Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“My friend, judge not me”: Encounter at Farpoint

“Things are revealed through the memories we have of them. Remembering a thing means seeing it—only then—for the first time.”
-Cesare Pavese
Some of you might be old enough to remember TNN. Known as “The Nashville Network” It was one of the many hyper-niche basic cable stations that cropped up in the early 1980s capitalizing on the new booming cable and satellite television market. The idea was for it to be a kind of MTV for country music, playing mostly music videos, prerecorded concerts and the like, with the occasional country music-themed talk show. What set it apart from its competitor CMT, which launched the same year and was almost exactly the same thing, was that it had the rights to use the Grand Ole Opry and its associated properties, one of the oldest and most respected establishments in country music.

Eventually, TNN went the way of all hyper-niche cable channels and suffered massive, massive network decay in an attempt to court an increasingly shrinking audience. In 2000, TNN rebranded itself as “The National Network” and made overtures to the generation of viewers who had grown up in the 1980s. It got the rights to the WWE and started airing reruns of popular 1980s syndicated and network TV shows, like WKRP in Cincinati, The Wonder Years and Diff'rent Strokes. The network eventually went so far down this road that the entire connection to country music was lost, and it turned into “Spike TV: The Network for MEN”, about which the less said the better. Network decay 101 notwithstanding, one of the shows TNN picked up as part of its somewhat ham-fisted grab for relevance was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although looking back I bristle at TNN's executives seeing it as an archetypical “male-oriented” show for “young men ages 18-25”, the fact remains this was Star Trek: The Next Generation's return to television, and it wouldn't be an understatement to call this one of the most important moments of my life, perhaps rivaled only by my first discovery of the show all those many years ago.

I don't think there's been a single work of fiction that's had as long-lasting and profound an influence on me as Star Trek: The Next Generation. Why, I'm not sure I could tell you. I could point to the obvious, like the philosophical utopianism or the absolutely unparalleled cast who elevate a bunch of recycled one-note stock characters to some of the most iconic and unforgettable pop culture characters in recent history. I could once again mention LeVar Burton. Then there's the more esoteric, like the sense of cosmic wonder I frequently attribute to it, or how the show's art design and look-and-feel left an indelible impression on my psyche and that I have trouble even today properly articulating. It was a common shared reference point for myself as well as many others: My parents watched it, my grandparents watched it and everyone else I knew watched it too. Though we shared a great deal else in common, this was the one television show I bonded the most with my cousins over, the people who were both my surrogate older siblings, role models and best friends. But whatever the specific reason, of any primetime dramas I might have seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the exception of Miami Vice, this was the only one that stayed with me for the rest of my life.

There are cohesive, standalone texts I now consider to be better than Star Trek: The Next Generation (I freely and emphatically admit the show is far from perfect) and that resonate with me at a comparable intellectual level, but very little else has been part of my life for so long and has proved to be something I've spent so much time thinking about from every angle I could conceive of. The show has worked its way into my basic worldview and thought process to a degree it's now simply inseparable from them, and there's an unmistakable feeling, or rather a mixture of feelings, memories and images, that completely overwhelms me every time I see it. Presumptuous as it sounds, I know these people, both the characters and the actors, as if they were my own family. I know that ship as if it was my own home and I had lived and travelled aboard it too. Maybe they were. Maybe I did.

Although Star Trek: The Next Generation bounced around in syndication for many years after its cancellation in 1994 (in fact this was a major issue for Star Trek in the 1990s, as it was not only constantly competing with itself, it was competing with reruns of itself), as far as I was concerned it had been off the air as long as it had been on it. My house got satellite TV not long after Star Trek: The Next Generation signed off, and the package we got didn't include any local channels. Well, because syndication works by selling packages of shows to individual local channels, this meant I didn't watch a single episode of Star Trek between 1994 and 2000-1, and as a result my interest in the franchise, or at least the new bits of it, waned significantly. I kept up with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine by following its official Starlog magazine whenever I found a copy at my local grocery store, but I wasn't *too* thrilled about what I was seeing and I didn't give a toss about what Star Trek Voyager or the new movies were doing.

But it was Star Trek: The Next Generation's conspicuous absence that weighed heavy over me. A major part of my life had now left, seemingly never to return. My interactions with it were now limited to re-reading my old comics and magazines, admiring my battered old Playmates toys and imaging what sorts of adventures I could send them on so that my heroes and friends would never truly be gone. Any experience I had with the material show itself came only if I happened to rent an episode on VHS from my local video store, which had an impressive collection of Star Trek on tape, and even that didn't happen too often. I'm not sure why, I guess it was just another consequence of the falling out I had with the franchise. I know some people had managed to collect the whole series on VHS, which to me sounded like madness. Expensive madness: I remember seeing an ad for the complete Star Trek: The Next Generation on VHS running in one of my first Star Trek: Deep Space Nine magazine. It was treated as a luxury collectible item you had to send away and pay for in monthly installments. As much as I would've like to have that, I couldn't imagine how anyone could afford to spend that kind of money on television.

