Star Trek: The Next Generation
Complete Series Box Set

Starring: Patrick Stewart
RRP £449.99
Certificate: 12
Available 18 October 2004

In the 24th century, more than 70 years after the time of Captain James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard takes command of the new
Galaxy-class starship Enterprise. But he isn't in for an easy ride. Picard and his crew face enemies both old and new, including Romulans, Klingons, Ferengi, Cardassians, the deadly Borg, and the god-like Q...

Paramount has relaunched its DVD box sets of each season of TNG, sticking them all together in one bumper bargain package. Accordingly, I have stuck together all my DVD reviews into one bumper package!

Looking back at the first season again, you see a lot of elements that were later modified or ditched altogether. Commander Riker's (Jonathan Frakes) reluctance to let Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) beam down into potentially dangerous situations was discarded before the year was out. Despite being an extremely sensible code of practice (and a reversal of the usual situation in The Original Series, in which the most of the senior staff would invariably put themselves in danger) it makes for better drama if the star of the show is placed in the thick of the action.

Initially there was no main engineer character, the assumption being that, by the 24th century, people would be more concerned with the maintenance of the mental and emotional well-being of the crew than with the mechanical nuts and bolts of the ship: a very '80s attitude. Hence the introduction of Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis). However, the number of episodes that required a spokesperson for the Engineering department made it clear that there was still a place in Star Trek for a Scotty substitute, and so the second season saw the promotion of Lieutenant La Forge (LeVar Burton) to Chief Engineer.

Although the special effects were the most impressive on any TV show at that time, and certainly more up-to-date than those on the '60s series, some of the visuals - including various space shots and several of the alien planet sets - look rather cheap 'n' cheerful compared with later seasons.

You also notice that Patrick Stewart initially uses (at the production team's request) American pronunciations of words such as "command", "class", "status" and "record". As the first season unfolds, however, we hear the actor gradually introducing his own British pronunciations of such words.

Season 1 contains more than its fair share of distinctly average episodes, including Justice (nice "barely there" costumes, shame about the plot), Angel One, When the Bough Breaks (too many cutesy children), Home Soil and The Arsenal of Freedom.

The Last Outpost starts well, but degenerates into the over-familiar "powerful entity tests humanity" scenario. Also, the first appearance of the Ferengi in this instalment fails to live up to the formidable reputation that had been so carefully developed for them over preceding episodes. Lonely Among Us contains many memorable moments, such as when Data (Brent Spiner) impersonates Sherlock Holmes for the first time, but is blighted by the Enterprise crew being even more self-righteous than usual. Hide and Q has many amusing and effective scenes, but is a rather unfocused and plotless affair. Coming of Age is a real mixed bag, featuring a tense investigation of the crew on the one hand, but a rather stupid Starfleet Academy entrance exam on the other: it seems as though only one entrant makes it into the Academy each year!

The strongest episodes include Where No One Has Gone Before, The Battle, 11001001 and Heart of Glory. Encounter at Farpoint might not be the best pilot in television history, but it beats the limp opener to Star Trek: Voyager hands down. The Naked Now, a sequel to the Original Series episode The Naked Time, is little more than a remake, though an exceptionally amusing and dramatic one. The Big Goodbye set the precedent for the all too numerous "holodeck goes wrong" stories that have followed it, but remains a very enjoyable change-of-pace show. Datalore and Conspiracy are both like B-movies of the most enjoyable kind, the latter featuring something of a throwback to the "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude of Captain Kirk. Notably Conspiracy, which pays off on a plotline introduced in Coming of Age, concludes with a stunning cliffhanger, one that has never been resolved (on TV at least).

Symbiosis is an effective discourse on drug dependency, marred only by a truly vomit-inducing scene in which Lieutenant Yar (Denise Crosby) attempts to explain the problem of narcotics addiction to the innocent Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton). The Neutral Zone marks the impressive return of the Romulans as a force to be reckoned with, and also foreshadows the second season's introduction of the Borg.

The real stinkers of Season 1 are the dreadfully dull Code of Honor and Haven, both of which recycle story elements from the Original Series episode Amok Time, and Skin of Evil: ooh, a talking oil slick - I'm scared!

