June 14, 2013

Encounter at Farpoint Part I

Origional airdate: Week of September 28, 1987
Directed by: Corey Alen
Written by: D.C. Fonatna and Gene Roddenberry 

Welcome aboard the brand new Galaxy-class USS Enterprise-D

As much as the TARDIS of Doctor Who fame, ships in Trek are characters in their own right. Kirk’s Enterprise was a radical departure from the usual spaceship designs seen in 1960s science fiction, but compared to it’s Galaxy-class namesake, she looked like a splay-legged cart horse. That’s not an insult--OK, it’s a little insulting, I’m sure Scotty would beat my ass if he herd me saying that, but I have nothing but love for the classic Enterprise.  Kirk and company were on the frontier--cowboys forging into the unknown--and their ship’s simple, no nonsense, utilitarian design reflected that fact.  Enterprise-D, is an entirely different animal: Refined, elegant, and huge--42 decks tall and measuring around 643 meters long with eight times the volume of her Constitution-class predecessor, Enterprise-D is a skyscraper in space.   

The episode begins with a beautiful establishing shot of our newest Enterprise, where we’re first introduced to Jean-Luc Picard, who dictates his first captain’s log of the series as he tours his ship.   This is also when we’re introduced to Picard pensively staring out a window--get used to it, because that’ll be happening a lot over the series.  

For now, it’s an excellent and loving introduction to what will be the characters’ home for the next eight years (I plan to discuss the Enterprise and the importance of starships to Trek lore in a little more detail in a supplemental entry later next week).   The problem with Picard’s log entry is that it foreshadows a problem this episode: they don’t have nearly enough show to fill the episode’s running time. The episode tries to cover this up with what is frankly blatant padding, but it only contributes to the uneven pacing of the episode.  

We also meet Lt. Commander Data, who will develop into one of the most interesting characters in all of Trek, with a character arc that arguably rivals Mr. Spock for most beloved in franchise.  Now, however, the episode uses him as a target for a chunky stream of explosive exposition.  I do not posses the rhetorical skills necessary to illustrate the true awkwardness of this plot dump, so I’ll just let it speak for itself--and keep in mind that this is the first exchange of dialogue in the entire series:

Picard: You will agree, Data, that Starfleet’s orders are difficult.

Data Difficult?  Simply solve the mystery of Farpoint Station.

Picard: Hmm, as simple as that.  

Troy: Farpoint Station.  Even the name sounds mysterious.

Picard: It’s hardly simple, Data, to negotiate an agreement for Starfleet to use the base while at the same time snoop around.

Data: Inquiry: The word, ‘Snoop?’

Picard: Data, how can you be programed as a virtual encyclopedia of human information without knowing a simple word like snoop?

This is also where we’re introduced to Data’s theme for most of the first season: Data is an irritating, android attaboy.  Picard gives a brief explanation of the word ‘snoop,’ and Data, just to prove just how smart he is--presumably to the audience, but possibly also to Picard--ejaculates nine synonyms back at him.  Data’s stupid robot tricks will be toned down after the first season or two, but until that happens, you’ll be forgiven for hoping the show’s going to feature some sort of 24th Century version of BattleBots...which actually, sounds like it would be awesome!

Picard noted that Enterprise is understaffed in several key positions, which brings up  a question that’s been bugging me: Why the hell does Starfleet insist on launching ships before they’re ready?  Seriously, let’s go down the list:

  • Star Trek the Motion Picture’s refit Enterprise was launched in such an unready state, it somehow gave space-time a colonoscopy.  It’s tempting to give this one a pass.  There was a crisis, and Enterprise was the best choice to stop that big. . .cloud. . .with a yeast infection. . .and there was a hot, bald robot that. . .what the hell was that movie about?  
  • We had The Final Frontier, where the movie shows us other ships in space dock, but Starfleet sends an Enterprise to handle a dangerous hostage situation on the edge of both Klingon and Romulan space, despite the fact that the ship was so FUBAR, the decks aren’t even in the right order.  
  • In Generations, the Enterprise-B was sent on a test run without a medical staff.  Or photon torpedos.  Or a tractor beam.  Also, the toilets weren’t actually hooked up to anything yet; when flushed, their contents just splattered on the next deck below.  
  • The Defiant was assigned to Sisko, even though her engines had an unfortunate tendency to tear the ship in half...though this may have just been to torture Chief O'Brien, which is Starfleet's standard operating procedure. 
  • NX-01 was launched weeks before it was ready so it’s captain could prove his dick was bigger than a Vulcan’s.  I’m willing to give this one a pass, as well; a good hunk of the first season was spent showing why launching early was a really, really bad idea that almost got everyone killed a couple of times.  Also, laughably, disastrously bad decisions was the unintentional motif of the first three seasons of Enterprise.  

