For my money, if you chop off the premiere and the finale, Season 5 was probably the best season of TNG. Though it had a few big-time stinkers, the great episodes were really great and even the middling ones weren’t too bad. Plus, one of the all-time best episodes of TNG ever occurred in this season — I’m sure you know which.
Best Episode: Season Five had a bunch of really strong, really memorable episodes, but to my mind the best of them is “Cause and Effect” (5.18). I mean, how can you top a cold open where the Enterprise blows up? The episode had everything I like — it’s a bottle show, it has alternate universes, it has time travel (sort of), it has a mystery, and it even has Kelsey Grammer*. Everyone had something to do, and even though Data saved the day it wasn’t as if he didn’t have help. Plus, I appreciated the different camera angles used in each run-through to differentiate it from the previous. Honorable mentions: Darmok (5.02), Disaster (5.05), The Inner Light (5.25)
Worst Episode: Although it came with a lot of hype, and aired just after Gene Roddenberry’s death, I have to say that “Unification II” (5.08) was, in my opinion, the worst episode of Season Five. Not because it was particularly bad, but because it just wasn’t good enough to justify Leonard Nimoy’s presence. While the first part was fairly suspenseful and interesting (and had Mark Lenard doing a dynamite job as Sarek), I felt the entirety of the second part was a giant waste of my time. And then there was the fact that Spock was going to stay on Romulus, thereby ensuring that nothing changes and we don’t have to go back to this storyline ever again. I probably could’ve put this in “missed opportunity”, but it galled me too much to waste it down there. Honorable mentions: A Matter of Time (5.09), The Masterpiece Society (5.13), Imaginary Friend (5.22)
Most Underrated: “Ensign Ro” (5.03) seems to be a fairly underrated episode in my book. Not only do we get back to the Cardassians, but we find out that, holy crap, they subjugated an entire race of people for sixty-something years and, unlike the rest of TNG, they haven’t recovered yet. Everything is not sweetness and light for the Bajorans. This sets up the darker tone of DS9 and also gives the crew a chance to understand that, hey, we aren’t all perfectly set up in a utopian society. And it gave us as viewers a better look at these people the Federation have supposedly made peace with. Finally, it brought us Ensign Ro, who is one of my favorite recurring characters. Honorable mentions: Violations (5.12), Cause and Effect (5.18), The Next Phase (5.24)
Most Overrated: It really hurts me to say this, because I really like the episode, but “The Inner Light” (5.25) is vastly overrated. It’s truly a wonderful story, and it’s well-told and interesting, and it echoes through the remainder of the series… but people make it out to be the best Trek story ever told, and it’s just not that good. While it is one of my top-ten episodes, I kind of felt weird about putting it there because while, it does contain a mystery and an alternate universe, it becomes too small a story too quickly. In the beginning Picard is trying to figure out what’s going on, but eventually he just accepts it and the story ceases to interest me. Plus, the old-age makeup just wasn’t that great. Honorable mentions: Unification (5.07 and 5.08), The Outcast (5.17), The First Duty (5.19)
Best Guest Star: I’m going to play against type a little bit and say the best — in terms of “most memorable” — guest stars this season were Erika Flores, John Christian Graas, and Max Supera as Marissa, Jay Gordon, and Patterson in the episode “Disaster”. Sure, we had bigger names and bigger roles, but who could possibly forget Marissa answering to Picard’s “Number One”, or Patterson being the officer in charge of radishes? I don’t know how Patrick Stewart felt about being trapped in a small set with three kids, but the kids themselves had the right amount of awe of Picard and have gotten themselves a little piece of Star Trek history. Funny story — apparently a fanfic writer has given Marissa one hell of a career. (I have not read the stories; nor do I plan to.) Honorable mentions: Paul Winfield (Dathon), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Mark Lenard (Sarek)
Worst Missed Opportunity: In the episode “Ethics”, Dr. Russell’s experimental procedure seems to fail, leading to Worf’s death. But in a massive retcon, the writers wrote themselves out of a the corner they’d painted themselves into by giving Worf (and by extension all Klingons) a bunch of redundant and secondary organs**. Now, while Worf is a great character and went on to be an important part of Deep Space Nine, this would’ve been a great place to kill him off. Of course, the Star Trek team isn’t like the Mutant Enemy team — they don’t kill off the good guys just to get your attention — but why couldn’t we have a big death and then have to deal with the repercussions for a few episodes? Then Ro could’ve moved to security chief (she’d been a lieutenant in the past and voluntarily accepted her demotion and punishment out of guilt) and become a series regular. I’m not saying that would’ve been better, but it would’ve been different.
Strangest Thing: A couple of hot-button issues were very lightly touched in this season — drug addiction in “The Game”, rape in “Violations”, sexuality in “The Outcast”, sexual slavery in “The Perfect Mate” — but it was as if the writers and producers weren’t sure how far they could push things or even how far they wanted to go. If the point of Star Trek is to teach us about our problems by fictionalizing them in a futuristic utopia, then why didn’t we do more with these themes? I realize it was only the early 90s and the viewing public hadn’t been jaded by ER and the WWE, but still, Star Trek has always been a groundbreaking program. Why not break the ground instead of being wishy-washy about it?
* Okay, fine, I just threw him in there because I needed one more thing. I wasn’t really enthused about him one way or the other.
** You would not believe just how often that gets used in fanfic. Let’s just say that B’Elanna gets a lot of mileage out of it and leave it there.