Friday, July 08, 2016

TNG Flashback: All Good Things...

The final, two-hour episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. All good things (and "All Good Things...") must come to an end.

Captain Picard finds himself moving back and forth between three times: the present, the past in the days when he first took command of the Enterprise, and a future almost 25 years down the road. When he discovers that Q is the cause, he also learns that this is not simply some new game for the entity's amusement. The trial of humanity, begun years ago en route to Farpoint Station, never ended. The Q Continuum has judged humanity and has decided to wipe it out... and Picard is to be the architect of its destruction.

The stakes for the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale were incredibly high. Months in advance, the studio had asked for a two-hour episode. The original Star Trek had never had a formal finale of any kind, having ended its third season with just another installment. The writing staff of The Next Generation needed a very special idea.

Executive producer Michael Piller was the first to cobble together the rough story for what became "All Good Things..." He combined a time travel story that writer Brannon Braga was proposing for Worf and Alexander (that may have reconstituted as "Firstborn") with writer Ronald Moore's suggestion to bookend the series with Q's courtroom, and suggested the three-time-period format. Show runner Jeri Taylor assigned the actual script to Braga and Moore.

A lot of writing followed in a very short time. The duo squeezed out a first draft in little more than a week (juggling their duties on the upcoming movie, Star Trek Generations). The draft was reportedly loved by the cast and crew who read it, but Michael Piller ordered a complete restructure of the second half, which he felt contained a lot of side elements that weren't "good storytelling." The resulting revision removed a future heist to steal the mothballed Enterprise from a museum, and a large number of quiet character moments. The latter excisions upset the actors so much that Patrick Stewart reportedly requested a weekend meeting with the writers to protest the changes. A fresh rewrite followed, one that would retain the streamlined plot while restoring as many moments from the first draft as possible.

Episode director Winrich Kolbe recalled later that because of all this frenetic rewriting, he never got to hold a production meeting with a complete and final script in hand. And though he was ready to roll with the punches, things came to a head halfway through the filming of the episode. He felt that among both cast and crew, too many people were focused on their next job -- the upcoming movie, or new television series they were lining up after The Next Generation. "You gotta focus on this show!" he demanded, in a major production argument. But then, as he remembers it, everyone pulled together and did just that.

That's what I see, watching the finished product. (And I'm not alone. Executive producer Rick Berman called this "the best season-ender we ever did." Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga acknowledged that this turned out far better than the movie, Generations. And "All Good Things..." also won the 1995 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.) The time-hopping conceit is just so perfect to end the series on, and each of the three time frames has something special to offer.

In the present, Worf and Troi finally give being a couple a try (not in an alternate reality or hallucination). Troi's coy playfulness with Worf even makes the pairing convincing (though never as much as Troi/Riker was). We also see a serious overture toward Beverly and Jean-Luc as a couple too, spurred on by the revelation that Picard may be at risk of a terminal disease. Tomalak makes a return (with Andreas Katsulas carving time from his Babylon 5 schedule for the appearance). Q gets to playfully thumb his nose at everything we love about Star Trek, mocking Riker's career woes, Troi's psychobabble, even the name of the series itself! ("It's time put an end to your trek through the stars.") There's even a classic Star Trek moral at the heart of it all: the trial never ends; the journey always continues.

The past is a loving procession of quirkiness from the pilot, before the series ironed things out. The bridge is restored to its 80s wood-paneled appearance. Data babbles on at length about idioms. Everyone is back in the low-necked, slowly ascending spandex -- save Troi, once again dressed as a galactic cheerleader. And back to bid farewell to the show are Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar and Colm Meaney as O'Brien (in original red).

The past time frame actually goes back before anything we saw on the show the first time around. We get to see Picard actually take command of the Enterprise (under orders from Norah Satie, in a great continuity reference for the fans). He hasn't yet programmed the replicator to make his signature "tea, Earl Grey, hot." And the fact that he begins to act so strangely leads to new scenes with resonant emotion. Tasha has to stand up to his borderline insanity and demand an explanation; she doesn't get one, though she does get an inspiring speech from Patrick Stewart instead.

As for the future, it plays like a love letter to the fans. Geordi has married Leah Brahms and become a novelist. Picard is tending the family vineyard (in a sequence filmed at an actual California winery). Data has become an eccentric professor in the very Cambridge position held by his holographic poker opponents Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, and has developed eccentricities including dyed hair and an insane number of cats. Beverly Crusher has pursued her love of command (begun in "Descent" and tracked in "Thine Own Self") and now has a ship of her own. The Enterprise has been upgraded with a mighty cannon and a third warp nacelle.

