OVERALL RATING: D-. ACTING: D+ DIRECTION: D-. WRITING: F. SPECIAL NOTE: Contains the first "saucer separation"--separation of the Enterprise saucer section from its battle section, in this case performed during warp speed travel; with (later in the episode) a manual re-coupling of the two sections of the ship (Commander Riker's first test as "second in command"). Not much else of interest in this episode. The actors really should not be blamed--the writers, the producers, the director and Gene Roddenberry are at fault.
THE SHOW: "Encounter at Farpoint" (Parts I&II), the debut episode of the new Star Trek series-- successor to the legendary Star Trek--was resoundingly panned by critics and fans at the time of its first airing. It is, indeed, a profoundly flawed production--badly directed, badly acted, and very badly written. The original Star Trek (Kirk, Spock, et al) also had a rocky beginning--including a cancellation of the series--and never really caught on with the mass TV audience until the re-runs began. Star Trek: The Next Generation does not suffer that fate, but, given the stinker called "Encounter at Farpoint," it is surprising that it didn't.
The episode is worth discussing in some detail, however, as a measure of the show's improvement during its first year. Also, some of the episode's themes and one of its guest characters ("Q") recur in the overall "Star Trek: TNG" story that stretches over seven years, and this overarching tale needs mention. Finally, this episode's ambivalent treatment of progressive themes is a harbinger of things to come. (See Tergiversation Meter Reading, below, which is -4.) Subliminal, anti-progressive messages (unconscious racism and sexism in particular) will very frequently undermine this show's good intentions.
As for the writing, "Encounter at Farpoint" seems to be the weary, ragtag leftovers from one too many story conferences. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and experienced old Trek writer D.C. Fontana appear to have made the most amateurish mistake possible--putting pen to paper after too much talk. The result is a mishmash of ideas, combined with a very long list of things that they felt the episode had to accomplish: 1) showing off the new Enterprise hardware; 2) introducing eleven--count them, eleven!--major characters, plus a guest star; 3) trying to fill in complicated backstories (Troi-Riker, and Crusher-Picard-Wesley); 4) looking backwards to the old Trek (dragging "Bones"--De Forest Kelley--through a listless and pointless scene); 5) justifying their mission (the absurd "trial" scenes with "Q" as judge), 6) introducing the holodeck (fabulous on-board entertainment center, with artificial environments), and, finally, 6) almost as an afterthought, trying to tell some sort of story.
The episode starts off slowly with an "art noir" shot of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) in the shadows of a turbolift, speaking in voice-over about his new ship. This archaic "art noir" style is abandoned after this first scene. The Enterprise--on its way to pick up Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) at Farpoint Station--runs into a grid in space, a sort of chain-mail affair on a massive scale, that stops the ship cold. A person (John de Lancie) appears on the bridge of the Enterprise, wearing a swashbuckling type outfit, accuses the ship's inhabitants of being a "dangerous savage child race" and orders the Enterprise to "return to thine own solar system immediately."
Actor De Lancie identifies himself as part of "the Q," and is hereafter referred to as "Q." "Q" then changes instantly into the military uniform of a U.S. serviceman, circa 1945, and then into a chemical warfare suit equipped with a drug sniffer (for keeping the troops under control)--all the while continuing his accusation of savagery. Captain Picard objects to "Q" judging humanity. "Q" gets a weird smile on his face and seems to have a BIG IDEA.
After "Q" disappears, Captain Picard tells his officers not to use the ship's intercomm system, but rather to issue his orders "by printout only"--why, we don't know. (Does he think that "Q" is a subspace being? An electronic-related being? It's not explained.) He then orders a saucer separation--a big deal, whereby the Enterprise saucer section is separated from its battle section. Where the saucer section goes, we don't know. Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) has been put in command of it, but we never see this.
Picard, commanding the battle section, heads away from the space grid, getting up to warp 9 and above. The battle section is pursued by a ball of colored light which does not respond to hails. The ball of light gains on the Enterprise. Picard finally halts his truncated ship and orders a broadcast to "state on all frequencies, in all languages" that "We surrender."
