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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Last Outpost (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.

You know, a lot of people would argue that Star Trek is about understanding. That it’s about embracing and respecting cultures, even when they hold values different than your own. Sometimes that is to a fault, like in the last episode (Code of Honour) where Picard allowed his Chief of Security to engage in a fight to the death to avoid violating local custom. (Which he then violated by reviving the loser.) However, it appears that such open-mindedness only applies when you look and act appropriately human enough.

If you are a Ferengi, then your culture shouldn’t be respected and acknowledged. It should be mocked and ridiculed.

He’s all ears…

Of course, I know the Ferengi are a fictional race. There are hardly any special interest groups ready to protest the portrayal of the Ferengi as a bunch of greedy morons. However, it’s the principle of the thing. Star Trek is – at its best – a metaphorical commentary on the world we live in. The philosophical quandaries and moral imperatives facing our crew reflect a world-view that is arguably one of the most optimistic in popular culture.

However, The Last Outpost embodies an uncomfortable recurring strand through the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, concerning the leading characters. Far from existing on the rocky road to perfection, in pursuit of constant betterment, the human race seems to have reached its pinnacle of virtue. And Star Trek: The Next Generation is often uncomfortably smug about just how awesome humanity is.

Whip it! Whip it good!

For example, Star Trek was happy to allow Spock remain coldly logical for its tenure, but Star Trek: The Next Generation has Data engage in a constant quest to be human. It’s flattering to think that somebody smarter, faster and stronger might want to be like us, but it’s also a little awkward. The later seasons would suggest that Data was perhaps a little misguided in his goals – that he was, in many ways, better and more virtuous than those around him, and that his desire to be human compromised him in some way. In the early years of the show, it was portrayed in an alarmingly earnest manner.

This brings us to the Ferengi. We’re only a few episodes into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation by now, but it’s clear that the producers wanted to introduce a new major alien threat. The Ferengi had been mentioned by name in Encounter at Farpoint, and their reveal here seems to set them up as a potentially menacing alien adversary. Certainly there are hints that the Ferengi are a serious threat early in the episode.

He’s been and T’Kon!

This new threat is portrayed as decidedly unknown. Their faces are initially hidden from us. The model ship looks strangely menacing. Director Richard Colla even shoots the model from low angles to make it seem especially threatening. Troi, the first point of contact for an alien species, is caught off-guard by these new creatures. “I’m sensing nothing from them Captain. Which could mean they can shield their thoughts and emotions from others.”

However, almost immediately the Ferengi are relegated to a joke, even before we see them in their ridiculous make-up. When Data compares them to “Yankee traders”, Riker is quick to suggest that there might be some common ground. You know, like you’d expect from a ship on a mission of exploration and understanding. “And are those scholars saying the Ferengi may not unlike us?” Data shoots that idea down, “Hardly, sir. I believe this analogy refers to the worst quality of capitalists. The Ferengi are believed to conduct their affairs of commerce on the ancient principle caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.”

Underhanded introduction…

You see, the Ferengi like money. And that’s terrible. However, it isn’t even the jokes about the Ferengi that are most uncomfortable. It’s the casual acceptance that they must be a “lesser” species because they hold a set of values different from our heroes. “They may grow and learn,” Riker remarks of them, in the most condescending manner possible, when the mysterious Portal is asking for a reason to let them live. One might suspect that “just because they don’t accept our values doesn’t make them any less alive than us” would also have been accepted as an answer.

It’s interesting to note that this isn’t just the view of the characters. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do an excellent job rehabilitating the aliens, by actually calling human characters out on this cultural superiority trick. Then again, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a relatively subversive take on Star Trek. I’d argue that The Next Generation got a bit better as it went on. The aliens in Conspiracy are the dark side of the Federation, and the Borg are a dramatic foil – the threat of “assimilation”being literal rather than cultural.

Worlds apart…

None of this makes a difference here. The episode invites us to join the cast in mocking the Ferengi. When Picard suggests that all “civilised” people recognise the Federation’s claim to Gamma Tauri IV, Tarr counters, “The Ferengi are not uncivilised, human! Are you suggesting otherwise?” The would be a powerful moment, if only the episode didn’t treat it as an “aw, it thinks it’s people!” moment. It’s very hard to believe nobody thought too much about this, especially when the series bible explicitly states the show is not about “spreading 20th century Euro/American cultural values throughout the galaxy.”

