Wednesday, September 28, 2022

35 Years Ago: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"

Although by no stretch one of the best installments of the series’ seven year run, the inaugural episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation gets the job done.  

Whether it does so in style or not, perhaps, is the key question.

“Encounter at Farpoint” introduces the new characters and their world (and affectionately) reminds the audience of Star Trek history. It also offers at least two marvelous images that remain impressive and resonant, even thirty years later.  Sadly, some of the performances in the episode are straight up terrible.

But let's pause a minute and gaze at historical context. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in the year 1987, at a high-point in Trek's history and popularity. Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had won accolades and treasure at the box office the year before, and it felt like a good time to bring the series back to television. Paramount brought Gene Roddenberry -- who had been sidelined from the movies -- back to the fold to work his magic a second time.

Instead of airing on a major network, however, Star Trek: The Next Generation went where original series like The Starlost (1973) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977) had gone before, choosing to create its own ad-hoc network of local affiliates; known as syndication. The move made abundant sense, Star Trek's popularity had skyrocketed in the early 1970's in reruns, in syndication, so airing original episodes of the new series in the same markets made good business sense.

The behind-the-scenes squabbles on Star Trek: The Next Generation are, at this point, legendary, and the series didn't really find its footing for the first two seasons. This was also a time of cast-upheaval, as actors and their characters came and left. In the first season, the Enterprise-D had a revolving door of a half-dozen chief engineers.

A close focus on the first season episodes of this particular series actually point out something relevant in today's world: the utter bull-shittery of fans complaining about Star Trek: Discovery (2017). 

As a thought experiment, watch the first nine episodes of Discovery, and then the first nine episodes of Next Generation. And then tell me again -- with a straight face -- how Discovery is a bad show, and Next Generation is a classic.

The Next Generation became a classic, only because fans gave it time to prove itself. Some of today's fans aren't giving Discovery the same opportunity. This is funny, since Discovery is already better, at episode nine, than Next Generation was at the same juncture.

But let's leave comparisons aside for the moment and continue with a little in-universe background on The Next Generation.  The story is set in the 24th century, just about one hundred years after the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the original starship Enterprise.

In this century, the Klingons are (sometimes uneasy) allies of the Federation, the Romulans have gone quiet in their own space, and a new enemy looms. This new enemy is known as the Ferengi.

Technology and terminology have both changed since the days of Kirk and Spock as well.

Communicators are Comm-badges in the shape of the Starfleet delta are worn on all uniforms. Starships are also outfitted with recreational holodecks, and carry families aboard them. Landing parties are a thing of the past; now known as "away teams."

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 regal commanding officer who will soon step “out” of Captain Kirk’s shadow.   

At the same time as we watch the figure transition from silhouette to light, we hear the pleasing, authoritative cadences of Picard's 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 (French) 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 -- and 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 cheap 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 or equipped 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 Yuppie-ism in America, this is a powerful message to convey; that getting there fast (but badly) is wrong, is less important than patience and morality. It’s a great -- and indeed, remarkable -- 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.

Sadly, some of the performances here are not the best. The actors still had a lot of growing to do in their roles. Tasha Yar's defense of Starfleet, while impassioned, is embarrassing. It also smacks a bit of indoctrination. She tells people at the court that they should get down on their knees to worship what Starfleet is.  I respect Starfleet tremendously, but people should bow down to it? Is that really the Starfleet ethos?

I love Jonathan Frakes, but he is ramrod straight in posture, and absolutely wooden in delivery, here.

But of all the new cast members featured in "Encounter at Farpoint," Marina Sirtis likely 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 for good reason. 

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 the audience clearly registers 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.

Unfortunately, Troi's character became famous -- or rather, infamous -- during the first season for sating the obvious.

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 is not personal. 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

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

It is bold in the way that it critiques 1980''s America, with Q appearing as Colonel Oliver North, essentially, and mocking unprincipled right wing "patriotism." Yet it is 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 into multiple pieces.

Consider Spock's pieces, in new beings: 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, again,  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 snarky 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 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 psychic 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 decent 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. Your usual intelligent review, John.

    I was a bit excited when this series was announced ― I was in my last year of film school ― and anticipated its premiere with some enthusiasm. A couple of old high school buddies came over the night of "Encounter at Farpoint". I was disappointed but my viewing-mates seemed to like it more. I was surprised by how rough it was, as an overall production.

    By the way, small corrections....

    The Starlost originally was to be an NBC series, but it became a co-pro with Canada's CTV network, and produced at that network's flagship station CFTO and its Glen-Warren facility. The main NBC network ultimately did not take it but some of its O&O ("owned and operated") stations did.

    Space: 1999 could not get a U.S. network sale, which is why it was marketed to stations individually... as you know, of course. (Here in Canada "Radio-Canada", CBC French, ran Year One; Year Two got picked up by CBC.)

    In September of 1990 I just happened to be in England when BBC2 premiered Star Trek: The Next Generation. There I am in my Portsmouth hotel room with a beautiful view of the English Channel outside my window, and I'm watching "Encounter at Farpoint". No comment....

  2. Great review--especially the frame-by-frame analysis of the opening. Like you, I remember school friends who rejected TNG almost out of hand.

    Here are some random thoughts of my own:

    1. I agree the episode has its faults, but I love the creatures that are reunited, and wish we'd scene more species like that.

    2. What stands out to me is Picard's attitude toward his crew, publicly bringing them up short in several scenes. It's clear that he looks at them from a great height. The end of "All Good Things" is a nice bookend to this. (Frequent "Trek" novelist Keith DeCandido has attributed this change in Picard's character to his assimilation by the Borg.)

    3. The choice to have TNG and TMP share Jerry Goldsmith's music is telling, particularly since TNG arguably grew out of the Phase II TV series that was aborted for TMP. (The similarity of Riker/Troi to Decker/Ilia, and TNG's use of Phase II scripts, often have been noted.)

    4. I was somewhat sorry when the title sequence was changed for season three. I rather liked the idea of passing through our solar system to get to what lies beyond.


20 Years Ago: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in  Star Trek: Nemesis  (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…)...