Friday, August 10, 2012

TNG Season One in HD: Worst to First

Today I finished watching the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray in gloriously remastered high definition. Re-edited from the ground up from the original film elements, the series looks better than it ever has. It really is like watching an entirely new show; the more detailed and accurate picture adds great depth and previously unseen context to the storytelling.

For example, during one early episode aliens kidnap Natasha Yar. When the crew sees her again, still in the clutches of her captors, there's a line of dialogue that suggests Yar has been a bit of a handful. In the original broadcast the line falls a little flat. But in high definition viewers can plainly see that one of her kidnappers has a swollen black eye, a detail that gives additional weight to the line. Similarly, computer readouts that were once illegible now often reveal clever in-jokes or background information about the show's universe. It's a huge treat for detail-oriented fans.

Still, this is the much derided first season of Star Trek's first spinoff, a year of uneven acting and weak stories - or so the conventional wisdom goes. Perhaps it's merely the high definition gloss, but TNG's first season is much richer than I remember, improving by leaps and bounds as the season progresses...with a few notable exceptions that nearly derailed the show right from the beginning.

Here's how I rank the 25 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, with a brief explanation following each choice. From worst to first:

25. "Code of Honor"
An episode lambasted even by the cast for its heavy-handed racial stereotyping and goofy catfight, there will be "no vaccine!" for viewers forced to suffer through it.

24. "Angel One"
As sexist as "Code of Honor" was racist, this outing's only highlight is Commander Riker's enlightened attitude towards diversity. Due credit goes to actor Jonathan Frakes for doing his best with some pretty awful material.

23. "The Last Outpost"
The Ferengi make their embarrassing debut, hooting and hollering like chimps while the Enterprise crew smugly dismiss them. Thankfully the producers gave the alien species more depth in later episodes (and series). 

22. "The Naked Now"
It's the second episode of a brand new series and already the writers are stealing plots from the original show. There are a couple of cute, broadly comic moments, but it's the first example of poor Wil Wheaton being forced to save the ship as Wesley Crusher, earning the near-universal hate of fans. 

21. "Justice"
Picard and company visit Planet of the Half-Dressed Himbos and Bimbos and anger their vengeful god. Awkward and immature sexual allusions, a contrived Prime Directive crisis...it's just a mess.

20. "When the Bough Breaks"
Aliens who can't procreate kidnap six Enterprise children in the hopes of saving their civilization. I don't think six people would provide a diverse enough gene pool to accomplish such a task, but leaving that aside this is still a dull episode bereft of drama - there's no way that anything bad was going to happen to the kids. Now, if they'd lost one in a rescue attempt, that might have been good storytelling, really calling into question Starfleet's wisdom of including families on starships. Sadly, this episode plays it safe.

19. "Lonely Among Us"
There's nothing particularly bad about this episode, it's just not very challenging. The Enterprise inadvertently kidnaps an energy being, who spends the episode body-hopping in an effort to get back home. The issue is resolved with very little suspense.

18. "Encounter at Farpoint"
TNG's pilot has a lot going for it - an interesting central mystery with a great payoff, the introduction of Q, great performances by Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart. But the pilot is hampered by one over-the-top music choice and its treatment of the female leads. Gates McFadden's Dr. Crusher comes off as wooden and cold, Denise Crosby's Natasha Yar is overwrought, and poor Marina Sirtis is in tears for practically the entire episode, her Deanna Troi overwhelmed with fear one moment, rage the next, joy the next. Several sections are actually embarrassing to watch; everyone, both in front of and behind the cameras, was still finding their footing.

17. "Too Short a Season"
An ancient Starfleet admiral takes a youth drug with predictably tragic consequences. There's not much for the crew to do but watch things fall apart. 

16. "Hide and Q"
Q returns with an intriguing offer for Commander Riker, offering him omnipotence. John DeLancie is great as always, but the episode's preachiness and a truly embarrassing scene forced on Denise Crosby mar the episode. You're the security chief and you start crying on the bridge? Really?

15. "We'll Always Have Paris"
In which we learn that Captain Picard was too chicken to date one of the Mamas and the Papas and a time travel experiment goes wonky in a way that's still pretty hard to understand.

14. "Symbiosis"
The series' "drugs are bad!" episode, complete with lecture from poor ill-used Natasha Yar. No wonder Denise Crosby asked to be released from her contract. Still, Picard's solution at episode's end is nicely open-ended and even a little cruel in a thought-provoking way.
13. "Home Soil"
Terraformers accidentally threaten an indigenous silicon-based life form, and the Enterprise crew must put things right. Notable mostly for the alien description of humans as "ugly bags of mostly water."

12. "Coming of Age"
A setup episode for "Conspiracy" with some very effective editing and direction, plus some needed positive character development for Wesley Crusher.

11.  "Haven"
Majel Barrett's playfully shrewish Lwaxana Troi and her manservant Mr. Homm are fun to watch, considerably elevating the otherwise silly and overly mystical romance plot. Mrs. Troi, like Q, would go on to become a beloved recurring character across modern Trek series, but like Q her first-season debut is a little rough around the edges.

