Monday, November 22, 2010

Philosopher Kings In Space: Realization of Roddenberry's Ideals With Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1

The Good: Interesting Stories, Good Initial Characterizations, Some surprises
The Bad: Often plodding and pedantic, Slower than most series', Photography
The Basics: Almost impossible to recommend to anyone not already a fan, the first season is an establishing foundation where the characters are introduced as philosophers on a grand quest.

It's a difficult thing to go back and watch any series from the beginning, especially after being a fan of it for over twenty years. Even more difficult is for new fans or viewers to get into the early episodes of a series after the establishment of a movie franchise. Star Trek The Next Generation is a perfect example of such a series and now that it has been released on DVD, it's a wonderful opportunity to discuss the seasons as well as the individual episodes (which I shall likely review in the next weeks!).

The first season of Star Trek The Next Generation ought to be subtitled "Philosopher Kings In Space." For this is what we truly have, a group of philosophers flying around the galaxy discussing ethics, existence, and judgments.

It's amazing that Star Trek The Next Generation survived its first season.

In this first of the modern incarnations (a bit misleading, but the accepted term for the post-60's Star Trek series') of Star Trek, the viewer is treated to pure Gene Roddenberry philosophizing. The series opens with the dreadfully slow "Encounter at Farpoint" wherein the principle characters are introduced and humanity is put on trial for being a barbaric race. While it seems an initially interesting premise, it quickly reveals itself as an opportunity to differentiate the humans of Star Trek The Next Generation from where we currently stand sociologically. It also begs the question, why doesn't an omnipotent being have anything better to do than sit in judgment of lesser races?

Following a pilot that is disturbingly melodramatic, Star Trek The Next Generation journeys around space as an excuse to make moral judgments and social commentary. "Code of Honor" asks the age old question "Is it ethical to sacrifice one life for the lives of many?" "The Last Outpost" reveals the insinuated enemy the Ferengi while providing a forum to once again show human evolution in this mythical future. "Justice" is a death penalty - or child prosecution - debate, "The Battle" illustrates regret and loss, "Haven" takes on the somewhat antiquated debate over arranged marriage as well as the ethics of assisting those suffering from a plague, "The Big Goodbye" and "Where No One Has Gone Before" explore the nature of reality.

The first season is mired in philosophy.

And that's fine, especially if you enjoy that sort of thing. If, however, your experience with Star Trek The Next Generation is the film Star Trek First Contact, then this is not the DVD pack for you. The first season is low on action. That's fine, unless that's what you watch Star Trek The Next Generation for. In this collection, there are no elaborate space battles, the ship's phasers and photon torpedoes are never used offensively (indeed, the photon torpedoes fired in the first episode are used simply to blind the opponent), the only things destroyed by them are robots. And hand phasers? There are six episodes where they are discharged and they are used by a sadistic android, against a Klingon who is threatening to destroy the ship, robot drones, feuding drug addicts, a sadistic creature after it has killed a crewmember and against people infected with a mind-controlling parasite. In short, only in defense, only as a last resort. If action is your thing, this set is not for you.

In fact, there are several strikes against this set. Most notably is the photography. Not the special effects, but the actual photography. There are several moments - and they extend beyond the pilot episode - where the camera work is less than extraordinary and the image on the screen is sheathed in a halo of darkness.

Story-wise, the episodes are a surprisingly cohesive collection of tales of people attempting to learn and explore. In the most traditional sense, this is a collection of tales from philosophers exploring the barren frontier. That is, when Star Trek The Next Generation is finding its own niche. The first season is plagued by episodes that are obvious retreads of Star Trek episodes. "The Naked Now" in this set is such an obvious knock-off of Star Trek's "The Naked Time" that it alludes to the first season Trek episode. The season finale (the weakest Trek finale until Voyager's first season ender) "The Neutral Zone" is a combination of Star Trek's "Space Seed" and "Balance of Terror."

The real problem with such a body of work is not inherent to the work, but in its future. Rewatching the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation, there is a sense of "been there, done that." That is to say there are remarkably few surprises because the element of danger is entirely removed from the series. If you've seen a Star Trek The Next Generation film, you know who is still around and who is not. It's an unfortunate consequence of a television show as a franchise. Returning to the beginning yields few surprises (Deep Space Nine, ironically, is an exception. As a serialized show one might expect it to be weaker to return to the beginning when, in fact, there is delight that may be taken in seeing the hints of future plots, the characters in their raw states before they develop, etc.).

