Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season One

After the completion of the animated series, there were four Star Trek movies released before 1987, more than twenty years after the debut of the original series, when The Next Generation premiered. Featuring Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, a seeming polar opposite of Kirk, ready to talk where his predecessor was all cagey calculation, not to mention a good deal older, this new incarnation was meant to feel at once completely familiar ,and yet, quite different at the same time. Just what that meant as a working reality would be the focus of the shakedown cruise that was the first season.

1x1/1x2 “Encounter at Farpoint”
Unlike Kirk’s crew, where everyone seemed to know each other pretty much from the outset, Picard’s first mission brought his team together for the first time. While much of this was simply a matter of everyone converging on the Enterprise, some immediately stood out, such as the android Data (Brent Spiner), clearly the new show’s attempt to recreate Spock, an outsider figure that’s hard to overlook and yet easy to embrace. Spock always had Kirk, and yet, Data seemed quite content with himself (it wouldn’t be until later that certain relationships, notably with Geordi La Forge and Picard, would surface). But the real big gun of the episode was Q (John de Lancie), a new version of an old Star Trek template, a godlike being meddling in the affairs of mortals. Except Q was quite unique. Thanks to de Lancie, he had a lot more connection to the audience, thanks to his incessant witty banter. He was more important to the pilot than the Farpoint mission itself. He also put mankind on trial.

1x3 “The Naked Now”
But as to what the series would be on a regular basis, well…This was a straight-up adaptation of “The Naked Time,” from the original series, notable in an encounter between Data and Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), a moment that would continue to remain significant in surprising ways.

1x5 “The Last Outpost”
One of the original edicts of the show was to develop its own array of aliens for the crew to mingle with, and this was the introduction of the Ferengi, predictably primitive in presentation, as were many things in the early days of the show. It’s probably best to keep that in mind, because in two seasons, the show developed a remarkable ability to render its own history quaint.

1x6 “Where No One Has Gone Before”
One big difference between Kirk and Picard’s ships was the presence of families on the latter’s, which from the start was represented by Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), the son of the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). Wes quickly became known as something of a boy wonder, advanced beyond his years in ship operations (weird that the Enterprise didn’t have a chief engineer, weirder still that a boy more or less filled that role). This is the best episode to see him in action in this capacity, which also happens to bring him into contact with the Traveler, the being who would one day help him fulfill his potential.

1x9 “The Battle”
If the Ferengi came off as something of a joke the first time around, this was an attempt to bring them back around as a legitimate threat, at the same time fleshing out some of Picard’s backstory, his previous command experience. On the whole, a fairly remarkable effort, one that may have played a lot differently if later seasons had expanded on it.

1x10 “Hide and Q”
The first sign that the strange being in the first episode wasn’t going to be just another of those pretty much generic beings that had festered in the franchise previously, Q returns and tries to give everyone what they want, helping to define some of the central arcs for the cast of characters in the process.

1x11 “Haven”
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) didn’t have a ton of interesting material in the first season, but this has got to be a highlight, a sort of “Amok Time” crossed with “Journey to Babel.” We meet her indomitable mother, Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife in her defining role. It may be a bit eerie at this point to note that the man she was supposed to marry is portrayed by Robert Knepper, who would go on to far more sinister roles in Prison Break and Heroes

1x12 “The Big Goodbye”
The first big holodeck episode and the introduction of Picard’s favorite private eye, Dixon Hill (whom he happens to play), is an exceptional romp that stands apart in the season as an unqualified success.

1x13 “Datalore”
Picard had “The Battle,” Troi had “Haven,” but the backstory episode with the most traction throughout the series had to be this one, which introduces Data’s, not to mention his evil twin, Lore (also portrayed by Spiner). Another episode from the season that needs no apologies.

1x15 “11001001”
This one would have been a highlight of the show as well, but seems to have been forgotten when later seasons produced more consistent results. Aside from a good Riker (Jonathan Frakes) plotline that riffed on his ladies man reputation (a nod to Kirk that Picard probably would have been inappropriate to take on), the best attempt of the season, there’s also the binary species that helps give the episode its name. Definitely still waiting to be rediscovered.

