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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Encounter at Farpoint (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

It is very hard to believe that it has been a quarter of a century since Star Trek: The Next Generation first appeared on our screens. It is actually quite nice that Paramount and CBS are using the opportunity to give the series a bit of a visual overhaul, going back to the original films and special effects and updating them for high definition. This is not the same approach adopted by George Lucas with his remastering of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Instead, the aim of these high definition re-releases is to bring what was already there up to modern standards, rather than to retroactively re-do the special effects. The project is being overseen by the wonderful Mike and Denise Okuda, and Mike has argued that this restoration is a very bold endeavour, suggesting, “it’s the largest – as far as we know – the largest project of its kind that has ever been attempted.”

And I am proud to support it. In a large way, my interest in this high definition release is in large part grounded in recognition of the scale of the work involved. Because, let’s face it, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a solid contender for the worst year of Star Trek ever produced for television.

“Let’s see what’s out there…”

I don’t want to get bogged down with the problems facing the season. There will be plenty of time for that in the days and weeks to come as we dive into some of the worst episodes the franchise ever produced. I’ll undoubtedly repeat this observation a few times over the course of the next month, but it’s astounding that Star Trek: The Next Generation lasted long enough to get as good as it did. I can’t imagine a similar show with two shaky opening seasons surviving in the market long enough to reach the ground-breaking third season and beyond.

Still, Encounter at Farpoint is actually a reasonably decent introduction to this new world and its new characters. Setting the show a century after the original series proved to be quiet a clever idea – allowing for a massive overhaul in visual aesthetic, but also allowing a bit of distance in the type of stories told. The first season of The Next Generation doesn’t capitalise on that distance, trotting out the old cliché plot devices as if nothing had changed in the twenty years since the original show. However, it was a remarkably smart idea, and you can see hints of just how smart it was in Encounter at Farpoint. Indeed, the cameo of an ageing McCoy is actually a perfect passing of the torch, even if it does seem a little weirdly isolated from everything else in the episode. This isn’t a world belonging to Kirk, Spock or McCoy anymore. This is the world that belong to Picard.

New lifeforms…

The universe presented in Encounter at Farpoint still seemed a vast unknown quantity, albeit in a much different way than it did in the original series. The original Star Trek posited space travel as a sort of Western, with Gene Roddenberry famously describing it as “wagon train to the stars.” Of course, the Western genre dies out in the sixties and seventies, and The Next Generation doesn’t take its queues from those cultural mores.

Each Star Trek show can be seen as an extension of its lead. Kirk was a charismatic cowboy, and so Star Trek was much more of an action adventure series. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine gave us a Captain with a tangible and troubled past, riddled with insecurities, and so it became the most nuanced of the shows. Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager was erratic and inconsistent in character, and the quality of the show followed suit.

Bald ambition…

Encounter at Farpoint gives us a nice look at Jean-Luc Picard and – through him – a glimpse of what the show might become. More than Kirk, he’s an orator. I’ve never entirely subscribed to the idea that Kirk was a fighter and Picard was a thinker – both were were fairly competent in either skill. However, as portrayed by the marvellous Patrick Stewart, Picard certainly had a gift for oration. To this day, Stewart remains the strongest leading actor in a Star Trek series. Watching the first season of the show again, it’s amazing how much heavy-lifting the actor does when the script isn’t quite up to the task.

Encounter at Farpoint is already recycling the classic Star Trek staples, falling back on familiar plots and storytelling devices. The notion of humanity confronting God is one that comes up time and time again over the franchise. The second Star Trek pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, featured Kirk dealing with an old friend given almost limitless power. The entire show was packed with god-like beings tormenting and judging our heroes, especially during the first season. So the presence of a god-like being taunting the crew of this new Enterprise feels strangely familiar.

Picard is stunned by this reckless disregard…

Interestingly enough, the entire subplot involving Q was a late addition to the script, when Paramount decided that they wanted an extended opening episode. Q’s trial of humanity was inserted at the last minute to pad out what had been intended to be a single episode:

At the last minute, Paramount said, ”No, it’s not a 90-minute, it’s a two-hour [episode].” I got Gene to write extra scenes that we inserted into the action.

Gene created a second story line about this somewhat omnipotent character named Q, who stops the Enterprise and says: You have to convince me that you’re worthy of venturing further out into the galaxy. Oddly enough, the Q story is the far more remembered of the two.

- Robert Justman and Rick Berman

Watching Encounter at Farpoint, it’s immediately clear that Q is really just there for padding. The ensemble doesn’t arrive at Farpoint until the second-half and the mystery is easily-enough resolved once they get there.

The show was given a trial run…

It is interesting that the Q storyline has enduring much better than the mystery concerning the Bendii. The Bendii are a footnote in Star Trek history, while John De Lancie has been a recurring guest star on The Next Generation. He would provide a fitting bookend in All Good Things… and he also appeared in three of the five Star Trek series. De Lancie is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Q. He is clearly relishing the performance, giving the character an energy and charisma that makes him great fun to watch.

