Test Pilot: File #52, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Test Pilot #52: Star Trek: The Next Generation

Debut date: September 28, 1987

Series legacy: One of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction series in television history

First impressions mean a lot in television, and that’s why writers, producers, studios, networks, etc. put more time, effort and money into pilots than they do just about any other episode that could possibly be made. Obviously though, not all pilots are good – most are just mediocre and many are terrible – but the ingredients for a successful series remain, bubbling beneath the surface. Some of television’s most curious cases see great series come from pretty tepid pilot episodes. In the next five Test Pilot entries, we will explore a few of these cases of Bad Pilot, Good Series and think about what important changes each series made from one step to the other.

Happy Wednesday folks, welcome back to Test Pilot. Today, we tackle a pilot episode I had not seen but heard a lot about when I put out a call for Bad Pilot, Good Show ideas: Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG is one of the more respected science fiction series we’ve had over the past 25 years, and the show’s popularity still remains to this day. The fervor surrounding this second Trek series is so prevalent that Paramount engaged in an exhaustive re-mastering process to bring the show to Blu-ray (the first season comes out next week). Next Generation garnered a slew of nominations in its day, including one for Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys (the only syndicated show to ever do that). Therefore, you can imagine my surprise (especially as someone who has seen very little of the show) that countless folks on Twitter suggested this one for Bad Pilot, Good Show. Today, my guest and I explore if those folks were correct, at least in some way.

Joining me today is Thomas Wachtel. Thomas Wachtel watches a lot of television. Probably too much, to be honest. Most of his writing, though, is about other subjects. He’s a former political columnist for the prestigious (if you’ll allow it) Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University, where he also dabbled in media criticism for the IDS Weekend. Since graduating from IU with a degree in journalism and political science, Thomas has divided time between his day job at USA Track and Field, and writing about soccer and Arsenal FC for SB Nation and The Short Fuse. You can also follow him on Twitter, especially if you like hearing about soccer and baseball at high volume. Thomas, take it away:

I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation since before I can remember. That’s an actual thing: my parents started watching from its debut, as my dad had been a fan of the original series. They didn’t particularly like it (we’ll get to that shortly) but my infant brain reacted nicely to the show’s theme, and I guess I must have liked the zooming sounds the ship made or something, because whenever the opening to the show came on, I’d scoot into the room and plant myself in front of the television until the show was over.

I should really apologize to my family at some point for this, because the first year or two of this show was really rough. It eventually grew into itself and became one of my favorite television shows ever, but early on it had massive trouble finding its feet. And there’s not a better example of this* than the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.”

*The pilot is not the worst episode of the show. That dubious honor, in my eyes, has to go to another first season episode, “Justice,” in which the crew visits a seemingly utopian planet, but the dream is shattered when Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death for stepping in a flowerbed. That actually happened, somehow, without the show immediately being cancelled. Don’t watch it.

The episode’s plot is actually pretty intriguing. En route to Farpoint Station to assess its suitability as a Starfleet base, the Enterprise is waylaid by a powerful entity calling himself “Q,” who proceeds to put humanity on trial for a history of barbarism and violence. He agrees to allow the ship’s crew to prove humanity’s advancement by passing the “test” of Farpoint. The station seems perfect – too much so, as the crew eventually deduces that the “station” is actually an alien entity with the ability to generate matter from energy; it was injured and imprisoned, forced into slavery. The Enterprise liberates it, and it departs safely with its mate. All in all, a pretty basic Star Trek story, though slightly expanded to fill 90 minutes.

The issue is execution. Characters and ideas that just don’t work (and are later massively changed, or eliminated altogether) are central to the show, and the mechanics are poorly implemented.

The show’s biggest issue is the conflict between Q and Captain Picard (and humanity as a whole, I suppose). The clear intent is for Q to be menacing—after all, he’s a seemingly all-powerful being who appears ready to wipe out the human race, or at the very least sentence it to life in prison on Earth. John de Lancie just can’t really pull off Pure Evil, though, and just ends up coming off as annoying. And that’s not really a problem for the actor, it’s not his fault. The character is just very poorly written as a pure villain. Even when he twice tries to murder Enterprise crew members for no real reason, he just comes off as kind of an ass, rather than a super-villain. But de Lancie and Patrick Stewart work well together, and as the show develops, this is a big part of why Q ends up succeeding as a character. He shifts from “villain” to “Picard’s foil,” and the two actors have great rapport when their dialogue is slightly less ridiculous, so Q is entertaining.

