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STAR TREK:  THE NEXT GENERATION
Season Four

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Brett Spiner, Gates McFadden Wil Wheaton
Directors:  Various
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Five Featurettes
Length:  1182 Minutes
Release Date:  September 3, 2002
NOTE:  Complete episode listing is available at the end of this review.

“Q has appeared…he wants to do something ‘nice’ for me.”

“I’ll alert the crew.”

Shows ****

By all accounts, Season Four of Star Trek:  The Next Generation was particularly important to creator Gene Roddenberry.  By going into a fourth year, the new series would officially eclipse the original in terms of longevity, but he sensed something even bigger.  The show had been good up to then, but he predicted that with extra dedication from his writers, cast and crew, the fourth season would make the series a landmark all its own.

He was right.  Season Four was no holds barred in terms of its writers’ imaginations and its cast’s willingness to take their characters to the next level.  It was a year that saw some of the best science fiction ever scripted for television or any other medium.  It was also a year we got closer to the crew of the Enterprise than ever before.  We saw their strengths and weaknesses, their bravery and their fear…and we loved them all the more for all of it.

For the first time, the writers and producers decided to make Star Trek aware of its own history…in other words, there was a sense of continuation in some of the stories.  Lt. Worf’s (Dorn) dishonor from Season Three was addressed twice in year four.  Lt. Geordi La Forge (Burton) once had an interesting holodeck encounter with the designer of the Enterprise’s engines Leah Brahms; in this season, he got to meet the real thing.  Even dearly departed Tasha Yar still held a presence in the show when we visited for the first time the horrible place where she grew up, and even met her sister there.

But no strand of change was as strong as the assimilation and eventual rescue of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) by the unstoppable Borg.  His story is picked up in the first episode, “The Best of Both Worlds Part II”, an amazing piece of work that at long last resolved the cliffhanger from Season Three.  And in the subsequent episode, “Family”, Picard heartbreakingly reveals just how horrible and altering the experience was for him.

And family became a theme for the entire season…in that same episode, we got our first glimpse of Worf’s adoptive human parents, and via the holodeck, our first look at Wesley Crusher’s (Wheaton) father, who had died before the stories of the series even began.

A return of an old friend brings another family dimension to Worf’s life in “Reunion”, and he fights to restore his family’s wronged name in the finale, “Redemption Part I”.  Lt. Commander Data (Spiner) is even brought back together with his father-creator and his twin brother Lore (both also played by Spiner in a tour-de-force tri facto performance) in “Brothers”.

As in prior years, we spent a great deal of time with the characters both as a group and individually.  Data gets another turn to shine in “Data’s Day”, which reminded me of the classic “Dear Dad” episodes from M*A*S*H.  Geordi gets a couple of heroic turns in both “Galaxy’s Child” and “Identity Crisis”.  Counselor Deanna Troi (Sirtis) finds herself facing her worst fears in “The Loss”, while Commander William Riker (Frakes) finds his world turned upside down in “Future Imperfect”.  Dr. Beverly Crusher finds herself in a startling paradox in “Remember Me”, and her son, Wesley, has a big goodbye in “Final Mission”.

The writing in the fourth season is absolutely extraordinary, especially in the early going.  One senses the creative juices not only flowing, but boiling over.  I challenge anyone to so much as blink during “Best of Both Worlds Part II”, “Family”, “Brothers”, “Remember Me”, or “Future Imperfect”.  There was no fear in approaching difficult scenarios such as the constancy of reality, old family wounds, or functioning amidst great personal crises. 

The writers, producers and directors did extraordinary work…but it remains the amazing ensemble cast that made the series work and gave the creators so much wealth to work with.  Patrick Stewart cemented his reputation as an actor in earlier years, but season four also saw him bronze it.  His turn in “Family” was an apex, but hardly the last one.  But credit also goes to every man and woman who comprised the crew of the Enterprise.  They were as real to us as anyone we knew, and their heroics were something to cherish because they didn’t come about from an absence of fears or weaknesses, but in spite of them.

The only real low point of the year for me was “First Contact”, an episode making the mistake of staying mostly away from the Enterprise and her crew and leaving us instead with a group of aliens we didn’t care much about.  For others, much has been said about the departure of Wil Wheaton as Wesley…for some reason, he was a point of contention amongst Trekkies.  I always liked him, myself…he was closest to my age when the series first aired, and sort of an easy figure for me to identify with.  His departure was honorable, and frankly, has come full circle with his appearance in the upcoming Star Trek film Nemesis.

So Gene Roddenberry turned out to be right, as always.  Season Four insured that The Next Generation would be able to grow from merely popular to classic.  Its confidence in its characters and willingness to give them and their stories a proper sense of continuing context paved the way for the future…and better things were still to come.

Video ***1/2

Paramount’s transfers of these shows continue to be good, but for some reason, I felt the overall quality of the fourth season was a bit of a step down from Season Three.  Some of the more middle episodes didn’t bode as well as the bookending ones, showing a little more grain and a touch less color consistency.  These aren’t distracting marks, to be sure…only worth noting.  But as always, I think the fans will be pleased with the effort.

Audio ****

The 5.1 remixes continue to be good, with the Enterprise engines humming through the subwoofer and the space action opening up the front and rear stages nicely.  Not every episode calls for a bang-up mix, but the ones that do are well serviced, and make the experience of watching the shows again all the more pleasurable.

Features ***

The set includes five featurettes, all on the seventh disc, and each about 15 minutes or so in length.  “Mission Overview” touches on some of the year’s highlights, including Q’s (John De Lancie) return in a whimsical episode, the cliffhanger, and the filming of the 100th episode.  “Selected Crew Analysis” deals mostly with the departure of Wil Wheaton, with fresh interviews with both him and Patrick Stewart on the subject.  “Departmental Briefing” looks at both Stewart’s and Frakes’ turns in the director’s chair, as well as a look at some of the year’s best in makeup.  “New Life and New Civilizations” chronicles some of the special effects and production designs, while “Chronicles of the Final Frontier” looks at some of the season’s best episodes through the eyes of the writers.  A nice package for Trekkies.

Summary:

Season Four was serious business for Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  The strong developments in story and character paved the way towards an even brighter future…some of the episodes in this year are as good as it gets.

COMPLETE SEASON FOUR EPISODE LOG:

The Best of Both Worlds Part II Clues
Family First Contact
Brothers Galaxy's Child
Suddenly Human Night Terrors
Remember Me Identity Crisis
Legacy The Nth Degree
Reunion Qpid
Future Imperfect The Drumhead
Final Mission Half a Life
The Loss The Host
Data's Day The Mind's Eye
The Wounded In Theory
Devil's Due Redemption Part I