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Throwback Thursday - Star Trek:The Next Generation - The Next Phase

I'm going to admit up front I have a very personal reason for choosing this episode of Star Trek: Next Generation for my #ThrowBackThursday review. And I'm going to tell you right now, it's probably going to be the most biased review I've ever written, but I hope after you read it, you'll understand why.

And it all started when Star Trek: Next Generation killed fan favorite character Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby). Toni Marberry, a friend and fellow Trekkie and I found this unacceptable. Since it was science fiction, we decided we could write the perfect script to bring her back. And we did. Back then, in the late 1980's, Star Trek: Next Generation was one of the only shows on television that would accept manuscripts from un-agented writers, getting several thousand submissions a year. Through a nearly year-long process, our script was submitted and although not purchased, earned us an invitation to pitch story ideas to the show. It was during one of those subsequent pitches we suggested a story that explored what happens to the crew when dealing with the loss of another crewmate, and what happens if that crewmate wasn't really dead but trapped in an alternate dimension, desperately trying to communicate their plight to their friends.

The show liked the idea, bought it, combined it with another idea and thus Season 5's "The Next Phase" was born. We sold to the show in February and by May it aired. The episode, about what happens when the crew of the Enterprise is led to believe Geordi LaForge (Levar Burton) and Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) is believed to have been killed during a transporter malfunction, originally aired May 16, 1992. Having not seen the episode in several years, I wondered, as I sat down to re-watch for this review, would it hold up? In my admittedly biased opinion, it does, but not for the reasons you think. Seeing it again, this time through a reviewer's eyes, I found, even more, things to like about "The Next Phase."

The basic premise of the episode is Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge and Ensign Ro Laren are presumed dead following a transporter malfunction after the Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a Romulan ship. What follows is a great character study and look at how you deal with death in space. Michelle Forbes was a wonderful addition to the Star Trek: Next Generation cast. Her character, disgraced Bajoran Federation officer Ro Laren was a complex creature, trying to fit in, keep her nose clean, so to speak, while constantly wondering why Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) trusted her enough to make her a member of his crew.

If there was an MVP or focus in this episode it was Michelle Forbes' Ensign Ro. Waking up on the ship after the accident, far from the transporter room, Ro can't seem to get anyone to see or hear her. If she'd felt invisible on the ship before, that was nothing compared to this. After making her way to sickbay and eavesdropping on a conversation between Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) where the doctor briefly argues with the Captain but eventually gives in and signs the death certificates for Ro. When the Captain leaves and in the first gotcha effect of the episode walks through Ro, she believes the obvious, she is dead.

She eventually catches up to Geordi, who of course wakes up in engineering. In trying to assess their situation, they take opposing sides. The analytical, engineer La Forge argues that there had to be a reason no one could see or hear them, or that they could walk through walls, while the more emotionally driven Ro argues that they're dead and they need to make peace before they can move on. Geordi refuses to believe he's a "blind ghost wearing clothes" and goes off to try figure out what has happened to them. Ro, in the meantime, goes to make peace. It's a wonderful scene between Forbes and Burton.

Meanwhile, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and the away team, after dumping the Romulan vessel's engine core, use shuttles to transport back and forth to the Romulan ship to affect repairs. Data (Brent Spiner), in a very human moment, asks the Captain for permission to plan a memorial service for his "friend", Geordi. This results in a series of insightful scenes of Data discussing various funeral rituals with fellow shipmates, including eventually, Worf (Michael Dorn). After rejecting, to Ro's relief, the Bajoran Death Chant which lasts two hours, it is Worf's Klingon take on death, that the person who has died in the noble way he believed Geordi and Ro had died, should be celebrated (much like a Viking reaching Valhalla) that gives Data the idea that the memorial service shouldn't be a time of sadness but a celebration of life.

Ro, was intent on making peace. In perhaps the episode's best sequence, she returns to the bridge and faces the crew to say good-bye. She follows Riker and Picard into the Captain's ready room and is stunned when Riker asks to speak on her behalf at the memorial service that Data has announced will be held in Ten-Forward. This was an intriguing bonus to the episode, given that Riker and Ro's relationship could have been described contentious at best. After Riker departs, Ro steps up to speak to Picard and surprisingly finds herself still intimidated by him even when she's dead. Nevertheless, she thanks him for having faith in her and trusting her. The entire segment was very nice and nuanced work from Forbes.You have to wonder how hard it was for the rest of the cast to act as though they couldn't see or hear Geordi and Ro. Those were masterful scenes, particularly from Patrick Stewart in the Captain's ready room and Gates McFadden in sick bay. Kudos to both the director and the performers in those scenes.

Geordi, meanwhile, realizes that the answers to what happened to them lay on the Romulan ship and gets Ro. They hitch a ride back to the ship the shuttle which is when they witness Data and Worf's discussion of death.

Once on the Romulan ship, Geordi finally convinces Ro that they are not dead after discovering that the accident that crippled the Romulan ship was caused by an experiment using a phase inverter and a cloaking device. They weren't dead, they were just out of phase with their surroundings.They learn that in order to cover up their experiments, the Romulans planned on sending particles through a tractor beam to contaminate the Enterprise's engines causing the ship to explode when it jumped into warp drive. Geordi and Ro hurry back to the Enterprise, desperate to find a way to communicate the danger to their crew. Unfortunately, so does the Romulan officer (Thomas Kopache) who was also phased. He follows them to the Enterprise to stop them. He chases Ro through the ship and she is ultimately saved by Geordi who pushes him through an outer wall and into space.They eventually manage to find a way to reverse the effects of the phasing and materialize in Ten-Forward in the middle of their own memorial service, just in time to prevent the ship from going to warp drive and exploding.

I enjoyed re-watching "The Next Phase" for this article. For me, it was an entertaining change of pace episode. When the episode initially aired some had problems with a variety of the technical aspects of the story, like if Geordi and Ro could walk through walls, why didn't they sink through the floor? But, for me, I'm going to take the Ro Laren, emotional position and say what I enjoyed most about it were not the sci-fi aspects of the story, but the human element. And just FYI, our original story did not contain Romulans or Chroniton particles. However, the ideas of the frustration a character would face when existing in a different plane and not being able to convince friends and loved ones they weren't dead were all ours. We just had it happen to a completely different character. When we sold the story idea to the show we wrote a spec script for it, just in case they changed their minds and wanted our whole story. Ironically, in that spec script, never seen by the show, the most in-depth discussion of death rituals involved another character and Worf. We even came to the same conclusion about there being a celebration of the life that was presumed lost.

One final bit of trivia about Star Trek: The Next Generation "The Next Phase", according to IMDB- this was intended to be a cost-cutting "bottle episode" but instead ended up being one of the most expensive episodes produced during Season Five.Thank you for indulging me and allowing me to share my minuscule place in Star Trek history with you on this Throwback Thursday. What is your favorite Star Trek: Next Generation episode? Do you remember watching "The Next Phase?" What were your thoughts? Discuss in the comments below.