A couple of times early on, villains are forced on The Next Generation with no avail. Q fails, the Ferengi fail (several times), even a fairly frightening alien invasion in “Conspiracy” doesn’t quite take off. It’s not until the Borg appear in the show’s second season that the Enterprise-D has a nemesis to match Captain Kirk’s Klingon foes, and ironically, Q is the facilitator for the Borg’s introduction.

Honestly though, most of the characters introduced don’t work. Picard is much more brusque than in later episodes, and is downright rude to crewmembers and civilians alike. Data is smarmy and smug, which is odd for an android who’s supposed to be devoid of emotion. Troi is certainly not devoid of emotion, but instead only has one: wailing anguish over almost everything that happens.

At one point she appears at the verge of tears due to a door opening, for no discernible reason. But it’s really hard to figure out how most of these characters graduated high school, much less how they advanced through a faux-military space exploration organization to the point of being in the crew of the flagship of the fleet. Most of these characters recover later in the series, as writing improves and the characters are developed.

Tasha Yar never recovers. She was intended as a Ripley/Vasquez style lady space badass, but the problem is that unlike Sigourney Weaver and (to a lesser extent) Jenette Goldstein, Denise Crosby can’t act in any significant sense. When I say this, I don’t mean that she’s unable to properly convey emotion or make her character believable—I mean that she’s literally incapable of properly delivering lines. Her performance in “Farpoint” wouldn’t be out of place in The Room, and unfortunately for her and anyone who watched The Next Generation from the beginning, it’s entirely representative of her tenure playing the Enterprise’s first chief of security. Luckily, the issue gets worked out relatively quickly. Yar is killed off just before the end of the first season after Crosby raised concerns about her character’s screen time and development and decided to leave the show.

On the other hand, perhaps given time like the rest of the series, Yar/Crosby would have grown into something worthwhile. Most of the first season of the show is a clunker, but there are a few highlights (“Arsenal of Freedom,” “The Neutral Zone”). It doesn’t really hit its stride until the third season but when it does, it gets really good. When you compare “Farpoint” to the third season cliffhanger finale, “The Best of Both Worlds,” you get to see what Star Trek: The Next Generation is at its finest. “Farpoint,” on the other hand, not only isn’t good Trek—it’s barely even competent television. If it hadn’t had the Star Trek name on it, it’s hard to see any reason why this pilot should have resulted in a full series. But it was, and in this case nepotism was actually a force for good.

Oh: and I still love the theme song. That’s burned into my brain forever.

–TW

Thanks Thomas. Here are my thoughts on the first episode of The Next Generation:

Double episode-length pilots are just the worst. Pilot efforts are inherently exposition-laden and full of table-setting moments that could theoretically matter in the future. When done poorly, it’s bad enough to have to sit through 42-46 minutes, so pushing the running time to over an hour-and-a-half is quite troublesome. Few 90-plus minute pilots succeed, either as individual entities or quality set-ups for what could be to come. Off the top of my head, only Twin Peaks and Lost immediately come to mind, and ABC and J.J. Abrams were smart enough to split the latter up over two weeks anyway.

Unlike Peaks and Lost, Star Trek: The Next Generation is unfortunately a member of the club that personifies the problems with the double-length pilot. Although “Encounter at Fairpoint” works in various ways that I will address momentarily, the running time exacerbates an already slow, plodding and frankly, boring affair that fails to do its one job: make me want to watch episode two.

Before you roast me, let it be known that I’m not a Trek fan at all. I’ve seen a half-dozen episodes of the original series, probably bits and pieces of more than 25 installments of TNG (because, you know, I had a television in the early 1990s) and the most recent film. That’s the extent of my Trek viewing experience, though I’m not at all against the franchise either.

With that being said, I came into this pilot hopeful that I’d be hooked—as if I need something else to try to catch up on—and that all those people on Twitter would be wrong or misguided. I’m not, and they weren’t. Of course, the passage of time and hindsight allow me to forgive this episode’s obvious flaws because I know that there is more of TNG, and I have been told repeatedly that it improves. Nevertheless, it’s tough to picture those improvements simply from watching this pilot alone.

