Alternate History in Star Trek Part 9: The Continuing Mission of TNG

By Tom Anderson



When we last left off looking at Star Trek: The Next Generation in Part 6, it was with the iconic end-of-season-3 cliffhanger of 1990, “The Best of Both Worlds”. Throughout this time, as we saw in part 7 and 8, tie-in writers might either nostalgically produce TOS media and give the new series the cold shoulder, or else embrace TNG and explore its new setting. Yet with this two-part episode, TNG finally found its feet for certain and would go on to enter a golden age. In my view, the fourth, fifth and sixth seasons are all excellent and equally strong, while some critics put the fourth above the other two. The final season, the seventh, was fairly unambiguously weaker, but still had its moments. During the fourth and fifth seasons, the brand new spinoff series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) was in planning stages, and the two developed in tandem; the first two seasons of DS9 would then take place in parallel with seasons 6 and 7 of TNG, including two crossovers between the two. There is much more to say about DS9 when we come to its own articles, but I mention it here because of how much its conception related to events in TNG as it hit its stride.


As before, I won’t be talking about every episode here, but I will be highlighting both those episodes which use time travel and AH concepts, and those which contain important moments of character development and changes to the setting. For length, this was originally intended as one article but has been divided into two.


We begin with “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”, with Picard assimilated by the Borg as ‘Locutus’ and Riker in command, forced to fire on his own captain. The cliffhanger was so effective precisely because there were rumours that Patrick Stewart was considering leaving, and he had certainly had his differences with the role of Picard in the past. Elizabeth Dennehy (Shelby) also seemed lined up to succeed Riker as first officer. However, in the event, Picard was successfully rescued and cured, and the Borg were defeated. Despite this perhaps seeming like an anticlimax (and the second half of the story is undeniably weaker than the first), “The Best of Both Worlds” undoubtedly changed TNG radically. Thirty-nine Starfleet ships were destroyed at the Battle of Wolf 359 thanks to the knowledge wrested unwillingly from Picard’s mind by the Borg assimilation; an event that critic Chuck Sonnenburg has compared to 9/11 in-universe, though it predates it by a decade. The event would both change the course of the series and set up the backstories for numerous characters, in particular Benjamin Sisko, the main protagonist of DS9, and be revisited in the film “First Contact” among other places.


Impressively, rather than jump straight back into more adventures as though nothing had happened, the series takes the episode “Family” for the Enterprise to undergo repairs and Picard to come to terms with what was done to him. This revealed his backstory in detail for the first time, with him returning to his family vineyard in France to face his relatives – a setting that has been expanded upon in the new Star Trek: Picard series. The episode was also used to develop the backgrounds of other characters, such as Worf with his adoptive human parents from Belarus (which always begged the question of why he doesn’t speak with a Belarusian accent…) and Wesley Crusher seeing an old recording that his deceased father Jack made for him. The family theme continues with the next episode, “Brothers”, in which Data returns to his creator, Dr Noonien Soong – but so does Lore, who slays the latter. This would be the start of what seems like a never-ending cavalcade of Soongs played by Brent Spiner and tinkering with dangerous technology or biology, which – again – has continued to show up in the Star Trek: Picard series. Oh, and Soong tries to give Data an emotion chip, but accidentally installs it in Lore instead due to mistaken identity.


“Remember Me” is a psychological thriller in which people seem to be disappearing around Dr Crusher and nobody remembers them once they are gone. It turns out that she is actually trapped in a tiny parallel universe created by a warp bubble, and Wesley and a returning Traveller have to rescue her. A sinister effect is created by the ship’s computer, its voice (Majel Barrett) usually sounding so comfortingly authoritative, responding to her inquiries by saying she is the only crew member, and ‘the universe’ is a sphere 705 metres in diameter. Whereas some Star Trek episodes have felt like someone trying to do Twilight Zone or Outer Limits stories that don’t fit into the futuristic setting, this one uses it to enhance the effect.


“Reunion” features Picard being called in as a neutral figure to arbitrate the Klingon succession between the rivals Duras (Worf’s old enemy and a traitor conspiring with the Romulans) and Gowron (he of the eyes), a decision that will resonate down many years to DS9 and beyond. Duras ends up slaying Worf’s lover K’Ehleyr (though not before she introduces Worf to their son, Alexander, much to his surprise!) and Worf kills Duras in return, in the debut of the iconic Klingon bat’leth bladed weapon. Although this seemingly sorts out the succession by default, reality ensues and the story will return at the end of the season. This also sees the debut of the Klingon Vor’cha-class attack cruiser, the first new Klingon ship designed for TNG.


