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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 1 (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.

Well, the video and sound quality on the blu ray are excellent. I feel the need to state that here, first, before I delve into the season as a whole. I jumped on board the recent high-definition re-release of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the work done here by the production team is astounding. As I trawled through every episode from Encounter at Farpoint to The Neutral Zone, I was amazed and impressed at how much care had gone into restoring and renewing the show for high-definition. I can’t imagine how painstaking the work was – re-editing the original film stock, remastering old effects, remixing the sound. The team have made a believer out of me, and I am on board for pretty much any restored Star Trek boxset that CBS sees fit to release. (I can’t wait to see Deep Space Nine updated.)

I think it’s important to acknowledge the work that went into producing a set that looks and sounds fantastic. It made returning to the show a joy, even when I was (frequently) reminded of just how rocky that first season was.

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To be fair, The Next Generation was a fairly bold risk at the time. Star Trek had been off the air for about twenty years. The films were in the cinemas, but it seemed a daunting task to ever get a show off the ground. There had been the oft-maligned Star Trek: The Animated Series in the meantime. Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been developed from what had originally been imagined as Star Trek: Phase II, a television sequel series that would have featured the new adventures of Kirk and most of his crew. The idea had been scrapped when Paramount saw the box office returns for Star Wars and decided they wanted their own science-fiction franchise.

Still, The Next Generation came a long time after either of those two ideas faded into Roddenberry’s memory. Producing the first year of the show, Patrick Stewart reportedly only signed a long-term contract because he assumed the show would fail after a year. As the early episodes ran over-budget, Paramount persuaded themselves that they might be able to make the money back by marketing the first half-season as the fourth year of the original Star Trek in syndication.

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The Next Generation would arrive in a world that hadn’t seen a new Star Trek show in years. It would depart with another show airing simultaneously, and another set to debut the following September. It’s a phenomenal turnaround, and the huge upswing in quality in the third season makes it a little surreal to rewatch the very earliest episodes of The Next Generation, which feels so strange it could easily have been another show. Still, that eventual success was far from assured, and it makes the a lot of the difficulties with the first year of the show more excusable.

It doesn’t make the series any easier to watch, though. There’s a bit of a learning curve with all television. The first few episodes of a given series will often seem different to the routine the show eventually settles into. The degree of difference and the speed at which the routine is found will vary from show-to-show. The original Star Trek found its groove quite early. Even then, though, it did go through a failed pilot (The Cage) and more successful launch episode (Where No Man Has Gone Before) before settling into its groove. That was the shortest learning curve of any Star Trek television show, and its sequels all took their time finding their way.

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Deep Space Nine found some sense of purpose at the end of its first year with two phenomenal episodes (Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets), although it wandered a bit before The Jem’Hadar proved that it could maintain consistent quality. Star Trek: Voyager never really found its footing, as a result of poor choices made early on that were only enhanced by later decisions. Enterprise took some measure of risk with The Expanse and seemed to find its own comfort zone with Borderland. The first season of The Next Generation shows signs of a show trying to figure out what to do with itself, but never quite commiting to any genuine effort.

Part of the problem with the first year of The Next Generation is that it simply wasn’t trying to find its own style. It was trying to emulate the original Star Trek. The second episode of the year, The Naked Now, even admitted that it was a blatant rip-off of a classic episode. Plot elements and story structures repeated themselves, even if Roddenberry wouldn’t permit the show to return to classic foes like the Romulans and the Klingons immediately. The first half of Hide & Q felt like an attempt to channel The Savage Curtain. The free love of Justice would have been paradise to Kirk, but made Picard distinctly uncomfortable.

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The Next Generation is not the original Star Trek. That’s a good thing. After all, we have seventy-nine episodes and six movies featuring the cast and crew inhabiting that world. It would be a waste to introduce a new show with a new cast and pretend that it is still 1966. The Next Generation would hit its stride in the third season, and by that point there was no way that a casual viewer might confuse the structure or outlook of the show with that of the original Star Trek.

The original series had been produced in a way that (while still impressive) looked decidedly pulpy and cheesy. It was the kind of show that got by on its raw charisma, counting on the momentum of the plots to help calm any lingering audience questions. It was very rough-and-ready in an “anything goes” sort of way. In contrast, the production design on The Next Generation was a lot more meticulous. Those walls looked solid. That ship seemed more tangible than the cardboard sets of the original Star Trek. The world of The Next Generation was a lot sleaker, a bit more sterile, a lot more comfortable. This wasn’t “seat of your pants” adventuring, this was cruising.

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Much like Deep Space Nine found its place by distinguishing itself from The Next Generation, this show had to find its own place by standing apart from the original Star Trek. Incidentally, I think that was the biggest problem with Voyager and the first two years of Enterprise. Those two shows were too firmly committed to emulating The Next Generation, instead of carving out their own niche in the franchise’s ever-expanding mythology.

