Season three is when I think TNG started getting really good. By the time season four began, TNG had arrived. As Michael Dorn said, “I think it was the fourth season where we really hit our stride.” With one exception, no season of any television series has ever opened with more anticipation than season four of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, according to some lists, it is the greatest TV cliffhanger of all time. What happens after the season three finale became a national conversation, and not even the writers knew the answer. In the words of Michael Piller, “I’d created an unsolvable problem” with Best of Both Worlds. He had a one year contract with TNG, and had planned on leaving after the end of season 3, so he simply put the crew in the worst situation he could imagine before he would leave. It wasn’t until Gene Roddenberry convinced him to return that he found himself with the burden of actually attempting to solve the problem he’d created. Solve it he did, and ripples from this two-parter will be felt for the rest of the series. In fact the idea of a Star Trek captain who wasn’t invulnerable, and really could be violated, was brand new. Think about it: in a very real way, the captain of the starship Enterprise had just been raped. It would make Picard more human, more complex, and even more interesting as a character from this point on. Due in part to BoBW’s success TNG will go on to have 8 two-part episodes, not counting the feature-length series premiere and finale.
The fourth season was the very first time a season began with a stable writing staff. The first season was chaos, everyone was trying to get things started and answer all the questions. The second season had the writer’s strike, which is why it was only 22 episodes long. The third season Michael Piller comes in late, after even more turnovers. It wasn’t until season four, and coming off of the success of Best of Both Worlds that everyone began to acknowledge that yes, this is Star Trek, and things were great right out of the gate. This year brought some thematic changes as well.
The idea of serialized stories in Star Trek had been forbidden. The reason was simple: in syndication the network affiliates want flexibility, the freedom to show any episode in any order they want. A recurring villain, sure that had had happened before. The episode Family, though, was something new: an episode that could only be fully understood by watching two previous episodes. It began the age of serialized stories, and placed an increasing emphasis on family at the same time. These are two of the hallmarks of season four.
Serialized episodes began and took off in season four. Family was the beginning of this, but we also return to a brewing Klingon plot against the Federation as well as Worf’s dishonor, which began back in season three with Sins of the Father. In season four this is touched on in no less than five episodes: Family, The Drumhead, Reunion, The Mind’s Eye and finally the aptly-named Redemption.
It could also be called the sequel season (and has, by Larry Nemecek). We get a lot of return fliers, including the Traveler, K’Ehleyr, Duras, Leah Brahms, Lore, Vash, Reginald Barclay, Minuet, Q and Lwaxana. Whew.
The first half of season four you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an episode that was about family. In addition to the episode Family, which dealt with Picard’s and Worf’s families, there was Brothers, which was all about Data’s family. Later came Reunion, an episode was about Worf’s own family. Suddenly Human is an episode all about family, as is Reunion, Future Imperfect and Final Mission. Data’s Day features the formation of a new family. Heck, Legacy and Redemption even dealt with a dead crew member’s family!
The relationships between crew (and cast) deepened, and they got to celebrate the 80th and 100th episodes of TNG as well. The original Star Trek series lasted 79 episodes, so getting to 80 felt like a milestone, and getting to 100 (even though I disagree with the counting, as I’ll discuss in Legacy) was another one.
Gates McFadden was growing her own family during season four, as she was pregnant. During Data’s Day she was around 4 months pregnant and in The Host she was 7 1/2 months pregnant. After her son was born, Brent Spiner would become his godfather. Beverly Crusher also finally gets an excellent episode of her own!
We lose family as well. Wil Wheaton leaves the series this season in the episode Final Mission. In his words “I left the show to pursue a career in feature films and on the stage.” Later he said, “the writing for Wesley was really a bell curve. I mean it was awful, and then it was really good, then it was awful again. That’s kind of why I didn’t wanna be on the show anymore… that’s why I asked to be let go. I wasn’t doing anything. It was mostly just, like, I was pushing buttons and putting the Enterprise into orbit. I was missing incredible acting opportunities, feature film acting opportunities, to do that.” It wasn’t an easy decision, and he said he spent a lot of time in his 20’s and early 30’s still conflicted about not staying in touch with the cast. He said he was angry by the time he left and had been treated very poorly by the producers (*cough* Rick Berman) for at least a full season. From my perspective, other than Final Mission he doesn’t really do anything in season four, and even in season three he didn’t have a whole lot.
This was also the first season where Chief O’Brien gets any real air time dedicated to him, and it feels like he’s joined the Enterprise crew. Not only does he finally get first and middle names in Family, he also gets married in Data’s Day, we learn more of his past in The Wounded, and we return to his marriage for In Theory. O’Brien, who’d had a recurring role since the pilot, will go on to become enough of a presence that he will join as a principal member of the cast of Deep Space 9. It was also the beginning of Spot, Data’s cat. Starting in Data’s Day he (or she) would go on to appear in 10 episodes of TNG as well as the Generations and Nemesis films.
TNG also gained two staff members. Both were writers, Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga. Jeri Taylor was asked to do a rewrite for Suddenly Human, and based on that was asked to join the team. Jeri didn’t know Star Trek at all. In her words, “I was a Star Trek virgin… I was vaguely aware that Star Trek existed and was out there in the airwaves somewhere.” She went on to become an executive producer. Brannon came on as an intern, having never had a professional writing gig before. He said to Gene Roddenberry that he’d never seen any of the original series. Gene said, “Don’t watch it.” He wanted TNG to be different than the original. In a twist that seems could only happen in Hollywood, Michael Pillar told Brannon one of the main reasons he chose him from among the other intern candidates was because he saw Brannon had gotten a “D” in a college Human Sexuality class.
Season four was another unqualified success, with some of the finest episodes in the entire series. With more notoriety and stable ratings, the money from the studio increased. The budget now was about $2 million an episode, but according to Rene Echevarria, after the cost of shooting, paying the staff, paying the cast, using the costumes, etc, the amount of money they had left was actually about $200,000. In fact the last part of this season, from The Drumhead to In Theory were mostly bottle shows to improve Paramount’s finances as well as save up for Redemption. However they did it, season four continued to look and sound great, the overall quality of the episodes was more consistent. Hollywood agreed, and season four hit a new high of Emmy nominations, with 10. Being a non-network show, it only bright home two. On a brighter note, in 1991 the Viewers for Quality Television voted TNG a fully endorsed TV series, even though it wasn’t eligible as a syndicated show! There is a gag reel for season 4, but I just can’t seem to find it online anywhere. The episode links below will become active as I review them.
List of episodes in season four:
- The Best of Both Worlds, Part II
- Suddenly Human
- Remember Me
- Future Imperfect
- Final Mission
- The Loss
- Data’s Day
- The Wounded
- Devil’s Due
- First Contact
- Galaxy’s Child
- Night Terrors
- Identity Crisis
- The Nth Degree
- The Drumhead
- Half a Life
- The Host
- The Mind’s Eye
- In Theory