Television—and none of it more so than "genre" or procedural television—operates on the long-held assumption that one should adhere to a format, perhaps bending it from time to time but never breaking it. But ask any rabid fan about his or her favorite episode of a long-running series, and you're liable to hear it's one that does just that. By Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season in 1990, its writers had never put out an episode without a science-fiction plot point or an element of "jeopardy." But under the leadership of head writer Michael Piller—in his first full season on the job—the series broke the mold with the outstanding character piece "Family." That episode title would also serve as a pithy summation of the fourth season's primary theme.
"Family," aired directly after the season opener "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" wisely concludes that a man doesn't go back to business as usual after being physically and psychically violated. What Piller referred to as Captain Picard's "rape" by the Borg results in a denial that just barely keeps his pain and confusion beneath a seemingly controlled surface. Without acknowledging precisely why, Picard (Patrick Stewart) knows he must return to the Picard family vineyard in La Barre, France, home of his estranged brother Robert (Jeremy Kemp), Robert's wife Marie (Samantha Eggar) and their son René (David Tristan Birkin). Instead of a sci-fi "B" or even "C" story, the rest of the episode concerns a shipboard visit by Worf's adoptive parents (played by Yiddish theater vets Theodore Bikel and Georgia Brown) and Wesley Crusher reconnecting with his late father via a long-held holographic letter. That's it: just character development. The result is one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's finest hours, and exhibit "A" in the case for Stewart being robbed of Emmy consideration for his work on the series.
Season Four found Star Trek: The Next Generation unquestionably in its prime, with a now-stable writing staff, critical and popular buzz, and soaring ratings. Another of the series' best episodes "broke format" in the fourth season: the memorable day-in-the life-of-the-Enterprise outing "Data's Day." A hugely enjoyable showcase for Brent Spiner as the android Lieutenant Commander Data, "Data's Day" does include a "jeopardy" subplot, but it's mostly concerned with personal matters, including Data being caught in the middle of wedding jitters on the part of Keiko (Rosalind Chao) and Chief Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney, now in an expanded recurring role). Spiner got plenty of fantastic season-four material, particularly the canny mystery "Clues" and the character-defining "In Theory," Stewart's directorial debut about Data's attempt to engage in a romantic relationship (with a crewmember played by Michele Scarabelli). Spiner's most-challenging work of the entire series came in the season-four episode "Brothers" (written by executive producer Rick Berman), in which the actor played Data, Data's emotional "brother" Lore, and their elderly "father," Dr. Noonien Soong.
The year also heavily featured Michael Dorn's Lt. Worf, who had a "Reunion" with ex-girlfriend K'Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson) and a first-time meeting with son Alexander (Jon Paul Steuer), as well as a starring role in the season-ending cliffhanger "Redemption." Big developments for the series also included the departure of Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) for Starfleet Academy (ironically resulting in one of the character's best stories) and the introduction in "The Wounded" of what would be a hugely important alien race in the ongoing Trek franchise: the Cardassians. Season Four excelled just as ably with social allegory ("The Drumhead," with Oscar-winning guest star Jean Simmons) as with science-fiction high concepts ("Remember Me," the finest hour for Dr. Crusher and her portrayer Gates McFadden) or even a classic-film pastiche ("The Mind's Eye," a Trek rewrite of The Manchurian Candidate).
Seemingly, at this stage, Star Trek: The Next Generation could do little wrong, with the season giving each cast member at least one strong story apiece and, in most cases, more. Geordi (Levar Burton) gets featured not only in "The Mind's Eye" but in the intriguing anti-romance "Galaxy's Child," Riker (Jonathan Frakes) contends with an alternate future in "Future Imperfect" and big trouble during a botched "First Contact," Dr. Crusher gets a most unusual romance in "The Host," and Troi (Marina Sirtis) struggles with "The Loss" of her empathetic powers (unfortunately for Sirtis, she's also the center of the season's low point, "Night Terrors"). But wait, there's more: the return of Q (John de Lancie) and Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) in Robin Hood adventure "Qpid," the return of the Traveler (Eric Menyuk) in "Remember Me," the return of Lt. Barclay (Dwight Schultz) in "The Nth Degree," and the return of Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett)—alongside expert guest player David Ogden Stiers—in the superb right-to-death allegory "Half a Life." The season's most schocking return comes in its final seconds, a cliffhanger not quite on par with "The Best of Both Worlds," but give it an "A" for effort.
