There is a lot to like in Season Five of Next Generation, including some of the series’ very best episodes. At the same time, you can sense that we’re moving past the show’s “golden age”. With the Klingon Civil War plot coming to an end, and the Borg in the background for the moment, there’s no real sense of a forward-moving storyline. The season does introduce the Bajorans, of course, but doesn’t develop them yet, and the Romulans are present, but they lose momentum after the whole “unification” thing.
The only really new elements that come in this season and the introduction of Michelle Forbes as Ensign Ro, and the shifting of Alexander to living on the Enterprise. Ro is quite the success, though sadly it’s not a long lasting one, as I think she only makes two appearances in the next two seasons. She really anticipates the sort of characterization the franchise went with on Deep Space Nine, where the producers began to contrast the “more enlightened” Starfleet officers with various outsiders who could be written with a few more social flaws.
Alexander’s arrival does opens up new material for Worf–now that he’s basically sorted out the issue of his heritage–including bringing him closer to Troi (and thus laying the groundwork for their romance over the next two years). But it’s debatable to say whether this “domestication” in these areas really served the character or the series in the long term.
In lieu of those big mythos-advancing storylines, the season gives us some of the most successful high-concept science fiction tales that we’ve had, with episodes like Cause and Effect, Conundrum, The Next Phase, and The Inner Light.
In addition to Alexander and Ro, the recurring cast continues to include Guinan, O’Brien, and Keiko. We see Lwaxana Troi again, and get all the appearances of Sela that we’re ever going to get. Wesley also appears twice, including his best ever episode, The First Duty. On the other hand, neither Q nor Barclay make an appearance this season. Maybe there wasn’t room with all the others, including both Sarek and the season’s most notable guest star, Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Spock’s appearance didn’t make for the best episodes of Next Generation, but they were highly memorable, and tied the series with its predecessor more strongly than ever before.
Though the series doesn’t really feel like it’s growing in any particular direction this season, there are still some outstanding installments. For my money, the best one is Darmok, but The First Duty is also a strong contender. Also on the top tier are I, Borg and The Inner Light. Further strong episodes include Redemption, part II, Ensign Ro, Conundrum, Power Play, Ethics, Cause and Effect, and The Next Phase. Silicon Avatar, Disaster, and maybe Unification, part II are worthy efforts. So overall, that’s quite a lot of positive episodes. There’s a number of neutral–not so good, not so bad—and only a handful of really bad ones. The worst are The Outcast and Cost of Living. Violations was also nothing special.
I usually try to list a highlight episode for each character, so this time we have
• Picard – Has a number of strong contenders, but almost certainly have to say The Inner Light, even though overall I like Darmok as an episode better.
• Riker – Is a bit underused this season, with only one real “starring” turn, which is regrettably in The Outcast. He has a good part in Conundrum and also in Silicon Avatar, but I think my favorite for him this year was Ethics, where he got to be morally outraged about Worf contemplating suicide.
• Geordi – I like him in The Masterpiece Society, but I’m probably just soap-boxing. His starring episode was The Next Phase but I think I like his pivotal role in I, Borg the best.
• Worf – Overall, he’s not used as strongly as the last couple of seasons. In spite of some amusing bits in Conundrum and Disaster, his best part is probably still the opening Redemption, part II.
• Dr. Crusher – I think I like best the central role she has in Cause and Effect.
• Troi – Troi had a few episodes this season that cast her in a major role, but after consideration I have to say my favorite is Power Play. It’s not necessarily a great Troi episode, but it’s quite a good Marina Sirtis episode.
• Data – Data as always gets a bunch of good roles but ultimately no great episodes that really feature him. Probably the most fun we get with him is in Time’s Arrow, even though it’s far from my favorite episode.
Some other notable comments about Season Five:
• Number of Omnipotent, Semi-Omnipotent, Locally Omnipotent or super-highly advanced beings / races encountered by the Enterprise crew: Just 1, this time – the energy-based life form that lived in the nebula in Imaginary Friend.
• Number of characters Brent Spiner got to play (counting characters Data was playing): Only 2 – Data, and possessed-Data in Power Play. He pretends to be a Romulan in Unification and a Frenchman in Time’s Arrow, but on neither occasion does he really alter his persona.
• Recurring Characters (or characters who reappear from previous seasons): 21 – Sela, O’Brien, Robin Lefler, Ro Laren, Guinan, Keiko, Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, Wesley Crusher, Perrin, Sarek, Ensign Felton, Alexander, Helena Rozhenko, Jack Crusher, Lwaxana Troi, Mr. Homm, Kurn, Lursa, B’Etor, Gowron, and Molly O’Brien. On top of that, there’s Toral from Redemption I. And Spock, Senator Pardek, Captain K’Vada, and Proconsul Neral from the Unification two-parter, and Samuel Clemens and Jack London who will return in Part 2 of Time’s Arrow.
