Retrospective: Star Trek The Next Generation-Season One

Star Trek: The Next Generation may have been the most anticipated new series in the fall of 1987. After four feature films, twenty years since the debut of the Original Series on NBC, a new generation of fearless explorers had arisen to follow the path laid down by James T. Kirk and his intrepid crew. And therein may lay the problem. We Trekkies expected magic, and were promptly let down; at least we thought so. Retrospect gives me a different viewpoint. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but at that point it wasn’t close to the quality it would achieve in later seasons.

TNG began airing in syndication on September 28, 1987. In a delicious twist of irony, locally it was broadcast twice a week on our town’s Fox station. One hundred years after events of the Original Series (OS), Jean Luc Picard assumes command of the Galaxy-class starship EnterpriseD. He and his intrepid crew—William T. Riker, Data, Worf, Tasha Yar, Geordi La Forge, Counsellor Deanna Troi, Dr. Beverly Crusher and her precocious son Wesley—set out on their ongoing mission to explore the uncharted regions of space.

The show was one of the most talked about subjects at my first science fiction convention, Norwescon 10, which was held at the Sheraton Inn in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, on March 24 to 27, 1988. That convention blew me away, being a neophyte and all. I spent a lot of time immersed in panels, seated as far in the back as I could get. What I really wasn’t prepared for was the fire drill we had on Friday night. Everyone in the hotel, hundreds of us, had to hurry down 17 flights of stairs, and once we were all crowded outside, someone announced that it had been a false alarm, and we had to trudge back up 17 flights of stairs. To be that young again…

Trekkies had set up a ‘transporter’ on the second floor, and not too far away was a TARDIS. All day Sunday in NWC6, Room 407, there was a showing of the fan parody, “Star Trek: The Pepsi Generation”, “baldly going where no one has gone before” against the dreadful Ferrari. I’m still laughing about that today. TNG was the subject of a panel discussion in which one of the participants described Tasha Yar as a “bitch in britches.” One of the biggest selling buttons that year was “Kill Wesley Crusher.”

It wasn’t all negative. The Artist Guest of Honor was Rick Sternbach, an illustrator involved in TNG and later Star Trek series. Toastmaster for Norwescon 10 was Trek scriptwriter David Gerrold, the man who gave us the tribbles. At this point TNG hadn’t finished broadcasting its first season. The last episode before the convention, “Heart of Glory”, aired March 21. Tasha Yar would still be alive for a couple more episodes. Once the convention closed, six more episodes remained before the season concluded with “The Neutral Zone”, syndicated on May 16, 1988.

One problem with the series was expectations. All of us Trekkies had spent the last 17 years engrossed in reruns of the Original Series. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura and the Enterprise herself were our heroes, our models for what our species was capable of. Anyone stepping into those shoes had a lot of overarching expectations to overcome. Additionally, TNG never had a distinctive theme of its own. What we had is a combination of the beginning of Alexander Courage’s theme from  OS, coupled with the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith.

Another problem was the new alien threat—the Ferengi. Yeah, you can all pick yourselves off the floor and stop laughing now. They spent a few episodes hinting at the great and powerful menace facing the Federation, and when they finally did appear…they were trolls. Ironically, at the same time Sylvester McCoy stepped in as the new Doctor Who in merry ol’ England, and I thought exactly the same thing about him. In that instance McCoy grew on you, in time becoming one of the most intriguing, sinister Doctors of all. The Ferengi would never rise above the level of a joke. Lets not get into the merry-go-round of Chief Engineers that plagued this season. We had MacDougal, Argylle, the obstinate Logan (who was just a dick), and Leland T. Lynch.

THE CAST

One welcome change would be that all seven main cast members were given a spotlight—not always a good one, but they tried. No one was sidelined in favor of the principals, as in Kirk-Spock-McCoy over everyone else in OS. It is now time to consider those cast members.

Picard (Patrick Stewart) was presented as a French captain, a callback to the original series where everything is a Russian inwention to Chekov . That lasted a few episodes before they largely drop the gag and roll with the English actor who happens to have a French name. He was stiffly regimented, just as Q described him, in their early voyages. Episodes such as “Code of Honor”, “Too Short a Season” and “Symbiosis” defined Picard’s strict adherence to the Prime Directive, an OS rule which Kirk broke repeatedly. Picard is also saddled with a shipload of children, and honestly he’s not too fond of them. To his credit, he’s prepared to risk the ship for their safety, whether it’s just for one (Wesley, “Justice”) or many (“When The Bough Breaks”).