Despite its flaws, and in spite of the fact that the actors and producers are evidently climbing a steep learning curve, there's a palpable spirit of adventure to this season. This is partly due to the "superhero-style" spandex uniforms, but has a lot more to do with the quality of the incidental music, which is far more distinctive than the bland lift music that we get in later seasons.

The majority of the first season episodes are scored by either Dennis McCarthy or Ron Jones. McCarthy establishes some memorable themes in the pilot episode, and reprises and develops them throughout the season. Jones, who would go on to score the superb Best of Both Worlds provides extremely exciting music for The Naked Now, Where No One Has Gone Before, 11001001 and others. His Naked Now music, in particular, recaptures the dramatic qualities of the better instalments of The Original Series.

You could say that the second season is like the first, only more so. Its best episodes are far stronger than the highlights of the previous year, but its weakest instalments are more toe-curlingly bad than the first season's most embarrassing lowlights.

Of the better episodes, the tense and emotive courtroom drama that is The Measure of a Man is an absolute classic. And Q Who is both an excellent Q episode (John De Lancie gives one of his best performances as the mischievous entity) and a stunning introduction to the chillingly impersonal Borg. Elementary, Dear Data is another winner, a logical and irresistible development of the holodeck detective program in Season 1's The Big Goodbye and Brent Spiner's superb impersonation of Sherlock Holmes in Lonely Among Us. There are a couple of excellent explorations of Klingon culture in A Matter of Honor and The Emissary, this being a time when the Klingons still had novelty value. The intriguing and unsettling time-travel tale Time Squared isn't bad either, and the same can be said of the extremely worthy Loud as a Whisper, Contagion (in which something very bad happens to a Galaxy-class starship) and Peak Performance.

At the opposite end of the scale, the first season's Haven and Skin of Evil seem like works of art compared to the shoddy plotting and duff dialogue in Up the Long Ladder and Shades of Gray. The latter is an example of that woeful cost-cutting standby of American television, the clips show - a very disappointing way to end the season (which was restricted to 22 episodes rather than the usual 26 due to a writers strike). The Icarus Factor also makes tedious viewing, being primarily composed of a string of sequences that go something like this: Riker's dad (Mitchell Ryan) tries to make peace with his son, who then storms off in a huff. Repeat ad infinitum.

The Outrageous Okona has its moments, particularly those involving the loveable rogue Captain Okona (William O. Campbell), but is seriously impaired by too many unfunny "comedy" scenes as Data tries to cultivate a sense of humour. Manhunt is a real Frankenstein's monster of disparate elements that don't really mesh together, featuring the return of Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett), a return visit to the Dixon Hill setting of The Big Goodbye, and some big fish people (whose leader is played by Mick Fleetwood).

The remaining episodes, The Child, Where Silence Has Lease, The Schizoid Man, Unnatural Selection, The Dauphin, The Royale, Pen Pals and Samaritan Snare are rather average, but entertaining enough. Unnatural Selection is a rehash of the Original Series episode The Deadly Years, and not the last one either: the idea of rapid ageing would be used again in Deep Space Nine's Distant Voices. The Schizoid Man is predictable, but lifted by more scenery-chewing by Brent Spiner as a possessed Data, a virtual repeat performance of his evil Lore character.

One aspect that is a clear improvement on Season 1 is the special effects. In general, the space shots look smoother and more expensive. The Child boasts an impressive establishing shot that tracks from the exterior of the ship, through a window and into the interior set.

This is not to say that the production team is averse to a little frugal recycling of effects from the previous season. A view of the transition from impulse to warp speed seen through an observation window uses effects originally created for Where No One Has Gone Before. The shot of the Enterprise being flung parsecs off course in When the Bough Breaks is put to good reuse in Q Who.

A few characters are changed or undergo a "cabinet reshuffle" of assignment for the second season. The departure of Denise Crosby is of great benefit to Michael Dorn's Klingon Worf, who functions splendidly as Security Officer. La Forge takes on the much-needed role of regular Chief Engineer. Apart from growing a beard, Commander Riker also lightens up his previously rather humourless character. Watch out also for the developing role of Colm Meaney, as he rises in status from nameless Transporter Chief to become Miles O'Brien, who eventually joins the crew of DS9.

