The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 1

For previous installments:

 

 

 

The Best:

Encounter at Farpoint, The Naked Now, Where No One Has Gone Before, The Battle, Hide and Q, Haven, Datalore, 11001001, Home Soil, Coming of Age, Heart of Glory, Skin of Evil, Conspiracy, and The Neutral Zone

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In brief pieces:

  • Encounter at Farpoint introduces the new Star Trek series, introduces Q, and the first live-action Star Trek episode to air since June 3rd, 1969;
  • Where No One Has Gone Before sees the Enterprise travel to distant parts of the universe, and the first appearance of the Traveler;
  • In The Battle, Captain Picard is given the USS Stargazer as a gift by the Ferengi DaiMon Bok, who intends to take revenge on Picard;
  • Hide and Q sees the return of Q, granting Commander Riker the powers of Q after transporting members of the Enterprise to a landscape;
  • Haven features the first appearance of Counselor Troi’s mother, Lawxana, played by the First Lady of Star Trek;
  • Datalore introduces Data’s ‘brother,’ Lore, and mentions the Crystalline Entity;
  • 110001001 sees an alien race called Bynars nearly hijack the Enterprise during a retrofit;
  • Home Soil is a real classic;
  • Coming of Age sees Wesley Crusher take a Starfleet entrance exam;
  • Heart of Glory sees Lt. Worf have to chose between being a Klingon, or a Starfleet officer;
  • Skin of Evil features the death of Lt. Tasha Yar;
  • Conspiracy is actually quite silly, but I liked it; and,
  • In The Neutral Zone, the Enterprise is sent to investigate the destruction of Federation outposts near the Neutral Zone.

According to the A.V. Club review of Encounter at Farpoint:

Let’s start with the bridge. In the original series, it looked like a cabin on a ship. A large ship, sure, some kind of battle cruiser or a luxury liner, but still identifiably nautical, with curved display panels, the hard angles, the way everything essentially worked to support the single central point of the captain’s chair. It wasn’t easy on the eyes, but it was functional. It was here to get the job done.

Now look at the bridge of this new Enterprise, and it’s… different. It’s different, right? The captain’s chair is still in the middle, but he’s flanked on either side by seats for his officers, and the majority of the heavy duty computer equipment is up a rise behind the captain’s chair. He can’t look to his right and converse with his science officer from a seated position. In fact, if he wants to talk to any of the people standing at the back wall, the captain has to stand up. The helmsmen are in the traditional down-front position, but they look half a mile away. While the bridge on TOS revolves around the captain, this new bridge is more an environment full of tools which the captain has to draw from. The original bridge is designed for a man who dives into a situation, phaser on stun, two-fisted and grinning. This new bridge is for the strategist. It may take him twenty minutes to plan his next move, but you probably shouldn’t get too attached to your king.

(A quick aside: the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a bumpy, bumpy ride. When a show runs as long as this one, and when it hits the heights Next Gen [from here on referred to under the approved abbreviation, TNG] eventually does, it’s easy to focus on the great moments and ignore the awful ones. In the weeks to come, I expect I’ll be reminding myself over and over of the Borg and the totally bad-ass time loop episodes and Locutus and the fact that Tasha Yar eventually dies. But we can’t just skip ahead. We’re nerds, for god’s sake, and some things, like continuity and completism, are sacred.)

The TNG bridge is important, because it indicates a difference of intention that gives the show its own identity even in the early, rougher seasons. If the bridge of the TNG Enterprise is more contemplative by design, it makes sense that it is also more democratized. On the original show, the major focus was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, in that order. Lip service was paid to the ship’s more than four hundred souls, and a handful of other supporting characters caught our attention from time to time, but there was never any question of who ran the place, and who really mattered. Uhura and Sulu and the rest were part of that stable of faces whose development relied more on the needs of the episode than on any inherent integrity of their personality. So Sulu could be a botanist one episode, because a writer wanted to show off some fake space plants, and it never gets mentioned again.

TNG changed that. While there are still definite leading figures, the difference between lead and support is a lot fuzzier, and right from the start, you get a sense that these people have lives even when they aren’t on camera. I’m not suggesting those lives are richly developed or particularly complex right now, and I’ll freely admit, if I didn’t know how much better the show got down the road, I’d be a lot less excited at the prospect of hanging out with these people. But even without advanced knowledge, there is potential here. The drama of the show isn’t just going to come from alien threats and space-time anomalies. We’re also going to have to deal with a crew that has its own fair share of needs, ambition, and suffering.

So we have: Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton), a blind man with a special visor that allows him to “see,” at the cost of constant pain; First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), former lovers meeting again and re-opening old wounds; Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), with a dead husband and an irritatingly chipper son, Wesley (Wil Wheaton); Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon and a Starfleet officer; Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who has some serious issues with her past; Data (Brent Spiner), an android who wants nothing more than to be a real live boy; and Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) an irritable bald man who dislikes children. Of such humble beginnings, dynasties are built. Not all these subplots are immediately promising, but introducing them this early on is a show of good faith, an implication of a cohesive community which only needs our attention and time to grow.

The downside to all this is that “Farpoint” has a number of scenes whose only reason for existing is to give us exposition that doesn’t immediately matter. At an hour and a half, the show’s pilot episode is basically a two-parter, and while it’s necessary to spend time introducing us to this new world, there’s a lack of urgency that occasionally makes the episode less an adventure than a homework assignment. The episode starts strongly enough, with the Enterprise running afoul of Q (John de Lancie), a god-like being who demands the ship stop its explorations because of humanity’s essential savageness. This leads to lots of shouting, running around, showing off the new special effects, and while it’s rather silly in retrospect (why would Q stop them while they were on their way to Farpoint? They haven’t yet gone beyond the limits of Federation knowledge), it’s familiar and exciting enough to work as a hook.

But then we get the saucer separation, a long, rather pointless sequence that only exists because it kind of looks cool. Once the ship arrives at Deneb IV, home of the unusual Farpoint base, whatever urgency remained evaporates. Q gives Picard a deadline, and a mission, and the real story behind Farpoint is clever, but the mystery is treated with the same importance as introducing Riker to his new captain (Picard has Riker manually re-connect the ship’s body and saucer sections, a not all that tense scene that simply repeats what we saw ten minutes ago, in reverse), setting up the Crushers, showing off the Holodeck, and so on. While “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the first episode of the original series, kept raising the stakes with its major threat, the danger in “Farpoint” is only really relevant when Q is on-screen, and even then, it’s not all that nerve-wracking, especially when Q starts giving orders at the climax which guide Picard into making the right choice. General rule of thumb: when an impish being of immense power starts encouraging you to do something, it’s a good idea to do the opposite.

As beginnings go, this is more functional than inspiring, and there are already harbingers of problems we’ll have to face in the episodes to come. Yes, Wesley is as annoying as promised. Tasha Yar is one note and tedious. Denise Crosby isn’t given a whole lot to do in the role, but surely she could’ve found some other setting beyond “overwrought shouting.” Marina Sirtis doesn’t fare much better. Troi’s importance as ship counselor is questionable from the start, as her half-Betazoid ability to sense emotion allows her to say things like “I sense a powerful mind” whole seconds before the Enterprise goes into Red Alert. I always wondered if the show wouldn’t’ve been better off revealing in some later season that Troi’s “gift” was nothing more than the instincts and intuition of an extremely clever con-woman. This would explain how, despite having spent her entire life experiencing the feelings of everyone around her, Troi is more vulnerable the the passions of strangers than a normal person. (You’d think she would’ve developed some kind of protective distance. I don’t imagine therapy would be very helpful if your therapist started crying before you did.)

There’s the expected clumsiness of actors trying on new roles, some really painful music cues, and a pacing that suffers from the occasional stutter. The score manages to make DeForest Kelley’s cameo appearance more mawkish than it should’ve been, and stutter-wise, there’s a thirty second shot of Engineering that has nothing to do with anything. Sure, it looks cool, but we’d already seen the area at the start of the episode, we trust that it hasn’t moved. I could’ve done without the corny reminders of Troi and Riker’s long-buried love, and the central question of humanity’s potential for growth has been done so often that it barely even registers anymore.

There are bright spots, though, even excluding hindsight. Patrick Stewart is a damn fine actor. His initial take on Picard is a little off-putting, stressing his temper and authoritarian ways over the intelligence and charisma he would later bring to the part, but even so, he does strong work. I especially enjoyed his encounter with Beverly and Wesley on the bridge. It’s not a great scene, but Stewart (and, to give her credit, McFadden) makes it work. Data is overly smug, and Brent Spiner occasionally smiles (which doesn’t work at all), but the character is striking, and leaves more of an impression than, say, Riker’s genial blandness. Story-wise, while Q’s ethical probing doesn’t leave an impression, the resolution of the Farpoint crisis does, proving in a believable way that Picard and his team really are ready to face whatever challenges lie before them.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be plumbing the depths of TNG, so expect all manner of cheap shots and sarcasm. I’ll be drinking heavily and when I drink, I get mean. No matter how bad it gets, though, there’s a bright future ahead, and even at its worst, we know these characters are capable of more. I needed the chemistry of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to get me through the roughest patches of season three, and now I have a whole ship full of people to depend on. Watching “Farpoint,” I enjoyed myself regardless of the episode’s quality because these are familiar faces. I grew up with this cast, this design, and even when the series hits rock bottom, I have that to hold on to. So strap in, settle back, visor in place, aaaaand–engage.

 

According to the A.V. Club review of Where No One Has Gone Before:

This is a little better, thank goodness. The Wesley Factor is in effect, and the storyline is more interested in throwing out cool-sounding ideas than following through with any of them, but the cringe inducing cheesiness is kept to a minimum, and the tension increases as the episode progresses, rather than peaking early and then draining away to nothing. (I considered making a joke here about my sexual inadequacies, but then I remembered: I’ve been writingTrek recaps for about a year now. I don’t think anyone is going to believe I’m having sex.) Most importantly, the tone is more or less on target. “The Last Outpost” tried to achieve a sense of mystery and awe, but largely failed; “No One,” despite its imperfections, at least gives us an alien space that can’t be handily defeated by the regurgitation of bumper sticker wisdom.

Starfleet has a new propulsion expert making the rounds, and Riker isn’t happy to welcome him aboard the Enterprise. He’s not convinced the expert is legit, despite the demonstrable improvement shown in at least two other ships. The real issue is that the data which Kosinski, the expert, sent over to prep the Enterprise engine doesn’t make any sense. Chief Engineer Argyle is just as skeptical as Riker (I guess we should just assume Wesley inadvertently murdered the last Chief Engineer during one of his science projects?), and when Kosinski beams aboard, he does nothing to alleviate either men’s concerns. Kosinski is a pushy, arrogant ass, and while he’s not exactly a Federation bureaucrat, he’s reason enough to wonder if TNG is going to continue TOS‘s long tradition of assholes in uniform.