So why recommend Star Trek The Next Generation's first season at all? It's decidedly average television, indeed slower than most television these days. It lacks the bite of what audiences today come to expect. And that's the strength of Star Trek The Next Generation. It's not "shoot 'em up, move on next week" work. This is not the western in space that Star Trek was. The supporting characters are defined, not simply present to support the mains. And the show is truly about characters.

The first season crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise consists of:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard - the often-democratic philosopher king whose purpose is more to guide than to rule or command,

Commander William Riker - (who after the first season is never referred to as "Bill" by Troi) The baby-faced first officer who wants to explore and command, though he values working for and with Picard more than his own ambitions,

Lieutenant Natasha Yar - The chief of security. Despite the actress's problems with how little she was given in the first season, Yar was an orphan who was rescued from a violent and dangerous planet by the Federation and has turned her life around and she was given more airtime than Troi, Geordi, and Worf the first season.

Dr. Beverly Crusher - Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, the widow of Captain Picard's good friend Jack Crusher. She seems to have large mood shifts in the first season going from a fun character who acts almost as a comic relief to a dour individual who doesn't seem happy to be a part of the crew.

Lieutenant Commander Data - An android who, in the first season, was utilized less than Yar or Crusher. Go figure. Data here is searching for his place and his is a difficult characterization. Either his growth curve was seriously delayed or he was never part of a crew where he was utilized as anything other than a tool. In the first season, we see Data's growth from machine into something more begin.

Counselor Troi - An empathic woman whose purpose is to sense emotions and diagnose emotional problems among the crew. She does far more of the former than the latter in this season.

Lieutenant Geordi LaForge - For a sense of irony, Roddenberry created a blind navigator. The joke wears itself out quickly and for the bulk of the season, LaForge is swept under the rug.

Lieutenant Worf - The Klingon redundancy added to the series at the last minute. If anyone had a legitimate gripe about being underused, it was Michael Dorn, who played Worf. It's clear even the producers didn't know why Worf was on the ship (until the end of the season) by the way he is moved continually around the bridge (command center of the Enterprise).

and Wesley Crusher - The child prodigy of Beverly Crusher. He has a role that rivals Data for screentime this season as he goes from being something of a precocious child to a young adult charged with actual responsibilities.

The acting the first season is far more consistent than the characters. Patrick Stewart fleshes out Picard with dignity and grace. He's probably the answer to the early question of "how did Star Trek The Next Generation survive its first season?" Stewart is strong here in a role that required talent and intelligence. Patrick plays Picard with a great deal of humanity and his initial crustiness is maintained adequately and thaws at an appropriate rate.

The other acting worth noting is from Wil Wheaton. While Crusher's character is often naive and forced to mouth some of the most obvious lines, Wheaton succeeds at playing in the big leagues. The majority of his scenes are with Patrick Stewart (a powerhouse of an actor) or Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) who is one of the consummate professionals in the business and he holds his own.

None of the other regular actors shine (though Denise Crosby gives a wonderful performance in the end of "Skin of Evil") the first season in the same way. Often it's because their characters were underused. Levar Burton, for example, is a generally fine actor, but LaForge is almost never used the first season.

The body of work thus far is truly a series of adventures of philosopher explorers and watching this collection with the expectation that it shall be anything else will only leave the viewer disappointed. The weakest link is easily the drawn-out, pseudo threat of "Home Soil" and the best episodes are "Conspiracy" which combines action and philosophy and (the surprise as I watched this set) "Too Short A Season" which gets big shouts out for the acting alone.

To get an adequate idea of what you would be buying in this boxed set, check out my reviews of each episode included in this collection at the following locations:

Encounter At Farpoint
The Naked Now
Code Of Honor
Where No One Has Gone Before
The Last Outpost
Lonely Among Us
The Battle
Hide & Q
Too Short A Season
The Big Goodbye
Angel One
Home Soil
When The Bough Breaks
Coming Of Age
Heart Of Glory
The Arsenal Of Freedom
Skin Of Evil
We'll Always Have Paris
The Neutral Zone


For other Star Trek episode, season and movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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