Thursday, September 27, 2012

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

Although perhaps not one of the best installments of the series’ seven year run, the inaugural episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation certainly gets the job done.  “Encounter at Farpoint” ably introduces the new characters and their world, successfully (and affectionately) reminds the audience of Star Trek history, and offers at least two marvelous images that remain impressive and resonant, even a quarter-century later.

As “Encounter at Farpoint” begins, the new Galaxy Class U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) investigates the mystery of planet Deneb IV.  The primitive people there have apparently constructed a new base precisely to Starfleet specifications, but how they did so remains unknown. 

While the crew investigates, it must also deal with an interfering, all-powerful alien being called “Q” (John De Lancie), who puts Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) on trial for the “crimes of humanity.”

This episode, directed by Corey Allen, opens with a textbook perfect visual.  Captain Jean Luc Picard steps out from the shadows, and we get our first good look at the commanding officer who will soon step “out” of Captain Kirk’s shadow.   At the same time as we watch the figure transition from silhouette, we hear the pleasing, authoritative cadences of his voice.  They exude command and control, discipline and power. 

It’s quite an entrance, and a good example of Stewart’s ability to hold the camera and rivet one’s attention.  Picard is quite a commanding figure indeed, and the specifics of his on-screen introduction remain positively iconic.  No one should doubt that casting a bald, British, middle-aged Shakespearean actor in the role of a starship commander was risky in 1987.  But from virtually image one of the series, Stewart shows that he’s got the chops, and the screen presence to pull it off.

A captain in the shadows...

..a hero emerges in the light.

Later in the episode, there is another visual that always thrills me.  Captain Picard welcomes Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) to the bridge of the Enterprise for the first time, and Allen’s camera adopts a first person subjective angle or P.O.V.  In other words, the audience takes up the position of Crusher’s “eyes,” looking out across the command bridge for the first time.  Enticingly, Captain Picard enters the frame and asks Wesley -- by extension the audience -- if he’d like to try out the center seat, the captain’s chair.

This is an invitation one of us would resist, I suspect.  

In fact, many of us in 1987 had dreamed of just such a thing; of living inside the Star Trek world of optimism, brotherhood, and peace, and charting our own starship’s course for adventure and knowledge. It’s wonderful that, without it seeming like a gimmick, the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation  pays heed to this deepest wish.  It’s a lovely visual touch and one aimed right at Trekkers who had grown up with the franchise and come to respect Star Trek's philosophy.

"Try it out."  Every Star Trek fan's dream come true.

Another pitch-perfect moment occurs about half-way through “Encounter at Farpoint” when Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) escorts an aged Admiral McCoy (DeForest Kelley) through the corridors of the new Enterprise.  The elderly Bones -- a dear, old friend with whom so many adventures have been shared -- reminds the android to treat the starship like a “lady” and that “she’ll always bring you home.”   This scene explicitly reminds the viewers of Star Trek’s heritage and history, and does so in a fashion that is funny and respectful.  

This scene represents a promise to the fans too.  The new show is going to treat the franchise like a lady as well, this moment seems to promise.  In other words, the dream is in good hands…

Treat her like a lady, and the Enterprise will always bring you home.

Also commendable in “Encounter at Farpoint” is the ultimate message of Farpoint and the Bandi, denizens of Deneb IV.  They are so desperate to achieve their goal (support within the Federation) that they cut corners and hurt living, sentient beings to achieve success they aren't ready for.  In other words, the ends justify the means, in their eyes.  In the year of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the age of rampant yuppieism in America, this is a powerful message to convey; that getting there fast and wrong is less important than patience and morality.  It’s a great philosophical foundation for The Next Generation to build upon.

Unfortunately, some of that valuable message gets buried in the Q subplot, which seems to eat up most of the time in the premiere story.  This is unfortunate, because we have seen many aliens like the Q before in Star Trek history (in episodes such as “Squire of Gothos”) and the Bandi story might have been much more interesting and dramatic if better developed.  I like "Q" as much of the next Trekker, but he tends to suck all the air out of the room.  If he is present, he becomes the story, in other words.

Of all the new cast members featured here, Marina Sirtis fares worst as Counselor Troi.  The actress has been very blunt about assessing her performance in this episode, and I commend her for her honesty.  She shouldn’t feel bad, however, because clearly she grows in the role, and today Troi is beloved by fans.  