10. "Datalore"
Gene Roddenberry's last teleplay introduces one great concept: Data's evil twin brother, Lore. But while it's fun to watch Spiner play two parts, the episode's pacing is a little off and it's hard to believe that Lore could pass for Data for even a few minutes, given their personalities. Still, Lore is a wonderful menace, sadistically shooting Dr. Crusher in the arm and setting her on fire. (She was just singed.)  Pretty hardcore!

9. "Where No One Has Gone Before"Gorgeous special effects, a sense of wonder, some nice character bits and a journey to the edge of the universe help this episode stand out. 

8. "The Battle"
Picard gets a bit of background and the Ferengi are slightly redeemed, though the titular battle's staging is a little rushed and doesn't quite serve the story as effectively as it could.

7. "The Arsenal of Freedom"
The critique of arms trading and advertising is a little on-the-nose, but then why should everything have to be "sutle?" (That's for Mike Totman.) The evolving doomsday weapon is an interesting precursor to the Borg, and there are tense phaser fights in orbit and on the ground. Lightweight but fun.

6. "Skin of Evil"
A lot of people don't like this episode, but I think it has a lot going for it: Deanna uses both her empathic powers and her training as a counselor effectively, there's actually some poetry in the episode's title and the titular villain's dialogue, plus it's an irredeemable monster, which is actually kind of refreshing. Even Data notes, quite coldly, that it should be destroyed. Tasha Yar's death occurs in a flash, without glory, in the line of duty, one of Roddenberry's ideas and one I think works extremely well; she was, after all, one of the leads, but she was also a redshirt (metaphorically). Her senseless death is the sort of thing that one would expect to happen on dangerous space missions, and her abrupt departure added verisimilitude to the show. Dr. Crusher's quietly desperate attempts to revive her in sickbay also made for a tense, well acted, well directed scene.

5. "Heart of Glory"
Worf confronts his cultural duality in a fast-paced, cleverly-shot action episode, notable for reintroducing the Klingons and setting the groundwork for a number of interesting Worf stories. 

4. "The Neutral Zone"
The season's final episode is a bit schizophrenic: it reintroduces the Romulans, lays the groundwork for the Borg, and also covers the crew's attempts to deal with three cryogenically frozen and revived 20th-century humans. The Romulans are well done and the "people out of time" story does a good job of illustrating the vast differences between Roddenberry's 24th century utopia and the culture of the present day.

3. "11001001"
The "stealing the Enterprise" sequence alone is terrific, but this episode's action set piece is just a means of telling a solid story about trust, diversity and compassion that really captures the Roddenberry ethos in a compelling way.

2. "Conspiracy"
The season's creepiest episode was so shocking back in the day that ITV (now Global) broadcast a warning before the episode began. At the time I thought there was some kind of mistake, that ITV had broadcast the warning in error; there was never anything truly shocking or scary on Star Trek. The warning was repeated after the final commercial break, and my teenage eyes boggled at the sight of Riker and Picard phasering a man's head until it exploded and then vaporizing the alien creature hiding in his unfortunate guts. But aside from the shock value of the episode's climax, "Conspiracy" delivers a delightfully creepy experience of low-level paranoia throughout. It's a shame that this storyline was never explored again.

1. "The Big Goodbye"
A Peabody winner for good reason, the season's best episode gives Picard emotional depth while asking interesting questions about the nature of consciousness and reality itself. Not just the best of the season, a standout for the entire series. 

The Next Generation's first season certainly has its share of stumbles and embarrassing moments, but there are some solid stories here. Of course season two is even better - I can't wait to rank its episodes a few months from now!

4 comments:

"The Jeffisary" said...

Let's assume full-bore Jeffish cross-graindedness:

A) Lwaxana Troi is not a beloved character. As Wikipedia puts it, "a minor recurring character."

B) There are no, repeat no interesting Klingon storylines. Any semblance of interestingness is merely delusion on the part of the viewer. Go ask JJ Abrams if you don't believe me.

Otherwise, you are correct about Star Trek hitting some rather glorious highs and inglorious lows in the first year. Much more than most seasons should endure. The shows do even out on the good side, seldom with true dreck (but there are a few), but also not so many episodes with jaw-dropping greatness. Again, there are a few that do stand out, and I am sure you will find them and describe them here later.

I envy you your blu-ray collection, though. Like you say, the new details must breathe some extra life into what is now quite an old show, and one I still watch with sponsored commercial breaks.

Totty said...

22. "... save the ship as Wesley Crusher," from a problem _caused by Wesley_. He did that so much that when he & Ashely Judd saved the Enterprise from that orgasm game it was a shock that it wasn't a problem he caused.

19. "... kidnaps energy being". Another cliche they'd return to multiple times.

7. Yay! And I get a tag too!

Also, if you haven't read it yet (and I can't believe you haven't), Wil Wheaton's "Memories of the Future, Vol. 1" has same awesome snark about the first half of the season.

Earl J. Woods said...

Memories of the Future is a great book, though I wish Wil would get around to writing the sequel. Perhaps sales of the first installment weren't great, though I ordered my copy soon after it went on sale.

Earl J. Woods said...

The next time you guys are in Edmonton we'll have to watch a couple of episodes so you can see the difference, Jeffisary!