“Future Imperfect” is a good example of how TNG could do AH tropes, though in this case it’s a (false) vision of the future. Like the TOS novel “Timetrap” which I previously covered, it’s a “faked Rip van Winkle” scenario where Riker isn’t really in the future – except it’s a double fake, and even the Romulan holodeck projecting the fake future is itself a fake by a lonely alien boy who just wants to be Riker’s friend. Considering this isn’t meant to be a real future on any level, it nonetheless explores a number of ideas that would come back into play later. Geordie LaForge no longer has his VISOR, now having cloned implant eyes; a Ferengi is the helm officer (prefiguring DS9 bringing us the first Ferengi in Starfleet); Picard is now an admiral and has taken charge of negotiating peace with the Romulans (as explored in Star Trek: Picard) and so on. Picard’s uniform even resembles those used in the Picard series actually set in the ‘real’ version of this imagined future era, which, if intentional, shows incredible attention to detail from the Trek creators! The Starfleet delta comm badge is also redesigned to have bars rather than an oval behind it, with the number of bars duplicating the collar rank insignia, another nifty idea; this would be reused for one of the alternate timelines in the later episode “Parallels”.


“Data’s Day” follows Data making a diary entry to help Bruce Maddox in his studies, which interestingly features a background story in which our heroes actually fail – a Vulcan ambassador turns out to be a deep-cover Romulan spy, and she successfully escapes. “The Wounded” is one of the most important episodes for the course of Star Trek; it introduces the Cardassians, in a very ‘remember the new guy’ way, as a new antagonist. The lead Cardassian in the episode is Gul Macet, played by Marc Alaimo, who would go on to play DS9’s antagonist and archetypal Cardassian, Gul Dukat. We learn that the Federation had a war with the Cardassians some years ago, which Miles O’Brien was a veteran of, and that O’Brien’s old captain Benjamin Maxwell is now unilaterally attacking Cardassian ships in violation of the peace. It turns out that Maxwell actually (accurately) suspects that the Cardassians are rearming for a new war and is taking preemptive action. The key difference between TNG and DS9 (which this episode essentially became the beginning of the setup for) is that despite Maxwell being ‘right’, he is still a lawbreaker and is still punished for his crimes at the end – whereas Sisko from DS9, resembling Maxwell in many ways, often got away with similar actions. Your mileage may vary on which you prefer. Regardless, the introduction of the Cardassian war plays merry hell with any attempt to reconcile the earlier season (where the idea that the Federation has been at peace for years and perhaps has grown arrogant and complacent is ever-present) but they became a fascinating enough race that we forgive it.


“First Contact” (not to be confused with the later film) sees a titular first-contact scenario from the aliens’ perspective, from a society that resembles contemporary Earth and is terrified when they discover a disguised, injured Riker has biology unlike anything they have seen. “Night Terrors” is frequently slammed for bad special effects, though I certainly found it atmospheric enough as a kid (EYES IN THE DARK, ONE MOON CIRCLES). “The Nth Degree” sees fan favourite Reg Barclay acquire superhuman intelligence from an alien probe and transport the Enterprise to the centre of the galaxy to meet said aliens (presumably not the same as the false god Kirk fought in Star Trek V, though oddly they are both giant floating glowing heads…) “Qpid” sees Q return and end up hooking up with Picard’s fellow archaeologist Vash, while “The Host” introduces the Trill race of symbionts and their humanoid hosts – which would be used as the basis of a character in DS9, though they changed all the details so much that they might as well have made up a new one.


