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 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 “Deep Space Nine” during 2003, and “Voyager” will likely arrive on DVD in 2004.

The “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season 5 box set matches the quality of the other box sets for the most part. Seven discs have been included in an attractive silver box (with aqua being the season’s signature disc color). As with the previous seasons, Season 5 does not offer a big story arc. Rather, it expands upon the narrative, character, and thematic threads found in previous years that helped the show to transcend the science-fiction genre and to rise into the realm of human-interest drama.

Disc 1: “Redemption, Part 2”, “Darmok”, “Ensign Ro”, “Silicon Avatar”.

Disc 2: “Disaster”, “The Game”, “Unification, Part 1”, “Unification, Part 2”.

Disc 3: “A Matter of Time”, “New Ground”, “Hero Worship”, “Violations”.

Disc 4: “The Masterpiece Society”, “Conundrum”, “Power Play”, “Ethics”.

Disc 5: “The Outcast”, “Cause and Effect”, “The First Duty”, “Cost of Living”.

Disc 6: “The Perfect Mate”, “Imaginary Friend”, “I, Borg”, “The Next Phase”.

Disc 7: “The Inner Light”, “Time’s Arrow, Part 1”.

Season 5 begins with the conclusion to Season 4’s cliffhanger final episode. Season 4’s “Redemption, Part 1” ended with Worf (Michael Dorn) 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.

Remember Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), unceremoniously killed in Season 1? Well, she continues to be a presence in “TNG”. In Season 4’s “Redemption, Part 1”, we discovered 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. In Season 5, Picard must come to grips with the fact that his decisions led to the disruption of “normal history”, yet the humanity of the Enterprise’s crew prevents them from killing the daughter of their friend.

Sela also plays a major role in one of the series’s most important stories, “Unification”. In “Unification” (a 2-parter), Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) go undercover on Romulus in order to discover why one of the Federation’s greatest figures, Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy), has taken to living with Romulans. Apparently, some Romulans are considering reunification with Vulcan, but you can be sure that Sela, a high-ranking military officer (and a rare blonde amongst the dark-haired Romulans), has special designs of her own concerning “reunification”. (Incidentally, rumors about the upcoming “Nemesis” indicate that the Romulans may be making overtures of peace to the Federation once again.)

Of all the Season 5 episodes, I like “The Outcast” the most. As its title metatheatrically suggests, it’s not exactly a well-remembered outing, but I think that “The Outcast” showcases many of the characteristics that made “TNG” one of the best TV shows of all time. In “The Outcast”, the Enterprise crew comes to the aid of the J’naii, an androgynous race. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) works closely with Soren, and the 2 become attracted to one another. Soren’s society forbids any signs of sex delineations, so the J’naii elders order Soren to undergo psychotherapy. Riker tries to rescue Soren, but he is too late. I was heartbroken when Riker declares “I love you” to Soren, but she/he can only reply with “I’m sorry”.

In pitting the biological norms of humans against the sociological norms of another advanced civilization, the handlers of “TNG” challenged viewers’ notions about individualism, the right to intervene on behalf of someone else, and the Prime Directive’s decree that the Federation shall not interfere with other civilizations. While Picard does not overtly endorse Riker’s actions, he shows a great deal of support for his First Officer by keeping the Enterprise in orbit over J’naii until Riker has concluded his business on the planet. Oddly, the Prime Directive would seem to support the positions of the Chinese and Russian governments–that the United States should not interfere with what happens in Tibet and Chechnya.

Other great episodes include “Disaster”, the filmmakers’ homage to disaster movies such as “The Towering Inferno”. In “Disaster”, ship-wide systems failures isolate the different parts of the Enterprise, and members of the senior staff must use their skills, knowledge, and ingenuity to get the ship safely to a space dock. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) gets to shine in “I, Borg” when he develops a friendship with a young Borg, teaching the drone a thing or two about individuality.

