Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Five

Another bang-up restoration job by CBS Digital breathes new life into an already great season.

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The 26 episodes that constitute Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Five originally aired between September of 1991 and June of 1992. The series had come into its own during the third season, with even more consistent quality building throughout season four. Even if not every episode is a homerun, season five sailed along confidently on the strengths of an ace writing team that included Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor, and Michael Piller. With the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the two-part episode “Unification,” this season included the first significant guest-starring role by a primary original series cast member. It was also the season during which Trek creator Gene Roddenberry passed away.

Consistency is the key to season five’s excellence. Even given the occasional weak spot, like the father-son drama between Worf (Michael Dorn) and his son Alexander (Brian Bonsall) in “New Ground,” there’s a feeling that TNG had become a well-oiled machine by this point. Michelle Forbes joined the show as a recurring guest star, particularly standing out in her debut episode as Bajoran Ro Laren, “Ensign Ro.” Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) comes to the controversial ensign’s defense, befriending her after Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) suspects her of wrongdoing. Speaking of Guinan, Goldberg has some great moments in one of the season’s finest, “I, Borg.”

Star Trek TNG I Borg (380x213).jpgThe events of “I, Borg,” in which a Borg drone known as Third of Five (Jonathan Del Arco) is rescued from near death during an away mission, set the stage for the season six closer, “Descent.” Here, via RenĂ© Echevarria’s thoughtful teleplay, we see Picard, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) re-examine their preconceived notions of the Borg. Third of Five, nicknamed “Hugh” by Geordi, exhibits the ability to think independently while separated from the collective—leading Picard to think more carefully about his plan to infect him with a virus intended to wipe out the Borg permanently. It’s an interesting ethical quandary—is genocide ever justifiable?—and one sure to spark on-going debate among those seeing it for the first time.

Star Trek TNG Ensign Ro (210x220).jpgOther season five high points include “The Next Phase,” another showcase for Forbes. Ensign Ro and Geordi find themselves invisible, presumed dead by the Enterprise crew after a transporter accident. Ro seems to accept her apparent death, while Geordi frantically searches for the cause behind their intangibility. While “The Game” (featuring Ashley Judd) marks the return of Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) in a weaker episode (the crew becomes addicted to a video game), Wesley is better served in “The First Duty.” While it feels a little like an after school special at times, the episode includes some believably uncomfortable interaction between Wes and Picard when the latter discovers the former was involved in fatal horseplay at Starfleet Academy. And, while I won’t belabor the point since it has been made time and again, “The Inner Light” (no less than Patrick Stewart’s personal favorite episode, as stated in the bonus features) is an award-winning classic that presents a movingly-realized alternate life for Picard in the span of a single episode.

Star Trek TNG Ro Geordi (380x289).jpgIn case you haven’t heard, The Next Generation has been undergoing a season-by-season restoration that has rendered it excitingly fresh. The folks at CBS Digital have painstakingly recreated the series from the original film elements. Post-production for the original broadcast versions was finished on video, standard definition given the era. The previous DVD editions were made using these masters. If you’ve viewed any of the previous four seasons on Blu-ray, you know the difference is like night and day. The odd-numbered seasons have been handled in-house, while the even ones have been outsourced to other studios.

Season five looks extraordinary, with the live-action footage now on par with that of the Trek feature films. As with the previous four seasons, it really is like looking at the episodes anew. As has happened before in very selective instances, when the original negatives couldn’t be found, standard definition footage was used in its place. This happens here in two episodes; 37 seconds in “The First Duty” and about a minute-and-a-half in “Power Play.” Given the amount of elapsed time, it’s a wonder so little of the original negative has been lost. Effects work, both recreated using original elements and new CG material, is again a pleasure to soak in.

Star Trek TNG First Duty (380x290).jpgAll the episodes have been upgraded to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mixes, continuing another practice established from the outset of the Blu-ray releases. These mixes are excellent at maintaining the subtleties of the ambiance that is often more felt than heard during scenes aboard the Enterprise or other ships. All the audio is well balanced and prioritized, with the scores sounding magnificent throughout the season.

In addition to carrying over standard def features from the old DVD set, a selection of new supplements has been included. New audio commentaries were recorded for: “Cause and Effect” (Brannon Braga and Seth MacFarlane), “The First Duty” (Ronald Moore and Naren Shankar), “I, Borg” (Mike & Denise Okuda with RenĂ© Echevarria), and “The Inner Light” (the Okudas with Morgan Gendel). The commentary for “Unification” parts one and two is exclusive to the standalone release of that two-parter.

A great two-part featurette, “Requiem: A Remembrance of Star Trek: The Next Generation,” runs a total of about an hour. The focus here is the late Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, who is featured heavily in part one, “The Needs of the Many,” via vintage interview footage. We hear from numerous series writers, including Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, throughout. Get ready to feel a lump in the throat and a twitch in the chin as part two, “The Needs of the Few,” begins. First we see the actual Entertainment Tonight segment from 1991 that paid tribute to Roddenberry after his passing. Various Trek players, including Marina Sirtis, speak about Roddenberry and the effect his death had. Other season five elements are discussed as well, including the addition of Michelle Forbes and the return of Wil Wheaton.

Star Trek TNG Inner Light (220x165).jpgAt 74 minutes, “In Conversation: The Music of Star Trek: The Next Generation” might be more than the average viewer needs to hear from series composers Dennis McCarthy, Ron Jones, and Jay Chattaway. Those with a particular interest in the art of scoring for television will probably be more enthralled. It’s a dry but informative program, moderated by the author of The Music of Star Trek, Jeff Bond. There’s also HD deleted scenes and a new HD gag reel.

I can’t think of a better example of a worthwhile Blu-ray upgrade than Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m not sure how many people are planning to jump on board with the fifth season, of all places. But if you haven’t seen the earlier seasons, it’s as good as a place as any to check out the amazing restoration.

All photos, courtesy of CBS/Paramount, are for promotional purposes and do not reflect the 1080p presentation of the Blu-rays.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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