So, when TNN announced it had picked up reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 2000 it was a *huge* moment for me. This was the first time I would be able to reconnect with a vital, formative part of my life in nearly a decade. I remember not really knowing what to think: Memories and images came flooding back to me, tempered with the worry that I might not enjoy the series as much the second time around as I first had thirteen or so odd years before. I made plans to tape as much of the show myself as I could so that I wouldn't lose it again, despite that being a fantastically impractical idea in terms of both logistics and physical storage space, as my house was and is tiny (ironically enough, the DVD season box sets came out about a year later, but they were still out of my price range, or at least more than I was willing to spend, and we didn't have a DVD player anyway).

I began to count down the days until TNN's announced premier. I even began to have Star Trek: The Next Generation *dreams*: I remember once dreaming I was being given a guided tour of the USS Enterprise by Deanna Troi as a way of welcoming me back home. The counselor walked me through every room and every deck-The bridge, engineering, everything. It was all just as I had remembered, like I had never left. And I instantly recognised every single aspect of that ship's layout exactly as if I had memorized the blueprints, even though I hadn't looked at anything Star Trek related of that sort for over a decade. In my dream I even saw parts of the ship that only showed up in one episode: I distinctly remember visiting, and remembering down to the last detail, the Nacelle Control Room from “Eye of the Beholder”, and I'd only seen that episode *once* and not since it aired in 1994. And then the night came for real. And the credits rolled. And “Encounter at Farpoint” started playing.

And it was all just as I had remembered. Like I had never left.

The intro sequence to Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the most powerful and evocative works of visual media for me, and its logo one of the most memorable and iconic symbols in pop culture. To me, it encapsulates everything the show represents and stands for and everything it means to me. The version of it used in “Encounter at Farpoint”, and in some form throughout the series' first two years, is not the one that's the most meaningful to me (we won't get to see that until 1989), and I've always felt the focus on the planets in our Solar System imposes a somewhat limited scale on the experience, but Star Trek: The Next Generation it still is and it still resonates with me like little else.

Our first glimpse of Star Trek: The Next Generation after the credits is of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D adrift in the night sky like a glittering, unearthly bejeweled necklace that seems to have kind of life unto itself. This was my very first exposure to the idea of a starship was and what such a thing would look like, and it remains the archetypical example of the concept for me to this day. It was designed by Andy Probert not for the series, but for himself: Probert had done a sketch of what his vision of the Enterprise would look like free from any Hard SF lineage or the look-and-feel Matt Jeffries had created for the Original Series. Probert hung the sketch in his office, and once Star Trek: The Next Generation began production, Dave Gerrold asked him if it was the new Enterprise. Probert said “I don't know”, to which Gerrold said “Let's find out” and took the drawing to show Gene Roddenberry. A few minutes later, Gerrold returned and said “Yup, that's the new ship”. Probert's Enterprise has been described as a modern art sculpture, with its elegant and graceful curves that seem to defy all earthbound laws of physics. It definitely is, but to me it also feels organic, or perhaps more accurately like a fusion of human engineering, maybe elevated to a level beyond our current comprehension, with natural rhythms and patterns. A symbol of humanity's symbiotic bond with the universe.

The shot of engineering we get as Picard takes the turbolifts through the ship is unlike any other shot of the room in the series. It reminds me a lot of the first shot of engineering in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a top-down view at a gentle angle. But the rest of the cinematography in this scene is easily demonstrative of how visual media has been changing throughout the 1980s: While Star Trek: The Next Generation certainly does not look like a music video, the lighting, blocking and framing are all noticeably more artistic and creative then Star Trek has ever been before. It doesn't come close to approaching Dirty Pair standards, it still very much looks like a TV show, but, like Miami Vice, it's a TV show that pushes the boundaries for what the medium is capable of. Furthermore, a combination of impressive production values, passionate, inspired art design and practical visual effects that still haven't been matched even to this day means that not only does Star Trek: The Next Generation easily trounce every single previous version of Star Trek in the visual department, it also sets a bar that hasn't been surpassed, remaining one of the most singularly imaginative and inspiring television shows of all time.

Although it all looks lovely, if there's any part of the Enterprise's interior design that truly stands apart, it has to be the bridge. Also designed by Probert and realised by Herman Zimmerman and Mike Okuda. The warm lighting, carpeted floors and sweeping, wood-paneled tactical console that defines the room mark it as the proud product of the Future 1980s. There are ramps leading from the top of the bridge to the bottom, because the designers were very cognizant of inclusivity and wanted to ensure people of any level of mobility could comfortably live and work on it. There's a skylight in the ceiling that we can look out of and see the stars through which we travel: Even on the Enterprise we look up towards the sky for guidance and inspiration. The bridge feels welcoming and friendly, and as Captain Picard walks onto it for the first time, it finally feels like I've come home.

