Boldly Going: Encounter at Farpoint, Parts 1 & 2

Our first introduction into the expanded Star Trek universe represented by Star Trek: The Next Generation was a two-part episode, “Encounter at Farpoint, Parts 1 & 2.”

Before I talk about that, I must make a confession: I was not always a fan of ST:TNG. In fact, I was whatever the opposite of a fan may be called. An opponent. A detractor. An unfavorable critic.

The last one wasn’t true either. I couldn’t have been an unfavorable critic because I never watched an episode of Next Gen. Not for a couple of years.

I was a fan of Star Trek, what is now known as The Original Series (or TOS). Not a fan of the first-run episodes, once again. I was born in 1965, and the show premiered in 1966, running until 1969. I may have seen a couple of the original episodes when they aired, but I have no memory of it. And, neither of my parents were diehard fans. No, I became a fan of the series in syndication, during the ’70s. I vividly remember coming home from school and watching reruns in the afternoons. And I watched the animated series as well. It aired from 1973 to 1974. I even had the Mego dolls of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, as well as the bridge playset. This was years before dolls meant for boys started being called “action figures.” I remember reading some of the adaptations James Blish wrote for Bantam Books.

Safe to say, I was a Star Trek fan. A Trekkie.

What I really liked about the show was its Holy Trinity, embodied by Kirk, Spock and “Bones” McCoy. Sure, the others were okay as well—Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, Nurse Chapel, Yeoman What’s-her-name, and the various red-shirted future victims—but it was the Big Three who were the heart of the show. To a young starry-eyed viewer such as myself, they became as real as my friends and family. In a very real way, they were an extension of my friends and family. When Star Trek: the Motion Picture came out in ’79, I paid for my ticket and watched it on the big screen. I also enjoyed it, even though it was a bit of a disappointment after seeing Star Wars two years before.

This is not the space for a Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. I’m just saying that the first Star Wars movie (in the days before it was known as “A New Hope”) was better than the first Star Trek movie.

Better Star Trek movies did follow. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the first example. And Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is another personal favorite, that one coming out just a year before TNG debuted. I was in college when Voyage Home came out, and I can remember working at Radio Shack for a female store manager who was an even bigger Star Trek nerd than I was. She kept the first four Trek movies running on VHS every hour that particular store was open. So, I know those installments quite well. I’ve seen the ones that followed, but not as often.

When Spock died, I was sad. When he came back to life, I was happy.

When I heard about a new Star Trek television show in production, I was initially excited. Then, through magazines or television, I learned that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were not happy about the news. I’ve tried confirming this using the Internet this morning, but it hasn’t been easy. I know I’m remembering the stories correctly, even if they weren’t true, but any potential dissension in the Trek ranks seems to have been retconned out of existence. At any rate, in an expression of solidarity with the original stars, I held my own personal boycott of TNG. This isn’t my Star Trek, I was saying silently and to no one, and no one cared.

By the time the show came on, I had graduated from college and was working for a discount retail chain in North Carolina. I ignored the series, which went straight into syndication, and knew next to nothing about it. I saw the first TNG toys that were produced, by a company called Galoob, because we sold them at the store I was working at. But, I didn’t know the characters at all, and I didn’t care about them because they weren’t Kirk, Spock or McCoy.

And then something happened. I caught a couple of the episodes, and didn’t hate them. I initially thought Picard was a pale substitute for Kirk, because he kept sending others on away missions while he stayed on the Enterprise. I moved a couple of times, getting promoted along the way and eventually got my own store. My assistant manager was a big fan of the show, and based on the strength of his recommendation I became a regular viewer. This was about three years into the show’s run. To catch up, I began ordering the VHS tapes of the series from Columbia House. The first tape that arrived in the mail was “Encounter at Farpoint.”  The following tapes had two episodes each on them.

I just watched this two part first episode again this week, about three decades after it first aired. Like most first episodes, it seems a little awkward. The actors don’t have a handle on their characters yet, and the style of the show is not yet settled.

The story neatly divides into two halves. The first part, which is kind of a wraparound plot, almost but not quite a framing device, concerns the first encounter of this crew of the new Enterprise with the apparently omnipotent being known as Q. Gene Rodenberry liked aliens with god-like powers, and this was another one. Q announces that humankind is a savage race and the beings of the Q continuum have decided that they have traveled far enough into the galaxy and should go no further. After a verbal exchange with Picard, Q decides to put the human race on trial, with Picard as humanity’s spokesperson. The trial proceeds about as unfairly as you would expect since Q appoints himself judge, jury and executioner. Picard delivers his lines with all the gusto you would expect of a veteran Shakespearean actor, and finally admits that humans have been savage in the past but insists that this is no longer true. Q thinks that the Enterprise‘s current mission to Farpoint Station will demonstrate whether or not humans have indeed changed and agrees to allow Picard and crew to continue on while he observes and judges.