Two new cast members also join the team: the mysterious (at least, she is at this point in the show's history) bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and the new Chief Medical Officer Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur). Dr Pulaski is rather obviously based upon DeForest Kelley's Dr McCoy - witness her disparaging attitude towards the unemotional Data, which is akin to McCoy's ribbing of Spock, and her loathing of transporters - but her character still possesses great strength, easily standing up to Picard. She only served for this one season before Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) returned for the third season. This is a pity, because I happen to prefer Pulaski's no-nonsense authority to the sentimental whining of the bleeding heart Beverly Crusher!

Season 3 is the year in which the show really hits its stride. There are no truly bad episodes here.

That is not to say that every episode is perfect. The High Ground is an overly simplistic discourse about terrorism - the episode has been afforded unwarranted fame by being banned by the BBC. Who Watches the Watchers? presents the rather patronising view that religious belief necessarily indicates a backward society - whereas later seasons, and the introduction of races such as the Bajorans, would take a more open-minded view about issues of faith. And Sarek relies on the extremely illogical premise that Picard is the only suitable recipient for the emotional impulses of Spock's elderly father Sarek (Mark Lenard), even though there are clearly plenty of other Vulcans on the ship. However, this plot contrivance is a small price to pay for having a guest appearance by Lenard and some terrific acting by Stewart.

More commendable episodes include Booby Trap, A Matter of Perspective and Hollow Pursuits, each of which uses the holodeck in a new and interesting way. Who says the holodeck never does anything but break down? That is certainly not the case during this season. Hollow Pursuits also introduces the popular recurring character of Reg Barclay (Dwight Schultz), a lovable loser whose lack of confidence makes a nice change from the usual examples of human perfection that inhabit the TNG universe.

The Romulans reappear in a couple of splendid political thrillers, The Enemy and The Defector, the latter of which keeps you guessing right up to the end. They also put in a cameo appearance in the intriguing "strange life form" tale, Tin Man.

Another returning foe is the entity Q, who appears, robbed of his powers, in the excellent Déjà Q. This is a more light-hearted instalment than the previous year's Q Who, but it contains many an uplifting moment, including the scene in which Q compliments Data on being "a better human than I."

The most moving episode in the entire season has to be The Offspring, in which Data constructs his own daughter. A partial follow-up to the previous year's The Measure of a Man, this marks an impressive directorial debut by Jonathan (Riker) Frakes, and boasts a real weepy of an ending.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Captain's Holiday offers a refreshing change of pace. This episode is unlike anything that Trek has produced before - or, indeed, since. Picard assumes a more adventurous, even gung-ho, attitude when he becomes involved in the search for a missing treasure on the recreational planet Risa.

The scheming Ferengi reappear here, and also in the episodes The Price and Ménage à Troi. The Price is of particular note for establishing concepts that would be developed in the next two Trek spin-off series, DS9 and Voyager, by featuring a wormhole that leads to the Delta Quadrant. Ménage à Troi is a rare article indeed: a Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett) episode that is actually very good!

However, the true highlights of Season 3 are Yesterday's Enterprise and The Best of Both Worlds. The former takes a couple of irresistible plot elements - a trans-temporal encounter between two starships Enterprise and the resurrection of Tasha Yar - and combines them in a fast-paced adventure packed with special effects. This breathtaking episode more than makes up for Yar's ignoble demise in the first season's Skin of Evil.

The Best of Both Worlds brings the year to a spectacular close. The final scene is the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers, one that has never been bettered, either on a Star Trek series or on any other genre show. The drama's tense build-up is underscored by what I consider to be musician Ron Jones' best work for the series. Jones communicates a sense of foreboding from the very beginning of the episode, which culminates in a crescendo of colliding instrumentation that has to be heard to be believed.

An important design change takes place at the beginning of Season 3. Two-piece costumes with raised collars replace the old one-piece spandex outfits (for the foreground characters anyway) lending the crew, and thus the series, a more stately appearance than the previous "superhero" look. This change came about because the one-piece costumes had been so tight that they were placing undue pressure on the main actors' skeletal structures. Look at the non-speaking extras in the background, though, and you will see some of the spandex outfits still in use throughout this season.