The crew has changed since we were first introduced to them. There's a new officer, Lieutenant Worf, played by Michael Dorn, who is the first Klingon in Starfleet. Of course it's very strange for me to write with this conceit, because Worf has always been a member of the Enterprise family for me and a Star Trek: The Next Generation without him seems completely inconceivable. Even though he doesn't get much more material in this episode than Miles O'Brien, who doesn't even have a name yet, it's sill good to see Worf here. Gene Roddenberry didn't want any mention of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans or anything that had appeared on the Original Series, because he wanted Star Trek: The Next Generation to be a completely clean break from the universe and mythos of its predecessor. Bob Justman convinced him to relax his position a bit to allow Worf onto the show, because he felt it would be important to send the message that even former enemies could become trusted friends. Macha Hernandez also no longer exists, her having been replaced by a new character named Tasha Yar, a consequence of a last-minute casting decision on the part of Roddenberry concerning Denise Crosby and Marina Sirtis.

Although Crosby initially auditioned for Troi and Sirtis for Hernandez, and even though D.C. Fontana actually gave them the parts and felt they were the best choices, Roddenberry decided they'd be better in each other's roles (likely due to Sirtis' Greek heritage and Crosby being, well, tall and shapely) and swapped them. Either specifically because of Crosby or in an attempt to invite comparisons with Chekov from Star Trek Phase II and the film series, Latina tactical officer Hernandez became Ukrainian security chief Yar. I'm not going to pussyfoot around this: I think this was one of the single worst decisions in the history of Star Trek and crippled The Next Generation from the start. Tasha Yar is an important character for me and we'll talk about her a lot over the course of the first season, but, although she is clearly trying her very best and acting her heart out, it's painfully obvious right from the start that Denise Crosby has a fairly limited acting range and that this is not the kind of character she was expecting to play or was entirely comfortable with. Although she gets her best moment in the entire series here when she stands up to Q in the courtroom, it never seems like Crosby could figure out a way to make Tasha work, and that's before getting into how she was screwed over by the production team.

Marina Sirits, on the other hand, is one of the most criminally underrated, unappreciated and overlooked talents in the entire franchise. She's a seasoned performer of truly awesome skill and talent utterly wasted on the part she's saddled with. Although Deanna Troi gets a lot better as the show goes on, in no small part due to Sirtis demanding the creative team take her seriously, right now she's frustratingly not got a lot to do. But what little material she does get Sirtis works absolute wonders with: Although she's frequently and completely unfairly maligned for her performance here, it's immediately obvious Sirtis and Patrick Stewart are the early standouts of Star Trek: The Next Generation's regular cast. It's pretty easy to guess why as well: They're both veteran thespians, and both bring a theatrical gravity and presence to their parts that makes them stand out immediately. The reason Sirtis gets maligned for “Encounter at Farpoint” is because she supposedly “overacts”. You'll note this criticism is suspiciously similar to the one leveled at William Shatner, another actor who came out of the theatrical tradition. Both critiques come out of the normalization of film criticism discourse in the United States and both are completely wrong.

The performance Marina Sirtis gives in “Encounter at Farpoint” is exactly in keeping with what she would have been doing on stage: Picking up on Troi's natural empathic powers, Sirtis wears each and every emotion her character experiences as a mask and broadcasts them at the highest frequency. This is precisely what every single actor in the history of theatrical arts has ever done, because in theatre you have to make sure the people at the way back of the auditorium who got the cheap seats can still make out what's supposed to be going on. The only reason it looks like Marina Sirtis is “overacting” is because Star Trek: The Next Generation is shot on 4:3 video, there are a lot of closeups and the scale of the action is by definition small and narrow. So, the audience is a lot closer to the actors' faces then they would be in a theatre environment, which means Sirtis' flamboyant performativity isn't quite as necessary here. But that doesn't make her a bad actor any more than it does Patrick Stewart, who does the exact same thing. I could speculate as to why Sirtis is raked across the coals for this while Stewart is lauded to the four corners of the universe, but I don't think I need to now, do I?

Marina Sirtis will eventually get plenty of opportunities to really show off her formidable acting chops, but in almost every case it will be in episodes that have little to do with Deanna Troi as a character, and that never stops being a problem. Sirtis is an unbelievably commanding and dominant actor, and one always gets the sense she'd really like the opportunity to play a character who is the same way...and also that she probably never has. Which is maybe the biggest reason I think casting her as Troi instead of Hernandez was such a disastrous mistake: It does Sirtis a tremendous disservice and limits her as an actor in a way I don't think she ever fully recovered from. But on the other hand, as much as I would have cast Sirtis as the hardass tactical officer in a heartbeat had I been on staff in 1987 and would have loved to see her in that role, the part of me who grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation simply cannot accept her as anyone other than Counselor Deanna Troi: My brain simply cannot wrap my head around that, even through it knows it really needs to.