• New characters to watch out for in the future: 4 – Mr. Mott, Boothby, Sito Jaxa, and Hugh. A lot less than last year.
• Number of guest actors who later went on to have major roles in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: 2 – Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) appeared in Time’s Arrow, and Max Grodenchick (Rom) appeared in The Perfect Mate.
• Number of Holodeck episodes (where a significant portion of the plot requires the Holodeck): Just 1—Cost of Living
• Number of Holodeck malfunctions: For the second year in a row, None!
• Number of Time Travel stories: Three – A Matter of Time features a visitor from the past, Cause and Effect also has a visitor from the past and features the Enterprise repeating a series of events numerous times, and of course Time’s Arrow actually features Data traveling back in time for most of the story.
• Relatives of main characters who appear (aside from Wesley Crusher): Five – Lwaxana Troi, Jack Crusher, Alexander Rozhenko, Helena Rozhenko, and Kurn. Also you could say both Keiko and Molly O’Brien. Plus Picard’s wife, son, daughter, and grandson in The Inner Light
• Number of (Potential) romantic entanglements or heavy flirtations for regulars and recurring characters: Eleven – Riker & Carmen (Silicon Avatar), Riker & Etana Jol (The Game), Beverly & Rasmussen, sort of (A Matter of Time), Riker & Troi, maybe, in the past (Violations), and again in the present, sort of (Conundrum), Troi & Aaron Conor (The Masterpiece Society), Riker & Ro (Conundrum), Riker & Soran (The Outcast), Wesley & Robin Lefler (The Game), and Kamala in turn with Riker, Worf (briefly), and Picard (The Perfect Mate),
• Number of Enterprise crew members who die: Again, one: Lt. Monroe dies in Disaster. We don’t see anyone else but of course it’s implied that probably a lot of people died in that episode. Also, everyone dies multiple times in Cause and Effect, but it’s all reset.
• Number of episodes in which a main character is possessed or otherwise mentally controlled: Two: Data, Troi and O’Brien in Power Play, and everyone but Data and Wesley in The Game.
• Number of New Life Forms Encountered for the First Time, not counting races of basically humanoid aliens: Four – the disembodied aliens in Power Play, the nitrium parasite of Cost of Living, the disembodied aliens in Imaginary Friend and the whatever-the-heck-they-are from Time’s Arrow
• Main Characters who didn’t appear in episodes: Troi (The Perfect Mate & The Inner Light),
• Number of Actors who Directed episodes: Again, Two – Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart.
• Number of direct references to prior incarnations of Star Trek: Lots, all found in Unification I & II.
• Episodes with…
– Klingons (beside Worf or Alexander): Three – Redemption part II, Unification I, Unification II,
– Romulans: Four – Redemption part II, Unification I, Unification II, The Next Phase
– Vulcans: Three – Unification I, Unification II, The First Duty
– Ferengi: One – The Perfect Mate,
– Cardassians: One – Ensign Ro
– Borg: One – I, Borg
– Bajorans (aside from only Ensign Ro): One – Ensign Ro,
• Number of times Picard orders Tea, Earl Grey, Hot: Zero. In The Perfect Mate, Kamala orders “Earl Gray tea. Hot,” for Picard, and Picard orders Ginger Tea for someone else in Ensign Ro.
• Number of Poker games played by the crew: Only one seen on the ship, in Cause and Effect, although we got to see it numerous times. Geordi also referred to their regular poker game in A Matter of Time. It also seems that Troi was just playing poker in her dream in Violations. Finally, Data plays Poker in 19th century earth in Time’s Arrow.
And finally, the Season Five essential viewing: (not the best episodes, but the ones that are most important for the overall story of the series)
Redemption part II – Resolves the Klingon Civil War and the previous season’s cliff hanger finale
Ensign Ro – Introduces the Bajorans and the titular Ensign Ro
Disaster – Molly O’Brien is born. Also referred to later when Troi goes after Command training.
New Ground – Brings Alexander on board the Enterprise
The First Duty – Introduces Boothby and Sito, and repositions Wesley
I, Borg – Introduces Hugh
Silicon Avatar – Destroys the Crystalline Entity that was introduced in Datalore
Unification I & II – Involves the death of Sarek and brings Spock into the Next Generation universe. Also the last appearance of Sela, but no actual lasting effect on the series
The Inner Light – Picard will revisit his experiences later in Lessons
Time’s Arrow – Important to understand Time’s Arrow part 2, but not really for any other reason than that.