Kosinski brought a friend, though, an unnamed alien who is friendly, humble, and extremely unobtrusive. Which makes for rather clever camouflage, come to think. The alien, who we’ll call The Traveler, is the one responsible for the warp drive upgrades. He comes from a mystical land of magic technology, and he’s explored our universe by leapfrogging from ship to ship. Thing is, you can’t tell people up front, “I’m basically a wizard, and I can futz around with your crap and make it brilliant” without getting asked a lot of tough questions that start with “Oh really?” and end with laser scalpels. So the Traveler uses Kosinski as a front to cover his own tricks. Kosinski is the perfect man for the job, because his ego allows him to believe he’s making the changes himself (despite not being able to understand them), and his toxic personality means that anyone he comes in contact with will notice him first, last, and only. Plus, wouldn’t you want to get this creep off your ship as soon as possible?

The con would’ve worked perfectly, but the Traveler is getting sick. After making goo-goo eyes at Wesley (I hadn’t really noticed it till this week, but Wheaton is much too old for the part. It creates some creepy subtext, and makes the supposedly brilliant ten year-old look like an idiot savant), the Traveler goes through his usual moves, but this time, the effort is too much, and theEnterprise gets shot three galaxies off course. An attempt to fix the problem ends up with the ship stuck in a weird blue cloud full of floating sparks. The cloud affects the crew, and soon everyone on board is seeing physical representations of their desires and fears. Thankfully, we are spared the scene where Wesley finally gets some spooning-time in with the Captain.

The “thoughts made flesh” concept is a cliche, but not one so limited that it can’t be effective, and while I was mildly entertained by the Traveller’s story, I got the most charge out of the sight of the Enterprise hurtling through the cosmos. Gone are TOS‘s endless white-dots-on-black starfields. This is colorful, weird, maybe a little corny, but kind of awesome if you are willing to overlook the not always pitch perfect effects. I’ve always been a sucker for 2001′s “going through the monolith” sequence, and while this episode is nowhere near that kind of mesmerizing terror and wonder, I’m gratified to see the series actually trying for something a little beyond their reach, this early in the game.

But since we’re still in the first season, we can’t really have nice things. The Traveller’s insistence that Wesley is a kind of super genius doesn’t play as it was intended, I’m guessing; instead of promising exciting future developments from “the boy,” it serves as a reminder of Wesley’s Mary Sue status, a wish-fulfillment character whose accolades are less earned then assigned. I don’t want kids on theEnterprise. I don’t mind the idea, although… All right, that’s a lie, I do mind the idea, because it changes the ship into some kind of pleasure cruise, instead of a semi-military expedition. Really, though, I just don’t want to see any children in story-lines because dammit, this is supposed to be a space adventure, not “Wesley’s Big Day On The Bridge.” Suggesting some kind of potential Chosen One style narrative (and don’t kid yourself, that’s what’s happening here) threatens to graft on the worst kind of serialization, bringing an unlikable character even further to the forefront of the action simply because some writer didn’t get enough pats on the head growing up.

Another problem with the episode is that it doesn’t really have a third act. Once the Traveller’s true nature is revealed, and we get a few scenes of the Enterprisecrew dealing with their fears made flesh (my favorite: the guy scared of fire, although Tasha’s rape gang memory was also delightfully inappropriate), there’s a big speech about how everyone has to think nice things about the Traveler, he repeats the warp process to get them home, and then disappears. There’s nothing illogical in this, since the Traveler’s abilities are ill-defined enough for a Tinkerbell Solution to not be entirely ridiculous, but it’s flat and unexciting. It has a scene where Wesley reaches out and takes the Traveler’s hand to save everyone on the ship, and that only would’ve worked if Wesley was younger or there’d been some plotline about the two becoming lovers, which is frankly not a thought I wanted to be having. “No One” isn’t horrid, but it’s too vague to be honestly good.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Battle:

Line from my notes: “God, I hate the Ferengi.”

Were any alien races from TOS this bad? I’m sure some were annoying or unfunny, but I can’t remember a recurring species as one note as this. Even the Klingons were allowed a modicum of dignity, for all their warrior posturing and villainy. (Side note: Funny how Worf’s Klingon is so much more feral than his supposed ancestors. I’m not even talking about the head ridges, which are an interesting visual choice at least. The Klingons we saw on TOS differed from the Federation largely on ideological grounds, but on TNG, the only Klingon we’ve dealt with behaves like a barely restrained attack dog who stumbled across the gift of speech. Or better yet, a werewolf learning how to be a man.) The Ferengi in “The Battle” aren’t quite as one note as the ones we saw in “The Outpost,” but there’s still no real empathy for them on the part of the writers. They’re more orcs from Middle Earth than an alien race capable of space travel, and while the orcs worked in their context, the effect here is laughable. In a way, TNG is actually less progressive than TOS, a show two decades its senior, because TNG is willing to apparently dismiss an entire culture out of hand because it allows them to impress us with humanity’s moral superiority.

What does all this mean for the actual episodes? Whatever its faults philosophically, an adventure show with one-note bad guys isn’t automatically boring. The problem here is that the Ferengi are so irritating and clearly beneath contempt that they become ludicrous as figures of intrigue or deception. “Battle” relies on Picard and the Enterprise bridge crew to accept a Ferengi gift, at least initially, at face value. They catch on to the trickery before its too late, and Picard has his own problems to worry about, but it takes them an embarrassingly long time to put the pieces together. Put it this way: if somebody showed up at your door and said, “Hey, we want to give you this weapon you used to murder a bunch of guys we knew years ago,” wouldn’t you be a little suspicious? And that’s without the Ferengi’s established worship of monetary gain.

“Battle” does provide Picard with some back-story, and while it’s a pretty generic back-story overall (in that most of it could’ve happened to any of the characters we’ve met without much change), it does give us a sense of Picard’s intelligence and quick wit in battle. Out of all the characters, Picard’s the hardest to get a hold of, because he holds the audience at arm’s length in the same way he holds his crew. In TOS, while Kirk stood apart from the others, he was always easy to relate to, a familiar hero figure that anchored the series and was always getting into one emotional scrape or another. So far in TNG, Picard is more like someone we observe than someone we identify with. (Although really, right now, who is the identification figure? Wesley is too precocious, and, much as it annoys me whenever he’s on-screen, he really isn’t central enough to the narratives to get close to. Data, maybe? Or Riker. While a cast this large offers more story potential, it also makes it harder to single anyone out, and given the ineptitude of the scripts we’ve seen, I don’t really feel like I know any of these people yet.) Learning about the Battle of Maxia and the famous “Picard Maneuver” fleshes him out, and watching him struggle with Daimon Bok’s manipulations makes him vulnerable, which gives Stewart a chance to do some heavy-lifting, acting-wise.

Ah yes, the “thought maker,” a wonderfully ridiculous piece of equipment whose existence is nearly justified by Stewart’s commitment, and the eerie hallucinations we see of his former bridge crew. Really, though–it’s a big ping-pong ball with a red bulb inside, and you run it by turning it back and forth. There needed to be some justification for Picard’s mental breakdown, but Bok, the Ferengi captain seeking revenge for the loss of his son, isn’t really much of a plan maker. Strip away all the camp and the bad acting, and the real problem with this season so far is a serious inability to make story-lines pay off in meaningful ways. Bok has the brain bomb to lower Picard’s defenses, and he has a falsified log on Picard’s old ship to, well, what, exactly? Data sees through the hoax in about ten minutes (although it’s still long enough to be annoying, because why on earth would anyone trust information that could so easily have been tampered with? For crying out loud, we saw Wesley’s magic Picard voice-box six episodes ago!), and apart from serving as a minor distraction, there doesn’t seem any point in making the effort.

Picard suffers from headaches. (Which are apparently magical in the future, or something.) The headaches get worse, and then he starts having dreams of the Battle–dreams, by the way, which fail to contradict the official report, ie, the history in which Picard’s destruction of a Ferengi ship was entirely justified, the history which Bok’s fake log tries to disprove. If the machine is a thought maker, wouldn’t it have made more sense to try and alter Picard’s memory of the past? I wouldn’t even have minded if Picard had had some culpability in the event. Nothing that would damn him, obviously, but this sort of plot is much more effective when the hero has lingering guilt over his past. Otherwise, there’s no cost here. Bok is revenge-crazy, Bok tries to get Picard killed in a suicide assault on his own ship, Bok fails, Picard and everyone on the Enterprise go back to being smug. None of this holds very well together. It’s not flat out embarrassing, which is a relief, but apart from a clever use of the warp drive, the most interesting moments are a handful of exchanges between Riker and the first officer of the Ferengi ship. The officers eventual willingness to treat with Riker on even terms (“First Officer to First Officer”) gives us some hope that the Ferengi might be something more than caricatures down the line, but until that happens, the less we see of them, the happier I’ll be.

According to the A.V. Club review of Hide and Q:

Yay, another Q episode! And it’s… drat, it’s not very good.

One thing that TNG has over TOS from the start is an origin story. TOS didn’t ever show how its crew started working together, or what their first mission on the Enterprise was like. (Funny how obsessed we are with origins these days. If TOS was being made now, it would have to have a “getting to know you” style episode, even if that episode wasn’t the pilot. Something akin to Firefly‘s excellent “Out of Gas.”) Judging by the three seasons, despite the occasional cast change, it’s easy to imagine Kirk, Spock, and the rest flying around the galaxy for ages before we met them, and for ages after we left them. With TNG, while we don’t know everything about our heroes, we know how they first arrived on the ship. There’s a clear beginning, and that beginning gives their adventures a stronger sense of connected narrative. There’s advantages and drawbacks to that, which we’ll examine as the series progresses, but for right now, it’s enough to observe that the vast potential for audience investment is being kicked to the curb over and over again.

Think about it: we know next to nothing about Data, Tasha Yar, Riker and Deanna’s relationship, Beverly’s dead husband (who is Wesley’s dead dad), what brought Worf to Starfleet, who the hell is running Engineering. And while I’m not clamoring for to know what makes Tasha such an emotional mine field, I am frustrated by a lack of connection with these characters, a lack that some sense of a past could provide. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were strong enough figures that I didn’t need to know much about them to like them, but there’s no one on the new Enterprise that has that same iconic presence, which means that we’re forced to engage with the stories themselves, and, well, you know how that’s going. To go back to Firefly, even though we didn’t know everything about Malcolm Reynolds, or the doctor with the naked sister in a box, or the rest, their mysteries were teased along enough to give the impression that there really was a larger story at work. There’s none of that here yet. What affection I have for the crew is dependent on memories of what the show will become, and on the relative likability of the cast.