The other immediate standout performer is, naturally, John de Lancie. “Encounter at Farpoint” was originally written by D.C. Fontana, and Q was not in the draft she submitted-Fontana's original script only dealt with the mystery of Farpoint station and the UFO creature. Apparently there was a dispute between the production team and Paramount Corporate, the latter of whom wanted a two-hour pilot movie while the former were content with a pilot episode of regular running time. The decision to go feature length wasn't made until relatively late, so Gene Roddenberry took Fontana's script and hastily filled it out to meet the required two hours, in addition to making some other needed revisions (swapping Hernandez for Yar, and so forth). It was Roddenberry who added in the framing device of Q forcing the Enterprise crew to stand trial for humanity's crimes against the universe, and considering his track record for this sort of thing it really is truly remarkable how well this works and how fluid the final episode feels. You can definitely tell which parts of the script were Roddenberry's and which were Fontana's-Roddenberry's irritating military procedural porn rears its ugly head once again, but this time he can get away with it because he's never had a cast this talented before, and they imbue his lines with enough emotional gravity it distracts us from the fact they're literally filling time.

Gene Roddenberry named Q after Janet Quarton, a Scottish Star Trek fan who was the inaugural president of the UK Star Trek Fan Club. Quarton owned a house in the highlands, and Roddenberry and others would frequently visit her whenever they travelled to Britain for conventions or meetups. Q is often read as a retread of Trelane from the Original Series episode “The Squire of Gothos”: An omnipotent, but childish, being who enjoys playing games with the crew. Certainly, Roddenberry is by no means averse to recycling old ideas as the existence of, well, pretty much everything about this show at this point would seem to demonstrate. But although this is a very common reading and certainly seemed to influence subsequent generations of Star Trek writers, I don't think that's what Q is, at least not in “Encounter at Farpoint”. Rather, I think Q's appointment as diegetic judge, jury and prosecutor belies the role he's truly plays here. Namely, the fact that we're actually supposed to sympathize with Q.

That he was named after the president of a Star Trek fan club is telling: Q may be the omnipotent tester and thus a stand-in for God (or, as John de Lancie puts it, Satan), but he's also a stand-in for the audience. The reason he's inherently skeptical of Picard's declaration that humanity has left the violence and cruelty of its past behind it is because he's skeptical of the utopia Star Trek: The Next Generation makes a claim to. Remember this show was a bit of a gamble, and the reaction from hardcore Trekkers to the news that Paramount was making a new Star Trek show without Kirk, Spock and McCoy was universally negative. Even the Original Series *cast*, with, a few notable exceptions, was howling with outrage and indignation at being “replaced”. There was a genuine concern that Star Trek: The Next Generation did not deserve to inherit the mantle and title of Star Trek.

But Q doesn't just speak for Trekkers, he speaks for the mainstream audience Star Trek: The Next Generation was meant to be courting as well. The kind of idealism Star Trek had come to stand for was by 1987 already looking dated, passe and, frankly, presumptuous. What kind of utopia swoops down from On High and issues demands about how people should and should not act all the while breaking its own rules and ordering us to “do as I say, not as I do”? That sounds suspiciously like the authoritarian right-wing thought control that had hijacked the entire discourse of the Long 1980s. Which is why Q accuses the Enterprise of what he does, and why his allegations are so grave. Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't just have to prove it's worthy of being called Star Trek, it also has to prove it's worthy of being called a utopia and that it genuinely is acting in the interests of material social progress. Because in 1987, that claim is now in serious question.

And Q is merciless, taunting us by striking a critical blow to every single one of our weakest points. He first appears as a sixteenth century naval captain, straight out of the “Age of Exploration”, a polite term the bourgeois and aristocratic white cis male Master Narrative of History coined to describe the period of Earth's history where vile, inhuman colonial empire builders carved up the planet for wealth and resources, raping, pillaging, enslaving and stamping out indigenous peoples and cultures wherever they found them. Q tells Picard “I present myself to thee as a fellow ship captain so that thou mayest understand me”. He even speaks in iambic pentameter. Later on in the episode when the UFO being attacks the Bandi city, Q (dressed in a Starfleet uniform) keeps egging Picard on to destroy it. After all, “It's an unknown. Isn't that enough?”. But then Q delivers the killshot, putting on a United States marine uniform and strutting around with exaggerated masculine bravado, laughing when Picard tells him that humans had “made rapid progress” by the time they wore such outfits. That's no ordinary marine uniform, by the way, that's the very uniform disgraced army colonel Oliver North wore when he testified before congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra Scandal earlier that same year: 1987.

