The Next Generation, Season One
Spoilers for 1987! Netflix recently allowed you to save some videos offline, and the entire history of Star Trek appears to be up for grabs. So I’ll be watching Trek on my daily commute and reporting back here. When I get to it. I’ve just started season four of The Next Generation, so I’m just desperate to get this rambling mess out.
Obviously I’ve started at TNG because Jackson and I are watching the original Star Trek together… and have been for about a decade. We have just watched ‘Patterns of Force’ so I expect we’ll be done by 2030 or so.
When you watch ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching TV from fifty years ago and not, well, almost thirty. Frankly, the awkward, stilted dialogue and pomposity of the opening story doesn’t even compare well to the easy-going tone of the original series.
Luckily, things improve significantly… though because we are back in a time when twenty-six episode seasons were a (very padded) thing, it takes quite a while. Some of the early stories, including most of ‘Farpoint’, are pretty execrable, with ‘Code of Honor’ being particularly crummy, and ‘Lonely Among Us’ starting the terrible legacy of Data’s awful Sherlock Holmes impersonation.
A particularly strange element early on is the show’s attitude to sex. Despite people talking like they’re on a very earnest kid’s show, the subject comes up quite a bit. Rather unexpectedly, in the second episode, Tasha Yar bones Data while under the influence of an alien disease. It’s hard not to watch any of the rest of the scenes they have together without interpreting every glance as awkward acknowledgement of this story. Later on, they’ll visit the rather cheeky planet of the scantily-clad hot people in ‘Justice’. It feels kind of out of place… but perhaps I’m just showing my prejudices against grown adults who wear jumpsuits.
Some episodes get tantalisingly close to being excellent, and then brutally drive of a cliff. I’m particularly thinking of ‘Datalore’, which feels like it’s dropping innumerable hints that our heroes are wise to the nefarious nature of Data’s double… only for the twist to be that everyone except Wesley Crusher is an idiot. I’ve heard that people found Wesley pretty upsetting at the time. For some reason he doesn’t really rub me up the wrong way at all; he doesn’t come across as any more cheesy or painful than any of the other characters, and he at least has the excuse of being a child. He’s almost endearing in ‘When the Bough Breaks’. Other episodes are only lifted by great perfomances, like the slow, plodding ‘The Battle’ — a story which will make you scream at the characters to get a fucking clue, but which is almost redeemed by Patrick Stewart.
The recurring character Q starts off as the only person in Farpoint with any charisma, but as the rest of the characters mature, starts to become a little unbearable. It’s a difficult line to walk: mixing advanced intelligence and deep emotional stupidity. There are several deeply irritating examples of it in the classic series, and while John de Lancie generally does better than them, he can still be a pretty annoying character to watch. When he’s tempting Riker with incredible power in ‘Hide and Q’, he’s great, but when he’s saying “Mon capitan” as if it’s incredibly clever that he can speak another language, he’s kind of irritating.
Geordi is awesome from the get-go — not necessarily because he gets much to do, but just because LeVar Burton has charisma to spare. My main memory of Deanna Troi from childhood was of cheap jokes about her psychic powers, but I hadn’t realised that she was very much the Seven of Nine of The Next Generation. Marina Sirtis makes the best of it, but sadly Troi remains pretty dull for the first season, which is I suspect where a lot of the “mood ring” jokes came from.
When it comes to the Captain, it’s easy to interpret The Next Generation as a flip where Spock is captain, and Kirk is first officer. Stewart is, of course, awesome, but a little stilted at the start. Jonathan Frakes is relaxed as Riker from the get-go, and is pretty reliably the most emotionally engaging of all the characters. The Kirk-like shenanigans are given to him, which he handles with a boyish enthusiasm in ‘Angel One’… though things do become a little disturbing when he develops an instant obsession with a pretty, yet fairly robotic Holodeck creation in ‘11001001’.
Oh yeah, the Holodeck. Original Series Star Trek was happy to just go to the Planet of the Gangsters, or the Planet of the Nazis, with minimal and unconvincing explanations. It seems very much like the Holodeck was invented to allow the same liberal use of random sets from the Paramount lot, without having to stretch credulity quite as far. It’s unfortunate that for people who’ve grown up with video games, the way the main characters act in the holodeck can seem impressively stupid. It takes an awfully long time for Picard to get the idea that he’s supposed to act like someone else in ‘The Big Goodbye’, despite presumably having been aware of holodeck programs before this point.
The series definitely warms up over the course of the season, as I actually start to feel like I’m watching the characters I knew from the movies. Towards the end of the year, you can see Brent Spiner working out how to play Data with a certain amount of character shining through. Michael Dorn’s Worf still hasn’t quite come together for me at this point — he still feels a little awkward — but at least he gets something meaty to do in ‘Heart of Glory’ after spending most of the season achieving very little except getting thrown violently about. I was glad to see the Klingons, because I hadn’t yet watched Discovery and become completely sick of them. I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that I loved ‘Haven’, mostly because it seemed to mark the first time this show successfully deployed what you earth people call ‘humour’. Well, sometimes successfully. I was drowning in dull at the time; don’t judge me.
And then ‘Skin of Evil’ happens, which surprised me by suddenly killing a main character with relatively little fanfare. It’s a curious choice; I suspect these days you wouldn’t be able to resist giving Tasha Yar a heroic last stand, and perhaps that would be better. But it is nice that one time, on one mission, a member of the command staff got killed instead of some random red-shirt. Well, maybe nice isn’t the right word. It’s a shame then that the voice actor for the Evil Skin in question is pretty terrible, otherwise this episode would rate as one of the best.
I can’t finish up without talking about the episode that my brain had assumed was the season finale — ‘Conspiracy’. Which is nuts, and suffers from having a Starfleet-wide conspiracy taking place in what appears to be one room… but is pretty refreshing all the same. By the end of season one, I felt like the writers might actually be starting to work out how to do something interesting with this show.
Jokes. I actually quite like Star Trek: Discovery… but the Klingon language scenes do get me down a bit. I was delighted to see that the 2017 Klingons did their ritual shouty thing after someone died, even if they looked completely different, again. ↩︎
I have later discovered that Guinan, for one, also thinks that would have been better. ↩︎