It’s 1987. Science fiction has had its heyday. “Star Wars” had become the biggest spectacle of the late ’70s and had recreated the summer movie with “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The Twilight Zone relaunch had brought surreal pseudo-science fiction to the mainstream, for an audience that didn’t care about Cylons and stormtroopers. Battlestar Galactica brought the thrill of Star Wars into a campy TV program with a microscopic budget and a host of mythology, while the 1980 remake flopped but showed a desire for more of that kind of serialized programming. British programming like The Prisoner and decades old Dr. Who serials were becoming somewhat less rare in the States.
Hard, focused science fiction wasn’t the only place that the medium was shaping the cultural landscape. Undeniably creepy robot-girl sitcom Small Wonder had just begun and was receiving critical accolades as well as pulling in crazy ratings. The early ’80s boom of raunch comedies had run its course and producers that still wanted to cash in on the genre had to branch out, leading to films like “Short Circuit” and “Zapped!”
Yep, business was booming for science fiction and there was one thing to thank for it. Star Trek: The Original Series had bloomed into a full-blown phenomenon by the time it ended up on syndication after having its budget raped by CBS in the third season. The ’70s ended up being the time for Star Trek to truly bloom into a cult phenomenon, with conventions, an animated series and merchandising out the ass. The fan reaction denied the creation of Roddenberry’s beloved Star Trek: Phase 2, but lead to a few things even better, ideally 4 Star Trek movies. For fans, it was a property that kept giving, with a show that had long since stopped producing new episodes, giving new, deeper, more mature stories, dealing with their characters facing new challenge.
As any fan of Star Trek would (or should) tell you, they really should have stopped with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” but this was 1987. We still didn’t know that someone would let Shatner direct a sequel and that would include a Total Recall-esque three-boobed woman, spaceships that were actually God and, sigh, Spock’s brother.
Really, it was an issue of money. Production of additional movies were running up against a wall as Nimoy and Shatner were demanding crazy salaries from Paramount for the Star Trek films and the studio’s desire to continue cashing in on the franchise was tempered by that greed. Roddenberry, figuring the only way to continue the franchise on television was a new cast, a new Enterprise and a new final frontier. Hence, Star Trek: The Next Generation was born.
I’ve debated this many times, but The Next Generation might be the best iteration of Star Trek. That’s not to say it’s my favorite, as I vastly prefer The Original Series and I might even like Deep Space Nine better, but there is an unmistakable sense of quality to the whole series. It’s often whip smart with (mostly) great characters, well developed plots and a universe that was being filled in more fully after every episode. Yeah, it lacks the fun and swashbuckling of the Original Series, but it more than makes up for that with adult storylines, general intelligence and a sense of style that could never have been maintained on Shatner’s Enterprise.
Picking up about 100 years after the conclusion of the Original Series, the world of The Next Generation is vastly different than the last universe we explored. The Federation is a more established and respected force than the one we last saw and their actions are more focused on utopian ideals. Starfleet is helping colonists terraform planets, supporting scientists, solving mysteries and asking questions first before shooting much much later. The galaxy is still a dangerous place, but it’s a very known place. They know what they’re dealing with and they’ve made peace with it. Former enemies are welcomed, human colonization of the outer rim is constant and respect for everyone has now become part of the fold.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the bridge of the new Enterprise. Where once, Kirk was elevated over his helmsman, while his scientists, communication experts and guests flanked him, now the captain sits in the center, flanked by his first officer and an adviser, while security and other assorted personnel stands above him on the com. It’s a place where everyone is respected, where the captain isn’t so much in charge, as a respected leader. He’s not shooting first; he’s gathering opinions, making decisions, asking for research and finally making a move. This isn’t a place for cowboys, it’s a place for the Magellan of the stars.
