In its sophomore season, Star Trek: The Next Generation righted itself in some ways and veered off course in others. Despite its unusual broadcast situation as an unprecedented first-run syndicated drama, the sequel series to Star Trek had become a certified hit, emboldening its showrunners. Still, the bumpy first season saw two regulars depart by season's end: Denise Crosby (whose Lt. Tasha Yar was killed off) and Gates McFadden (whose sudden exit has been rumored to involve her spurning a producer's advances).
McFadden would return at the advent of the show's third season, but in the meantime, Diana Muldaur would assume the role of ship's doctor, as new character Katherine Pulaski. A veteran of Star Trek (the episodes "Return to Tomorrow" and "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"), Muldaur made the best of a transparent attempt to resuscitate the original series' Dr. McCoy: a cranky Luddite who complains about the transporter and voices suspicions about a bridge officer who's not fully human (in this case, Data rather than Spock). Muldaur brings her own idiosyncratic flavor to the role, but fans—and the rest of the principal cast—were none too happy to lose McFadden. Muldaur's tentative status was foreshadowed by her opting for a "Special Appearance By" credit after the opening titles.
Season Two made other changes that would stay in place for the duration of the series: Geordi LaForge found purpose by stepping in as a permanent Chief Engineer (previously a revolving-door position); Worf solidifed his new job as Security Chief; and the show added a significant new set—the lounge Ten Forward—to accomodate another new character. Having been inspired by Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, soon-to-be-Oscar-winner and lifelong Trekker Whoopi Goldberg wanted in on a limited basis, so she logged five Season Two episodes as Guinan, the mysterious bartender of Ten Forward. Goldberg proved a welcome contributor, whose star power—rather than distracting—gave Guinan stature, as does a limber performance ranging from sly humor to gravitas.
The original Trek became famous in large part for its (often corny) science-fiction morality plays, and The Next Generation took cues from creator Gene Roddenberry in pursuing the same. Few episodes of either series achieve this goal more elegantly than Melinda Snodgrass' "The Measure of a Man." Inspired by the Dred Scott case, the story of whether android Data (Brent Spiner) should have rights as a man or be treated as mere machine (and, as such, property of Starfleet) goes beyond allegory, though it also functions on that level; it's also a provocative science-fiction story about where we're headed with artificial intelligence, and the questions we may find ourselves facing should that technology achieve that which we can agree is sentience. The episode gives great material to Spiner, as well as Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart (whose Lt. Cmdr. Riker and Captain Jean Luc-Picard must face off in space court).
Season Two also saw the introduction of one of The Next Generation's signature nemeses—the Borg—as ushered in by the series' other top antagonist, the omnipotent "Q" (the brilliant John de Lancie). The episode in question, "Q Who," rightly remains a fan favorite for its excitement and sophisticated writing, which resists a conventional resolution while leaving the suspenseful promise of a sequel (the next season would deliver on that promise, big time). The aforementioned two episodes are enough to recommend the season, shortened by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike from a planned 26 episodes to 22. That season-delaying crisis led to a script being recycled from the aborted 1978 Star Trek: Phase II TV project: this was "The Child," which became the season opener by essentially swapping in Troi, Riker, and Data for Ilia, Decker, and Spock (with a few patches here and there to explain away Crusher, deal with her son Wesley, and introduce Pulaski and Guinan).
Season Two still has some clunkers—including the series low "Shades of Gray," an embarrassing clip show to end the season—but certainly more high points, including the crackerjack Holodeck story "Elementary, Dear Data" (with Daniel Davis turning in a terrific Moriarty), certified classic "A Matter of Honor" (in which Riker, through a Starfleet exchange program, serves on a Klingon vessel), and the witty "Samaritan Snare," with its character opportunities for Geordi, Wesley (Wil Wheaton), and Picard. Guest stars included genre faves Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) and W. Morgan Sheppard (Doctor Who), along with Mitchell Ryan as Riker's father and even Joe Piscopo as a holodeck comic. Despite the sour taste of "Shades of Grey," fans wound up the year more excited than ever, and the show was poised for what many see as its finest season.
CBS Blu-ray repeats its Season One feat—and does it a few better—with its five-disc release of Star Trek: The Next Generation—Season Two. In a remastering project of unprecedented scope, all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation are being 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, with uniforms popping and greater subtlety to the alien (and android and, for that matter, human) makeups. Occasional white specks that are filmic artifacts (dust from the telecine process?) crop up, but so rarely and so unobtrusively, one hardly notices. The image is nearly always well-defined and natural, with only the very occasional exception of softness in the image. Season One had two seconds of up-converted standard definition (when those two seconds of film could not be located), but Season Two comes through with every last second in HD.
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.
