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’ve been harping on quite a bit about how too much of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is trying to hard to be classic Star Trek, without acknowledging that the original series was the product of a very different society and outlook. You can’t literally map familiar beats and metaphors on a one-for-one basis and expect them to work perfectly inside a storytelling engine that is radically different. It’s easy enough to imagine Justice working as a classic Star Trek episode.
Indeed, it seems quite similar to The Apple, among others. However, it’s the differences that are telling, and it’s the differences that serve to take what might have been an entertaining piece of fluff from the sixties and turn it into a near-catastrophic misfire in the eighties.
Star Trek was very much a product of its time. Kirk was very much a commanding officer for the era of free love. The great thing about space was that Kirk very rarely had to worry about every seeing his latest lover again, and could move on to the next warm embrace easily enough. That was the sixties, and social values were quite different than they are now. It seems that Star Trek: The Next Generation took a while to realise that. I’ve already cited the example of the mini-skirts as an illustration of how The Next Generation struggled with updating Star Trek lore. It took them much longer to realise that everybody should probably ear trousers, instead of having one extra wander around in a skirt.
The sexual moors of the eighties were also radically different from those of the sixties. Awareness of sexually transmitted diseases had a profound effect on how audiences viewed sex. The Living Daylights gave us the first monogamous Bond. AIDS was lurking in the background, and was only beginning to be taken seriously. Sadly, one of the guest stars in this year’s Symbiosis would pass away from complications relating to AIDS, an illustration of how severe the problem had become. The eighties were not the decade of “free love”, as society had moved on from that particular idea of sexuality. The radicals of the sixties were now happily married and settled down, working their jobs to pay off their mortgages.
In a way, Justice almost seems to concede how misjudged it is. It is pretty much a nod to the classic Star Trek tradition of guilt-free sex with beautiful alien women. The trope never worked quite as well as it did with James T. Kirk, and Justice suggests a reason why. The show has cast Riker in the role of the show’s “Kirk” and it’s quite clear that he is eagerly looking for some loving. (He even suggests that Worf could do with some.) Notice the way Deanna practically rolls her eyes as Riker spots the natives approaching. “They certainly are fit.” However, the problem is Wesley.
And I don’t just mean that because he sparks a potentially devastating incident. I mean that Wesley is very clearly what is wrong with this episode in the framework of The Next Generation. Kirk’s ship was a warship, packed with tightly wound officers, like an old naval ship pulling into port. It’s hardly the most tasteful analogy, but it’s fair to concede that Kirk’s crew had slightly different needs than that of Picard’s ship. This Enterprise feels more like a family cruise liner. Regardless of how open-minded you are about sex, letting Riker’s sex drive choose a family vacation spot can only end badly.
Beverly even states, in the opening scene, “It sounds wonderful for the children.” Nobody bats an eye when Geordi adds that the inhabitants are “neat as pins, ultra-lawful, and make love at the drop of a hat.” I never thought that I’d type this, but the opening scenes of the episode actually use Wesley quite well, as Wheaton does a great job with this incredibly awkward scene where he realises that the fact he under the age of consent is effectively stopping Riker from getting laid. He seems like he’s wondering if his mother will be taking a trip down to this sex paradise as he mutters, “Maybe I should just go on ahead.”
It isn’t just that the planet is age-inappropriate as a concept for a family ship, but it’s also incredibly out of Picard’s comfort zone. In his opening narration, it seems the only words the character can use to sum up this world is “unusually lovely” – it’s hardly a description worthy of James T. Kirk. Things get delightfully awkward when Picard concedes just how unlikely this planet is to be his cup of tea. “Wesley?” he asks. “If we go down, I’d like you to join the away team to evaluate this world as a place for young people to relax.” He feels like he should add “… with their rock and roll and their X-Boxes and their popular music.”
Indeed, the episode makes Riker seem incredibly incompetent. He recommends the planet without doing thorough research. He takes a child with him as part of his primary team. (Though it was Picard’s idea.) He then leaves the kid alone on an alien planet so that he can wander off with beautiful women and help his fellow crewmembers hook up with some of the beautiful natives. When things go wrong, he realises that he has no idea where Wesley is, but it’s far too late by that point.
Don’t worry, Riker isn’t the only crewmember who comes off badly. The season has a habit of making characters appear stupid in order to get the plots moving. As Chief of Security, Yar winds up seeming particularly incompetent. “I’ve listed my report on their customs and laws, sir,” she assures Picard. “Fairly simple, common sense things.” Boy, I bet her face was red in the debriefing. When she disarms one of the Mediators, she proves that she’s on top of the ball. Confirming something we all saw about a second ago, she notes, “It’s a kind of syringe.”
(As an aside, I find it very weird that Yar is more ready to embrace the whole no-barriers aspect of Edo culture far more readily than Troi does. After all, Where No One Has Gone Before confirmed that Yar was still struggling with her back story including perpetual threatened sexual abuse. I get the sense that the writers really had no idea how they wanted to write Yar – no more than Crosby had any idea how she wanted to play her – and that filters down to even the smallest moments of the episodes. I don’t think the character was beyond redemption, but she was certainly the most troubled of the regulars. Compare Crosby’s performances to that of Dorn, with a much smaller and lower profile role in the ensemble. There’s really no comparison.)
Even beyond the hedonistic sex paradise, Justice feels like a throwback in a season full of throwbacks. The voice actor playing the Edo God in uncredited, but he projects a very clear original series vibe. The dialogue and the performances (and the costumes) of the Mediators seem to come directly from the original Star Trek, where they might have seemed like camp kitsch among the dodgy sets and the ropey special effects. Here the production is good enough the lines like “it’s always sad — now doubly so” are almost physically painful.
