Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Shades Of Gray

Review James Hunt 1 Nov 2013 - 06:58

James' Star Trek TNG season 2 look-back ends on a truly inept, poorly conceived clip show...

This review contains spoilers.

2.22 Shades of Gray

The moon landing. The fall of the Berlin wall. The first 3D broadcast of the Queen's Speech. TV has been the medium through which we've experienced some of history's most important events. Mainly those that have happened in the last 60-70 years, admittedly, but let's not let that dull the wonder. The powerful simplicity of electromagnetic signals transmitting sound and images around the globe using naught but an orbital network of multi-million dollar satellites cannot be denied.

Which brings us to the big question: where were YOU the first time you felt so much contempt towards Shades of Gray that you switched your TV off in disgust and went to do something else with your life instead?

The episode begins with Riker and Geordi on the surface of an alien planet. Riker has just been spiked in the leg by something, and they're worried the wound might be full of alien crawlies. Although he laughs it off, the transporter is unable to filter out a possible infection, so Pulaski beams down to inspect his injury.

Declaring Riker's leg medically unfit for duty, Pulaski insists he beam back to the ship. They discover that Riker has indeed been infected by something not quite a bacteria, not quite a virus, but very difficult to get rid of. Worse, it's already given him a dead leg, and now it's spreading up his body towards his precious brain, which is the place where he keeps all of his memories and knowledge of various lovemaking techniques.

Although he seems in good spirits, cracking jokes with those visiting and attending to him, Troi comes to visit and can sense his fear. Riker remains resolute, saying that if he has to die, let it be with his sense of humour intact. The universe obliges, and he promptly passes out as the Bacterio-viral-infection spreads to his spinal column (that's the main thing that keeps you conscious, if I remember my human biology correctly).

Desperate to save Riker's life, Troi and Pulaski insist on undressing him during an advert break, place a shiny medical blanket atop his bearded form and then drive a series of needles into his brain, forcing it to stay active as the infection spreads to it.

For the remaining thirty minutes, we are treated to scenes of Riker remembering the events of previous episodes. That's right, it's a clip show. A "Best of Riker" clip show. Intercut with these "memories" are brief scenes of Troi and Pulaski monitoring the effect that electrocuting various sections of Riker's brain has on the spread of the infection as they try to get it under control.

With the help of Troi's empathic voyeurism, they discover that good memories produce endorphins which make the infection spread more, and bad ones produce endorphins which slow the infection down. Rather than take the next logical step of replicating the necessary chemicals and putting him on a drip, they decide to kill the infection off completely by making Riker remember as much bad stuff as possible.

His bad memories include the time he first met the Ferengi, the time he was devoured by an oil slick, and other large chunks of season one. Eventually it becomes a big Clockwork Orange-style montage of Riker getting punched or electrocuted or axe-kicked by an old man with a cockroach in his head. This kills the infection in his brain, and also his leg. He wakes up, still grinning, which I know is what I do when I finally wake up from an unending nightmare with no escape. Everyone is pleased. Except the viewers.

TNG WTF: The entire episode is one giant chunk of WTF. Although it becomes a lot easier to understand when you realise that it was the result of the network asking for them to bring an episode in significantly under-budget to account for some budget overruns earlier in the series.

TNG LOL: O'Brien and Pulaski's exchange, as the Chief ribs her over her Transportophobia:

O'Brien: "I hope these are the right coordinates. Just kidding, Doctor. I know how much you love the transporter."
Pulaski: "About as much as I love comical transporter chiefs."

The exchange itself isn't funny, but we know who won that argument. I probably don't need to say whether it was Miles "six seasons of TNG and seven of DS9" O'Brien or Doctor "One season then gone forever" Pulaski.

Who's That Face?: There are no guest stars in this episode. But hey, that's Jonathan Frakes! Director of Thunderbirds Are Go!

Time Until Meeting: No meetings here. Didn't have the budget to use such lavish scenes.

Captain's Log: There are plenty of contenders for the worst TNG episode ever, and only the fact that it isn't based on racist, sexist or homophobic attitudes prevents this from being a serious contender. It is, however, the most technically inept. It's poorly-written (most of Pulaski's dialogue in particular seems to make no sense), poorly-acted, poorly-paced and poorly-conceived. Perhaps, given the restrictions on it, there wasn't a chance of it ever being anything else.

But even if you forgive all that, the fact that they managed to END the season on this? Absolutely unforgivable.

Watch or Skip? Skip it. Skip it and never look back.

And that brings us to the end of season two! So long, Pulaski! So long, crappy uniforms! So long, original title sequence! And so long TNG revisitations, because we're going to take a short break. Schedule-willing, we'll be back to tackle season three in the new year. Until then, thanks for reading!

Read James' review of the previous episode, Peak Performance, here.

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This is pretty much my favourite feature on this frankly brilliant site. Therefore I eagerly await series 3 reviews.

I feel bad that you had to sit through this for us


The pain I experience when watching this episode is Indescribable. It is quite litrally the worst episode of Star Trek ever.

Not only was this the best feature on the site, it was one of the best things I'd read on the internet full stop. James Hunt is a freaking genius!!!

So basically there is nothing with 'shades of Gray' in the title that is good?

If memory serves me correct, Season 3 is when TNG becomes much more consistently better, right?

I agree with all this. 'Time Until Meeting' is, alone, one of the pinnacles of human thought and I say that with no risk of hyperbole.

Network? It was made for syndication - but yes they were over budget and the writers strike was in effect hence the season being cut short.

Season 3 reviews - make it so! Great work so far, appreciate your efforts on each review.

The New Year! This is the reason I check into this great site every week. It is so good I'm re-watching the entire series. Looking forward to the Season 3 reviews. Keep up the great work.