The scandal, which North spearheaded with President Ronald Reagan, defense secretary Casper Weinberger and others, involved clandestinely selling arms to Iran (at the time under an embargo) in exchange for the release of political hostages and then using the proceeds to fund anti-communist contras in Nicaragua. Q is *directly comparing* the enlightened pacifist Federation with one of the the most high-profile and morally, ethically reprehensible acts of United States neo-imperialism of the day, and he's taunting us about it. Q even flat-out says to Picard "Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must go back to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes is a few good men!". It's a devastating blow, made even more so by the fact every single one of Q's accusations stick. Picard can sputter his huffy protestations as much as he likes, but the burden of proof is unquestionably on him.

And Q is equally correct when he says “this trial is not over”: The mission of the Enterprise, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is now and forever to prove to him, and to us, that it deserves its utopian rhetoric and has some good to offer the world. It has to be the single greatest thing Gene Roddenberry ever wrote, taking the ruminations on God, humanity and the Western Test Drive he's always worked with and turning it on its head. God is now us, or within us, and we get to test the hubris of humans who employ the God Trick to place themselves above others. And de Lancie is utterly marvelous in the part: He's captivating and wicked, effortlessly holding his ground throughout the entire movie. He stands toe-to-toe with Patrick Stewart, refusing to grant Picard one centimeter: Never once does de Lancie let Q falter from the moral high ground, or allow Star Trek to fall back onto its didactic bad habits. There's simply nobody else who could have made this part work, and never again are either Q or de Lance as effective or mesmerizingly powerful as they are in “Encounter at Farpoint”.

I've always felt bad for Gates McFadden right from the start. She's a supremely multitalented performer saddled with a part that literally only exists because Wesley needed a mother and Picard needed a love interest. Oh yeah, Wesley. I suppose I'd better talk about him a bit. Not only did Gene Roddenberry overrule Bob Justman's suggestion to make the teenage character a girl, he also decided it might be a neat idea to name him Wesley and make him a technological prodigy never recognised for his genius abilities. According to the Writer/Director's Guide, “Several centuries ago, he might have been one of the young electronic wizards who were introducing computers to a puzzled world”. I'm sure the fact Gene Roddenberry's middle name was “Wesley” had absolutely nothing to do with that decision.


Look. I'm going to avoid discussion of poor Wil Wheaton during this section of the project as much as possible. It's obvious Wheaton is an upstanding person and a talented actor. He wouldn't have gotten the part if he wasn't. Wheaton has done a lot of very good things for many people over the past few decades, I have nothing against him and I don't want to take any of that away from him. But even so, Wesley was never a part of my memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm the most fond of the era of the show that dates from after Wheaton left. And furthermore, Wheaton and my memories aside, this doesn't change the fact that Wesley Crusher is a terrible, terrible character. Where Leslie Crusher could have been an intelligent metatextual nod to the Mary Sue concept that welcomed female fans with open arms, Wesley Crusher *is* a Mary Sue, end of discussion, and he does the exact opposite. The decision to turn Leslie into a boy held nothing but catastrophic repercussions for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and making Wesley a Nerd Culture icon was even worse.

Not only is it an example of the show playing it too safe, it's also an unquestionably reactionary move. Because the uncomfortable truth Nerds don't want to accept is that their entire “culture” is an artificial construct built out of a specific subset of white middle class privilege. There's nothing “marginal” or “oppressed” about rich boys who have enough time and money to play around with fancy computers in an era when computers were still an expensive luxury. Those Nerds who cry oppression are nothing more than self-absorbed antisocial chauvinists who in most cases brought their own problems on themselves, and making them think Star Trek is for them and them alone does nothing but give them one more part of culture, and a very, very substantial part at that, they can selfishly hoard and keep away from others so they can gorge on their own entitlement complexes.

I'm sorry, but as I write this I'm coming off of a month long international incident where the “gamer” contingent of Nerd Culture absolutely devoured itself and launched a witch hunt against anyone who wasn't a middle class white cis male obsessed with video games who wasted their lives lurking around Reddit and 4Chan. Not only did it personally affect me and those close to me, it turned people who I thought were my friends and colleagues into frothing, crusading extremists. And every single one of them was a self-professed “Gamer” or “Nerd”. And though my attitudes have been building over the past few years (there was a reason I pulled out of video game criticism, after all), this was the final tipping point. I have no sympathy whatsoever for anyone who adopts the mantle of “Nerd” anymore, and that includes Wesley Crusher. So I guess I'm really not sorry after all.

As for Gates herself, well, she's pretty icy and aloof in this episode. But, her material is extremely limited, and, as with most things about Star Trek: The Next Generation, I know she gets better. I'm just happy to see her. Jonathan Frakes is actually the same way: Although he gets the lion's share of this movie (what with Riker supposed to be the romantic lead and all), he's not yet playing the character I know and love, and it's not just because of the lack of beard. He seems too awkward and youthful, and, perhaps counterintuitively, I can't picture Commander Riker that way. Obviously I remember this phase of the show, but for some reason I never think of Riker when I do; almost as if he's not even there. Which, in a sense, I guess he isn't. Not my Riker. Not yet.

