These are some first impressions about the first ten episodes of what has been consistently described to me as one of the greatest and best-loved TV serials ever. One word to describe things so far: awkward.
I realize this show has yet to “Find the Beard” (Riker’s transition from smooth-chin to the Mr. Stubbles we know and love around the same time as the show’s creative team hit its stride actually coined this widely used phrase–the opposite of ‘Jumping the Shark’), but I’m still going to point out some weirdness that I hope gets cleared up as the series goes on.
Firstly, this show has a strong core. Good sets, fun special effects and a strong cast.
It’s the treatment of the characters that’s the source of the head-scratching for me. Everything I don’t like about this show can’t really be described as ‘bad’, but more puzzling. Here’s the rundown of characters, first of all before we delve into some of the weirdness.
Picard: The philosophizing captain. Cool, collected, the anti-Kirk.
Riker: The Kirk-esque adventurer has wisely been put into a number 2 position.
Data: The brainy one. A Spock character whose utter unfamiliarity with humanity doubles him as the comic relief.
Troi: The empath. She’s half human half something-or-other which makes her able to read people’s emotions.
Worf: The tough guy. It’s cool to put a member the last series’ bad guy race in cooperation with the Federation; certainly in keeping with Roddenberry’s ideas about Progress.
Lt. Yar: She’s a girl. And the security officer. This fact as well as her attractiveness has been brought up in every single episode so far. The core of her character is that she’s a girl and she’s the security officer. Apparently she was raped a lot as a girl, before she was the security officer. That fact is also regularly brought up as if it’s no big deal.
Crusher: The ship’s doctor with a past relationship with Picard. Geordie: The blind pilot of the ship.
Wesley: Crusher’s son. He’s a computer prodigy, and the only thing he’s got going against him is the fact that he’s a kid and not a man.
The weirdest part of this show so far is just how distinct the character types are, but how unwilling the writers are to use those roles to dramatic advantage. For instance. Worf is a “warrior” but he hasn’t done any fighting yet. In fact he’s usually the first guy to get his wrinkly forehead handed to him. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the second episode is one in which an infection makes the crew act very out of character. You gotta have your character-types solidly established before you can start going off character.
Which brings me to the problem of Geordi. Man, he’s awkward. He’s the one character who has absolutely no personality. Sometimes he’s stoic, sometimes throwing his arms up or fist pumping in enthusiasm. Who is he? The happy go-lucky pilot? The stoic, smooth cool guy? Another nerd type? The handicapped guy who doesn’t let it hold him back? Geordi creeps me out. But perhaps it’s just ’cause he takes me back to the televised acid trips of my early youth:
In general, it’s just strange how comfortable everybody is with being totally awkward, but it’s also somewhat endearing. There are uncomfortable pauses everywhere in this show. Most scenes end with whatever character staring blankly into the frame. There’s nothing false about the actors. They’re doing their best and they can be charismatic when they want to be. Here’s an episode rundown with some quick takes:
The first episode is a 90 minute roller coaster of strangeness. It’s a poor introduction all around and assumes the audience has known these characters all along. Well, we don’t. The writing is poor and the story is a little too batty to be digested. I like a show that isn’t afraid to throw full punches at the audience, but balance is also important. You have to orient the audience to a certain amount of normalcy in your pilot, and then you can expose them to weirdness later on. Instead we get a shape-shifting interstellar spiritual force named ‘Q’ who takes it upon himself to act as ‘judge’ of the human race and also just generally act like a buttwipe. The benefit of this episode is that I now have another entry into my pantheon of hilarious villains whose entire raison d’etre is to just berate the good guys endlessly. So far including:
The Mooninites The Kryptonians from Superman II
Q is really the most boring villain ever. But he’s really, really hilarious. It’s always funny when a villain is just a jerk and nothing else. Also, his main threat is that he can freeze people with his mind. Then unfreeze them later. Scary. It’s clear that he’s supposed to be challenging Picard in a high stakes game of philosophical wits. In practice he just sits around throws peanuts at everybody from the gallery.
There’s some bantering about whether or not humans are ‘primitive’ and violent and there’s some very weak self-deprecating liberal moralizing. Blaaaaah. Then there are some interstellar jellyfish that just want to go home. Don’t care. Also Bones shows up looking like Tales from the Crypt:
Episode 2 – The Naked Now
The title is stupid. The episode is stupid. Wesley is stupid. There’s a virus that makes the crew drunk. And they all get drunk and start doing it. Yar jumps Data. Crusher jumps Picard. Wesley jumps the engineering panel.
Also people get frozen again!!! Find some other way to knock people off, please!
Ultimately what makes this episode not work is that it’s one where everybody acts off-character. Since I don’t have a good enough sense of what they’re like when they’re in-character, the whole thing is just weird and ill timed. Also a small ‘don’t drink’ moral is dropped in.
Thus begins one of the many ‘cultural’ episodes of TNG, in which the Enterprise crew encounter an alien race whose culture is very different from their own and their challenge is to respect the species’ cultural norms while still keeping themselves alive and not married to one of their potentates. It’s always one of these two, and both happen to Lt. Yar (since she’s the hot one, as we are constantly reminded). She’s abducted by an African-ish alien guy to be his bride.
What I like about these episodes is that the entire crew is unified against a common enemy and they have to use their wits to get out of it. What annoys me is how the other planets’ cultures have none of the Federation’s concept of intercultural sensitivity. It’s as if nobody on the ‘primitive’ side has any idea that cultural norms do not apply to people outside the culture, which is pretty much never the case.