But the future is dark in many ways too. The Klingons have defeated the Romulan Empire and gone rogue. Riker and Worf are nursing a two decade long grudge over the death of Deanna Troi, meaningfully explored in a Ten Forward scene. Beverly and Jean-Luc gave marriage a go and wound up divorced. According to Ronald Moore, they were only allowed to be this wild with the future because the end of the episode was going to explicitly disavow everything as only a possible future, leaving the path clear for the movies. (Sure enough, neither Troi/Worf nor Beverly/Jean-Luc are an item in Generations or the movies to follow.)

These future scenes hold extra poignancy today, as they're set "close to 25 years" in the future -- which is almost exactly where we find ourselves now, in 2016, after the original 1994 air date. We get to see how these actors all really aged, compared to their old age makeup. We know they all remained friends after the show was ever (at least, far closer friends than the average television cast remains after a series concludes). We too can look back on the old glory days, right along with the characters.

There are really only a couple of small flaws in the episode. One is that the "anti-time" gimmick is so clever, it seems to have fooled the writers themselves in a few places. With the anomaly growing backward in time from the moment of its creation, the Pasteur should have been able to see it when the ship first arrived at the Devron system, not six hours after the moment of its creation. Also, though Data says that all three tachyon beams that caused the anomaly (past, present, and future) appear to have originated from the Enterprise, one in fact came from the Pasteur. This latter error was actually caught when the episode aired by someone close to the show -- Rick Berman's ten year old son. "Kind of humbling," Ronald Moore confessed.

The other "flaw," not to be held against the episode itself, is that this is actually a far more poignant ending to Star Trek: The Next Generation than what actually followed. None of this cast's four movies was as good as this episode. None had as clever a gimmick, none showed as much reverence for the show as a whole, and none had as much emotional heft. I'd even give up First Contact if it could somehow mean that "All Good Things...," and not Nemesis, could be the final chapter of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Consider how the episode literally ends -- with one final poker scene, and Picard actually joining the group to play for the first time. He takes one long look around at his crew as though seeing them for the last time. We get an overhead shot containing all seven cast members on screen at once, for one of the only times in the entire series. And then the Enterprise gracefully slips off into the unknown. It is, quite simply, the perfect ending.

Other (final) observations:
  • Sharp-eyed fans (shocking, I know -- they exist!) will note that not everything in the past time frame was perfectly restored to its original appearance. The captain's chair, for example, is missing the old flip-up panels. Nor could Jonathan Frakes be asked to shave his beard with a movie around the corner; the footage of a baby-faced Riker is stolen from "The Arsenal of Freedom."
  • Early in development of the story, there were plans for a fourth time frame centered around "The Best of Both Worlds." Though I can understand the temptation to revisit one of the series' finest episodes, it was wise of them not to do so.
  • There are tons of fun moments throughout the episode, but reportedly many more got cut out before filming. There was to have been a scene in which Riker gives his blessing to Worf and Troi, only to surprise all three of them by withdrawing it after a moment's thought. Geordi was to have imagined in the present that he'd be in Starfleet for life, setting up a twist when we see him in the future. Q would have appeared in many more costumes and characters throughout, though Rick Berman wisely pushed for most of those moments to be removed, to avoid undercutting the serious threat he posed.
  • There was originally a plan to do a riff on being "the fifth Beatle." In the past time frame, the writers planned to put a famous celebrity at the conn station. Pushed over the edge by Picard's erratic orders, he was going to resign from Starfleet in a huff, thus basically missing out on his chance to be part of Enterprise crew. The production was in early talks with Star Trek fan Christian Slater (who had made a cameo appearance in Star Trek VI), but the idea was then scrapped.
  • Damon Lindelof, who would later work with J.J. Abrams on the Star Trek reboot film, has said that this episode was an inspiration for him on Lost -- specifically the episode "The Constant," in which Desmond finds himself hopping around through time. (As with "All Good Things...," many Lost fans consider that episode to be among the finest of the series.)
The seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was rocky overall, but it did go out at its peak. "All Good Things..." is an unqualified grade A. It sits at the very top of the final season, in fact, with the top 5 rounded out by "Lower Decks," "Parallels," "Gambit, Part I,"  and "The Pegasus."

And that, after almost four years, brings these TNG Flashback Reviews to a close! I'm considering a look at the Next Generation movies next (but, as I said above, I think it's all downhill -- to varying degrees -- after "All Good Things..."). I may also do some sort of full series summary, if anybody is interested in that sort of thing. I'm open to suggestions, Trekkers.

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