This would be bad enough, but the series suffocates on its own irony when it decides to have the Ferengi mock our human value systems. They dismiss the humans as “barbarous” and mock our “twisted alien culture.”They criticise the Prime Directive, and the fact that the Federation would legitimately let countless alien civilisations die. That seems like a legitimate criticism, until they make a remark about how such a policy is not profitable. The problem is that the episode thinks this undermines the validity of their criticism of Federation cultural norms. In a better episode, Riker would discover that his dismissal of the Ferengi is merely reflected in their low opinion of us, and that both sides need to change. Sadly, we are not in a better episode.

It’s a finger-trap!

This is further compounded by the fact that the Ferengi are a pretty crappy threat. Pretty much everybody involved in the episode would concede that. Producer Rick Berman is quoted in The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion as admitting that they were a “disappointment as a major adversary.” Even Worf, who exists at this point in the series to get beaten up by the threat of the week, seems insulted when the Ferengi appear to get the drop on the Enterprise, “Immobilised by the damn Ferengi.”

The struggle with the Ferengi on the planet is played for laughs, as Data dangles one by the neck. We see his feet kicking in the air. When one of them punches Riker, we cut back to Data for a comical reaction shot. Worf deals with the pair attacking him as a minor irritation. Once again, the Klingon is clearly less-than-impressed by the scale of the threat confronting him. He describes them as “pygmy cretins!” And, sadly, it seems the writing staff didn’t think that much more of them. Unfortunately, it would be a number of appearances before The Next Generation accepted that the Ferengi didn’t work as a threat, and a few years before they figured out how to make them work at all.

The Ferengi are such a threat that Picard felt comfortable dozing through the episode…

It seems I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Ferengi. At least it means I won’t have to cover the same ground when we reach The Battle. However, the episode is pretty flat outside them as well. The writing is pretty clumsy. There’s a scene where the script manages to combine the “this is set in the future, you know” exposition with an attempt to characterise Picard as French version of Checkov:

What have bright, primary colours got to do with it?

I understand the allusion. Colours representing countries at a time when they competed with each other. Red, white and blue for the United States. Whereas the French more properly used the same colours in the order of blue, white and red.

And the German nation red, black and gold. The Italians green, white and red. The British —

That’s enough, Data.

It was you who–

We’re discussing the Ferengi.

– Yar, Picard and Data learn a very special lesson about why France is awesome

I like how The Last Outpost doesn’t even try to pretend that the Enterprise has a Chief Engineer at this point. They must have been between the many interchangeable interim Chief Engineers at this point, as Riker and Geordi just wander into the engine room and start taking notes and reading consoles. You’d imagine the ship would at least have a guy who could summarise that for them.

Although, to be fair, Picard’s British accent makes his French patriotism hilarious…

The Last Outpost, as with so many first season episodes, falls back on familiar original series storytelling and plot devices. The notion that nobody has seen a Ferengi recalls the introduction of the Romulans in Balance of Terror, but The Last Outpost also sees the cast stumbling across that old classic – an old planetary base of a long-gone alien empire. Here, it’s the T’Kon, who I don’t think were mentioned in the show again.

I actually quite like the notion that the Star Trek universe is populated with the remains of all these ancient civilisations, discarded and forgotten. It gives a sense of scale to the age of the cosmos, and reinforces the sense that this is drama unfolding on an epic scale. More than that, it seems to raise the question of how long the Federation might endure. If the T’Kon Empire could disappear over-night, then surely the same could happen to the Federation? What will future societies make of the relics of the Federation? What will their enduring legacy be?

This outpost certainly isn’t over-staffed…

I can’t help but feel like The Last Outpost misses a step in failing to make the connection a bit more explicit. The Federation is an expansive force in the Star Trek universe, welcoming new members. Here, on awakening, the Portal immediately asks if the arrivals have come to sign up. “You have awakened Portal 63. Do you petition to enter the Empire?” Comparing the Federation to the Empire might have allowed for more nuanced commentary on the Ferengi, by pointing out the Enterprise’s cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, it feels a bit wasted. Still, I like the idea that the Portal has some sense of eternity. (“We are forever.”)

Sadly, instead of existing to provide a commentary or counterpoint to the Federation’s attitude towards the Ferengi, the T’Kon vindicate it. You know you’re doing the right thing when a long-dead society gives you the thumbs up. “Unlike these little ones who close their minds, your mind holds interesting thoughts,”the Portal comments, in a manner that suggests he is as dismissive as the Ferengi as Riker is. With the Federation and the T’Kon chummily agreeing on how crap the Ferengi are, you almost feel sorry for the aliens.

The crew did not react well to news of another upcoming Ferengi episode…

That said, there are – as ever – a few nice moments scattered here. While the special effects shot of the Portal spinning his staff just screams “eighties!”, I actually have a great deal of affection for the cheesy planetary set, with its obviously plastic crystals and abundance of dramatic dry ice. The energy whips, while never a serious threat, are delightfully knaff. And, as I mentioned above, the model of the Ferengi ship is actually quite nice.