The first encounter with the frisbee-headed Ferengi is another head-scratcher. On the plus side we’re given the closest things to actual villains. I like the Ferengi’s design. They look pretty classic Star Trek. On the downside, instead of ships shooting each other we get boring themes of mutual cooperation between enemies begin, but don’t really follow through since they never actually end up cooperating. The Enterprise and another ship are held by a mysterious force field emanating from a nearby planet. The problem is solved by just talking to this wizard guy down on the planet, another Q-type mystical sage character which is becoming an all-too-frequent archetype in this show. I hate these characters because they always just show up, moralize everybody and then disappear. This guy looks like John Cleese as ‘Tim’ in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. He appears, realizes the Federation are good guys and the Ferengi are the assholes. He frees the ships and then disappears again.
Also: this is a space show! Don’t give me robed guys with scepters talking about ancient times. I want spaceships and lasers and aliens.
I liked this episode for the first half, then it fell apart. 2 warp engineers come over to improve the warp core on the Enterprise. The arrogant human technician takes all the credit when the ship goes 30 billion lightyears into unknown space when in fact, it’s his strange alien assistant who powers the jump. I liked the mystery involved with the alien’s abilities, and how he made friends with Wesley, but it was all the mumbo jumbo about space and time being the same thing as thought and Worf petting a mentally projected javelina that bored me again. The long and short of it is that he’s another (another!) interstellar being who’s just trying to get home in the time/mind/space world of the distant M33 galaxy. Before he goes he deems Wesley a mathematical savant and advises Picard to stop being such a wanker to him.
This is the biggest ‘WTF’ episode so far. First we’ve got The Enterprise transporting delegates from 2 species of aliens who hate each other (really good idea, idiots. You couldn’t have just taken another ship?). Cue early overtones of familiar xenophobia, a plot point that’s carefully set up and then goes absolutely nowhere as we go back to yet another ‘alien-thing-possesses-crew-plot’ which, unlike the last attempts is really just that. Data pointlessly impersonates Sherlock Holmes in order to basically inform everybody that xenophobia plot element has absolutely no bearing on what’s going on.
Also, in this episode, Worf puts the nail in the coffin of his complete uselessness. He’s the first guy dropped by the electro-body possessing alien thingie. Then he says the dumbest line in the show so far:
Crusher: “It happened during your memory blackout”
Worf: “I still don’t remember having one”
[Thinking: WTF?…okay, deep breath I’m just gonna let that one go.]
This episode’s thematic value hangs together pretty well, but it’s one where its absolute battiness just blasts us with awkwardness that it’s hard to stay focused on the writing. The crew beam down to a planet full of fit people who run around and have sex all day. The Edo most resemble the Eloi from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which you might think would be an interesting inquiry into innocence and bliss but instead (curiously), it turns out to be a pedantic rumination on capital punishment. Also there’s a ship they call ‘God’ hovering above the planet (uuuuuuuuuuuuuugh). Still, the argument is sound, it’s just very strange that the aliens had to be a planet full of nymphos hugging people.
This next encounter with the Ferengi is a little more straightforward. They use a mind-control device to make Picard relive a previous battle with an enemy vessel and make him think he betrayed them. Picard gets a lot more scenes of wallowing in White Guilt and eventually ends up on his old vessel reliving the past, with the Enterprise in his crosshairs.
The ep. isn’t awful, but it’s certainly not interesting. The Ferengi, despite their cool faces, continue to disappoint due to their pettiness. I realize they’re supposed to be tricksters, but their tricks are very unthreatening, and when they do get the better of the crew, it appears to be due to the crew’s dull-mindedness rather than the Ferengi’s evilness. Swing and a miss.
This was the most annoying episode yet. A re-hash of the Q character and his tests of mankind may have thematic value but it is clunky, talky and completely annoying. On the plus side we get mutant Napoleonic soldiers with laser-muskets. That’s pretty cool.
After Q beams the crew to some other barren planet for no reason, Riker gets Q’s powers for a short time and in a very long and very stupid sequence on the bridge, he learns that Godlike power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yuk yuk yuk. The scene needs to be watched to be fully experienced in all its ‘Holiday-special-like’ qualities but I’ll just say it involves a not-blind Geordi, a Klingon prostitute and a 25 year old Wesley.
For a moment, I thought seeing Geordi with clear eyes would make him a little less creepy, but somehow he ends up coming off creepier. He also professes his love to Yar (doesn’t everyone?) which was out of the blue for all of us. He may have his eyes back but he still has no soul. Keep the visor on Geordi.
Ah, the family ties episode. Counselor Troi has to get married for no reason. Riker’s jealous, her mom’s a shrew and of course the giant from Twin Peaks is there. The wedding aboard the Enterprise is compromised by a mysterious ship whose sick inhabitants threaten the safety of the planet below. It’s no secret that the scenario this show does best is the “mysterious-ship-approaching-but-not-hailing-us” thing. There’s the most tension, mystery and anticipation. The payoff is interesting enough, though it actually thins out the plot to weak sauce.
The onscreen visual looks like something out of Austin Powers. The final insult being that only thing the episode does to try and keep your interest is tempt you with the prospect of seeing Troi without any clothes on. Also, since Troi is the only one of the crewmembers who really factors into this episode, there’s a lot of boring scenes here.
Overall. I give the first third of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 a mixed bag between bad and boring. I expect things to improve. The core elements are strong but there needs to be less battiness and a lot less freezing people and Q needs to be brought to an absolute zero.