Welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! We might have finished with the original crew last week, but our countdown to the premiere of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ continues! This week we’re taking a look at the two hour debut of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. So settle in as we begin our coverage of ‘Encounter at Farpoint’.
Following the original show’s cancellation in the waning months of the sixties and a short-lived animated revival a few years later, ‘Star Trek’ finally made it to the silver screen. While the production of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ could generously be described as “a bit troubled”, the finished product did well enough to merit a sequel, albeit with significant budgetary restraints and the restriction of Gene Roddenberry to the role of “executive consultant”. What that means in plain, non-Vulcan English, is that Paramount came to believe (and not unreasonably so) that a good deal of the problems that arose during the production of the first film was a result of Roddenberry’s intransigence. As such, they moved him into a position that, while allowing him to remain involved with the production, also meant that he could be easily ignored.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these moves ‘Star Trek’ flourished, becoming a regular presence at the box office and a solid moneymaker for Paramount. By the mid-1980s, with the franchise arguably the strongest it had ever been, the decision was made to bring ‘Star Trek’ back to the airwaves. Roddenberry gathered a variety of writers and producers with whom he had collaborated on the original series (including D.C. Fontana, Robert Justman, and David Gerrold) and set about developing a new show. Though consideration was given in early stages to featuring members of the classic cast in the role of elder statesmen, the decision was soon made that the new series should be largely disconnected from the old. As such, it would pick up with an entirely new crew and take place about a century later. However, it wasn’t an entirely clean break conceptually, with several ideas from the aborted ‘Star Trek: Phase II’ finding their way into the new show. This includes the characters of Riker, Troi, and Data (who contain echoes of the earlier Decker, Ilia, and Xon respectively) and eventually entire story ideas (the second season episode ‘The Child’ being a repurposed ‘Phase II’ script).
As the series took shape, Paramount looked to secure favorable terms with potential networks. These terms included a full season commitment, which no network was willing to meet. The most amenable was the fledgling Fox network, which needed the show to be ready about four months earlier and would only commit to thirteen episodes. Preferring to retain as much control of the series and its fate as possible, Paramount decided to bypass the networks and distribute ‘The Next Generation’ through first run syndication. Rendered obsolete in part by the proliferation of cable stations and premium networks, this then-popular system allowed the studio to sell the show directly to network affiliates and independent stations.
Meanwhile, the pilot script was assigned to D.C. Fontana, who had been responsible for some of the stronger entries of the original ‘Star Trek’. The story at this stage bore broad similarities to the finished episode, with one notable exception: Q. At this stage, the episode was envisioned as a standard hour-long episode. However, Paramount soon decided that they wanted to kick off the show with a feature-length event. This required that the script double in length, and the difficulties involved with this would see Roddenberry develop the secondary plot (involving the omnipotent Q placing humanity on trial) as, essentially, filler.
At the same time, the cast was taking shape. While ‘The Next Generation’ didn’t have quite as dramatic a casting process as its predecessor (which went through the entire process twice and still didn’t have the full cast nailed down), there were nonetheless a few changes between the page and the screen. Despite proving himself one of the series best casting choices, Roddenberry was initially resistant to casting Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. As he would later quip, the character had been envisioned as a hairy Frenchman and they ended up with a bald Englishman. The more interesting though, involves Macha Hernandez, a security officer who drew partial inspiration from Private Vasquez. Yes, that Vasquez. Jenette Goldstein’s iconic character in ‘Aliens’. (Incidentally, Goldstein would later appear as a science officer in ‘Star Trek: Generations’.) Originally, Marina Sirtis was cast as Hernandez and Denise Crosby as Troi before Roddenberry decided to switch the two. In the process, Macha Hernandez became Tasha Yar (to better fit Crosby’s looks), leaving us with one of the show’s most compelling and least discussed “what ifs”. For those unfamiliar, Crosby would leave the show at the end of the season, frustrated with how little she was given to do. As a result, Yar was killed off, Worf took her place as security chief, and the show took a step closer to its iconic shape. Given that Troi likewise isn’t the most active character in the first season, it’s likely Crosby would have left in either case, leading one to wonder what would have become of the series in Troi’s absence.
