Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"

Let's start with the bridge. In the original series, it looked like a cabin on a ship. A large ship, sure, some kind of battle cruiser or a luxury liner, but still identifiably nautical, with curved display panels, the hard angles, the way everything essentially worked to support the single central point of the captain's chair. It wasn't easy on the eyes, but it was functional. It was here to get the job done.

Now look at the bridge of this new Enterprise, and it's... different. It's different, right? The captain's chair is still in the middle, but he's flanked on either side by seats for his officers, and the majority of the heavy duty computer equipment is up a rise behind the captain's chair. He can't look to his right and converse with his science officer from a seated position. In fact, if he wants to talk to any of the people standing at the back wall, the captain has to stand up. The helmsmen are in the traditional down-front position, but they look half a mile away. While the bridge on TOS revolves around the captain, this new bridge is more an environment full of tools which the captain has to draw from. The original bridge is designed for a man who dives into a situation, phaser on stun, two-fisted and grinning. This new bridge is for the strategist. It may take him twenty minutes to plan his next move, but you probably shouldn't get too attached to your king.  

(A quick aside: the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a bumpy, bumpy ride. When a show runs as long as this one, and when it hits the heights Next Gen [from here on referred to under the approved abbreviation, TNG] eventually does, it's easy to focus on the great moments and ignore the awful ones. In the weeks to come, I expect I'll be reminding myself over and over of the Borg and the totally bad-ass time loop episodes and Locutus and the fact that Tasha Yar eventually dies. But we can't just skip ahead. We're nerds, for god's sake, and some things, like continuity and completism, are sacred.)

The TNG bridge is important, because it indicates a difference of intention that gives the show its own identity even in the early, rougher seasons. If the bridge of the TNG Enterprise is more contemplative by design, it makes sense that it is also more democratized. On the original show, the major focus was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, in that order. Lip service was paid to the ship's more than four hundred souls, and a handful of other supporting characters caught our attention from time to time, but there was never any question of who ran the place, and who really mattered. Uhura and Sulu and the rest were part of that stable of faces whose development relied more on the needs of the episode than on any inherent integrity of their personality. So Sulu could be a botanist one episode, because a writer wanted to show off some fake space plants, and it never gets mentioned again.

TNG changed that. While there are still definite leading figures, the difference between lead and support is a lot fuzzier, and right from the start, you get a sense that these people have lives even when they aren't on camera. I'm not suggesting those lives are richly developed or particularly complex right now, and I'll freely admit, if I didn't know how much better the show got down the road, I'd be a lot less excited at the prospect of hanging out with these people. But even without advanced knowledge, there is potential here. The drama of the show isn't just going to come from alien threats and space-time anomalies. We're also going to have to deal with a crew that has its own fair share of needs, ambition, and suffering.

So we have: Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton), a blind man with a special visor that allows him to "see," at the cost of constant pain; First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), former lovers meeting again and re-opening old wounds; Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), with a dead husband and an irritatingly chipper son, Wesley (Wil Wheaton); Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon and a Starfleet officer; Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who has some serious issues with her past; Data (Brent Spiner), an android who wants nothing more than to be a real live boy; and Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) an irritable bald man who dislikes children. Of such humble beginnings, dynasties are built. Not all these subplots are immediately promising, but introducing them this early on is a show of good faith, an implication of a cohesive community which only needs our attention and time to grow.

The downside to all this is that "Farpoint" has a number of scenes whose only reason for existing is to give us exposition that doesn't immediately matter. At an hour and a half, the show's pilot episode is basically a two-parter, and while it's necessary to spend time introducing us to this new world, there's a lack of urgency that occasionally makes the episode less an adventure than a homework assignment. The episode starts strongly enough, with the Enterprise running afoul of Q (John de Lancie), a god-like being who demands the ship stop its explorations because of humanity's essential savageness. This leads to lots of shouting, running around, showing off the new special effects, and while it's rather silly in retrospect (why would Q stop them while they were on their way to Farpoint? They haven't yet gone beyond the limits of Federation knowledge), it's familiar and exciting enough to work as a hook. 

But then we get the saucer separation, a long, rather pointless sequence that only exists because it kind of looks cool. Once the ship arrives at Deneb IV, home of the unusual Farpoint base, whatever urgency remained evaporates. Q gives Picard a deadline, and a mission, and the real story behind Farpoint is clever, but the mystery is treated with the same importance as introducing Riker to his new captain (Picard has Riker manually re-connect the ship's body and saucer sections, a not all that tense scene that simply repeats what we saw ten minutes ago, in reverse), setting up the Crushers, showing off the Holodeck, and so on. While "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the first episode of the original series, kept raising the stakes with its major threat, the danger in "Farpoint" is only really relevant when Q is on-screen, and even then, it's not all that nerve-wracking, especially when Q starts giving orders at the climax which guide Picard into making the right choice. General rule of thumb: when an impish being of immense power starts encouraging you to do something, it's a good idea to do the opposite.

