Saturday, November 10, 2012

Encounter at Farpoint

“Encounter at Farpoint” is the Phantom Menace of televised Star Trek. What do I mean by that?

Well, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered with “Encounter at Farpoint” in September 1987, it was the first new Star Trek episode in well over a decade. Sure, we’d been getting a movie every couple of years since 1979. But that just whetted fans’ appetites for more Star Trek. So the idea of a new weekly show helmed by The Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry himself, remaking Star Trek as only he knew how, sounded great. It was a lot like the excitement Star Wars fans would feel in the 1990s when they learned that George Lucas would be returning to the franchise to make more movies.

And although Star Trek: The Next Generation would end up being a much bigger creative success than the Star Wars prequels, the opening stanza of each is similar in the sense that it’s a boring, dysfunctional disappointment.

They’re also similar in that two of their main characters dress like a cross between Elton John and a geisha.

farpoint_hd_760 amidala

But I digress.

So, let’s take a look at Star Trek: The Next Generation’s maiden outing, and all the weird little problems it has.

Number 1: The Q Subplot

Believe it or not, the character of Q was actually a late addition to the story. Originally, TNG’s premiere was to have been a regular one-hour episode. Veteran Star Trek writer DC Fontana developed a story where the Enterprise comes to the rescue of a peaceful spaceborne lifeform that’s being held captive and cruelly exploited by an aggressive alien species.

But then someone on the upper end of the food chain decided that Star Trek’s return to television should be a two-hour TV movie “event”. That may have been a good idea, but it presented a problem: the writing team now had another hour to fill. How would they do it? With one of Gene Roddenberry’s favorite Star Trek tropes: humans proving their moral worth to a skeptical godlike being.

As I’ve written in the past, by the mid-80s Gene Roddenberry was the lone resident of an alternate universe where the sole reason for Star Trek’s success was his high-minded “vision” of the future. He seriously believed that audiences would rather watch characters stand around and debate 24th century philosophy than engage in a fun action-adventure story. And that’s basically the reason for Q’s existence: he’s a foil for Captain Picard to speechify at. Because in Gene Roddenberry’s imaginary world, people tuned into Star Trek because they wanted to watch a spandex-clad version of C-SPAN.

Now don’t get me wrong; John de Lancie did an amazing job bringing life to the character. But if you just read the script, Q comes across as a rather one-dimensional and cartoony villain. Only de Lancie’s performance brings a sense of depth and menace to the character.

Nevertheless, the addition of the Q subplot highlights another huge problem with “Farpoint”:

Number 2: The Actions of the Story’s Major Players Make No Sense

Let’s start with Q. The way he goes about things in this story is pretty nonsensical for a super-intelligent omnipotent being.

First, his major issue is that humans are a “dangerous, savage child race” that has no business being out in space. So when does he choose to appear on the bridge of a human-crewed ship to insist that they return to their own solar system? In the 24th century, after they’ve already been out in interstellar space for something like 200 years. That’s like waiting until the early 1700s to demand that the Europeans stay on their side of the Atlantic.

And since his problem is that humans have gone too far out into space, then you think he’d direct his complaints to the humans who are farthest away from Earth. And at the top of the show, Picard voiceovers that the Enterprise is en route to Deneb IV, “beyond which lies the unexplored mass of the galaxy”. But when they get to Deneb IV, the USS Hood that dropped off Riker, Geordi, and the rest of the crew is there in orbit. So shouldn’t Q have appeared on the Hood’s bridge and done his whole “humans are a savage race” schtick with their Captain? It’s almost like Q was aware that the Enterprise was the ship with its own TV show, and he wanted to play to the cameras.

Next we have the Bandi, Deneb IV’s cheerful inhabitants:

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At some point they managed to capture an giant spaceborne sentient jellyfish with shape-shifting powers and force it to transform into a sleekified version of Walt Disney’s Progress City.

farpoint_hd_698Nice, but where are the monorails?

Presumably because their planet is the Star Trek equivalent of a third world country, the Bandi christened their new “city” Farpoint Station and used it to attract outside investment from more affluent species. So far, so good. But who’s the first “investor” they try to attract? The Federation, the one group that would have a problem with them exploiting a poor defenseless creature for selfish gain. Why not try the Klingons or the Ferengi?

