Season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation contains perhaps the best known story arc in the series: the encounter between the Enterprise and the all-consuming techno-imperialist enemy the Borg. The Borg represents an enemy that threatens not only the destruction of human civilization, but also its complete ingestion. It also gives season three one of the best cliffhangers in the history of American television.
The Borg are really the perfect villains of the Star Trek universe. The Klingons of the classic series are simple warmongers, interested in political and military expansion growing out of their sense of imperial hubris and tribal notion of honor and warfare.
Whereas The Borg is a cybernetic species, part organic and mostly machine. They seek something more insidious than conquest, to “assimilate” technological civilizations, essentially ingesting them and pirating both their technology and their consciousness. “Resistance is futile” is their deadpan battle cry and season three infamously concludes with an episode that seems to suggest that resistance has, in fact, proven more than futile.
The Borg might feel like it assimilates this season, but the real pleasure for Trekkers will be some of the series most memorable, moving and thought-provoking stand-alone episodes. “Offspring” (directed by Jonathan Frakes) explores Commander Data’s attempt to literally build a child for himself and create a family.
Season 3 also contains a “Q” episode, returning villain turned comic relief character masterfully portrayed by John De Lancie, who appeared in the first episode of season one. Essentially an immortal god with unlimited powers, Q is a renegade member of what’s called “The Continuum”, an association of fellow intergalactic omnipotencies. In episode 12 of this season, he gets kicked out of the Continuum entirely and loses his powers.
I have to admit that I’ve never really been a fan of the Q episodes but the background story for this may have changed my mind. A production notes featurette provided on the third disc explains both the origins of this show and the very influential role that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry continued to play in the series. An original version of the script has Q pretending to lose his powers and leading Captain Picard and the Enterprise on a wild goose chase. Roddenberry nixed the idea of “let’s do another funny Q episode” by demanding of his writers that they tell him what this episode was actually trying to accomplish, essentially what it was trying to say. What they came up with, under his direction, was the story of a suddenly powerless god who must learn something about his humanity.
It’s not all high points. Season opener “Evolution” sadly represented one of those episodes that caused rampant dislike for the character of young Wesley Crusher portrayed by present – day nerd god Wil Wheaton. Fans turned solidly against Wheaton’s character, the teenage son of the ship’s chief medical officer who, inexplicably, gets to be an honorary Federation officer and serve on the bridge.
Clearly a ham-handed effort to reach out to “younger viewers” by featuring an age-appropriate character with which younger viewers could identify, Crusher became the focus of all manner of ire. “Evolution” shows why as Crusher unwittingly unleashes nano-technology into the ship’s computer, causing it to play John Phillip Susa marches when it should be keeping the Enterprise D from falling headlong into the sun. And, of course, the writers have Crusher doing a whole “aw shucks I’m sorry I almost destroyed the ship but I’ve learned important life lessons” routine to wrap up the episode.
I’m glad Wheaton has recovered from such poor plotting and writerly malfeasance to become a real fan favorite. His love of the genre, his sense of humor about his turn as Wesley Crusher and his willingness just to go be a fanboy at cons has made him rightly beloved. But you won’t love his character in season 3.
Of course, this is the season of the Borg and one of the best, and most annoying, season-ending episodes in any TV franchise. The two-part “Best of Both Worlds” brought the unstoppable Borg into Federation space. Captain Picard himself becomes assimilated to the Borg and even acts as the voice of its collective hive-mind’s. And this is where the season ended.
Star Trek fans know the eventual outcome of this short story arc but Paramount has eased the pain by releasing, along with Season three, a blu-ray disc transfer of Best of Both Worlds on a single disc. Although presented as a single feature, it certainly still feels like two episodes. However, “The Best of Both Worlds” also contains a feature on the history and creation of the Borg not found in the Season 3 features. Strangely, this is the one featurette from the Trek bundle that gives us a lot of discussion about special effects.
Even without much discussion of SFX, the six discs that make up Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 3 include a wealth of special features that explore the next gen mythos. An overview of season 3 explores the direction taken by the third season with a special emphasis on the famous return of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) for the rift in time episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.
Other special features include Seth McFarlane moderating a behind-the scenes discussion with the writer’s room. Sitting down with the group on the 46h anniversary of the first series, it’s a free-ranging conversation that explores how a series that seemed like it was in a death spiral got its nose up and became groundbreaking TV.
We get to hear a lot from Ronald D. Moore in this discussion. This is a treat given that, of course, Moore would go on to create the magnificent reboot of Battlestar Galactica.Most interesting, and frankly delightful, we discover that Moore began his extraordinary career when he wrote a spec episode that he passed along to someone giving him a set tour arranged by his then girlfriend.
We also get the sense from this discussion that Star Trek: The Next Generation hit its stride in season three largely because of producer Michael Pillar’s insistence that the show become character driven (each episode needed to be a Worf show, or a Riker show, or a Data show). And in fact, part of the show’s genius became the depth of its characters, put on display in the midst of various ethical and philosophical dilemmas.
The final of the six discs contains an incredibly detailed feature on the inner workings of season three. “Resistance is Futile” provides more discussion of how Star Trek: The Next Generation began as a series that followed the paradigm of its predecessor, travelling to planets with strange customs and either changing them or learning something from them. Season three began to push beyond the bounds of entertaining, one hour scifi TV into creating a mythos and a universe.
This feature also offers Star Trek fans detailed interviews with the writing staff, interviews with essentially every member of the cast and a number of hilarious bloopers (especially funny Klingon bloopers).
Selected episodes contain audio commentary. Moore and Stillwell describe the “convoluted” process of getting each of these episodes to the screen, triggered in part by what appears to have been the chaos of writing season 3. We also learn of a very different version of this episode one that luckily didn’t happen as it featured an extended “holodeck” scenario with Data in a pirate fantasy.
Paramount has also managed to give fans the perfect interface for the blu-ray edition of the series. Viewers navigate what looks like the graphics of the “PADD”, the omnipresent small computers (that acted as something of an inspiration for an iPad). It’s much less clunky than the interface for the Classic Trek blu-ray discs (ironically and unintentionally interesting since we are supposed to see a tech advance for “the next generation” of Federation technology).
The transfer itself looks gorgeous. The somewhat dull looking special effects from television, especially the Enterprise in space, now appears sharp and crisp and luminous. Character effects hold up well in the sometimes unforgiving look of HD (Worf, everyone’s favorite Klingon Federation officer looks especially good).
Every Trekker will need this crucial television season in high-def. Moreover, its not a bad entry point for someone interested in finding their way into the complex Star Trek ‘verse. If you are not already a fan, the brilliant acting and scripting of this season will assimilate you.