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Revisiting Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 1

I recently started rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the beginning. I have nothing but fond memories of the original run in the 1980s, given how excited I was for a new Trek series in my lifetime (I had only reruns and the movies to stoke my Trek interest), and it recently occurred to me that, while I diligently consumed every TNG episode, I had not experienced the series since it's original run. 

Why did I do this? Well, a few reasons:
  • With the triumphant return of Sir Patrick Stewart to the smaller screen as the venerable Jean Luc Picard, I thought it would be interesting to contrast this version with the previous, and see how far he has come. It would add color to the character, as well as Sir Patrick.

  • Frankly, with the COVID19 lockdown, the series I have binged upon have been intense, dark, and disturbing. Combined with the activity of the world, including insane politics, homicidal police who seem to view people of color as "prey," rather than their charges to protect, and a global pandemic, I kind of wanted something lighter, more optimistic in tone. I remember some of that in a vague way from TNG.

  • I wanted something that would continue to stoke my science fiction fires, while being the equivalent of a good Pandora station: easy, nice, and inspirational.
So, armed as such, I decided nowhere to start than the beginning: Season 1, Episode 1: Encounter At Farpoint. From there, I marched through those 24 episodes, taking notes as I went. And guess what? You get to share in those notes with me! Ready, Number One? Engage.

General impressions

Various plots were recycled from TOS in that first season. Man, yet another mysterious microbe that gets on the ship and takes over? Looks a lot scarier in a post COVID, post cruise ship/disease barge time.

The Ferengi were clearly a Gene Roddenberry trademark. Create a character/race that represents an aspect of modern day human society, amplify the ugly traits, and set them against the crew. In the Original Series (TOS), it was the half black/half white aliens in
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, amplifying the ridicule of racial tensions. Here, in the go-go, "greed is good" 1980's, the bargaining and scheming Ferengi were a clear metaphor for the consumerism that runs rampant. 

Odd and disturbing undercurrent here: there was more than a little questionable racism at play. The Ferengi were perceived as obsessed with "profit" and "bargains," and has prominent noses (and ears), were smaller than those around them, and seemed very...alien. Perhaps it's with the time that has passed, but I can't help but see more than a little reference to the Jewish people here, all with similar characteristics that racists have used for years. Unsettling to see it crop up in Trek, which always felt like it went beyond this.

Not surprising

The music was waaaay over the top, almost cheesy and very heavy handed to REALLY DRIVE THE POINT HOME of what ever emotion the scene wanted you to feel. If that wasn't enough, don't worry: they had lots of dramatic zoom-in shots that would hold, right as they went to commercial.

The set designs were very cheap, far flimsier and cheaper than I remembered. My memory of TNG was that it had a surprisingly rich production value, with lush sets, and very cool technology. Not in Season 1; the quality was almost the level of TOS, with plenty of cardboard, fake boulders, and comical animation.

OK, we start the series with Picard deliberately making it clear how much he hates children. Let's put the underlying question of why you take a command that is replete with families and children all over the place. No, I want to ask the serious question: what the actual FUCK is a man who hates children making the son of his dead best friend (Wesley Crusher) an "acting ensign"? How do the writers make that one make any sense? And does any other ship in the entire Federation have a kid as an "acting ensign?" Which ones? I want names, dammit!

Another interesting set of choices that seem to become Trek hallmarks: the reuse of actors who appear in other Trek properties, but as different characters. In this first season, we even got a two-fer in the same episode! Merritt Buttrick, who played David Marcus (Kirk's son) in The Wrath of Khan, showed up. But wait, in the same episode, directly opposed to Buttrick, is Judson Scott, Khan's right hand man, from the same film! Fascinating, as Spock would say. Incidentally, in researching this, I found this little nugget amazing for the man who brought Joachim to life:
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Joachim was played by Judson Scott. However, Scott's name does not appear in the credits. According to TV Guide, Scott's agent was in negotiations with Paramount Pictures to get Scott high billing, but the tactic backfired and Scott wound up with no credit at all.
Surprises

I remembered that the series started off with Q, who would become a recurring foil for the crew throughout the series (and into the spin-offs of
Deep Space 9 and Voyager). He puts the "deus" in the Trek signature deus ex machina. But what I had not remembered is that we got not just 1 appearance by Q in season 1, but a full second episode. And since Farpoint was a 2 parter, we actually had more than 10% of season 1 be about Q!

