Hellooooo, long time no post. What can I say? I’m easily distracted, lazy and erratic. I do have some board game stuff to talk about but I thought I’d take a brief break from the thing I was doing as part of a brief break from whatever the thing was that I was doing before that and talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is partly because it was the 50th Anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek this week, but mostly because I had, completely independently of this fact, embarked on an epic TNG re-watch, since all the Star Trek just popped up on Netflix.
Anyway, in celebration of fifty years of Trek I thought I’d review/recap/comment upon as many episodes of TNG as I can be bothered to watch. I mean, I was tempted to do the first fifty because that’s nice and symmetrical but, in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t follow through on it.
So, without further ado.
Episodes 1&2: The Encounter at Farpoint
Over the first almost two hours of Star Trek: TNG it slowly occurred to me that pretty much nothing was going to be like I expected it. It’s often been said that TNG would probably be the Trek that dated worst, if only because they put a fucking psychiatrist on the bridge on account of it being written right in the middle of the late 80s / early 90s therapy boom. And it has, actually, dated in a lot of ways but they aren’t the ways I’d have thought. Troi and Wesley didn’t bother me at all—even though I remember being quite irritated by them at the time. Conversely, I noticed a lot of things that completely passed me by way back when I watched it as a child that are both of their time and, severally, either incredibly cringe-worthy or surprisingly laudable.
I’m going to talk about Wesley in a later recap but let’s start off with Deanna Troi. There’s sort of a running joke that all she ever does is say “I sense great hostility Captain” seconds before the Klingons open fire. But, re-watching the series, she actually fits in surprisingly well of the focus of the show. It’s pretty clear that Picard’s Enterprise much more than Kirk’s is primarily on a diplomatic mission. And so having a legitimate psychic on board is obviously really helpful. Not only that, but she fits tonally with the more touchy-feely, less punchy-kissy style of space exploration that Captain Picard represents.
Sticking with Deanna Troi, one of the dated elements that I wasn’t expecting was quite how 60s the show feels some of the time. For the first couple of series Gene Roddenberry was, well, not dead and it sort of feels like he kept trying to sneak 1966 in by the back door. Troi spends the first episode, and mercifully only the first episode, wearing a hilarious blue mini-skirt and go-go boots. And, as we’ll see later, it’s amazing how many planets they visit inhabited entirely by scantily clad, sex positive humanoid women. It’s almost like there was whole team trying to make a show and Gene Roddenberry kept getting in the way, so they’d have to distract him with a leggy blonde with a beehive so they could go back to their script meeting. And it’s obviously created a tension because you get occasional shots where there are men wearing the same skirted uniforms (usually sans go gos) so it’s almost like they had a conversation all the lines of:
Gene: I’m going to put all the goils in really short skoits [in my head, Gene Roddenberry talks like Popeye]
Team: We get where you’re coming from, Gene, but this is sort of supposed to be a post-sexist society, so it seems a bit odd that the men are wearing sensible uniforms while the women are basically naked from the thigh down.
Gene: Okay, then put everybody in mini-skoits! Everybody! Even the bald guy with the British accent.
Encounter at Farpoint is Classic Star Trek Episode #76: the crew of whatever the hell we’re following this time encounters an omnipotent being. It is dismissive about humanity. The crew proves it wrong. The omnipotent being, and indeed the audience, conveniently ignore the fact that half the people who demonstrated the value of humanity were, in fact, robots or aliens.
What makes Encounter at Farpoint really interesting is Captain Picard. I was going to cite Picard as a dated element of the series in that I honestly don’t think you could get away with writing a character like that today. But then I stopped to think about it and I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get away with writing a character like that in 1987 either. Let’s recap, and remember that what we’re talking about here is the hero of a science fiction adventure show set in space:
- He’s 59 years old (not Patrick Stewart, but Picard was born in 2305 and Encounter at Farpoint takes place in 2364)
- He has distinguished himself, apart from that one thing where he got a manoeuvre named after him, primarily as a diplomat
- He almost never makes a command decision without consulting at least two other people, one of whom is the ship’s counsellor
- His captain’s chair is so close to the chair of his first officer that their knees touch
- His very first action as the hero of a science fiction adventure series is, when confronted by a capricious and omnipotent alien being, to surrender to it
I can’t quite get over how unusual and bizarrely mature this is. If I wanted to be slightly more glib, I’d suggest you can sum up the prevailing attitudes of most action heroes in a sentence of the form “sometimes you just gotta blah”. So, for example, Kirk’s motto is “sometimes you just gotta punch a guy and kiss an alien”. John McClane’s is “sometimes you just gotta shoot every last motherfucker in the room.” Jack Bauer’s is “sometimes you just gotta torture a bunch of people.” Jean-Luc Picard’s is “sometimes you just gotta realise you’re not going to get your own way.”
