Star Trek Just Showed How TNG’s Worst Episode Could Have Been One of Its Best

"Shades of Gray" is one of the low points in Star Trek: The Next Generation. With "Caves," Lower Decks avoids those mistakes to make us love the crew even more.

Jonathan Frakes as Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

This Star Trek: Lower Decks article contains spoilers.

Okay, leaving aside the super-racist episode “Code of Honor,” we’re all agreed that “Shades of Gray” is the low point of Star Trek: The Next Generation, right? Sure, there’s still “Masks” and “Rascals” and I get why people don’t like “Sub Rosa” (I said what I said), but “Shades of Gray” is hardly an episode. Riker gets an alien infection, Dr. Pulaski sticks a doo-hickey on his head, and then he… rewatches highlights from the first two seasons. And that’s because “Shades of Gray” is that most dreaded product of 1980s syndicated television: a clip show.

Fortunately, clip shows have become a relic of the pop culture past rendered unnecessary in our always-on digital age. But Lower Decks never forgets, so it’s no surprise that the series would do its own version of a clip show. And while it may be a low bar to clear, there’s no denying that Lower Decks does the clip show much, much better.

In the Lower Decks episode “Caves,” the Cerritos B-team gets reunited for their first mission together since getting promoted to Lieutenants Junior Grade, only to find themselves trapped in a cave. As the quartet searches for a way to battle encroaching carnivorous moss and escape the cave, they each reveal past cave-based adventures they had with other Cerritos crew people.

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Of course, the gag primarily highlights the preponderance of caves in the Star Trek franchise, which have housed everything from a maternal monster made of molten rock to Gul Dukat demanding statues to sexy times between Paris and Janeway but as salamanders. For a franchise all about exploring new life and new civilizations, Star Trek sure likes to be Wagon Train to random caverns.

But in flashing back to previously unseen stories — even those that involved the other three main characters, in Tendi’s case — “Caves” succeeds where “Shades of Gray” failed. Season two slapped a beard on Riker and changed the color of Geordi and Worf’s shirts, making it a marked improvement on the lackluster premiere season, but it didn’t have that many standout episodes for viewers to recall during Number One’s trip down memory lane. Sure, the Bynars are neat and its nice that somebody remembers “Conspiracy,” but who wanted to see Riker relive scenes from “Angel One,” “The Naked Now,” or “The Child”?

To be fair, “Shades of Gray” actually happened because the show had run out of budget by the end of the season, and Paramount still expected TNG to crash like the Enterprise-D with Troi in the Captain’s chair. And, to be fair, the next time Riker watched new material in the form of a re-run, we got the inglorious ending of Enterprise.

Whatever the case, “Shades of Gray” did the opposite of what a good clip show can do. When a clip show works, viewers don’t mind seeing old stuff because it brings back warm feelings, and makes them remember why they love the series they’re watching. More often than not, those warm feelings stem not from the plot points being recalled, but from the time they’ve spent with the characters.

Star Trek could always count on fan’s affection for the characters, and that’s especially true of the TNG crew (after Patrick Stewart learned to chill out, that is). But two seasons of hit-or-miss episodes wasn’t enough to earn those warm feelings, and so “Shades of Gray” ended up showing off the disappointments of TNG up to that point.

Even if it doesn’t explicitly reference “Shades of Gray,” “Caves” has the exact opposite effect. As each member of the main quartet reveals adventures they’ve had with other people, they find their friendship with each other reinforced. That builds to the climax of Tendi’s story, in which she, Mariner, Boimler, and Rutherford get trapped in a turbo lift together. “I’m glad you guys are my friends,” she whispers.

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Without question, “Shades of Gray” could have been much, much better if Riker could have remembered adventures new to the audience, just like the Cerritos crew does with “Caves.” But at the very least, the cash-strapped production crew should have chosen clips that showed the characters at their best, the camaraderie believed to exist between the crew, even if it didn’t yet exist in real life. Picard and Riker still had their best adventures ahead of them at the end of TNG‘s second season, but there was still enough material to make us viewers glad that they were friends, something even a lousy clip show could demonstrate.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is streaming now on Netflix.