Picard and several of his officers then find themselves in a sort of courtroom filled with a crowd of ugly, unkempt people--dwarves, fat people, riff-raff--that vaguely resembles a mob from the French Revolution. We half expect to see Madame De Farge "knitting" the executions. Picard and company are "the accused." Commander Data (Brent Spiner) identifies this zoo as "historically interesting." Picard says, "Mid-twenty-first century...the post-atomic horror." (What this means, we are never told.) A Fu Manchu-type Chinaman seems to be a court official. Enter "Q," on a director's boom chair, wearing impressive looking red robes, in white-face, high above the riff-raff.
"Q" expects Picard and company to plead guilty to vague charges of "multiple and grievous savageries of [your] species." Commander Data points out that "no earth citizen can be tried for the crimes of its race or forebears." Security Chief Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) gets pissed off--she has seen kangaroo courts before. "Q" zaps her with a white fog, turning her into a body-sized ice cube.
Finally, Picard admits that humanity has been guilty of savagery in its past, but states that he and his officers are not guilty. He suggests to "Q" that he and his officers be tested. ("Let us prove that we are no longer savage.") "Q" tells them that their test will take place at Farpoint.
The story of the Bandi outpost at Farpoint and its imprisonment of the interstellar jellyfish is fitfully told in a long stretch over two episodes and is not, in itself, a terribly interesting tale. The Enterprise has been sent to investigate a new interstellar trade center at a place called Farpoint ("far" from where?--we aren't told), by a race called the Bandis (people with ratty blonde hair and overly-powdered faces) who have constructed their new trade center at a phenomenal rate. The Bandis can produce perfect apples and gold lamay cloth on demand. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) orders some of the gold cloth at an outdoor bazaar called "the mall," tells the salesperson to deliver it to the Enterprise, and "charge it to Dr. Crusher." We might as well be on Wilshire Boulevard. (A money economy is abandoned later in the series, and replicators--for instant gratification of all material needs--are later introduced.)
At a meeting with the Bandi leader, our psychic Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) suddenly looks acutely uncomfortable, as if she were having a difficult bowel movement, and says that she senses, "...pain . . . pain . . . loneliness . . . terrible loneliness . . . despair." The dialogue in this episode is just awful--including a silly effort to imitate efficient military-type talk by having officers leave out the subjects of their sentences. For instance, Lt. Yar says, "Recommend someone begin to investigate the underside of the station, sir."--because military-type people don't have time to say the word "I" at the beginning of their sentences. ("I recommend...") Luckily, the writers abandon this absurd dialogue style in later episodes.
At Farpoint, we pause for several introductions, one of which, although a very short scene, exemplifies many of the difficulties of this episode. Captain Picard meets his first officer, Commander Riker. They have a brief discussion about the first officer's duty of protecting the captain--with Riker maintaining that he, and not Picard, will make the decisions about the danger of Away Team Missions (whether or not the captain should go)--and Picard seems to agree. (We never hear anything more about this--it is irrelevant to the story, as are so many of the introductory details.) Then Picard makes an odd request of Riker. He mentions that he's been given "a ship with families on it." He says he hates children and it will be one of Riker's duties to keep children away from the captain, while giving everyone the impression that the captain likes children. It's a peculiar request--the Captain right away asking his first officer to lie for him, to put on a false face about something, and to have the almost insulting duty of protecting the captain from children.
This conversation is both odd and awkward. We don't really know what to make of its vast assumptions--for instance, that the Captain is virtually a king, a royal person, who is not to be bothered with lesser people. It makes Riker into a servant. It makes Picard look like a jerk.
The writers' intentions for the scene were likely these: 1) to establish endearing irascilibity and eccentricity in the Captain (his dislike of children), and 2) to "fill in" Starfleet history--that is, the change from single males (and a few space bunnies) adventuring among the stars (that sexy rogue Captain Kirk, et all), like sailors throughout history, a woman in every port, etc., to a more stable environment, a small "city in space," where scientists pursue serious research projects and "go home" at night to their spouses and children.