Up until the end of the third season, the majority of episodes are stand-alone affairs, as was the preference of American television networks. But from Season 4 we see an increased level of inter-connectivity, as events in one instalment begin to have consequences that affect future ones.

The process begins in earnest with Family, which deals with Picard's emotional trauma following his abduction by the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds and the ejection of Worf from Klingon society in Sins of the Father. Throughout the season, and particularly towards its climax, we also witness events that culminate in a conflict involving both the Klingon and Romulan Empires.

There's also a thematic consistency to this season, with many episodes concerning themselves with issues of family. Apart from the blindingly obvious examples - Family and Brothers - Suddenly Human deals with an alien's adoption of a human boy "kidnapped" from a battlefield; Legacy features the sister of the late Tasha Yar; Future Imperfect presents Riker with the prospect of having a son; Data's Day sees the marriage of Miles O'Brien to Keiko Ishikawa (Rosalind Chao); and Reunion introduces Worf's son, Alexander (Jon Steuer).

(It would appear that Klingon children grow very rapidly, because in the year and one-third since he was conceived in The Emissary, Alexander now looks like a boy of three or four in human terms. And by the time he appears in DS9's sixth season, he appears to be a teenager!)

Many episodes feature return visits by characters from previous seasons. The series truly cashes in on its well-established mythology with encores from the likes of Data's twin Lore in Brothers, the Traveler (Eric Menyuk) in Remember Me, Worf's ex-girlfriend K'Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson) in Reunion, and both Q and Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) in Qpid. Riker's holodeck dalliance Minuet is mentioned in a pivotal scene in Future Imperfect, while the appealing character of Reg Barclay puts in his second appearance, in what becomes an annual tradition from this point, in The Nth Degree. Another annual fixture is, of course, Lwaxana Troi, who returns in the surprisingly moving Half a Life. The season concludes with the opening instalment of the two-part Redemption, which features not only Worf's brother Kurn (Tony Todd) but also another blood relation of Tasha Yar.

For me, the most inventive "returning" character of them all is engine designer Dr Leah Brahms (Susan Gibney), a hologram simulation of whom Geordi La Forge fell in love with during the previous season's Booby Trap. Dr Brahms is suitably freaked out when she discovers Geordi's holodeck program in Galaxy's Child, an aspect that rescues this often rather sugary tale about a helpless space-dwelling life form.

In terms of quality, this season may not be quite as strong as the previous one, but then Season 3 was a very hard act to follow. Unlike the third season, this one includes a truly bad episode, the tedious The Loss, in which Counselor Troi loses her empathic abilities and bemoans the fact annoyingly and repeatedly. Qpid isn't great either: though it is clear that the cast and crew had a whale of a time making it, the episode isn't as funny as it thinks it is. Final Mission looks fantastic, but the "fountain puzzle" that the departing Wesley Crusher has to solve is nonsensical: why is it there?

The cliffhanger ending to the previous season, The Best of Both Worlds, was also a hard act to follow. Although the follow-up doesn't quite live up to expectations, it is not nearly as disappointing as some harsh critics have suggested. On the contrary, The Best of Both Worlds - Part II is a logical extension of its predecessor, and makes a spectacular opening to the season. Its plot contains an ingenious degree of symmetry: whereas the first part dealt with the Borg capturing Picard, the second has the Enterprise crew in turn abducting the assimilated Locutus and using him to their own advantage.

Generally, the standard of this season remains very high. My favourite episodes include Brothers, which features an excellent triple performance by Brent Spiner. Future Imperfect boasts the irresistible notion of Riker waking up 16 years hence. Despite ripping off its central concept from the Red Dwarf episode Thanks for the Memory, Clues is a clever and entertaining mystery. First Contact sets a precedent by telling its story from the point of view of the aliens rather than the Starfleet crew, and is an excellent pastiche of 20th-century UFO paranoia. The Drumhead is an unsettling courtroom drama, featuring a chilling performance by Jean Simmons. In Theory is a quiet and charming tale (but with one truly horrifying moment) in which Data experiments with romance.

