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As the first three seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation progressed, fans saw a number of tonal shifts as the series found its legs. Season Four (1990-91) brought more continuity to the table: character relationships deepened, origins were explored and story elements from earlier seasons were brought back under the microscope. TNG was a true ensemble effort, loaded with great characters that we actually wanted to know more about...and while the occasional monster-of-the-week "junk food" episode was fun, the very best examples were more like a full course dinner. Though not without a few hiccups along the way, Season Four of TNG serves up a handful of top-tier classics and more than its fair share of durable, consistently strong episodes that have aged quite well during the last three decades.
The Best of Both Worlds, TNG's landmark two-part cliffhanger that bridged Seasons Three and Four, wraps up right out of the gate. Anyone old enough to remember its original broadcast will likely remember the Summer of 1990, when the Internet-starved public didn't have things like forums, Facebook or even newsgroups to guess where TNG was headed. Would Captain Picard be rescued by his crew? Would the series last more than another season? Would TNG finally step out the original Trek's shadow? The answer to all three was a resounding yes...and though "BOBW, Part II" can't help but pale a bit in comparison to Part I, it's an Earth-shattering episode that actually effects Season Four's overall progression.
Other standout episodes include "Family", which immediately follows "BOBW, Part II" and explores Picard's personal life back home on Earth. "Brothers" explores Data's relationship with Lore and his creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. "Reunion" shows us the return of Worf's lover, the power struggle that follows and, of course, the introduction of another family member. "Data's Day" changes course a bit, as Ol' Yellow Eyes learns how to dance. "Clues" revolves around a strange accident that renders the crew unconscious for an unknown amount of time. "The Nth Degree" shows us, yet again, why Barclay is awesome. "The Drumhead", co-starring legendary British actress Jean Simmons, serves up a hunt for Romulan spies aboard the ship. "In Theory" highlights Data again, who has pursued a relationship with one of his shipmates. Finally, "Redemption, Part I" serves up plenty of Klingon political intrigue as Worf attempts to stand in the way of a civil war and clear his family's tarnished name.
As for the bad episodes? Don't worry: much like Season Three, less impressive outings are few and far between. In fact, there aren't any here that I'd consider to be in a "Top 10 Worst" list; at the very least, they're just below average or haven't aged well. These include "Suddenly Human" (a human boy is rescued after being reconditioned by an abusive father), "The Loss" (Troi suddenly loses her empathic abilities and, well, not much else happens), "Galaxy's Child" (the crew plays nursemaid to an unborn alien after its parent is killed), "Half A Life" (featuring Lwaxana Troi, perhaps my least favorite supporting character) and "The Host" (a peace negotiator on board the Enterprise is a symbiote, and his "soul" eventually finds its way into Riker). Even at their worst, many of these episodes are thematically similar to Season Four as a whole: it's largely about family, relationships and the ties that bind.
This new six-disc Blu-ray collection from CBS arrives less than four months after the fundamentally flawless Season Three collection and further cements Star Trek: The Next Generation's renewed sense of vitality. Carefully crafted models once again sparkle with detail, from tiny lights to specks of battle damage. Close-ups reveal the highlights and very rare mistakes of makeup, costume and production design. Outdated special effects that couldn't be salvaged for high definition have been tastefully upgraded to preserve the series' distinct visual design. Sound effects and music cues are more robust and dynamic than ever.
While it's true that the durable, detail-oriented A/V remastering job is the main selling point for this collection (as it should be), we're again treated to a fine mixture of supplements new and old. For the most part, they wisely focus on the series' thematic changes and its subtle shift to a more serialized, continuity-based format, once again providing a fascinating window into the difficult year-long production as a whole. Available on the same day is Redemption, another TNG stand-alone release that combines both halves of the cliffhanger season finale into a "feature film" and serves up several exclusive extras just for good measure. For now, let's dig into the specifics of Season Four, beginning with a complete list of content.
Complete List of Season Four Episode Summaries (via Wikipedia)
Video & Audio Quality
Those following TNG's release on Blu-ray likely know that the even-numbered season releases are being farmed out by CBS, who originally set the bar high with Season One's new effects and restoration. Season Two, given to HTV-Illuminate, was seen as a small step backwards: whether due to budget or time constraints, some flaws couldn't be ignored. This season was handled by Modern VideoFilm (with the exception of the first and last episodes, which went to CBS); it looks terrific and is dangerously close to the near-perfection of Seasons One and Three. The new CG and restored original effects integrate with the re-scanned live action footage with few exceptions. Overall, these 1.33:1, 1080p transfers are virtually flawless in every single way; far beyond what most of us could ever expect just a few short years ago. Most fans have likely seen the huge difference in quality between these Blu-rays and the flat DVD/broadcast versions, so it's great to know that the winning streak continues here.