In other words, it’s a place for Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the new, steadfast Prime Directive following commanding officer of the brand new top of the line Enterprise. His adviser, Councilor Deanna Troi, a half-Betazoid telepath who serves as the ship’s psychiatrist, and his security chief Tasha Yar, a violent and disturbed human from a dangerous border world, joins him. His tactical officer Worf, a Klingon raised away from the Empire, advises on combat situations. Geordi, a blind human who can see with the aid of a visor that leaves him in constant pain, and Data, an android who lacks the ability to feel emotions but has an encyclopedic knowledge of the galaxy, serve as the helmsman. By the end of the first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” we’re also joined by first officer William Riker, a womanizing hotshot in the Kirk mold, Doctor Beverly Crusher, a grieving widow with some unresolved issues with Picard, and her son Wesley, a genius Mary Sue who quickly is put on the Chosen-One story arc.
It’s a large crew with considerably more characterization in the first episode than many of the background players in the Original Series ever received. One of the many nice things that the pilot of The Next Generation did immediately was treat all of these characters with a base amount of respect without paying too much attention to any of them really. It’s an ensemble show, and the first season mostly tries to give each character a chance to shine, although Tasha Yar takes the shaft a little more than the rest (more on that later).
The pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint” doesn’t do anything too special. It introduces us to the new crew, the holodeck, the fact that the ship can apparently detach the saucer and the base and Q, an extradimensional god-like being who essentially plays the role of a playful Metron, judging humanity and casting scorn upon the race’s history of barbarianism. He puts Picard and the crew on trial, forcing them to prove that they have evolved with a challenge. The challenge itself is something of a mess and the episode itself is thoroughly unremarkable. It’s nice that Deforest Kelley makes a guest appearance as an aging Dr. McCoy, which helps bridge the gap between the two series and the stuff with the trial and Q is interesting enough, if fairly familiar. There’s an innocent alien to be released and a people that have to be taught of their misdeeds. For a change, the Prime Directive is brought up right away and we’re introduced to Picard as someone who needs the rules and the organization that Starfleet can give him. He beats Q on the god’s terms and is able to save his crew. It’s a bit long, being an hour and a half, but it works well enough.
There’s no reason to really run through the whole first season, as interesting as it is, but it’s worth examining what makes The Next Generation different from the other series and the parts that do and don’t work. The first season of the show is generally regarded as pretty terrible and it would be pretty hard to argue with that assertion. The Next Generation had a lot of growing pains to get through before it could become something interesting, but there are a few truly great moments. It’s just that the terrible moments are a lot funnier.
One of the things that really sets the first season apart is the way that the writers almost crafted an episode around every character. Each one more or less gets a chance to further introduce themselves to us as people and it does bring a great sense of community but the flaws show up immediately with the characters that just aren’t that compelling, namely Wesley and Yar.
Wesley’s a Mary Sue of the highest order. He always somehow knows more than all the other characters, sees where their enemies are a few steps ahead and tries to show that he can save everyone despite being shut down by the grown-ups. This isn’t interesting, it’s obnoxious. Wesley’s showcase, “When the Bough Breaks,” features the wunderkind leading children in a form of passive resistance against their radioactive kidnappers and stonewalls his enemies until Picard can rescue them. It’s a moment where we could see what the character could have become, a bright, driven kid who has to do what he can to overcome the challenges he faces. Instead, he’s usually more like the character that we see in “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “Datalore,” where he notices something about a stranger and realizes the truth of what the crew has to do to escape their fate. He’s not trained in how to run or repair a star ship and we’re pretty much just told that he’s a genius and the next thing you know, he’s saving everyone’s life. It’s disappointing more than anything else.
Yar is a flawed character in an entirely different way and that has to do with Dennise Crosby than anything else. She’s not a great actress working with a character that doesn’t ever get a lot to do. She talks about the “rape-gangs” of her home planet, and the one flashback we have to see that society is too short and a little too goofy to be taken as a threat. She says “rape-gangs” a lot and it just ends up being a little funnier than it really should be. Without definition, explanation or the appropriate emotional response from Crosby or anyone around her, we can’t take her seriously. She ends up being way too emotional and flighty which aren’t great traits for a security chief to have and it often leads her into situations that we have trouble believing particularly the cringe worthy scene in “The Naked Now” when she has sex with Data. The one scene we finally have with her where we can look at her as a character is in “The Skin of Evil” when she talks to Worf about an upcoming martial arts tournament, but by that time it’s way too late. Her future on the show was already sealed (more on that again later).