And then, when Federation representatives like Picard or Riker meet with the Bandi leader, Groppler Zorn, he arouses their suspicion by acting as shifty and defensive as he possibly can. How did this guy manage to become leader of an entire planet? He couldn’t even manage a Burger King! And speaking of people who aren’t qualified for their jobs:

Number Three: A Lot of the Starfleet Officers Are Idiots

Part of Gene’s “vision of the future” was that humanity would “mature” into a peaceful and wise people. One of the ways that TNG’s characters were supposed to differentiate themselves from backwards 20th century humans (besides their preference for spandex pajamas) was their reaction to things that were different and alien.

Since the Enterprise’s mission was to seek contact with strange new worlds, life forms, and civilizations, it would make sense that it be crewed by people who wouldn’t immediately become fearful or violent when they encountered something alien. And if they found themselves in a tight situation, they’d remain cool, calm, and collected like modern-day astronauts or fighter pilots.

With that in mind, let’s examine how these “evolved” 24th Century Roddenberrians react when, in the episode’s opening minutes, they encounter a new kind of alien:

Q announces his presence by throwing up a giant CGI chain-link fence that impedes the Enterprise’s forward progress:

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Then, he appears on the bridge dressed as an Elizabethan explorer and talks some trash to Picard using more thees and thous than a performer at a Renaissance Fair.

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When some security guards burst onto the bridge with phasers drawn, Q traps them in the turbolift:

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So far-and I can’t stress this point enough-Q has done nothing violent. He’s just stopped the ship from moving and been a jerk to everyone. For his part, Captain Picard certainly doesn’t overreact to the situation. He calmly asks Q what he wants and engages him in debate to learn more about this strange new life form. But the people under his command don’t follow his lead.

First, Lieutentant Redshirt McDeadmeat decides that the best way to react to this trash-talking alien with incredible powers is to try to shoot him. Q responds by going all Mr. Freeze on him:

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Picard is furious, but not at his idiot crewman who tried shoot an alien who hadn’t done anything overtly threatening yet. He’s mad at Q for not letting himself get shot!

So anyway, Q changes costumes a few more times (seriously, he changes clothes more than Queen Amidala. Does he want to put humanity on trial or have a fashion show?) and then disappears, promising to return. Captain Picard decides that since they can’t go forward, they’ll turn the ship around and run away as fast as they can. Unfortunately, Q’s CGI chain-link fence turns into a giant flying Fireball of Doom that pursues them at warp speed.

After Picard decides to separate the saucer to get the children and families out of harm’s way, the command crew transfers to the Battle Bridge. And it is here that we really start to wonder how elite this Enterprise crew really is. Because Lieutenant Tasha Yar, the ship’s security chief, the person responsible for the safety of the Enterprise’s 1000 crewmembers and the officer the Captain relies upon for sound tactical strategy mounts an impassioned plea to get Picard to let her shoot phasers at the Giant Warp Speed Fireball of Doom. As if that would do anything. And a few minutes later during the Q’s courtroom scene she almost gets herself killed when she has a truly hilarious overblown dramatic freakout.

It really makes you wonder what’s going on at Starfleet Headquarters. One imagines that the job of Security Chief on the new Enterprise would be a highly sought-after position. There was probably a big pool of qualified applicants to choose from. So why did Starfleet go with the gun-happy drama queen whose response to anything unexpected is to freak out and try to shoot it? Was it because she looked good in that spandex jumpsuit? Heck, that’s probably why Gene Roddenberry cast Denise Crosby, because it sure wasn’t because of her acting ability. I’m sure she’s a nice lady and all, but acting-wise she’s a female version of Hayden Christensen. Or, you know, just Hayden Christensen.

And then we come to Worf. He doesn’t have much to do in the episode other than be the Token Klingon, an example of Star Trek’s new 24th Century status quo. But there’s this scene two-thirds of the way in where Q appears on the viewscreen to taunt Picard a little bit, and Worf does this:

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Yes, he points a gun at the viewscreen because it’s showing a picture of the bad guy. He’s even stupider than the big Mr. T-looking dude from the Street Fighter movie:

At this point, Picard should just revoke Worf’s phaser privileges. Heck, he shouldn’t even be allowed to eat with a fork. He’s clearly a danger to himself and others. Still, the Stupid Worf moment does give us something to chuckle at, which is nice because it distracts us from:

Number 4: The Ridiculous Amount of Padding

As I mentioned earlier, the TNG pilot was extended from a one-hour to a two-hour show fairly late in the game. Writers Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana had to scramble to extend their existing story to fill the additional hour they’d been given. The problem is that even with the Q plot bolted onto the original story, there still wasn’t enough to fill the time slot. I blame Gene Roddenberry.

