Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Star Trek: TNG S1 Ep1 & 2: Encounter At Far Point

"Let's see what's out there..." -Captain Jean-Luc Picard-

Dodgy special effects combined with a weak DVD transfer, connect the slow-moving, preachy, not-so "engage"-ing Encounter At Far Point. That oft-discussed, Remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation complete with new special effects can't come soon enough, but it still can't match Season One of Star Trek The Original Series on substance alone.

David Gerrold [ST:TOS, Season Two, Episode 14, The Trouble With Tribbles] wrote of Star Trek: The Original Series [ST:TOS] in the Foreword: The Trouble With Trek segment of the book Boarding The Enterprise these thoughts: "We search because we're curious-because we simply want to know. Because the asking of the question is insufficient, we want to know not just the answer that the question requires-we also want to know the possibilities that are opened up as a result." Gerrold continued, "We search because that's what we do, that's who we are, that's what it means to be human. We ask questions because we want to know what's on the other side." ST:TOS certainly gave us this world and Star Trek: The Next Generation [ST:TNG] would be its successor. Gerrold's words are entirely fitting. I'm reminded of a scene from an episode of Jerry Seinfeld when he joked he had to go. When he got somewhere else he had to go. When he got there he still had to go. He didn't know why he had to go, but he had to go. He had to move on to something new and we as a people are certainly driven to seek out new things and constantly be on the move. We can't help ourselves. We get bored if we sit in any one place for too long. The central theme of discovery of space and of personal discovery in Star Trek is a beautiful and rare thing in television to be sure. ST:TOS got it right. It got it so right, it was astoundingly good even when it was least successful.

As Norman Spinrad [ST:TOS, Season Two, Episode 6, The Doomsday Machine] put it in the Boarding The Enterprise piece Star Trek In The Real World, ST:TOS charted our "spiritual evolution as a species." Sadly, that is not the case with ST:TNG. It lacks the influence and the impact of its predecessor more often than not. Still, the sense of discovery and those sentiments echoed by David Gerrold earlier propel the series even through its harshest, most tedious story treatments. When you sit through a bad film you often want to get to the other end; discover its conclusion despite all evidence suggesting otherwise. ST:TNG Season One demonstrates a similar refrain at times. It isn't that bad, but it's not entirely good either. With Roddenberry at the helm, fans were eager to take that ride again and stayed loyal to ST:TNG giving it the benefit of the doubt. ST:TOS wasn't as fortunate in duration and never received the same support from its backers that ST:TNG was the choice recipient of. It was something of a small miracle ST:TOS survived three seasons. This new kid on the block, ST:TNG, was able to find its own voice over a much greater, more protracted period of time. ST:TOS achieved amazing feats in science fiction over a condensed period of time.

The cushy bridge of the Enterprise-D doesn't hold a candle to the bridge of the original Enterprise. Furthermore, the setup, including Troi and Yar in their positions as noted, is uncomfortable to me. It's rather stiff. You'll note Yar's rare uniform with skirt.
Norman Spinrad added it was the fans who saved ST:TOS. It was the fans who kept the dream and hope of Star Trek alive for years. It was the fans who heralded the possibility of ST:TNG's existence. The fans delivered The Original Series cast in film and a new cast in ST:TNG. It was indeed an exciting time for Star Trek.

Synopsis: The two-part introduction to ST:TNG, Encounter At Far Point, witnesses the crew of the Enterprise-D investigate strange occurrences at a space station. En route the crew encounters a recurring character named Q [John de Lancie], of a race of beings also known as Q, from a place dubbed the Q Continuum. Q places Picard and company on trial for crimes by humanity. The newly introduced crew ultimately proves why humanity is worthy of existence.

Truthfully, I don't have a whole lot to say about ST:TNG Pilot, Encounter At Far Point. In fact, I don't have a lot to say about ST:TNG, Season One in general. Certainly I could perform a summary-based analysis on each episode in detail. But honestly, I was not inspired to do so. It has its highlights and I plan on covering those entries in detail. Thus, I plan on being a bit more selective regarding the ST:TNG highlights.