Also of note are the episodes The Wounded and The Host, which introduce the Cardassians and the Trill respectively, races that would eventually become pivotal ingredients of DS9. It is interesting to note, however, that the Trill of DS9 look and behave quite differently to the ones that feature in The Host. One must assume that there are at least two different species of humanoid host on the planet Trill, whose personalities are affected to differing degrees by joining with symbionts.

The consistency of quality lapses a little more during the fifth season, though fortunately the strong episodes still greater outnumber the weak.

For me, highlight of the year is The Inner Light, closely followed by I, Borg. The Inner Light is an intensely moving story in which Picard (brilliantly acted by Patrick Stewart) lives out his lifetime as a husband and father on an alien planet.

Though slightly marred by some over-sensitive liberalism on the part of Dr Crusher (which is at odds with her participation in The Best of Both Worlds) I, Borg brilliantly conveys the message that individual members of even the most feared nation or regime are not necessarily worthy of our hatred. This message is as relevant as it ever was, as innocent civilians in so many countries continue to pay the price for their leaders' harsh policies.

Darmok is often mentioned by fans in the same revered breath as The Inner Light and I, Borg, but actually I find the notion of a language composed of metaphors to be rather silly!

Other episodes that make this season worth watching include the thoroughly entertaining Disaster, a witty homage to the disaster movie genre, and the trend-setting time-loop tale, Cause and Effect. There are more eye-popping visuals on display in the action-packed Power Play and in The Next Phase, in which La Forge and Ro (Michelle Forbes) become insubstantial "ghosts". Power Play also benefits from villainous performances by Marina Sirtis, Colm Meaney and Brent Spiner as the possessed Troi, O'Brien and Data. There's also plenty of action and uplifting moments in Redemption II, which concludes the previous season's cliffhanger ending, and in Time's Arrow, which provides this year's exciting conclusion.

Rather more unsettling are Violations, which depicts mental rape, and The Outcast, which is an evocative condemnation of prejudice based on sexuality. Riker's justifiable outrage at the treatment of his alien lover Soren (Melinda Cilea) by her own society is only slightly offset by the uncharacteristic manner in which Picard turns a blind eye to Riker's subsequent actions, which clearly contravene the Prime Directive.

The First Duty is one of two return visits by Wesley Crusher, and is definitely the better of the two (the other being The Game). In The First Duty the cadet faces a conflict between his loyalty to Starfleet and his loyalty to some rather dishonest friends (one of whom is played by a pre-Star Trek: Voyager Robert Duncan McNeill). This development makes an excellent contrast to the sickeningly nice Wesley of Season 1, during which he uttered the dreadful line, "I'm with Starfleet. We don't lie."

Season 5 is also notable for its introduction of the angry young Bajoran Ro Laren, who makes her first appearance in Ensign Ro and injects some fresh character interaction. Following the introduction of the Cardassians during the previous season, more groundwork for DS9 is set up in this episode, which establishes the Cardassian occupation of the planet Bajor.

Another celebrated event of the fifth season is the very special guest appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the two-part Romulan saga Unification, although the story is rather slow-moving.

The weaker episodes of this season include the dull New Ground, in which Worf has to face up to his parental responsibilities and the Enterprise has trouble with a new method of propulsion called the Soliton Wave. There is a lot of talk about this wave replacing the conventional warp drive, but it seems nonsensical, because spaceships would still have to use warp engines whenever they travelled to unexplored regions of space. The Masterpiece Society and Ethics are only slightly less tedious.

Following a couple of decent annual guest appearances by Majel Barrett as Lwaxana Troi in Seasons 3 and 4, Cost of Living returns to the standard of her first- and second-season episodes - i.e. this frivolous "story" is embarrassing to watch.

The Perfect Mate, in which Picard falls in love with a woman destined for a political marriage of convenience, isn't too inspired either, as it recycles the primary story elements of the Original Series episode Elaan of Troyius.

Still, five real duffers out of 26 episodes isn't too bad, and the next season shows a remarkable improvement. In my opinion, Season 6 is one of the best, second only to Season 3 in terms of powerful storytelling and direction.