I mention this because, while “Hide and Q” isn’t a back-story episode, it’s a perfect example of TNG‘s lack of proper characterization, squandering an opportunity to define one of its principals in favor of a ridiculous, Rod-Serling-at-his-most-pedantic morality play. While the Enterprise is on its way to bring medical equipment and aid to a disaster-stricken colony, Q pops by for a visit. The Q continuum (is this the first time we get the official title? I think so) is intrigued by humanity, and would like to offer our race a tremendous opportunity to make all our dreams come true. Picard does his best to negotiate out of the situation, but Q isn’t having it. (While I generally like John De Lancie, his work in this scene crosses the line from playful to grimacing loon.) He transports Riker and most of the bridge crew to a strange planet, says a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo, and then offers Riker the chance of a lifetime: the full powers of a Q.

It’s hard to tell what Q is playing at here. Picard notes that Q has expressed interest in Riker (another missed opportunity: no Q/Deanna catfight. “Captain, I sense something. I believe it is an ass about to be kicked.”), and Q explains how the continuum is interested, and a little afraid, of humanity’s will to explore and survive. Which makes no sense, when you think about it, since it would seem an innate function of life to survive and expand outwards as far as it can. How would humans be any different than, say, Klingons in this regard? But even if we accept that humanity is somehow “special,” what does giving Riker powers prove? Are they looking for a weak spot in our armor of awesome? Because if so, granting one of us some serious mojo doesn’t seem like the best approach. Judging by the end of the episode, Q wanted Riker to accept his Q-ishness permanently, or at least accept that being able to give people what you think they want is a wonderful power. Even if Riker had done this, what would’ve been gained? If humanity ever became a threat to the Q’s a thousand years down the line, would the continuum just say, “Ah, but remember… Riker,” and the super special people would slink away, defeated?

Damn, that’s a lot of question marks. All right, let’s accept that Q is a weird one, that it’s really difficult to grasp the motivations of a nearly immortal race, and examine how unimaginatively the episode handles the Riker side of the equation. Q selects him specifically, but judging by his actions, Riker could’ve just as easily been some random guest star, ala Gary Lockwood in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” At least then there’d be some risk that he’d accept the powers. Here, we have a main cast member given something we know he can’t keep and stay on the show, and we get no sense of how Riker’s approach to the gift is any different from how anyone else would’ve handled it. It’s such a generic character arc: “Wow, this is nuts, I have magic!” to “Crap, I gotta use my magic to save my friends!” to “Huh, I guess I should avoid being tempted by the magic because I’m not ready for it,” to “I could’ve saved a life, I’m gonna use the magic, and this instantly turns me into an arrogant douchenozzle,” to “Wait, so I can’t force people to accept my magical gifts? I’ve learned an important moral lesson in humility!”

The only distinguishing mark is the ineptitude with which the final stages are handled, and that has nothing to do with Riker (or Jonathan Frakes’ performance). A story like this needs to show us power corrupting a hero in a believable, organic fashion; we need to understand how a nice guy can go from giving to insisting. We don’t get that here. Oh, there’s an outline. Riker decides not to use his powers, then finds a dead little girl his abilities could’ve saved (cue Data being overly pointed here), and then Riker decides to go full God-like being. The logic is there, but the timing is off. Riker’s sudden references to Picard as “Jean-Luc” would only make sense after he’d been using his powers for a while. One of the few things we know about him is his commitment to duty, and his utter inflexibility when it comes to serving his captain’s best interest, and we’ve never had any indication that he resents being second in command.

There’s also the laziness of the screenplay’s moralizing. We’re supposed to assume that the power’s of the Q are wrong without any good reason (beyond Q’s own prankishness). What if Riker had brought the girl back to life? A better episode would’ve shown him doing just that, and shown some unforeseeable yet disastrous results. Instead, we get the frankly awful gift-giving sequence. Riker makes Wesley ten years older (loved Geordi’s “Hey Wes, not bad.”). It’s idiotic. What kind of mental defective would believe stealing ten years from someone would be a good thing? Even worse, even once the lesson is clearly learned, Riker keeps on giving, because hey, we’ve got ten minutes left to fill. The monsters at the beginning are fun, and we get to hear Patrick Stewart delivering Shakespeare, but mostly, this is a mess.

According to the A.V. Club review of Haven:

I was going to say, there’s nothing worse than heavy-handed moralizing, but that’s not true. There are plenty of things worse. Paper cuts. Tax bills. (Did you know that there’s a “Freelancer’s Tax”? I didn’t!) Dying alone and unloved. Lwaxana Troi.

Shudder.

I have a lot of positive memories of TNG, but even when I was a kid, even when my critical faculties were in their nascent stage and I thought movie novelizations were better than movies because they lasted longer–even then, I didn’t much care for Lwaxana Troi. She was always in those boring “character-driven” story-lines, and she was loud and pushy and she hit on Captain Picard a lot, which was really gross. As an adult, I can say that my opinion on character-driven stories has changed significantly, and that loud isn’t the problem it once was. But Lwaxana is just as one note as ever, the kind of shrill unfunny that tries to assault the audience into acceptance, and yes, hitting on Picard, still gross.

I didn’t realize “Haven” was the first Lwaxana episode, and I’m going to blame all of you, even if you have mentioned it in the comments, because you clearly didn’t prepare me. I have a habit of yelling at the screen when I’m annoyed or overly frustrated, and I yelled so much watching this you could imagine it was one of those television dramas from Fahrenheit 451, the kind where you send in for a script so you could play along at home. When I was a kid, I imagined every time I didn’t like something I was watching, that was my fault, that I was missing out or having an overly emotional reaction to something other people could enjoy more fully. I’m still not entirely sure this isn’t true. Maybe there are people who though this episode was entirely hilarious. Me? I’ve had more entertaining (and shorter) dental appointments.

Did you know Deanna has a mother? And she’s fucking insane. The Enterprise is orbiting the planet of Haven, a planet which gives the episode its title but which we’ll never actually see at surface level. While everyone else on the ship prepares for some R & R, Deanna is waiting to greet guests in the Transporter Room. There’s Mom, and that’s bad enough, but possibly worse is Deanna’s potential husband, a man she’s never met but who she’s betrothed to via an arrangement that is never satisfactorily explained. I think we’re supposed to assume it’s a typical arranged marriage, but what does either side stand to gain? Wyatt, Deanna’s temporary love interest to be, is a human, not a Betazoid, and since he’s already a doctor I don’t imagine his family is looking for some kind of social upgrade. Lwaxana clearly despises Wyatt’s parents, and they her. Were names drawn out of a hat?

Like so much bad writing, too much is assumed, and it’s only going to get worse. We get comic relief with Lwaxana’s arrogance, comic relief with her meddling with Picard, and some tepid attempts at romantic intrigue between Riker and Deanna. (At least now we know why their first relationship didn’t work out. Deanna claims it’s because Riker wants to be a ship captain above everything, but I’m betting he had one look at his potential mother-in-law and jumped aboard the first vessel he could find with a warp drive.) Oh, and there’s Wyatt’s mild disappointment in Deanna because she doesn’t look like the dream woman he’s been obsessing over since he was a child. All of this should be dramatic but it isn’t. The Riker/Deanna/Wyatt triangle is one conversation and a few pointed looks, and it doesn’t even resolve properly because Wyatt leaves before there’s any actual conflict.

Issues with Lwaxana aside, the script here is also so, so weak. While everybody’s all a’flutter about the upcoming nuptials (to be held in the–gasp–nude!), a Tarellian ship appears and starts towards Haven. The Tarellians were thought to be extinct, wiped out by their own biological weapons, and this new ship isn’t making contact with Haven or anyone, which makes the leader of Haven a little nervous. (By the way, if you’re hoping for an explanation as to why the Tarellians were running silent, don’t.) During the exposition dump, aka meeting of the main crew, we learn the Tarellians are a none-too-subtle criticism of modern war-mongering, but since the survivors we meet are peaceful and personality free, this revelation is as of little consequence as anything else.

Gah, let’s get through this. Wyatt’s dream girl is a Tarellian named Ariana, and the Tarellians, all eight of them, are actually at Haven to meet Wyatt. Why? How was this contact made? Why is the Tarellian ship full of sketches of Wyatt at various stages of development? No freakin’ clue. The closest thing we get to an explanation is Lwaxana (who does the traditional, “Oh, I’ll stop joking and be serious now” performance change) telling Wyatt that space and thought are one. Which, apart from being a sort of call back to Wesley’s INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS COMMENT in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” is meaningless. You might as well just come out and say, “Just because,” or “A wizard did it,” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Wyatt beams aboard the Tarellian ship, forever separating himself from all he knows and loves, and maybe there’s a prophecy or something, I don’t know. It’s creepy, but no one seems to realize it’s creepy.

Look, I’m sure Majel Barrett was a lovely human being, and her Nurse Chapel wasn’t so bad. Hell, maybe Lwaxana calms down in later seasons. But here, in this episode, she is agonizing, and the fact that the episode which surrounds her is full of lazy shoulder shrugs and half-finished ideas. If I’d been watching this when it first aired, if “Naked Now” hadn’t been enough to turn me away, this might’ve done it. The silver box that delivers messages was cool, and I laughed at Data’s fascination with sniping during the dinner scene, but aside from that, I kind of wanted to die.

According to the A.V. Club review of Datalore:

I always forget that Data is a mystery. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. Ithink it’s good. I mean, I was just talking about how the best way to introduce future tech is to treat it as a given (“Mom, I’m off to the Tashi Station to pick up some power converters!”), and the way Picard and the others act around their mechanical man is about as straightforward as possible. So when we find out theEnterprise is making a side trip to visit the planet where Data was discovered years ago, it’s a nice moment of acknowledgement that doesn’t arrive over-dramatized. Sure, Data’s origins are uncertain, but there are a lot of weird things going on in the galaxy, you can’t get too hung up on any of them and hope to get by.

Except there’s a difference between acceptance and apathy, and I’d say the line gets crossed here. Data was found on a stone platform by a Federation ship (theTripoli, for trivia enthusiasts). There had been a farming colony on the planet, but everybody was dead, which is already a warning sign, one that no one on theTripoli felt compelled to investigate, because they just grabbed the newly conscious Data and vamoosed. Hell, Geordi manages to discover Dr. NoonienSoong’s hidden lab after roughly three minutes of looking aimlessly around. It stretches credibility to think that the Federation could find a fully workingpositronic brain–housed inside an animatronic body, to boot–and not do any follow-up.

Ah, but if anyone had bothered, they might’ve started wondering about all those missing farmers, and then, when they discovered the disassembled Lore in Soong’s lab, they might have not have quite so excited to build Data 2.0. Or maybe they wouldn’t have had any concerns. Picard certainly doesn’t seem to. His biggest worry is that Data’s loyalty will transfer from the Federation over to this new found “brother.” (It’s a scene that seems out of place, but in a fascinating way. Would Picard give this speech to any alien member of the crew who came in contact with others of their kind? Obviously not; the singularity of Data’s case makes him unique. Still, the conversation is at odds with the well-scrubbed geniality of so much of the series. “We welcome you,” says the captain, “but only if you remember what your priorities are.”)  In order for Lore to work as a villain, he has to be unexpected, and in order for him to be unexpected, Data’s origins have to be indeterminate but non-threatening. Our heroes are curious, but unsuspecting, and that makes them the perfect dupes.