Something we’ll see occurring again and again throughout TNG is that Picard constantly backs down from fights, surrenders to his enemies, does his level best to make sure that people who hate him get everything they want, and the show genuinely manages to present all of these things as victories. I mean, yes, he says some slightly angry things to Q but, basically, he accepts his terms and tries to make the case for humanity to the best of his ability. Kirk, on the other hand, would shoot his way out, blow something up or otherwise find a solution that did not at any point involve him having to, horror of horrors, compromise.
Let’s be clear, in many ways this episode is bobbins (or as bobbins as a Q episode can ever be because John de Lancie is delightful) and has a racist Mandarian in it for no clear reason. It’s probably sentimental of me, but there’s also quite a sweet scene where Data escorts a very aged Dr McCoy … somewhere? To do something. I like it because Dr McCoy was very much the heart of the Original Series and Data is quite clearly the heart of TNG. Oh do you see the irony.
And I’ve just decided I’m going to give every episode a rating out of 5 for how bobbins it is, 1 bobbin being an episode that’s actually quite good, and 5 bobbins being an episode that is completely bobbins.
Since it’s the first episode and it’s good to establish a base line, I rate Encounter at Farpoint 3 bobbins:
Um. Okay. So that was pretty long. The rest will be shorter. I hope.
The Naked Now
This is basically a re-hash of the Original Series episode, The Naked Time. Or, if you prefer, it’s basically the S3 Buffy episode, Band Candy. It’s the thing where people encounter a thing that makes them lose their inhibitions or behave childishly or otherwise reveal something about their characters in such a way that you have unlimited excuses to do clunky emotional exposition.
From this clunky emotional exposition, we learn that Tasha Yar is horny, Wesley is a creepy Picard stalker, the Enterprise has terrible security protocols, and Picard and Crusher are totally into each other (which starts a weird, or maybe not so weird trend, of Picard’s string of failed relationships, all with women twenty years younger than him).
This episode gets 4 out of 5 bobbins. Spoiler: I’m saving 5 bobbins for Conspiracy.
Code of Honour
Okay, so the other thing that makes this series really dated is the way it’s sometimes super, super racist. In this episode, Tasha Yar (who is still horny because she is always horny) is captured by a sexy, sexy black man who wants to “count coup” against Picard by … um … I’m really trying to find a way to recap this without using the phrase “where the women at” and I’m not sure I’m managing it.
Anyway, he abducts Tasha Yar and then, when they go down to get her back, he declares that he’s going to make her his First One (or something), which pisses off his current First One, who then challenges Tasha to a duel to the death. If possible, things then starting even less sense. Tasha refuses the duel and the guy who I should probably stop referring to as the sexy black man threatens not to give the Enterprise the much needed medical supplies that they need because something something plague something something don’t they have replicators something something. Somehow this all leads to Tasha deciding that she has to fight the duel so that the Enterprise can get the medical supplies even though there is no indication that the medical supplies are what is being fought over (I think the implication is supposed to be that she’s showing she respects their culture but, while I’m a wet multi-cultural liberal myself, my respect for other people’s traditions stops at the point that they require me to fight to the actual death).
Then it gets even weirder in that Tasha wins the fight—which involves spiky poison punch glove things because what—but they transport Tasha and her opponent out, and bring her opponent back from the brink of death. This outrages Medical Supplies Guy (notice the cunning and face-saving name change) who is all like “no, it was a duel to the death and she didn’t die” and the crew of the Enterprise are all like “ah no, but she did die because our computer said she did, and also that means that your marriage to her is now over, which means she gets all her property back and can marry the other guy who is much nicer than you, and we can say this because apparently we randomly get to decide how your legal system works and what death means in your culture, even though we got here like eight minutes ago.” I’ll add that this is the first example in TNG of the “understanding the alien’s culture better than they understand it themselves” trope. Which I particularly hate.
Okay, I lied about waiting for Conspiracy. Five bobbins.
The Last Outpost
So, you know the Borg right? The terrifying, inhuman, individuality-denying killing machines that want to assimilate the entire universe into their collective? And you know the Romulans who are basically like everything that’s cool about the Vulcans if they were also evil? And you know the Klingons who are badass Viking samurais? For some reason, the main antagonist that’s sincerely built up as a real threat to the Federation throughout the whole first series of TNG is … the Ferengi. This is actually the most jarring experience I had going back to TNG because my memories of later Star Trek are a lot better than my memories of these early episodes and listening to Riker talking about the comic relief from DS9 in these tones of hushed awe and trepidation is fucking hilarious.
