Season three is where Star Trek: The Next Generation got good. Really good. The last elements click in to place, as Dr. Crusher returns, the uniforms change and this becomes the first of several seasons that are truly excellent. I’ll go into more detail about this after I talk a bit about what the circumstances were behind the scenes, because this was one of the most stressful seasons the writing staff in particular would ever work under.
The writing staff turned almost completely over for season three. Maurice Hurley, the head writer, left the show after the end of season two saying he was exhausted from all of the apparent in-fighting. After reading and watching interviews, it seems to me that he himself was half the problem. Michael Wagner took over briefly, but it didn’t suit him so Michael Piller got the job. Looking back, if there was one single reason why TNG got good from the third season on, it was Michael Piller. It turns out he and Hurley were old friends and he became associated with Star Trek in the first place because Hurley asked him to script a few episodes which ended up impressing Berman and Roddenberry, particularly his script for Evolution. Piller would remain an executive producer until season five. Piller wanted TNG to be more character-driven instead of the ‘monster of the week’ or a gadget-centered approach. Ronald Moore has said that Piller wanted each episode to be oriented toward at least one of the main characters on the show, instead of featuring a planet of the week or a guest star of the week. I am glad about it, though in having an episode that was typically devoted to one character, there are relatively few episodes where the entire ensemble gets something significant to do. Thinking back though, that would be difficult anyway when you have eight (seven, after Wil left) principal actors.
There were no scripts or stories in development according to Michael Piller, and from that pressure for an “unrelenting need for creativity” some great episodes were born. It was Piller who instituted the open submission policy, which meant that anyone could submit a script to Star Trek. Anyone, from anywhere. One was from Rene Echevarria, who was a waiter in New York. It was he who had the idea about Data having a daughter, which became The Offspring. Another one was from Ronald Moore, who got a job because his girlfriend at the time had a contact and was able to get him onto the lot and he brought a script with him, which became The Bonding.
A big change in the look of the show was the change in cinematographers. In seasons one and two Edward R. Brown was the guy, but I didn’t care for him. So many of the scenes were so dark, and for no reason, that I was glad to see him go. He was replaced by Marvin Rush and as you’ll see for the remainder of the series the sets are brighter, the colors are more bright and vibrant, and the cinematography really becomes itself more distinctive and nuanced. It’s a welcome change IMO, and he’s around through TNG, DS9 and Voyager. Levar Burton refers to him as a genius and Brent Spiner has commented on his brilliance and how lucky they were to get him.
The first thing you’ll notice upon actually watching an episode though, is the change in the opening credits sequence, where instead of a pan through the solar system we start out in a nebula and travel through various inter-stellar phenomena. I liked the change and each season afterward would wait and see if they changed it again. This is what we will have for the rest of the series, however, and I liked it just fine.
Gates McFadden returned as Doctor Crusher due to a major campaign from the fans, and later from Patrick himself. According to her he called her when she was in New York doing a play, said he was not very happy, and asked if there was any way she would come back. She said she would have to think about it, but later decided to come back. However the scripts that had been submitted were with Dr. Pulaski in mind, so they did a minimal amount of change and just had Dr. Crusher do the same lines. She was a much more masculine character, reminiscent of Pulaski, there was no love interest angle with Picard, and Gates was confused; she said it took a while before she felt they were back on track with her character. This season also features Frakes’ first directing effort, and he’s the first of several cast members taking a turn at the directing chair. He directed The Offspring, one of the finest episodes of the season. Frakes would go on to direct seven more TNG episodes (4 good ones, 4 bad ones all told) half of the TNG movies and is still directing to this day.
According to Frakes, he and Marina refused to let the back story of their romance die even when writers and directors seemed to have forgotten about it. This may account for Ménage à Troi–if so, yikes, thanks for nothin’! Worf gets some great development in this season, not just in Sins of the Father, but also in The Enemy, where Worf lets someone die that he could have saved, and in some other episodes as well. Geordi finally gets a love interest, but as we will see, none of them will really work out. Booby Trap and The Enemydo perhaps the most for him this season. Both Geordi and Worf got promoted between season 2 and 3, with Geordi now a Lieutenant Commander and Worf being promoted to full Lieutenant, where they will stay for the remainder of the series.
Marina Sirtis as Deanna gets the short end of the stick again. One of the writers said she was a character very difficult to write for, since Gene Roddenberry had said that one of the tenets of TNG was nobody really had any psychological problems, yet a counselor was there prominently on the bridge every episode! I thought that was funny. Her role seems to be mostly stating the obvious to Picard, and she’s only featured significantly in four episodes. Two of them are pretty decent, whereas the other two involve sex: one where she gets laid and another where she’s kidnapped and all her clothes are taken from her. This leads to my next point, how she is being slowly changed into a sex kitten. This is the season that introduces her new turquoise uniform. It’s a deliberate attempt to sexualize her more–take a look, her boobs look so much bigger in her outfit she was actually interviewed by TV Guide back in the day asking if she’d had a boob job. She, of course, hadn’t. As a 14-year old boy I had no problem at all with her look, and Wil Wheaton is on record as having had a crush on her so I’m sure he didn’t mind much either. As an adult though, this slide toward objectification was a sad one. While not as demeaning as Jeri Ryan’s slinky outfits it was still a step in the wrong direction. Why they didn’t put her in a standard uniform I’ll never know.
