Trekkers recognize Season Three of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a turning point. Not only did the third season mark a quantum leap in non-niche popularity for the series, but a greater consistency in the show's writing and execution that meant a precipitous drop in fan complaints. Sharply written and action-packed episodes like "Yesterday's Enterprise" and the infamous cliffhanger "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I" had viewers, critics, and even awards' institutions buzzing with praise for the series, which helped to bring the sequel show out of the shadow of its 1960s predecessor.
Season opener "Evolution"—penned by Michael Piller, the man who would shortly settle in as the series' showrunner—sets the tone for the season. As per what would become Piller's number-one marching order, the episode recognizably focuses on a series regular or two, in this case Wesley Crusher and his newly returned mother Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden, who had been absent for Season Two). Their mother-son relationship, strained by her year-long absence provides a complimentary subplot to an "A" plot that involves Wesley's genius, run amok to inadvertantly threaten the work of a visiting astrophysicist (prime ham Ken Jenkins) who mentors the teen. Complexities and conflicts in the featured relationships may not have been creator Gene Roddenberry's cup of tea, but Piller would allow them, within reason, to make the 24th century more relatable to 20th century viewers. While serving character drama, "Evolution" also features a nifty science-fiction concept (nanites).
An unusually large number of the season's twenty-six episodes succeed at least as well as "Evolution" in fulfilling the show's demands of thoughtful science fiction and development of the regular characters. New staff writer Ronald D. Moore—who went on to reboot Battlestar Galactica for Sci-Fi Channel—became an instant fan favorite with his scripts for "The Bonding" (in which a boy struggles to accept the death of his mother during an away mission) and "Sins of the Father" (a Worf-centric outing co-written by W. Reed Moran), the latter being the first in a series of Klingon-themed episodes assigned to Moore. Similarly, new writer René Echevarria pleased fans with his concepts for "The Offspring" (a Data story in which the android "has" a child—skillfully directed by series regular Jonathan Frakes) and "Transfigurations." The episode "Who Watches the Watchers" ably tackles the core Trek concept of the "Prime Directive," Starfleet's "easier said than done" non-interventionist policy.
Season Three welcomed back a number of fan-favorite characters—Denise Crosby's killed-off Season One crew member Tasha Yar in the time-warp masterpiece "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Q" in the highly entertaining "Déjà Q," Deanna Troi's mother Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett, the original Trek's Nurse Chapel and Roddenberry's wife) in "Ménage à Troi," and even Mr. Spock's father (Mark Lenard) in the powerful Alzheimer's allegory "Sarek." The third season also introduced a long-running recurring character in the enormously clever holodeck episode "Hollow Pursuits," which finds the sad-sack crewman escaping into the Holodeck for secret fantasies involving the regular characters; while never violating the series' family-friendly status, the rather bold episode treads into territory that's at once implicitly lurid, black-comical, and psychologically disturbing. All this and Picard (Patrick Stewart) getting laid in old-school adventure "Captain's Holiday"—who could ask for anything more?
Paramount and CBS Blu-ray deliver the best Next Generation release yet with Star Trek: The Next Generation—Season Three on Blu-ray. Not only is the feature content top-notch, but the A/V quality proves breathtaking and the bonus features—involving hours of new content and archived extras from the previous DVD release—are fantastic. As with previous seasons, this one is restored and re-edited from original film elements to match the work done twenty-five years ago in the standard-definition video domain. Since special effects were finished in standard-def video, these elements have also had to be reconstructed from film elements (like model work) when possible and using CGI when necessary. Knowing the pickiness of Trekkers, the restoration team has done painstaking and tasteful work that's almost entirely faithful to the original episodes, only making slight improvements to effects that are unlikely to rile any but the most insistent purist. Bottom line: no one wants to watch these in standard def in 2012. Even in 1987, video-inserted effects, shimmering unnaturally, often glaringly stood out in the image. On the new Blu-rays, it's as if the series is brand-new again, which is entirely for the best.
