First, a word or a couple on my relationship with Star Trek at the start of this journey. Star Trek is one of those inescapable pop culture franchises that you know without knowing it. The Kirk/Spock duet is a creation that has entered history books and will certainly be remembered for a long time still; and for a science fiction fan like myself, the Enterprise, Klingons, warp speed, when The Next Generation (TNG) occurs compared to The Original Series (TOS), even what was Phase II, all of this is just common background knowledge. However, for some odd twist of fate, I had nothing to do with Star Trek in my life even though I followed closely the other major space-based TV series of the past two decades — Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, and now The Expanse — with the exception of the movie First Contact that I saw as a teenager. And so a few years ago I decided to remedy that by watching a “best of” episodes from TOS. Truth be told, I was quite underwhelmed; fifty years have passed, and although I have enjoyed watching other things from that time period (The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner), TOS has aged quite a bit. But let’s leave my death by stoning for uttering that for another day.
The plan is to watch TNG, leading into the movies and Deep Space Nine (DS9). Gone are the days of the 26-episode seasons and also real life calls, so it will have to be a “best of” (at least for now) based on IMDb and Jammer’s reviews, along with some obligatory reading on Memory Alpha. It will also be interesting to discover ST:TNG thirty years after it premiered, and judge it not just as an important piece of television history that belongs in a museum but as a piece of art/entertainment that can or cannot be enjoyed by today’s audience on its own merits.
And so, we energize to the late 1980s!
What is striking straight away when you approach TNG today is how clean and bright and overall friendly it is. This is a utopian future. 21st century films and shows have accustomed us viewers to dramas being dark, morally grey, and preferably with a lot of suffering, with a quite cynical sense of humor. Science fiction especially has seemed to have fallen in the trap of just doing dystopias; not that good things are not being made, quite the contrary, but you have to struggle to come up with a utopian or optimistic film or series in the past fifteen years. A sign of the times, surely, reflecting the “crisis” we are in for the past ten years. TNG is notoriously optimistic and anti-confrontational for its lead characters, more so than TOS. While this was frustrating for the writers of the show who were trying to invent drama, this choice to be optimistic is what defined the show and what has defined Star Trek since (yes we will talk about DS9 later!). Mankind can deal with the problems it is faced with, deal with them rationally, overcome them, and make life better for all its individuals. It is so simple a statement yet so revolutionary today. TNG has no equivalent in the shows of today, Discovery included.
The other thing that is striking is the science. Sure it’s science fiction and it’s a fine line between plausible science, techno-babble and fantasy for the sake of the plot. But TNG doesn’t shy away from having characters spew out names of chemical elements, names of frequency ranges, names of physics concepts, words with many syllables that other shows would avoid especially if they aim at reaching a larger audience — and it is not done for laughs! The Enterprise crew solves its issues by looking at the facts, at the real world, at an objective truth. Mysteries are enigmas to be solved with better understanding. This worldview also is very modern and revolutionary for today’s audience, especially with the anti-science turn of world events since last year.
In addition, an enormous quality of TNG is its self-consistent approach to all aspects of the universe’s aesthetics: the looks of the display screens, the sets of the spaceship interior, the costumes, the furniture, the primary colors of the photography. This minimalism is in line with an optimistic, ever-improving vision of the future. Everything is thought of as a coherent whole and the visual identity of the show is instantly recognizable, which makes for a very immersive experience.
As for special effects, which is usually the reason why films or show look dated, there are two aspects: miniatures and matte paintings are eternal and for that TNG is as sharp as anything; and the looks of the aliens, mostly humans with makeup, which is certainly what would make some allergic to Star Trek and old scifi in general. The HD transfer is excellent and certainly makes TNG very accessible to today’s audience.
Now, on to some specific season 1 episodes (1987-1988):
“Encounter at Farpoint”: just OK
“Encounter at Farpoint” is a pilot episode that is… just functional. The actors are still discovering their roles, the directing and the editing are not very tight. It spends more time introducing the key settings and concepts rather than the characters, it only spends more time on Picard and (beardless!) Riker; so the effect is a bit jarring, as if I already had missed some information. Although all characters are clearly defined already, TNG is a series that takes its time: future episodes that focus on each member of the crew will take care of character development. For the most part, the effects stand extremely well to today’s standards, partly because of the excellent work for the HD transfer, but also because miniature work and matte paintings are timeless and often better than CGI, let’s face it.
