Parallels (original airdate: November 29th, 1993)
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Robert Wiemer
While Parallels is a fantastic, large-scale exploration of alternate realities at its core, it’s a way to introduce and explore a relationship between Worf and Troi. This relationship is a much better fit for Troi than her forced romance with Riker, whom she was ultimately married to (more on that when I review Star Trek: Nemesis later this month). They are such perfect contrasts to each other: Worf being always awkward on how to convey his emotions while Troi is relaxed with who she is and how she feels. From what I have read, not every member of the production team was happy with this idea, but I think it is one of the best crew romances any of the Star Trek shows have ever featured because it feels like the most organic.
Because the episode is so clear on its themes, it can have fun with the parallel realities by centering them around this idea of Worf in a committed relationship. There are other details sprinkled in that give a different flavor to each reality Worf encounters, and they all hint at other exciting possibilities. We don’t go down any one path for so long that we see a hook revealed as a gimmick, just enough of a taste to think about how one track plays off of the thematic elements.
This episode has been cited by Roberto Orci, screenwriter for the 2009 Star Trek reboot, for explaining how the Kelvin timeline doesn’t take away from the standard Original Universe stories. TNG and all its related shows still exist, the new films are just a branching reality off of that one. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved alternate realities over full-scale reboots because they allow every interpretation to exist so that they can be revisited and explored over and over.
The Pegasus (original airdate: January 10th, 1994)
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by LeVar Burton
One element of The Next Generation that I hope continues and is explored more in-depth in Picard is the inevitable corruption of military institutions like Starfleet. Hierarchies of command, while often efficient, usually lead to people at the top abusing the obedience of those below them. Captain Picard was often butting heads with admirals and other superiors, weighing his obligations to his status against the moral imperative of a given situation. This episode will be referenced in the upcoming Picard due to one image in the trailer: a banner reading “Picard Day.”
This episode begins with the reveal that the school children that live onboard the Enterprise started a holiday a few years back, Picard Day. They make various arts and crafts centered around the captain, and it’s something that amuses Troi and Riker, while Picard is visible awkward about the whole thing. This is all interrupted by news that the Enterprise must pick of Admiral Pressman from a nearby station. Pressman was once the captain of the Pegasus, with Riker serving as his first officer. The Pegasus has been lost for years, and the circumstances are mysterious. Pressman is on a mission to bring back something from his ship that he doesn’t want Picard to know about.
This episode is centered around the dual loyalties of Riker. He served during an extremely intense time on the Pegasus and still has trauma related to what happened there. However, he is intensely loyal to Picard and the Enterprise. What raises the stakes is the performance of Terry O’Quinn as Pressman. This is a full decade before he would play Locke on Lost, but he is bringing that same intense determination to the role. O’Quinn knows how to walk that line between a charismatic character who is hiding their obsession and roping others into following him. You see precisely why Riker would still feel the pull of duty from Pressman.
This is a dark episode, not in terms of content but thematically. We don’t usually get such dark takes on the chain of command in Star Trek shows. Yes, there’s often a captain shirking off their orders for the greater good, but this is a psychologically complicated situation. Pressman doesn’t’ give a damn about whom he hurts, he wants a piece of technology off of his old ship. He’s willing to kill the crew of the Enterprise without a second thought. The weight of that is only heightened when we think back to the start, Picard Day, and see how people will follow and admire a leader so quickly. It’s the character of the leader that determines if that admiration is respected or abused.
The Lower Decks (original airdate: February 7th, 1994)
Written by Ronald Wilkerson, Jean Louise Matthias, and René Echevarria
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont
One of my favorite things is episodes of a show as they near their series finale after years of being on air. When the writers are allowed to get weird with stuff, experiment with the format, this can often produce some remarkable shows. TNG was always about the small number of crew members at the top of the chain of command, while the ship was populated with hundreds of nameless officers and ensigns. That’s always been the case with Star Trek, but this episode flips the format by making our regular cast the supporting characters and pushing crew members from the Lower Decks into the forefront.
Our entry into this world is a supporting character that has popped up several times Nurse Ogawa. She spends her off-hours in Ten Forward with Sam Lavelle, Taurik, and Sito Jaxa. Each of these three friends represents a different species in the Federation: Human, Vulcan, and Bajoran, respectively. They also have a regular cast member they clash with or are paralleled with. For Sam, it is Riker, Taurik has Geordi, and Jaxa is with Picard. Jaxa actually appeared in an earlier episode, “The First Duty,” where she was part of a group of cadets responsible for the death of a comrade while attempting an illegal maneuver during training. When I first watched the Lower Decks, I didn’t know this, and while the incident is mentioned and is important, the show does such an excellent job of filling the viewer in you would be convinced Jaxa was a one-off character.
The episode has a lot of fun playing with the audience’s perceptions and expectations about the main cast, using these minor characters as a way to bring up different perspectives. Lavelle is obsessed with Riker to the point that he both resents and admires him. What the writers do most effectively is to convince the audience that these people have lives on the ship, whether we are privy to them or not. It feels like we are merely moving over a few tables in Ten Forward to listen in on another group’s conversation. Even more powerfully is the show’s conclusion, which manages to leave us on a heavy emotional note, broken over someone we met just an hour ago.