When Star Trek: The Next Generation's sixth season began production, it was a busy time for the franchise. A new spin-off series, Deep Space Nine, was about to launch and air alongside TNG. Plans were being made for a new film, one that would transfer the TNG crew to the big screen. It was also the first time that a season of Star Trek would be made without any input at all from Gene Roddenberry, who had passed away early in the production of the fifth season.
Despite a lot of outside issues, TNG's penultimate season is a bit of a triumph, certainly better than the inconsistent fifth season. Things do get off to a weak start with Time's Arrow, Part II which feels like someone had an idea about doing a time travel romp in the 19th Century but never found a story to make it work. Realm of Fear - a Barclay episode about transporter phobia - never really takes off either and Man of the People is the worst episode of the series since Season 1. However, Relics, which sees the return of James Doohan as Scotty, is a fine episode and sees an upsurge in quality that lasts through most of the rest of the season. There are a few more weaker episodes - Aquiel, Quality of Life, Rascals, Birthright - but these overcome some iffy premises and scripting with good ideas and solid performances.
More interesting are the classics. Chain of Command is a superb, tense masterclass in which Patrick Stewart is tortured by David Warner for a full hour whilst the Enterprise gets a new captain who is a bit of a martinet, but who is also an effective military commander who just happens to do things differently. It's one of the few Star Trek two-parters where the two parts work well together. Tapestry, although slightly overrated, is also a tremendously good episode where Picard revisits his past and finds out how he became the man he is now.
Better still are the underrated episodes that didn't stand out so much originally but now emerge as being more interesting: True Q is the lesser Q episode of the season is still a vastly superior rewrite of Season 1's Hide and Q; Ship in a Bottle and Frame of Mind foreshadow Inception with their multiple levels of reality; Lessons is a rarely effective Picard romance episode (let down by a hugely problematic ending); Starship Mine is an effective TNG cover version of Under Siege, with Picard as Steven Segal; and Timescape is a moody, atmospheric time travel mystery with some excellent direction.
The season is let down by its trite cliffhanger in Descent, a good example of the writers finding a great image for the cliffhanger and working backwards from there to find the story and not succeeding. But for a show 150 episodes and six years into its run, it's still finding fresh takes on established tropes and the cast is working together superbly as a unit.
For this HD re-release, the show has been completely re-edited from the original film stock. A vast amount of time and money went into this, and this pays off with some spectacular effects (more impressive as most of them are the original elements, simply re-combined at a higher resolution) and an image quality that makes it look like the show was filmed yesterday. There's a few moments which haven't translated as well - the duplicate Rikers in Second Chances oddly look unconvincing, given the simplicity of the effect - but the improvement in visual quality is stunning.
The sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (****½) still finds the show at the top of its game and still generating entertaining stories delivered by a cast of seasoned performers. The season is available now on Blu-Ray in the UK and USA.