What is so frustrating about this episode is that it starts off with a strong opening 20-30 minutes (give or take some oddly extended shots and cuts of next-to-nothing happening). Patrick Stewart embodies Picard with more authoritarian control than I expected (I’ve been told he softens up a little over time, which makes since) and the captain’s log voice-over isn’t as suffocating or annoying, at first. Both work to bring the audience up to speed about who these people are, what they are doing and where they are going.

Moreover, the appearance of the mysterious Q and his charge that humans are unchanged savages that should be put on trial for all their terrible choices throughout time jolts some life into the exposition-heavy fare and allows the show to display some of its for-the-time technical superiority. The Q continuum sequences include quality costuming, fun special effects and a whole lot of somehow-entertaining rhetoric about why humans aren’t worthy to survive, all they do is destroy, etc. These stories have been done before—likely on Star Trek even—but John de Lancie’s dynamic, ever-changing performance nicely blends with Stewart’s steely Picard, resulting in a substantive framework for the episode and the series. The Enterprise’s journey to prove Q wrong—and prove humanity’s worth—is a valuable mission statement, however diluted it may be.

From there, though, the episode slowly falls apart, with an extra emphasis on slowly. The additional running time allows Gene Roddenberry’s script to establish each of the main characters, a decision I like but would have loved had any of the stories been particularly engaging here at the jump. It’s unfair to say any of the actors are especially bad in their performances here but it does seem as though everyone outside of Stewart and Brent Spiner is still struggling to figure out who they are supposed to be portraying; the proceedings are just so stiff.

In between clunky character moments, “Fairpoint” loses all its momentum by the time Q initially departs (with a constructed time-limit, of course) and the crew makes their way to Bandi and its secret energy source. As a setting, Bandi isn’t well-rendered at all. I didn’t expect lush on-location shooting but my research tells me TNG had a sizeable budget, and therefore, Bandi’s back-lot vibe (other than the one sequence with Data, Riker and Wesley outside in the creek) disappointed me.

More frustrating is how little urgency there is with the Bandi story. The Enterprise wants to know how the Bandi people have so much energy, Groppler Zorn, their host, won’t tell them. Some procedural-y investigating takes place, the crew asks for more answers, Zorn refuses and the episode just keeps going in circles. For a group of people that there just confronted by a powerful alien race and told they only have a short time to prove their worth, no one from the Enterprise acts too concerned, or even remotely bothered, by what’s happening around them.

And because Groppler offers no threat to Picard, Riker and company, the episode stalls anytime Q isn’t on the screen poking them about their presumed failures. Keeping Q and his threat around creates a fine dark cloud to hang over future episodes but having the alien simply fold after all his bluster sucks the air out of an already pretty lifeless pilot. As a result, the episode’s entire plot is little more than a training exercise: no real threats, just a situation that needs to be handled in proper fashion.

Were this pilot only one 43-minute story, it still would have had its flaws—mostly because the Bandi story is a non-starter with an “okay, cool” ending—but those flaws would have less time to fester as they do here. The typical pilot-y problems like clunky dialogue and didactic introductions on display here aren’t awful in their own right, it’s just that there are so many scenes that require them, seemingly to fill up the extended running time. I don’t need my science fiction pilots to include lots of action, time travel or gimmicks just for gimmicks sake. However, this episode certainly could have used a jolt in the arm energy-wise, in whatever form that might have manifested.

In my limited experience with both the original Trek and TNG, I’ve picked up that the former featured a top-heavy cast, dominated by three characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), whereas the latter is more ensemble-friendly. For a long-running series, the second approach works better because there are more characters to develop and more relationships to pursue. In a pilot, however, attempting to introduce and establish more than a half-dozen characters with a certain level of importance can lead to a whole lot of exposition. This is what happens in “Fairpoint,” and when combined with a lifeless plot, the episode compares poorly to its predecessor.

Roddenberry and company likely tried to combat the task of servicing so many characters by expanding the pilot’s running time. He probably just tried too much, and for too long.

As I said at the beginning, it is difficult to project a great show out of what I saw in this episode. Sometimes though, it takes longer than a second episode to correct all the missteps and awkward beats that are present at the start. The kinks certainly needed ironing out after this one and thankfully for Trek fans, they were.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: This is, without a doubt, a very rough start

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