Let's talk about Klingons. We'd had 4 TOS movies by the time this show hit the airwaves, so our only
 exposure to this new breed of Klingons came from the fantastic talents of Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette (yes, really). So we had no rich storyline, no cultural history of these seemingly transformed warriors who looked and behaved very differently than TOS. So, armed with only a ridged head, Michael Dorn had to bring this race to full dimensionality. 

At first, the writers had him almost cartoonish, more of a half man, half beast, which I would have expected with Roddenberry at the helm for this reboot. Look, the man was visionary, but not, shall we say, nuanced. But I had to kick my preconceptions to the curb with the evolution of the Klingons in season 1. For instance, the writers did a great job of setting up what we now consider the modern Klingon mythos with the death ritual and embracing of the idea of dying well. That was the foundation of decades of rich cultural exploration, and magnificently executed.

Another Roddenberry surprise for season 1 was the introduction of Lore. Data was clearly originally written to be both a representation of and a conflict against the Spock character, but I did not remember his evil brother Lore making an appearance so early in the series. This also set up the legacy of Dr. Noonian Soong, the creator of both Data and Lore, a subplot that would show up multiple times thought the new Trek series. I honestly had not expected that level of creativity in this first season.

More surprising creativity: in this first season, there was one episode that sent them 300 light years away, where it would take them decades to get back. Of course, not to worry, always a handy omnipotent alien around to come to the rescue (and a setup for Wesley Crusher's fate, years from now). But this idea of being marooned decades away in this first season was almost exactly the underlying premise of Star Trek Voyager, a show that would not air for 8 more years!

Of course, not all was so visionary in Season 1. There were lots of inconsistencies in Data and Worf between episodes in these early ones. Worf would often be filmed savagely growling and glowering; Data's loony turn as Sherlock Holmes, etc. Towards the end of the season, they started to tone down the extreme behavior, thankfully.

One of my favorite episodes was in season 1! I hadn't expected it. While it's official title is "Home Soil, I remember it mostly for the end scenes, with the newly evolved and conscious life forms communicating with the crew. Why is that not just standard Trek? The new life forms addressed the crew as "ugly giant mostly bags of water," which Picard appeared completely flummoxed by, until Data pointed out that is an accurate description of a humanoid to a silicon based life form. It was one of the moments Trek managed to introduce the concept of "alien" and turn it on it's head. I am proud to be a member of the UGMBOW, and I thank these characters for pointing it out.

If Q is the deus in deus ex machina, then the holodeck fills out the yang to his yin. Always able to mine that infinite landscape for a diversion, it proves a stalwart Trek companion that stretches through countless series and movies. And we get a sense of it with the Dixon Hill story line: a 1941 Bogart-like detective made his first case in season 1. If you had told me the Picard from
Farpoint liked to spend his downtime as a hard-boiled San Francisco gumshoe, I'd have said the show went off the rails. But, the show evolved, Picard evolved, and Dixon Hill, who'd make multiple appearances (including in the best TNG movie, First Contact), started right here! Extremely creative.

Finally, let's discuss that last mini episode arc, with a mysterious threat that faced the very core of Starfleet. Ok, quite the build up to a race of insect body snatchers that apparently like to be eaten by their ruler. Um. Yeah, that happened. But we were treated to some old-school, Ray Harryhausen style stop-motion animation, as those critters skittered through the facility. Shades of Jason and the Argonauts! And if that wasn't enough, we get the vision of Picard and Riker, the very twins of James T. Kirk's own qualities made separate, deciding that this newly discovered life form could only be dealt with one way: Phasers set on kill! And the payoff? We get to see Remick's head exploding. Yeah, this is a Trek episode that really never should have been made.

On to Season 2....

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