9, suggested this episode – Odan is not the boy-toy, but a parasite within the boy-toy. He’s a Trill, a species that becomes a central piece of DS9. The Trill mythology is clearly in its infancy here. A lot of stuff changed by the time we reached DS9, but the basic idea is still set. The lovey-dovey sequences and overtly sappy scenes of Crusher and Troi talking about love (the musical score undercuts the drama a lot here) are made tolerable, thanks to strong performances (Frakes does a fine job portraying two characters in the same body and the greater theme of love entirely transcending appearance). You know you truly love someone if you don’t mind that they’re actually a slimy little turd aliens hiding in humanoid bodies. The episode ends with Odan in a female body and, unfortunately, the producers didn’t quite have the balls to follow through with the same sex relationship thing back in 1991.

Redemption: Parts One & Two


Paramount and CBS have become geniuses at wringing Trek fans of their cash. I don’t think their practices are always malevolent – I think most fans of any property would happily buy another copy, given HD A/V upgrade – but this season four set is being released alongside a separate Blu-ray special edition version of the season finale, Redemption. This release includes the second part of Redemption, which is the season five premiere. Fans can either wait for the season five Blu-rays or they can buy instant gratification now, only to buy the season five set later, anyway. Crafty, crafty. Anyway, because Paramount/CBS is doing this I am able to review both parts of the two-part episode here.

Redemption (parts one and two) is the culmination of four years worth of Klingon melodrama, which would eventually extend into DS9. Reunion did a good job catching me up on the specifics of Worf’s history I’d missed and established Gowron (Robert O'Reilly) as Picard’s reluctant choice as Leader of the Klingon Council. Gowron’s continuing troubles securing his position puts both Picard and Worf in awkward positions. Picard knows how much worse the situation will be if the Romulan-backed opposing team takes the ‘throne.’ Meanwhile, Worf cooks up a plan to clear his family’s name in hopes that Gawron will come to him for assistance. Of course, everything goes wrong and Klingon civil war begins to break out with Worf and Picard trapped taking sides. Stories about characters ‘finding themselves’ are a Star Trek series mainstay and, as that goes, Redemption is dramatic without being too embroiled in series mythology for a passing viewer to follow (minus all of the Denise Crosby playing a time travel daughter of the character she played during season one stuff…). Worf’s arc from the first half to the second half of the story works, because the writers aren’t entirely devoted to big shocks and action moments (of which there are plenty for a Next Gen episode), but to the more touching moments between him and the two crews that depend on him. On a purely personal level I also enjoyed the two-parter for the simple fact that Tony Todd plays a major role as Worf’s brother, Kurn. My only complaint is that, unlike The Best of Both Worlds, the second part is actually the weaker episode.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

Video


Note: Because Paramount/CBS has maintained a similar level of quality between these Blu-ray remasters, the following video and audio sections have been moved over from my season one review and updated only where applicable

When Paramount released the original Star Trek on Blu-ray, they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, assuming it was well-maintained, old television could look just as great as old movies in 1080p HD. Even those of us that knew what the format was capable of were taken aback by how vibrant and clean the decades-old footage was. I was again skeptical of what Next Gen would look like on Blu-ray, because I wrongly assumed that it was shot on video, which cannot be presented in 1080p (or even 720p) without ‘upconverting,’ a process that never yields satisfying results. It turns out I’m mostly ignorant to exactly how common it was for ‘80s and ‘90s era live-action television (outside of studio audience sitcoms) to be shot using 16mm or (better yet) 35mm film. Next Gen was shot on 35mm, which, aside from something unrealistically expensive like 65mm or 70mm, is the ideal format for the pre-digital era. And looking at the original DVD release I can now see Next Gen had plenty of room for improvement.