The best episodes of this first season were the ones that hinted at an identity unique to that of the original Star Trek. For example, Home Soil played out a plot very familiar to anybody who has ever seen The Devil in the Dark, but it worked because it found a voice that suited this new show. I’ve argued repeatedly that The Next Generation was a more thoughtful show. I don’t say that to sound dismissive of Star Trek. I just mean that The Next Generation can’t do pulpy adventure as well, and can’t quite charm its audience as easily through goofy set-ups and insane plotting. The challenges are generally more intellectual, the dilemmas a bit more complex.

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It’s a cliché to suggest Picard was a thinker and Kirk was a fighter, but there’s an element of truth to it. The Next Generation was a lot more committed to pacifism than the original Star Trek ever was. Kirk might have preferred a non-violent resolution, but he’d enjoy the opportunity to meet a worthy opponent in battle – he’d delight in showing off some witty gambit designed to force a more powerful enemy into submission. Picard was more philosophical, and a lot less comfortable with the application of force or the use of violence. It makes sense, because the ship is larger and more powerful – and, throughout the show, the unknown seems just a little less threatening.

As a result, the shows require different types of stories. Home Soil does an excellent job taking a similar starting point and developing it using the internal logic of The Next Generation, giving us a point of contrast with the original Star Trek. Both Kirk and Picard want peace with an alien lifeform, but the flows are slightly different. Kirk is more dynamic, and his alien a bit easier to comprehend. Picard’s approach is more introspective and diplomatic, and his alien is something a bit stranger and more surreal than an extra in lumpy towel.

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Star Trek shows tend to gravitate towards their leading character, and that’s arguably truer of The Next Generation than any of the other shows. The original Star Trek established Kirk as part of a trio involving Spock and McCoy, while Deep Space Nine was more of an ensemble and Voyager suffered a bit when it became the “Seven and the Doctor Show.” In The Next Generation, the show would eventually be driven primarily by Picard, Data and Worf – but not necessarily in tandem. Picard was always important to Worf (for example, in Sins of the Father) and Data (for example, in The Measure of a Man), but their plots remained focused on the character in question.

Due to the fact he was a last-minute addition to the cast, Worf only has one character-centric plot this year, in Heart of Glory. While Data gets a bit more development in the background, the only show that could be legitimately described as a “Data story” is the mediocre Datalore. As such, in this first season, Picard is more to the fore than ever. While Picard would eventually get an episode centred around his personal history (We’ll Always Have Paris), Patrick Stewart does an exceptional job anchoring the series from Encounter at Farpoint.

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Stewart’s performance brings a sort of dramatic weight that occasionally holds together plots that seem constantly on the verge of unravelling. Even in the most mediocre or terrible of episodes (When the Bough Breaks and Code of Honour, for example), Stewart still manages to make Picard a compelling and fascinating presence. Some members of the ensemble are still trying to find their groove, but Stewart starts the series in his stride. The writers would slowly come to acknowledge the actor’s talent and Picard would come to anchor some of the franchise’s most emotional episodes, including masterpieces like Tapestry or The Inner Light.

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that. Watching this first season, I wonder what might happen if The Next Generation debuted today. Television is a much more competitive medium than it was back in the eighties, and part of me wonders if the series would have been able to secure a second season. Even if the show had made it into its second year, would executives and audiences have had the patience to give it a third year? A two-year learning curve seems rather steep, but it is more than worth it once we hit that strong string of episodes in the third season.

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I suspect a modern show would be very lucky to get that room to grow, and I suspect that is why it might be a good idea for Star Trek to stay away for television for a while. With the exception of the original Star Trek, each of the spin-offs took time to find their footing. Given that modern television is unlikely to commit to three year “warming up” period, I find it difficult to imagine that a live-action Star Trek show could thrive in the modern market place. I suspect it might make it to a full season but, given the cut-throat nature of modern television, I doubt it would have too much time to find its feet.

Still, I’ll concede that I was actually a bit impressed with some of the episodes here. Perhaps because I had grouped every adventure in the year together, it was a pleasure to revisit stories like The Big Goodbye or 11001001, which I hadn’t really thought that much about in years. Indeed, the end of the season features a number of high-quality stories like Heart of Glory and Conspiracy, which see The Next Generation doing the kind of stuff you’d never see on the original Star Trek.

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I’m hesitant to argue that anything here is a classic, and I don’t think there’s any truly essential episodes here, but you can definitely see the seeds of what would become The Next Generation. The strike of 1988 would hobble the second season a bit, but that year would also see those seeds nurtured and developed, to the point where it could begin its third season from a remarkably strong place. At its best, you can see hints of upcoming adventures buried in these early episodes. The arrogance shown to Q in Hide & Q foreshadows Q Who?, while the existential dilemma of a side character in The Big Goodbye seems to point to Elementary, My Dear Data.

If it sounds like I spent a lot of the year looking forward and outwards, there’s a reason. This was the year that gave us the racist Code of Honour and the sexist Angel One, two shows antithetical to what Star Trek should be. Roddenberry’s “no conflict” directive effectively neutered the show, leading to dull vanilla encounters with all humanity surgically removed. The best dynamic of the original Star Trek (that of Kirk, Spock and McCoy) was built of conflict, and the fact that he would disregard such an essential dynamic it makes it seem like Roddenberry didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

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Then again, a lot of the staff have complained that Roddenberry’s lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, was responsible for a great deal of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. According to David Gerrold:

Part of the problem on TNG was Gene’s lawyer (Leonard Maizlish) was making it impossible for anybody to do any real work. He was rewriting scripts. He was committing Guild violations. People were very unhappy. It was one of the worst working environments I’d ever been in.