Bonus features are extra special for Season Two, which means Paramount will have to work hard to top this set. As with the previous season, all episodes come with original promos ("Next time on Star Trek: The Next Generation..."). Disc One happily includes the vintage "1988 On-Air Season Two Promo" (1:08, SD) and, better yet, the "1988 Reading Rainbow Segment with LeVar Burton" (17:03, SD), including a new intro by Burton. It's not the full episode (no one wanted to pay for the rights to the theme song or other on-camera talent), but all of the episode's Star Trek: The Next Generation content is here. I remember watching this over and over again on VHS; it's a terrific, pithy behind-the-scenes look at the show's production and post-production, from the rehearsal and filming of a scene to the special effects and video editing (the same editing-on-videotape that had to be redone for this HD release, ironically). Bonus: the segment includes a few set bloopers not in this set's "Gag Reel."
Also on Disc One: "Energized! Season Two Tech Update" (7:56, HD) finds visual effects supervisor Dan Curry, ST:TNG scenic art supervisor Michael Okuda, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine scenic artist Denise Okuda discussing how the show evolved for its second season and speaking directly to the work done for the Season Two Blu-ray release. There's also, by way of industry barter, a "2012 Reading Rainbow iTunes Promo" (1:36, HD) with Burton.
Last up on Disc One is "Archival Mission Log: Departmental Briefing Year Two: Production" (17:32, SD), archived, that is, from the previous DVD release. This first of several nicely produced featurettes goes into a number of topics concerning Season Two, from the Borg to the writing process to music and props (Klingon food).
Disc Two may be the first destination for hardcore fans, as it contains an exciting artifact labeled "'The Measure of a Man' HD Extended Version" (57:35, HD): the first assembly by editor Robert Lederman that includes thirteen minutes of never-before-seen material. This cut was recreated in an HD edit using the VHS copy given to writer Melinda Snodgrass during production of Season Two, and it is sure to supplant the broadcast version as the definitive version of an already classic episode. The expanded character moments allow the story to breathe and achieve more depth, as well as giving some characters (like Geordi) more to do.
For the purpose of identifying new vs. old scenes (and for the historical interest of seeing the new scenes in their raw form), "'The Measure of a Man' Hybrid Extended Version" (55:50, HD) goes back and forth between the finished high definition footage of broadcast scene and the rough VHS footage of the cut scenes, presented with their original raw audio, no music, and no sound effects.
Disc Two also serves up, with "'The Measure of a Man' HD Extended Version," the series' first audio commentary, with Melinda Snodgrass in conversation with Michael and Denise Okuda. This is definitely worth a listen, as superfans the Okudas are great hosts, making the slightly nervous Snodgrass (she admits as much) feel at home to tell her stories of working on Trek and "The Measure of a Man."
Disc Three's primary treasure is an uproarious "Gag Reel" (10:30, HD). This appears to be a newly constructed "Gag Reel," as opposed to the one produced in-house for the show's cast and crew. The original might have contained some sensitive material, as well as being in standard def: this hi-def reel certainly doesn't skimp in its run time, and it's a hoot for fans.
"Archival Mission Logs: Inside Starfleet Archives: Penny Juday Star Trek Coordinator" (17:33, SD) is an entertaining vintage DVD extra, giving us the guided tour of the Trek archives. "Archival Mission Logs: Selected Crew Analysis Year Two" (13:46, SD) is mostly designed to give the cast (Stewart, Muldaur, Burton, Sirtis, Wheaton) its turn to talk about the characters, though Gene Roddenberry, executive producer Rick Berman, and associate producer Peter Lauritson also chime in.
Disc Four includes a second audio commentary, for "Q Who" with Curry, director Rob Bowman, and Mike & Denise Okuda; these are a welcome addition, and one hopes cast be enticed to do some of these on future sets. "Archival Mission Log: Departmental Analysis Year Two: Memorable Missions" (16:33, SD) specifically surveys favorite episodes, with cast and crew chatting about "Loud as a Whisper," "The Icarus Factor," "Up the Long Ladder," "The Dauphin," "Elementary, Dear Data," "Manhunt," and "The Measure of a Man."
As if all that wasn't enough Disc Five includes three outstanding hi-def bonus features. The first is going to blow fans away: the one-hour cast reunion "Reunification: 25 Years After Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1:01:53, HD). Though die-hard fans will recognize some of these stories, and the whole thing does end up being awfully self-congratulatory, this is another bonus feature that will thrill fans no end, as Stewart, Frakes, Spiner, Burton, Sirtis, Dorn, McFadden, and Wheaton take to a couple of couches and make each other laugh and cry (literally).
Next up is the two-part Season Two making-of documentary. "Make it So: Continuing Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part 1: Strange New Worlds" (39:28, HD) takes considerable time to process Season One, then deals with the transition (including the bump of Writer's Strike) into Season Two, and the season's highlights and acknowledged lowlight ("Shades of Gray"). "Make it So: Continuing Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part 2: New Life and New Civilizations" (42:01, HD) gets into McFadden's upsetting firing, Muldaur and Goldberg joining the cast (the former provides a new interview), de Lancie's approach to "Q," the unsung hero that is Script Supervisor Cosmo Genovese, and other production nitty-gritty. Rounding out the disc (and the set) is "Archival Mission Log: Mission Overview Year Two" (14:43, SD), focusing on the new additions to the series in Season Two.
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