Monday, July 20, 2009

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

I would certainly like to start these reviews n a higher note, but “Encounter at Farpoint” is what we get as the jumping off point for what will evolve into a solid, though not aging gracefully, science fiction show. Looking back, I wonder how the show survived its uneven first season. We owe two star alignments for that. One, there was not much science fiction on television at the time. Two, the fledgling FOX network was starved for content and readily picked up the show. Considering its relatively low quality at first, I imagine competition would have killed it even earlier than TOS.

One thing to note right off the bat is the similarities to TOS. It is not terribly surprising. Gene Roddenberry, D. C. Fontana, and David Gerrold among others carried over from the original series. They did not provide a fresh vision. The problems with “Encounter at Farpoint” are the same as with the blandest of TOS: powerful alien with a penchant for earth history and literature is testing humanity, the sets are fake looking Styrofoam rocks, and the characters make up for their bland natures by overacting. Eventually, that will change when Roddenberry’s people depart to make way for Brannon Braga, Rich Berman, Ronald D. Moore, tracy torme, ira Steven Behr, and a host of others who would go on to shape science fiction on television right up until today. But for now, we have to limp along.

It will be much easier to point out the absurdities as I summarize the episode, but know as a whole, the story is pathetically padded. There is about forty-five minutes worth of story spread out into ninety. It is almos like the writers had prepared for an hour long slot and at the last minute discovered they needed to fill two instead. It is particularly worse if you watch the syndicated daily version split into two episodes. You can tell how awkwardly it was split, as though it was unplanned.

I will give the show props for starting off with some excitement. Within the first few minutes, after we have established Data talkative nature is going to bea pain in picard’s butt, the ship into a wall similar to “The Tholian Web”. Q shows up on the bridge dressed as a 16th century explorer and demands the savage humans turn back from unexplored space.

Here is where they start to lose me with the characterizations. Troi completely flips out when she senses Q’s mind. It is almost as though she is having a nervous breakdown. You might think this reaction would be a one time thing to emphasize Q’s enormous power, but no. she goes on to havea couple more throughout thestory which last for minutes and cross way over the maudlin line. The physical effects of her powers are toned down in future episodes, but Good lord is she annoying here.

I am jumping ahead a bit with Troi, but I have to say I never cared for the implications of her powers. There was always a sinister element to her. The ethics of using her to read others’ emotions without their permission is mentioned on a number of occasions and quickly cast aside, probably because there really is no moral justification for allowing her to intrude on others that way. I note here that she has an openly dishonest moment without blinking. When she is reunited with Riker on the bridge, she communicates with him telepathically. But a couple scenes later on the planet, she assures an uneasy Zon she can only sense high emotion, nothing more. Well, what was that with Riker? You may argue that was a special circumstance since he is her Imzadi, but she is still lying to Zon by omission. This will not be the last time I go against the conventional wisdom Troi is a gentle, caring person.

But back to Q. It is annoying to have yet another alien obsessed with Earth culture, particularly when he considers it to be so barbarically savage. I suspect there was supposed to be some connection with Treane from The Squire of Gothos considering the similar powers and penchant Earth military history and kangaroo courts, but nothing is ever made of it within canon.

Picard shows off some of his arrogant contempt for most everything and everyone by calling Q’s World War Ii era US soldier’s uniform a costume. Picard not only later proves to have a great sense of history and should show more respect for a military uniform, well, he is wearing red and black pajamas. A wee bit on the hypocritical side there.

Picard is not the only one exhibiting peculiar behavior. Tasha Yar, the security officer, just stands there will Q does his thing. Contrast that with her over the top emotional outbursts and random kicking the crap out of any man, woman, or Ferengi who looks at her wrong over the next twenty-four episodes. Ever wonder why no one pays much attention to her repressed anger issues? I have lots more to say about the degradation of her character down the road, too.

This sequence leads to a space chase in which Picard decides to separate the saucer section during high warp just to show the audience the ship can do that. You realize that is true because his rationale is to keep families in the saucer section to protect them from the Q. so right off the bat it is put in viewers’ minds how dumb it is to have families out here on the frontier when they have been revealed as a liability before the second commercial break. Like the moral implications of Troi’s mental powers, the concern there are children onboard will often be overlooked during battles with the Borg, self-destruct sequences, covert missions into enemy territory, etc. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to consider the inclusion of families a wise idea.

Picard, the only Frenchman with a British accent in the universe, plays true to his La Barre roots twice. First, he relegates the Klingon Worf to babysitting the families. It is an affront to his Klingon nature, but several times during the remainder of the episode, Work proves himself to be an idiot, so maybe it was for the best. Remember this is part of TNG’s theme--aliens are always wrong until a human shows them the proper way. We will see that again and again. In the second nod to his French nature, Picard immediately surrenders to the Q.

His action leads to the redeeming part of “Encounter at Farpoint”--the Post-Atomic Horror kangaroo court. I am a history buff who likes apocalyptic science fiction and I hold a law degree. I hit the trifecta with this one. But I just cannot let the opportunity pass me by to point out what really makes this sequence is the Asian midget who rings the cowbell at every pronouncement. This requires a visual aide:That is quality television, people.

Anyway, after Tasha Yar has one of her outbursts and kicks a guy for no particular reason other than give us an Emma Peel moment with that tight uniform of hers, our heroes are to be executed for the crime of human savagery. It helps a lot when Picard admits humans were savage, but are a swell bunch now. He offers to let Q test them to see humanity’s worthiness. Q likes the idea and lets them go back to their ship and mission to Farpoint. Unfortunately, they do.

The episode goes downhill from there. Q becomes an afterthought until the climax. Picard even orders Riker to watch video footage of their encounter so he does not have to be bothered talking to him. Welcome aboard, Will. Wesley crusher shows up. He is not quite the annoying teenaged ubermuensch he will become. We learn his mother Beverly and Picard have a history, but it is not delved into until later and we all kind ofwish it had not. I have already talked about Riker and Troi’s psychic reunion.

There are a couple nice touches here, both involving Data. It is ironic the android was the character who most grew throughout the course of the series. His Pinnochio yearnings to be human are introduced right off the bat. It is about the only instance in the series where the supposed superiority of being human is not obnoxious. The second bit is his conversation with Adm. Leonard McCoy. It was a beautiful passing of the torch moment. The last bright spot of the episode, too.

There is an excruciatingly long sequence in which the ship is reconnected. Seriously, it lasts three minutes. In terms of exciting visuals, it is right up there with watching grass grow. After an hour, the crew finally begins its mission of solving the mystery of Fasrpoint. No, the mystery is not why they call it a starbase when it is on a planet, although that is a good one, but how it was built so quickly and so perfectly.

The answer, after some snooping, denials by Zon the head administrator, and several more minutes long breakdowns by Troi, is that the station is a captured alien. Its partner attacks the city looking for it. Q shows up to egg Picard on to destroy the alien, but he refuses to. The two aliens become giant jellyfish and trot off together. Picard’s decision not to destroy the creature proves humanity’s worthiness to explore space, so Q departs as well. The Enterprise heads off to see what is out there.What is out there is much better than what we have seen so far. I am going to give “Encounter at Farpoint’ a watchable rating. It is not a classic, but it is not horrible. The first hour, warts andall, props up the second. Although if this was not the start of a successful franchise, it would be infinitely forgettable.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

No comments:

Post a Comment