Readers, if you only knew how long I've been waiting for Star Trek: The Next Generation to come out on DVD... Now, at long last, I can throw out my worn, dusty VHS tapes of episodes painstakingly taped from late-night reruns, and enjoy the series to the fullest. Next Generation has arrived on DVD, and I am pleased to report that, like a fine wine, it has aged very well.
One of the best things about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and what in my opinion makes it a lasting science fiction classic, is that it truly explores new territory for stories. Stories of confrontation and battle are a dime a dozen, and are stale with overuse because they are so readily at hand and so easy to use. Next Generation stretches into uncharted territory with great stories that revolve around themes such as scientific discovery, human relationships, the resolution of an intellectual puzzle, or the satisfaction of simple human curiosity. Next Generation presents an Enterprise whose mission is to "seek out new life and new civilizations" in the spirit of genuine respect, even when those new civilizations have values that conflict with those of the Federation. We see that peace is far more complex than war, and the resolution of conflict without resorting to violence makes for countless stories that are rich in dramatic tension. While Next Generation has its share of special effects (which still look more than respectable, I might add), it holds true to the idea that the "human" element, whether it's literally or figuratively human, is what gives richness and depth to our existence... and, by extension, what gives richness and depth to the stories that the series chooses to tell.
Next Generation's Season 3 takes us to the beginning of the best years of the series. It's inarguable that Season 1 is on the weak side, though it does have some worthy episodes. Season 2 is much better: the characterizations have already improved tremendously and the stories have the "feel" that will become classic Next Generation. In Season 3, we really get into the swing of things. The crew of the Enterprise finally settles on its permanent contingent with the return of Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) as the ship's doctor, replacing Season 2's Dr. Pulaski. The characters are now fully developed, with the various members of the ensemble cast comfortable and confident with their performances; now all that's left is for the writers to consistently come up with excellent stories, and in the Season 3 episodes we get the first inklings, fully developed in Seasons 4-7, of how excellent these stories can be.
Classic Season 3 episodes include "Yesterday's Enterprise," which apart from being a great episode on its own merits, sets the stage for further developments down the line. "The Defector" brings in the Romulans, those crafty enemies of the Federation, in an episode that's far more about a battle of wits than a battle of ships. The character development of Data (Brent Spiner) is furthered in "The Offspring," and the infamous Q returns in "Deja Q." Then of course we get some of the more light-hearted episodes, like "Captain's Holiday" which marked the show's use of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) in other contexts than as the authority figure on the bridge. "Sarek" brings in Mark Lenard as Spock's father, in another episode that deals with what Next Generation does best: reaching an understanding of an alien situation.
And of course, who can forget that Season 3's closing episode was, in my estimation, one of the very best ever: "The Best of Both Worlds"... Part 1. (Yes, they do make us wait until Season 4 to get Part II.) In a way, the Borg marked the maturation of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Chilling, serious, genuinely frightening, the Borg in Next Generation were light-years beyond anything created in the original Star Trek series for frightening aliens. The essence of the Borg is that they are genuinely alien: they're not humans in funny suits, with basically human motivations and fears, they're truly different life forms in both mind and body. The willingness to confront the truly alien and see what it tells us about our own humanity is a hallmark of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Paramount has done an excellent job of presenting the Next Generation episodes in a clean, attractive transfer. The one fault I can see is a small amount of edge enhancement. Other than that, it looks great. There's practically no noise at all, meaning that the image is clean and clear, and even in darker scenes I never saw any instances of graininess. Contrast is good as well. Colors are excellent: bright and vivid, showing off the strong primary colors that are frequently used in the show's color scheme, while black is appropriately deep and dark, particularly important, given the frequent starfield background. The result is an image that's a pleasure to watch.
The Next Generation episodes sound wonderful, thanks to Paramount's remastering of the episodes in Dolby 5.1. Dialogue is uniformly sharp and clear, without any hint of distortion or noise. Sound effects and theme music are crisp and well-balanced with the other portions of the track. The original Dolby 2.0 track is also included, but even for purists, there's no reason not to enjoy the additonal depth of the remastered 5.1 track.
The packaging takes a bit of getting used to, but it's not bad at all. The seven DVDs are held in a fold-out cardboard holder, similar to the X-Files or multi-disc documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs; each disc has its own plastic spindle. The disc folder is stored inside a lidded box, making the overall set just slightly oversized. It's not particularly convenient to get the discs out of the case, but the positive tradeoff is that they are stored securely: there's no danger of inadvertently letting the discs slide through a slipcover and onto the floor, à la X-Files packaging.
The set's menus are the weakest part of the packaging. After an unskippable introductory clip, the menus themselves are easy enough to navigate. The problem is that the episode selection menu has a small running clip from each episode which acts as a mini-spoiler for the episode you're about to watch. I personally hate spoilers, and it's a bit tricky to try to select the episode quickly enough to not see anything in the clip.
The bonus features themselves offer well over an hour's interesting viewing for fans of the show. In keeping with the previous two season sets, the special features are made up of interviews that focus on Season 3 specifically. The "Mission Overview" is a 17-minute selection discussing the changes and developments occurring in Season 3; "Crew Analysis" is a 13-minute piece on the growth of the characters; the 20-minute "Production" takes a look behind the scenes, and "Memorable Missions" is a 13-minute piece on specific episodes.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is in my opinion the best of all the various Star Trek series, from the 1960s original through the later Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Considered simply on its own merits as a show, it's great science fiction television, with a thoughtful, humane philosophy, well-drawn characters, and great stories to tell. The episodes stand up very well to repeated viewing, so the season sets will make a very enjoyable addition to any science fiction fan's collection. Season 3 is a must-have if you're a Next Generation fan, and if you're intrigued by the series at all, it's a perfect place to start enjoying some great science fiction.