Encounter At Far Point is notable for establishing the cast, casting a love-at first sight glance between William Riker [Number One] and Deanna Troi. The introduction of John DeLancie as ST:TNG's ongoing doppelganger is noteworthy, but the episode is poorly paced. The writing for Season One does have its problems. We'll touch on those factors in a moment.

The Pilot does feature one of my all-time favorite Star Trek alum, DeForest Kelley. One could even call the chance meeting of the new crew with his unnamed Admiral THE encounter that symbolizes a kind of proverbial passing of the torch.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion book makes note of the appearance of the late DeForest Kelley, formerly Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy of ST:TOS. Gene Roddenberry, a longtime friend of Kelley's, invited him to be part of the Pilot in the form of a cameo. Kelley, to Roddenberry's surprise agreed. Justman said the scene "really got me; it was a beautiful, beautiful scene." Kelley said, "I just wanted scale, to let it be my way of saying thank-you to Gene for the many good things he has done for me." Kelley was a tremendous gentleman of the old-fashioned variety. You can read a little more about Kelley's life in the wonderful book, From Sawdust To Stardust.

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Kelley's appearance, while brief, is truly one of the most significant moments of this labored, but satisfactory premiere. Encounter At Far Point isn't a complete disappointment thanks to the script by Gene Roddenberry & D.C. Fontana, but the series would have a way to go before finding its legs.

So what exactly qualified as problematic for ST:TNG, Season One? Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion offers some explanation to the season's problems in its introduction to Season One.

1. There was a "Revolving door of writers." This led to a "perceived lack of continuity." Extensive rewriting even pushed out "old guard" writers like D.C. Fontana.

2. There were "Too many ideas being thrown into one script.... There was a tendency to do a real quick wrap-up." All those involved were having difficulty getting their "house in order."

3. There was difficulty fusing entertaining, well-developed stories with Gene Roddenberry's personal vision. This included Roddenberry's desire to strike all inter-personal conflict from the stories of these future explorers. This is truly stunning and quite clear throughout Season One. Conflict and tension are paramount [to use a word] to the creation of exciting character studies and character developments. Without conflict or tension it's just pure, damn boring. I think this lack of creative tension and character tension shines through much of the first season. It's shocking because Roddenberry's ST:TOS was chock full of delicious character conflict. These are human beings. However advanced we might be, wringing all signs of emotion out of these characters is tantamount to killing them. This is a startling tact since its almost like Character Drama 101. This approach would slowly be phased out as the writers realized that was a significant element missing from the energy of this new franchise. As one accurately put it, this was Roddenberry's "Wacky doodle" hope-filled future vision. No matter how evolved or how advanced we aspire to be, sadly humans will always fight.

Stability began to register with the creative staff around Season One, Episode 18, When The Bough Breaks. As the companion book points out, ST:TNG began to find its footing and its "identity" rather than suffering comparisons to ST:TOS for obvious reasons as it did with some episodes in its inaugural season like Episode 2, The Naked Now. The creators were certainly shooting for the stars and with lofty goals came some missteps. TV Guide wrote, "Star Trek depicted us in reckless youth." ST:TNG revealed "the child grown- a little more polished, but also more complacent." This is a terrific observation and essentially fair. Roddenberry was definitely shooting for the Utopian in spirit, but as a result Season One is just a little too sterile for my tastes as a result of those plans. No need to panic, it will no doubt improve. As Gerrold mentioned earlier and Captain Picard put in words in the closing frames of its debut, "Let's see what's out there."

Encounter At Far Point [Pilot]: C+
Writer: D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry
Director: Corey Allen

The Season One Cast:
Patrick Stewart [Captain Jean-Luc Picard]
Jonathan Frakes [First Officer William Riker a.k.a. Number One]
LeVar Burton [Chief Engineer Geordie La Forge]
Brent Spiner [Chief Operations Officer Data]
Michael Dorn [Chief Of Security Worf]
Gates McFadden [Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher]
Marina Sirtis [Ship's Counsellor Deanna Troi]
Wil Wheaton [Helmsman/Ensign Wesley Crusher]
Denise Crosby [Chief Of Security Tasha Yar]

I'm reminded of the silly King Missile track Detachable Penis with the daft Enterprise-D saucer separation concept. It never really works and looks positively ridiculous.
Special Guest: John de Lancie [1948-present]. American born. De Lancie appears in ST:TNG [eight episodes], ST:DS9 [one episodes] and ST:Voyager [three episode]. Apart from a long run on Days Of Our Lives [1982-1986, de Lancie is best known to genre fans for his recurring iconic role as Q in the Star Trek franchise and as NID Colonel Frank Simmons on Stargate SG-1. He also appeared in Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. He has made several film cameos since 1979. He co-owns Alien Voices with Leonard Nimoy, a voice production company.

Director Footnote: Corey Allen [1934-2010]. The late Corey Allen passed away in June 2010 from Parkinson's disease. Allen had a hugely successful career directing in television. His work appears in such series as the Scarecrow And Mrs. King [starring Babylon 5's Bruce Boxleitner], Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote, Magnum P.I., Simon & Simon, Trapper John, M.D., The Rockford Files, Quincy, M.E. and many more. Allen would go on to direct three additional ST:TNG episodes in Final Mission [Season Four, Episode 9], The Game [Season Five, Episode 6] and Journey's End [Season Seven, Episode 20]. He would also direct four installments of spin-off series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine including Captive Pursuit [Season One, Episode 6], The Circle [Season Two, Episode 2], Paradise [Season Two, Episode 15] and The Maquis: Part 2 [Season Two, Episode 21].

10 comments:

J.D. said...

The presence of Q and DeLancie's awesome portrayal go a long way and any episode he's in is a keeper. That being said, aesthetic-wise, STAR TREK: TNG didn't get better until Riker grew a beard! Man, he does not look good without facial hair, but I digress...

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Ha! I have to admit, I do enjoy Riker with the beard too.

de Lancie is an entertaining guest. I wasn't crazy about the Q character in the two Season One episodes, but he is a fine actor.

He was equally good in his appearances on Stargate SG-1.
Thanks.
SFF

Will said...

I like Q. I never considered him a 'villian' as many others have. I saw him more as the personification of a problem: someone or something that exists to make humanity excel.

Encounter at Farpoint has some great visuals and some really bad ones (the farpoint 'creatures' are beautiful while other aspects are. . .not).

Q is kind of the living thesis of TNG (and Roddenberry). A difficult being meant to challenge us. I like how TNG is bookended by his presence but I always felt they could have done so much more with his character and the problems he could have given them. He ended up becoming a gimmick in most of his episodes as oppossed to a truly compelling character.

And then Voyager tried to humanize and ground him with three dimensions and mythology and totally shit all over the character. Q is a tortured soul. . .

Excellent review, as always! Get on that DS9!!!!! (PS: email me if you want all seven seasons for free. I'd be happy to send them to you)

Will said...

Oh, and Riker is the reason I grew a beard in 9th grade and have only shaved it off twice since.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Will
Sincerely- thank you for your offer. I do have all of the DS9 episodes on standby along with all of TNG and all of Voyager and all of Enterprise and all of... ugh, you get the point. So much fun stuff to watch and so little time my friend.

I loved your point about Q Will. I feel exactly as you put it about that character. He feels so underutilized to the point of being slightly annoying being there for me. Now, mind you, I'm not saying you felt he was annoying, but I definitely feel he is meant to be something so much more and in the two entries from Season One I was largely ho hum about his input as a character in the show. The scripts for which he was spotlighted were weak. This one may have been the better of the two if I recall.

Anyway, loved your input there. I love Riker too with the beard! He's the man! Thank you as always, SFF.

John Kenneth Muir said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic:

I read your great post on "Encounter at Farpoint" early, early this morning but had a day taking care of my 4-year old son, so I have not been able to get back and leave a comment till now...he's asleep!

Anyway, you and I see TNG in a very similar fashion. As a kind of bloodless and self-righteous, inferior version of the Original Series, right down to the lackluster set design.