As beginnings go, this is more functional than inspiring, and there are already harbingers of problems we'll have to face in the episodes to come. Yes, Wesley is as annoying as promised. Tasha Yar is one note and tedious. Denise Crosby isn't given a whole lot to do in the role, but surely she could've found some other setting beyond "overwrought shouting." Marina Sirtis doesn't fare much better. Troi's importance as ship counselor is questionable from the start, as her half-Betazoid ability to sense emotion allows her to say things like "I sense a powerful mind" whole seconds before the Enterprise goes into Red Alert. I always wondered if the show wouldn't've been better off revealing in some later season that Troi's "gift" was nothing more than the instincts and intuition of an extremely clever con-woman. This would explain how, despite having spent her entire life experiencing the feelings of everyone around her, Troi is more vulnerable the the passions of strangers than a normal person. (You'd think she would've developed some kind of protective distance. I don't imagine therapy would be very helpful if your therapist started crying before you did.)

There's the expected clumsiness of actors trying on new roles, some really painful music cues, and a pacing that suffers from the occasional stutter. The score manages to make DeForest Kelley's cameo appearance more mawkish than it should've been, and stutter-wise, there's a thirty second shot of Engineering that has nothing to do with anything. Sure, it looks cool, but we'd already seen the area at the start of the episode, we trust that it hasn't moved. I could've done without the corny reminders of Troi and Riker's long-buried love, and the central question of humanity's potential for growth has been done so often that it barely even registers anymore. 

There are bright spots, though, even excluding hindsight. Patrick Stewart is a damn fine actor. His initial take on Picard is a little off-putting, stressing his temper and authoritarian ways over the intelligence and charisma he would later bring to the part, but even so, he does strong work. I especially enjoyed his encounter with Beverly and Wesley on the bridge. It's not a great scene, but Stewart (and, to give her credit, McFadden) makes it work. Data is overly smug, and Brent Spiner occasionally smiles (which doesn't work at all), but the character is striking, and leaves more of an impression than, say, Riker's genial blandness. Story-wise, while Q's ethical probing doesn't leave an impression, the resolution of the Farpoint crisis does, proving in a believable way that Picard and his team really are ready to face whatever challenges lie before them.

In the weeks ahead, we'll be plumbing the depths of TNG, so expect all manner of cheap shots and sarcasm. I'll be drinking heavily and when I drink, I get mean. No matter how bad it gets, though, there's a bright future ahead, and even at its worst, we know these characters are capable of more. I needed the chemistry of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to get me through the roughest patches of season three, and now I have a whole ship full of people to depend on. Watching "Farpoint," I enjoyed myself regardless of the episode's quality because these are familiar faces. I grew up with this cast, this design, and even when the series hits rock bottom, I have that to hold on to. So strap in, settle back, visor in place, aaaaand--engage.

Stray Observations:

  • We'll be seeing Q again, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I always enjoy John de Lancie's performance. Q is the end of the line for god-like beings, and despite the silly costumes and accents he's forced to wear in "Farpoint," de Lancie makes it work. He and Stewart play off each other very well.
  • Kind of got caught up in everything, so in case you were wondering: the Farpoint station is actually an alien creature forced to build itself into a base. The creature's mate shows up, fires on the planet, and Picard realizes what's going and helps free the trapped creature, thus proving to Q's satisfaction that the Enterprise is mature enough to explore further into the galaxy.
  • Good to see the Rule of Three is still in effect. (Whenever a character in a future society lists past events, they always mention two true things, one made-up, in that order.) Q starts off as a ship captain, then becomes a World War II officer, and finally a soldier wearing what looks like a suit made of gym mats. Do they ever mention the "military controlled by drugs" mythos again? 
  • Spiner's Data smile is so creepy. I can't help wondering if his facial expression inspired the creation of Lore.
  • Speaking of threes, given the amazing number of TNG episodes, I'm switching over to a new format and doing three episodes per entry instead of the usual two. In this way, I hope to get to the end of the series before the heat death of the universe. So, next week, look for "The Naked Now," "Code of Honor," and "The Last Outpost."

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