Riker spends most of the season as a James T. Kirk clone. That’s an unfortunate accusation dating to fans early impressions, soon dashed both by improved writing and the natural charisma of Jonathan Frakes. It wasn’t long before we were treated to something the fans refer to as “The Riker Maneuver”; y’know, those times he leans over chairs, one leg propped up on a console. Or all the times he swings one leg over a chair as he’s seating himself. There are rumors Frakes did this to relieve pressure on his back, due to injuries sustained from a former job as a furniture mover. I get that. My brother David frequently suffered back injuries, usually self-inflicted, from lifting doors. Frakes carries out the maneuver as early as the second episode, “The Naked Now”, when he’s leaning over Data while he’s operating the science station. And it’s not a bad thing. It adds a layer to his character; it suited his flamboyance and self -confidence.

Worf growls a lot and spends most of the season getting his ass kicked. On the other hand, he got all the best one-liners. Consider this exchange from “Justice”:

Worf: “For what we consider love, sir, I would need a Klingon woman.”

Riker: “What about plain old basic sex? You must have some need for that.”

“Of course, but with the females available to me, sir—Earth females—I must restrain myself too much. They are quite fragile, sir.”

“Worf, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were bragging.”

“Bragging, sir?”

Then there’s this goodie from “11001001”: “If winning is not important, then, Commander–why keep score?” Finally, Worf’s impassioned speech about duty and honor in “Heart of Glory” may be one of the best of Season One.

The one duo that works right out of the gate is the pairing of Geordi and Data. Geordi could be considered an extension of the actor playing him, LeVar Burton. He was personable, outgoing, the guy who gets along with everyone. In tense situations Geordi was ready with a wry comment that was usually spot on. The fact that he had a VISOR never troubled me, despite the writers constantly bringing it up as some kind of multi-tasking super-duper power.

Data (Brent Spiner) remains the most appealing character. He was the polar opposite of OS’s Spock, though they both served the same function as mirrors on the human condition. Early on Data was characterized as a babbler who defines words and phrases to death, to the point where the captain, crew and even the ship’s computer cut him off. Whereas Spock kept his emotions on a tight grip and frequently expressed disdain at our emotionalism, Data was always reaching, often coming closer to humanity than most of the humans he interacted with. When Tasha, in her farewell log, said he sees things with the wonder of a child, she’s not wrong.

The tragedy of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) is that we never got to know her. The one story where Tasha was the focus (“Code of Honor”) was diluted by Picard and Chief Lutan waltzing around the Prime Directive. We have hints of her home world, a place hip deep in anarchy, that were barely scratched at. And yet we can view the effects of growing up in that environment in her self-discipline and the rapier sharp temper, poised to lash out at any time.

And she suffers no fools, as when the aliens are locked in an electric duel (‘Symbiosis”), she casually phasers them with a quiet, “Gentlemen, behave.” When confronted by Ferengi or Qs, she gives no fucks. It would have been interesting to explore her early years, what clever ways she avoided the gangs, the skills she acquired for day-to-day survival. That was not to be.

Troi starts off in a skant miniskirt and boots for the pilot. Once we get to the first episode she’s confined for the rest of the season in a doughty jumpsuit; now if the intent was to deemphasize her sexuality, they went too far the other way. The Riker-Troi romance was kind of a carry-over from the planned-&-cancelled Phase II series from the 1970s, where the romantic pair was Dekker and Ilia, brought to life in ST: The Motion Picture.

The romance here is not only unsustainable, it’s unbelievable. This is especially true given the considered and intelligent portrayal of Benjamin Sisko and his son Jake on DS9. Anyone can see this as a sham perpetuated by TV writers, that a protagonist can’t be weighed down by a family or love interest. Horseshit. Career military men from the lowest ranks to the most decorated generals have been married, with children. People can make a commitment to family and the service. The two are not incompatible.

Miles O’Brien also makes his first appearance, on the battle bridge in the very first episode, although he wouldn’t be given a surname until the second season (“A Matter of Honor”), and his full name would not be given until season 4.

And then there’s Wesley Crusher, child genius. In early forays, from “The Naked Now” up through “Datalore”, Wesley was the one person who can rescue the ship—after he was the one who put it in danger in the first place. This was in line with Gene Roddenberry’s showcasing Wesley as an indispensable genius; it also portrayed the rest of the command crew as foolish. After “Where No One Has Gone Before”, it became Picard’s job to mentor Wesley, becoming a surrogate father of sorts.

THE EPISODES

The early stories were painful to watch, though the scriptwriting improved after the first block of episodes. I’m not going to nitpick over every single episode. I’d just like to cover some highlights. Let’s begin with the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”. First, there was Q. At this point Q remained a mustache twirling villain with contempt for all lesser species. Q joins a long line of godlike entities that peppered OS like Apollo, the Metrons and Trelaine, possibly a Q himself. Unlike previous encounters with supposed ‘deities’, a larger spectra of existence was hinted at (“Hide and Q”), and would be explored in future episodes across three different Trek series.