The fourth season ends with “Redemption”, in which Picard’s attempt to arbitrate the Klingon succession has failed and a Klingon Civil War breaks out between Gowron and the Duras Sisters – who support Duras’ illegitimate son Toral and are secretly backed by the Romulans. Worf resigns his Starfleet commission to fight in the war alongside his brother Kurn. The fifth season opens with the war raging and Gowron’s forces losing, while Picard organises a Starfleet blockade on the border to prevent the Romulans from bringing in weapons. This story reveals a character who had been seen only in shadows in earlier Romulan stories – Sela, the half-Vulcan, half-human daughter of the alternate timeline Tasha Yar from “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. I’ve since learned that there seems to be a bit of a critical opposition to Sela on the internet, which (like the fact that there are people who don’t like Riker) is news to me, at the time everyone thought this was a brilliant twist in my experience. It does come with the bittersweet corollary that the alternate Tasha’s death was also meaningless; while trying to escape with her daughter from the Romulan she had become the consort of against her will, the young Sela screamed and alerted her father, with predictable consequences. Nonetheless, this half-human fanatic for the Romulan Empire was a more interesting villain than most of the Romulans themselves in my opinion, and it’s particularly fascinating to see Picard try to make sense of this, given the time differences and the fact he doesn’t know about the other timeline (Guinan gives only enigmatic hints). Meanwhile Data, thrust in command of his own ship, ends up foiling the Romulans’ plot (while defying orders to do so, leading to a discussion about ‘only following orders’) and Gowron finally wins the civil war, reversing Worf and Kurn’s false dishonour in the process. The Duras Sisters will, however, return, as will Sela (both on screen and in spinoff media).



“Darmok” is another high-concept story in which Picard has to try to communicate with an alien race who speak entirely in metaphor, and regularly tops lists (including my own) for one of the best TNG episodes. “Ensign Ro” introduces the titular Ensign Ro and her Bajoran species, colonial subjects for the Cardassians fighting for their freedom. Ro became a cast regular for a while, and was initially tipped to join the DS9 cast, though this didn’t materialise in the end (hence the character of Major Kira). The “Unification” two-parter brings back none other than Spock, now an Ambassador, who has travelled in secret to Romulus and is working with Romulans who want to bridge the gap between the estranged brother races of the Vulcans and Romulans. However, Sela is back and is using it as part of a ruse to stage an invasion of Vulcan. This is Sela’s last on-screen appearance, but she became a favourite for spinoff media, as said above. Though Spock misses the death of his father Sarek, Picard (via a mind-meld from one to the other) is finally able to let Spock realise his father’s true feelings for him he could never express.


“A Matter of Time” sees the crew visited by an historian from the 26th century, Berlinghoff Rasmussen, who Picard demands answers from when they face a high-stakes decision over how to try to save a planet. But it turns out Rasmussen is actually a fraud, a man of the 22nd century who turfed out the original future historian, and plots to bring back 24th century technology to his own era. As I said in my article about “Enterprise”, it’s a bit absurd that he never featured in a series set in the 22nd century and obsessed with time travel, but never mind. This also began the trend of futures in Star Trek getting more and more unnecessarily exaggerated – from the 26th century, we then got the 29th, 30th, 31st…there’s no need for it. The story also has a passing mention of Khan, fitting with a later episode, “The Masterpiece Society”, in which the crew have to save a planet of genetically engineered ‘perfect’ human colonists, despite them being really up themselves and annoying (perhaps a commentary on the show’s own earlier seasons!) Though ‘worldbuilding’ had not reached the heights it would later with consistency, we can see the Federation’s contempt for eugenics on display thanks to past incidents, as well as serious philosophical debates (such as Geordi defending his right to exist as a disabled individual in the face of a society which would have prevented his birth).


“Conundrum” has the interesting concept of the crew losing their memory, with an unknown (to the audience) officer inserted as first officer and being accepted as they try to download their mission from the ship’s computers. According to that information, the Enterprise’s mission is of war against a race called the Lysians, but the crew become more and more suspicious as they discover that the Lysians are far less technologically advanced than the Federation, and they beat them easily in every encounter. It turns out that it was all a ploy by an enemy of the Lysians, who was also responsible for the bogus first officer urging them along and manipulating them. The actual episode carries quite a few plot holes, but it’s a pretty clever alternative spin on the basic concept of the ‘Faked Rip van Winkle’ we already discussed. It also illustrates, like the classic ‘inverted detective story’, that the audience can be in on the secret (or part of it) from the start, and we don’t have to uncover it in parallel with our heroes. We also get some fun misconceptions, like Worf initially thinking he’s the captain because of his ornate sash (and then having an oh-crap face when they find the computer records saying otherwise) and claiming the Enterprise is ‘obviously’ a warship after someone reels off its weaponry. Meanwhile, Data takes Guinan’s job as the bartender in Ten-Forward, and Ensign Ro (who had been arguing with Riker at the time the memories were wiped) assumes they are in a romantic relationship. It’s a good way of doing ‘what if’ without actually doing time travel-related gimmicks; there’s a reason why memory loss is so overused as a plot device in soaps and sitcoms where the writers don’t have recourse to more fantastic elements like time travel.