When I heard the series was coming to Blu-ray, I was afraid that the collection’s producers would see fit to re-frame the 1.33:1 episodes in a widescreen-friendly 1.78:1. Paramount knew better than to reframe the original series and I’m relieved to see they knew better than to reframe this one as well. Looking at the episodes again, I now see that the analogue TV-friendly framing is more or less nonnegotiable. Character close-ups tend to feature plenty of head space, but wider shots involving multiple characters would be bereft of valuable visual information. By directly comparing the DVDs (and Netflix versions) to the Blu-rays, I also noticed that the SD transfers were ever so slightly stretched, which means the 1080p remaster has a more natural structure and a teeny bit more information on the right and left sides of the screen. My second biggest fear was that the remastering process would include a lot of digital noise reduction. There are obvious signs of DNR, including some occasionally waxy skin textures and flattened highlights. These are most apparent in facial close-ups, many of which I’m guessing were originally shot somewhat softly to disguise facial blemishes. Overall, however, DNR is minimal (less even than the season one release), made apparent by natural (glorious) grain levels that change, based on lighting and colour quality ( Brothers starts off a bit grainier than the other episodes). Some viewers will likely complain about the grain (others may claim it’s closer to CRT scanning noise, which may be correct in some cases), but they have unrealistic expectations of the 35mm format and unfortunate aesthetic tastes.

Details are definitely sharper than any television or DVD version and are really only hampered by the original footage (there are fewer erect nipples than there were in season one – it seems that the costumers figured something out). Comparing the DVD transfer I notice the biggest improvement in clothing, prop textures, and the separation of background elements. The DVDs (and, I should note, the Netflix streaming episodes) are handicapped by a series of digital compression artefacts, including edge haloes, blocking effects, and, at worst, interlacing effects, all of which deaden details even further than an average 480p transfer. These are all but entirely eradicated on this release, save a couple of minor blocking effects on a handful of shots (the harshest red edges wiggle with a bit of aliasing). The colour quality changes are not as vast as those seen on the original series’ Blu-rays, but there’s no mistaking the improvement. Not only are colours sizably more rich and vibrant, there are big advancements made in terms of colour separation. The repeating hues, such as uniform and lighting effects, are far more consistent and colours of similar hues are more clearly differentiated. The SD transfers are also left wanting for yellows and oranges. Here, the warmer elements, specifically skin tones, are given the yellow boost they need to appear more natural (it is verified in the behind the scenes footage that the original notes on colour correction were utilized during the restoration process). There are still some minor bleeding effects (especially those red suits), but the only measurable issue here is some over-crushed blacks. The sharp edges and deep nature of the blacks is quite attractive, I’ll admit, but shadows are often deepened to a point that detail is lost, especially on the darker costume pieces. The black and dark blue/green pieces of the uniforms are flattened quite a bit and some details (zippers, pleats) go missing altogether.

Note: The episode Drumhead has two seconds of up-converted SD footage starting at 7:05. There’s a warning label on the episode that explains why they couldn’t find the original material.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

Audio


Note: When I reviewed the season one release, I failed to notice that some episodes had their front channel designations incorrectly mapped. This created an awkward stereo spread and echo effects on some of the dialogue. This time around, I listened extra-special hard for a repeat issue and didn’t notice more than minor audio bleeding on the dialogue tracks.

The original broadcasts of Next Gen featured analogue Dolby SR/LTRT stereo-surround sound, which means the original DVD producers had something to work with while remixing the series into a 5.1 Dolby Digital format. I don’t recall the sound of the DVDs all that well, but have watched the same sound design crew’s Deep Space Nine discs semi-recently and have fond memories of a solid and natural remix. According to the supplemental footage, this newly minted DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix was made from scratch using the original source material, not the Dolby Digital tapes. Some viewers and fans will likely be disappointed that these DTS-HD presentations aren’t particularly impressive when compared to modern, big budget television releases. The truth is that Next Gen isn’t aurally comparable to Lost or Battlestar Galactica and it never will be without sizable editions to the existing soundtrack, which I am usually not a fan of on principle. There are only a few examples here of the production crew gleefully over-doing it in terms of stereo and surround spread.