As villains go, Lore is a good one. Partly it’s seeing the normally reliable Data behaving like a dickhead, and partly its Spiner’s impressive talent for throwing smarm. The actor gets a good showcase for his talents here, especially the scenes with just Lore and Data talking to each other; it never feels overly gimmicky or contrived. Lore serves as a subtle rebuke to Data’s quest for humanity, because Lore is gifted with a full arsenal of human emotion, and it’s rendered him childish, arrogant, and essentially mad. Of course, Lore was the first android model, so Soong had some kinks to work out; maybe the scientist decided that the only way to build a thinking machine that could feel in a responsible, mature fashion would be to design one that had to earn emotion as opposed to being “born” with it. Whatever the story-reasoning, the in-episode effect is to give us a character who is capable of exploiting the trust Data has earned from everyone around him to nefarious purposes. There’s a lot of potential there, even if “Datalore” only scratches the surface.

That’s really been the trademark of season one so far. Even the episodes with potential don’t do enough with it, and the clumsiness in the writing is a constant distraction. We’re told Data can’t use contractions. I wouldn’t mind if this was a “one-episode-only” loophole, as it’s a small concession, and there are ways to work around it if you’re clever enough. Unfortunately, Data uses multiple contractions before Lore is discovered, and worst of all, at the climax of the episode. Lore pretends to be Data, Wesley finds him out, Data beams Lore out of the ship, Picard asks Data if he’s all right, and Data replies, “I’m fine.” The line actually punishes you for paying attention, because now you’ll be half-convinced that the wrong robot was beamed away, and that Lore somehow won out in the end.

Oh, and there’s Wesley. Y’know, for once, I’m in the little bastard’s corner. I blame the writing. After Lore incapacitates Data and assumes his role on the bridge, Wesley becomes suspicious and tries to communicate his suspicion to Picard.Picard tells him to shut up, and then, when Wesley continues to object that something is very wrong, Beverly tells him to shut up. It’s bizarre. Not only is Wesley absolutely correct, Picard’s immediate irritation with him flies in the face of their supposedly developing friendship. It’s a forced reaction, done to drag out the tension. If Picard had listened, then Lore would’ve been in trouble, and we never would’ve gotten to the final act. That doesn’t make it acceptable, though. Much as I dislike Wesley, he deserves better than this. He was actually behaving reasonably for once, and I’d like to see that encouraged.

According to the A.V. Club review of 110001001:

Every time I see this episode title, I get a Flight of the Conchords song in my head.

Maybe I’m suffering from some sort of weird Stockholm Syndrome/Ludvico Treatment hybrid effect, but I found two of this week’s three episodes to be a substantial improvement over much of what we’ve already covered, and even the weak link of the bunch had some promising moments. The cast is settling into their roles: Picard’s belligerence has hit a comfortable level, Data isn’t doing that freaky grin anymore, Wesley is occasionally bearable, and Tasha Yar doesn’t get many lines. Even better, the stories are improving, with stronger pacing, clearer conflicts, and a more definite sense of identity. While they aren’t perfect, the scripts are beginning to come out from the shadow of TOS, and taking advantage of TNG‘s one great asset over its predecessor: a larger universe to play in. On TOS, Kirk and the rest bounced from world to world without much sense of connection between places. On the new series, Picard and his Enterprise are part of a definite system, and that means a different kind of storytelling.

For example: in TOS, starbases acted like townships in Westerns, small pockets of isolated civilization trying to hold together in the face of a million miles of untamed void. Starbase 74, which the new Enterprise visits at the start of “11001001,” is more like a post office or a city hall, a comfortable, professional location where trustworthy people do reliable things. The ship is due for some routine maintenance, and the holodeck needs looking in to; this last is mostly mentioned as set-up for what happens later in the episode, but it also works as casual continuity with “The Big Goodbye,” so that’s nice. While the work gets done, the crew finds ways to keep themselves busy.

I’ve mentioned TNG‘s strong sense of community before, and “11001001” does an excellent job of reinforcing that, following Riker around as he visits all the leads in turn to try and find some way to keep himself occupied. Beverly Crusher is attending a lecture by a leader in the field of cybernetics; Tasha Yar and Worf are off to play some made-up future game; and Geordi is helping Data paint a picture. None of this is strictly necessary plot-wise. That’s another interesting departure from the original show, which had ample padding, but very few “pure character” moments. It’s effective, too. Instead of feeling like wasted time, Riker’s walking tour increases our emotional attachment to the cast, and helps build the illusion the stories we see don’t end when the camera stops rolling.

Still, we’re not going to get an entire episode of that sort of thing, so eventually a plot emerges. For technical work, the Federation employs the Bynars, a race of bald, child-sized gray aliens who have evolved a special, highly dependent relationship with computers. They communicate with each other and name themselves in binary (hence the episode title), work in pairs, and are able to compile and enter massive amounts of data in very short periods of time. Now, you’d think Picard would be a little suspicious after the last alien to come through and muck about with his ship, but clearly the Bynars are an accepted part of organization, so the captain leaves them to their work without so much as a suspicious glance.

Surprise surprise, the Bynars are up to something, which doesn’t become evident until Riker makes a trip to the holodeck and meets a lovely computer simulation named Minuet. Minuet easily wins Riker over (my favorite part of this is how Number One acts like it’s true love, when she’s just a program designed to feed him exactly what he wants to eat), keeping him on the ‘deck until Picard comes to see what’s going on. She manages to ensnare Picard as well, just long enough for the Bynars to send out a fake message that the engines are about to asplode, forcing Data, commanding officer due to Riker and Picard’s incommunicado status, to evacuate the Enterprise. It’s a good sequence, because even though we know the ship isn’t going to blow up, the crew doesn’t, and the efficiency of the ruse is quite satisfying.

Also satisfying: the holodeck does exactly what’s it’s supposed to do, and no more. That’s going to be an increasingly rare event as the show progresses. The Bynars steal the Enterprise and bring it back to their home world, Bynaus, in order to save their civilization. A star in a neighboring system went super-nova, sending out an EMP that would threaten the integrity of the Bynaus mainframe. Given how much the Bynars depend on their computer systems, this was very bad news indeed, and they decided to grab a star-ship and download all the necessary information into its hard-drives to allow them a chance to reboot after the pulse passed. The holodeck distraction/seduction was a back-up, in case their timing was off and they needed someone around to get them up and running again. And it works, without any need for malfunctioning equipment or self-aware literary characters. (Although the Bynars are lucky, because Picard being along for the ride wasn’t a part of their plan. He just happened to check on Riker at the right time to fall into the trap, but if he hadn’t been there, the plan would’ve failed because the Bynar system requires two people for the rebooting process.)

I had fun with this, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s one of the few first season episodes I could remember before re-watching, and last time I saw it, I thought Riker and Minuet’s interactions were cheesy as hell. They didn’t bother me so much now, because they don’t go on very long, and there’s something hilarious about a man trying to seduce a computer simulation designed to respond to his seductions. There’s an episode down the line that’ll give me a chance to go into the idea in more depth, but it’ll be a while before we get there, so for right now: how psychologically healthy can the holodeck really be? On the one hand, I can imagine it serving as an excellent stress reliever, and it could even build the self-esteem of nervous or insecure young people who will take any kind of encouragement they can get. But on the other hand, it’s already difficult enough separating fiction from reality. The sex stuff makes for good jokes and squirming, but what about someone who falls in love with a phantom that will never get tired, never leave them, never break their heart? TNG is big on the “perfect” future, so, for now at least, we don’t see a lot of tortured psyches. But I imagine there’s gotta be some kind of limit of use on these machines, and you’d probably want a competent psychological counselor keeping an eye out in case somebody got twitchy. (Again, this becomes more relevant in a season or two.)

Riker’s romance with Minuet is played for a little more poignancy than it really deserved, and there’s a surprising lack of conflict for all the running around, but I thought this was solid.

According to the A.V. Club review of Home Soil:

I never did well in science class. I got by, and it wasn’t until I took Physics my senior year of high school that my grades started to truly suck, but I’ve always been more of a broad strokes kind of guy. Science requires patience, logic, and a meticulous attention to detail, while I’m hyper, intuitive (which means I jump to conclusions and never show my work), and lucky if I spell “meticulous” right, as anyone who’s read these self-edited recaps can tell you. What I’m getting at is, while I love reading science fiction, I’m not clever enough to be able to tell you if a concept is absurd or practical. If it works in the context of the story, that’s good enough for me.

I think “Home Soil” works, and works well, and it’s a terrific example of a kind of story that the TOS never really delved into: hard sci-fi. It’s called “hard” (heh) because it takes existing knowledge and projects only slightly outwards from it, instead of just throwing in a few words like “space” and “lasers” to make it all seem technological. Kirk’s Enterprise ran into all sorts of aliens and oddities, but while it did make overtures to more grounded writing, you never got the impression any of the writers on the show did serious research before putting plots together. (That sounds like an insult, but it isn’t. There were a lot of very smart writers on TOS; it’s more that the direction of the series meant stressing emotional highs over intellectual ones.) Take “Devil In The Dark,” “Home Soil”‘s closest TOS analog. The silicon-based life-form, the miners, and the development that the “monster” is just trying to protect its young are all things that fit into our concept of how life works. The “devil” is designed to look dangerous and frightening, and apart from its ability to consume rock, it’s still identifiably animal. The miners didn’t realize they were murdering its young, but they did know they were looking at a living creature when they stumbled across Mama.

“Home Soil”‘s crystal behaves in much the same way as the horta did, attacking invading human’s in response to an unintentional threat, and that threat once again stems from a human difficulty in conceiving of life that isn’t immediately comparable to ourselves. The difference here is that “Soil” goes to greater lengths than “Dark” to make the “monster” as striking as possible without sacrificing the plausibility of its design. This makes it less exciting as a creature, but more intriguing as an idea, and gives TNG yet another route to distinguish from its predecessor.

Picard and company pay a visit to Velara III, a planet currently inhabited by a small group of terraformers (really, really small; either the process is largely automated, or the Enterprise caught them around break week). Kurt Mandl, head of the group, is polite but brusque, and Troi senses “deliberate concealment” from him as to events on the planet. Once we find out the situation later in the episode, this “concealment” seems like an attempt at injecting mystery that doesn’t really pan out. While Mandl has some suspicions about the real natives of Velara, he doesn’t seem to know enough to be as paranoid as he clearly is here.