In any case, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ made its debut in first run syndication in September of 1987. From there, ‘Star Trek’ would remain on the air in one form or another until 2005. But looking back thirty years later, how well does that premiere hold up? Well, read on.
It is the twenty-fourth century and Captain Jean-Luc Picard has just assumed command of the Enterprise-D, the fifth Federation starship to bear the name. The ship is en route to Deneb IV, where they are due to pick up several crew members. While there, they have also been tasked with negotiating an agreement for Starfleet to make use of Farpoint Station, all while uncovering investigating how the locals – known as the Bandi – have been able to harness the energy and resources necessary to build and operate such an impressive facility. The journey is interrupted when a barrier appears in front of the ship. A flamboyant and powerful entity who identifies himself only as “Q” appears on the bridge, instructing Picard (and by extension, humanity) to go back whence they came.
Describing humanity as “a dangerous, savage, child-race,” Q argues with Picard about mankind’s development (or lack thereof) over the centuries before suddenly vanishing, but not before promising Picard that they will meet again. Upon Q’s departure, Picard orders the crew to begin preparations to jump to high warp, at which he plans to separate the saucer section from the rest of the ship, outmaneuvering Q by giving him two ships to chase. Q nonetheless continues to gain on them, and with the saucer clear, Picard surrenders. Practically the moment the surrender is offered, Picard (along with Troi, Yar, and Data) materializes in what appears to be a barbaric mid twenty-first century courtroom. As the judge enters, he is revealed to be none other than Q. In short order, Q reveals his intention to place humanity on trial – literally – with Picard and his crew as their representatives. Picard argues that humanity’s past is not representative of what it has become, and suggests that Q test his crew accordingly. Intrigued, Q agrees, alluding to the challenges presented by the mission to Farpoint, which he deems a perfect test. With the test in motion, Picard and his officers are returned to the Enterprise, where they continue to Farpoint.
At Farpoint, meanwhile, we are introduced to Commander Riker, who is meeting with Bandi administrator Groppler Zorn while awaiting the arrival of the Enterprise. During the meeting, Riker accepts an apple from a bowl that he hadn’t previously noticed was there. As he leaves, Zorn scolds the empty room, threatening punishment. In the station’s marketplace, Riker meets up with Dr. Beverly Crusher and her teenage son Wesley. While shopping, Crusher absently comments that a bolt of fabric would go well with gold. As she turns back from a conversation with Riker, the same fabric suddenly has a gold pattern on it. LaForge approaches to report the Enterprise’s arrival, but without the saucer.
Riker beams aboard and reports to Picard, who brings him up to speed on the encounter with Q. The saucer soon arrives and reconnects. Also aboard the ship we are treated to exposition involving Riker’s prior service as first officer, Picard’s discomfort with children, and Geordi’s VISOR. Arriving at the main bridge Riker asks where he can find Data, he learns that the android is escorting an elderly Admiral (whom we soon discover is Dr. McCoy) to a shuttlecraft. On the bridge, Q appears and declares that the crew must solve the mystery of Farpoint in twenty four hours, though Picard is firm that they will proceed as though Q never existed.
Along with Riker and Troi, Picard beams down to meet with Zorn. During the meeting, Troi senses an overwhelming amount of pain, loneliness, and despair. When asked, Zorn claims to have no idea of the source. Back on the ship, Riker finally finds Data on the holodeck. For some reason, Wesley is also there. But it’s okay because he falls into a holographic pond.
Speaking with his mother in sickbay, a no longer moistened Wesley asks his mother if she can get him a look at the bridge, to which she reluctantly says she’ll see what she can do. Down on Deneb, Riker and Data explore Farpoint while Yar, Troi, and LaForge snoop in the passages below. Opening her mind, Troi is even more powerfully overwhelmed by pain and despair. On the ship, Crusher heads to the bridge with Wesley in tow. Picard bends the rules and allows the boy to look around. Wesley marvels at the controls and even gets to sit in the captain’s chair before Picard chases him off the bridge as an unknown vessel approaches.
