I find it hard to even remember how I felt, 25 years ago, sitting in the living room with my parents and waiting for Star Trek: The Next Generation to premiere. I’d seen some clips from the first episode courtesy of our VHS copy of The Voyage Home, but that was all I knew.
The day finally came. We tuned in WCIX. We waited for the news-at-eleven tease. And then…
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her continuing mission: to explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Stretch. Snap. Zoom. Flash. And an era began.
“Encounter at Farpoint” began with some of the Enterprise crew en route to Farpoint Station, where they’d check out a new base the indigenous people had made for them. However, when an unbelievably-powerful alien named Q stopped them in their tracks, Captain Picard and his people would suddenly find themselves put on trial for crimes perpetrated by humanity — with Q as their judge. Picard convinced Q to let him prove that humans were no longer “a dangerous, savage child-race”, and they continued to Farpoint. There they picked up the rest of the crew and began investigating the mystery, all under the watchfully-omnipotent eyes of Q, who gave them a 24-hour deadline to figure out just what was going on with Farpoint.
Now, this review is going to look at the show from the point-of-view of someone who watched this show 25 years ago and just watched it again a couple of months ago in preparation for 25 Days of TNG. So, looking back, I found that a lot of the storytelling was clunky at best, with exposition coming at the viewer left and right, and for some reason a lot of details that the main characters should’ve known being imparted on-screen. For example, how could Captain Picard not know that Dr. Crusher requested the Enterprise assignment? How could he see her name and not click the “read more about this person” link next to her name, especially since his best friend was named Jack Crusher? Other pieces of clunkiness in the script and storytelling included:
- Riker not realizing that the “Troi” on the ship was the same one he was dating back on Betazed — I mean, what are the odds? Deanna didn’t have any siblings*; did Riker think it was her long-lost sister?
- Why would the Bandi bother inviting Starfleet to Farpoint if they knew full well that they were holding an intelligent creature against its will?
- This is more a criticism of the music in the episode, but the music choices made in the Picard/Beverly scenes felt like a romantic subtext was being added that just wasn’t there. At least, not right away; remember, this is the first time Picard has seen Beverly since Jack died, and one would imagine it brings back bad memories, not “hey, let’s mack on this pretty redhead” memories.
The best part of the episode really was the Picard/Q dynamic — the two best actors on the show went toe-to-toe in some well-written, well-acted scenes that somehow managed to overcome direction that, at best, felt questionable. I also thought the moment when Groppler Zorn talks directly to the space jellyfish was a nice hearkening back to the writing style of the original series — I could imagine that scene happening in Kirk’s era.
Speaking of the direction, director Corey Allen made some very odd choices in the way he shot the show. I realize it was 1987, and things were different then, but there were several things that really stood out to me, and not in a good way:
- Several times, the camera work seemed to be intentionally shaky — Picard’s first walk past the warp core and Wesley on the bridge — and it was more distracting than anything else.
- Allen gave Picard a lot of “hero shots” — looking up at him from a low angle. This was especially noticeable in the trial scene — and is it just me, or did someone have a finger over the edge of the lens in a lot of Picard’s close-ups?
- I think a combination of the writing and direction led to the actors sitting at the forward stations on the bridge standing up all the time. How smart is it to step away from one’s console like that in a crisis situation — or even, as with the “snoop” line in the first sequence, while the ship is zooming along at Warp Six or whatever? Again, quite distracting.
- I’m betting Allen was told to include lots of shots of Worf doing Starfleet stuff on the bridge to show that “hey, there’s a Klingon here, and he’s not trying to kill everyone!” One particularly-glaring moment was when Worf went down to Engineering to inform everyone that they were going to try “maximum acceleration”.
By now we also know quite a lot about all the actors in the cast — and, by the way, I think the producers did a good job keeping the guest cast small in the premiere, something that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise didn’t pull off — so in the place where I’d normally talk about them, here’s some things that stood out as I watched the show. Each sentence is another observation:
- Picard: The first shot of Patrick Stewart made him look older than he was.
- Riker: What was with that “official report” thing when he was talking to Geordi — it felt very forced.
