Before I conclude, a couple interesting thoughts from the comments. Commenter Plok had this to say:
TNG has an awful lot of clunkers, in my opinion -- most of the episodes that I think shine flirt with a sort of SF-horror vibe (on one occasion, a very successful SF-horror-action vibe, wow!) that may actually be kind of unique to TNG (!), but for some reason that tone seemed quite difficult for the makers of the show to keep a reliable grip on. Which is a pity, because when those elements are treated just right, you can see the show that might have been. Ultimately I think TNG suffered from being a Star Trek show, as odd as that sounds -- if it had been less concerned with its great big ethos, and more willing to discard its fan-fic chumminess -- if it had only pandered a bit less to the faithful, and challenged them a bit more instead -- it might have expressed that unsettling horror vibe I enjoyed a bit more consistently. Up above, someone mentioned the odd time or two that Riker looks like a bit of a dangerous guy to piss off. Sometimes Picard seems cold to his subordinates or antagonists. I think these character bits do get played on by the actors quite consistently, but all too often the scripts seem unwilling to support that kind of performance.
There's a lot of good stuff there, just about all of which I agree with, and most of which relating back to what I was trying to see to begin with. Plok expanded on these thoughts here, and I'll be damned if he didn't come close to obviating everything I was trying to say from the beginning. If you care one iota about Star Trek, you should read his post now: if you want to understand why the show, despite having one of the best set-ups in the history of live action sci-fi, ultimately fell into a frustrated, self-involved wet fart, he does a good job of getting at just why that was. Best bit:
The return to an absurdly sterile status quo, regular like clockwork every episode: it’s almost physically painful, but perhaps that’s because it conceals a point. Maybe, just possibly, it’s a choice…
Although not a choice I agree with in the slightest, because I am not a show-maker but a show-watcher, and I want what I like — feel that the same points could be made very adequately in the context of hammering, rather than tapping, tapping, always bloody tapping. But maybe that’s just me.
If you think about it, the whole premise of Star Trek is really absurd: every episode, or just about, the crew of a space ship hundreds of light years from anything else find themselves face to face not merely with villains and menaces, but weird science-fiction threats so terrifying in nature as to be downright existential. I mean, seriously, how much is human nature suppose to have changed in three hundred years that we should supposedly be able to come face-to-face with something like Q -- basically God -- and just shake it off with equanimity, meet for drinks in Ten-Forward after your shift is over? How the hell is it that the entire crew of the NCC 1701-D hasn't been Section 8'ed? Let's see, one episode you're facing an omnipotent God, the next one you get transformed into a fish monster by a devolving ray, the next you see your captain turned into a robot monster bent on destroying the Earth -- and next week we're supposed to give a crap that Data wants to learn how to tap dance? That is serious Blue Velvet territory right there.
The real shame is that when the show was good, it could be really good. I think if I had to pick a really strong selection I could pick maybe a full dozen TNG episodes that came pretty close to shaking off the cobwebs of the premise's "dynamic stasis". Not surprisingly, the episodes that focused on action and thrills were really strong. The first Borg episode ("Q Who?") is one of the best, and the second Borg episode (the "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter) is quite possibly the best of the series, and not just because of that (justly) famous cliffhanger. (I mean, seriously, cliffhangers are a dime a dozen these days, but that last scene where Riker told Worf to open fire on the Borg cube and then the screen went black to "To Be Continued . . ." -- well, that was a damn long summer, is all I'm saying.) The Borg were a great enemy precisely because they stood against everything which, conceptually, TNG had been founded on: diplomacy, reasoned assurances that problems can be solved through negotiation, a gentle commitment to mutual cooperation even among rivals. The Borg were implacable, invincible and deadly, and for a brief shining moment they were the scariest thing on TV.
And then? Well, after the boffo success of "Best of Both Worlds", the Borg were subsequently ignored and trivialized. The first is understandable, sort-of, considering that the Borg were obviously the single most expensive special effect the show had. But the second -- well, that was unforgivable. Giving us sympathetic Borg? Worse, demoting the Borg to a race of candy-asses in thrall to Data's paint-huffing twin brother? I think if you look up "jumping the shark" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Geordie's lovable Borg pal Hugh.
"Best of Both Worlds" has only one real rival for the title of "best TNG episode": "All Good Things". It's one of the best -- if not, hell, the best series finale I've ever seen. It summed up, in two hours, everything that was good about the show, as well as putting much of the preceding seven years to shame in terms of showcasing interesting, well-written, dynamic and downright awesome sci-fi writing. It deals with alternate realities -- TNG was always good when it dealt with alternate realities, probably because they could get away with the illusion of consequence in alternate realities where things could actually "happen", at least sort-of. Most importantly, watching "All Good Things", the viewer can fool themselves into thinking that there really was an alternate-universe TNG where all that cool character development and sharp writing came together every week, and not just a handful of times over the course of 178 freakin' episodes. But of course, since it was the last episode, they probably thought they could get away with actually changing things up a bit. A shame, that.
I liked "Parralels" and "The Inner Light", two more alternate-reality episodes that actually seemed to cut to the heart of the respective spotlight characters -- Worf, in a rare non-Klingon-centric starring role, and Picard himself. Again, though, in order to find something interesting to say about the characters, the writers had to go out of their way to concoct Rube Goldberg plot machines that would allow for emotional arcs without messing with the precious status quo. If you start looking, you can find a lot of episodes that go to the same well: there's always something to trigger or mitigate unusual behavior, something to excuse the characters from acting like real people as soon as they put on those damn Starfleet unitards.
And this isn't an attack on the notion of Star Trek's future being a practicing utopia: that's a great, optimistic idea that really sets Trek apart from just about everything else in the sci-fi universe. The problem is that the idea on its own is a setting, not a plot point. This goes back to the heart of why TNG just didn't work over the long haul. It was built on the bones of fan-fiction. What is fan-fiction, really? I'm sure there's fan-fiction out there that's just as good as the real thing, but when we say fan-fiction, I think we all know what we mean: stories in the framework of a preexisting fictional universe that emphasize certain isolated interests of the fan in question to the detriment of the property as a whole. Like, say, what if Kirk and Spock acted on the hetero-normative frisson in their working relationship in a homo-sexual manner? What if Spider-Man had stayed married and had kids? That kind of thing.
In this case, however, it's more like, "what if Star Trek really was just the most perfect, all-inclusive, wonderfully balanced society in all of history, with room for every misfit, including me . . . ?"
TNG failed because accepting the show's premise implied a tacit rejection of the original series' writ. The fun of Star Trek, to the creators of TNG, wasn't the fabulous adventure, action, and colorful character acting -- no, it was the future-oriented optimism implied by a color-sex-and-creed-blind utopia world. All of which was great, but never, never actually the focus of TOS, only ever incidentally. The fact that it was so offhanded was what made it work: of course there's a Russian on board, the Cold War was 300 years ago; of course Kirk is kissing Uhura, prejudice is so 20th century. But on TNG, they practically made a cottage industry out of bringing old TOS cast members out of mothballs to fawn over the crew of the NCC 1701-D, saying just how much better the new Enterprise was and how slick and smooth everything was in this perfect little future world of the Federation. Bones, Scotty, Spock, Sarek -- am I forgetting anyone? Even Kirk, in the end, had to get down on his knees to ritually fellate the insecurity of the amassed nerds who not only wanted their sci-fi as bland as possible, but needed to be told that it wasn't "just" a fun show, it was a way of life. And that if they worked hard there would be a place for them aboard the Enterprise, right alongside Picard, Riker, and Counseler Troi in her space-bunny leotard.