Picard's dislike of children falls flat, however, as does his imposition on Riker, because these things are not sufficiently explained. The writing fails to convey the content of those many writing conferences that certainly dealt with Starfleet policy at length as well as with the character of Captain Picard. We only get the conclusions, written in shorthand, almost in code--the Enterprise will have families; Picard will dislike children--as if, to silence dissent, Roddenberry had issued these terse edicts, which are then supposed, somehow, in and of themselves, to create a scene and the characters in it.
Time and again, in this episode, we are treated to "dead air," to long pauses, to actors not seeming to understand the point of the scene. Sometimes the actors respond by over-acting (i.e, Marina Sirtis - Counselor Troi), or they feel compelled to fill in the missing content by means of long, meaningful looks (Gates McFadden - Dr. Crusher). But to have such an excellently trained actor as Patrick Stewart (25 years with the Royal Shakespear Company) seem to be so at sea in a scene indicates serious problems.
The fault lay mainly with the writing and direction. The actors are almost incidental to the production. They are merely the tools of Roddenberry's ideas, which are merely sketched in, without dramatic coherence, without any feasible idea of how they are to be acted. In other words, the actors have been hung out to dry.
When these actors--particularly Stewart, Frakes and Spiner--are given half-way decent scripts and directors later in the series (not to mention good scripts and directors), they perform very well indeed. Stewart and Spiner put in a number of brilliant performances later on. It appears that Roddenberry is the main problem here. Larry Nemecek (in his Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion) notes that D.C. Fontana had her name removed from her second TNG script with Roddenbery ("Hide and Q") because of her disgust with his re-writes.
Luckily, Roddenberry backs off as a series writer. After the equally pretentious "Hide and Q" and the ham-handed "Datalore," Roddenberry does no further credited writing for the series, although he does hack up a few scripts by other writers. The attrition rate in the writing department reaches phenomenal proportions--many quittings and firings--with a series total of about 150 writers for a total of 175 episodes. The more Roddenberry backs off, the more the series improves.
Plot Glitch No.1 (of many, many to come): When the ship's new kid Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) walks off the holodeck covered with water from his spill into a "replicated" holodeck stream, the water, which is a holodeck creation, continues to exist off the holodeck, in the corridor of the Enterprise, in contradiction of the imaginary laws of Star Trek physics. This plot glitch can be attributed to the writers' neat idea of having Captain Picard walk by and look disapprovingly at the wet and dripping Wesley. Of course, we know they'll become great pals some day and that Wesley will turn out to be a "boy genius" and become Picard's pet cosmologist. That's why Picard's disapproval is so neat, at this point, you see. The water from an artificial environment existing in the supposed reality of the corridor outside the holodeck is a minor scientific point, sacrificed, it would seem, without a thought, to the hokey, amatuerish notion of the scene--a steal from several old novels and movies (i.e., severe-seeming Headmaster meets the "new boy").
These contrived Wesley Crusher scenes will mar many an episode to come. The writers don't seem to understand that you can't make a child "cute" by trying to make him "cute." You can't make people like him by having him smile a lot. And you can't make people believe that he is a genius by contriving situations, time and again, in which "Wesley saves the day." In this episode we have him alerting the Captain to an approaching, unidentified vessel, with Picard then abruptly ordering Wesley off the bridge. This situation will have endless variations--smart Wesley; dumb, ungrateful adults. Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) will never be comfortable with these scenes, because they ask the impossible of him, as an actor--that is, to make Wil Wheaton's character credible.
There are one or two good moments in the episode. One of them comes when Wesley finally makes it onto the bridge and gets a look around. Despite the ultimate failure of the Wesley character--and all the manipulative writing around it--this particular scene does manage to give us a feeling of childlike wonder at the experience of actually being on the bridge of the Enterprise. The dreamlike feeling is achieved mainly by the camera work, and, unfortunately, it is an anomaly. Its style is unrelated to anything else in the episode.
The gist of the Farpoint plot is that the citizens of Bandi have imprisoned an interstellar beast beneath their trade center and are feeding it geothermal energy in portions barely large enough to prevent its starvation, so that it will replicate the items that the Bandis need to build their outpost and to trade with the Federation. The science is extremely vague; we are given only a cursory explanation of it. All the Bandi leader ever says about how they acquired this space beast is that "it was wounded." The writing, once again, is in shorthand. We are somehow expected to understand this bizarre and scientifically-outlandish plot through osmosis.