Picard sends down an away team, and everybody gets a lecture on the terraforming process from Luisa Kim, the group’s lone female scientist and the one who doesn’t have a strong grasp of “numbers,” I guess because she’s a girl and all. (It’s a small thing, but when you have a group of four people working on a what must be a costly and important project, why not just hire somebody who gets the big picture and understands fractions?) The lecture is a bit like walking through an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science, so I had trouble paying attention and my feet hurt after a couple minutes. Even in its best episodes,TNG still has a problem staying on topic. Again, though, there’s that grounding in fact that means when things get weird, we’ve got a foundation to stand on.

The weirdness first hits when a hydraulic laser kills a member of the terraforming crew. There’s a great scene here when Data and Geordi investigate the problem, and Data has to outwit the laser on his own, and because he’s a bad-ass robot and everything, he manages it just fine. While investigating, the pair discovers a shiny Thing that’s giving off strange light patterns. They beam Thing 1 up to the Enterprise for study, and that’s when the situation becomes even more complicated. Thing 1 is a non-carbon-based lifeform. In the process of making the planet habitable for humans, the terraformers have been inadvertently creating great swaths of destruction through locals they didn’t realize where there.

While Thing 1 multiplies and eventually manages to communicate with Picard (the Things are not pleased, and refer to humans as “ugly giant bags of mostly water”), up until the actual communication, this is the sort of escalating threat you’d expect to see in an early Michael Crichton novel like The Andromeda Strain. It’s not what you’d call “sexy,” in that the threat is basically a bunch of small shiny objects that eventually coalesce into a medium-sized glowing crystal you could probably pick up at Spencer’s Gifts. But it’s thoughtful, and the tension comes not from smart people making stupid decisions, but from a situation that escalates in unpredictable ways.

The terraformers themselves are broadly drawn. Luisa is pleasant, but very weepy, (hilariously, when Picard is trying to figure out what everyone knows, Troi tells Riker to go James Bond on Luisa because he’d have a better chance getting info out of her) and the biggest impression we get off Bjorn comes from his haircut. The guy looks like he just stepped out of an Italian Road Warrior knock-off. Mandl is an authoritarian ass, which does give us the chance to watch Picard put somebody in their place, but once the actual nature of the threat is discovered, the miners are sidelined.

The only problem with hard sci-fi is that it can end up, well, a little on the dry side. Which makes it ideal for a regular series like TNG, because we already have an emotional investment in the characters. The idea that the new life form would be able to communicate so clearly with humans, universal translator or no, is something of a cheat, and the pacing isn’t as tight as it could’ve been. Still, this one’s a winner, because it takes its concept seriously from beginning to end, and because it doesn’t shortcut too badly to a resolution. For all the Up With People boosterism the show displays, it’s necessary to get the occasional reminder that humans can still screw up big time, and often when they’re operating with the best of intentions.

According to the A.V. Club review of Coming of Age:

Now here’s something you never would’ve seen on TOS: a stop-and-smell-the-roses episode whose two major plots don’t ever connect. Even more surprising, one of those plots is simply there to pique our interest, as it won’t be resolved till much later in the season. That’s right, “Age” has the first example of that most treacherous and wonderful of television stand-bys: the introduction of the serial narrative. Subtle or not, even if it’s only relevant for a couple episodes (which is a let-down we’ll discuss at another time), here we have TNG trying to walk on its own, and if the first steps are clumsy ones, there’s still cause for excitement.

Admittedly, the clunkiness hits you right out of the gate, as the first scene features Wesley apologizing to a guy named Jake. We’ll find out soon enough that Wesley beat Jake out for a chance to apply to Starfleet Academy, but without any context, the scene plays like a terribly polite break-up, with both parties trying to just shoulder through it, with arrangements to be made later as to who gets what out of the china hutch. The Enterprise is in orbit around Relva VII to give Wesley a chance to audition for the school of his dreams. While there, Picard gets in touch with an old friend, Admiral Gregory Quinn, but Quinn has some disturbing news. Something, he tells Picard, is “wrong” on the Enterprise, and an officious investigator named Remmick has been assigned by Quinn to get to the bottom of just what that “wrong” is.

The serialized elements in “Age” rest largely on the second plot. Remmick spends his time questioning crew members about earlier events, and we hear references to other episodes of the season, which is actually a lot more exciting than it sounds. Remmick is the expected irritant, the kind that used to pop on on the original series whenever Kirk had the misfortune of stopping at a starbase, but the simple acknowledgment of the past makes his interrogations easier to bear. Riker’s increased indignation is hilarious, but much of what happens here is less like a natural reaction of a well-knit crew to an outsider, and more the following of an expected set of beats. Remmick has to be overly aggressive (despite the fact that he’d be a more effective questioner if he was didn’t act like a dick), and Riker has to freak out, even though the Enterprise is currently not really doing much of anything. What is there for Remmick to interrupt?

Oh sure, we do get one crisis, when Jake the Idjit, shamed at his rejection, steals a shuttlecraft so he can run away and join the circus, or some damn fool thing. Remmick interferes until he is yelled at, but I was too distracted by the immense stupidity of Jake’s theft to care. A shuttlecraft doesn’t go that fast, right? And it’s not like people wouldn’t notice one was missing. I’m sure it’s difficult to find ways to escape a starship, but surely even a distraught, highly stressed teenager would’ve realized he wasn’t going to get far. Ah well, maybe it was cry for help. That still doesn’t explain why Picard’s first action wasn’t to lock on with the tractor beams. By the time the ‘craft’s engine stalls, it’s supposedly too far out of reach for a beam, and Picard has to use some clever science to save the day. But his cleverness is undone by a lack of basic precaution. Shuttlecraft slooooowly zooming away from you? Lock it down first, then ask questions.

As for Wesley, well, he gets a really standard “Chosen One goes to Hogwarts” type plot. Sure, he isn’t chosen for the Academy (lord knows we couldn’t stand to lose his character, as he really holds the show together), but the testing itself hits all the basics, from introducing classmates–the Potential Best Friend, the Potential Crush, the Potential Rival–and then each section unfolds roughly as these things always seem to unfolds, with Wesley showing off his decency and remarkable skills at species profiling. I don’t really hate the character anymore, although I still find Wheaton’s “Gee whiz!” naiveté grating, so I didn’t mind this. Didn’t really fill me with excitement, but I didn’t mind it.

Actually, I did sort of mind that Wesley is once again proven infallible. Sure, somebody else gets the slot he’s trying for, but we never see Wesley actually making the mistake or getting stressed in a way that would indicate poor performance. Instead, he’s always polite, always helpful, and always smarter than everybody. During the final test, we even learn that Wesley’s greatest fear is having to leave a man behind to die. It’s nice to get some backstory here (turns out this is how Wesley’s father died, and Picard was the leave-behinder), there’s something so flat and generic about his worries and his personality that when he’s not grating, he simply ceases to exist as an identifiable person. Plus, for such a supposed super genius, he’s an idiot. He falls completely for a psych test so blatantly phony a toddler could’ve spotted it, and they eat mud.

This one is more interesting for the possibilities it represents than for the actual episode itself. Wesley’s storyline is passable, but too much like a preview for a Star Trek Babies spin-off. Remmick’s storyline has a pay-off that only leads to more questions, as Quinn explains to Picard that there’s some sort of unpleasantness working its way through Starfleet high command, and he wanted to be sure Picard was on the up and up. That will be terribly exciting down the road, but for right now, it’s like getting a two-parter with no “To Be Continued…” in the end credits.

According to the A.V. Club review of Heart of Glory:

Ever since the first episode, a number of crew-members on the Enterprise have been walking around with question marks over their heads. What’s eating Tasha Yar? Where did Data come from? Why’s that black guy wearing a vacuum cleaner attachment clipped over his eyes? Whither Worf? Some of these questions have been answered, and some of them have answers that are long enough to unfold whenever the writing staff hits a dry-spell, but until now, the Klingon on the bridge had been largely overlooked. Striking in size and make-up, Worf loomed and growled, but apart from a general aggressive stance, he’s largely background. The guy gets a line or two per episode, may get to struggle with somebody, and then one of those jerkwad humans will remind him how civilized we all are compared to Klingons. Joy.

“Heart of Glory” works to correct that, and while the first act suffers from some drag, once the main conflict kicks in, we get a much better idea of where Worf is from, and what’s driving him. Even better, the episode treats his concerns, and the concerns of the Klingons the Enterprise rescues off a dying cargo ship, as problems worthy of serious consideration. The Klingon hunger for battle and honor isn’t treated dismissively, and given the blandly peaceful tone of so much of what is identified as “good” on the series (I mean good in the moral sense, not the critical one), you’d expect this hunger to be roundly ridiculed and dismissed. But there’s a sadness to “Glory,” and while it’s not exactly a tear-jerker, it allows Worf the dignity the character needs to work.

The Enterprise gets a distress signal from a severely damaged Talarian freighter stuck in The Neutral Zone. Picard goes in for the rescue, which indicates a slightly different approach to the Zone than TOS took. Somebody reports to Starfleet that they’re making the move, but nobody waits for confirmation from back home that the move is permitted, so I guess it’s a tricky place to be but not an absolutely verboten one? Anyway, they find the ship, and Data, Riker, and Geordi beam aboard. The episode makes a misstep here, because we spend a lot of time dealing with Geordi’s visor, time that doesn’t connect to anything else in “Glory,” and isn’t interesting enough in its own right to justify its existence.

Plus, it continues the weird thread of showing Picard some technology and having him be simply astonished at how amazing it all is. Happened in the holodeck episode, and it’s happened a few times since, and here we get him being bizarrely impressed by the murky polarization effect that Geordi spends his whole life seeing. Patrick Stewart sells it because, hey, it’s Patrick Stewart, and I can understand that the writers want to try and get us excited about visuals which aren’t, by themselves, all that effective. Having a cast member we respect be in awe of some chintzy piece of crap forces us to at least play along that it might be cool. Really, though, Picard has gone through this rapturous state too many times to be plausible. I can believe he is a man who would love his job enough to find passion in any aspect of it. I don’t believe that he would nearly wet his pants whenever somebody hooks an Atari up to the view screen.

Thankfully, this is but a detour for our larger story. There be Klingons aboard this ship–three, in fact, although one is just about dead. The trio beams back to the Enterprise, gives Picard a not-entirely-truthful account of their plight, and then their buddy dies, and we get to see the Klingon death ritual, which is both kind of silly (I think it’s hard to yell fiercely wearing make-up and facial appliances, and in such a well-lit room), and effectively otherworldly and intense. A Klingon first stares into the eyes of his dying friend, and then, once the moment has passed, he and all those around him shout a wordless warning to the afterlife that their comrade is coming, and the angels and demons and so forth best be on their guard.

I’ve talked before about how the Klingons seemed de-evolved from their generally urbane (if villainous) appearances in TOS, and the death ritual is a great example of how that seeming regression can work in the show’s favor. With so many disparate alien races to deal with, it’s useful to feature strong, identifiable cultures in order to keep everyone apart. This can backfire if the invented culture is too dismissively one note (see: the Ferengi), but the Klingons work here because they’re different enough to be distinctive, but those differences aren’t simply a lust for violence or constant rage. The Klingons are a classical warrior race, and while such an aggressive approach to life has to adapt over time to survive (as this episode admits), it still has a definite romantic appeal.

