TNG S01E01-2 Encounter at Farpoint (3 out of 5 stars). Star Trek had gone to the big screen and it wasn’t coming back. Television sci-fi had had its day with expensive series like Manimal, Automan and Battlestar Galactica surviving a season or two and then being cancelled. But Gene Roddenberry didn’t give up. Having been turfed off the movies by Harve Bennett and unable to get a new series started, he returned to the show that had made his name, and got Paramount to sign on to produce a new television incarnation of Star Trek. At the time, the idea of a new version of the show without Kirk and Spock sounded like madness. Shatner and Nimoy were what people wanted, but Roddenberry was convinced that the concept was bigger than the actors, and he designed a new series set 70 years on from the original show.

What Paramount failed to secure was a network. Desilu had backed Roddenberry and co. when NBC had little idea what they had on their hands, but when it wasn’t pulling in the ratings, they killed it off. They turned down the new show too – and so did every other network. American television isn’t quite like UK television where (in the analogue age, at least), most channels were served by centralised stations which transmitted the same content across the country. But in the US, the system was more like the old ITV regions we used to have, only more so. The big networks programmed new shows in prime time, and local stations would receive and pass on those episodes, but then they were free to fill the remaining hours with whatever they wanted – and that usually meant re-runs of old shows (“in syndication”) or local programming.

Without a network to support it, Paramount decided to bankroll the new series on its own and stitch together a national network by doing dozens of individual syndication deals. This “first run syndication” approach was almost unheard of, but Paramount had a big bargaining chip to bring to the table: take the new Star Trek if you want to keep re-running the old Star Trek. It worked and in 1987 Encounter at Farpoint debuted on screens across America.

As with The Man Trap it’s kind of amazing how much they got right first time. So much of this works – the new uniforms are great (and would get better), the com-badges are perfect, the new ship looks gorgeous, and that captain is a baller. Even the cut-and-shut theme music works a treat (although I remember for some people it took a bit of getting used to). We’ve moved completely away from the Nicholas Meyer Das Boot aesthetic to a bridge which looks more like the lobby of a four-star hotel and the captain’s chair is now flanked by a second officer and – for some reason – a ship’s counselor. In fact, there’s a definite attempt here to get away from the things that the old show was parodied for: the captain doesn’t beam down at the head of every away mission, there’s an attempt at least to cut down on the number of red-shirt deaths, and since we don’t have the budget for big space battles, the emphasis is on kindness, diplomacy and strong sci-fi concepts.

This is also more of an ensemble show, so let’s run down the regular cast – a total complement of nine, ten if you include O’Brien – which is a lot especially compared to the old show which, as noted, was a central trio plus some largely interchangeable hangers-on. Patrick Stewart is inspired casting as the captain, grounding every moment of what is sometimes a wobbly first episode with complete conviction, and sonorously intoning the lightly-rewritten opening monologue with delicacy and gravitas. His “I don’t like children” stuff is weak but he makes it work – just about. Riker and Troi are an obvious riff on Decker and Ilia from The Motion Picture, with Betazoid standing in for Deltan. And they aren’t the only old flames on board – if a thing’s worth doing… Marina Sirtis looks a fright in her 80s mini-skirt and thigh-high boots and is working so hard to hide her East-end Greek accent she’s almost comatose. Brent Spiner as Data is harder to pin down at this stage. Here, he comes across as little more than Diet Coke Spock and silly things like the gaps in his vocabulary strain credulity – although he and Stewart develop some easy chemistry early on. Michael Dorn as Worf will need to bide his time. His makeup looks wrong here, and he gets almost no lines. Denise Crosby is very appealing and she makes the most of her big speech during the trial, hardly ever giving away that she knows the script is heavily overwritten. And of course, the new show is barely six minutes old before we meet a quixotic alien with godlike powers (even Picard refers to it as “the same old story”), but in the expert hands of John de Lancie, this overfamiliar idea is freshened up considerably.

It’s not until we cut to Farpoint Station, a third of the way through the run-time, that we meet Riker and the Crushers. Jonathan Frakes is warm and charming but will take time to find any depth to the character. The friction between Riker and Picard is the best character stuff in the whole episode, even if it doesn’t lay any useful groundwork for future installments. Gates McFadden, as usual, gets nothing to do (except pay for some cloth in this money-free century). Wil Wheaton is a disaster both in concept and in execution as Boy Genius Wesley Crusher (sorry Wil). Last to show (most of) his face is Levar Burton as Geordi La Forge, who similarly gets little to do here, although even without his eyes, his appeal as an actor is easy to identify. The biggest problem this show has is that everyone is desperately professional all of the time. We can look forward to seeing them cheerfully playing poker together, but it will be a fairly long time coming. In this episode they’re written mainly as just positions, with glimmers of personality coming from the actors (mainly Stewart, Burton and – of all people – Crosby). It’s a credit to the strength and confidence of the episode that even the brief appearance of Admiral McCoy, blessing proceedings with his latex-covered presence, can’t manage to upstage the new characters.

Here we also return (but not for long) to the idea that Star Trek is a series about exploring the unknown – Deneb IV is at the farthest limit of known Federation space. Don’t worry, before long we’ll be ferrying around diplomats and charting stellar anomalies. And we join this story with both Picard and Riker new to the Enterprise, and each other, a move which manages to strike a good balance between the need to get the adventure going with the need to establish this new world and these new characters. 1960s television shows were generally based around a single hero or a small core of characters. 1980s television shows tended to have larger ensembles and to base individual episodes around different members. The Next Generation is going to take a while to figure out which model works best for it – but in the meantime, it doesn’t have a network which can decide to take it off the air on a whim. If one local station drops it, Paramount can find another serving the same area who will take it. Thus, this often uncertain series gets the time it needs to find its feet.