Gene Roddenberry spent the 1970s being fawned over by adoring convention audiences who thought he was some kind of visionary creative genius. He also tried to sell a couple TV series during that time, too, most notably Genesis II and The Questor Tapes. But if you examine those projects, you’ll notice that they don’t contain a lot of new ideas. They’re really just talkier, more boring retreads of themes that Star Trek already covered. Then there’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Again, there really isn’t a lot of new material there. It’s just a talkier, more boring version of a plot we’d already seen on the TV series.

In fact, you’d probably have to go back to the 1960s to find a Gene Roddenberry script that wasn’t talky and boring. By 1987 he just didn’t have it anymore. So because he was incapable of coming up with something interesting to fill the additional hour, what we got was padding. Lots of it.

The padding starts with the initial Q encounter. All that really happens is that Q shows off his costume-changing powers while he and Picard have a conversation that goes like this:

Q: Humans are a dangerous, savage child race!

Picard: Are not!

Q: Are too!

Picard: Nuh-uh!

Q: Uh-HUH! And now I’m going to disappear! But we’ll meet again!

Then the Enterprise runs away and Q chases them, so they separate the saucer and then Q spirits Picard and company away to his post-apocalyptic courtroom so he and Picard can have basically the same argument they had at the beginning of the show. This renders everything that happened from Q’s first appearance to the start of the courtroom scene ENTIRELY POINTLESS. It would have been much better from a story perspective to have Q bring Picard and his officers into the courtroom for their first encounter.

An even more egregious example of padding happens after Commander Riker comes aboard. Before Picard will talk to him, he makes Riker sit at the back of the bridge and watch what’s essentially a clip reel of the episode up to this point.

farpoint_hd_400At least Picard could have let him get some popcorn

Usually your cheesy 80s shows waited until later in the season to have a clip show, when money was tight and the writing staff was out of ideas. Working a clip reel into your pilot episode may be a television first.

Hey, remember that whole “mystery of Farpoint Station” you were supposed to be solving? When are you going to get around to that?

I understand that one of the functions of a pilot episode is to introduce the characters and their world. But a well-written pilot would do that while moving the plot forward. In “Encounter At Farpoint”, however, the plot keeps getting put on hold so we can have these little expository scenes. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are nice. But the constant digressions away from the main story to introduce this or that character or piece of technology really end up hurting the episode because we find ourselves constantly waiting for things to get moving.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen until almost three-quarters of the way into the episode. And our characters solve the mystery of Farpoint Station pretty quickly. Which isn’t too surprising, after all Groppler Zorn’s not much smarter than your average Scooby-Doo villain.

farpoint_hd_869“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those nosy kids in their spandex pajamas!”

It’s certainly better than doing the thing where the solution to the puzzle is blindingly obvious but you need to pad out the episode so you make your characters too stupid to figure it out until there’s only five minutes left. However, it has the unintended side effect of making Q’s promise that the Farpoint mission would be a test of the worthiness of the human race ring a bit hollow.

And those are my problems with “Encounter at Farpoint”, presented in what I hope was at least a semi-coherent manner. Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to write this post since February.

But wait! Haven’t I forgotten something? Don’t I want to make fun of Wesley Crusher? No. No, I don’t. While some of the scenes with him are part of the unnecessary padding I talked about earlier, I actually like Wesley. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

But for now, I’ve said my piece about “Encounter at Farpoint”. It’s a weird, dysfunctional couple hours of television. And yet, TNG would get worse before it got better.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And if you didn’t make it this far, then I guess it doesn’t matter that this post doesn’t have a clever ending.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for an interesting analysis of this episode. I must admit that I don't think I've ever seen a full episode of TNG, and while I knew who Q was, I didn't know that this was how they met him.

    I liked the snappy ending!

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  2. What a great, great look back at the pilot! The parallel between it and Phantom Menace is perfect. I can't remember ever being so completely disheartened by a television premiere...except maybe the second half of original Battlestar Galactica.

    Though ST:TNG eventually became my all time favorite Science Fiction show, I still find the first season pretty much unwatchable. Thank goodness it survived its extreme growing pains.

    Thanks for writing this! Great points and very entertaining!

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Thanks for taking the time to comment!