Saturday, 26 October 2013

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, 1.1 – 'Encounter at Farpoint'

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Stardate: 41153.7 – 41174.2. While travelling to a spaceport called Farpoint, created by the Bandi people of Deneb IV, the USS Enterprise is snared and Captain Picard's forced to stand trial for humanity's crimes by an omnipotent being known as "Q"...

In the late-1980s, Star Trek was in resurgence thanks to the successful feature-films starring the cast of the 1960s TV series. 1986's The Voyage Home had just earned $133m worldwide (making it that year's fifth biggest box-office hit), so it was little wonder that Paramount approached Gene Roddenberry about creating a new TV series. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which moved the story 78-years into the future and populated a new USS Enterprise with a different crew. The feature-length pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint", is far from indicative of what this Emmy-winning sci-fi drama would become in its prime, and most fans regard the first two seasons as especially weak compared to the subsequent five, but in re-watching this opening adventure I was surprised it wasn't awful.

I distinctly remember watching this episode as a VHS rental with my dad, around the age of 8, and hating it. This wasn't the Star Trek I was accustomed to on television, watching the bright and lively adventures of Captain Kirk and Spock. This felt slower-paced and the characters less alluring, although like most people my opinion changed once TNG's growing pains were over. In watching "Encounter at Farpoint" today, it's ultimately of interest to see the show in such a nascent form—where characterisations aren't quite nailed down, the dialogue is very stilted at times, and there are lots of odd moments that make you raise an eyebrow.

I was particularly intrigued by a scene where Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) meets Wesley Crusher (Whil Wheaton) for the first time, when his mother Dr Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) sweet-talks her son onto the Bridge. There's a definite suggestion that Wes is the son Picard never knew he had, but I don't recall that every going any further...

"Encounter at Farpoint" tells a story you could well imagine the Original Series doing a few decades before, but it's obvious that the tale has been embellished by adding the introduction of "Q" (John de Lancie)--an omnipotent alien who would become a recurring figure on the show, and quite often a very welcome comic treat. Here, the crew of the Enterprise are detained by Q and put on trial for humanity "being a grievously savage race", with Picard agreeing to be judged by their actions during their current mission to Farpoint station. This gives the real story of the episode something of a frame to work within, but it's ultimately fairly unnecessary embroidery. It just means the show can have some fun before the serious issues begin at Farpoint, as Q's an example of the crafty trickster character often used in fiction. He can transform his appearance and turn crewmen into frozen statues at will, and necessitates a rather unwarranted escape where Picard makes the hilariously rash decision of separating the Enterprise's saucer section from its body. Given the rarity of this ever happening again, it was quite clearly shoehorned into the narrative to provide some spectacle and demonstrate a technological difference over Picard and Kirk's ships.

In terms of performances, I thought the key actors appeared with their characters largely formed. Patrick Stewart already had a very clear idea about how Jean-Luc Picard should be, and it's so diametrically opposed to William Shatner's leader that I can understand why some critics took against him back in 1987. But apart from the fact he's much gruffer than he'll become, and seems particularly uneasy about the presence of children, this is largely the Captain Picard we know and love.

A clean-shaven Jonathan Frakes and lithe Brent Spiner are similarly recognisable as First Officer William Riker and Lt Cmdr Data, respectively, and empathic Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) probably gets more screen time than anyone would expect given how poorly her character will be developed in subsequent seasons. Worf (Michael Dorn) isn't Head of Security yet and appears to be even dumber than usual (pointing a phaser at Q on the viewscreen!), while the show's most recognisable actor at the time, LeVar Burton (star of iconic miniseries Roots), makes a good first impression as blind Geordie La Forge. Denise Crosby begins her short-lived TNG career as Tasha Yar, and to be honest didn't come across too badly here.

I was surprised by how much this pilot reminded me of episodes from the '60s series, too. Obviously the effects for the spaceships markedly improved (the shot of the Enterprise-D descending into shot like a regal swan is quite lovely), but the set for Farpoint Station's marketplace wasn't much better than the kind of alien towns Kirk and company were visiting decades before. It had the same Styrofoam feel. But in terms of narrative, you could tell a writer for the '60s series was behind this. It played out very much like an old-school Trek, albeit with different characters and some awkward action sequences inserted to aide an eye-opening trailer.

Guest Stars:
  • Obviously, the key figure here is John de Lancie as Q. He would reprise this beloved manipulator in a further eight TNG episodes ("Hide & Q", "Q Who", "Deja Q", "Qpid", "True Q", "Tapestry", "All Good Things..."), one Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ("Q-Less"), and three Star Trek: Voyager's ("Death Wish", "The Q and the Grey", "Q2").
  • Michael Bell plays Grappler Zorn in this pilot; and while you probably don't recognise his face, you perhaps know his voice because he's a prominent voice actor on The Smurfs and Rugrats. He's also godfather to Police Academy's Steve Guttenberg.
  • How fun to be reminded that Colm Meaney began his Trek career from the very start of TNG, appearing here on the Battle Bridge as "conn ensign". He would later become a recurring character from season 2 as O'Brien, and a regular in Deep Space Nine until 1999.
  • This episode's surprise appearance is from Original Series actor DeForrest Kelly, reprising his role as Leonard "Bones" McCoy, now a 137 year old Admiral. His moment with Data, this show's version of his old sparring partner Spock, was a big highlight. Interestingly, he only agreed to appear if he was paid the absolute minimum possible, as a favour to Gene Roddenberry. I wonder if this gesture was because TNG partly existed because William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy's salaries had ballooned for the movies, and Paramount were keen to find a cheaper way to exploit the franchise.
  • I couldn't help noticing the unfortunate Bridge crewman who gets frozen solid by Q was called Torres. It's probably just coincidence, but I wonder if Voyager's B'Elanna Torres is a relation.
  • I'm so glad they dropped the idea that humanity's golden future includes the wearing of unisex skirts. That man strolling through the ship just didn't look good.
  • I have no idea why someone in Q's kangaroo court bothered to bring the frame of an umbrella with them.
  • "My father was a Starfleet Officer" says Troi, to explain how she isn't 100% Betazoid. But since when does being a Starfleet Officer somehow equate to being human? This was an odd mistake to make in the script.
  • Some of the sets used in this pilot were redressed from previous Trek projects. The Battle Bridge was the Enterprise bridge used in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, for example. Some sets and props were also used from Star Trek: Phase II; a TV sequel idea dropped in favour of making Star Trek: The Motion Picture when Star Wars became a huge hit.
  • Did you know that Marina Sirtis auditioned for the role of Macha Hernandez, the ship's Head of Security? She lost out to Denise Crosby, who had auditioned for Troi. Hernandez's name was then changed to Tasha Yar.
written by D.C Fontana & Gene Roddenberry | directed by Corey Allen | 28 September 1987