(I won't be covering this theme too heavily, but people interested in the post-scarcity aspect of Star Trek: The Next Generation might want to take note of the scene where Doctor Crusher orders the roll of fabric at Farpoint Station. She asks to have it sent to her quarters aboard the Enterprise and billed to her. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had just established that the Federation of Kirk's time doesn't use money, and Picard makes a similar statement at the opposite end of the season. Either that's not true, somebody made a mistake or money works differently in the 24th Century.)

Meanwhile, I can say the exact opposite about Geordi La Forge: LeVar Burton springs onto the scene utterly and completely fully formed, equally as recognisable as a junior grade helm officer, as chief engineer and member of the senior staff, or as the host of Reading Rainbow. And the scene where he tells Doctor Crusher he'd rather live with mild pain than give up his VISOR is lovely. LeVar is wonderful, and of course he's one of my favourite things about the show even here.

And finally, there's DeForest Kelley. I mean it is a bit weird to have him interacting with Data instead of Beverly, but I'm not going to nitpick that too much. We wouldn't have the Vulcan joke otherwise. The details of his cameo are unclear: He was either honoured or reluctant to appear, feeling The Next Generation belonged to its cast and that “an intrusion from [him] wouldn't be appropriate”, until being convinced by either Gene Roddenberry, Bob Justman or D.C. Fontana. You'd think I'd be upset at this, considering how adamant I am that Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation should have been kept separate, but no. Kelley is a total class act (especially considering he refused to take any higher than the standard Screen Actor's Guild salary when being a major Hollywood movie star would have entitled him to a *lot* more) and adds a quiet sense of melancholy dignity to “Encounter at Farpoint” that cements the story's status as an instant classic.

And it could really only have been Kelley. Not only would anyone else have overshadowed the new cast, but it's Kelley who played the most heartfelt and passionately human character on the Original Series. And it's his blessing that proves Star Trek: The Next Generation really does have the potential to pass Q's test in spite of whatever quirks it has and whatever problems it might run into on its journey. Just as I remembered, and just as always knew it did. I can't judge "Encounter at Farpoint" too terribly harshly. After all, it's Star Trek: The Next Generation. The 24th Century Begins. Again.

"Well this a new ship. But she's got the right name. Now you remember that, you hear?"
"I will, sir."
"You treat her like a lady. And she'll always bring you home."


  1. "...she'll always bring you home."

    Well, that turned out to not be true, didn't it. On at least two levels.

    Seriously though, a lovely redemptive reading. I'm not sure how sympathetic we're *meant* to feel towards Q, but pointing out that so many of his arguments hit home really does tilt things in an interesting direction, away from my reading of the trial scene in which Q looks like he's presiding over the standard revolutionary kangaroo court of Jack Cade through to Bane. I still think my original impression holds, but Q starts to look like one of those villains I have sympathy for because they're talking sense (c.f. Koba). Later Q will devolve somewhat, I think... but I seem to remember that his first sequel was actually pretty good, involving an unresolved debate about cynicism vs optimism about humankind, with Picard reading Hamlet's ironic rhapsody about the "paragon of animals" while Q dresses as Napoleon, and has loads of Napoleonic troops who are actually gorillas or something. Looking forward to your take on that one.

    I also agree with you about Marina and Denise, totally.

    More than anything else, this has made me want to watch Farpoint again.

    1. I'm always reminded of a session John de Lancie did at a convention around the time TNG was ending, when he spoke about them wanting, in the finale, to try to get back to some of Q's original chatacterization, as he felt that the character had sort of evolved to be "Picard's wacky sit-com uncle with godlike powers"

    2. "Well, that turned out to not be true, didn't it. On at least two levels."

      No, it did. The Enterprise is home. And Star Trek Generations never happened.

      I think it's important to keep in mind that Q's court is an authentic recreation of an actual human courtroom from history (well, Star Trek: The Next Generation history at any rate). He's responding to Picard's claims about how humans constantly improve themselves by holding him and his crew to actual human standards (Q scoffs at the idea humans always make "rapid progress"). And the only reason he does that is because Picard kept getting indignant and accusing Q of unfair "prosecution" and "judgment" when they were on the bridge. In other words, Q is saying "If you think I'm being unfair, let's remind you what your own people are capable of. And don't complain, because you asked for it."

      I also found it very cynically chilling, and effective, that Q's court should date from 2079, i.e. the 21st Century, which people in 1987 were already counting down to in the early stages of fervent Millennialism. This is a date that a huge amount of people who watched "Encounter at Farpoint" were likely going to live to see, and Roddenberry is saying if things do ever get better, they're gonna get a whole lot worse first.

      I do grant "All Good Things...": Moore and Braga did a good job bringing Q back to what he was originally supposed to be in that one. There may have been a few other episodes where he works-"Tapestry" and "Q Who" come to mind. But de Lancie is right: Q definitely does become the "wacky sitcom uncle" after awhile.

