It’s about the most dangerous, most ballsy thing you can do in television. Put your whole format on trial – and in your first episodes, no less, to silence any would-be doubters and critics. If it goes horribly wrong, you’re dead in the water before you begin. If you make it work, you have a mandate to go boldly forward, having sold your proof of concept despite explicit, vocalised concerns.
The very idea of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a contradictory one from the start. Inspired by fan interest in the Star Trek (Original Series) movies, it lost friends among established TOS-fans (or simply Star Trek fans, as they then were) before it even showed a second of footage, by bringing a new cast to the format, even when the old cast were the ones generating the renewed general interest. So The Next Generation had to convince not only the general viewer, but some of its own potential hardcore supporters that this was the best of both worlds – Star Trek, but updated to be relevant both to the worldviews of an expanded and advanced Trek universe, and the updated values of Western society in the real world.
Borrowing shamelessly from the first shot of Star Wars IV, the opening shot of the new Enterprise was The Next Generation pulling on its sexiest geek negligee and slinking about. Star Trek had always been about much more than the ‘great birds of the galaxy’ – the ships - but the ships were still pretty damned important, thankyouverymuch. And there she was – the new Enterprise, cruising through space, and then seen from the inside, as the new Captain who was supposed to replace James T Kirk in the affection of Trek fans gave a voice-over about her size and complexity.
The bridge looked a much comfier, more padded place to be than that of the original Enterprise, and the characterization of those strange people where Chekov and Sulu should have been unfolded at a leisurely, naturalistic pace – there was a female security chief, a pale-skinned android at the helm (the new equivalent of a Vulcan, clearly), an exotic empath in an oddly 60s-style short uniform, and of all things, a Klingon on the bridge of a Federation starship – this was Star Trek, Jim, but not as we knew it.
The initial mission, to check out a potential station that was being offered to the Federation, sounded like dullness incorporated but then – wham! A giant space barrier rises up and captures the ship on all sides, and a gibberish-spouting old sea dog zaps himself onto the bridge, essentially charging human beings with being ‘a grievously savage child-race’ and demanding that the new Enterprise crew tuck their nacelles between their legs and scurry off home, as they’re unready for what the universe has to offer.
This is Q, of ‘The Q Continuum,’ a race of self-proclaimed gods who are terminally bored and feel no compunction messing about with physics, biology or the lives of others, just to get their kicks. This particular Q, played on Loki’s knife-edge of comedy and drama by John de Lancie, was not only the voice of the universe in Encounter At Farpoint, but also the voice of the skeptical viewer – you think you’ve got what it takes to be Star Trek? Really? Show me.
Q put the crew of the Enterprise on trial, taking them back to a point in Earth’s history when the worst in humanity was the norm, the age of the ‘post-atomic horror,’ but when the crew of the Galaxy Class Enterprise get stroppy, he agrees that it will be more fun to see them prove their savagery and unreadiness to face the wider cosmos by seeing how they do on their mission to Farpoint Station.
It’s worth pointing out that before submitting to be tried, the Enterprise’s new captain, Jean-Luc Picard, has done everything he can think of – including giving the geeks in the audience another thrill. The new enterprise is flyable as one ship or two, and he performs an emergency saucer separation at maximum warp, technically to try and outrun the barrier the Q are imposing, but really to give the geeks a squeal at more ship-tech, and to add some much-needed Kirk-style cojones to an otherwise rather austere personality – the saucer separation is the moment at which you begin to think that maybe, just maybe, this bald French guy, played by a bald English guy, might be a Star Fleet captain after all.
With the ship released as far as Farpoint Station, we finally get to meet her first officer – William T Riker (an updated Kirk-figure, presumably thrown in just in case Patrick Stewart’s ascetic Picard didn’t catch on with the mainstream audience), along with a blind guy with a weird visor, the chief medical officer and her massively annoying teenaged son. Connections are revealed and seeds are sown – Riker and the short-uniformed Counsellor Deanna Troi are clearly a one-time item, and Doctor Beverly Crusher has a history of friendship, at least, with Captain Picard. When Riker reports for duty, Picard is cold, and tells him to reconnect the two sections of the ship – manually.
Again, the point is clear: look how cool the new Enterprise is, and you want cojones? We’ve got cojones – the captain might break the ship apart at maximum warp. The first officer can put it back together by hand, because he’s ordered to. So nehh.
In the meantime we learn of a new technology on board the Enterprise which will itself be the source of many an adventure – the Holodeck. While technically allowing for training and recreation, the implications are obvious – having a space on board the ship which can become any other environment allows this Star Trek to tell new types of stories.
The actual Farpoint mission is – certainly by the standards of what will come – small potatoes: a station that appears to miraculously, instantaneously provide for the needs of any observer. When an enormous unknown ship appears in the sky above Deneb IV, where Farpoint has been ‘built,’ and starts destroying the city of the locals, Q reappears and the question is put – what does the crew of the Enterprise do about it? In a way, it’s a moment that not only stakes The Next Generation’s claim on the Star Trek legacy, but also politely distances itself from the methods of Kirk and Co – rather than immediately leap to the support of the Bandi people and fire on the unknown aggressor, as Q expects them to, Picard and his senior staff are more circumspect, though having the empath Troi with them is a big help there, as it’s her hints about a nearby emotional disturbance that provide the answer. When the new Enterprise crew act with kindness to just about everyone, and fire not a single shot in anger, Q retires, pointedly not promising that he won’t return. The way to the rest of the universe is, for the moment, clear.
When they’re allowed to fulfil their Farpoint mission, there’s a moment when Riker asks Picard ‘What do we do now? With them watching our every move and listening to everything we say?’
‘We do exactly what we’d normally do,’ Picard replies. ‘If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we truly are.’
The message could not be clearer – We the skeptical audience are the Q, the all-powerful ones who could stop the Enterprise’s mission with our single act of disinterest. But Encounter At Farpoint looks us dead in the eye, acknowledges our power, and seeks to put a vision of humanity in front of us that makes us want to keep watching, that makes us engage with the potential we have as a species (and on a more prosaic level, that The Next Generation has as a show), rather than simply dismissing it either as ‘dangerously savage’ or as not worth our emotional and intellectual involvement.
By the time the two-part first story is complete, it has shown us a core group of characters, given most of them at least one great personality-defining moment, laid out a blueprint for how they would work and interact together, and hooked us in to the idea of Star Trek played out in a modernized, slightly less ‘frontier lawman’ way than the Original Series by ex-policeman Gene Roddenberry had done. The title would continue to be an unwieldy mouthful for the next seven seasons, but the first story did what it needed to do – it established the concept of a new Star Trek as a thing that not only could work, but did work, with a whole Alpha Quadrant of stories to play out across the stars.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk