Thursday, November 4, 2010

Star Trek: TNG S1 Ep5: The Last Outpost

I had a pair of those teeth for Halloween. Introducing the Ferengi, Star Trek's latest adversary. The excitement never stops on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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It's hard to dig deep into this particular season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is sorely lacking. I initially planned an analysis of notable episodes only. Well, there aren't many of note. I do have one planned, but we have a way to go.
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ST:TNG, Season One, Episode 5, The Last Outpost isn't much to write home about. It's the first introduction to a new race called the Ferengi and they are anything but interesting. They are referred to as the "supercapitalists of the galaxy" in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion. As a race, the design of the Ferengi is one of the least interesting in the Star Trek cannon in appearance and behavior. A friend of mine swears by their brilliance. To me, the race ruled by profit motive, the Ferengi, are the anti-Borg as far as their ability to capture the imagination. They are the anti-Borg in that the Ferengi, as a newly introduced alien race, don't even come close to the kind of challenge one might expect in a franchise spin-off. Star Trek: The Original Series gave us the Romulans, the Klingons and even the Andorians, but ST:TNG delivers the Ferengi to kick things off. To quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: Generations, "what?" The Ferengi is a less than appealing choice. They are presented here as primitive and uninteresting right down to their fur outfits, silly ears and energy whips. ST:TNG continues to frustrate and walk down the wrong or misguided path of exploring "what's out there." It's quite maddening really with all the potential available with this cast of actors.
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Further, unlike nearly every vessel ever created in ST:TOS, the Ferengi ship, like those who pilot it, is equally uninspired based on the conceptual design of a horseshoe crab. It simply lacks any special originality like that captured for the original Enterprise or even ships like the Romulan-designed warship dubbed Warbirds.
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Synopsis: The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D [another starship that simply cannot fill the shoes of the original USS Enterprise NCC-1701] and crew pursue a Ferengi vessel for a stolen T-9 energy converter. This will be the first contact by the Federation with the elusive Ferengi. Funny how they weren't so elusive after The Last Outpost. Both end the chase in a Mexican standoff over a planet that is the outpost to the once-thought-dead Tkon Empire. A joint landing party by Picard and the Ferengi is organized, but the Ferengi are thrifty and less than honorable and betray their agreement by thwarting Commander William Riker's landing party. A Tkon portal guardian witnesses the tactics of both races and frees the vessels based on Riker and the Federation's actions. The guardian is unimpressed by the Ferengi [as are we]. Once again, we are the recipients of a lecture on ethics.
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I certainly can't help but agree with the recent comments of Author John Kenneth Muir declaring the introductory installments of ST:TNG as "dullsville." This is quite simply painfully weak, a yawn, a bore, a certified snoozefest. The actions of Picard continue to be borderline dangerous. Picard essentially surrenders the Enterprise-D in the frame of five entries as noted by Muir. This is a poor success rate as captains go. He's fortunate this isn't his last outpost. It's hard to defend ST:TNG when the scripts provided for a cast of considerable talents is far below expectations.
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Perhaps the most interesting point to make about this episode is the introduction of character actor Armin Shimerman as a Ferengi, not performing in the role of Quark. There isn't the least bit of good scripting for him to work with. It's a truly empty shell of an episode. It would be the first in a long line of appearances for him within the Star Trek franchise. While Shimerman is not particularly noteworthy here, he does become a force as a regular in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's ensemble unit. It is ST:DS9 where he truly shines and where a depth to the a Ferengi character is given the chance to evolve. At this point, The Last Outpost offers ample evidence that the Ferengi should have remained elusive.
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ST:TNG's continued efforts to link the new series with the original are on display once again. An homage to Star Trek: The Orginal Series occurs when William Riker requests Chinese Finger Puzzles be beamed over to the Ferengi spacecraft to confound the creatures. This is a gentle reference and tribute to Scotty's move to ship Tribbles over to the Klingons in ST:TOS, Season Two, Episode 15, The Trouble With Tribbles.
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There are many things going through my mind regarding ST:TNG at this point and one point in particular. There are plenty of people who want to point out flaws regarding ST:TOS, not least of which is someone like David Gerrold [more to be devil's advocate I suspect], but let's be honest, ST:TOS is head and shoulders above the material on evidence thus far. You stack up the first five entries of ST:TOS versus ST:TNG and it's clear who has the substantively better series. There isn't even a contest. It's not close. Let's review. Encounter At Far Point Part 1 & Part 2, The Naked Now, Code Of Honor and The Last Outpost versus The Man Trap, Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Naked Time and The Enemy Within [I'm not even including The Cage]. Now, which series would you choose? Star Trek: The Original Series was also finding itself, but there was a plan and a vision and character was paramount to its success.
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The Last Outpost: D
Writer: Richard Krzmeien & Herbert Wright
Director: Richard Colla
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Actor footnote: Armin Shimerman [1949-present]. American born. His highlights include character performances in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. He has had roles on Beauty And The Beast, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1 [The Nox], Seinfeld, The Tick and Boston Legal [even sharing a scene with Rene Auberjonois who played Odo opposite his Quark on ST:DS9]. Notable film appearances include The Hitcher [1986] and Blind Date [1987].
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Writer footnote: Herbert Wright [1947-2005]. Had a hand in the creation of the Ferengi. He would also co-write the Ferengi-centric Season One, episode 9, The Battle.

6 comments:

John Kenneth Muir said...

SFF:

Another great post on TNG. I couldn't agree with you more, and I appreciate you calling it like it is.

This is the hallmark of a good critic: you don't let nostalgia or admiration for a franchise get in the way of speaking truth: this episode was dreadful.

I still remember the deceptive coming attractions preview for "The Last Outpost" trumpeting the crew of the Enterprise battling "alien predators."

The Ferengi, alien predators?

And yes, this was the autumn after Predator (1987) tore up the box office. Talk about caveat emptor, Star Trek franchise! Let the buyer beware indeed!

So they promised alien predators, and then gave us a bland remake of the TOS episode "Arena" instead (and good call too, on the final "homage" to "Trouble with Tribbles.")

The Ferengi = Gorns. The stolen hardware = Cestus III. The T'Kon Portal/Empire = The Metrons.

But where "Arena" showed that humans can control their bloodlust even when threatened, in a time of a believed war (with the Gorns), "The Last Outpost" presents Riker as a calm, detached suck-up/"A" student who, at the right moment, remembers a quote from the assigned reading subject (Sun Tzu).

Why doesn't this work? First off, it isn't dramatic. Kirk believed the Federation was at war and that he had to show strength and resolve with the Gorn. He was angry until the Metrons made the matter personal -- one on one, captain to captain -- and Kirk had to put himself in the position of his opposite number. Then, understanding grew; and the bloodlust could be silenced. Kirk grew...he learned something.

In "The Last Outpost," Riker is never angry to begin with (a problem of most TNG episodes; everyone is less emotional than your typical Vulcan, even in the face of imminent death). Therefore, he has no learning curve. Instead, Riker simply uses pre-existing knowledge ("Know when to fight and when not to") to weather a crisis. He never has to understand the Ferengi; he just uses his knowledge of Ancient Chinese Philosophy.

Which he never again mentions in the duration of THE ENTIRE SERIES!

This is terrible writing, even when there was a pattern to follow. What you see in "The Last Outpost" is a series understanding the form but not the meaning of The Original Series.

Again, I must point out that it is embarrassing that Captain Picard -- 5 episodes in -- surrenders a second time, and is outwitted by the Ferengi. Who, as you rightly indicate, aren't very menacing.

Picard can muster nothing -- no help, no recourse -- even as his crew starts to freeze to death in orbit. Not exactly a "let's-fight-to-the-last-breath" kind of captain.

I understand the point here. Certainly with the Ferengi Roddenberry was taking dead aim at the runaway, Rogue-Trader-styled Yuppiesm of America at the time, but the point is, it's not particularly entertaining or funny. Nor are the Ferengi threatening. So what are they?

This concept of rampant, unscrupulous capitalists could have worked if the Ferengi were not portrayed as dimunitive, buck-toothed butt-heads (literally).

It's thematic confusion. If the Ferengi are supposed to be the next great threat to life in the Federation (like the Romulans or Klingons, or later, the Borg), then this episode should treat them as fearsome, powerful foes. But who could possibly be afraid of these guys?

It isn't funny, either, and that's why people say that the Ferengi are annoying.

There's no top-down understanding of what the Ferengi are, what they should be, and how they should be used in this particular adventure.

Anyway, great and fair review of a really, really terrible entry in the TNG canon.

best,
John

Will said...

*sharpens geek knives* *puts utility belt on* *grabs checklist named: People to Geek Fight and checks off JKM*

First Picard. . .then Riker. . .this is war!!!!!!! ;)

(JKM, you actually, believe it or not, wink wink, make great points for this episode so I have no recourse but to say, 'well played, sir').

Mr. Fanatic. . .another fantastic review! I'm enjoying going through the TNG universe with you! I can't wait until you get to 'Justice' the episode that made my adolescent
self feel funny in the tummy.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Wow. Where to begin. Such a great read. I genuinely relished your fortifying comments to my general disappointment with this entry John.

In fact, I gave it a D because, well, quite frankly it was unsatisfactoty which is what a D stands for.

I've been grading these TNG episodes with some variation on C, but quite frankly they aren't very satisfying at all. I've been more than fair to them and I had to take the gloves off here for all of the reasons you state.

Thanks for your comments regarding my approach. It's good to hear. I try not to fall into the nostalgia trap. I don't mind being nostalgic [ie Lost In Space] but there has to be good reason why I would enjoy it still, otherwise we have to be straight with ourselves right?

I'd love to hear what others think of TNG this episode to start.

I had problems with Babylon 5 in the First Season, but TNG is really, really rough going. I had to mark the episode as I saw it. It was poor.

There's been a good deal of posing on the show too. Lots of posing on the bridge with not a whole lot of meat under the hood. They look great on the bridge, but where is the writing for this series? You said it. The creators have the general idea, but as you suggest, these are fairly bloodless, unemotional affairs with characters lacking urgency or drive or excitement.

The Ferengi incident is boring.

Once again, as you point out, very little character growth. In fact, none really. Well, we know Riker is a studied individual but where is the fire in these people?

I agree. I understand the capitalism subtext, but it's not becoming. It doesn't work in the way TOS approached thematic subject matter so brilliantly. It was woven straight into a story. It wasn't preached, but delivered with character and entertainment.

Thank God Picard wasn't in charge of the British in World War II they'd be speaking German.

No, the Ferengi aren't fierce and they aren't funny. The understanding is lacking because a plan doesn't exist for this series so far.

Best to you John. Thank you.
SFF

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Will,

I must have missed you while I was typing an add-on to John's remarks.

By the way, great additional commentary from JKM - thank you.

Will- you positively crack me up! I was dying. Love your Klingon-like skirmishes after the postings! : )

Cheers my friend
SFF

le0pard13 said...

Yep. You nailed this episode, SFF. This one started my ambivalence toward the Ferengi that would last pretty much throughout ST:TNG's seasons. It took the return of Armin Shimerman in DS9 (and what their writers did with the characters) that would change that.

IIRC, didn't TNG producers want Picard to be the antithesis of Kirk? To change the dynamic and differentiate themselves from TOS. They succeeded at the start, didn't they? But, not to their benefit. Plus, I got the feeling they didn't know what exactly to do with Riker's role. I mean he gets to go on all the away teams, didn't he? And of course, he had the designated libido. Jean Luc got to stay at home and concentrate his energies on how next he would surrender his ship.

I'm being way too hard, here. At least he wasn't getting beat up every week (cough*** Archer ***cough). ST:TNG still had the faithful tuning in (me included) on a weekly basis. Paramount should have been counting their blessings for this fact. We all kept coming back. Fun read, as always, SFF Thanks.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

good to see you make it by L13! Very pleased to see your thoughts on the matter as always.

Your second paragraph was highly amusing. Great point... they definitely seemed out of sorts regarding how to balance the ensemble cast in general.

And I don't think you're being hard at all. Your comments are completely fair and the creators were lucky people stuck around after this dismal first season.

By the way, count me as someone who enjoyed Enterprise. It's certainly not TOS, but I did enjoy it. And, at least Archer had some balls to get dirty. : )