This is all prologue to the encounter at Farpoint that is the namesake of the episode, and in a very real way all this initial business with Q feels like a different episode, one in which there is a lot of talking but very little action other than a couple of crew members being flash-frozen by Q.

The second part of the story, the bulk of which takes place on Farpoint Station, is also less than action packed. It seems that there is a mystery as to how the aliens on this planet managed to build Farpoint Station in the first place. They seem to lack the technology or know-how to pull it off. And, somehow, the station seems to grant wishes. When Riker says he would like an apple, apples suddenly appear. When Beverly Crusher wants a bolt of cloth with a gold pattern, it Is suddenly available, as if by magic. Exciting stuff.

The real purpose of the episode Is to introduce all of the main characters of this new Star Trek show, and it manages to do this reasonably well.

We’ve already met Captain Jean-Luc Picard (French name, English accent), Tasha Yar, Worf the Klingon (wait!aren’t Klingons the bad guys?), ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (who seems to have a frizzy Toni home perm) and Lt. Commander Data, who is an android. They were all on-hand during the Q portion of the episode.

At Farpoint Station we are introduced to Commander William Riker (who looks just wrong without his beard), Geordi La Forge (played by LeVar Burton, the only actor I recognized, who had been on Roots), Dr. Beverly Crusher and her son Wesley. All of these characters are about to step on board the new Enterprise for the first time, and for some reason this mysterious base on the edge of known space was the most convenient place for them to join up with the rest of the crew.

Now that I think about it, how does this make any sense? Wouldn’t any other place in the galaxy, by definition, have been more convenient? How long has the ship been traveling without a first officer or ship’s doctor?

A lot of show time is spent introducing the characters to one another. As it turns out, Picard knows Dr. Crusher. He was her late husband’s commanding officer and was the one who brought his body home to her while Wesley was still an infant. Hey, built-in drama here. And, since the galaxy is apparently a lot smaller than I realized, Riker and Troi also know each other, the implication being that this was an intimate knowledge, and the counselor refers to the first officer as “Imzadi,” which I believe is Betazoid for “Stud-Muffin.”

Data the android, it turns out, wants to be a human, which causes Riker to refer to him as Pinocchio. Tasha Yar has a butch haircut and seems impetuous, and later episodes go out of their way to inform the viewer that she is not a lesbian (neither is the actress, I’ll add, although who cares?). Worf doesn’t seem comfortable in his makeup yet, and honestly its design doesn’t look right in hindsight. Geordi is wearing some sort of device over his eyes that looks for all the world like a banana clip, a hair accessory that was popular around the time this show first aired. And Wesley Crusher is firmly set up to become one of the most-hated characters of the entire series, an annoyingly precocious child.

Oh, I recognized Wil Wheaton as well. He played Gordie in the movie Stand By Me.

So, the characters all come on stage, and the mystery is solved. The station is actually a sentient being being held captive by the planet’s inhabitants. It has the ability to create matter out of energy, which is how it can produce apples for beardless first officers and bolts of cloth for seamstress doctors. The jig is up when another creature, which we are told is its mate (how we know that, I’m uncertain), shows up and begins blowing up the aliens in their city outside of the station. Counselor Troi has been able to use her empathic abilities to feel the station alien’s pain and sadness. Everyone figures out the truth, the Enterprise reconfigures its ray-emitting thingee to actually feed energy to the captive creature, which rises from the planet to join its mate, whereupon both of them transform from sand-dollars into large jellyfish creatures and then leave, tentacles entwined.

Once you take away all of the character- and setting-establishing business, there’s not much to the story, and I found this part of the episode less than engaging. The designated bad guy is an older hippie-looking chap called Groppler Zorn. There’s a stained-glass window in his office with the word ‘Zorn’ spelled out in English letters. I found this distracting and unlikely during this viewing. The window does get shattered during alien bombardment at some point, so that’s some consolation.

Oh, yeah. The holodeck appears for the first time in this one, too. That’s important and was a new concept. Well, new for Star Trek, at any rate. The X-Men had the Danger Room for decades before this.

So, in conclusion, not the best episode of TNG, but it was the first. And it gets the job done. Q becomes a recurring guest star, and this isn’t the last we see of the trial motif, although the humane and ethical reaction of Picard and crew during this episode grants them a reprieve for a while.

And this is how we meet the new crew and embark on our new voyages, to boldly go where no one (updating to a gender neutral term) has gone before.

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