The A/V quality takes a huge leap from the series' standard definition DVDs to these breathtaking high-definition Blu-rays: detail is now, quite literally, revelatory of textures and visual fine points that were impossible to see in low-res broadcasts or on DVD. Color is richer and truer to the source, and contrast and black level are pleasing. Every episode gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that also helps enormously in giving the series a pleasingly state-of-the-art presentation. The original stereo elements aren't exactly up to the current level of snuff, but the audio team has done heroic work in making the best of them: dialogue is clear, music more potent than ever, and effects work sharp, while the expansion to a 7.1 sound field has been done with a tasteful, careful ear to retain the organic feel for the original mixes. At minimum, these mixes are subtly effective in ambience (as on the Enterprise sets, where we spend most of our time), and at times they're more potently immersive to serve the space action.
Bonus features are trending to more expansive with this third season set, which includes no less than five engaging and brand-new audio commentaries: Ronald D. Moore and Star Trek experts Mike & Denise Okuda on "The Bonding"; Moore, co-writer Ira Steven Behr and the Okudas on "Yesterday's Enterprise"; director David Carson on "Yesterday's Enterprise"; writer René Echevarria and the Okudas on "The Offspring"; and Moore, Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Curry, and the Okudas on "Sins of the Father."
Also new for this set are two memorial segments: "In Memoriam: David Rappaport" (5:07, HD), footage from "The Most Toys" that represents what Rappaport completed before attempting suicide and being replaced by Saul Rubinek (unfortunately, Rappaport shortly thereafter took his own life), and "A Tribute to Michael Piller" (13:50, HD) celebrating the series' head writer.
Fans will especially go gaga for the newly constructed HD "Gag Reel" (8:37, HD), the humorous and insightful roundtable "Star Trek: The Next Generation—Inside the Writer's Room" (1:10:52, HD), and the spectacular three-part Season Three making-of retrospective "Resistance is Futile—Assimilating Star Trek: The Next Generation," comprised of "Biological Distinctiveness" (30:02, HD), focused on the changes in wrting staff and philosophy (as recounted by Moore, Echevarria, Behr, Brannon Braga, and Naren Shankar); "Technological Distinctiveness" (29:54, HD), honing in on specific episodes, mostly again from the writers' perspectives; and "The Collective" (30:04, HD), which deals with characters and the memories of the actors who played them, including returning cast member Gates McFadden, first-time-director Jonathan Frakes, star Patrick Stewart, guest star Denise Crosby, and the other series regulars: Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, and Wil Wheaton. The writer's roundtable, moderated by Next Generation super-fan Seth McFarlane, gathers Shankar, Echevarria, Moore, and Braga for a freewheeling, candid discussion of the series' writing hits and misses.
And then there are the archival DVD bonus features (all in SD), including original broadcast promos for every episode. "Mission Overview: Year Three" (17:41) delivers on its promise by discussing such episodes as "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Offspring," and cliffhanger "The Best of Both Worlds"; Dr. Crusher's return; Frakes' directorial debut; the character of Guinan and the Trek passion of her interpreter Whoopi Goldberg; and famous fans. "Selected Crew Analysis: Year Three" (13:51) interviews the actors about the characters, as developed over the course of the year, while "Departmental Briefings Year Three: Memorable Missions" (13:25): touches specifically on episodic highlights "Sarek," "The Offspring," "Deja Q," "The Most Toys," "Who Watches the Watchers?," "The Enemy," and "Ménage à Troi." Lastly, "Departmental Briefing Year Three: Production" (20:04) details the writing staff changes; design and visual effects as seen in "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Déjà Q," "Captain's Holiday," "Sins of the Father," and "Tin Man;" model work; music and sound effects; and technical consultants.
It's hard to imagine any die-hard Trek fan—or indeed any television enthusiast—wanting to miss out on this release, sure to remain at the top of the list of the year's best Blu-ray releases.
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