DISCLAIMER: These captures are from promotional sources and do not represent Blu-Ray's 1080p resolution.
Not to be outdone, the audio is basically flawless from every angle. Each episode features a new DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix; the added punch mostly beefs up music cues and warp fly-bys, but it also creates a pleasing ambiance for scenes inside the ship as well. Dialogue is crisp and clear, LFE is notable at times and the score never fights for attention. The original 2.0 Stereo Surround mixes are also included for purists, but they're still being presented in lossy Dolby Digital instead of DTS-HD Master Audio. Most fans shouldn't consider this a deal-breaker, but it's definitely a curious oversight in an otherwise detail-oriented effort.
Optional DD 2.0 dubs are provided in German, Spanish, Italian, French and Japanese. Optional subtitles are provided in English (SDH), German, Spanish, French, Japanese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. I'd also like to point out that the menu interface now moves to the subtitle options right after an audio track is chosen, which is a nice little touch.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, the "computer interface" menu designs are attractive, simple and smooth, much like the old DVDs. Each episode has been divided into more than half a dozen chapter stops, though no sub-menus are present. No obvious layer changes were detected during playback and these discs are unlocked for region-free viewing. This six-disc set is, once again, housed in a multi-hubbed keepcase with a handsome embossed slipcover and no inserts of any kind. A condensed list of episodes and bonus features has been printed on the interior artwork.
"Relativity: The Family Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation"
(60 minutes) is another multi-part documentary that focuses on Season Four's shift to a more serialized approach, as earlier seasons were urged to be more self-contained for broadcasting in random order. Also covered briefly are subjects like Wil Wheaton's departure, input from the art department and, of course, more literal examinations of the title, as seen in episodes like "Family", "Brothers" and "Redemption". Featuring interviews with key cast and crew members including Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Wil Wheaton, writer/producer Ronald Moore, makeup artist Michael Westmore and more, "Relativity" is an organic and thoughtful follow-up to the series' ongoing peeks behind the curtain.
"In Conversation: The Star Trek Art Department" (65 minutes), like last season's roundtable with the writers, offers a casual reunion with an indispensable group of folks that worked hard to make magic happen. Featuring art director Herman Zimmerman, illustrator Rick Sternbach, designers Mike and Denise Okuda, makeup artist Doug Drexler and VFX supervisor Dan Curry, we learn quite a bit about their specific contributions to the series. It's definitely not as engaging as the previous documentary, though: not only are the participants a bit less entertaining, but there's a curious lack of...well, art here. Cutaways to examples of their work, designs in progress or just about anything would be preferable to 65 straight minutes of living room chat. Don't get me wrong: this one's worth watching for TNG enthusiasts or those specifically interested in art, but the presentation style is definitely a bit lacking.
Two brand new Audio Commentaries have been recorded for this release: "Brothers" features director Rob Bowman with Michael & Denise Okuda, while "Reunion" features Ronald Moore, Brannon Braga and the Okudas. Please note that a full 90-minute audio commentary with Ronald Moore and the Okudas was also recorded during "Redemption", but this particular bonus feature is exclusive to the stand-alone release of the same name.
Also here is a collection of Deleted Scenes; not only do they look much better than the VHS-sourced clips from Season Two, but they're also bookended according to their place in the story. Fourteen brief clips are here, including one or more from each of the following: "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II", "Family", "Brothers", "Final Mission", "The Wounded", "Galaxy's Child", "Qpid" and "The Host". These are mostly minor character moments or extraneous bits but, on the whole, they're definitely worth a look for die-hard fans of the series.
Also here are the recycled Archival Mission Logs from the TNG Season Four DVD collection, featuring vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage about various episodes and themes, plus vintage Episode Promos and a few Trailers for other Trek Blu-ray releases. As expected, all bonus features include optional subtitles in the languages listed above.
Most TNG fans would cite 1989-91 as the series' peak years, when the fantastic episodes outweighed lesser entries by a wide margin. This season's tone shifts towards a broader, more serialized approach and the results are largely exceptional, serving up at least a half-dozen classics that remain fan favorites almost 25 years later. All things considered, the overall quality and production polish of these 26 episodes is phenomenal, considering the time constraints involved and the critical/commercial pressure of a series riding the wave of momentum. This Blu-ray release of Season Four continues the high standard of quality in almost every department, serving up a near-perfect technical presentation and a good (though not fantastic) assortment of bonus features. Overall, Season Four is simply another fine reason to fork over your hard-earned cash, as the revitalized TNG continues to epitomize the fundamental strengths of high definition home viewing. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.