Q Rocking USMC Service 'A's
Q shows up and completely steals the show with his cheesy but somehow terrifying hamminess.  Q was a last-minute change to the story, added as an extra storyline to satisfy Paramount’s request that Encounter at Farpoint be a double-length episode.  It is, at least to me, fairly obvious that Q was added as an afterthought.  The crew members who were waiting to be picked up at Farpoint Station had already suspected that there was something bizarre going on, and had taken it upon themselves to investigate.  In all likelihood, they would have been able solve the ‘mystery of Farpoint Station’ without Q’s interference, so there’s no real reason that he needs to be in this episode.

This doesn't matter, though, because in an episode brimming with terrible performances from the regulars, John di Lancie’s plays Q as an irreverent trickster who just happens to be crap-your-pants intimidating when he needs to be.  He shows up on the bridge dressed first as a 16th century explorer speaking antiquated English, then as a US Marine spouting mockingly paranoid nonsense about beating the ‘commies’--incidentally, Picard shows that he has yet to develop a sense of irony when he calls to the US Marine service dress uniform a costume while wearing red spandex pajamas--and finally as a soldier from what Picard describes as Earth’s post atomic horror.  Even through the silliness of this sequence, you can sense a cold, deadly edge hidden just under the surface of Q’s personality.  His appearance added a sense of menace that would have mad the episode a fairly sub-par alien-of-the-week mystery without. 

Future Soldiers Get To Wear Sequins 
Let me also say that I like this future solder’s costume.  It seems believable that the march toward stronger, lighter military body armor would eventually lead to something that might resemble the sort of battle dress padding that Q’s wearing.  

Picard tries to outwit Q with a saucer separation, a procedure which was originally intended to be a regular feature on TNG, allowing the civilians and families to stay behind as when the rest of the ship went charging into danger.  His plan is to run from Q at maximum warp, and distract him with a spread of photon torpedos; giving the saucer and the nonessential personnel therein the opportunity to flee while Picard faces Q in the ship’s battle section.  Saucer separation has been hinted at in Star Trek since TOS.  In The Apple, Kirk gave Scotty a semi-cryptic order to dump the nacelles--probably meaning both the secondary hull and the actual warp nacelles--but non-canon sources once the ship was separated, it the two hulls couldn’t be rejoined.  

Worf takes the opportunity to tell the audience something we already figured out ten minutes ago: that he’s a Klingon.  This is handled through a clunky burst of exposition, that really should have been better spent pointing out the frankly amazing fact that a Starfleet captain is giving command of a Federation starship to a Klingon.  Remember, as far as the audience knew, the Empire and the Federation were still entangled in cold war.  Worf taking command should have been given more weight to illustrate just how different this show was going to be.  It was an opportunity to underline that the universe had changed drastically in between the TOS era and TNG.  Instead, the scene just serves to remind us what Klingons look like.  

I Think Gene Roddenberry Might Have
Had a Strange Fascination with Dwarves
The courtroom scene that follows is another delightful demonstration of Q being terrifying.   At one point, after promising that he would be a fair judge of humanity, he orders more future-solders to kill Picard, Data, and Yar should Picard not plead guilty to humanity’s crimes.  The scene is a masterwork of suspense, leading into an act break, which legitimately leaves you on edge through the commercials.  

Picard enters a provisional guilty plea, and we’ll see this dynamic between the two through many of their future meetings.  Picard will, again and again throughout the series be forced to humble himself before Q, and admit that without Q’s help, he won’t survive.  There might be an answer to the open question about Q’s motives in the two’s behavior, which I’ll touch on in a future discussion, but for now, it simply sets up the dilemma of Farpoint Station.  

That done, we close out the episode with a touching send-off by TOS’s DeForest Kelley as the 137 year old Admiral Bones McCoy, who’s conversation with Data as they slowly amble down a corridor is among to most heartwarming in Star Trek history:

Bones: Well, this is a new ship, but she’s got the right name.  Now, you remember that, you hear?  You treat her like a lady and she’ll always bring you home.

The Good:
  • There are two black guys on the bridge, and neither of them were killed.
  • Chief O’Brien.  Fuckin’ Chief Miles Edward O’Brien. 
  • The introduction of Q. 
  • This discussion:
McCoy: I don’t see any points on your ears, boy, but you sound like a Vulcan. 
Data: No, sir, I am an android.
McCoy: Huh.  Almost as bad.
    • It’s great to known that even into the 24th century, Dr. McCoy will still be a racist old drunk!  
The Bad: 
  • The Bandi.  The entire species looks like depressed Raggedy Andy dolls sewn together by forced child labor in a country where the Communist government feels that  color is too decadent.  
  • The acting.  The show had the basic characterization down, but that’s about it.  Even the better actors among the group didn’t have much to work with; everyone else...frankly it would take until midseason two before most everyone else became comfortable in their roles.  Eventually, TNG will have one of the better ensemble cast on television when they grow into their roles.  
  • Natasha Yar.  She somehow managed to out-useless Councilor Troy for most the episode.  

The Verdict:
  • Must see.  This episodes sets up the entire series, and despite its flaws, it is too important. 

©2013 AHoden or The Special Needs Group. Screen captures and TNG publicity photos property of their owners.

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