1x16 “Too Short a Season”
This one’s more memorable than it’s actually good, an example of the kind of standout the first season usually produced, when it was operating at less than full capacity. Basically the opposite of “The Deadly Years,” this one sees a visiting admiral attempt to complete one last mission by taking drugs to reverse his aging. Predictably, he takes it too far. Come to think of it, the dude really dominates the episode, which is kind of baffling in itself, especially because he’s important to no one in particular…

1x17 “When the Bough Breaks”
Heh. I think I just got the title (as in, “the cradle will drop”). I don’t know why it took so long. Always thought it was memorable, though, the title. The story itself takes another look at the concept of the families aboard Picard’s ship, by way of getting them involved in a plot by a dying world to rejuvenate itself with fresh citizens, which itself isn’t very unique. But Wesley isn’t annoying in this one, so it’s worth noting.

1x19 “Coming of Age”
He’s better in this episode, even though it features a baffling Starfleet Academy admittance exam that seems to pit a bunch of overqualified candidates against each other. It’s a strong entry in the way of continuity, which clearly this series was more interested in maintaining than its precursor.

1x20 “Heart of Glory”
Even though Worf (Michael Dorn) had been a part of the show since the start, he had initially been a victim of the edict to focus on fresh aliens, leaving his Klingon heritage high and dry, and himself as well. This was a pretty brilliant first effort to reverse that trend, even if Worf as we would come to know him was still to wait for that day to come.

1x21 “The Arsenal of Freedom”
One of the interesting character dynamics that had been written into the show from the start was Picard and Beverly Crusher’s prior relationship, which held in its promise a future one as well, and this episode does a fine job of reminding everyone about that, even if the series as a whole never really capitalized on it.

1x22 “Symbiosis”
Notable as much for guest actor Merritt Butrick, who had portrayed Kirk’s son David in the movies, this one’s also probably the only allegorical episode of the season to hit its mark, a conflict of species that still resonates today, one dominating the other, and using dirty tricks to do it.

1x23 “Skin of Evil”
How much differently would the series have played out if Denise Crosby had been happy? Her Tasha Yar, security chief during most of the first season, was killed off in this episode in order to help fulfill the unsatisfied actress’s request to disembark. Just try to imagine later seasons with her in it, what her later dynamic might have been. Anyway, it’s hear we learn how much she meant to Data, drawing on the memories of “The Naked Now,” which helped to humanize the android in ways the rest of the season never really tried to, while Troi has her finest hour, contending with the monster that did Yar in. I wonder if the irony of any of this hit Crosby, who only wanted the show to have a little more meat, for herself, obviously, but probably in general. I think it all started here.

1x25 “Conspiracy”
This was the continuation of an earlier episode, the only time the first season consciously followed an arc to conclusion, still memorable with its creepy effects and paranoid distrust within Starfleet, which would have been so much more significant with more supporting material, either before or after. Still, always worth watching again, a hallmark of the first year.

1x26 “The Neutral Zone”
Much of this episode is squandered on material that really has nothing to do with Romulans, but the Romulans are here, at last, all the same, helping to end the season on a mark of at least continued promise.

A lot of people, perhaps in hindsight, remember the first season of The Next Generation to be pretty embarrassing, but I’ve never been part of that camp. Certainly, after seeing what the series would become, there’s not a lot here that really contends with the later material, but there’s still a lot, within its own context, that can actually startle you to think actually happened. It’s still weird to think about Yar. There were the same seeds planted in her backstory that might have sprouted. Hers was among the earliest that the show explored, but unfortunately, she didn’t get an episode of her own to do it in, and to Crosby’s credit, there wasn’t a lot else going on for her, either. How Worf later assumed her role, and commanded it, puts a lot of the contrast others see in the season as a whole to far better comparison.

As a show with obvious precedent, Next Generation wasn’t as free as the original series to experiment and explore, to spontaneously come up with a “Balance of Terror” or “City on the Edge of Forever” in its first year. Still, the seeds were there. Q was there from the start. Even annoying Wesley had his Traveler to help guide him, put him in some useful context, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent that someday he might be viewed with nostalgia. There was good material, and some outstanding episodes by any standard. But yes, the best was yet to come…

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