That said, things don't get off to a good start at all with Time's Arrow 2. The documentaries among the extra features reveal that the creators hadn't really thought out how this complex time-travel narrative was going to be resolved - and it shows! All of a sudden Geordi La Forge decides to try and reactivate Data's disembodied head, which would have been a good idea during part one if anyone had thought of it. In addition, countless questions about the mysterious aliens and their motives are left unanswered.

The season doesn't end particularly well, either. Descent robs the Borg of most of their menace by doing away with their chilling hive mentality. Data's conversion to the dark side is presented without any subtlety whatsoever, and Picard's plan to beam down all but a skeleton crew is frankly insane.

Some other episodes aren't bad per se, just not too inspiring. The Quality of Life recycles a lot of plot elements from Season 3's Evolution. Aquiel is a worthy but slightly dull Geordi love story. Birthright is a rather slow-moving two-parter, in which Data's subplot during part one (which guest-stars Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig) is more interesting than the main story concerning Worf's search for his father. The episode The Chase seems to exist solely for the purpose of explaining why so many aliens look humanoid in the Star Trek universe.

However, these few indifferent episodes are more than compensated for by classics such as the two-part Chain of Command, which makes use of two excellent guest stars. Ronny Cox plays the abrasive Captain Jellico, whose methods of command come as a great shock to the Enterprise crew. Meanwhile, Picard is captured by the Cardassians while on a secret mission, and is tortured in some particularly harrowing and well-played scenes featuring the excellent David Warner as his interrogator.

Tapestry is of the same high standard, and is quite possibly the best Q episode ever. Although the concept of Picard inhabiting the body of his younger self is very Quantum Leap, this story is an excellent examination of his character, and ties in well with his recollections from Season 2's Samaritan Snare. There's a heart-warming It's a Wonderful Life flavour to this instalment.

Among the remaining episodes, Realm of Fear is another welcome Reg Barclay show - although the notion of a traveller being able to perceive the passage of time while in a transporter beam goes against the evidence that is suggested by most other episodes, including this season's Relics. Talking of which, this irresistible tale is justly famous for its touching guest appearance by James Doohan as Scotty, and for the production team's brilliant re-creation of the bridge from the old Enterprise.

A couple of instalments stand out particularly because they establish new Trek sub-genres which would be used again and again in DS9 and Voyager. A good one for fans of Deanna Troi and/or the Romulans, Face of the Enemy is the first of several "crewmember wakes up with an alien face" storylines. Starship Mine is the first of Trek's exhilarating Die Hard pastiches, with Picard standing in for Bruce Willis. He would fulfil the role again in First Contact, while even Kathryn Janeway would don the trademark vest in the Voyager episode Macrocosm. Similarly seminal is Frame of Mind, which itself is clearly inspired by the movie Jacob's Ladder: neither the main character, in this instance Will Riker, nor the audience can be sure of what is real, what is illusion, and what is madness until the very end of the show.

Schisms is a memorably creepy piece of work, while True Q is another strong Q episode (apparently to make up for the lack of a Q episode in Season 5, we get two this season). Rascals, in which three of the crew are regressed to childhood, is great fun, as is the Patrick Stewart-directed Western spoof, A Fistful of Datas. Ship in a Bottle marks the long-overdue return of the holodeck's Professor Moriarty (Daniel Davis), while the LeVar Burton-directed Second Chances is another strong Riker show, with a convincing dual performance from Frakes. Lessons is a moving, though not too slushy, love story involving Picard. Finally, there's more Romulan action in Timescape, an engaging time-warp tale.

The seventh and final season sees a slight downturn in the overall quality of the stories. As the extra documentary features reveal, the production team stretched themselves rather thinly during the making of this season, as they were simultaneously producing the second year of DS9 and were well into pre-production of the movie Generations, while also developing Voyager.

Descent, the rather naff finale to Season 6, comes to an even weaker conclusion at the start of Season 7. Beverly Crusher's command of the Enterprise makes for some surprisingly effective scenes, but the Borg remain a pitiful foe, one of whom is all too easily overcome by Picard during a jailbreak scene. And Data's recommendation that his android "brother" Lore be disassembled goes against the legal rights that were accorded to Data in the second season's The Measure of a Man.

