This review contains spoilers.
When I think back to the first season of 'The Next Generation', many of the lesser (and sometimes rather dire) offerings slip through the cracks of my memory; But "The Big Goodbye" is always on that has really stuck in my mind, for being a really fun offering, and – although maybe not a classic in terms of the entire show's run – is probably one of the best episodes from the first season.
It had been briefly glimpsed in a couple of previous episodes, but this is the first episode to really explore the Holodeck in any great depth. Of course, the whole concept of "the Holodeck malfunctioning, putting crew members in danger" was used many, MANY more times in TNG, as well as 'Deep Space Nine' and 'Voyager', and, let's be honest, probably overused. And even beyond that, while I admired the scope that the Holodeck could offer, I often felt a bit cheated and disappointed that whole episodes would but effort into a Holodeck environment, when, in the Trek universe, the Holodeck isn't even "real" (if you get what I mean); I always wanted to see the crew beam down to some exciting new planet instead.
Either way, beyond those overall Holodeck opinions, I've always really enjoyed "The Big Goodbye". And, watching it, you get the impression that Patrick Stewart loved making it, as he seems really "into it". Not only a chance to flesh out ol' Jean Luc (developing him from the rather stern character of "Encounter at Farpoint" and first few episodes) into a more rounded character, but just throwing him into something that you can really believe Picard would love.
There are also some nice character moments for Data, and even Gates McFadden gets something a little more interesting than usual to do as Dr. Crusher. The episode plays mostly as a gentle comedy, and this is where it succeeds over some of the "comedies" (from all eras of 'Trek') that try far too hard to be funny, and often come off as embarrassing or even disastrous as a result (*cough*early TNG episode "The Naked Now" for example*cough).
Of the guest cast, Lawrence Tierney is great as polite Mob boss Cyrus Redblock, and, as his snivelling henchman Felix Leech, Harvey Jason is also fun.
When historian Dr. Whalon (never seen before or since in the series, naturally) was introduced, I kinda knew from the off that he'd end up badly injured. Actually, I was a little surprised that he didn't die, and in that respect, part of me feels that maybe one of the regular crew could have been put in his place; surely the threat of a familiar crewman injured and needed medical attention would have added further urgency to the proceedings.
Some people have commented that they didn't like the (unseen) insectoid race, the Jarada, that the Enterprise is due to liaise with (with Picard stuck in the Holodeck, this is the main "drive" of the story). Personally, I didn't mind this at all, as it left a lot to the imagination, and it made for an interesting variation from the standard "humanoid race of the week". (Incidentally, the original script did have the Jarada appearing, complete with descriptions for their wasp-like appearance, but this never came to fruition due to budget restraints.)
For the most part, this is a really engrossing tale, and I love the setting. If I do have any gripes, it's that the later stages, particularly the whole hostage situation in Dixon's office, start to drag, and are too over-talkative, causing the episode to lose it's momentum a bit. Then of course, Wesley plays a big part in saving the day *yet again*(!), but I like the overall story enough to overlook that on this occasion. I wasn't sure about the climax, where Redblock and his crony actually leave the Holodeck and exist on the Enterprise for a few moments before fading away – I'm sure some Trek buff can prove me wrong, but I didn't think this could happen; but I suppose this could be put down to dramatic license.
But those minor quibbles aside, on the whole this is one of the (shaky) first season's most pleasing episodes. By this point, things were starting to feel less uncertain, and episodes such as this have a certain feel of classiness to them. I seem to recall, when I first watched this episode in my early teens, when it appeared on BBC Two here in the U.K. in December 1990, that my father (who hadn't really taken to the new incarnation of 'Trek') really enjoyed it too, and often referred back to it. Heck, the next week's edition of 'Points of View' (the long-running BBC viewer feedback programme) even closed with a clip from this episode, after people had phoned in saying how much they had enjoyed it.
All-in-all, this probably wouldn't make my Top 10 all-time favourite TNG episodes, but by the splashy first season standards, "The Big Goodbye" stands as one of the most fun, likable tales from the first year. It's one of the first real episodes to make the viewer really care about what happens to the characters, and it's gentle, not-trying-too-hard-to-be-funny tone works very well. It does have it's niggles, as I've mentioned above, but I like the overall idea and setting enough to give this one a very reasonable 9.5.