The lack of tonal consistency with Tasha Yar’s backstory leads to another one of the more prominent problems with The Next Generation, a subject that The Original Series very rarely ever touched on directly, which is the subject of sex. There is so much fucking sex in the first season of The Next Generation and it is never treated with any sort of consistency. There’s the aforementioned sex scene between Data and Yar and it’s played deadly serious, but it’s such a bizarre plot point. They screw because Tasha wants to, I guess, and then the plot point just disappears. Data has very little response in the climax of “Skin of Evil” and Tasha’s message to him could never be read to accommodate a sexual subtext. The whole thing just sits with the audience while the characters pretend it didn’t exist.
In other places, we have sexed up societies that basically ask a 14 year old if he wants to screw (“Justice”), vaginal hegemonies that bring Riker in as part of a harem (“Angel One”), a world where women are bought as property controllers or can just be kidnapped (“Code of Honor”), arranged marriages and telepathic women who think everyone wants to screw them (“Haven”), flirty jazz loving hologram whores (“11001001”) and French estranged girlfriends who might want to get back together (“We’ll Always Have Paris”). It’s a little much for what is ostensibly an all ages sci-fi show and worse, it’s played in a way that doesn’t treat sex as anything special. It’s aberrant and weird in all the wrong ways. For once, I’m wishing for Kirk’s blatant macking on every woman he comes across.
It’s not all just awkward fucking and women issues though. The Next Generation introduces several new races while sort of forgetting about others. We get a brand new look at Federation/Klingon relations the resistance that the former has at losing some of their cultural history. The Vulcans are pretty much out of the picture, with just one showing up in the dinner scene of “Conspiracy.” The Romulans make a very brief appearance in “The Neutral Zone,” reasserting themselves as the foremost enemy of the Federation and peace in the Alpha Quadrant. The new races are primarily the telepathic Betazoids, who we see only a brief introduction to in “Haven” with the unbelievably obnoxious Lwaxana Troi.
We also meet the dangerous capitalists, the Ferengi, a species of grotesque traders and pirates obsessed with their bottom line and potential avenues of profit. Their two episodes, “The Last Outpost” and “The Battle” don’t treat them particularly well, essentially labeling them as incompetent moneygrubbers and cowards. In a series that has always treated alien races with some modicum of respect, it’s disappointing to be introduced to a new race that is cut down to size in both of their appearances this early in the show.
The last big difference to mention between The Original Series and The Next Generation is the beginning of serialization. By the 1980s, even sitcoms were beginning to integrate continuing story lines and Star Trek’s newest integration was no exception. We have a continuing storyline that more or less helps to flesh out Picard as a character and as a captain, from his early obsessions (“The Big Goodbye”), applying to gain entrance into Starfleet (“Coming of Age”), to his days immediately after leaving the Academy (We’ll Always Have Paris”) to his early heroic action facing his ship (“The Battle”) and all of this finally lets us understand how Picard became the responsible and trustworthy captain that he’s become.
We get a brief serialized element late in the season about the takeover of Starfleet by a hostile outside force. In “Coming of Age,” several Starfleet personnel perform an inspection on the Enterprise, calling many of Picard’s decisions into questions and dong some investigation into the crew’s past adventures. They eventually suggest that the inspections is to see if Picard has become compromised by a part of a Federation wide conspiracy and that many members of the upper echelon may have been compromised. The threat of a takeover looms over the rest of the season and it finds completion in “Conspiracy,” when the Federation is compromised by alien neuro-parasites, featuring a beautiful worm eating climax and a head explosion/chair fusing that feels like a beautiful combination of “Scanners” and “Tokyo Gore Police”. It’s a great, tense, gory episode that is ruined a little by some strange direction and one of the weirdest fight scenes of the franchise, but it beyond deserved to be the season finale.