Personally, I consider Season 4 to be Data’s showcase; one could make the argument that Season 5 is Worf’s. Worf’s service to the Klingon Empire leads to Chancellor Gowron restoring Worf’s family’s honor. Worf delivers the O’Briens’ daughter in “Disaster”. In “Ethics”, he faces permanent paralysis following a severe injury to his spinal cord, and he is torn between his human and Klingon heritages in dealing with his condition. “The Outcast” features one of Worf’s funniest moments. When referring to the androgynous J’naii, Worf says, “They bother me…they just do.” He is also the only one who helps Riker when the latter tries to save Soren from J’naiian “therapy”. Michael Dorn plays Worf for both comic relief due to the Klingon’s over-the-top nature, but the character’s serious sense of honor and loyalty also provides the show with its moral compass.

Season 5 featured noteworthy guest stars such as Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren, a troublesome ensign of Bajoran origins who becomes a valuable Starfleet officer with Picard’s patient guidance. A very young Ashley Judd makes a few appearances as Robin Lefler, an engineering officer who has a brief fling with a visiting Wesley Crusher in “The Game”. Sharp eyes will catch Robert Duncan McNeil as Nicholas Locarno in “The First Duty”. McNeil later played Tom Paris, a hotshot pilot not unlike Locarno, in “Star Trek: Voyager”.

“TNG” Season 5 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. On the other hand, the transfers appear a tad soft, and many visual effects shots are noticeably grainy. All things considered, “TNG” Season 5 looks appreciably better than most other TV shows on DVD.

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 5 main 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 of the screen. You can hear the constant hum of warp engines, too. Music can be fairly enveloping, filling the room courtesy of lively rear channels.

Each episode’s original DD 2.0 surround English track 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 5. 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 Five”, “Memorable Missions: Year Five”, “Departmental Briefing–Year Four: Production”, “Departmental Briefing–Year Four: Visual Effects”, and “A Tribute to Gene Roddenberry”. These items each run between 15 to 30 minutes.

“Mission Overview: Year Five” and “Memorable Missions: Year Five” discuss pivotal moments in the “TNG” universe. The former spends most of its time rehashing important “plot” episodes to give viewers a refresher course on the general direction of the series. The latter looks at the minutiae of memorable episodes, including thematic points as well as details such as the extensive use of make-up to create a particular “look”.

“Departmental Briefing–Year Five: Production” and “Departmental Briefing–Year Five: Visual Effects” look at “TNG” from the crews’ perspectives. The “Production” featurette showcases many interviews with the show’s writers as they reminisce about how they created their scripts (often through heated discussions). As expected, the “Visual Effects” featurette explains the creation of visual tricks before the widespread use of computer imaging.

Finally, “A Tribute to Gene Roddenberry” finds members of the cast and crew sharing memories of the creator of “Star Trek”. Marina Sirtis has the most poignant stories to reveal to audiences. Sirtis plays ship counselor Deanna Troi, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry often appeared as Lwaxana Troi, Deanna’s mother. In a sense, the Roddenberrys adopted Sirtis, and coincidentally, Gene Roddenberry (whom Sirtis would call “Dad”) died on the same day 10 years after Sirtis’s biological father had died. Roddenberry died during the course of Season 5, so this last featurette spends a fair amount of time covering his legacy, including the naming of a Paramount building after him as well as a space mission that took some of his ashes to space.

A glossy insert fold-out provides a brief note about Gene Roddenberry, Airdates and Stardates for each episode, and a mini-mural of the cast members. The box set also offers a mini-CD-ROM (3-inch) disc promoting “Star Trek: Nemesis” as well as a $25 rebate offer for those of you who buy Seasons 5, 6, and 7.

Entertainment Value:
Season 3 was pretty much “do or die” time for “TNG”, and it launched the show into high gear. Wisely, the filmmakers decided to lower the intensity level after the fever-pitch operatics of Seasons 3 and 4. By Season 5, the cast members were thoroughly comfortable with their roles, and they had learned to interact with great camaraderie. While the fifth year did not follow one big story, every episode contributed to the sense that the Enterprise could not afford to lose any of its senior officers. In a sense, “TNG” is as much of a show about family as it is about space exploration and humanity.