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

A Writer's Guild strike threatened to sink the season, but instead this is where everything began to really gel.

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The second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation arrives on Blu-ray as a five-disc set containing all 22 episodes. The Writers Guild of America strike of 1988 shortened the season, making it the only one in the series’ seven-season run to come in under 26 episodes. Beyond being shorter, the strike sent the producers rummaging through old, unused material (the season premiere “The Child” was first written for the aborted series Star Trek: Phase II) and resorting to a “clip show” (the season finale “Shades of Gray”). In between these less than stellar episodes, season two features some of the best Star Trek that was ever produced. The Next Generation found its footing as the cast really gelled and the writing became stronger.

While “The Child” wasn’t anywhere near the best episode of the season, it did introduce us right out of the gate to a pair of significant new characters. With the departure of Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), we see the arrival of her replacement aboard the Enterprise, Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur). We also meet Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), bartender of the Enterprise’s new lounge, Ten Forward. Not a popular part of the Next Generation canon, Dr. Pulaski certainly added a distinct flavor, the only season in which the character appeared. She’s an off-putting presence, kind of like having someone’s stern mother hanging around all the time. Guinan, of course, would turn up in most of the subsequent seasons (excluding the seventh). In the supplemental features there’s discussion of how significant it was for the series to have a major Hollywood star join its cast.

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The android Data (Brent Spiner) is developed and examined to a notably larger degree in this season. Early on there’s “Elementary, Dear Data,” the fan favorite Holodeck episode that finds Data playacting as Sherlock Holmes with Geordi (LeVar Burton) as his Watson. Though I personally have little interest in the tangential Holodeck-based episodes, I can understand why this episode is a highlight of the season for so many. Daniel Davis is excellent as Professor Moriarty and the writing is quite clever.

Spiner really gets to dig into a whopper of a Data feature with “The Measure of a Man.” This episode verges on being over-praised in a way, but every time I come back to it I’m drawn into the high drama over the battle to determine the android’s “rights.” I’ve always found myself agreeing with Commander Maddox (Brian Brophy) in viewing Data as a thing rather than a person. I also feel that Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) makes the stronger argument during the hearing. It’s hard to continue insisting that Data is an actual person after Riker deactivates him with the flip of a switch. But damned if Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) doesn’t at least plant a seed of doubt regarding the very nature of sentience in his closing statements. Flawed as the logic may be, Stewart sells the heck out of it with one of his series-best performances.

“Measure” gets tricked out with more bells and whistles than any other episode. Fully restored in high definition utilizing a VHS tape owned by the episode’s writer, Melinda Snodgrass, this episode is also available in a 13-minute longer extended cut. Though it doesn’t provide anything revelatory in terms of the basic plot, there are a great many small moments well worth seeing. There’s also the so-called “hybrid” version, which presents the added material in standard definition quality that hasn’t been “finished” (i.e. there’s no post-production audio). I guess it makes an interesting one-time viewing as a guide to what has been newly edited into the episode, but there’s really no reason to choose this option over the HD extended cut.

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Many other solid episodes appear throughout season two, including a real step forward for Frakes’ characterization of Riker in “A Matter of Honor.” As part of an officer exchange program, Riker winds up serving temporarily on a Klingon ship. “Times Squared” provides another showcase for Stewart as he portrays two separate Picards, thanks to a time travel element. But probably the real star of season two, alongside “The Measure of a Man,” is “Q Who?” which features the return of John DeLancie as the ever-intriguing Q. This is where we first encounter the Borg, the cybernetic collective that would go on to be the defining adversaries of The Next Generation. The show struck gold here, though of course it wouldn’t be further mined until late in season three.

Yes, the aforementioned “Shades of Gray” ends the season with a dull thud, but that’s the beauty of owning the series on home video. You can simply skip it and pretend the season ends with the far sturdier “Peak Performance.” There are a few other episodes over the course of season two that are of dubious quality, but nothing really stands out as terrible. I’m not wild about “Unnatural Selection,” for instance, but mainly because I dislike Dr. Pulaski enough to shy away from anything that overtly features her. “Pen Pals” is a bit sickly sweet, with Data palling around with a young girl named Sarjenka (played by future super-hottie Nikki Cox). On the other hand it’s not all bad, with the Prime Directive elements thoughtfully incorporated in the teleplay by Melinda Snodgrass.

By now it has been heavily discussed that CBS Digital was responsible for the amazing high definition restoration of the first season. They will continue to handle the odd-numbered seasons in-house.  HTV Illuminate was the first outside firm to tackle an even-numbered season. The results have generated mild controversy, with some viewers claiming the visual quality has dropped off to an acceptable degree. I don’t want to spend much time with this, because to my eyes the visual presentation remains extraordinary. But it needs to be mentioned that, overall, the special effects sometimes look closer to the way they did on standard DVD.

That’s not to say they look poor. They sometimes aren’t as sharp as what we saw in the first season. Had this, in fact, been the first season to be released in high definition, I sincerely doubt we’d be hearing complaints. Season two represents another giant leap, in terms of image quality, over the DVDs. Am I assuming the role of apologist for HTV, damning their work with faint praise by proclaiming it merely “good enough?” No. This is a terrific looking set, with sharp, cinematic live-action footage. If the effects disappoint at all, it’s only when compared to the first season. At no point did I find the difference distracting.

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The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio matches the quality of the first season. That earlier release had a few episodes with an audio issue (dialogue was mixed to the right and left channels) and CBS promptly issued replacement discs, free of charge. The 22 episodes here are free of any such problems. These mixes are appropriate, tasteful expansions of the original broadcast sound design. The surrounds are not heavily used, but directionality is excellent when it needs to be, such as ships in motion or phaser blasts. Despite a 7.1 mix arguably being overkill for what is required of this series, it always retains the feel of The Next Generation.

We’re treated to a mix of brand new and vintage special features, all spread out over the five discs. The lion’s share of the new stuff is found on disc five. “Reunification: 25 Years After The Next Generation” is a brand new, hour-long reuniting of the cast. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, and Wil Wheaton all sit with a moderator, reminiscing about their experiences over the years. It’s a first-rate extra, funny and touching, and one that fans are sure to revisit.

“Making it So: Continuing The Next Generation” is another new piece. It’s presented in two parts, each running about 40 minutes. This is more great stuff. Interviews with cast, crew, and other commentators looking back on season one as well as examining season two. A shorter new featurette (about eight minutes) turns up on disc one, “Energized! Season Two Tech Update,” which details aspects of the cosmetic overhaul that occurred between the first and second seasons.

Audio commentaries accompany “The Measure of a Man” and “Q Who?” New to disc is a 1988 Trek-centric Reading Rainbow segment and a ten-minute gag reel. An additional 80 minutes or so of archival features are spread out over the set as well, all of which is worthwhile. CBS is to be commended for continuing to port over the old DVD material.

Another outstanding set, Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Two continues the process begun earlier in the year of upgrading the series to high definition. It’s a monumental undertaking, but a necessary step in creating an archival-worthy version of one of television’s finest science fiction creations.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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