To boldly go where no one has gone before... That's the mandate of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the flagship of the United Federation of Planets: captained by the inimitable Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), the Enterprise and its crew have a full slate of exploratory, diplomatic, scientific, and military missions on tap for its fourth season. And in fact Star Trek the Next Generation lives up to its tagline and even exceeds it, taking science fiction television to a level of quality and entertainment that set a challenging mark for subsequent shows to live up to.
Season 4 follows up on a top-notch Season 3, which ended on quite possibly the best Next Generation episode ever, "The Best of Both Worlds." The Borg were back... genuinely scary and threatening, and highly original, in a way marking that Next Generation had grown up and was taking itself seriously. Could things get better from here? The genius of Next Generation is that, amazingly enough, it could and it did. Season 4 is classic Next Generation. All the pieces are in play: great stories, interesting and well-drawn characters, solid acting, and lots of imaginative situations.
Season 4 also marked Next Generation's voyage into its own universe. Rather than going on blithely inventing a new "alien civilization of the week," the episodes of Season 4 wisely turn to explore the depths of the alien races already created: most notably the Klingons. The Klingons are one of the most interesting and well-thought out alien races in science fiction television or film, and in fact have gone through a long metamorphosis in the Star Trek universe. From their beginnings as the stock bad guys in the original 1960s series – in which they looked like humans with tans and long mustaches – to the more detailed heavies of the films, the Klingons have been front and center as the "bad guys" in contrast to Starfleet's "good guys." What we get in Next Generation at this point, though, is a much more in-depth look at what these aliens are really like.
And – fancy that! – they are alien. Their values are not the values of Starfleet or of most humans; their concepts of honor and thoughts on life and death (not to mention negotiating styles) are different enough that they cannot be simply "absorbed" into the Federation way of life. What makes the growing attention on the Klingons in Season 4 (and later) interesting is that little by little we see them more as they see themselves. For these people, peace may indeed be a calamity; what future do they have, then, in their peaceful alliance with the Federation? In episodes such as "Reunion" and the season finale "Redemption Part I," Worf's precarious position as the lone Klingon in Starfleet, hinted at in earlier seasons, takes a prominent place in the goings-on as he finds himself forced to confront the two sides of loyalties: to the humans with whom he has chosen to live and work, or to his own people, the Klingons?
It's not just the Klingons who are shaking things up in Season 4. While Next Generation remains a predominantly episodic show, as the series developed more recurring characters were introduced, and more story elements persisted over multiple episodes. In addition to the development of Worf as a character, we have Data's brother Lore appearing in "Brothers," and a long-lost sister of Tasha Yar in "Legacy," both of whom will have significance in later episodes.
Season 4 offers outstanding storytelling that will keep viewers eager to pop in the next DVD and continue watching episode after episode. The ensemble cast has hit its stride and is working together to create a whole that's greater than its parts; the stories are polished, entertaining, and memorable; and the ideas presented in the stories continue to be both interesting and often challenging, in episodes like "The Drumhead," "The Wounded," and "Future Imperfect."
The boxed set of Season 4 contains all twenty-six episodes of the 1990-1991 broadcast season, and follows the precedent set by Season 3 of ending on a cliffhanger two-parter: "Redemption, Part I." As if there weren't enough reasons already to buy Season 5, that's another one: it's the only way to see the second half of a fantastic episode.
Viewers who have already picked up the earlier boxed sets will be pleased to know that Paramount's release of Season 4 of Next Generation is similar to Season 3 in terms of video quality. The show is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The strengths of the video transfer of Next Generation lie in its clean, vivid colors, clarity, excellent contrast, solid black levels, and general cleanness of the print. There's still a hint of edge enhancement to be seen, though it's not obtrusive, and a faint touch of noise in some scenes. These are minor issues in a transfer that is a pleasure to watch, and that will be a special treat to the eyes of any viewer who's gotten used to seeing the episodes either on broadcast TV or VHS.
Compared to some of the DVD treatments of recent television shows like Stargate SG-1 and Andromeda (both of which have excellent anamorphic widescreen transfers), Star Trek the Next Generation isn't quite as flashy about its video quality. However, it's important to keep in mind that Season 4 of Next Generation is at this point more than ten years old; its restored DVD transfer stands head and shoulders above other television material of its age, and merits four solid stars.
The Next Generation episodes have been remastered into a super Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. The original broadcast Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is also included, for those who want to hear the show exactly as it sounded on its original run. I enjoyed the 5.1 track immensely, as it gives an additional depth and immersiveness to the sound experience. Dialogue is always crystal clear, with music and sound effects handled deftly as well.
I have to admit that while the Next Generation season sets look nifty on the shelf, the packaging is user-unfriendly when it comes time to actually watch the episodes. The seven discs are held in a fold-out cardboard piece that in turn fits into a lidded cardboard case. After dealing with the packaging for a while, I can say that I would really have preferred the more traditional keepcases-in-a-cardboard-shell style of box set, like Stargate SG-1.
The special features are on the seventh disc of the set, and include a number of featurettes of behind-the-scenes information on the making of the series. Continuing the type of offering presented in the earlier boxed sets, we have "Mission Overview: Year Four," which discusses the creation of "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II," "Q-Pid," and the 100th episode; "Selected Crew Analysis: Year Four," dealing with Wil Wheaton; and "Departmental Briefing: Year Four: Production," in which we get a look at directors of the episodes, including Jonathan Frakes. Other featurettes are "New Life and New Civilizations," which takes a look at creating alien worlds for the episodes, and "Chronicles from the Final Frontier," an overview of memorable episodes with writers Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and Jeri Taylor.
Any self-respecting science fiction fan has to have Season 4 of Next Generation in his or her collection; with an outstanding DVD presentation in a boxed season set, it's everything that we could hope for. For any viewers who have not yet gotten hooked by this fantastic show, there's also no reason to wait: Season 4 marks Next Generation at the top of its form, which it then managed to keep until the end of its run. Even if you haven't bought any of the previous season sets, Season 4 will do the trick as your entry ticket to the Federation. No passport is required: just pop in a DVD and start enjoying the compelling storytelling of the finest incarnation of the Star Trek story to grace the small screen.