Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Coffee Nebula: Season 1 (The Next Generation)

While the original series will always be remembered as the definitive Star Trek series, The Next Generation still has its prominent place as the very close second in terms of memorability. Among the general populace, DS9 rarely gets brought up, Voyager might get a mention if only to try and highlight the canon at its worst, and Enterprise… I’m willing to bet that a majority of casual sci-fi nerds don't even know that the show exists in the first place. This is ultimately kind of surprising considering, of all the Star Trek series I’ve gleamed over so far, TNG might have the single worst first season out of all of them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it has the worst first season of any show that would gain popular acclaim later on. My usual litmus test is to watch the first three episodes of a series, then decide if I want to keep watching it; just for reference, Futurama passed with flying colours, while Charmed outright failed. If I were to apply that same technique here, TNG (when it started out) is bad to the point of making me question how in the hell it survived past this point. So yeah, instead of just focusing on a single episode this time around, I’m taking down the entire first season. Strap yourselves in; we’re in for a stinker.

If there was a central theme for this season, it would be belittlement. In the majority of episodes, the Enterprise crew are making contact with many new alien cultures and, in turn, constantly puffing out their chests about how much better their culture is. Gene Roddenberry, for all the good he did creating Star Trek in the first place, had some rather wrongheaded ideas for how the Federation operates and how the future of humanity turned out. They keep bringing up how they have transcended the need for material gain and how they learnt to deal with their grievances so that they are emotionally more mature. The series starts out with the introduction of Q, an alien made of equal parts awesome and hammy, and that was probably the best way to start out with these cretins as his own pomp and circumstance just barely eclipses that of Starfleet. They tried to continue that vibe with the two episodes introducing and featuring the Ferengi, but it just ends up being yet another aspect that would take the might of DS9 to make palatable. In these episodes, they are essentially the villainy of Capitalism as depicted by kabuki dog whisperers; if it sounds laughable, it’s only because it is. Beyond that, we keep getting alien civilizations that are either villainized because they portray an aspect of humanity that has supposedly been wiped out by the 24th century, or sanctified because they reflect some of Starfleet’s ugliness.

Actually, ugliness in the American sense is another consistent theme of this season too. It’s kind of miraculous that this show survived beyond this point because, for numerous reasons, it contains some of the worst stories in the entire canon. With the lingering presence of not only Voyager but also Enterprise, that is quite a feat. Take for instance, ‘Code Of Honor’ starring an entire planet of black people who are almost a parody of how native Africans were depicted back in the days of Old Hollywood. If the idea of banging sticks together while two women fight for the ‘honor’ of marrying the world’s leader doesn’t sound incredibly backwards to you, then you’re probably still reeling from how Tasha Yar of all freaking people harbours sexual feelings for the leader. Oh, Tasha; I’ll get to her mess in a bit. And as if to compound the racial head-tilt of the people behind this series, there’s also ‘Justice’ featuring what can only be described as an Aryan dystopia; it’s a race of blond-haired white people who are so innocent and purified that they execute people for stepping on flowers. It’s because of plots like this that characters like Wesley barely register with me; the annoyance is easily drowned out by the stupidity on screen. Not that all of the despicability is solely based on race, as this is remarkably sexist as well. Sure, we get the constant objectification of Counsellor Troi in every other episode, which must be the only reason she’s on the main Bridge as the only sound advice she ends up giving is stating the bleeding obvious. Then there’s ‘Angel One’, which embodies what has unfortunately become the modern face of feminism: It’s the exact same sexist bullshit, just with the genders reversed. And sure enough, the entire episode just features the people almost matching the Enterprise crew in terms of arrogance about their superiority.

With everything that’s wrong with the content of the episodes, how the hell did this show survive this rough patch? Well, maybe it was because it at least set a decent groundwork for the characters to build on. Don’t get me wrong, though; some of the main cast still have a lot of ironing out to go through. Riker’s probably the worst example of this, as he exhibits smugness and disregard for his fellow crew members at every turn. For a good drinking game, count how many times Riker asks someone for information, and then tells them to shut up while they give it; bonus points if it’s happening with Data. Picard has a lot of this in his system as well, but Patrick Stewart is able to show off some of that Elizabethan training to help balance him out. Even if the plot is a bit haphazard and the Ferengi don’t really help matters, the episode ‘The Battle’ is worth watching just for Stewart’s performance alone. Worf isn’t the security chief yet, so he honestly acts as the Token for this season, existing only to spout out platitudes involving Klingons. Troi, as I said above, only gets to be fanservice with a hint of pathos, considering her episode ‘Haven’ and her fighting with her mother. To be fair though, Lwaxana Troi is somehow even more self-important than the Enterprise crew, and is the most irritating character of the lot for that reason alone, so you do sympathize with her a bit on that front. Data has a bit of a mouth on him, which the crew constantly points at him for, but Spiner probably got his character performance down pat the earliest as his mannerisms and mentality are still solid even all the way back then. Dr. Crusher is a nice mediator for everyone else’s egos, her son Wesley still doesn’t grate on me as much as he does on others, and La Forge makes for a warming presence in every scene he’s given. Mainly because he is easily the most level-headed of the whole crew, despite how peppy he gets at times. And then there’s Tasha Yar, who after being delegated to the muscle of the crew, usually being the first to attack and the first to get knocked out as a result, left the show as a goddamn red shirt. The amount of disrespect on that front is staggering, especially considering that same episode ‘Skin Of Evil’ had other crew members in jeopardy and not once do they bring her up save for the end at her funeral.

But, even with all that said, there is some good to be found here. Quite a lot of it is in the concepts for certain episodes, like the mind-created edge of the universe from ‘Where No One Has Gone Before’ or the creature made of all the extracted evil of an entire species in ‘Skin Of Evil’. These concepts ended up being executed rather poorly, as a result of the political mindset possessed by Starfleet and how it reacted to those situations, but it at least showed that these people could be creative when given the chance. Once they got in some better writers (which, from I’ve seen, they did), they would be able to shape those concepts into something more coherent. And there was Conspiracy, which stands out like an island paradise against the sea of murk that surrounds it. It may have some awkward special effects and fight choreography (with some of the most obvious stunt doubles I’ve seen), but its writing was almost a comforting pat on the back for everyone who was sick of Starfleet’s preachy bullshit. For as much as Roddenberry was adamant about how incorruptible his world was, this episode revealing a conspiracy within Starfleet by aliens shows that not everyone on the creative side of things cared for that interpretation. It’s episodes like this that would later blossom into some of the more renegade ideas of DS9, and on its own it definitely gave some hope for a better season next time. The follow-up episode, and actual season finale, ‘The Neutral Zone’ may have taken that entire step backward to their more proselytizing comfort zone, but between that episode and the character foundations, I can kind of see why this didn’t just die in the water.

All in all, an incredibly shaky start. Its thematic attitudes only serve to highlight some truly gag-inducing perspectives on race, sex and class, and whatever good thematic ideas it had were quickly drowned out by bad plot progression. That said, looking back on it, you can see definite buds for the Enterprise crew as characters that would later grow into more defined characters as the series went on, and Conspiracy was the punch of self-awareness that the season needed by that point. It was a mostly painful sit, but it’s still early days yet. High point for the season is, of course, Conspiracy. Low point is a little trickier to determine, but I’d honestly give it to The Neutral Zone, as the unfrozen capitalist that keeps interrupting the action was legitimately the worst point of a season already so full of narcissism that it would make Mao Tse-tung blush.

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