CBS Home Video continues to do stellar work with the Blu-ray debuts of its cash-cow Star Trek property. As with previous seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation—Season Four 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 (only rarely do the updated effects disappoint, and only mildly so, as in the fourth-season episode "Galaxy's Child"). 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.
Preserving the excellent DVD bonus features and adding exciting new ones in high-definition, the set excels in extras. These include Episodic Promos (SD) for all 26 episodes and two brand-new audio commentaries: director Rob Bowman and graphic designers/Trek-sperts Mike and Denise Okuda on "Brothers" and Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and the Okudas on "Reunion." The Okudas know their stuff, and nicely tie together the recollections of the director and writers; die-hard fans will definitely dig these tracks.
Disc One reprises the DVD featurette "Archival Mission Log: Mission Overview Year Four" (16:41, SD), which covers with cast-and-crew interviews the "Best of Both Worlds" cliffhanger, the thinking behind "Family," Q's return and Robin Hood cosplay in "Qpid," and the show's 100th-episode celebration, among other topics. Disc Two digs up "Archival Mission Log: Selected Crew Analysis Year Four" (17:04, SD) with mostly cast interviews: Wil Wheaton and Patrick Stewart on "Final Mission" and their working relationship, Sirtis on Troi, Jennifer Hetrick on Vash, and Jonathan Frakes on his "Qpid" stunt accident.
Disc Three features "Archival Mission Log: New Life and New Civilizations" (13:45, SD), covering location work, cinematography, matte paintings, and other visual effects, while Disc Four archives "Archival Mission Logs: Chronicles from the Final Frontier" (18:12, SD), which hones in on the writing staff with Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Braga, and Moore discussing the innovations of Season Four.
Disc Five includes "Archival Mission Log: Departmental Briefing Year Four: Production" (SD, 16:46)—with its focus on the direction of Frakes and Stewart, and Michael Westmore's makeup challenges—"Archival Mission Log: Select Historical Data" (10:25, SD), which looks at the creature design for "Galaxy's Child" and various starship designs, and "Archival Mission Log: Inside the Star Trek Archives" (11:14, SD), covering "First Contact," Gates McFadden's pregnancy, Emmy Award wins and nominations, and the returns of Dixon Hill and Vash.
Disc Six busts out the lion's share of the new bonus features, beginning with the living-room "roundtable" "In Conversation: The Star Trek Art Department" (1:07:29, HD) gathering legendary production designer Herman Zimmerman, special makeup effects artist Doug Drexler, scenic art supervisor Mike Okuda, Deep Space Nine scenic artist Denise Okuda, visual effects supervisor Dan Curry, and technical consultant Rick Sternbach. Similar to previous Blu-ray roundtables with cast and writers, this one gives us over an hour of uninterrupted conversation and recollections from the people who made the series. We get general impressions about what it was like making the show, but also some great, specific inside-baseball stories—though I suppose viewers should be forewarned that many of the stories jump ahead to Deep Space Nine (with an emphasis on the design process of that space station), Trek fans will hardly mind that about this fascinating hour-plus feature.
In keeping with previous season sets, this one serves up a two-part season-spanning documentary. "Relativity: The Family Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 1: Homecoming" (29:05, HD) deals with the ante-upping marked by "The Best of Both Worlds," the sometimes troublesome role of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Wheaton's departure, and discussion of the season's storytelling highlights. "Relativity: The Family Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 2: Posterity" (27:45, HD): continues the discussion with Spiner and Bowman recalling their approach to the actor's triple performance in "Brothers," Frakes commenting on the Riker-Troi relationship, Dorn and Moore addressing Worf's ongoing familial and political intrigue, Wheaton reflecting on saying goodbye, McFadden expressing pride about "The Host," and Stewart explaining his fierce pride in the series as a whole.
Disc Six also includes a most-welcome "Gag Reel" (3:34) and a suite of "Deleted Scenes" (frustratingly lacking a "Play All" option) from "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" (3:06, HD), "Family" (1:44, HD), "Brothers" (3:48, HD), "Final Mission" (3:11, HD), "The Wounded" (6:35, HD), "Galaxy's Child" (:50, HD), "Qpid" (1:40, HD), and "The Host" (2:36, HD). All told, Star Trek: The Next Generation—Season Four Blu-ray is a spectacular gift to Trek fans, with more on the way.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer