Paramount’s “Star Trek” franchise has spawned 10 feature films (including the upcoming “Nemesis”), 5 television shows, and a pop sub-culture with world-wide penetration. No other tele-film series has such a continuous and evolving presence in the eyes of the world, and no other science-fiction programming avoids cheesiness and awful production values quite as successfully as “Star Trek”.

Paramount Pictures has released “Star Trek–The Original Series” on 40 DVDs (2 episodes each), and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is arriving on DVD a season per box set during 2002. (The studio will release DVD box sets of every season of “Deep Space Nine” during 2003, and “Voyager” will likely arrive on DVD in 2004.)

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season 4 follows Seasons 1, 2, and 3 onto DVD, and the box set’s quality matches that of the other box sets for the most part. Seven discs have been included in an attractive silver box set (with deep green being the season’s signature disc color). As with the previous seasons, Season 4 does not offer a big story arc. Rather, it expands upon the story and character elements found in Season 3 that helped the show to transcend the science-fiction genre and to rise into the realm of human-interest drama.

The principal 7 characters were in place by Season 3, and they remained on the show through Season 7. However, Season 4 also established Miles O’Brien’s (played by Colm Meaney) role on the Enterprise; in just about every episode, he’s the primary transporter operator. We also witness the union of Miles and Keiko. In another development, Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) leaves the ship for Starfleet Academy. In later seasons, he appears only when the Enterprise returned to Earth. Worf finds out that he has a son in “Reunion”.

Disc 1: “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2”, “Family”, “Brothers”, “Suddenly Human”.

Disc 2: “Remember Me”, “Legacy”, “Reunion”, “Future Imperfect”.

Disc 3: “Final Mission”, “The Loss”, “Data’s Day”, “The Wounded”.

Disc 4: “Devil’s Due”, “Clues”, “First Contact”, “Galaxy’s Child”.

Disc 5: “Night Terrors”, “Identity Crisis”, “The Nth Degree”, “Qpid”.

Disc 6: “The Drumhead”, “Half a Life”, “The Host”, “The Mind’s Eye”.

Disc 7: “In Theory”, “Redemption, Part 1”.

Season 4 begins with the conclusion to Season 3’s cliffhanger final episode. Season 3’s “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1” concluded with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) “borgified” into Locutus and with Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) ordering “Fire!” on the Borg ship commanded by Locutus. “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” poignantly deals with the loss of Picard as every member of the Enterprise draws upon every bit of his/her knowledge in order to defeat the villainous cyborgs. There’s an awe-inspiring shot of a battlefield–Wolf 359–littered with destroyed Federation starships. (Benjamin Sisko, the eventual commander-in-chief of Deep Space Nine, lost his wife at Wolf 359.)

Actually, Season 4 got off to great start with its first four episodes. In “Family”, Picard goes to his hometown in the French countryside, and he confronts the fact that, despite his ambitious rise to Starfleet glory, even his powerful constitution failed when he became a member of the Borg. In this episode, we also see Worf’s loving relationship with his adoptive human parents, despite the fact that he’s always struggled with the culture clash that dominates his life. In fact, his parents even want to share in the dishonor of his discommendation from the Klingon Empire. “Suddenly Human” uses a reverse parallel to Worf’s life story. A young human boy is found hurt in a battle-like exercise, and the crew of the Enterprise is concerned that the boy’s adoptive alien father has been abusive towards him.

Personally, I consider Season 4 to be Data’s season. He’s had great moments in the past (especially in “The Offspring”), but Season 4 develops his growing “humanity”. In “Brothers”, Data meets his thought-to-be-dead creator, Dr. Soong, and the evil Lore (the android made before Data) completes the family gathering. Brent Spiner does a great job playing all three characters, and he demonstrates great range in exploring the dimensions of a benevolent, caring genius, an evil creation, and an emotionless machine trying to find his way in the universe. “Brothers” uses parallel stories (the other one is about two brothers on the Enterprise) to make this hopeful point: “It’s what brothers do, Data–forgive.”

Season 4 also gave us my second favorite episode (behind “The Offspring” in Season 3)–“In Theory”. In this installment, Data attempts to have a meaningful romance with a young lady on the rebound. Initially, Data seems to be the perfect man, always attentive and praising. However, his inability to experience emotions limits his courtship to that of a series of programs. However, despite his failure in his first romance, Data learns more than he realizes in beginning to have a social life.

Remember Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), unceremoniously killed in Season 1? Well, she continues to be a presence in “TNG”. In “Legacy”, the appearance of Tasha’s sister, Ishara, shows how the crew desperately wants to accept her because of the profound sense of loss that they feel given Tasha’s absence. In “Redemption, Part 1”, we discover that, due to a change in the space-time continuum (in Season 3), the Romulans abducted Tasha Yar and raped her. Tasha’s half-human, half-Romulan daughter, Sela (also played by Denise Crosby) becomes a major pain in the ass for the Federation.

“Redemption, Part 1” brings Season 4 to an end with a cliffhanger strand. The episode finds Worf resigning his Starfleet commission so that he can participate in a civil war that threatens to tear apart the Klingon Empire. Apparently, some Klingons have formed an alliance with the Romulans, and the possibility exists that the Starfleet-Klingon partnership may come to a tragic end.

“TNG” Season 4 appears on DVD in its original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors). For the most part, the video image looks clear. Colors are natural and realistic; reds don’t bleed like they have on the DVDs of the previous box sets. However, there are moments when images wavered, looking like either poor compression work or source prints that were not fixed for the DVD release.

For the DVD releases of “TNG”, Paramount created new Dolby Digital 5.1 (English) sound mixes from the original stereo surround stems. I was very surprised by the high-quality of the new audio tracks. The true separation of audio effects to the five speakers immerses the viewer in the onscreen action. The bass can be quite powerful, especially when the Enterprise jumps to warp speed and booms off the screen. Music can be fairly enveloping, filling the room courtesy of lively rear channels.

Each episode’s original DD 2.0 surround English track (Seasons 1-3 had DD 2.0 stereo tracks) can be selected, and the bonus materials come with DD 2.0 surround audio. Optional English subtitles and closed captions support the audio.

There are 5 newly-created featurettes to accompany Season 4. Older and more recent interviews comprise the majority of the footage in these featurettes. These extras appear on Disc 7, and they are: “Mission Overview: Year Four”, “Selected Crew Analysis: Year Four”, “Departmental Briefing–Year Four: Production”, “New Life and New Civilizations”, and “Chronicles From the Final Frontier”. These items each run between 12 to 20 minutes, and they are the best of the featurettes that have been included in these full-season box sets.

“Mission Overview: Year Four” discusses pivotal moments in the “TNG” universe. The cast members also enthuse about how ecstatic they were when the show reached 100 episodes (when a series can begin to make a killing in syndication). “Selected Crew Analysis: Year Four” takes a closer look at how the characters developed as well as the departure of Wesley Crusher. (Wil Wheaton, much older now than he was during the show’s run, looks very, very different–almost unrecognizable!)

A good deal of “Departmental Briefing–Year Four: Production” focuses on the arduous task of covering Brent Spiner with make-up to play three roles in the “Brothers” episode. “New Life and New Civilizations” takes a look at production design, and “Chronicles From the Final Frontier” gives the show’s writers their due.

A glossy insert fold-out provides a brief note about Season 4, a note about Q, Airdates and Stardates for each episode, and a mini-mural of the cast members.

Entertainment Value:
Season 3 featured stories with complex, involving plot threads, and Season 4 gave those storylines resonance by adding emotional depth and growing personalities. We’ve gotten familiar with the characters, and now we can see why they have endeared themselves to us. Also, the future as envisioned by “Star Trek” no longer seems to be filled with small worlds needing discovery by the Federation. Rather, our heroes are involved in the intrigues and machinations (Klingons and Romulans and Vulcans, oh my!) that will have profound repercussions in “Star Trek” lore. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season 4 will convince any doubters of the greatness of Gene Roddenberry’s creation.