As the vessels enter orbit, Picard contacts a suddenly desperate Zorn, who continues to plead ignorance. Suddenly, the alien ship begins to fire on the planet, targeting the old Bandi outside Farpoint, rather than the station itself. Riker has his away team beam back aboard while he and Data remain behind. On Picard’s orders, the two go to retrieve Zorn, with the intent of bringing him back to the ship. In the midst of the crisis, Q appears to taunt Picard. Arriving in Zorn’s office, it becomes clear to Riker that the administrator knows more than he’s letting on. But before he can offer answers, he is abducted. Riker prepares an away team to board the alien vessel. Once there, they find an environment strikingly similar to the tunnels beneath Farpoint. Trio senses terrible anger, again directed not at the starbase but at those who built it. Before long they find Zorn, confined and tortured. When they try to free him, the Enterprise loses contact with the away team. Soon, though, Zorn and the away team arrive on the bridge, having been transported there by the alien ship. They soon realized that the ship is not a ship but a space dwelling life form. Further, it hasn’t been attacking Farpoint because the station is another such entity. The Bamdi captured it and have been feeding it just enough to keep it alive. Using the ship’s phasers, the Enterprise is able to restore the Farpoint entity’s strength and allow it to break free. Reunited with the vessel above, which is apparently its mate, the creature departs.
In the wake of this, Q concedes that the crew has passed his test, but hints that they will meet again. With his departure, the crew settles in and Picard delivers the best closing line of any ‘Star Trek’ pilot: “Let’s see what’s out there.”
Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve covered the early days of ‘The Next Generation’, and regular readers will recall that we’ve been… less than complimentary. ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, however, isn’t half bad. It’s far from a masterpiece, but it’s one of the stronger early installments (faint though that praise may be). But while it might be a somewhat shaky start, it’s one that clearly has glimmers of the greatness that the series would eventually find. But it is nonetheless an imperfect episode.
Put simply, the biggest problems the episode has all come back to the fact that it has a rather slow pace. Some of these pacing issues are a result of the sort of exposition one expects from a pilot. Some, however (such as a sequence in which Riker directs a manual docking procedure with the saucer section) very obviously exists so that the episode can meet its two hour runtime. In other words, it is very padded. In fact, this description can be applied to much of the first half of the episode, as the first twenty or so minutes (including Picard’s tour of the standing sets, the chase with Q, and the saucer separation sequence) is essentially there just to show off what the new ship can do. While it’s not nearly as self-indulgent, it calls to mind the lengthy effects sequences from ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ in which the camera pans languidly over the ship.
The greatest highlights of the episode are virtually any scene with Q. Not only is he perhaps the single most “Roddenberry” element of the story, but de Lancie single-handedly turns what could have been an obvious placeholder antagonist into an unforgettable (and soon to be recurring) foe. Indeed, de Lancie’s wonderfully flamboyant performance not only elevates the character beyond what was on the page, it also provides the perfect contrast to Picard’s stuffiness. Among the regular cast, Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are easily the standouts, with Jonathan Frakes not far behind. If you have any familiarity with ‘The Next Generation’, then you already know that this will continue to be the case for the next seven years. Additionally, Data’s scene with the unnamed Admiral McCoy is a touching way of passing the torch.
Every time I watch this episode though, I can’t help but feel bad for poor Marina Sirtis. To be fair, she certainly has her moments (Troi’s reunion with Riker springs to mind), but her most memorable contributions to the entire feature length affair come when she senses (and responds to) the Farpoint alien’s PAIN. PAAAAAIIIIIIIN!! I’m not going to pick on this too hard because Sirtis herself admits to being embarrassed by it. But it is a thing that happened, and it is certainly a sight to behold.
Thank you once again for joining us. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts on ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ in the comments. And of course, make sure you join us next week as we set a course for ‘Deep Space Nine’ with our coverage of ‘Emissary’.