      I don't recall caring for "Hide and Q" very much, apart from the scene with LeVar Burton and Denise Crosby. I guess I'll see.

    3. Wellll...let's not forget that a nuclear war (which may or may not have had something to do with the genetic supermen) has always been part of Trek's future history, and I think "Farpoint" was simply acknowledging that. It's actually interesting that TNG clung to that component of Trek's backstory even as real-world events made it seem ever less likely--I actually recall them specifically mentioning nuclear fallout being an issue in Earth's past in an episode that must have aired only a year or two after the Berlin Wall fell. That was, of course, a huge component of the original show--it was pretty unflinching about where things were headed, but it also insisted that things would eventually improve, which is a big part of why it endured. Frankly, that unflinching aspect is something the later TNG-era shows sometimes lacked, often embracing a mindlessly sunny, and unconvincing, optimism.

      Q as wacky sitcom uncle is pretty undeniable as a characterization (though surely DeLancie's own inclination towards humour helped shape the character?) but I'm generally in favour of what he became for a number of reasons. For one thing, TNG could be so damn humourless, and Q was one of the few elements that actually had me laughing out loud. It's hard not to root for Picard to let him join the crew in "Q Who?"--think of how much fun the show could have been! Secondly, Q's outright malevolence (especially in Hide and Q) would have posed narrative problems if it had been allowed to continue--I mean, the Enterprise crew can only outright defeat him one or two times (if at all) before it starts to get silly. (And of course, the one time they arguably "defeat" him, Hide and Q, is one of the worst episodes to feature the character, whereas the episode where they basically let him "win", Q Who?, is one of the best--ditto "Tapestry" and "All Good Things", to an extent.) Having him be more of a Mr. Mxyzptlk-style mischievous imp with weird agendas helps him fit more elegantly, and entertainingly, into the show, IMHO.

  2. I've been following Tardis Eruditorum for most of this year as part of a process to learn more about the history of Doctor Who, a show I've only been watching regularly for, barely, five years. The show was something I came to enjoy after having let my love of Star Trek, the greatest pop-cultural fixation of my first twenty years, lapse as the franchise burned itself out. So this blog is a tremendously exciting project to me, having noticed it only a few days ago when I found a few of your comments over at the Eruditorum.

    The decline of Star Trek intersects interestingly with the end of my adolescence and some spiritual and political realignments I'm still figuring out. It was, for a long time, something I considered myself to have moved on from, something I stopped thinking about. I'm looking forward to following you as you move into TNG, a show I probably loved more than I've ever loved any other. I hope to learn a lot.

    That deLancie was meant to be wearing Oliver North's uniform is an entirely new connection to me. (North was a Marine Col., not an army one, though).

    1. Welcome aboard! I would be honoured if sharing my memories helped other people rediscover what they loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would probably make this whole thing worthwhile.

  3. You know, I'm a bit surprised to see this post here.

    I mean, okay, sure, I knew it was coming eventually, but I'm a bit surprised that there wasn't a Sensor Scan on a certain less successful show which premiered almost exactly a week before Farpoint aired.

    1. No real excuses, just missed it is all.

      Probably worth a look when I revise this for the book version. Writers aside, I'm intrigued by the pseudo-toyetic nature of the series. Ties in nicely with the Playmates Star Trek line, which was still one of the strangest toy lines in history.

    2. Most of humanity has a hard time remembering it. Or at least remembering that it's not the one about the five kids who fight pollution.

      Obviously, the toyetic nature is probably the biggest deal about it, but I've been blogging about the show off and on for a few years, and I think there's actually a case to me made that it's trying the exact opposite strategy to TNG at "trying to be Star Trek for the 80s" -- playing down the "Utopian vision of the future" business everyone latched onto and grabbing hold of the, for want of a better word, lighthearted weird bits and broad allegory

  4. "This is precisely what every single actor in the history of theatrical arts has ever done, because in theatre you have to make sure the people at the way back of the auditorium who got the cheap seats can still make out what's supposed to be going on."

    Well, not *entirely*, since smaller theatres do exist and all. It often depends on the actor and their training, but most performers can modulate their performances based on whether they're doing, say, a show in a theatre that seats 1000 versus a show in the round that seats 100. Theatre as an artform is in a large part centered around heightened emotions (no surprise it birthed the musical), but subtler and more naturalistic performances do happen (and it can vary by director as well).

    Agreed 100%, though, that Sirtis gets unfairly maligned here. Always suspicious that she gets blasted for the stuff she gets here, while Nimoy gets praised for doing much of the same stuff in "Devil in the Dark". I do feel Sirtis has particular strengths as an actress that the production team seems at times unwilling to develop, which hurts her character a bit. It's interesting watching this where you can see flashes of an almost...I don't know if "bubbly" is the right word, but certainly a brighter character than what was developed. Sorta makes you wonder how that would've worked had it been pushed further.

