Shades of Gray (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
"Shades of Gray" is the 22nd episode of the second season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the 48th episode overall. It was originally broadcast on July 17, 1989, in broadcast syndication. It was the only clip show filmed during the series and was created due to a lack of funds left over from other episodes during the season. Set in the 24th century, the series follows the adventures of the crew of the Federation starship Enterprise. In this episode, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) undergoes medical treatment by Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) for an alien infection and must relive numerous past events.
|"Shades of Gray"|
|Star Trek: The Next Generation episode|
|Episode no.||Season 2|
|Directed by||Rob Bowman|
|Story by||Maurice Hurley|
|Featured music||Ron Jones|
|Original air date||July 17, 1989|
It was the final episode written by Maurice Hurley, who originated the idea and wrote the first draft of the script, with Hans Beimler and Richard Manning conducting re-writes. It was directed by Rob Bowman and the framework sequences were filmed over the course of three days. It was watched by 9.8 million viewers on the first broadcast, the highest ratings for the series since "Samaritan Snare" two months earlier. "Shades of Gray" is widely regarded as the worst episode of the series, with critics calling it "god-awful" and a "travesty"; even Hurley referred to it negatively.
During a geological survey on Surata IV, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is struck by a thorn growing on a motile vine plant. The away team immediately beams back to the Enterprise, where Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) finds out that the thorn has released a deadly virus into Riker's body. Within a matter of hours, the virus will reach Riker's brain, killing him. To try to save Riker's life, Pulaski puts him into a machine that will artificially stimulate his brain neurons, keeping them active and resisting the virus. This causes Riker to dream of his past adventures aboard the Enterprise. Riker's first dreams are of reasonably neutral occasions, such as his first meeting with Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner). He soon moves on to more passionate and even erotic dreams, such as meeting the cheerful young Edo women on Rubicon III, the matriarch Beata (Karen Montgomery) on Angel One, or the computer-generated holodeck woman Minuet (Carolyn McCormick).
However, while pleasing to Riker's mind, the passionate dreams only worsen Riker's condition, as the virus feeds on the positive endorphins his brain is creating. Pulaski and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) therefore agree to try to make the machine evoke negative dreams instead. Thus Riker dreams of Lieutenant Tasha Yar's (Denise Crosby) death, or the apparent death of Deanna Troi's child (R. J. Williams). This has the desired effect, as the negative endorphins drive the virus away, but the endorphins are not strong enough. As a last resort, Pulaski uses the machine to evoke dreams of raw, primitive feelings of fear and survival. Thus Riker dreams of fighting the tar creature Armus (Mart McChesney), the alien-controlled Admiral Gregory Quinn (Ward Costello), and the Klingon officer Klag (Brian Thompson) on board the warship Pagh. Seeing that the raw emotions work best, Pulaski intensifies the dreams to come at a more rapid pace. This finally kills the virus and Riker recovers.
The episode was intended to save money at the end of the season by being a bottle episode which featured few additional characters. The only guest star was Colm Meaney as recurring character Chief Miles O'Brien. The reason was that the show had overspent on the episodes "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Q Who", and Paramount Pictures was holding the series to their overall season budget. It was the last episode on which Maurice Hurley acted as head writer; he referred to the episode as a "piece of shit" and "terrible, just terrible". He turned in the idea of a cheap clip show to save money and wrote the first draft of the script, with Richard Manning and Hans Beimler conducting re-writes.
Director Rob Bowman initially thought that the episode could be filmed in five days, two fewer than usual. However, it was actually filmed in three days after pressure from Paramount with two spent only on the sickbay set. He later said that he simply shot the framework for the clips to be added in later, and never saw a final cut of the episode. Production assistant Eric A. Stillwell was responsible for selecting the clips that went into the episode, with 21 different clips included. The prop used on Riker to fight the infection was created from drawings by designer Rick Sternbach.
Ron Jones created the music for the episode, including a three note motif to represent the virus which infects Riker. Themes build as the episode progresses, with elements from "Infection Spreads" which is played over the scene between Riker and Troi move into the pieces "Shades of Pleasure" and "Earth Boys Are Easy" which is played over the pleasurable memories. String instructions and flutes are added to "Shades of Sadness" which played over the unhappy memories, before it built to a climax in the intense memories in the pieces "Critical Condition", "Shades of Conflict" and "Final Intensities". Several scenes retained the compositions from the episodes, including pieces by Dennis McCarthy, while others by McCarthy were re-composed by Jones.
Reception and home media release
"Shades of Gray" was first shown on July 17, 1989 in broadcast syndication. It was the final episode of the second season and was watched by 9.8 million viewers on the first broadcast. It was the highest number of viewers for an episode since "Samaritan Snare" some two months prior.
Several reviewers re-watched the episode after the end of the series. Keith DeCandido watched "Shades of Gray" for Tor.com, and admitted that he hadn't seen the episode since the original broadcast. He said that it was a "trainwreck" and even worse than he remembered, because other shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Stargate SG-1 had since done much better clip shows. DeCandido summed it up by saying that "In all honesty, they’d have been better off doing one fewer episode — the season was shortened by the writers strike anyhow — and upping the budget on one of the other 21. Just an awful, awful episode." He gave the episode a score of zero out of ten. Zack Handlen reviewed the episode for The A.V. Club, describing the script as "god-awful" and the episode as "forced".
Michelle Erica Green in her review for TrekNation called the storyline "absurdly flimsy" and that the episode "just felt lazy on every level". She cited The Original Series episode "Operation: Annihilate!" and the Voyager episode "Resolutions" as better episodes featuring alien infections. In the list of the five worst Star Trek: The Next Generation compiled by TechRepublic writer Jay Garmon, "Shades of Gray" was listed as the worst. Garmon described it a "travesty" and that the "nicest" thing you could say about the episode was that it was the last time there was a flashback episode in the series and the last appearance of Pulaski. It was also the original choice of worst episode by Empire magazine, but it was decided that it didn't count as it was a clip show – so "Masks" was chosen instead. In all the history of the Star Trek franchise, only this episode had an average IMDb review lower than five out of 10, marking it as the worst episode ever.
The first home media release of "Shades of Gray" was on VHS cassette, appearing on October 12, 1994 in the United States and Canada. The episode was later included on the Star Trek: The Next Generation season two DVD box set, released in on May 7, 2002. The most recent release was as part of the season two Blu-ray set on December 4, 2012.
In 2016, fans at the 50th anniversary Star Trek convention voted "Shades of Gray" as the fifth worst Star Trek episode, of any series, and the second worst episode of this series, with only "Code of Honor" faring worse. In 2017, this episode was rated the 7th worst episode of the Star Trek franchise up to that time, by ScreenRant, and explained several issues with the episode including a lack of meaning in the clip segments.
In 2019, ABC.net said that "Shades of Grey" was the lowest ranked episode of all episodes of Star Trek based on IMDB rankings, with a significantly lower ranking episode than any other episode. They note that it was a clip show, re-using footage from the first two seasons.
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