Yes, that's right. Roddenberry had died which left the producers and writers free of his restraint.

Thanks, James, and you must know this is one of my favorite features at the Den. Look forward to it every Friday, so now will have to enjoy re-reading them -- much like watching ST:TNG reruns -- until your anticipated return of this series review. Enjoy your break!

Great work on these, sir! I'm glad you chose to continue doing them in order. We'll see you in a few months.

About the most positive thing you can say about this episode is that it has united everyone, including cast, crew and viewer, in utter disdain for the necessity of the episode, and for the final product.

Another brilliantly written review.

Wasn't 'Shades of Grey' the result of a writers strike and they had nothing else to do to fill out the season?

Can't wait for the Season 3 stuff, when TNG stopped being an effort to watch and something truly enjoyable and very special . And as for "it's spreading up his body towards his precious brain, which is the place where he keeps all of his memories and knowledge of various lovemaking techniques." that had me in fits, Hilarious.

Seems the thoroughly appropriate send-off for Pulaski if you ask me.

DoG is amazing in many ways, but these brilliant reviews are top!

I thought the crappiness of this episode was down to the Writers' Guild strike going on at the time, which also accounted for the season being 4 episodes shorter than the others.

You'd better be back in the new year!

Agreed. I save these and the digital foundry articles for my weekend to enjoy during the baby's nap times.

Looking forward to season 3 and beyond!

I love these - please come back to continue them later!!

I remember, the first time this aired on BBC 2 in the UK I had gone round a friend's house to run and D&D game, and I recall being ever so annoyed that I was going to miss the Season 2 final episode. As it happened, they had it on TV in a different room, and I was able to see, but not hear, some of it (multi-tasking DM here!) and I was quite intrigued, but that was because I didn't really know what was going on - didn't even realise it was a clip show. It was a while till I actually got the chance to really sit down and properly watch the episode - I guess a couple of years later when we had Sky TV and they were repeating it... I couldn't believe it was the same episode I had caught snatches of - what a let down! Have seen it several times since then and each time I hate it even more, but watch just for a sense of completion when I'm going through the box sets...

if you like heavy metal, there's a good track by the band Overkill called 'Shades of Gray', but I know what you're referring to :)

"Riker getting... axe-kicked by an old man with a cockroach in his head."

Isn't it much more fun to write reviews of really rotten episodes than good ones? Brilliant!

This episode is the ONLY episode of the entire STNG run that I haven't seen. The first two seasons screened on one channel here on a Friday evening, and another channel announced early that they had won a bidding round for the rights and series 3 would start as soon as the second series ended. So the channel playing the show pulled it off the air with one episode left.

Seems I didn't miss anything.

You can't stop now!

I never quite understood the hatred behind "Shades of Gray". By no means is it an excellent episode. At best, it's a basic bare bones story. But given the fact the production team had two days to film it and all the money for the season had already been allocated and spent, the end result is not that bad.

Compared to a number of first season episodes ("Lonely Among Us" & "Justice"), "Shades of Gray" is just a clip show recapping the first two years of TNG. I don't have a problem taking a trip down memory lane. Bear in mind, many shows during the 70's and 80's did this to save time and money. It's not a particularly original storytelling device and maybe because of the flack it got, many showrunners nowadays chose not to do this anymore.

All in all, "Shades" isn't groundbreaking or thought provoking. But then it was never meant to be either of those things. It's a fun stroll through the past and leaves you looking forward to bigger and better things which as we all know is about to take place and elevate TNG to a whole new level.......

Biohazard - Shades of Grey is infinately better... :p

Oh no! I so should have saved reading some of these until later, can't believe they're all finished! Can't wait to read seson 3, especially your view on "Captain's Holiday"

Roddenberry had become exec. producer in season 2. He died during season 5.

Even in season 1, after the "first thirteen", Roddenberry was starting to get pushed to the side. (Just think of two seasons chock full of episodes like "Justice" and wince.)

Or 'The Monkees', a couple decades earlier... :D

You are correct. Although (if memory serves me) the strike had ended by the time this went into production, there just weren't enough scripts available to shoot, so this got cobbled together very quickly... and may have also been the victim of a budget crunch.

This was probably part of the decision to accept spec scripts moving forward. They needed a much larger and cheaper pool or resources to pull creative stories from.

I think Threshold comes pretty close too. But I give the prize to Shades of Gray because, unlike Threshold, it doesn't have the benefit of being terrible on its own terms. It's terrible because it's a lifeless, redundant, clip episode. Not even worthy of so-bad-it's-good mockery.

I actually liked this episode; I know Den of Geek can't appreciate the innocence and aww of some of the TNG episodes, but I can and did when I saw this as a child and still do. Seeing the human condition events in recap as Riker grows and learns on this is refreshing.

I started watching season one, just for the heck of it, two weeks ago and stumbled upon your episode reviews. I've really enjoyed going through the first two seasons over the last few weeks and following up each episode with your take on it (which means I don't get to see your "skip it" verdict until it's too late!). These are really well done and I look forward to your next batch for season three. Two things that would help navigation are to make both a back to the last episode AND a forward to the next episode link for each article, plus an easier-to-use master archive list (I've found your author's page at Den of Geek to be glitchy, unfortunately). Thanks for writing.

I don't mean to be a bore but MORE REVIEWS PLEASE x

Sure hope we get a Season 3 set of reviews. Loved the season 1 and 2 posts.

"Clip Show" isn't the dirty word to me that it is to some. They served their purpose in the old days, before we had every television episode ever at your fingertips, and television box sets were few and far between, and then rarely that affordable. Clip shows provided a very cheap episode for them, and let us relive some of the better moments from the show. My main problem with Shades Of Gray is that it even fails as a clip show, because they didn't bother using good/entertaining clips.

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