Some of the more impressive aural sequences (those that do not entirely betray the series’ humble beginnings) include the multi-channel boom of the ‘Borg voice’ in Best of Both Worlds: Part One, the humming of the Paxan energy fields in Clues, and all the swooping Klingon warships throughout Redemption. More subtle directional and immersive effects include Holodeck and planetary ‘natural’ ambience, the constant hums and beeps of the Federation ships, and the comparatively eerie buzz of the Klingon ships. These mixes are generally quite clear, but there are cases of the dialogue tracks having inconsistent volume and a couple dozen crackles and pops at high volume levels. The music is given a sizable ‘re-spreading’ along the stereo and surround channels, creating a powerful dual wall of sound. I might’ve preferred just a bit more of a central musical element (it’s present in the center channel, but rarely in the center of the room) and, occasionally, the score sounds a bit tinny, but those opening titles are downright breathtaking.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

Extras


The extras begin with two commentary tracks that have been carried over from the older DVD releases. Disc one features commentary on Brothers with director Rob Bowman and special effects supervisors Mike and Denise Okuda and disc two features commentary on Reunion with writers Ronald D. Moore and Brandon Braga, and the Okudas.

The rest of the extras include:
  • Mission Overview: Year Four (16:40, SD), where cast and crew discuss the season’s best episodes (disc one, original DVD extra).
  • Selected Crew Analysis: Year Four (17:00, SD), where cast members discuss their favourite episodes (disc two, original DVD extra).
  • New Life and New Civilizations (13:50, SD), a featurette about the seasons’ alien locations and stage sets, matte paintings, and visual effects (disc three, original DVD extra).
  • Chronicles From the Final Frontier (18:10, SD), concerning the writing/tonal changes that were started in the third season and defined the fourth (disc four, original DVD extra).
  • Departmental Briefing: Year Four: Production (16:50, SD), on season’s direction (specifically the directing work of actors Jonathan Frakes & Stewart, and producer David Livingston’s episodes) and various make-up effects (disc five, original DVD extra).
  • Select Historical Data (10:30, SD), a featurette that covers the more complex, season-specific special effects creature and ship designs. (disc five, original DVD extra).
  • Inside the Star Trek Archives (11:10, SD), a series of behind-the-scenes anecdotes (disc five, original DVD extra).
  • In Conversation: The Star Trek Art Department (1:10:00, HD), a nearly feature-length roundtable discussion with make-up effects artist Doug Drexler, production designer Herman Zimmerman, the Okudas, effects supervisor Dan Curry, and technical consultant Rick Sternbach (disc six, new Blu-ray extra).
  • Relativeity: The Family Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a new look back at the fourth season with various cast and crewmembers (disc six, all new Blu-ray extras) including:
    • Part 1: Homecoming (29:10, HD), on writing.
    • Part 2: Posterity (27:50, HD), on acting.
  • A gag reel (3:30, HD).
  • Eight deleted scenes collections from various episodes.


The Redemption parts one and two disc (which, again, is only available separately from the season four set) extras begin with a commentary featuring writer Ronald D. Moore and the Okudas. The disc also features Survive and Succeed: An Empire at War (30:00, HD), a new series of cast and crew interviews concerning Redemption and the episodes that lead up it.

Interviews throughout the featurettes also include executive producers Michael Piller and David Livingston, associate producer Peter Lauritson, special effects coordinators/supervisors Dan Curry, Gary Hutzel and the Okudas, make-up effects designer Michael Westmore, senior illustrator Rick Sternbach, model maker Greg Jein, writers Moore, Jeri Taylor, and Brannon Barga, director Rob Bowman, stunt coordinator Dennis ‘Danger’ Madalone, composer Ron Jones, and cast members Stewart, Frakes, Wil Wheaton, Mirina Sirtus, Jennifer Hetrick, Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, John DeLancie, Denis Crosby, and Robert O’Reilly.

 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

Overall


Fans of Next Gen likely disapprove of my general opinion on their favourite series, but take heart, even I have to admit that, with season four, the Enterprise crew began to find their way. I might even, gulp, be looking forward to revisiting these folks when the season five HD set gets released. Ignore my opinion on the series anyway and be assured that the people behind these remastered Blu-rays are maintaining their high standards – the 1080p video is sharp and the DTS-HD Master Audio sound is almost comparable with modern television equivalents. The extras include most of the old DVD collection’s extras and a decent collection of new cast & crew interviews. The Redemption two-parter disc features a couple more new extras that I suppose might not be available with the season five set.


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