Force of Nature is not much better, being a tedious metaphor about environmental damage. By decreeing that warp-drive usage must be restricted to preserve the fabric of space, this episode undermines the very essence of what Star Trek is about: exploration. The story could just as easily have been told using some other race's less clean method of propulsion.

Emergence is, to quote The Far Side cartoon, just plain nuts! Here, the Enterprise tries to protect itself from harm by creating a new type of life form. Riiiiiight...

Other episodes, such as Liaisons and Bloodlines, are distinctly average, despite the return of the Ferengi DaiMon Bok (this time played by Lee Arenberg) in the latter. Homeward isn't bad, but its extreme depiction of Starfleet's Prime Directive - asserting that it is forbidden to save the people of a planet doomed to certain death by a natural disaster - makes the regulation seem nonsensical. Sub Rosa is a rather silly "ghost" story, though it's a good episode for Dr Crusher.

The instalments that make this season worth watching include the memorable Geordi La Forge episode, Interface, which features an excellent guest appearance by Madge Sinclair as his mother. The two-part Gambit is an entertaining escapade in which both Picard and Riker play a dangerous game of deception. Phantasms is an extremely warped depiction of Data's funny and frightening dreams, but is all the more enjoyable for it. Masks is almost as weird and almost as wonderful. The Pegasus, a Riker episode, takes a refreshingly cynical view of Starfleet, as does Journey's End, in which Wesley Crusher decides that the Academy is not for him. Thine Own Self is an inventive spin on the Frankenstein myth, with Data cast in the role of the monster. Eye of the Beholder is an effective murder mystery, while Firstborn is easily the most enjoyable Alexander (Brian Bonsall) episode of the entire series.

Dark Page is one of those rare beasts, a decent Lwaxana Troi episode, and is as moving as Half a Life back in Season 4. Attached, in which Picard and Dr Crusher are forced to acknowledge their feelings for each other, is another emotional experience, as is Inheritance, in which Data's "mother" (Fionnula Flanagan) turns up.

Preemptive Strike is one of several episodes, alongside Attached and Journey's End, that bring a sense of closure to certain ongoing subplots of The Next Generation. In this case it is the fate of the one-time regular Ro Laren that is addressed, although it is fairly obviously signposted. Journey's End and Preemptive Strike also serve the purpose of setting up the Maquis, a group of rebels who go on to play a major role in Voyager.

For me, the real highlights of this season are Parallels, Lower Decks, Genesis and All Good Things... Parallels is the alternative reality story to end all alternate reality stories, in which Worf accidentally slips into an endless succession of parallel universes. (However, Co-Producer Brannon Braga is wrong to suggest that the concept of alternate realities was "radical" at the time: they have been a part of Trek mythology ever since Mirror, Mirror in 1967.) Lower Decks is a great novelty, as it shifts from the series' usual perspective to focus on a group of junior officers. Genesis is a piece of pure B-movie hokum, but very creepy and thoroughly entertaining.

The Next Generation may not have boasted the best Star Trek pilot episode ever (that honour belongs to DS9) but it certainly can claim the best finale award for All Good Things... Amazingly, the script was written in just two weeks (according to a "making of" documentary among the special features), but this double-length episode successfully harks back to the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, as well as packing in many an exciting or amusing scene, particularly those set in Picard's future. Colm Meaney and Denise Crosby return as Miles O'Brien and Tasha Yar to aid the very effective re-creation of the Farpoint timeline.

Each season is accompanied by an average of one and a half hours of extra features comprising documentary footage collated from old and new interviews with the cast and crew. This material isn't always riveting, but it has its moments, including a demonstration of the numerous elements that make up the transporter beam effect, an amusing montage of Troi "sensing" things, a discussion of the surprising backstage chaos that affected the third season, and a tribute to series creator Gene Roddenberry.

This bargain box set may cause some annoyance to fans who paid full whack for the individual season boxes. But if you don't already own them, this is a golden opportunity.

Richard McGinlay

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