We see that appeal when Worf spends time with the two surviving Klingons from the freighter, Korris and Konmel. I was pleasantly surprised by these scenes. I expected that the two “untamed” Klingons would mock Worf for his Federation duds, and they do, but the mocking doesn’t last very long, and Worf doesn’t seem especially humiliated by it. Korris is more interested in pitching his view of life to Worf, and of winning a new follower to his cause. He explains that he and his two companions were on the run from the Klingon Empire, because they disagreed with the government’s attempts at peaceful co-existence. Korris is looking for a place where he and those who felt the same as him could fight and die with honor.

It’s a concept that finds a sympathetic ear in Worf, who we learn was orphaned at a young age and raised by humans. (Yeah, he’s Superman. Deal.) His whole life, he’s struggled with his instincts, without anyone around to explain to him how to cope, which makes him a lot more interesting than the series had ever indicated before. What’s even better is that, despite the clear temptation, you never get the impression that Worf seriously considers joining up with Korris. Part of that is basic practicality, since Korris never really comes close to succeeding, but there more important angle is that Worf has committed to his role on the ship. As he explains to Korris in the episode’s climax, the true test of the warrior is the battle within, and cheesy or not, it shows him in a new, and very compelling, light.

Oh, there’s more plot; a Klingon ship meets the Enterprise and demands that Korris and Konmel be handed over for trial and execution. Yar and a security team arrest the two, and Yar nearly creates a scene when Korris encounters a young child before being taken into custody. Yar assumes a hostage situation (I understand being cautious, but the woman goes into every situation expecting the worst, and she often takes steps to ensure those expectations aren’t disappointed), and Worf has to explain to her that Klingons don’t take hostages. Again, Korris is a criminal, but he’s sympathetic and he has a code of honor to follow. It would’ve been much easier to just make him an outright psychopath, but this is much more compelling, and it means that when Korris finally dies, and Worf repeats the funeral ritual, the sense of loss feels earned.

According to the A.V. Club review of Skin of Evil:

I’ve been making jokes about Tasha Yar’s exit from TNG since my first recap, and I’m not going to tell you I’m sad to see her go. I’m not happy, though, not like I expected I’d be. While Yar was never in danger of becoming a favorite character, she did get increasingly inoffensive as time passed, and in “Skin,” I’d go so far as to say she was likable.

TV shows can deal with character deaths in all kinds of ways, and I was not expecting the out-of-nowhere approach we got here. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would’ve guessed that Yar would sacrifice herself to save her friends, because it seems like that’s how TNG works. This isn’t a gritty crime drama, it’s nihilistic or intentionally cruel, and it isn’t actively trying to undercut how we watch and appreciate stories. Everyone goes to great lengths to comment on nearly every significant event, but while we do get a (fairly uncomfortable) wake scene for Yar, her actual demise is what I’d call shockingly unshocking. It just sort of–happens.

I remember getting into an argument last season of House, when a character committed suicide between episodes. It didn’t work because it was too abrupt and out of context, but some commenters argued that suicide (and, by extension, death) is like that. It can just happen, without any way of predicting it. Art isn’t life, though, no matter how thoroughly it’s deconstructed, and whenever a story kills someone, that death needs to make sense within the world of the story. The suicide on House had the cast talking about how senseless it was, but the decision had been motivated by the actor’s departure from the show, and not part of the plot, and it played out that way. I can imagine situations in which in an abrupt death like this character’s could’ve worked, but on House, it was a cheap gimmick, on show which relies increasingly on shock value hold its audience’s interest.

Yar’s death isn’t nearly as bizarre. I can’t imagine how it played at the time. We know now that no other major cast member will die during the show’s run, which means this isn’t a daring raising of stakes or a way to show that everyone’s in danger. It’s more about junking an actress, and while I’ll give them credit for trying to create a memorable murderer, well, that credit only goes so far. Yar’s death manages to be both too sudden and too drawn out, and it’s still the only interesting aspect of a disappointingly crummy hour.

Deanna Troi’s shuttlecraft crash lands on Vagra II, and debris makes it impossible for the Enterprise to beam her back to safety. Riker leads an away team to the planet, but they find their way to the shuttlecraft blocked by what looks like a pool of oil. They try to walk around the pool, it follows them, and, after they debate their options for a while, the oil starts talking. It’s a monster named Armus, and it’s, well, remember the title? Yar decides to push ahead anyway, and Armus knocks her back with some kind of energy blast, killing her.

It’s just so odd. We’ve seen characters take similar hits on the show before, and those were never fatal. There’s no real sense of serious peril before the event, and while Armus looks spooky, once he starts talking, he sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon. (Imagine how much better this episode would’ve been if it hadn’t talked at all? Sure, you would’ve lost Troi’s heart-to-hearts with the creature–yeah, I’m definitely not seeing a downside here.) That should make the sudden fatality startling, and I’m guessing when this first aired, it blew some minds. Hell, they even bring Yar back to the Enterprise for medical treatment, despite Beverly declaring her dead at the scene, and she still doesn’t make it. The problem, I think, isn’t so much how the death itself plays out. It’s that, as a plot twist, it really doesn’t fit in the world of TNG. It has an immediacy that the show can’t support, and that makes a sequence that doesn’t really resonate with the rest of the episode. Murdering Yar should make Armus seem much more dangerous, but he’s just so whiny and petulant and bland that he could’ve killed half a dozen cast members without leaving an impression.

It’s unsurprising, then, that “Skin” never clicks. It should be unbelievable suspenseful. We’ve got one regular crew-member in serious danger, another one dead to prove the danger isn’t funning around, and we’ve got a monster, a flat-out, you-can’t-solve-this-one-through-friendship monster. But there’s too much here that doesn’t work to build an effectively mounting dread. Riker getting pulled into the oil? That works. Troi endlessly discussing its “emptiness”? Gah, shut up shut up shut up. Armus’s origin is ridiculous–he’s all the bad vibes siphoned off of a race that abandoned him–and he’s a waste of effects work. Picard defeats him by talking to him for a bit, which is cute, but mostly you’re just happy to leave the thing behind. (Why the hell Picard beams down in the first place is beyond me. Time and again, we’ve had the crew resist putting him in harm’s way. Did he decide to take a mini-vacation once Yar, Troi, and Riker were off the bridge?)

Then there’s Yar’s memorial service, which is awful. Apparently Yar was so morbid she took to recording a holographic version of herself to say goodbye to her friends, and the goodbyes are just specific enough that you wonder how often she re-recorded. (Which would retroactively make her much more interesting than she ever was on the show, come to think.) She doesn’t make any direct mention of her and Data’s “together time,” although she tells him he sees things with the “wonder of a child,” so I guess they played dress-up. Y’know, during. If her initial exit was oddly out of place, this overlong exit is fitting for a show that still hasn’t reached a comfortable relationship with sentimentality, expecting us to be saddened by the loss of an acquaintance we hardly noticed. The only thing that saves it from being a complete waste is Picard. His “Au revoir, Tasha,” is a mournful, dignified goodbye. It might not’ve been earned, but I can’t deny its sincerity.

According to the A.V. Club review of Conspiracy:

Apart from the pilot and “Skin of Evil,” this may be the only first season episode I had clear memories of coming in to this project. It’s a very hard episode to forget, and it’s often singled out as one of the high points of the season. I can see why: it’s exciting, scary, and much, much grosser than anything else we’ve ever seen on the show. (Including Data’s “fully functional” and that shirt Riker wore in “Angel One.”) It’s striking, ambitious, and there’s no secondary plot to distract us from the main concerns. And yet, watching it again now, I don’t think it’s quite as good as I remembered. It shows some of the same problems we’ve seen throughout the first season, and often plot logic is sacrificed in the name of “oh cool!” moments. Most importantly, “Conspiracy” doesn’t really fit. It’s a bold experiment, but it reaches too far, and makes it more difficult to support.

Picard gets a special super-secret message from Walker, an old friend (thankfully not a ranger of any kind), and Walker wants to meet up. Walker seems troubled, and when Picard arrives at the rendevous point, he has to pass an interrogation to prove he’s himself, much to his frustration. It’s a familiar scene, with lots of memory checks and bluffs, but Walker goes to surprising lengths to make absolutely sure Picard is trustworthy, before explaining the problem: something’s wrong with Starfleet. It’s the same vague “something” that Quinn talked about all the way back in “Coming of Age,” but the danger has increased. Orders are being sent to consolidate power and put key personnel in harm’s way, all with a subtlety and deftness that indicates infiltration at the highest levels of power. Walker, and the people he trusts (including Michael Berryman, from The Hills Have Eyes), want to put a stop to this, but they aren’t quite sure how. Then Walker’s ship gets blown up with him on it.

Clearly, we’re dealing with some raised stakes. The idea of a vast secret organization gnawing at the heart of the Federation is intriguing, and Walker’s paranoia about Picard makes it difficult to dismiss his concerns. The problem is, it’s all so sudden that it’s hard to really grasp the full implications of the problem. We’ve had a bare minimum of dealings with Starfleet personnel; Picard explains this by saying the Enterprise has been at the outer rim for a while, and that’s fine, but it also means that this new development is less like a twist on our expectations than it is like walking into another story that’s already three-quarters finished. We know the situation is dangerous for our heroes, because Walker dies, and that’s serious, but beyond a few comments, it’s difficult to feel the weight of the danger the system is in. When Picard beams down to Starfleet Headquarters–and by the way, for all his intelligence, Picard makes an incredibly stupid call here–he just happens to beam into the head group of the conspiracy, and they immediately go to work on him. All that careful world-building the season has been working towards gets tossed aside in favor of a bunch of smirking old guys who eat worms.

It would also be nice if the threat wasn’t quite so idiotic. Quinn, who’s been infected by the alien parasite that’s causing all these problems, beams aboard the Enterprise intending to get the infection ball rolling. He gets into a fight with Riker, which makes no sense; if these creatures are such experts at staying undetected, surely they would realize that picking a fight with a ship’s first officer isn’t the best way to go about a secret invasion? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to find a way to beam aboard a mess of the parasites and then let them do all the heavy lifting of infiltration? Quinn acts like he just wishes he had a mustache to stroke. He manages to put Riker down, and nearly takes out the security team Riker calls to his aid (note how the “team” is just Geordi and Worf. I’d like to think rank means privileges like, “Taking a distress call seriously enough to send more than two guys,” but apparently not), so I guess his plan is sort of working. Although he seems to only have the one bug, so was he planning on killing the two people he couldn’t infect? It’s irrelevant, anyway, since Beverly arrives to save the day with a phaser.