The introduction of Pulaski in the second season would acknowledge that this conflict-light approach didn’t really work, as the production sought to bring in a character specifically designed to generate sparks with the ensemble, especially Data.

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As Rick Berman noted:

We needed someone with a little more of an edge. Kate’s a strong, confident woman with a crusty edge who can hold her own with Captain Picard. Their relationship is not all that unlike the one between Kirk and McCoy … although from the onset we had no intention of trying to duplicate the original team.

I’ll talk about it if I get around to reviewing the second year of the show, but it was ultimately  a very clumsy way of trying to fix the problem, and it didn’t work – not least of which because Data was not Spock, and Pulaski’s “banter” seemed more like “bullying.” On the other hand, though, it did demonstrate that the writing staff recognised that the first year had been a bit too sterile, a bit too clean.

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Revisiting the show for the first time in years, I’ll confess that I was actually quite impressed by Jonathan Frakes as Riker. Frakes is often overshadowed by Spiner and Dorn in the show’s ensemble, but here Riker is used to generate a fair bit of conflict. Whether written that way or not, Frakes seems to realise that Riker is perhaps the most flawed character on the ship. We see him rudely needling Data and Geordi in 11001001 or nearly getting Wesley killed in his attempts to laid in Justice, among others.

Frakes plays Riker as this sort of vaguely arrogant and somewhat oblivious officer who doesn’t necessarily think too heavily about his actions before committing to them. The show clearly wanted to play Riker as The Next Generation‘s answer to James T. Kirk, in contrast to Picard’s more stoic style of command, but it doesn’t quite work. For one thing, the show is driven by Picard’s more diplomatic approach to things. Because Picard and Riker (11001001 excepted) spend little time together, and because the show forbade conflict, Riker seldom gets a chance to shine in this particular style. Instead, he looks a bit out of place, much as Kirk would look out of place in the more sterile version of the 24th century.

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I will remark, though, that it’s immediately obvious from this first year that the ensemble work amazingly well together. I think it’s fair to argue that the supporting players on The Next Generation were better developed than the supporting players on the original Star Trek. Even after just one year on the show, it’s nice to have little sequences like Data and Geordi trading jokes in Code of Honour, or trying to paint in 11001001. Even the nice bridge crew conversation in Conspiracy works remarkably well at demonstrating how comfortable the ensemble are after just one year in their roles.

So the first season is over. I’d be lying if I said I completely enjoyed it. However, I did find quite a lot of it worthwhile, not least knowing what the show would eventually evolve into. I’m considering doing this for each of the seven blu ray releases – episode-by-episode reviews and an end-of-year summary. Please feel free to sound off below to let me know if you’d be interested. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

You may be interested in our overviews of various season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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

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10 Responses

  1. I’m looking forward to your analysis of season 2.

    • Thanks Jamie. I think I’ve called it a quits after finishing in December, but I will return to the second and third season hopefully this year. In particular, the third season blu is hitting in April, I beleive, so I may do it sooner rather than later – and I’ve started the second, but not got near the strongest episodes, so I want to finish that.

      I had planned on continuing straight through the second season, but December was just a killer work and blog-wise, and I think I’ll be taking it easy for January before gearing up for some fun stuff. (I have a busy May and June at the very least planned. Whether or not they come to fruition…)

  2. I’ve been following your Doctor Who reviews for some time now, so I was overjoyed to find that you’re also reviewing Star Trek TNG. I look forward to many hours of reading! I love your insight into the philosophy of the episodes. You always present ideas that had never occurred to me before. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Jim, glad you liked it. Hoping to do the second and third season some time in the enxt twelve months.

      If you like my Doctor Who stuff, stick around. 2013 is a big year.

  3. After Christmas, I see I have a little backlog of reviews to read.
    But, yes, please do continue with these reviews. They are among the best analyses of Star Trek I have ever read.

    • Thanks Mickey! I’ll hopefully pick up the second season in the middle of the year. I think I just hit a wall at the end of December.

  4. Really hoping you’ll do the rest of the seasons. I’ve started watching them from the beginning (not on blu ray though) and loved reading your reviews after I watched them. I’ve just finished “Loud As A Whisper” but am looking forward to season 3. Hope you’ll keep it up.

    • Hi Jen! Short answer: Yes, I plan to continue covering Star Trek. Long answer: It might not just be The Next Generation. I have something planned for the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness in May that I’m about 33% through. I am also not goign to let Deep Space Nine’s twentieth anniversary pass without some form of celebration in September. I know it’s a long way off, but I’ll be hoping to cover the rest of the second and all of the third season of TNG in November and December.

      • Excellent. Glad to hear it – and thank you. One I make it through TNG, ill be moving on to DS9. Not sure i could sit through all of voyager again though so may well skip that one.

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