“Power Play” is noteworthy for this discussion only because it establishes the 200-year-old Daedalus-class ship, which would later get a lot of fanon enthusiasm as emblematic of an unknown era (turning to annoyance when it never appears in “Enterprise”). “The Outcast” is a somewhat clumsy attempt to talk about gender and sexuality discrimination, shifting it to a race which is now considered asexual and persecutes any who still identify as male or female.


“Cause and Effect” probably feels like a ripoff of Groundhog Day to anyone who watches it now, but actually predates it by a year. The episode is a good example of how Brannon Braga (later much disliked by many fans) was a capable writer in his own wheelhouse. The Enterprise finds itself trapped in a time loop which no-one can remember, though flashes of déjà vu keep appearing; she keeps encountering another Federation ship lost in an anomaly, with Data and Riker offering different options for how to dodge it before they collide. Picard keeps going for Data’s idea, which fails and results in the ship being destroyed, resetting the time loop. On the penultimate cycle, Data manages to transmit a single-digit clue to his future self, which leads him to ignore Picard’s order on the final cycle and use Riker’s plan instead. Having dodged the other ship, they learn it has been trapped in the anomaly for decades and is from the era of the TOS films, being commanded by none other than Kelsey Grammer as Captain Morgan Bateson. (They even wanted to bring back Kirstie Alley as Saavik, but she was unavailable). Jonathan Frakes’ direction and the SFX are worthy of praise; a time loop episode would seem like an obvious opportunity to just reuse shots (we see four repeats of the loop) but Frakes actually re-shot every repeated scene every time from a different angle, adding to the sense of psychological creepiness felt by both the viewers and the crew in-universe. The SFX team also actually built a crude additional Enterprise model and blew it up, producing a much more realistic explosion than just overlaying it with stock VFX, and underlying Stewart’s tensely barked command of “All hands, abandon ship!” which is cut off by said explosion. It really illustrates the advantages Star Trek has, as I discussed in my article “Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic”, that they can immediately hit the viewer with an unspoken realisation of time travel just by showing Kelsey Grammer wearing a movie-era uniform. It’s only undermined by the fact that TNG was still using those aesthetics to represent ships like the Stargazer from not that many years before. Furthermore, budget meant that they had to just stick some fins on a Miranda-class ship to justify a script line about it being an old ship design – as the Mirandas were still in use! That’s a minor point, though, and this episode is deserving of its strong reputation.


“The First Duty” is noteworthy here only because it introduces the characters of Boothby and of Nick Locarno, the latter being part of a Starfleet cadet fighter display team with Wesley Crusher. The plot of the episode is about them trying a banned manoeuvre which accidentally killed a colleague, and then Locarno covering it up, putting Wesley in a moral dilemma. Boothby, whom had already been mentioned by Picard in reminisces, debuts here – he is Starfleet Academy’s gardener and groundskeeper, supposedly a humble position, but he has become a mentor and adviser to generations of captains. He would later reappear in Voyager and in a few spinoff works; I particularly like the unspoken joke in VGR that, when Species 8472 (we’ll get to them) decide to duplicate Starfleet Academy and steal the identities of Starfleet personnel, their leader poses, not as some high-ranking admiral, but as Boothby – the one who really has the most influence. Nick Locarno, incidentally, was planned to join Voyager, but his character was retooled into Tom Paris primarily for the reason that royalties would be owed to the writer of this episode for every appearance. (Something similar happened in a few other cases). Despite this, he has the exact same actor and backstory, and early VGR novels imply the ‘Paris’ is just an alias.


“I, Borg” sees the crew rescue a Borg drone from a crashed ship, who is eventually dubbed ‘Hugh’. There is a moral dilemma over a plan to send him back to the Collective carrying a kind of virus that might disable them, and Picard’s emotive vendetta with the Borg appears for the first time (later explored in the film “First Contact”). In the end they decide to let Hugh go back without the virus, but wonder if his newfound individuality will be the real shock to the Borg’s system. This episode is memorable but really doesn’t make much sense; people criticise VGR for ruining the Borg as a threat, but it really starts here. Why would Hugh being an individual spread to other Borg when the Borg can assimilate individuals like Picard himself without that spreading, and so on. Hugh would eventually reappear twice more, once quite recently in Star Trek: Picard.