Back on the planet, Picard is hanging out at a Bond Villain Convention, suffering through some painfully wink-heavy dialog. (“What do you know about conspiracies, Picard, eh? Eh? Do you like gladiator movies? Would you enjoy having a pink dung beetle shoved down your throat and affixed to your spine? But perhaps I’ve said too much…”) It’s too blatant, but still creepy, and there’s something thrilling in seeing the supposed symbols of authority turn malevolent. The dinner sequence that follows is nightmarish, and I give “Conspiracy” all due credit for its willingness to embrace the unpleasantness. A group of old men eating maggots is icky enough, but the truly unsettling element here is the way the dominant group shifts our expectations of what’s “acceptable.” Picard isn’t just seeing his friends and colleagues behaving strangely, he’s watching some of his most trusted assumptions of how life works throw into question, and it’s deeply unnerving.

Then Riker shows up with a fake bug tail sticking out of his neck for street cred. Again we witness first hand the invaders’ imbecility, as the fake infection is immediately trusted, and Riker manages to hold the con just long enough to start firing phasers. (Anybody else think it would’ve been cooler if he’d actually eaten some maggots?) The dinner scene is “Conspiracy”‘s first big set-piece, and its second follows soon after, as Picard and Riker track down the head of the colony, disguised in the body of poor old interrogating Remmick. (I’m assuming Remmick was “himself” in “Coming of Age,” which makes him a minor tragic figure. Sure, he was a jerk while he was questioning everyone, but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the Enterprise at the end of that episode gave him just enough humanity to make me sorry to see him die.) There’s a brief, villainous exchange, and then Riker and Picard open fire–and Remmick’s head explodes. Not just that, either: his whole torso bursts, and we see the giant mother bug sitting in his chest.

There’s nothing like that in the rest of the season, nothing to prepare you for it, and I think that’s part of the reason why people speak so highly of “Conspiracy.” I think that isolation is a drawback, though. The episode should serve as a culmination of a variety of incidents, but instead plays like a one-off, which robs it of most of its potential power. The ending, which implies that the Remmick bug was able to send a message home before dying, has been criticized for never being brought up again, and that’s reasonable, but the show really isn’t ready for this kind of story yet. Like the bugs themselves, this is one that works on the spine, but that’s as far as it goes. So hurrah for raised stakes, and fingers crossed that next time we encounter a danger this sinister, the writers know how to handle it.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Neutral Zone:

Speaking of handling things… Whatever my concerns with it, I do think “Conspiracy” should’ve been the last episode of the season. While the tone may have been off (it’s one of the few Trek episodes I can think of that treats an alien race as completely, inarguably monstrous), its a memorable, risky piece of work, and the ending naturally leaves enough unanswered questions to encourage people to return for season two. In fact, before getting started on these recaps, I’d long assumed “Conspiracy” was the finale, so when I realized there was another episode left to watch before moving to the next set, I was curious. “Neutral Zone” brought up no memories from me, apart from what I knew about the Zone itself from TOS, but given that we’d been told the Federation hasn’t had contact with the Romulans in half a century, there were some possibilities here.

Then came that moment. If you’ve watched a show before, you’ll have certain episodes that don’t sit right with you, and when you go in for a re-watch, you can forget just what those episodes were… until That Moment. Here, it’s Data and Worf stumbling across a bunch of cryonic tubes. Most of the bodies inside are long rotted away to nearly nothing, but the android and the Klingon (coming this fall to NBC) find three viable human bodies–and I realized what was coming next, and I kind of wanted to give up the whole project.

This isn’t the worst episode of the season, but it may possibly be the most frustrating, because it has two storylines. One follows the Enterprise‘s investigation into the destruction of multiple Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. The suspicion is that the Romulans are involved, but there’s no confirmation of this, because, again, nobody has any idea what the Romulans are up to at this point. This leads to a lot of discussion, and it’s the kind of discussion I’m really coming to appreciate on TNG, the debates between officers on the best course of action which lack the heated name-calling aspect that so often undermined attempts at reasonableness in TOS. I enjoy watching smart people decide what to do next, and these scenes really work to the show’s advantage, because while not everybody gets a line, it does seem like everyone’s participating. Contrast that to similar scenes in TOS, where you get the feeling that Sulu is only in the room to fill a chair.

It’s not incredibly powerful, but it’s solid, and definitely enough to hang an episode on. Sadly, though, there’s another plot in “Zone,” and it has to do with those bodies Data and Worf discovered. Beverly brings them back to life, and what follows is a lot of extremely painful comic relief, as three citizens of the 21st century try and adjust to life in the 24th. There are… oh god, there comedy music cues. Because the jokes are so subtle, we have to highlight them. Augh.

I tend to have strong emotional reactions while I’m watching a show, and those reactions aren’t always the easiest thing to remember when it comes time to write these reviews. So, looking back, I can’t completely recapture just how vehemently opposed I was to Rich Guy, Housewife, and Texan (they get names, but they don’t deserve them), but I do know their segments kept threatening to throw the episode completely off the rails. Fish-out-of-water storylines are used and re-used in genre fiction, because they offer an easy way to deliver exposition. Obviously we don’t really need exposition at this point with the TNG-universe, or at least not the kind of shallow, first contact style exposition our three stooges get. The other reason to use fish-out-of-water is to throw the main characters into sharper contrast. We get a clearer sense of how Picard and the rest operate if we see them through someone else’s eyes.

Weirdly enough, that doesn’t happen here either. We do get reminded again of how neat all the technology is, and how nobody uses money anymore, and how pathetic and foolish everyone in the past must’ve been, but it’s all information we already know. Rich Guy is an irritant who keeps trying to order people around, which is about as funny as it sounds, and Texan is a former musician who takes a liking to Data and slaps Beverly on the ass, which is even less funny than it sounds. RG does get a little redemption when he tries to explain to Picard why he’s so frustrated–and hell, he even busts onto the bridge and does Deanna Troi’s job for her, odd as that sounds. The Housewife is, astonishingly, the weepy one of the group. Troi helps her track down some of her descendants, which makes logical sense, at least.

There’s no reason to tell this story that I can see, though. None of these characters rise much above their stereotype, and the series doesn’t have the dramatic weight to really do this kind of thing right. Hell, the first episode of Futurama managed a similar plot with more emotional depth. These are people we’ll never see again. They get the bare minimum of arc, and then they’re dumped off on another ship, and there’s no satisfying resolution or knowledge gained.

This is doubly painful because the other plot–you know, the whole thing about outposts and Romulans–is so much more interesting, to the point where every time we cut away to follow up on the latest antics from traumatic triumvirate, it’s actively painful. It’s terrific seeing Picard decide to take a more peaceful approach to a potentially deadly enemy, and how much that approach pays off. The actors playing the Romulans aren’t very good, but Picard’s conversation with them is pretty cool. And after all that build up, and the discovery that the Romulans weren’t responsible for the destroyed outposts–that, in fact, the Romulans have suffered their own mysterious losses–the episode ends with the question unanswered. Picard says something about “more work to be done,” and that’s the final note of the season. The main problem of the episode is unresolved, and while that could’ve worked dramatically (especially after something like “Conspiracy,” which implies there’s all sorts of nasty happenings we don’t know about or understand), it instead feels like we just ran out of time. Which makes all those precious minutes squandered on the human popsicles that much more infuriating.

 

The Worst:

Code of Honor, The Last Outpost, and When the Bough Breaks

Tarr

Briefly:

  • Code of Honor sees Lt. Yar abducted by the leader of planet Ligon II;
  • The Last Outpost was ridiculous, and silly. Big Ferengi faces don’t scare me; and,
  • When the Bough Breaks sees the Aldeans kidnap children of the Enterprise in order to re-populate their dying world.

According to the A.V. Club review of Code of Honor:

This is the kind of episode that bored me as a kid. I wanted to see weird aliens and science fiction craziness, not politics and negotiation and debate. Sure, there are otherworldly trappings, but mostly this is just about how people work off each other, and how Picard has to balance the needs of his crew against the needs of Starfleet, and the obligation of the Prime Directive. That would’ve bored me growing up, and, well, it doesn’t exactly fill me with glee now. But “Code” is better than “Naked Now,” because it establishes a central storyline and delivers that story without falling into too many tedious traps. It’s not good, and even “okay” is stretching, but at least you can see there’s potential here, in some of the banter, and in the way the crew functions as a unit.

Ligon II doesn’t play well with others. The people are proud, devoted to ritual, and quick to take offense at real or imagined insults. They’re also, unless I missed an extra, uniformly black, which is a really dumb casting choice. The “Arabian Nights via the Massabesic High School Drama Club’s costume closet” outfits are bad enough, I could’ve done without the racist vibe of a primitive civilization that treats women like chattel and likes kidnapping white ladies. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Enterprise has to negotiate with them for a supply of a vaccine desperately needed by, well, you know the drill. The vaccine is the MacGuffin to get some Ligons on board the ship, to give them a chance to kidnap Tasha Yar, and then to prevent Picard from simply beaming Yar back aboard and leaving. (He could also have left her behind. I’m just putting that out there.) It’s not the most immediate of dangers, but it’s ironclad enough.

Lutan, the head guy on Ligon II (or at least the part of Ligon II we see; TNG shares TOS‘s willingness to pretend “the whole planet” translates to “the couple sets we could afford to dress”), takes a fancy to Yar’s over-aggressive behavior and kidnaps her. Yeah, that happens. And as much as I’m not happy to have Yar as the focus of a storyline, at least it gets her out of the way for a few scenes. Picard’s discussions with Riker and the others about the best way to proceed in a clearly touchy situation are non-ridiculous and give us a good sense of how the captain approaches the job: his word is final, but he’s open to discussion. Plus, there’s Riker’s continued refusal to let Picard put himself in harm’s way by joining an away team. Here, Riker is overruled because of politics, but it’s a dramatically interesting change of pace to have such a clear delegation of responsibility. A good way to help establish characters early on in a show’s run is to give them definable roles, so having Riker be Picard’s bodyguard, so to speak, sets up a dynamic that has a lot of room to grow.

Once Picard beams down to Ligon, there’s a lot of trickery around Lutan wanting to take Tasha for his “first,” despite already having a perfectly good wife not ten feet away. The wife takes exception to this, challenges Tasha to a duel, and Picard has her accept. Again, that’s some interesting politicking, because I can’t imagine Kirk being so willing to risk a crew member’s life. If it was a TOS episode, at the very least Kirk would’ve stepped in as Yar’s “champion” or something. Picard and the others try and minimize Tasha’s danger as much as possible (Picard has Data and Geordi beam down to check out the local weapon supply), but there’s poison and pointy objects and this weird gym battleground that looks like it was taken off the Gymkata set, so there are no guarantees. Picard has a different set of priorities than Kirk, and a different approach to his duty. He doesn’t need to throw himself into the battle to get the job done.