But in “Encounter at Farpoint,”  Troi looks like a “space cheerleader” and acts like an emotional basket case.  At every development of the story, Sirtis over-emotes as Troi, suggesting a dangerous personal instability.  She cries, she gasps, she grimaces…she’s way over-the-top.  

And the dialogue doesn’t help the actress out a lick.  After Q freezes a crewman on the bridge and we clearly register that he is frozen, Troi runs up to him and declares, dumb-founded “He’s frozen!”  In other words, she’s declaring the obvious, and thus comes across as stupid...again playing into the space cheerleader cliché.

Also, Troi’s continual over-emoting robs the episode of some of its genuine, nuanced pathos.  The climactic moment when the two space creatures are rejoined over Deneb IV stands quite well on its own without Troi offering emotional play-by-play about “great joy and gratitude.”  Again, this isn’t Marina Sirtis’s fault.  Her dialogue once more belabors the obvious, and puts a fine point on information that doesn’t need to be repeated, or spoken aloud. 

I don’t want to belabor this point because I respect Marina Sirtis, and over the years, Troi certainly became a valued and intriguing crew member.  But if today “Encounter at Farpoint” occasionally feels cartoony or melodramatic, it is largely because Troi’s character keeps stating the abundantly obvious, and continues to overreact to everything. 

Looking back, “Encounter at Farpoint” is a strange mixture of boldness and timidity.  

It is bold in the way that it critiques 1980s America, with Q appearing as Colonel Oliver North, essentially, and yet timid in the very concept that underlines Q: a Star Trek “God” rerun.   In Star Trek, man is always being tested, it seems...

Similarly, "Encounter at Farpoint" is bold in the way it attempts to move the Star Trek mythos forward with new characters, yet timid in the way many new characters seem like Mr. Spock, only dissected.  Data (outsider), Troi (with special powers of the mind) and Riker (as first officer) all seem like little slices of the half-Vulcan character.  About all you can say here is that each character grows into a full-fledged and unique individual over time.

Of all the new supporting characters, I feel that Dr. Crusher comes off the best in "Encounter at Farpoint."  She’s not a crusty-McCoy doctor, but a bit prickly and edgy nonetheless.  I like her put-down to Riker when she accuses him of ingratiating himself with the Captain, and then her eminently rational turnaround when she realizes he’s actually got a point.  The message is plain: she’s not interested in shipboard politics, but knows when it’s time to do her job. I wish she had been written this way more often: as someone in firm command over her department and areas of expertise, but boasting a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to her interactions with others.

I remember after “Encounter at Farpoint” first aired, the response from my friends at high school was extraordinarily negative.  Everyone but me hated it!  I remember that one exceptionally bright (and dear) friend noted that too many of the new characters seemed to boast super powers (meaning Geordi’s vision, Troi’s empathy and Data’s strength), and that everyone looked like they were dressed as superheroes.  He had a point.  You can argue the validity of having an indestructible android, a telepathic counselor and a helmsman with extraordinary vision, one-at-a-time, but taken in toto as a command crew -- and without knowing how these qualities would play out over a series -- it does seem a little like overkill.  Isn't this supposed to be a show about the human adventure?

In the case of this series, however, patience paid off, and The Next Generation’s characters found their way, growing more likable, unique and human over the span of several seasons.  “Encounter at Farpoint” may not be great, but overall it’s a fine shakedown cruise, especially for the iconic introduction of Picard, the affectionate ode to Trekdom (in the form of that POV shot on the bridge), and the promise of respectful care-taking of a proud history and legacy (represented by Dr. McCoy's admonition to treat The Enterprise -- and Star Trek -- like a lady.)


  1. Great encapsulation of an underrated episode (let us talk no more of the constant misuse of Marina Sirtis; witness Face of the Enemy to see that she could do more than play emo counselor).

    I remember how excited I was for this, and the reactions of my friends and I was similar to yours: I dug the show, everyone else hated it, save for perhaps the fantastic Bones cameo.

  2. Anonymous10:51 AM

    John excellent review of “Encounter at Farpoint”. I enjoyed Admiral McCoy's cameo. It was good to know he lived so long to see the 1701-D. I understand your high school friends dislike of the new cast of characters. The crew of the 1701-D seemed to be more like two-dimentional characters trying to be the Super Friends or Justice League than a crew of a Starfleet starship. However, even though I am a fan of the Kirk era Star Trek[original series, animated series, Kirk movies including both Shatner and Pine], Next Generation cast of characters grew on me as they became three dimensional during the seven seasons.