STAR TREK REWIND: “Shades of Gray”

“My great-grandfather was once bitten by a rattlesnake. After three days of intense pain, the snake died.”

A bizarre excursion into the vaults. The 1987-1988 television season ended with a writer’s strike that saw new production halted for a couple of months in the dead of a very cold winter. The first shows to feel the effects were morning news shows and late night talk shows. I remember watching David Letterman essentially improvising his shows without his writers and much of his support staff. He would bring in an eclectic assortment of guests, many of them just ordinary, everyday people with unique talents.

Friday the 13th: The Series ran a similar episode to “Shades of Gray” titled “Bottle of Dreams” at the end of their first season that had Micki and Ryan enduring and re-experiencing some of their more terrifying episodes. That episode turned out better than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s attempt to cut costs. The show began it’s second season a couple of months late in 1988 with a re-write of a script to be produced for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II, and ended the season with this unsettling clip show.

“Shades of Gray” represented the end of an era not only for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but for the franchise as a whole. Showrunner Maurice Hurley had whipped his writers into shape while following Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre mandates about avoiding conflict among characters. Just when he thought he had mastered Star Trek’s written form, Roddenberry stepped down from day-to-day duties on the show while providing Hurley no support.

Even though Hurley had shepherded several writers and producers over the years, as well as creating the ultimate 24th century nemesis, the Borg, he found himself in an awkward situation at the end of the second season. He stepped down from the show leaving a void to be filled by Michael Piller and later, Ira Steven Behr. Hurley’s departure upset several writers who also quit in revulsion, and even though Hurley is oddly reviled in certain circles of Star Trek fandom, nevertheless he was asked to write scripts for the first two films, Generations and First Contact, as well as serving as an uncredited creative consultant.

His no-nonsense writing style would be emulated by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. Because “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Q Who” (both directed by Rob Bowman) went over the allotted budget for each episode, Paramount asked for a quick episode to be written and shot in three days for roughly half the budget of a normal episode. Only three sets were used: the planet surface, transporter, and the sick bay. “Shades of Gray”, also directed by Bowman, was to be the final episode of the shortened second season. More than half the episode is made up of clips which production assistant Eric Stillwell had to catalog and put into the finished teleplay.

An assignment on a jungle-like planet comes to a premature end when Riker is, for lack of a better word, bitten by a parasitic insect, which very quickly paralyzes him as he returns to the ship. In sick bay, Riker falls into a coma. Troi and Pulaski reason that strong emotions, such as anger and fear provide a remedy to the insect’s control over Riker’s dying body. Riker flashes through episodes of lust, sadness, humor, and finally rage (in a montage of the more violent moments from “Conspiracy” and “Skin of Evil” repeated over and over) before the parasite gives up the ghost.

“Shades of Gray” would also mark the final appearance of Diana Muldaur’s Dr. Katherine Pulaski. Muldaur had not had a great time working within the ensemble and the visual effects confines of production. The Next Generation’s sophomore season had come to an abrupt end with a strange clip show, but it was a marked improvement over the first season’s hit-or-miss quality. “Shades of Gray,” by default, is considered the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it’s still better than “Sub Rosa,” in my opinion. Way better.

Star Trek Rewind explores the Star Trek universe. From Archer to Pike, Kirk to Picard, and Sisko to Janeway— boldly read what no one has read before!

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