With last week’s post about “The Road Not Taken,” I’m out of new televised Star Trek content until Star Trek: Picard is released, and as yet, all we know is that the show is slated for release sometime towards the end of this year. In the run up to the new series, I will revisit some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Star Trek: the Next Generation’s seven season run, with the odd more academic piece, so you’ve been warned. Depending on how this goes, I may make it as far as the TNG movies, but in the interests of transparency, I will not cover either Insurrection or Nemesis. I’ve suffered through both more than enough times, thank you very much.
This flashback series will open with “Encounter at Farpoint: 1 &2” both because they’re the first episodes of the series but also because they give us a great baseline for the evolution of the characters over nearly a decade of content.
TNG’s first season spends far too much time calling back to the original source material, even outright remaking “The Naked Time” as “The Naked Now.” In the first ten minutes of “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q freezes a redshirt, despite the fact that in The Next Generation, the color scheme has been somewhat altered, and Counselor Deanna Troi is sporting an updated version of the skant uniform and go-go boots that Marina Sirtis has dubbed the “cosmic cheerleader outfit.” Q himself feels a bit like a callback to Trelane from the “Squire of Gothos,” and in terms of non-canon information, Peter David reached the same conclusion in Q-Squared.
The basic premise of the plot is that a newly commissioned Enterprise-D is headed to Farpoint Station to do some negotiating with a touch of sleuthing because Starfleet is rightly skeptical of how quickly the Bandi constructed the station on a world with few resources but energy. On the way, Q hijacks the ship and puts humanity on trial through the medium of Picard, Data, Troi, and Tasha Yar. Picard shoutily but successfully negotiates a test, which Q determines will be how they handle the situation at Farpoint. At Farpoint, they pick up both Riker and Dr. Crusher, and the crew discovers that Farpoint Station is actually a captured space-faring jellyfish with the ability to transmute energy into matter, not unlike both the transporters and the holodeck. Our intrepid crew liberates the space-jellyfish, and Q concedes that humanity has permission to roam the galaxy.
If this seems like a truly bizarre marriage of two separate stories, that’s because it is. D.C. Fontana was brought on to write the pilot, and her story involves the station and the space-jellyfish. Gene Roddenberry added the Trial-by-Q frame, and the result does not quite mesh. Some of this has to do with behind-the-scenes drama regarding the length of the episode. The studio wanted a two hour pilot, but Roddenberry argued for a single hour. The studio ultimately won, so the final script ended up with a fair amount of padding, including the ship separation sequence and Picard’s trip to Sickbay to talk with Dr. Crusher. Of those two, the latter is by far the better addition as Stewart and McFadden get to demonstrate their chemistry together, which is fantastic. Earlier in the episode, Crusher and Riker had none.
Most of the other problems with the pilot stem from the nature of pilots. The writers and actors are new to the characters, so everything tends to be a bit rocky. Troi functions mostly as a Macguffin with legs, and neither Spiner nor the writers have quite figured out how to make Data less annoying. Wesley Crusher shows up in a terrible sweater as youthful enthusiasm personified, and Picard’s characterization note is that…he just doesn’t like children. John De Lancie as Q chews through his performance like he’s a wood chipper, and it’s delightful. Tasha Yar and Worf are already jockeying for the same character slot on the bridge, and when Yar gets frozen during the trial after her shouted tribute to Starfleet, I find myself regretful when Q restores her.
The episode’s pacing is similarly uneven, and there are issues that will become continuity problems later. In particular, I noted a new redshirt coming through the door that will become Picard’s Ready Room in later seasons. Having Dr. Crusher buy a bolt of fabric is incredibly bizarre as throughout the rest of the series, she never seems particularly interested in sewing. In addition, this episode follows The Voyage Home in which Kirk explains that they don’t use money in the future, so one wonders how Dr. Crusher intends to have the bolt charged to her account. However, there are some fantastic moments, too. DeForest Kelley makes an appearance as Admiral McCoy, displaying both his trademark hatred of transporters and his dislike of Vulcans, and sadly, this will be Kelley’s final television appearance before his death in 1999. They filmed the episode in 1987, so Kelley was between films as the Final Frontier would not be filmed until 1988. Of note, this appearance starts the tradition of featuring a character from a previous franchise installment in the pilot for each new series that would last until Discovery.
Other pleasant surprises include Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s appearance as a “mandarin bailiff,” mostly because he’s a fantastic character actor, and some background shots of men in the same minidress uniforms. That the series features such a gender-bending move as a background element is fantastic, but lamentably, such elements go the way of the minidress, which disappears in later seasons.
Overall, the episode is a bit painful to watch, but ultimately, it’s worthwhile to do so, if only to see where the journey began.
Rating: Three of Five Cups of Earl Grey Tea, Hot.