Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 1)

The Thinker by Rodin

How strange to watch this series again nearly thirty years later. I watched episodes of the original Star Trek series many times, not because they were that good, but because repeats were so easily available. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a much better show but I never took the time to go back and watch the episodes again, except sometimes when they were first broadcast, or in hotel rooms when I caught an occasional repeat.

STTNG (for short) lasted seven series where the original series lasted only three. STTNG’s first season was notably bad, while the original series (STTOS?) was best in its first season. STTNG though managed to shake off its first season and won eighteen Emmy awards, not to mention two Hugo awards, five Saturn awards and a Peabody award.

My Netflix streaming account gives me the opportunity to see STTNG again easily and in high fidelity that was simply unavailable when it was broadcast (1987-1994). Thirty years later it still looks quite slick; in fact it’s hard to believe nearly three decades have passed. Unlike STTOS, which had to contend with pennywise network overlords, STTNG (since it was independently distributed) had the money to build expensive sets and do gorgeous special effects. Still, watching the first season of STTNG again, many episodes are cringe-worthy. The whole first season was very much a shakedown cruise for this fancier version of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I also watched on Netflix an interesting documentary that discussed the behind-the-scenes power plays going on, not really among the actors, but among the producers, curiously produced and narrated by William Shatner. The major problem was that the series original creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t delegate and became myopic on the series. After two years Rick Berman effectively took over, Roddenberry’s health deteriorated, he became a figurative role (he died in 1992), and the series started to improve a lot.

Under the circumstances the actors did pretty well considering that behind the scenes writers and directors were being hired and fired right and left. Still, many of the episodes are so poorly written that even fabulous actors like Patrick Stewart could not make the manure of their script into a rose. The third show, “The Naked Now”, stinks to high heaven, even worse that the episode 4, “The Naked Time” from STTOS which it references. It’s amazing the series survived after this episode, but perhaps not so much given that the subscribing stations were locked in for the season and Trekkies were so desperate for new material they could overlook these stink bomb episodes.

Anyhow, some random observations and thoughts:

  • Boy, the Enterprise is awfully white-bred. This part looks really off. Oh, they do have their token black (Geordi – LeVar Burton) and of course Michael Dorn who played the Klingon Worf is black. But the crew is mostly lily white; you would think in the 24th century we’d all be pretty interbred. A lot more people of color were needed.
  • Thirty years gave me a chance to appreciate Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher). She did not resonate with me at all in my twenties. It’s not that she suddenly looks hot thirty years later but I discovered that she is actually quite a talented actress.
  • The whole boy wonder Wesley Crusher thing really annoyed me thirty years ago. Wesley (Wil Wheaton) seemed pretty contrived: a crass attempt to bring in the youth market to make the show more successful. It’s still annoying seeing this in Season 1 again, and it is still feels contrived and artificial. However a second viewing showed me that Wil Wheaton actually does a good job with the role, although his part often seems saccharine. For a teen actor in a half-baked part, he did a great job.
  • In the “whose the better captain” argument, obviously I vote for Patrick Stewart. He gave Captain Picard real gravitas. But Picard is cerebral where Kirk is instinctive, so being introverted of course I’m going to appreciate that more. But there is also the obvious fact that Stewart can act and that Shatner could not, at least not without a very good director. To me there is no comparison and it mystifies me why others would disagree.
  • Technology: they got most of it right, to their credit. A few things seem off thirty years later. In one episode Picard orders people use “printouts” for security purposes. So I guess they still have HP Laserjet printers in the 24th century. The Internet was not a thing in 1989 so the idea of a World-Wide-Web was something not yet envisioned, but it can be forgiven because starships are separated by space and time, so it was implausible anyhow.
  • Data (Brent Spiner) remains an interesting character. Thirty years later though you wonder what he’s got that the ship’s computer doesn’t, other than artificial arms and legs. Data’s quest to understand and emulate humans seems kind of silly and kind of like tilting at windmills. Overall though Spiner does an excellent job with the part and makes androids look admirable.
  • The United Federation of Planets often seems a saccharine place. Rick Berman changed that when he got control of the series, adding necessary drama that was often missing or seemed forced in the first season. It’s unclear how the UFP got to be so cohesive. Some species in the federation fight with other species. Klingons insist on their own starships and seem loosely aligned at best.
  • It still makes no sense to bring children along for the ride. Yes, the saucer section is supposed to separate in time of crisis, and they actually show it twice in the first season. I don’t recall it afterward. I mean, pretty much every episode the Enterprise is put in mortal danger. Picard does his best to keep his people safe but geez, what were they thinking?
  • Gene Roddenberry did think up the holodeck, something the late creator can take credit for. It’s a really interesting idea and presaged our current virtual worlds. Indeed, it might have been the impetus for emerging technologies like Oculus Rift.
  • One thing I like, even though it is unrealistic, is how much work and decisions are delegated to human beings. Everyone has a duty and a task that a computer can’t quite master by itself. The computer aids the crew, rather than supplants it. Humans are in charge and an integral part of the future, perhaps by design. Today that looks a bit off but it is at least consistent with the Trek philosophy that a hopeful future for humanity is possible.

If you want to scan the first season, here are some episodes to watch and avoid:

  • Watch: 5 (first Ferengi encounter), 9, 10 (Q is interesting to watch, but insufferable in the series opener), 13 (meet Data’s brother), 22, 23 (goodbye Tasha Yar), and 25 (I love a good conspiracy, even if this feels a bit contrived).
  • Avoid: 1/2 (series opener), 3, 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 (too much like “And the Children Shall Lead” from STTOS).

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