Here is a nice thing I can say, because that is how Mother raised me: the title sequence of TNG is my favorite of any iteration of the franchise. Partly it's the whirling planets, partly it's Patrick Stewart's sonorous delivery of the opening monologue (now subtly changed from "No man" to "No one"), but mostly, it's Jerry Goldsmith's theme music. I prefer it to the theme from TOS. I still get goosebumps some times, because that is what Star Trek should sound like. Stirring and rich and full of adventure, and it always puts me in a good mode.
Here's the rest: that good mood didn't last long for any of these episodes. I'm still trying to decide the best way to handle three per week, and I may eventually go back to my long essay format, but for now, let's try and choke down the misery in bite-sized chunks.
"The Naked Now"
It's funny, I used to think "The Naked Time," an early episode in the first season of TOS, had a dumb title, but "Naked Now" wins out. You can give the writers credit for immediately reinforcing the new series' connections with the old, creating a stronger sense of continuity between the two and, in theory, letting some of the excellence of "Time" (which I gave an A) rub off, but in practice, the characters are still too rough, and the plotting far, far too loose for the comparison to do TNG any favors. This is a mess, and what's almost fascinating enough to be entertaining is how thorough a mess it is. We're not just talking about bad jokes, or weak plotting, or clumsy performances, or misjudged tone. We're talk about all of those problems, combining to create an ungainly, clunking forty-five minutes of television. After watching this, I'm amazed the show lasted seven seasons. Hell, I'm amazed it lasted a month.
The Enterprise is investigating problems on a research vessel near a collapsing star—and it's funny how we're already resorting to the same tropes of the original. The "troubled science team" is such a Trek standard at this point that you wonder if script-writers aren't handed out a series of Mad-Libs at the start of the planning process: here's "TST," here's "God-like being," here's "planet which has evolved into an exact duplicate of some location and time in Earth's history." But familiarity isn't the issue here. Riker and an away team beam over to the science vessel to find the crew dead, and the whole ship in chaos and disrepair. (It's funny how quickly Riker assumes the entire crew is dead after some bodies are discovered. Nobody's even done a headcount yet.) Dr. Crusher insists on full quarantine procedure when the teams back, including a transporter scrub, but while her precaution is well-advised, it doesn't do any good. Soon Geordi is babbling about how much he wants to see beyond the limits of his visor, and it's not long before he manages to spread his sickness, a sickness that the Sick Bay computers don't recognize at all, to the rest of the crew.
The progression here is roughly equivalent to the TOS episode, and that's an issue, not so much for going over the same ground as for how much illogic and laziness is required to make retracing the steps possible. Crusher pays lip service to procedure, but security in Sick Bay is hilariously lax; despite Geordi's clearly disturbed mind, and despite the fact that the science expedition team died because their minds were disturbed, Geordi is able to wander out of the Bay as soon as the doctor's back is turned. (He immediately goes to see Wesley, and that leads to, well, we'll get to it.) Then there's the fact that the original Enterprise recorded their encounter with this particular "disease," but it's Riker who ends up making the connection between the two and not the computer system, despite the clear and obvious relationship. I don't expect the computers to do all the thinking, but surely a search for "rapidly spreading lowered inhibitions, dead crew" would've yielded some results. And then, even once the connection is made and Beverly prepares McCoy's cure, it's another twenty minutes episode-time before she tries it out on anyone, allowing the sickness to take over most of the ship. Once she does test the cure it doesn't work, so she has to prepare a new iteration, which is a valid, if uninspired, way to drag out the threat. But why did it take so long to make that first test? Maybe she was hoping Wesley would get sick and beam himself into the star.
Oh no, wait, that was me. I want to stress, my complaints about the Crusher brat are not directed at Wil Wheaton; true, he doesn't give the best performance, but he was young, and as written, the role is already indefensible. So, so indefensible. I was lucky enough to start watching TNG regularly only in the third season, so I think I missed most of his worst moments. (Either that, or I was young enough to like them.) But he's terrifying to me now, with his needy, grinning desperation to be noticed. In "Now," he builds a magical levitating device that he uses to lift chairs, then take over engineering, then save the ship, and even though the results are positive, I still don't trust him. I mean, sweet Jeebus, he has a machine that he uses to simulate Picard giving him orders. I can only imagine what those orders turn into, late at night, after Mom goes to bed. (Actually, now I'm wondering if Beverly might not borrow the toy for herself on occasion.)
Sorry! Twisted state of mind, but that's what this episode did to me. Even overlooking Wesley's twerpitude, there's still a whole cast of actors willing and able to embarrass themselves for "laughs." Tasha Yar's assault on my senses continues, as first she gets sick, then she gets horny, and then she has sex with Data, a colossally misjudged scene that threatens to derail the android's presence on the show before he can really establish himself. (Go ahead and enjoy your "fully functional" jokes this week. I say we follow Tasha's advice in the future, and pretend this never happened.) Even on his own, Data isn't much fun. Whenever Spiner shows emotion "in character," it comes off as oddly smug, and unlike Spock (to whom Data is probably the closest analog on TNG, due to his outsider status and disconnect from human emotion), Data needs to be humble to be likable. Smarmy Data just makes you yearn for an off switch.
Not everybody does poorly. While Picard and Beverly's flirtation is pretty damn ridiculous, both actors are strong enough that it isn't that horrible to watch. Picard hasn't come entirely into focus yet, but Stewart is so good that this haziness seems intentional and intriguing, and McFadden proves herself again to be thoroughly reliable. And you know who surprised the hell out of me? Riker. I'm understanding his "Kirkness" more and more, as he's the only person on the Enterprise who manages to resist the disease out his sense of duty. (Both Picard and Crusher get their jobs done, but they also visibly succumb to the lower inhibitions.) In an episode as misbegotten as "Now" is, you have to cling to whatever sanity presents itself.
"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.
"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.
- Picard is to France what Chekov was to Russia. Sigh.
- Data's struggles with humor come up often on the show, and his attempt at telling Geordi a joke in "Code" was one of the episode's better character moments.
- We meet the head of Engineering in "Naked Now," and she is profoundly unmemorable.
- I'll hold off discussing the absurdities of the holodeck until we get to a holodeck-centered episode, but Tasha's fighting display for Lutan was a hoot.
- Example of a bad Data joke: he's defeated by a Chinese finger puzzle. Really? Really.