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.
I stand by my original observation that it was a smart idea to set Star Trek: The Next Generation a century after Star Trek. After all, Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek was over two decades old by the time that Encounter at Farpoint aired. Twenty years is a long time in entertainment – it can feel like a century. The world had changed since Star Trek appeared, and setting the story in a brand new world with strong (yet not strangling) ties to the beloved original series allowed the best of both worlds.
However, the problem with the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it doesn’t quite realise this yet. It’s busy trying to do “Star Trek”, even though times have changed. The Naked Now, the second episode of the series, is the perfect embodiment of this problem. Star Trek: The Next Generation should have been establishing its own identity, rather than trying to simply emulate its predecessor.
It must be tough launching a new show. You have to establish the characters, the world, the conflicts. It can be a painful process as the writers, actors and directors try to find a formula that works through the process of careful experimentation. Hopefully, by the end of the first year, you have a grasp of what works and what doesn’t. As a result the second season is a lot stronger. (Or, you simply waste all your good ideas, in which case the second season is terrible.)
This is purely academic here, as Star Trek: The Next Generation spent much of its first season trying to be an eighties version of a sixties television show, but I think it explains why the show didn’t really take off until the third season. Most of the soul-searching a new show does was delayed by the desperate attempt to emulate its predecessor. As a result, the second season had to learn those lessons (and during a writers’ strike, too!), which meant the third season had finally figured out what had worked.
The Naked Now is a clone of The Naked Time. The episode even acknowledges it as such – affording the writers a chance to remind viewers that this show does exist in the same world as Kirk did. That said, it feels a little cheap. A lot of people are very fond of The Naked Time, but I’d only rank it slightly above average. It seems surreal to rip off a merely above-average episode of your much-loved predecessor as only your second episode. It seems less than respectful and more downright cheeky. As George Takei observed in his auto-biography, it is like watching “young children putting on their parents’ clothes and trying to act like grown-ups.”
It might have worked if The Next Generation were more subversive, but the show’s aesthetic is downright conservative. At this point in its life, it didn’t want to subvert or deconstruct the original Star Trek, so it seems a misjudged decision to position this adventure as only the second in a new television series. Perhaps it was less of an issue in an era before home media, but it still seems a surreal choice for the producers to make.
Still, I’m hesitant to break out any phrase remotely resembling “worst episode” or anything like that. The Naked Now is bad. There’s no way around that. However, I will be venturing into the depths of Star Trek hell for the next few weeks, and I don’t want to wear down my credibility. The Naked Now is watchable, even if you’ll repeatedly flinch throughout – which puts it several notches ahead of some upcoming instalments.
Even if you get past the fact that The Naked Now is a rip-off, there are other conceptual reasons it seems a poor choice for the second episode. This is an episode about the crew acting out of character. However, we have only known them for one week at this point, so we know next to nothing about them. “That doesn’t sound like you Geordi,” Riker comments – but we have a hard time believing that he knows what Geordi sounds like. Sure, Geordi’s response isn’t professional, but the world “like you” suggest something more personal.
On a practical level, it also means forcing your ensemble to act against type before they’ve really had a chance to get into the characters that they are playing. Patrick Stewart does a fantastic job as a horny version of Picard, and the scene between Picard and Crusher almost makes the episode worthwhile. It also sets up one of the better long-term plot points of the series, the notion that Beverly is attracted to her dead husband’s co-worker, and he is attracted to his dead friend’s wife – but neither can admit it. However, other actors stumble a bit.
Denise Crosby is trapped in an awfully-written role (we’ll come to this), but she’s less than impressive. LeVar Burton has trouble making Geordi seem aggressive. While Data drunk was a bad idea to begin with, Brent Spiner seems unsure of how to play it. And Will Wheaton was never charming as Wesley, so turning the smarm all the way up may have been a bad call. Riker, as the last character to succumb, actually gets some nice work here as Frakes settles into the role.
I particularly like how Riker is quite cheeky. These early episodes of The Next Generation are a bit hamstrung by Gene Roddenberry’s dictates to the writing staff – in particular his restrictions on conflict. Conflict is the essence of drama and while restricting its use might fit Roddenberry’s artistic vision, it doesn’t help storytelling. Riker works here because he’s the only member of the ensemble with a bit of an edge.
Riker goads Data early on about his abilities, asking him to review thousands of records and reports. “This should be easy for someone written up in bio-mechanical texts.” At the episode’s climax, he also forces a reluctant Picard to acknowledge Wesley’s contribution to save the ship. Riker’s support of Wesley is a pretty consistent character point. As is Picard’s dickish reluctance to admit the boy is coming along. Cajoled into acknowledging Wesley’s work, he concedes, “Fair is fair. Let’s praise his science teacher, too.”
It also has some nice (if minor) stuff for Geordi. “I wish I understood myself that well,” he states at one point, the sort of on-the-nose dialogue that pops up frequently, but does offer a sense of character. I do like the idea that Geordi holds himself together much better than the rest of the crew because he is so repressed. He seems to fight it more than Yar or Data. The most radical thing he does is to wander off unattended. “Help me,” he begs Tasha. “Help me to not give in to the wild things in my mind.”
However, if The Naked Now presents Riker and Geordi as developing characters, it demonstrates inherent problems with a few others. The most obvious is Wesley. The notion of the boy taking control of the ship is ridiculous, but his Picard-imitating device is downright creepy. “Since the Captain won’t let me on the bridge, I use this to imagine I’m there.” If I were Picard, I’d be a little worried about that little device. Indeed, if I were Beverly, I’d consider consulting Troi about it. Wesley is clearly conceived as a sort of “you could be here!” character for sci-fi nerds, a wish-fulfilment “you could totally save the ship!” insert character. However, he’s so annoying and creepy that it feels counter-productive.