I liked most of it, BUUUT…Picard surrendered. He actually did it twice. And god, they recycled that damn Motion Picture theme at every dramatic moment. I love that theme, but there’s a point where you have to scream “ENOUGH ALREADY!” To be fair, we met the crew; this was the first time we saw a saucer separation on a starship; and those space jellyfish were absolutely gorgeous. Who had an absolute legitimate grievance. Original Series actor Deforest Kelley’s cameo in “Farpoint” was a highlight. It was also the beginning of a Trek tradition where a character from the previous series acts as a bridge linking the two series.

“The Naked Now” was basically a retread of an OS episode. “Code of Honor” was possibly the most unintentionally racist episode of any Trek series; it has my vote for the worst episode on TNG’s entire 7-season run. The idea may have been to portray the Ligonians as Samurai warriors, but they came across as hide-bound, tradition bound jackasses. “Too Short a Season” presented our first modern, self-important, dickhead Starfleet Admiral. There would be more. 

“Angel One” was a busy episode, what with the plague-of-the-week and a lost party in a matriarchal society. Unfortunately, the women of that society came across as obnoxious and closed-minded. Honestly, I found it hard to sympathize with any of the guest cast. At least “Home Soil” gave us the alien’s tagline: “Ugly bags of mostly water.” “Skin of Evil” was the kind of weird story one could expect from the pen of Outer Limits creator Joseph Stefano. Poor visual effects did this in, but the main issue was that it was a pointless episode designed to kill off a member of the main cast.

I’m not prepared to tag any of these early voyages as Classics, but there were a handful of Good ones. “Where No One Has Gone Before” showed us the seeds of greatness, positing new ideas with the Traveler and the possibilities of higher levels of consciousness. I’m sure we’ve all seen the meme-worthy scene where Picard is about to step out of the turbolift—and almost into warp space. Unfortunately, it also established Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Wesley Crusher as Will Robinson, the smartass kid who had all the answers.

“The Big Goodbye” set the standard for all holodeck adventures that go terribly wrong. It also introduced Picard’s unlikely fascination with 20th Century pulp hero Dixon Hill, an analogue to Data’s parroting of Sherlock Holmes (“Lonely Among Us”). Another holodeck adventure, “11001001” gave Riker a chance to shine while introducing Frakes’ real-life trombone playing skills. The duo of Picard and Riker was unbeatable. It also had the most honest answer as to why these aliens carried out their actions. When Picard asked why they didn’t ask for our help, the Bynars reply, “You might have said no”.

“Heart of Glory” gave us our First Klingon Episode, in which we learn more about the Klingon race than we had in the entire Original Series, and that’s including the first four movies! For the first time, though not the last, Worf emerged as a character of depth and honor. In “Conspiracy”, we had the grossest head splatter in Trek history.

THE MOST BADASS CHARACTER IN SEASON ONE

In fact, the most badass character in the first season of TNG was– Dr. Beverly Crusher, played by Gates Mcfadden. I didn’t like her in the first viewing; most frequently her catchphrase seemed to be, “I don’t know.” But truthfully, she was a lioness in defense of her son (“Justice”, “When the Bough Breaks”). In “Conspiracy”, the possessed Admiral Quinn kicks Riker’s ass, throws Geordi through the bulkhead doors, kicks Worf’s ass—and then Dr. Crusher walks in and phasers the SOB; no fear, no fucks given. In “The Arsenal of Freedom”, while in shock and bleeding, with an automated program loading ever-deadlier probes at both the away team and the EnterpriseD, she is the only one with enough clarity to see the solution: “Why don’t you just shut it off?”

Despite its early shortcomings, TNG was a success right out of the gate. There was little question it would be renewed for a second season. But changes were coming, and that will be the subject of a future blog.

One thought on “Retrospective: Star Trek The Next Generation-Season One

  1. Nice work. I didn’t have the reinforcement of other fans when I was watching TNG in 1987, but I didn’t need it to conclude that what I was seeing in Season One was unworthy as a successor to TOS. Apart from a few strays in college on other people’s TVs (I didn’t have one), “Skin of Evil” was the last episode I watched until the early 2010s when I embarked on a TOS re-watch (inspired by the 2009 reboot) and kept going. I was honestly surprised to discover that that the majority of Seasons 3-6 are not-at-all bad, and there are over 30 episodes (out of 178, unfortunately) which are outstanding.

    Like

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