“Honor” is still not great: the Ligons are one note, and while the plot resolves itself satisfactorily (as opposed to “Now”‘s “Oh, I guess we should stop now?”), with Lutan humiliated for his presumption and his wife scoring with some random dude, there’s not a lot of emotional investment. Tasha’s role in all this isn’t as significant as you might expect, but she still manages to grate, as Troi stresses that Yar is “attracted” to Lutan because he’s strong and masculine and, I dunno, he has a shiny vest. This is a piece of character development that’s tricky to pull off, because it goes against common sense, and making a supposedly powerful woman weak-kneed for a powerful man because he forced himself on her is hard to do without making the woman look unstable. That’s what happens here, because Denise Crosby can’t pull off the nearly impossible task of making sense out of the contradictory elements of her character. Yar has issues, but how do any of those issues connect? She talks about rape gangs in “Naked Now” (always a smart line to set up a sex scene), and clearly she’s fought her way up the ranks to hold her current position. But you get no sense of steel from her, no personality beyond a whiny, petulant child who can also do arm flips. I appreciate having a stronger female presence on TNG, and Tasha is the only woman we have whose job isn’t dependent on standard gender roles (everybody knows lady doctors, and Troi senses feeeeeelings, which is of course quite girly). She should’ve been amazing. Instead, the writers have to keep hamstringing her with insecurities which make no sense. (Far as I can tell, Beverly and Deanna don’t spend much time complaining like a ten year old who can’t go to a Justin Bieber concert.)(Wow, even typing that made me feel old.)

At least, we’re getting a sense of this new crew as a team, as opposed to the disparate, hazy interactions of “Now.” I’m not sure I’d believe a great show could come out of TNG after watching “Code,” but I could at least say it had promise without sounding like a complete tool.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Last Outpost:

This combines a couple things we saw on the original series (and I promise I’ll stop bringing that up, eventually), the mysterious other alien race, and the mysterious technological doohickey left behind by a long extinct, incredibly powerful civilization. It has some strong elements, as the mystery surrounding the Enterprise‘s apparent capture and build-to-reveal on the Ferengis make for good hooks. But the final wrap-up is disappointing, relying on easy moralizing and, to quote Bill Hicks, “back-slapping, ‘Ain’t humanity great’ bullshit.” The episode has a semi-god-like being, and it resorts to the sort of expediency that makes those creatures such lazy devices. Plus, the Ferengi suck. Seriously, I know they’ll get more interesting eventually (I remember liking Quark on Deep Space Nine quite a bit), but here, they’re really, really terrible.

Before we find that out for certain, though, we know they’re thieves, because they’ve stolen an energy converter. The Enterprise is in hot pursuit, but they’re on shaky ground because they don’t have immediate proof of the theft (at least, I assume that’s why Picard is so leery of being overly aggressive), and because no one in the Federation has ever seen a Ferengi. This is similar to Kirk’s initial dealings with the Romulans in “Balance of Terror,” but I find it harder to believe the same trick the second time around. Everything we’ve seen of the new Enterprise is sleeker, more comfortable, more professional. The first ship looked like it was only some duct tape and solder away from falling apart. The new one is a mall with a warp drive. Because of this, I assume that the rest of Starfleet is equally advanced, and that dealings with alien races are more frequent. I assume there is an whole huge network out there of treaties and arrangements and councils, holding together the populace of galaxy in a thin web of civilization. There is no direct reason for me to assume this, sure, but the show’s whole approach to space travel is enough to suggest this is less exploration than refinement, filling in the holes in maps. But even if you can’t accept that, it does seem a little ridiculous that nobody’s seen the Ferengi, not even to take a picture.

Of course, the Federation doesn’t use money anymore, and the Ferengi are money grubbing bastards, so maybe that’s why they’ve stayed in the shadows? In “Balance,” the Romulans were mysterious because the last encounter between them and humans had resulted in a devastating war. Here, you could argue that the mystery race doesn’t have anything to gain from contact, and they could be worried the Federation would try and regulate their greedy double-dealing. Whether or not that’s the case though, it’s hard to defend them in their first appearance. There are the expected jokes about physical appearance (on seeing Picard, a Ferengi says that humans are just as ugly as he’d heard, which is funny ’cause the Ferengi is the ugly one, eh? Eh?), but what’s worse is that the creatures are cowardly and shameful. TOS nearly always gave its alien races some dignity, even if those races were defined largely by a single character trait. Here, though, the Ferengi are despicable, because they are capitalists, and capitalists are innate liars and thieves.

It’s possible this is done satirically, but I’m noticing an undercurrent of “Humans RULE” to the series that I hadn’t expected. The Ferengi are pathetic, and Picard has to constantly remind Worf to restrain his Klingon instincts, because mankind is clearly all about forethought and considered action. Both alien races we’ve met so far went out of their way to comment on how unusual it was to see Tasha Yar, a woman, in a position of authority. Then there’s Data. If he is a Spock substitute, as mentioned above, how telling is it that, unlike Spock, Data’s big goal in life is nothing more than becoming a person? Picard’s defense of humanity in “Encounter at Farpoint” sounded reasonable, but perhaps it had a tinge of arrogance in retrospect.

After the Enterprise traps the Ferengi ship, it gets caught by some kind of tractor beam or energy, which Picard and his crew assume to be Ferengi-created. Again, we have the discussions about how best to proceed, and Picard’s bluff once he contacts the Ferengi and realizes their mistake is smart and momentarily effective. I’m a grown-up now (relatively), and unlike my childhood self, I enjoy the tact and diplomacy that arises between two parties vying for the upper hand in an uncertain situation. I like the uncertainty of it. “Outpost” would’ve been a better episode if the Ferengi hadn’t been so badly caricatured, and if it had stayed more with that tense feeling of walking through a minefield.

But no, this is the first season, so we’ve gotta have a dead civilization that leaves it’s crazy old people on planets with toys of mind-boggling power. Riker beams down to the planet below the ships with an away team, as do the Ferengi, and if you thought the Ferengi were bad on the view screen, that’s nothing to see them backstabbing here. There’s a fight scene (the Ferengi have energy whips!), and then Portal, the guy running the device that’s causing all the problems shows up. You think the name was something he was born with? Like his parents were really expecting a door, or a computer game. Anyway, he’s demands Riker answers three questions, and asks about the wind-speed velocity of a sparrow, and Riker says, “African or European?” and Portal doesn’t know and gets thrown off the bridge.

Sigh. No, instead it’s a test about knowing when to fight, when to hold them, when to walk away, when to run–dammit! Portal quotes The Art of War, which conveniently enough, Riker and Picard were discussing earlier. So again we have a reminder that humanity is awesome and so forth. While the Ferengi cavort and whine and lie (if you’ve seen the Mexican Santa Claus, these guys look like a gang of lizard-flavor Pitches), Riker and Portal pat each other on the back for their maturity, and go off to fight crime or do whatever it is moral superior beings do. I’ve got how long left of the first season? Hoo boy. I really hope it gets better from here.

According to the A.V. Club review of When the Bough Breaks:

This episode features children. And Wesley. And Wesley spending time with children. And you know what? I liked it. I know. I’m scared too.

Part of my affection may have something to do with the way “When The Bough Breaks” starts with what I’ve decided is a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reference. In Guide, Zaphod Beeblebrox steals the Heart Of Gold in order to find Magrathea, the most improbable planet in the galaxy, whose inhabitants were technologically advanced enough to actually build other planets. The resemblance to Aldea, the mythical planet that the Enterprise discovers at the start of “Bough,” isn’t close enough for me to be certain that it’s a nod to Douglas Adam’s novel, but it’s close enough that I can enjoy my suspicions, at any rate. Legend has it that the Aldeans were technologically advanced, and that they hid themselves away from the universe. And just like in Guide, it’s not a very nice place to visit.

We’re used to super-advanced races on Trek, because evolution and development doesn’t move at a single galactic rate. Also, really advanced people can do basically whatever the writers want them to do, which opens up the story possibilities significantly. Here, the Aldeans, led by hottie Rashella and hottie-for-very-particular-tastes Radue (Played by Jerry Hardin, who was Deep Throat on The X-Files. Kind of regretting the last joke right now, because I’m worried I’ll have some truly horrid dreams later tonight.) contact the Enterprise, act very welcoming, and even beam themselves onto the bridge of the ship with a gift basket. Their planet is cloaked, they’re shielded so that it’s seemingly impossible for anyone to beam down without their consent, and they seem very friendly. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, there’s the probe that zaps Wesley and all the other children aboard the ship, for starters. This is just a prelude to the real assault: kidnapping seven kids (including Wes) down to Aldea. The Aldeans, for reasons they don’t understand, are unable to bear children, and they want some fresh faces to keep the race going. Whether from arrogance, a misunderstanding of cultural values, or the desperation of their need, Radue and the others think they can bargain their crime away by offering payment in exchange for the swiped kiddies. Obviously that’s not going to fly, since, as Troi explains to them and the audience, humans are “unusually” attached to their offspring. (I don’t buy this at all, by the way.) Picard is pissed, Dr. Crusher is freaking out, and nobody’s going to tell either of them that a civilization of super-geniuses knows better than they do.

Actually, that’s overstating. The Aldeans seem decent enough, apart from the kidnapping, but they don’t have any idea how all their uber-sweet tech works. The whole thing is run by a computer system they call “The Custodian,” and they prefer to press a few buttons and let the programming take care of the rest. In fact, they get downright annoyed when Wesley tries to ask questions, and as much as I sympathize with anyone who gets irked by the Prince of Dorkness, once again I find myself on Wesley’s side. Blind acceptance is almost never a healthy choice in science fiction, especially when computers are involved, and it’s not surprising that the Aldeans inability to procreate stems from their ignorance. The power source for their planet’s shield has given them radiation poisoning–poisoning that, ironically, would’ve rendered Wesley and the other children just as sterile as the natives, given enough time.

While the presence of children on the Enterprise has been mentioned before, this is the first time we’ve had extensive contact with them beyond Wes, and it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. They’re cute and precocious, but they aren’t sassy, thankfully, and they aren’t required to act too far above their ages. Given the short amount of time that passes, their separation anxiety isn’t all that powerful, but it’s easy to dislike the Aldeans for their presumption, and as much as this episode gives us proof of the stupidity of bringing children on a ship like the Enterprise, the end result is yet another reminder of this ship as a unit of people, and not just a backdrop where the main characters can kill time between adventures.

Wesley’s attempt at rebellion through passive resistance is an effective choice, considering the team he has to work with. Of course, there’s never any real worry the children will be left behind, and since the Aldeans are peaceful enough that there’s no risk of physical harm coming to anyone, the conflict lacks a certain edge. Plus, the fact that there’s a solution to the problem that makes everyone happy is something of a cop-out. Once the source of the radiation is discovered–the energy battery that powers the planetary cloaking device–Crusher is able to heal the whole population. That’s too happy, honestly. It’s okay if there’s a little blood left over by the end credits, because if conclusions are always perfectly neat, their essential artificiality becomes even more difficult to ignore.

 

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