Thursday, July 7, 2011

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Season One (1987)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner
Created by Gene Roddenberry

Star Trek The Next Generation - The Complete First SeasonOver a decade after the final cancellation of 'Star Trek,' the crew of the USS Enterprise found new life on the big screen.  After several successful feature film adventures, Paramount felt the time was finally right for 'Star Trek' to return to television.  But with William Shatner and his aging original crew firmly entrenched in the world of feature films, a new ship and crew would be featured in the TV show.

In 1987, 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' premiered in syndication.  And it was huge.

The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D cruises the galaxy a century after the events of the previous 'Star Trek' TV series and movies.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) commands the crew, including first officer Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), android Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), security chief Lieutenant Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Beverly's young genius son Wesley (Wil Wheaton), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), blind helmsman Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton), and Klingon security officer Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn).  

In the premiere episode, the Enterprise is ordered to investigate strange goings-on at the brand-new outpost, Farpoint Station.  En route, the ship encounters a powerful being called Q (John de Lancie) who puts the crew on trial, calling humans a "savage child-race."  Picard challenges Q to allow them to go on their mission as a test to prove that humanity is no longer prone to violence or selfishness.

Over the course of the season, the starship Enterprise will encounter strange new worlds, time distortions, bizarre creatures, old enemies, and new ones. 

While the first season of the original 'Star Trek' knocked it out of the park, the first season of 'The Next Generation' is shaky, at best.  Many of the episodes have good ideas behind them, but the execution of those ideas falls apart with pacing issues, bad dialogue or poor direction.

The Wesley Crusher character has rightly garnered the hatred of many fans.  I'd have been fine with the character, and with Wil Wheaton's performance, if Wesley hadn't been so awkwardly shoe-horned into main character status on the show.  I'd even have been fine with Wesley's ambition to become a Starfleet officer if it had been handled in a different manner.  But instead, Wesley is early and often granted far too much freedom aboard the Enterprise; in the second episode, he actually commandeers command of the ship and nearly gets it destroyed! Soon after, Wesley is granted a field promotion that allows him to actually serve on the ship's bridge!  The writers find pretty much every opportunity they can to make sure that Wesley is never portrayed in an interesting or realistic manner.

Deanna Troi, likewise, is portrayed by the talented and lovely Marina Sirtis, but whether it's by direction or by her own performance, that character is a failure as well.  When given something meaty to grab hold of, Sirtis is able to make Deanna a likeable addition to the cast, such as in the episode "Haven," when Deanna discovers that her overbearing mother Lwaxana (Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) is forcing her into an arranged marriage.  But for the most part, it seems like the show doesn't know what to do with Deanna, giving her an ill-defined role amongst the crew and with her own psychic powers.  Sirtis seems to be trying very hard to sound exotic and alien, ditching her natural British accent and forcing something else, and it just doesn't work.

Beyond these, many of the episodes in this first season suffer from all kinds of problems.  "Code of Honor," for example, feels awkwardly racist, with a bizarre portrayal of an alien world as some kind of alien African tribal planet.  The leader of the planet kidnaps Lt. Yar, essentially, because he thinks it'd be awesome to have a white wife and wants Yar to kill his black wife.  Or something.  The episode barely makes any sense.  Another episode, "Justice" has Wesley being sentenced to death... for tripping and falling into a flower bed.  While the episode has some good things to say about the Prime Directive and even some good acting between Stewart and Spiner, the whole episode is flawed in that Wesley hasn't actually committed a crime and no one is willing to come out and say that.

Other episodes suffer from serious pacing issues, such as "Heart of Glory," which spends a full fifteen minutes, or one third of the episode's run time, with Riker, Data and Geordi boarding a freighter on a rescue mission.  The crew is aware that the freighter is deteriorating, but they stand around talking about Geordi's VISOR, the device which allows him to see by transmitting sensor information directly into his brain.

"The Arsenal of Freedom" ignores its own rules; at the episode's climax, the weapon system attacking the Enterprise has been shut down - the drone on the planet disappears, but the one in orbit continues to attack the ship for no reason other than the show obviously wants to throw special effects up on the screen.  "Lonely Among Us" concocts a completely ludicrous ending that essentially involves using the transporter to clone a new Picard, granting almost magical powers to the device that makes the marginally interesting previous events groan-worthy. 

One could go on and on about the number of problems in each and every episode.  There's something really quite wrong with nearly every episode in the entire season.  Scenes are overly repetitive, the acting is shaky, and a lot of the dialogue can be plain awful.  Sometimes the dialogue flat-out doesn't even make sense, such as a scene where Picard orders Geordi to increase speed to warp six, and Geordi replies, "Aye, sir; full impulse."

And yet, despite all this, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" has something special.  The cast may struggle with their dialogue, but they all have great chemistry with each other.  Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are the standouts who anchor the entire thing.  Stewart brings great class and gravity to his role, and Spiner plays the curious, almost child-like Data perfectly.  Spiner also gets many of the season's best and biggest laughs, as he has perfect comic timing.

There are several standout episodes scattered throughout the season.  "Where No One Has Gone Before" introduces the mysterious Traveler (Eric Menyuk) to the cast and sends the ship on a wild adventure into another galaxy.  "The Big Goodbye" allows the crew to have fun on the holodeck by participating in a pulp detective novel, and really gets to show off the cast's comedic abilities.  "11001001" is a great episode with Picard and Riker trapped aboard the ship after it's been hijacked by aliens known as the Bynars, and also features a fantastic musical score by composer Ron Jones.  "Conspiracy" works because it's completely overwrought, with huge action sequences and a totally over-the-top ending.  It goes so totally for broke that you can't help but be sucked in by it, regardless of how ridiculous it is. In fact, that episode would have made a better season finale than the season's actual ender, "The Neutral Zone," which wastes most of its time on an uninteresting subplot involving cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century.  "The Battle" features Picard going head to head with his guilt over a past battle, and one of the few times that the Ferengi will be seen as worthwhile dramatic characters instead of comedic ones. 

Overall, the first season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is pretty bad.  There are good ideas all over the place, but many of the episodes are poorly executed.  There's just enough good to make each episode watchable, even at times morbidly fascinating in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.  There are a couple of legitimately good episodes in the mix that all show the promise of better, future episodes for the series.