The pilot is really two episodes merged into one, and you can tell. There’s DC Fontana’s “Encounter at Farpoint” half, which is the less interesting bit; the character of Farpoint’s supervisor is not very fleshed out, the ending with the huge medusa entities is mesmerizing and unexpected by its scope. It’s hard to imagine the series starting its journey just with this episode. But, as a result of studio pressure, Gene Roddenberry wrote the “Q” half, which is much, much more suited to a series pilot, and acts as a framing story for this double episode and for the series as a whole. With Q, Roddenberry sets the tone for the ideals behind Star Trek and defines TNG’s mission statement: that we, humans, can evolve beyond our belligerent and violent past to a future where we strive to better ourselves. Q puts humanity on trial, quite literally, for its past horrors — including those of World War III in our own future — and Picard argues that humanity has moved past that and will progressively evolve to make those days seem like barbaric pre-history before civilization truly began. Q and the trial he sets up are whacky enough to make me think this is more of a fantasy series than science fiction, but the quality of the dialogue make up for that oddity.
The pilot does its job; but the best is yet to come. “Let’s see what’s out there. Engage.”
Bones McCoy, of course! That cameo from a TOS character was a really nice touch!
Picard: “I recognize this court as the one that agreed with that line from Shakespeare: ‘Kill all the lawyers!’ ”
Q: “Which was done.”
“Hide and Q”: Meh
A retread of the “Q” parts from the pilot episode: Q and his antics, judging humanity’s irresponsibility, trying to make his point here with the adage “power corrupts” — only that it doesn’t corrupt the collaborative effort that is the crew of the Entrerprise-D! The scenes on the plant with the ugly aliens, obviously shot on a sound stage, are not convincing at all. The episode only stands out for the Q–Picard dialogue, copiously quoting Shakespeare!
The excellent John DeLancie (Q) is a familiar face, among other things from Breaking Bad (the air controller that “causes” that airplane crash in season 2)! This and several TNG episodes are directed by Cliff Bole, who directed several The X-Files, Millennium and Harsh Realm episodes (e.g. “Bad Blood“)!
Q: “Perhaps maybe a little… Hamlet?”
Picard: “No. I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony I say with conviction. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god…””
Q: “Surely you don’t see your species like that do you?!”
Picard: “I see us one day becoming that, Q. Is it that which concerns you?”
“Datalore”: just OK
It’s a bit surprising that Data should be a one-of-a-kind android and not one of many mass-produced androids of a technology mastered by humans, like for example Ash in Alien. This situation sets up some interesting developments later on in the series, but it is an odd starting point. “Datalore” introduces Data’s evil twin, who is evil maybe because he is more human than Data is, an interesting concept. It gives Brent Spiner the opportunity to shine, and actually draws the attention to how good an actor he is as Data: his android mannerisms are so familiar by now that one wouldn’t think there’s a human behind that! The B-plot on the crystalline entity is, however, not the best Trek has to offer; special effects are really hit and miss. Bravo for Star Trek’s representation of diversity with the name of Data’s creator, a vaguely Korean-sounding name.
This is one of many TNG episodes directed by Rob Bowman! His work in The X-Files in a few years will become legendary!
Lore, to Data, about humans: “And you want to be as stupid as them, dear Brother?”
“11001001”: just OK
The Enterprise encounters aliens, aliens appear malevolent, malevolence is revealed to be just a result of misunderstanding between us and them, everything ends happily. It is a recipe for many an episode of an optimistic show like Star Trek, I suppose. It is handled well here with these binary aliens, and the episode showcases Picard and Riker working well together. The film noir-type holodeck simulation of a femme fatale to draw Riker’s attention is a bit outdated though. Also, it is surprising to see so many moments where the characters just smile — modern-day series have accustomed viewers to a much bleaker, cynical worldview, where torment and pain is the main driver behind the story.
Riker knows his Casablanca: “What’s a knockout like you doing in a computer-generated gin joint like this?”
“Home Soil”: Really excellent
What is impressive to this day is Star Trek’s attachment to the scientific method. Information about the real world is collected, analysed, theories are tested, and decisions are made based on facts. Take note, world of 2018! Take note, drama-only TV series of 2018! This episode is the most hard-science one so far, with discussions of terraforming, electricity conductivity and silicon-based life that were fascinating to this science fiction fan! There is very little beyond the science here, but the mere fact that TNG is confident enough of itself to base an entire episode on the awe of scientific discovery makes me think highly of this one.
The terraforming effort’s director, Walter Gotell, memorably portrayed Nazi scientist Victor Klemper in The X-Files‘ “Paper Clip“!