The "Q" plot is not much better, although, in grading it for a creative writing class, one might grant it a few points for audacity. It is the sort of story one would expect from a beginning creative writer--full of undigested philosophical notions that reveal more about the state of the novice writer's unconscious mind than they do about anything else. You know, the sort of student who has listened to other students discussing "the theatre of the absurd," gets the general drift and tries to do one better than Eugene Ionesco.
It's instructive to look at "Q" as Roddenberry's self-image in relation, say, to Patrick Stewart and the other actors--that is, the producer as demi-god, with the power to snuff you out with a snap of his fingers, make or break your career, make you look ridiculous, raise you to the highest heights or extinguish you and all your friends without a touch of remorse.
Roddenberry even places "Q" on a "Director's Chair" boom which enters and dominates the scene as if the courtroom were a movie set. While seeming to be a fantastic, futuristic creation of "the Continuum," "Q" is actually just a tired old Hollywood producer, gone batty. He also bears a resemblance to old Jehovah--that capricious, patriarchal God who inflicts plagues on humanity, sends great floods and other punishments--a jealous, mean-spirited, callous, "power-over" being who is indifferent to human suffering. The idea of putting humanity on trial--the notion of sin and condemnation--is a religious idea, and an old-fashioned one at that.
"Q" reflects a faulty, Hollywood vision of creativity--the "swelled-head" feeling of being a god in relation to one's characters. In truth, the creative act is a gift from the creative soul of the universe. It is not a matter of control or arbitrary power. It is a matter of humility and "getting out of the way" of your characters, letting your characters live independent lives, inspired by the Muses, not by you--merely channeled and in some way guided by your personality. When Hollywood types get a taste of this inspired feeling, they mistake it for a power game.
"Q" also represents the non-scientist's view of science--that the universe is magical. He allows these and future TNG writers to leap over their ignorance of science and, in particular, of cosmology, and to play around with surrealistic imagery and absurdist themes, which means, in their view, having no rules of any kind--no story rules, no rules of plot or character development, no cause and effect. "Q" is useful to them for having bizarre things happen in a supposed science fiction story that never have to be explained scientifically.
Although John de Lancie does all right in his first shot at playing the all-powerful and unpredictable "Q," the character lacks humor in this first episode (until the very last scene). Actor De Lancie, to his credit, eventually makes "Q" into a very amusing character, indeed--one who takes on more of the quality of a fairy (in its old sense), a magical and mischievous imp--a Puck, or an Oberon. Here, for all De Lancie's cleverness as an actor, "Q" comes across as a mere tool of Roddenberry's ego.
There is one tiny redeeming feature in Roddenberry's presentation of "Q" in "Farpoint," and that is that this creation may have been foisted upon the Star Trek viewing public with some degree of self-irony. Was Roddenberry mocking himself? Perhaps, but, unfortunately, it does not seem to have been done fully consciously. The episode is so badly written that all we get is the raw material from the unconscious--a God projection, an ego-mad Creator. The Roddenberry shadow is not transformed; the story is ill begotten.
The episode is both ambitious and pretentious; admirable and execrable. It tries hard; it mostly fails. The grand exit of the beast from its Bandi-created prison, its reunion with its mate and its jellyfish-like ascent to the stars are all a little embarrassing. They are meant to convey awesomeness and majesty, and a renewal of the human adventure on higher principles. Picard and crew have "passed the test." Humans are no longer "savages." But yet we cringe--we feel manipulated and cheated--because we have not been emotionally prepared for this grand ascent, the sweet violin music and Troi's gushy "It's wonderful, sir!" (that the two space beasties have gotten together).
The story about Roddenberry's insistence that Captain Picard be modeled on his hero, ocean ecologist Jacques Cousteau, provides a clue as to why we feel manipulated. For all Cousteau's brilliance and dedication, he did suffer from the "great man" syndrome--as Roddenberry obviously did--as well as from a self-centered human viewpoint whereby we "look at" nature, and "respect" nature, and despise others for "ruining" nature, but never really address the problem at the center of human nature that causes us to exploit and destroy other beings. In the "great man" syndrome, the "great man" is "too great" to look at himself. He cannot see that his own egotism is the problem.