That isn’t the real problem, though. The real problem is the same flaw at the heart of Code of Honour, albeit buried under quite a bit of racism. If the story outlines are the same, compare and contrast the way that our heroes deal with the problems. Kirk and his crew would confront the being posing as God aggressively, and wonder what right it has to interfere. The Edo aren’t being as clearly exploited as some of the other aliens worshipping fake gods, but the point stands. Why does the Prime Directive only prevent the Federation from meddling in the affairs of less-advanced cultures? Surely interfering with a being posing as the divine is like the opposite of a violation of the Prime Directive?
(Like Code of Honour, Justice sort of skirts the issue by implying that Picard might be trapped by pragmatic realities. There it was the “vackcine” that Lutan held over his head. Here it seems Picard is worried about what the Edo God will do if he does decide to break the Prime Directive and save Wesley. “You saw what that thing was about to do,” Picard advises Beverly at one point when she suggests they have to save Wesley. However, like Code of Honour, it makes sure that Picard argues in the broadest philosophical terms rather than dealing with the absolutes. It’s more than a little disappointing, because the notion that Picard and his crew might be afraid of a higher power is a much more interesting dynamic than “we have to respect the culture of another society even that society enforces broken window policing with penalty of death.”)
In contrast to what Kirk would do (and has done), Picard’s reaction to the situation seems ham-fisted at best. After all, how does taking Wesley home interfere with Edo society? It’s not as if their evolution would be altered. Picard isn’t going to swap him for phaser rifles or nuclear weapons. Again, like in Code of Honour, the Prime Directive seems to exist to prevent the characters on the show from defending themselves. It might damage diplomatic relations with the Edo, but one would imagine that reckless capital punishment would be a barrier to Federation membership. Later episodes would make convincing arguments for the doctrine, but the first season is a bit of a mess.
I can see what The Next Generation is trying to do. The suggestion that true tolerance means tolerating intolerance is a very questionable moral for a television show, but it could be handled reasonably well. Indeed, later adventures do offer a more convincing justification for decisions of non-interference, even with high stakes. The problem here is that it is all just too tidy and too easy. There’s no real cost to the decision, so it doesn’t have value. If Picard were forced to abandon a crewman for his principles, to make a genuine sacrifice to the ideal, then the episode would have a bit more weight. Unfortunately, the narrative conspires and contorts to allow everybody involved to get a happy ending, in a way that doesn’t seem earned.
This issue is compounded by the fact that everybody seems to want Picard to just take the damn boy. Even Liator, one of the Edo, offers a plausible escape that allows everybody to save face. “So, we are not yet as advanced as they are. And since you are advanced in other ways too, I suggest you use your superior powers to rescue the Wesley boy. We will record him as a convicted criminal out of our reach, an advanced person who luckily escaped the barbarism of this backward little world.” The guest stars aren’t great in this episode, so I can’t tell if he’s simply being pragmatic or if he’s bitterly angry at the idea. The actor seems to play it like he is offering Picard an “out” that the Captain stubbornly refuses to take. Part of me wonders if Picard sees this as an opportunity to be rid of the kid.
One would imagine, then, that the show must be building to some grand logical climax – some bold philosophical argument that will put everything in its place, convince the Edo to free Wesley while allowing Picard to respect their customs. It turns out that it isn’t. Picard’s summation speech feels a little clipped, and a little sort of out of left field. “I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible, but the question of justice has concerned me greatly of lately. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” There is absolutely no reason he couldn’t have just said that earlier.
As with a lot of these episodes, there are a few gems to be found, depending on how hard you’re willing to look. And, given how dull the episode is, there is a lot of looking involved. For one thing, Michael Dorn is pretty great. Worf was a last-minute addition to the main cast, making it ironic that the went on to be the most frequently-appearing character in the history of Star Trek. As a result, he doesn’t get a character-centric episode until late in the season. Denise Crosby got the show’s first character-centric episode (Code of Honour) and left because she felt Yar wasn’t getting enough development, so it’s a testament to Dorn that Worf actually feels like a presence in these early adventures.
The character isn’t given much to do, but Dorn has a wonderful knack for comedic timing. There’s a lovely moment as he hugs one of the Edo only to comment, “Nice planet.” He has a much stronger presence than Yar during the whole “Wesley’s in trouble” conversation. Dorn seems like a nice enough guy that I don’t think he’s consciously upstaging Crosby, but it also seems to suggest that Worf would make a pretty decent Chief of Security. If, you know, something were to happen to Ya. And the creepy almost misogynistic conversation with Riker (“Worf, if anyone else had said that, I’d suspect he was bragging”) almost works thanks to Dorn’s presence. Oh, and Stewart is good. Then again, Stewart is always good, even when given crappy material.
Justice is just a bad episode, on almost every level. It’s bad for the characters, it’s bad for the show, and it doesn’t really work as a story. The problem is resolved when Picard says something he simply could have said half-an-hour earlier. I’d say that The Next Generation is struggling to find its own identity, but it isn’t. It’s suffocating from trying to directly emulate its predecessor. Unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better.
Did I mention that tomorrow it’s a Ferengi episode?
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: | AIDS, arts, Beverly Crusher, Deanna Troi, james t. kirk, jean-luc picard, Jonathan Frakes, kirk, literature, Michael Dorn, picard, star trek, Star Trek Next Generation, Star Trek's Next Generation, star trek: the next generation, star trek: the original series, Wesley, Wesley Crusher, William Riker