I still remember how I was in high school when the show premiered and I tried my darndest to defend this pilot from my classmates, but they ruthlessly mocked Counselor Troi (a terrible character played by a terrible actress...),especially her cheerleader costume and over-emotional line readings ("Great Joy and Gratitude. Great Joy and Gratitude...").

That line was mocked for days in my school, even by ardent Trek fans.

More disturbing to me was the criticism of a classmate I greatly admired -- a brilliant engineer-type -- who told me that he felt Star Trek had lost its way by making the majority of characters in TNG "superheroes" -- Georgi with his "super vision," Wesley with his super-intellect and Troi with her super-human "empathy" or emotionalism.

Why can't they just be people like Kirk, Bones, Sulu or Scotty?, he asked. Remember "The Human Adventure is just beginning?"

I didn't have an answer then, and I don't have an answer now.

For years I tried to defend TNG because I desperately wanted to like it and see the franchise continue, but after awhile I realized the most significant emotion I felt, episode after episode, was disappointment.

Disappointment that the wrap-up of the week lacked tension and was always so neat.

Disappointment that the main characters lectured to one another and citizens of other worlds, but rarely learned things about themselves.

Disappointment that the great starship spent so much time simply ferrying supplies from one starbase to another instead of visiting brave new worlds.

Disappointment that there was so little sense of urgency in the staging and performing of the critical scenes, etc.

That said, there were also many, many episodes I loved. "Heart of Glory" was a Season One winner, in my book, and "Conspiracy" too. In season two, I liked the creepy mysteries of "Where Silence Has Lease" and "The Royale," and then there are the classics, to be sure, which I've mentioned before, like the introduction of the Borg in "Q Who."

Anyway, so I don't come off as totally negative -- !!! --- I want to say that I completely agree with you in terms of that cameo by De Forest Kelley.

That's a great moment in Star Trek history, and it really brings a tear to the eye. A great passing of the torch...even if the torch is soon dimmed afterwards.

Thank you for this great post.

Best,
John

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

John,

I truly enjoyed your thoughtful and personal comments. I loved that personal perspective from your youth.

You mentioned some key things that really emphasize my feelings on Season One. I reiterate them to point out just how close we are on our perceptions of this series.

1. Your engineering friend certainly had a great point about how they approached TNG versus the regular, ordinary real heroes of TOS. I connected to Bones, Kirk and Spock. These were normal regular guys. I know, even Spock. TNG is a bit like Teeen Titans.

2. Dissapointment in the lack of tension, the lack of urgency and the preachy nature of the scripting.

Boy, there is much absent from this Season One.

Now, here is the funniest part of your post.

I too thoroughly enjoyed Heart Of Glory [more than Conspiracy mind you]. It was my favorite episode of Season One. In fact, it is the only episode from this first season whereby I wrote an extensive piece for it. It's still a work in progress, but that is the ONLY one I really delved into for this first season.

I think the thing I loved about Heart Of Glory was its throwback, simple, story-telling style about adversaries and trust and motivations. Heart Of Glory is a real winner and that is forthcoming.

So, yes John, we definitely see this series through a very similar lens.

It's funny you mentioned Troi. I received another flyer int he mail and she'll be one of the guests for signings. I'm half-tempted to go meet her for the fun of it, but then I think to myself, but I blew off meeting Lee Majors and Richard Anderson. How can I do that and go meet Sirtis? It's illogical!

Thank you again for the kind words and glad to see you are putting family first too. : )

Best to you
SFF

Will said...

@JKM

*holds breath. . .counts to 10*

;)

le0pard13 said...

Great look at this episode. I remember that pilot well -- the return of freakin' STAR TREK to the airwaves!!! And yes, it hasn't aged well. But, it doesn't take me too long to remember that excitement from way back when on the re-watch. As well, besides the clean shaven Riker, you notice how Data was first envisioned, rather than the flip-side Spock character he became in the series. A great contemplative and insightful post, SFF.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks L13

Boy you're right. Data certainly evolves which is interesting for an android. Great point and observation. Thanks for the kind words my friend.
SFF