The last thing that really needs mentioning is one of the shows most maligned episodes, “Skin of Evil,” a terrible episode, focused an a near-god-like-being bent on murder and general destruction. After the away party touches down to investigate a downed shuttle that contains Troi, they come face to face with an oily being that demands that the landing team follow orders. In a fit of rage, it hurls Yar across the sands and she just sort of dies. It’s really weird.
The crew bring her up to the ship and Crusher declares her dead. Picard eventually gets Troi off the planet and declares the world forbidden and they eventually go to a memorial service for Yar on the holodeck. She has recorded a message for each of the main crewmembers in the eevent of her death, which is creepily specific in the way that it would have had to probably be updated every couple of months. Everybody has a good cry and that’s it. Worf gets promoted and for the rest of the season, we don’t hear another word about Yar or “rape-gangs.” The whole episode accommodates Crosby’s desire to do other things after she felt like her character didn’t get enough attention on the show, but it’s a cop out. I’m not a fan of Tasha Yar as a character, but she deserved better. She deserved to die, fighting for her crew, but that’s not what we get. It’s weak storytelling designed only to deal with off screen problems and all the seams that are intrinsic in plotting of this type show.
All in all, it’s a deeply flawed first season that despite having some great moments, has no idea what its strengths are. Some of the relationships between the characters are a little overly stiff, primarily the one between Riker and Picard. After I finished the season, I actively questioned how the show lasted past one season. The flaws were so visible and so many of the plots were so visibly recycled from the Original Series that it was hard to ignore, but the moments that work end up working so well. Even better, there’s such a great sense of building a world around an established universe that it is obviously creates a universe that was able to really attract fans. This is the series that created a fan base that has lasted past the show going off the air in any iteration over six years ago.
In place of the usual Random Notes for these episodes, it’s time to give out a variety of awards and not-so awards to the season as a whole, so here we go.
Best Character: Data
Data ends up being the Spock of The Next Generation. Even more than Worf, Data is the true alien of the show. His struggle to fit in and understand human emotions is charming without being overly cloying and his struggle with Lore in “Datalore” is one of the most compelling conflicts of the season, despite its terrible ending.
Worst Character: Deanna Troi
I don’t feel like I can actually count Tasha Yar here because that would be rude. Troi’s problems are so deep. Here telepathic abilities feel like nothing more than being able to read body language and the amount of respect everyone gives her feels so unearned. The problems are only compounded when she becomes the focus in “Haven” and as her mother becomes a minor character she becomes even worse. I can’t care about her and her arranged husband just as I can’t care about her and Riker being former lovers.
Most Badass Moment: A Welcome to Klingon Valhalla – “Heart of Glory.”
One of several Klingon pirates dies on board the Enterprise and his compatriots as well as Worf howl as he passes on, giving the afterlife a warning that a Klingon warrior is entering. Badass.
Most Uncomfortable Moment: A Welcome to Klingon and Human Relations – “Justice”
While on a planet full of justice-obsessed nymphos, Worf describes how humans could not have sex with Klingon without literally destroying them with their massive Klingon penises. It’s so terrible and it ends up sounding like something Tyler the Creator would have written if Odd Future had been really into DS9.
Worst Episode: “Arsenal of Freedom”
You know what I have to say about “Arsenal of Freedom?” It’s damn near the most boring hour of television I’ve ever seen. The plot might not have been able to fill 15 minutes and the padding is so mind numbing that it’s offensive. (Runner Ups: “Angel One,” “Justice,” “Haven,” “The Naked Now”)
Best Episode: “The Big Goodbye”
Smart, fun, tense and a great look at how the writers will later remove all the excitement from the holodeck. The b-story is a little rough, but watching Picard enjoy his fantasy only to watch it all go wrong is exhilarating. (Runner Ups: “Heart of Glory,” “Conspiracy,” We’ll Always Have Paris,” “Symbiosis,” “Datalore”)