“The Next Phase” has an accident with an experimental Romulan phasing cloak – a device that not only hides ships, but takes them out of phase with matter so they can pass through it. The accident affects Geordi LaForge and Ro Laren, along with a Romulan, and they have to try to alert the crew to a plot by the other Romulans when no-one can see or hear them. Probably inspired by Kitty Pryde’s abilities in the X-Men comics, this story does have the obvious plot hole that the phased individuals don’t just fall through the floor, but was still atmospheric and creepy – as well as its concept helping inspire “The Pegasus”. The well-known episode “The Inner Light” sees Picard hit by an alien probe that downloads memories into him, resulting in him living out the entire life of a man on a less technologically advanced world, though for the others on the bridge only minutes have passed. It turns out that the planet was destroyed, and this was their way of preserving a memory for others to know they existed. Again there is an obvious plot hole (how did this less advanced world get a space probe and a way of storing memories) but it’s still a powerful episode, elevated by Stewart’s acting. Notably, rather than never mention this again, Picard still plays the flute he learned during the experience (which was included in the probe) and does so again in a later episode.


The two-parter “Time’s Arrow” links seasons 5 and 6. As one might imagine, this is a time-travel story. What appears to be Data’s head is unearthed in San Francisco. Not only is it really his and not Lore’s, but dating shows it to be 500 years older than it should be. This starts an investigation which leads the crew to a planet on which a race called the Devaronians are time-travelling back into Earth’s past to drain life force from the locals (taking advantage of a cholera epidemic in 1893 San Francisco to cover up their activities). Data accidentally follows them, and then uses his skills as a card sharp to obtain funding in the past. Other crew members go after him, leading to encountering celebrities such as Jack London (then a young bellhop), Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and – Guinan, whose long life means she looks the same in 1893 as she does in the 2360s. This cleverly explains an old mystery going back years, how Guinan supposedly met Picard before he ever knew her. (Unfortunately, they appeared to forget it in Star Trek: Picard, or only came up with a weak explanation). Data’s body, the crew and most of the aliens go back to the future, but Picard, one of the Devaronians and Data’s head are left. When Picard learns that the crew’s plan to destroy the alien site with torpedoes will propagate back and destroy 19th century Earth as well, he taps a binary message into Data’s head with an iron filing. Back in the present day, Geordi discovers the message in the new-old head, which he fits to Data’s body, and they are able to avert the plan and bring back Picard by other means. In the many, many episodes and films in which Star Trek time-travels to some past era of California (and it is almost always California), this one stands out as interesting and unusual.


“Relics” was the first proper crossover between TOS and TNG. Yes, McCoy and Spock had featured, but for the first time, we see the old Enterprise’s bridge again and a full acknowledgement of the old show. Scotty is found in suspended animation crashed on a Dyson Sphere, and then has to try to adapt to the 24th century. While this episode has plenty of fanservice, it’s still a worthy story in its own right, with its themes of skills being outdated vs respect for the elderly. “True Q” sees another return of Q, noteworthy only because it includes the line “the jury is still out” with respect to putting humanity on trial, which will be followed up later. “Rascals” is one of those episodes that seems to belong more to the goofier moments of TAS, with several crew members de-aged to children and then having to save the ship from the deadly menace of (checks notes) the Ferengi? Ro is one of the de-aged individuals and the one most resentful of it, as her rough upbringing meant that she never felt like a child even when she was one. By the end, though, she’s realised that this can be an opportunity to experience childhood as she never did, and Guinan says she might even delay going back. This is Michelle Forbes’ last episode until the end of season 7, so for a while I thought she’d actually chosen to stay as a child – as it is, she just basically disappears until we learn she’s been at Starfleet Advanced Tactical Training for a year, apparently.


“A Fistful of Datas” is yet another holodeck malfunction episode, this time with Worf and company trapped in a wild west holodeck programme in which everyone else is replaced with Data. Though there is some real threat, it’s mostly played for comedy. (Interestingly, a year later Red Dwarf would do “Gunman of the Apocalypse”, also involving a wild west virtual reality game, and arguably the threat is taken more seriously in the sitcom show! If it was deliberate influence, it was only paying back for how TNG seemed to rip off RD with “Clues” coming out after “Thanks for the Memory”…)


We will leave it there for now, and continue with our run-down of the final part of TNG next time.

 

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.