And then there’s Yar. Star Trek can be pretty great when it comes to social issues like racism. The original series was (and still is) an inspiration to millions, to the point where Martin Luthor King himself convinced Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek. However, it has always had a few issues with gender roles. Yar should be a firm attempt to rebuff the more awkward past portrayals of women. You can see that The Next Generation openly conceded that Star Trek had some gender issues, even if it wasn’t quite sure how to resolve them.
Encounter at Farpoint tried to get around the sexist dress codes of the original series, by putting men in similar skirts. It was an effort that proved a bit misjudged, but they eventually figured out that the proper thing was to put all officers (except Troi, for some reason) in trousers. Yar reads as a similar miscalculation. She’s a kick-ass security officer, so she has to be a bit feminist, right? Given that Beverly is the ship’s doctor and Troi is the person on the bridge most likely to talk about “feelings”, it seems like Yar should be awesome.
(As an aside, Troi is pretty close to useless here, setting a trend that would last for most of the series. Confronting Tasha, who has broken into her quarters and is modelling the clothes in her cupboard, Troi states, “Tasha, I feel you’re very uncertain. That you’re fighting something. What is it?” I’m not entirely convinced that Troi is actually empathic. She seems to be just a half-decent judge of mood based on what exactly is going on at that point.)
However, she just feels ill-judged. When she gets infected, she immediately becomes a bit slutty. The camera lingers on her swaying ass cheeks, just in case we don’t get that. She talks to Troi about getting in touch with her femininity, but apparently – according the show – being “feminine” just means having sex with random men on the ship. Picard and Beverly are the only other crew members to become space-horny, but it seems more about expressing long-repressed attraction. Yar seems to pick up random men and sleep with them. I doubt the show would treat Riker in the same way. It certainly doesn’t treat Geordi, Data or Wesley like that. And Wesley is a teenage boy!
Once you get past that initial problem, though, it also seems ill-judged when we dig into her back story. There has to be a more sensitive way to deal with a history of perpetual threatened sexual abuse than talking about “rape gangs.” If you absolutely have to have a character talk about it in such a blunt and expository manner, it’s not the best idea to put it in the middle of a seduction scene. And to have her immediately take another crewmember to bed. Dealing with the threat of sexual abuse is a weighty topic, and it is worth bringing it up if you can handle it appropriately. Having a character confess a history of avoiding “rape gangs” in a mid-riff revealing dress before boinking a robot is not the appropriate way to handle it.
There are other problems with The Naked Now. Like so many first season episodes (here’s looking at you, Datalore!), it relies on the cast being idiots. Apparently a full medical quarantine means leaving Geordi unattended in an unlocked Sick Bay. I hope Beverly felt embarrassed when she had to tell security. “Security, Lt. La Forge left sickbay while I was in my office.” The first of the show’s rotating team of Chief Engineers appears this episode, and her whining perhaps explains why she didn’t keep the job. “No, sir, I cannot replace the chips in 14 minutes. Two hours, three, maybe.”Look, you’re going to have to deal with that stuff on a weekly basis. Suck it up!
There’s also the fact that everybody seems particularly pedantic this week. It’s like the Enterprise is staffed with nerds. “They were all sucked out into space,” Riker observes. Data doesn’t hesitate to let him know how wrong he is, “Correction, sir, that’s blown out.” That’s understandable with Data, but it also happens later on with Troi and Picard. “Sir, I think Tasha’s been infected, too,” Troi tells Picard. Picard jumps down her throat, “It’s not actually an infection.” Mirina Sirtis makes it clear that Troi thinks Picard is being as much of a dick as he seems. “Yes, sir. It’s more like an intoxication. But, whatever it is,… she’s got it.” The understandable undercurrent is “well, next time you can spot it yourself, then.”
I don’t want to seem too harsh. It’s not nearly the worst episode of the year, which is kinda depressing. There are nice touches, though. I like that the early part of the episode demonstrates the dangers of space, as even the smallest environmental variables kill the crew of the Tsiolkovsky. I also like (high definition bonus!) that the plaque on the bridge of the other ship is in Russian. Apparently it also suggests that the ship was manufactured in the Soviet Union. While that dates the show, it’s not a major problem (dude, where are my Eugenics Wars?), and I like that it suggests that peace could have come about in a future where the Soviet Union still existed.
Still, The Naked Now offers a nice taste of the fundamental problems with this first season, running from the episode’s central premise through to some of the characters. It’s certainly a lot more interesting to examine in that light.
Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- Encounter at Farpoint
- The Naked Now
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Naked Time
- Code of Honour
- The Last Outpost
- Where No One Has Gone Before
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane
- Lonely Among Us
- The Battle
- Supplemental: Reunion by Michael Jan Friedman
- Supplemental: (DC Comics, 1989) #59-61 – Children of Chaos/Mother of Madness/Brothers in Darkness
- Hide & Q
- The Big Goodbye
- Angel One
- Too Short a Season
- When the Bough Breaks
- Home Soil
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Devil in the Dark
- Coming of Age
- Heart of Glory
- Arsenal of Freedom
- Skin of Evil
- Supplemental: Survivors by Jean Lorrah
- We’ll Always Have Paris
- The Neutral Zone
- Supplemental: Operation Assimilation
- Supplemental: The Lost Era – Serpents Among the Ruins by David R. George III
Filed under: The Next Generation | Tagged: Beverly Crusher, Brent Spiner, burton, Data, Deanna Troi, gene roddenberry, Geordi, Geordi La Forge, levar burton, Naked Time, picard, Reading Rainbow, space, star trek, Star Trek Next Generation, star trek: the next generation, star trek: the original series, Starfleet ranks and insignia, Tasha Yar, Technology, Wesley |