The silicon lifeform’s description of humans: “Ugly giant bags of mostly water.”
“Heart of Glory”: Good
With a title like that, it’s a Klingon-focused episode! We get a glimpse at Klingon culture with the “howl at the moon”-like death ritual and Worf’s loyalties are tested. The episode does a good job at portraying Worf, properly giving him credit for the efforts he has made to be a worthy Starfleet officer, but also not denying certain aspects of his Klingon heritage that he deems important, here in the way that he howls for the death of the Klingon he killed. It was to be expected that TNG would have an alien as part of the main characters, following up on Spock from TOS, although apparently it was a last-minute decision. And a black actor too — with Geordi filling the checklist for human black character! This creates many opportunities for storylines where cultures clash and we viewers think about our relationships with foreigners in our real world. Klingons of course are so over the top bestial that it is difficult not to side with Starfleet systematically (for now).
You couldn’t tell without looking at the cast list, but the first Klingon to die is Robert Bauer, aka mentally ill Johnny Horne in Twin Peaks!
Worf: “Cowards take hostages. Klingons do not.”
“The Arsenal of Freedom”: Meh
In this episode, automated weapons systems give the opportunity to Picard and Dr. Crusher to spend some time together and grow closer (I wonder how far that closeness will go?), and for LaForge to test his management and authority skills. Not very memorable otherwise.
The holographic salesman, Vincent Schiavelli, was, among many other things, the monster’s brother Lenny in The X-Files landmark episode “Humbug“!
“Skin of Evil”: Meh
If you can survive the tar-man special effects and some not very convincing acting for Troi (also hinting at her and Riker growing closer), there is a great scene at the end. Tasha Yar’s death comes very suddenly and, surprisingly, at the beginning of the episode — apparently as a result of the actress being dissatisfied with how little she was given to do, indeed I hardly got to know her. Her holodeck funeral at the end is beautifully set up, her recorded messages are touching; the high point is certainly Data’s struggling to understand all these very human emotions.
Data, on the funeral service: “Sir, the purpose of this gathering confuses me.”
Picard: “Oh? How so?”
Data: “I find my thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking, how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?”
Picard: “No you didn’t, Data. You got it.”
Alien invasion! Mind control bugs! Very 1980s practical gory effects! This is TNG going full John Carpenter! A great episode managing tension very well, particularly with Riker and Picard’s infiltration of Starfleet Command — which is oddly very empty of people (no budget left for extras?). This is the first time we see the San Francisco-based Starfleet Command and Earth in general in TNG, and I would love to see more of it.
The man with the peculiar physique, Michael Berryman, is an alien ally here and was Owen Jarvis in The X-Files‘ “Revelations“. Also, this was written by Tracy Tormé, who would create Sliders a few years later.
Captain Keel, with a recurring line for all conspiracy-themed works it seems: “Don’t trust anyone!”
“The Neutral Zone”: Excellent
As a work of science fiction, Star Trek is as much about the adventures as it is about imagining how our current human condition can evolve to a better future that needs to be imagined first before it can be realized. It was inevitable then that Star Trek would do an episode where present-day humans find themselves in the utopian 24th century, highlighting how different things are: no poverty, no hunger, any material needs available instantly thanks to technology, self-improvement as the society’s goal. The three examples of present-day humans here shine by how provincial they seem: a money-obsessed finance speculator, a booze-and-chicks country music performer, a housewife. A somewhat predictable episode, but very effective. The episode also has a B-story about tensions with the Romulans, doing some necessary world-building and providing some connective tissue between episodes. TNG episodes tend to be very self-contained, although there is some character development that carries over from the past, and this as the final episode of the season is no exception: no cliffhangers here.
Riker: “Makes one wonder how our species survived the 21st century.”
In closing, overall, of what I’ve seen of season 1, it still makes for fresh and interesting television in 2018. Plots are simple and straightforward, episodes are enjoyable, much more than most of the television of the time that I remember. Although I admit that if there wasn’t the novelty of discovering the utopic future of Roddenberry’s vision, I might not have been as patient. Some episodes do lack a little additional spark of originality; indeed I cannot imagine seven 26-episode seasons of a show with this format of “the planet of the week”. The fact that season 1 is the show’s weakest is one of the first things you learn when you start reading around on TNG. Some characters are mostly just archetypes (Troi, Dr. Crusher, Tasha); most of the others are well-defined and their mannerisms are there (“Make it so”, etc). But the more interesting episodes for them all are still to come.
It is only logical that we will be back with season 2 soon.