  5. Hey Josh. Been checking your blog for a while now, very interesting stuff, and I'm always keen to read commentary on Trek! Suffice to say I seem to disagree with you on a LOT of stuff, but it's always interesting to hear your perspective!

    It was interesting to hear you be so hard on Roddenberry in the early going, and it did crystallize some of my own thoughts about him (it's funny how so many acclaimed "sole authors"s of genre shows and movies turn out to have merely been one member of a team--see also George Lucas, Chris Carter). However, I do feel like you have to give the later, 80s and early 90s Roddenberry some credit. While he may not have initially intended Trek as the utopian dream that people attributed to it, it did unquestionably evolve into that (there's probably a whole book to be written about how fandom really did, in this case, help shape a property into something more) and Roddenberry quite wholeheartedly embraced that, to his credit. TNG is definitely, in the early going at least, his brainchild in a way that the later original cast movies weren't; I've often felt that part V was actually a bit of a raspberry directed at Roddenberry's vision for TNG, mocking as it does the concept of both diplomatic and personal co-operation. Certainly, Roddenberry had a lot of dumb ideas--his insistence on a future with no interpersonal conflict literally hobbled Trek for DECADES--but the first season or two of TNG is unquestionably his baby, with all the good and bad that goes with it.

  6. John de Lancie is formidable and captivating and had thoughts on how to make that character, the subtext and pastiche of devil figures in "heroic" fiction. But a lot of my affectedness I admit must come from hindsight. Q is a recurring character, his inclusion six episodes later implies that he was meant to be. This is already a departure from the episodic nature of the Original Series, where a returning character was nonexistent. TV as a medium had gravitated toward a broad serialization and so Q got a narrative, and an actor cognizant of how to play it.

    But the hindsight allows us to see Q differently, and what works, what keeps me curious, are the changes. Retcon, or iteration and organic changes are powerful tools for writers. Not all of Q's episodes are as strong as the first and last, and not every season has two appearances. But if all the Q episodes were watched back-to-back a coherent narrative is formed. And it becomes clear that Q's successes stem from the Unreliable Narrator. I'm curious how long that process was worked, because de Lancie sells it like it was there from the beginning. Q lies. Constantly. An omnipotent being, a time traveler, would have to. But his role in accelerating humanity by challenging them to should never have been as subtle as he (and de Lancie) play it as. Cut out the mundane 20+ episodes between his appearances and his mission is incredibly focused. His malevolence always just a misrepresentation of benevolence. His wickedness just cosmic brutal honesty.

    What I'll get to later about Q - particularly when we get to Q Who? - will be a reprise of the discussions we had earlier in the year about the success and importance of proper Magic existing in the Star Trek universe (right down to Q and Guinan's raising their hands toward one another as if to protect from curses, or Q's adherence to even the most banal of "deals" and loopholes).

    I'd also like to get into the long line of figures that Q hails from in pop culture fiction - it's not just the medieval heroic stories that feature Puckish tricksters - relevant to 20th Century science fiction will be the legacy of comics and super-heroes, the most prominent being Superman's own Mister Mxyzptlk. That will lead into just what role the trickster figure should and does serve in fiction, or for that matter, in meta-fiction or reality.

  7. As for Encounter at Farpoint itself ... I'll be trying to catalog "good runs" of excellent episodes much like we did when we talked about say, the endrun of TOS season 2. TNG pleads it's case well here, but it's going to be few and far between before we can say that it surpasses its predecessor beyond just the modern accouterments and actors. But there's standout stuff to look for beyond cast familiarity and comfort and making it their own (but losing a bit of edge in doing so), in Season 1, including a few underdeveloped, but totally existent recurring narratives that begin here and are either sewn up or turned over by the last episode of this first season.

    Oh, and one final nitpick - I hate the uniforms. I have nostalgic feelings about them and indeed they're icons of that "Future Eighties" sense of design, but functionally, and fashionably, they're utterly bad. While I think this show attains its utopia by declaring utopianism to be impossible ... I do think that a hopeful future should be accompanied by peak fashion. I've also since realized that my preference toward a slightly more military uniform look for Starfleet has nothing to do with their militarization and everything to do with the form, function and fashion of Nautical design. The Enterprise is often lauded for its elegant design and yet its crew's uniforms share no kinship with the gorgeous vessel. No Star Trek has hit my sweet spot as far as costume design, nor have they managed to avoid dated design, but TNG suffers it the worst.

    And there's Colm Meaney and Michael Dorn, barely there, at the beginning of the two most substantial Star Trek roles in the entire franchise.

  8. Late arriving at this entry, but just want to say that I am excited to read this next pay off the blog. It's the section of Trek that I have more solid familiarity with than any other, excepting Voyager.

    I might be alone, but I loved Voyager.

  9. Not got a lot more to say that others have not already said - but so happy that my most meaningful period of Star Trek is being covered now by you Josh. I look forwards to sharing my memories and responses once I catch up with your posts.Thanks!