There are also a few nice character moments, too. Yar actually gets be effective here. Although it’s disappointing that the only threat that Yar has been able to handle so far is the Ferengi. I really hope that doesn’t show up in her annual evaluation. And there’s a lovely moment between Picard and Crusher on the bridge of the Enterprise after they wake up, and she absent-mindedly calls him “Jean.” Damn, they were a cute quasi-couple.

Ferengis in our midst…

However, these moments are few and far between. The  script is mostly rather clunky. There’s an awful earlier conversation between Crusher and Picard over Wesley. The attempt to insert thematically-relevant piece of background metaphors and foreshadowing (with the Chinese finger trap and Sun Tzu) feel more than a little contrived and awkward. The Last Outpost reads like a bit of a mess, as if it were thrown together without any real idea what was meant to be happening.

The Last Outpost isn’t the worst of the season, but it’s hardly a triumph. The Next Generation would get a lot better at introducing new threats, and would do so rather quickly as well. That’s pretty lucky, because I’m not sure the show could regularly afford missteps like this.

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

10 Responses

  1. Wait until you get to The Neutral Zone episode. That bit where the crew all scratch their heads and try to figure out what a ‘housewife’ could be? (So much for Picard’s scholar credentials!) Yikes. Yes, because not one of the zillions of planets and cultures the Federation is aware of have gender specific roles in terms of child-rearing. None of them. And the businessman who wakes up and immediately demands to know what’s become of his money! The crew all act super-smug, despite the fact that the Federation’s economy is based on a technology so fantastically convenient–replicators–that it might as well be magic wands.

    • Yep. The first season was a mess. Then again, they opened the second season with The Child. I know they had the script handy and the writers’ strike forced the issue, but The Child was really exactly the one show to open with after you’d lost two of your three lead female actors. Marina Sirtis remained on the show, and got rewarded with a story where an alien forceably impregnates and manipulates her, making her watch her “son” die? Ugh.

      I know Jadzia (not Dax, mind you, Jadzia) was a problem character on Deep Space Nine, but it did gender so much better than The Next Generation, which improved as it went along, but still struggled until the final season or so.

  2. This was a very, very bad episode. The third flat-out awful episode in a row, and right off the bat. This one is just really stupid.

    • Also, the humour was stupid, and I’m not sure exactly how Data uncovered so much information on the T’Kon Empire. It seemed he was able to find more about the Empire that’s been dead for 600 000 years than he could about the Ferengi.

      • Ha! Brilliant. Very good point.

        I always thought it would be fun to delve a little bit deeper into one of these dead alien cultures, and explore what they did and what happened and what it means to our lead characters. After all, it seems you can’t throw a stone without tripping over a dead all-powerful civilisation of one sort or another. I always thought it would be fascinating to discover how they fell, or what they feared, or if they knew about us.

    • Agreed. I was considering giving up at this point.

  3. I think the line about “Yankee traders” was the show’s one attempt to establish a coherent motive for the Ferengi as villains. The idea this conveyed to me was that they would ruthlessly bully, exploit, and destroy other cultures, not for the “glory of the Empire” or xenophobia, but to make a profit. The enterprise crew’s scorn of the Ferengi was supposed to show that malevolent and exploitive behavior is not acceptable even if done in the name of capitalism, and that the federation had moved beyond that sort of behaviour and adopted a more supportive and tolerant attitude, but that didn’t mean tolerating the harm that the Ferengi were doing to others. The ending was supposed to suggest that even though the Federation must stand up to the Ferengi and their cruel indifference to the rights of others, they still hope that one day the Ferengi would move past their exploitive ways and learn to respect and live with others.

    However, the actual episode wrecked any hope of using this concept effectively by treating the Ferengi as ugly, stupid, cartoonishly evil, demented little trolls that clearly weren’t meant to be taken seriously, and with lots of painful writing trying to hammer home the moral superiority of the Federation.

  4. The highlight of the episode is rather hidden, when Picard says Wesley had “the right to face death awake”. Beverly fights back “Is that a male perspective” and Picard just shrugs this off “Rubbish”.

    In my opinion this episode and other early TNG shows managed to convey some interesting ideas and surprising (out of character at times) utterances. And I do enjoy the slow pace, the very futuristic and new feeling of everything. There was really suspense before the (strange) revelation of the Ferengi. First season TNG has a very special vibe – it is not good, but highly enjoyable to me.

    • I think the first two seasons are more interesting than they’re given credit for. I mean, a lot of those seasons is awful, but they are genuinely trying new things.

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