Thus, we have Captain Picard "allowing" the space beast to escape, and we are supposed to feel all puffed up about it--and teary-eyed. Yet, what sort of vision do we really see at the end of this episode? The image that we are left with is that of the single male adventurer surrounded by fire power, supported by his female and minority assistants. The white male hero is once again at the center of events, the prime mover, the man with the biggest guns. How he acts is almost irrelevant. That he is there, still in command of everyone, with the power to obliterate other life forms, is the real message of this episode--a subliminal message, delivered by the on-screen imagery--which undermines, or, tergiversates, the overt messages about non-violence, social inclusiveness and respect for other forms of life.
The scenes with Counselor Troi "emoting" in the belly of the beast are perhaps the most awkward and embarrassing part of this episode. Her character slightly improves later--but the heart of her problem is never addressed. The Troi character--with her large, uplifted breasts, her provocative miniskirt (and, later, skin-tight bodystocking), her ludicrous red lipstick and thick black eye make-up, combined with her supposed empathic abilities--is too, too feminine. She represents a very distorted world--perhaps the world of Gene Roddenberry's childhood, of demigoddesses Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe--a Fifties world, coming back to haunt us several centuries hence.
The Counselor should have been male. And the Captain should have had red painted lips and big tits. That would have been interesting.
As designed, the two of them--Captain Picard and Counselor Troi--together create a highly distorted picture of male-female balances. The one clean-shaven, even unto his head, and straight-laced. The other with oodles of black curly hair, make-up and curves. One like a bullet. The other like a Beverly Hills poodle. One into authority. The other into emotions. Dad and Mom--as though drawn by a four year old Andy Warhol with crayolas.
The effort to create a more realistic and more socially progressive vision of humanity--with women, minorities and children on board--is continually undermined by racial, sexual and other forms of stereotyping throughout the series to the very end.
Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), who survives an end-of-year cut, to return in year three (for five more seasons), is ultimately worse than Troi as a feminine role model. Here, we get a glimpse of Crusher's simpering motherhood and her feckless, "dewy eyed" regard for the Captain--more "dead air," which is supposed to fill in backstory about her dead husband (Wesley's father). The writers are trying to force us to like Crusher because she has some sort of tragic history. Crusher merely looks pouty. The poutiness continues through five of the next six seasons. Crusher is never convincing as a medical officer, a problem that is made worse, in subsequent episodes, by the increasing emphasis on her physical appearance, including carefully angled shots of her cascade of red hair over the open wounds of her patients.
Security Chief Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) is both sexy and tough. Her sexiness sometimes has a pandering quality, however (taken to a ludicrous extreme in episode no. 3, "Code of Honor"), but, nevertheless, the character is an effort to create a bold and daring female role. We do care when she's turned into an ice cube. We want her spunky form to rise up and punch "Q" in the nose.
As for the "minority" characters--the Klingon, Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), and the blind, visored Lt. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton)--they are not sufficiently developed in this first episode for us to make a judgement on stereotyping. Suffice it to say that, despite a couple of successful episodes featuring one or the other of them, they both remain "minor characters" throughout the series.
"Encounter at Farpoint" is full of awkward introductions and overdone points, such as the Data-Pinocchio analogy. The Troi-Riker liason will never quite work. The Wesley Crusher character will later be dropped (after one too many agonizing "boy genius" scenes). A Picard-Crusher liason will be foisted upon us, to no avail (it never becomes credible). The writing will improve. And the Data character--which is rather downplayed here--will become the best item in the show.
TERGIVERSATION METER READING: -4. We will grant the idea of the jellyfish beastie one point on the positive side of unequivocated and unapostasized progressive values. Clearly, we should leave such creatures alone and should not exploit them for profit. The episode is otherwise full of retrograde ideas about religion, creativity and gender--all the detritus of the past--made all the worse by the pretentious writing.
Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).
Return to the table of contents
Return to the ElkArts page
Return to the ElkSoft main page