As to the episode itself, the Q/trial plot feels recycled and more of a mechanism to deliver background about the century and the crew than to tell its own story – and yet it carries much more drama and jeopardy than the far more original and interesting Farpoint Station strand which often comes across as tepid. The saucer separation sequence feels like the same kind of narrative busywork we suffered through in the first half of The Motion Picture – lots of “action” but no consequences. It also sets up countless future encounters which would have benefited from this trick, but with no time or production budget to do it again.

Even in ninety minutes, this episode is trying to achieve an awful lot, which makes the stilted pacing doubly disappointing. If you can overlook that, then as an introduction to the world of the 24th century, it’s quite effective, and there are some noteworthy flourishes in the production design and direction, even if overall it doesn’t entirely work as a self-contained slice of episodic television. The closing titles scroll up the screen. That seems completely unfamiliar. Something to do with this being cut into two 45 minute episodes after its premiere?

One other change for this series was that red became the uniform colour for command instead of gold. I’ve heard it said that gold didn’t suit Patrick Stewart, whatever that means. My personal belief is that for the last three movies we’d got used to seeing the captain in red and so that’s what we got here.

Right, strap in. One motive for this project was a desire to re-watch Deep Space Nine from the beginning. But there are six whole seasons of TNG to get through before then, all of which I saw on first transmission, and all of which I re-watched when the Blu-rays were released. I remember there being some very good stuff, but not much of that is in the next fifty episodes, so let’s not fall at any of these fences…

TNG S01E03 The Naked Now (3.5 out of 5 stars) Even the title gives away which story this is – a sexed-up, navel-baring, underboob-showing, fully-functional reprise of The Naked Time, underlined by the fact that researching what happened on Kirk’s ship is key to helping this crew solve the puzzle. Once again, the (slightly odd) thinking seems to be: let’s get to know our new cast of characters by having them act completely out of character. It doesn’t bode especially well for the new crew that more or less the first thing they do is beam aboard a ship which they suspect of having suffered an explosive decompression without any spacesuits or other survival gear. But they survive and make it back on board where there are no quarantine regulations in place. And before long, all bets are off.

But this does work as a self-contained episode, and it is nice to see this ultra-professional, just-the-facts-sir, team letting their hair down and, yes, it does shine a light into who they are beneath the spandex. It’s a good episode for Data, who will quickly become one of the leading lights of the show and even Crusher gets somewhere near centre-stage as befits a medical emergency plot. Meanwhile, Yar disappears once she’s done deflowering Data and Worf may as well not have been in this one. The race-against-time climax is effective, but it’s a pity that the best thing this new series can think to do in its second-ever episode is a Karaoke version of one of its progenitor’s best-remembered stories. Thank heavens Harry Mudd and/or a plague of Tribbles aren’t heading this way any time soon. Chief Engineer this week is a cross looking blonde lady who packs a “sonic driver”. Wesley saves the ship count = 1.

TNG S01E04 Code of Honor (1 out of 5 stars) Oh fucking hell. I said of some TOS episodes that I didn’t remember seeing any Berman-era stories about alien civilisations which were patterned after Earth history. I’d evidently scrubbed this out of my memory, and with good reason. While (some of) its intentions are noble, the sight of half-naked African Americans playing primitive tribes who can’t believe that a woman could be head of security is horrifying now and must have raised eyebrows then. Among a great deal of nonsense, Dr Crusher segues from a tense conversation about the dire consequences of the mission failing, and the need to get Yar back safely to make a cheerful bargain about getting her son back on the bridge. Later, Data tries out a playground joke on Geordi which would be toe-curlingly embarrassing if it didn’t come as a welcome relief to all the flat-out racism on display. It all builds to a limp re-staging of Amok Time, without any of the interest inherent in probing into Vulcan customs.

This is another Yar-centric episode and although the character is used as little more than a McGuffin for the most part, Denise Crosby is great – such a fucking shame she didn’t ride out the rough years along with the others. At this stage it’s Michael Dorn who is being serially underused, not her. I don’t think he’s in this episode at all – maybe he looked at the costumes the guest cast were being made to wear and phoned in sick. In these early outings, the captain’s chair has various pop-up flaps and doohickeys. I don’t remember these and I would bet good money they were phased out because they kept breaking.

TNG S01E05 The Last Outpost (2.5 out of 5 stars) With the Klingons now Federation allies, the new series will need new antagonists, and here they come – the evil capitalists in a post-money society. Mentioned once or twice in earlier episodes, the Ferengi make a pretty poor showing here in their first on-screen appearance, giggling and cackling like pantomime villains. It’s almost impossible to believe that that one of them is Armin Shimerman, Quark himself, setting the standard by which further Ferengi will be judged. Instead of Rules of Aquisition, these Ferengi have hand-me-down codes of honour which seem more suited to Klingons or Romulans. Another fine Star Trek tradition is the planet exterior shot on a soundstage which makes its TNG debut here, a move which adds to the overall shoddy nature of this episode. Also of scant interest is the laboured reveal of the real reason behind the Mexican stand-off, which requires sit-com farce levels of double talk from Picard when negotiating with the Ferengi whom he believes to have the upper hand. Yet again, the Enterprise crew is put on trial but this axe-twirling dervish has none of John de Lancie’s class. Data’s finger puzzle is the source of zero laughs.

So… what did I think of the thing with the Sea Devils?
Trekaday 021: Where No One Has Gone Before, Lonely Among Us, Justice, The Battle, Hide and Q