Picard’s character was being narrowed and narrowed according to Patrick Stewart: “I was becoming a negotiator.” He went to Roddenberry and they decided to put the captain at more risk in this season. A story that Ron Moore tells is that the day he met Patrick they were shooting the first episode he wrote, The Bonding. Patrick was very cordial and asked him what else he was doing, and Ron told him a little about writing The Defector. Patrick listened and then said, “just remember one thing: the captain doesn’t do nearly enough screwing and shooting on this show.” This is what indirectly led to the episode Captain’s Holiday. You’ll also see him being kidnapped, punching people, and yes, getting laid in this season.
Speaking of getting kidnapped, this happened a lot in season three. At least six crew members get abducted over the course of the season, and it’s Picard himself half the time! This season would also introduce Reginald Barclay as a great recurring character, who I’ll be talking about more in the episodes he appears in. The Starfleet uniforms are finally changed! The cast didn’t have those one piece unitards they had to deal with in the first two seasons, and are now two-piece uniforms. Apparently Patrick Stewart helped make the change here, as his chiropractor informed him the back pain he experienced was from the tight one-piece suits, and he may end up having permanent back problems if it continued. It’s a welcome change, giving them a more realistic look and all the actors are on record as hating the one-piece versions they had to wear.
The Blu Ray set has some great new additional content and interviews, but the best is Seth McFarlane hosting a conversation between some of the key writers for TNG. It’s over an hour long and covers a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and stories you’ve never heard before. The love that these guys had for the show comes shining through, and I will include many of them in the episodes they discuss. Trekcore.com has released a whole series of videos showcasing a comparison of the original version vs the Blu Ray. Click here to see one of them for the episode The Price, in many of the shots there is a huge difference. Now get ready to be annoyed. There was an exclusive 15-minute vignette called “The Trek Not Taken” that was only bundled with Season 3’s that you bought from Best Buy. It covers TNG’s flirtation with using an entirely-CGI approach to the new Enterprise, with attempts from several companies to show their stuff. Evidently there was a huge array of visual effects shots in the mini-documentary that now we will never get to see, as well as a detailed discussion of the original 6-foot model. The only silver lining here is that it’s being included in the season 4 Blu Ray package–but only if you live in Germany. Here is a snippet from The Trek Not Taken that I was able to find on YouTube.
A final change is the introduction of a new model of the Enterprise for season 3. When the series first started there were two models used for the show, a large six-foot model and a small two-foot model; both could saucer-separate. The decision was made to have a more detailed version of the ship and it made its debut in The Defector. It has more surface detail so that light would create shadows across its surface, and it would more accurately portray the Ten Forward section of the ship which was absent from the original model. It would be the primary model used for the rest of the series. Here is a link to how the six-foot version appeared on the show, and here is one showing how the four-foot version appeared. Click the image on the left for a full-size shot of all three side by side. You make the call as to which you prefer.
Season three was an unqualified success, capped off by perhaps the finest cliffhanger in television history. TV Guide did an article several years ago ranking what they considered to be the best cliffhangers and The Best of Both Worlds took the #2 spot, right under the “Who shot JR” story line on Dallas. In terms of widespread anticipation Dallas’ was probably deservedly there, but for resolution of the plot BoBW was far superior to the cheat that Dallas did, essentially saying he was never shot and it was all a daydream! Below are the episodes of season three. The first season had 25 episodes, the second 22, but from the third season on 26 becomes the standard and will be the case for every season until the final one. As a thank you for reading my article, please enjoy this gag reel from season 3.
List of episodes for season four:
- Evolution ** 1/2
- The Ensigns of Command *** 1/2
- The Survivors ***
- Who Watches the Watchers ****
- The Bonding **
- Booby Trap *** 1/2
- The Enemy ****
- The Price * 1/2
- The Vengeance Factor **
- The Defector **** 1/2
- The Hunted *** 1/2
- The High Ground ** 1/2
- Deja Q *****
- A Matter of Perspective *
- Yesterday’s Enterprise *****
- The Offspring **** 1/2
- Sins of the Father *****
- Allegiance ***
- Captain’s Holiday ** 1/2
- Tin Man ***
- Hollow Pursuits ****
- The Most Toys ****
- Sarek *** 1/2
- Ménage à Troi 1/2
- Transfigurations **
- The Best of Both Worlds *****