Most of the god-like beings on Star Trek were presented as somewhat old and stoic – consider the Organians in Errand of Mercy. Even the younger more powerful beings, like Trelane in The Squire of Gothos or Charlie in Charlie X, were subject to discipline from their more serious and severe elders. Q is portrayed as something of a spoilt child interested primarily in his own amusement, and there’s nobody or nothing to stop him from doing what he wants. Of course he plays (reasonably) fair with the Enterprise, but he’s nowhere near as high-minded as he claims.

Beaming with enthusiasm…

He promises to observe Picard to give humanity a fair trial, and then he goads Picard in the hopes of convincing the Captain to make the wrong decision. He installs himself as arbiter of humanity’s right to exist, but he hardly grants the accused a fair trial. While other all-powerful beings have threatened Kirk and his ship, there’s something quite dramatic about the scale of threat posed by Q, in part due to the fact that he seems rather prejudiced and immature. “Thou art notified that thy kind hath infiltrated the galaxy too far already,” he dictates. “Thou art directed to return to thine own solar system.”

Not only is it larger-scale threat than most classic Star Trek villains offered, it is also a bolder and more philosophical one. Q isn’t threatening to wipe humanity out. Instead, he threats to hem humanity in – to stop their progress and to arrest their development. Star Trek has always been about the attempts to better ourselves, to embrace the great unknown in all its forms and the principles that guide us in that voyage of discovery. To essentially anchor mankind and to halt their journey to the stars is an attack on the fundamental underlining principle of the show. And, as such, Q’s plot is by far the most conceptually fascinating of the pilot. Indeed, it’s arguably the most compelling of the year, with only the infiltration and subversion of those ideals in Conspiracy coming close.

“I thought they might call this Justice… but unfortunately that episode title was taken…”

The problem is that Q can’t sustain the pilot by himself. The episode is awkwardly constructed to showcase not only the cast, but also the ship. It’s great to hear the sound of the engines purring as we tour Engineering, but there is a lot of unnecessary stuff here. We don’t need a clip of Worf inside Engineering to know that Engineering is ready to follow the Captain’s orders. (Surely the text-only interface would do the job.) Similarly, Riker discovers that the inside of the ship has a handy GPS reference that exists only to eat up a minute or two of screen time.

In many ways, Encounter at Farpoint actually feels like a commercial for a Galaxy-class starship, so fixated is it on the neatness of the (admittedly impressive) sets. “Incredible!” Riker remarks on visiting the holodeck, in the middle of his introduction to Data, which also serves as our introduction to the plot device that would awkwardly drive so many future episodes. That said, the holodeck as used here is actually not unreasonable. Encounter at Farpoint presents the notion that the Federation has come a long way since the original Star Trek.

It’s coming together…

The presence of Counsellor Troi and families on board concedes that there are potential psychological hazards to locking people up inside a ship and sending them off into the cosmos with a bunch of strangers. At least the presence of families and the holodeck suggests that the ship could become something of a home – that the holodeck might serve as a device to allow people a taste of life off the ship. (Given that the only non-regulars who go on away teams tend to die horribly, it’s certainly the safer option – even with the inevitable malfunctions.) It’s when the holodeck becomes a storytelling crutch that it is a problem, and the device used here actually seems quite reasonable aboard a metal can floating through space far from Earth.

There’s a bit of character work done here as well, even if the script is kinda clunky. And by “kinda clunky”, I mean that the dialogue becomes a bit staged and forced. Over the next seven years, the cast would learn to deliver awkward dialogue with considerable flare, but these are still performers growing into their roles. When we need to learn that Data has difficulty with human concepts, he has difficulty with the word ‘snoop.‘ Which seems strange, as Picard points out, in a piece of dialogue that is also overloaded with exposition, “Data, how can you be programmed as a virtual encyclopaedia of human information without knowing a simple word like ‘snoop’?”

Make sure you have all the Data before acting…

Similarly, characters like Troi and Worf get less than fluid introductions, with both characters rather bluntly and explicitly identifying their character traits for the audience. When Picard orders Worf to oversee the evacuation, the officer rather bluntly explains that he takes issue with the order, and that issue stems from his own identity as a Klingon. “I am a Klingon, sir. To seek escape when my captain goes into battle…” Picard again replies with a blunt stating of the character’s central conflict for the audience. “You are a Starfleet officer.”

Lieutenant Yar remains one of the most awkward leading characters in the history of Star Trek. I’ll talk about this a bit more when the show gives her a character-centric episode, but she has one of the most detailed back stories of any of the lead human characters out of the gate, but she winds up being written and portrayed as this most inconsistent and off-balance characters in the franchise, only to be unceremoniously killed off towards the end of the first season in one of the show’s weaker episodes. The concept of a kick-ass female security officer should be impressive in a franchise that has always had a few issues with gender – I mean, the other two ladies on the show are the medic and the counsellor – but Yar feels like a missed opportunity.

Worf speed!

