Data, Humanity And Dr. Crusher In Charge – Exploring The Final Season Of TNG

Like lots of people my age I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad. We watched TNG nearly religiously, and every iteration since with some regularity. We even watched a bit of the terrible Enterprise together. It was a conduit for us to talk about the bigger issues raised by the show in the comfortable environment of a fictional universe. We bitched about Q and discussed para-science and the role of technology in our lives. We both worked on a constant stream of cool tech and science facts. Eventually I moved on to the mythic elements of Star Wars, but Picard has never left the captain’s chair of my heart.

I’m not entirely sure what separates Star Wars fans from Star Trek fans. I suspect that Star Trek fans are a bit more optimistic, or would like to be, and have their spiritual leanings met elsewhere. Star Trek, on screen, is entirely secular. Star Wars has the mythic elements of religion woven through the traditional hero’s tale. The dramatic, magical elements are irresistible to the mind that’s been brought up on the magic of religion but no longer believes in the reality of that magic. It starves for the imagery and symbolism of religion without the burden of believing it to be real. Though I was raised on sci-fi, I turned to fantasy, and Star Wars is fantasy. Once the drug of mythology is injected into the veins the addiction is deeper than any narcotic.

As a good Catholic my dad didn’t lack for mythology, so utter secularity in his entertainment doesn’t leave anything out. Catholics have the deepest mythology of the christian sects. They have re-enactments and demigods, saints, angels and stories. It’s all very appealing, and I retain a fondness for music that calls on religious imagery to make sense of the world. It’s great failing is that they expect you to think it’s true. Stories full of magic and meaning allowed me to participate in the style of cosmology I grew up with without a man in the sky looking over my shoulder.

It’s a schism that probably started back when Iwas 8 or 10 and culminated in my decision to stop going to church when I was 16. Even with our shared interest in science and technology, our natural inclinations when it comes to the supernatural or spiritual put us on very different paths. We had different perceptions and responses to an important shared experience.

And so, in the neverending search for binge watching material, I made my way around to TNG. Most of it held up to my childhood recollections, and a fair amount exceeded it. I can still only intermittently stand Q, and I don’t understand why everybody hates on Wesley.

The last season though, takes a turn for the weird. It’s full of dream episodes, psychics, mind games and pop-Freudian babbling. Things started to get a little strange. As with many shows that find they are on their last season, TNG took the opportunity to push things over the top. The multicultural and interpersonal struggles that have always defined the Enterprise crew’s interactions get pushed to resolution. Pet ideas that couldn’t be put off any longer make it onto the screen.

This makes the final season glorious and strange. It’s frequently unsubtle, and occasionally annoying, but it’s always a wild ride. Each character gets room to shine, but if an episode isn’t “their” episode their characterization tends to get a little soft. Worf especially loses a lot of his edge during this final season. Deanna Troi’s mother is even more unbearable than usual, and Data is drifting more and more towards human. In the end it will be quite clear that it’s really all about Picard and the Enterprise coming together to be the family that they’ve always been pitched as. This final season, stumbling blocks though there may be, is all about making the Enterprise family whole. The Enterprise will be indistinguishable from its crew and the crew indistinguishable from the Enterprise. It’s a truly holistic season. So let’s trip down the tachyon brick road with the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The final season begins with Descent, Part 2. Yes, you read that properly, it’s part two. For some godawful reason TNG had a habit of ending a season with a “To be continued” that wouldn’t be resolved until the beginning of the next season. Maybe this was acceptable at the time. Maybe lots of shows do this still. I rarely watch anything week by week these days, so I wouldn’t really notice. Certainly shows end seasons with cliffhangers, but it doesn’t seem like they’re still ending on a “Part 1” and beginning the next season on a “Part 2.”

I considered skipping this episode to avoid any possible heartbreak over not getting to talk about Part 1. I considered going back and doing Part 1. In the end both options seemed to deny the premise of this column, so we’re just going to plop down in the middle here and let it go.

This particular episode centers on the Borg, the perfect Star Trek threat. Technology is so often the answer to problems in the Star Trek universe that the “through a mirror darkly” technology run amok threat of the Borg rounds things out nicely. When technology is allowed to control itself it tries to assimilate all around itself into a form that serves it best. This particular predilection is never quite reflected back on the biological beings who, through agriculture and city building, have done similar things to their own worlds, but there’s only so egalitarian we can expect ourselves to be when facing extinction.

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