- Deanna: Why did Deanna’s voice echo during her first line? I’m glad she updated her accent between the pilot and the next episode, as it was a little too thick. Marina Sirtis did a good job of playing herself as being young and insecure… except that she was a Lieutenant Commander, which means she’d been in Starfleet for a while and shouldn’t have been. I’m really glad they toned down the whole empathy thing, because that got uncomfortable fast. Her nails were way too long and impractical to be working on a ship with glass touchpads; I realize she was supposed to be the “sexy” one, but still, too much.
- Data: Costuming should’ve done better with making sure one of Data’s first appearances didn’t include man-boobs.
- Geordi: Of all the actors on this show, LeVar Burton really had the best handle on his character right from the get-go.
- Tasha: Tasha’s first line was way too far into Q’s appearance; it made her seem like an ineffectual security chief — Odo and Tuvok wouldn’t have let Q go unchallenged nearly that long. Overall this episode didn’t establish her as a very strong character; her soapbox scene in the courtroom was good for character development purposes, but I just didn’t buy her as a security chief — this became a problem again in “Hide and Q”. She looked kind of “hey, baby” when Riker showed up. Tasha seemed to take everything really hard, which again didn’t help me believe her character.
- Worf: Nothing stood out about him beyond the fact that he was a Klingon.
- Beverly: She was really standoffish in her first scene, which wasn’t very good writing. Also, she can sew?
- Wesley: I have to say that, even in 1987, I didn’t care much for the characterization of Wesley; he was a little too much of a space cadet.
And, finally, my remaining thoughts as I watched the episode:
- Dennis McCarthy’s original score had some really nice cues in it, and they first appeared in the “maximum acceleration” sequence. And, speaking of… “maximum acceleration”? Which writer’s bright idea was that?
- I know that “using printout only” probably meant “on screens”, but in 1987, “printout” meant “pieces of paper”. They don’t have paper on starships, right? Right?
- I realize Q became more omnipotent and super-powerful as the seasons went on, but the chase scene was pretty lame even in 1987.
- “Emergency saucer-sep”? We couldn’t afford three more syllables for Picard?
- “Battle Bridge” sounded so cool. Too bad it really wasn’t.
- Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s Chief O’Brien!
- I thought we weren’t using the intercom; why is Picard hailing Worf?
- That’s a buttload of torpedoes!
- Seriously? The opening theme to do the separation? Whose bright idea was that? Way to kill the tension.
- Nice turnaround. Did the stardrive section leave tracks in the sky?
- Is that Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Q’s bailiff? Why yes it is!
- Q sure bumped around a lot on the way in.
- Wow, iPads are going to get huge in 2079.
- I didn’t really feel the tension of the whole courtroom sequence. It went on kind of long, didn’t it? And why was Picard yelling so much?
- I see why they didn’t separate the ship very much — it’s ugly without the saucer.
- I feel kind of head-shaky just thinking about the McCoy scene. They gave DeForest Kelley some great lines though.
- Apparently this episode was before they decided Data couldn’t use contractions.
- Lots of open doors in this corridor they’re walking through.
- Why is Wesley in the holodeck with Data? I guess they hadn’t established the holodeck privacy rules in the story bible yet.
- Data’s smiling a hell of a lot.
- You have to call down to the sensor room? What’s the point of that?
- Some of the exterior shots are quite obviously the background moving and not the ship. That got better over time, though.
- Clearly the space jellyfish have a very painful transporter beam, judging from Groppler Zorn’s reaction to it.
Of the four shows that started in the “common” era — that is to say, everything except TOS — I really do think “Encounter at Farpoint” was one of the better pilots. It definitely was better than “Broken Bow”, and was more interesting in many ways than “Emissary”. Despite often-clunky writing and some really strange choices made with the story, direction, and production, it was a decent start to what would become, to many, the best of the five** Star Trek series. It gave us Q, it introduced us to characters we’d come to know and care about, and in the end, it got a nine-year-old me excited about watching this new iteration of one of my favorite TV shows.
Unfortunately, the next two episodes were terrible, but hey, I was nine. I could accept a lot of terrible-ness as long as it meant there was more Trek next week.
* Kestra notwithstanding.
** Six, if you count the animated series.