Part of that is because Denise Crosby isn’t the strongest actress, but the writing of Yar was just dire. Her back story was complicated, but potentially fascinating. Instead, the show awkwardly shoe-horns the headlines into the most cringe-worthy dialogue. Here, she offers her personal history while standing up to Q. “I grew up in a world that allowed things like this court. It was people like these that saved me from it. This so-called court should get down on its knees to what Starfleet is. What it represents.” The problem is that the outburst is the last thing that you need from your Chief of Security in that situation. Yar’s most significant contribution to the security of the Enterprise is getting herself frozen.

However, despite that, Picard actually seems like a pretty great character – even at this stage. There’s a sense that the show hasn’t quite got a handle on him. He is a little irate at times. “Shut off that damn noise!” he barks when the ship goes to Red Alert. He seems a little too giddy at times, considering the more sombre and restrained Picard that we are used to. “Did you signal the Hood?” he asks Riker at one point, as if wondering if about that girl he likes. Riker informs him, “Your exact message. Bon voyage, mon ami.” Picard wanders over to the Conn as if checking his facebook status. “What was the reply, computer?”This wouldn’t be a big deal, except Picard knows he’s on trial for humanity. It seems flippant.

The post-Atomic fashion horror!

And yet there are nice touches. There’s a sense that Picard isn’t a people-person, and I like that Patrick Stewart gradually thawed the character over the years – creating the illusion of a character arc in a relatively episodic show. When Riker first arrives, Picard isn’t exactly welcoming. “We’ll bring you up to date on our little adventure. Then we’ll talk.” There is actually a pretty heavy pause before Picard remembers to add, “Welcome aboard.”

While Wesley is pretty annoying even this early on (“it’d be hard to get bored on this ship!” all that’s missing is the “gee whiz!”), but I like the back story between Picard and the Crushers. In particular, I like that Beverly pretty much emotionally blackmails Picard into letting Wesley on the bridge, by pointing out that the last time Picard saw the boy, he was telling him that his father was dead. Similarly, Stewart does an excellent job as Picard tries to be nice, his patience slipping when Wesley notices something important. “How the hell do you know that, boy?”he snaps.

The real McCoy…

(I also quite like that Picard, pretty much out of the gate, calls Q on the fact that he is stealing old Star Trek plots. When Q remarks that the human race is trapped within a cycle of repetition, Picard points out that Q’s modus operandi is hardly the most original. “The same old story is the one we’re meeting now. Self-righteous life forms who are eager not to learn but to prosecute, to judge anything they can’t understand or tolerate!” To a certain extent, Encounter at Farpoint is “the same old story”, but it’s told quite well.)

I’ve left the actual Farpoint plot until the end, because… well, the chow gets through it quick enough. There’s some potential there. Imagine living in a place that could actually distort itself to your wants and your needs – that’s a fascinating idea. It might have been more interesting to suggest a co-dependence between the Bendii and the mysterious alien rather than the simple issue of slavery, as reducing the dynamic to master and slave makes this a little too simple.

It seems that god-like beings are just Q-ing up for the opportunity to judge humanity…

If you could live in a place that met all of your needs, would there be any need to travel? Would the Bendii need the Federation? That would put an interesting spin on the central premise of the franchise. After all, the Federation has reached a point where everybody has what they need, so why do they keep exploring? Why do they venture out? A pilot episode like Encounter at Farpoint might have been the perfect vehicle to explore those questions, but the plot feels a little too basic and a little too rushed. Still, that doesn’t make it one of the lesser plots of a bumpy season.

Despite the fact that the show was relatively episodic, there’s some nice hints of things to come tied into this early episode. Q shows a slight interest in Riker that ultimately becomes a plot point in Hide & Q. “You show promise my good fellow,” Q remarks to Riker. Picard even comments on it, “At least you impressed him, Number One. That’s hopeful.”It’s not the most fluid of transitions or set-ups, but it has to count for something.

Together again, for the first time…

Similarly, Encounter at Farpoint even hints at the Ferengi as a sort of an anti-Federation, an alternative to Groppler Zorn and the Bendii if negotiations with the Federation don’t work out. Remember when they were treated like a threat? Here, we haven’t seen The Last Outpost yet, so it sort of works. Unlike the year or two after The Last Outpost when the show was desperately trying to convince us to take those aliens seriously.

Encounter at Farpoint is not the show’s best episode. However, it is far from the worst episode of a season that would prove rocky. At the very least, it demonstrates potential, and showcases the talent of Patrick Stewart in the leading role, while suggesting that the series has some idea of where it wants to go. It is far from perfect, but it certainly stand out as one of the better shows of that first year.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve been rewatching the series in honour of its 25th anniversary, too. I’m only about halfway through the first season, since I’ve only been watching an episode a week. I thought Farpoint was a decent introduction. Compared to what the series would become, it’s horribly weak. Even taken on its own merits, it’s deeply flawed. But it’s OK as a debut episode, I thought. Stewart and de Lancie are awesome.

    • I agree entirely. But it is a lot stronger than what would follow for a while. It’s not essential Next Generation or Star Trek, but I think it encapsulates Roddenberry’s themes a lot better than a lot of the episodes that directly followed. And you’re spot on about Stewart and deLancie.

  2. Yes, the scene in engineering was needed. Rodenberry wrote it in himself, because if the show didn’t use the set in the pilot, the network would never give enough money to build it later.

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