In this episode, the Federation has its first encounter with the mysteeeeeeeeerious Ferengi. There’s a lot of talk about how they’re some kind of mercantile race and how they’re a bit like how ancient Earth used to be, only they’re a lot more sinister and mysteeeeerious. There are apparently interviews in which they say that Roddenberry always intended the Ferengi to be the main villains of TNG and for them to represent the evils of 20th century capitalism. Not only was that a terrible idea, it was also maybe not the best call (in admittedly later series) to cast all of the iconic Ferengi characters with Jewish actors.
Also they make no sense in a post-scarcity society. But, then, neither does anything else in the Star Trek universe. Once you’ve replicators, teleporters and holodecks you don’t get a new age of exploration, you get The Dancers at the End of Time.
Anyway, something something mysterious energy field. Something something oh no the Ferengi have betrayed us, you can’t trust the Ferengi because they represent the evils of modern human and definitely not Jews, something something ancient mysterious guardian, Riker wins because he’s awesome. Riker is basically the Kirk of TNG.
Three and a half bobbins. I feel like I’m judging this episode a bit too harshly just because of the way they changed streams with the Ferengi in later series.
Where No-one Has Gone Before
This is the one with the Traveller. It’s also the one where I actually started to weirdly like Wesley. Which is odd because it’s also the episode where an ancient, wise alien harps on about how brilliant Wesley is, and normally that would put me right off a character. I think the reason it made Wesley work for me is that it highlighted that Wesley isn’t supposed to be just a precocious kid. He’s supposed to be an actual bona fide genius and not in that broad sort of meaningless sense that anyone vaguely talented gets called a genius these days. But in the specific technical sense that there are things he sees and ways he thinks that other people just don’t have access to. I thought this was surprisingly interesting, especially coupled with the fact that he’s a very earnest, socially awkward person the rest of the time, and also that he’s not actually particularly good at knowing at about starships because he’s got no experience of them.
I might be over-selling or overcompensating here but I think this is the first time I’ve really seen a work of popular culture address ‘genius’ as a complex character trait rather than as an excuse for why a character is just better at something than everyone else.
This might actually only be a two bobbins episode. I mean, it’s got some pretty bobbins bits and your bobbins count would definitely go up if you were a committed Wesley hater. But, for me, it was a decent, science fiction adventure story with relatively few parts that made no sense whatsoever.
Lonely Among Us
Not to get too philosophy of identity on you, but this is the episode where Picard dies. It’s also interesting because the B story involves a slightly weird plot about two feuding alien races in heavy makeup, one of whom randomly eats the other at the end. That’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is that Badar N’D’D, the emissary from the predatory, doglike Anticans (the ones who do the eating in the final, slightly tasteless joke), is played by Marc Alaimo who, just over six years later, would go on to play Gul Dukat in DS9.
The main story, however, involves the Enterprise passing through the edge of something something cloud of something something and picking up a strange energy being that hops between machines and people, making everybody act obviously possessed in a way that nobody notices. At last the energy being melds with Picard, which apparently cause them to become a joint entity because of Picard’s strange wanderlust and wistful desire to spend eternity oscillating amongst the stars as an immaterial being. (Just a reminder, the melancholy sexagenarian with the actual death wish is the hero of our space adventure series).
The rest of the crew have this weird conversation where they say “well, nothing in the regulations about being possessed, there’ll be loads of paperwork involved in getting him to stand down as Captain, so I suppose we’ll just turn the ship around and beam him into a fucking nebula like he ordered, because that is how Starfleet rolls.”
So they beam Picard into the nebula and it turns out that his energy matrix and the energy being’s energy matrix are incompatible and they have to separate (This is why pre-marital sex is a good idea – you need to work this stuff out in advance). Deanna senses him all lonely and rejected in space and his consciousness maybe drifts back towards the ship, it’s not very clear, but they basically restore him from the save file in the transporter.
And I think the implication is supposed to be that they build him a new body for his consciousness to inhabit. But first of all, that’s now how brains work and second of all, they way, way do not make that clear enough. So it just seems like they teleported Picard out into space, where his mind encoded as pure energy dispersed and died among the stars he loved. And then they made themselves a new Picard—who doesn’t remember any of this, probably fortunately because in his position I’d be miffed—from the transporter.
I can’t decide if this episode deserves 2 bobbins or all the bobbins. I was going to say two and a half bobbins but, no, you killed your hero in Episode 7 TNG and, okay, he was a fucking weird hero, but he did not deserve to perish bodiless in the depths of space. Five bobbins.
Tune in on some other occasion for as much of this as I can be fucked with.