There are spoilers ahead for all of Season 1. Prepare before you… engage.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is a science fiction television series sequel to Star Trek (sometimes referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series) and it tells the story of the USS Enterprise’s exploration of the Milky Way galaxy. Created by Gene Roddenberry, TNG debuted on September 28, 1987 and ran for seven seasons.
TNG was set a century after events from The Original Series and contains a completely new cast of characters. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is in command of the ship. His officers include First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn), Lieutenant Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton.)
This Star Trek series, like those that come before and after, paints a somewhat Utopian picture of humankind’s future. The human race has evolved to a point that subsistence needs are long in the past. Humanity is also beyond in-fighting and war over the acquisition of power. The remaining challenge left for the human race is exploration and self-betterment. There is a notion within the series that humanity is special, even among other intelligent life, in its noble spirit – so much so that far more advanced aliens such as the Q are concerned about humanity someday catching up.
Most of the events from Season 1 are self-contained without a larger plot arc from episode to episode of which to keep track. This allows anyone to pick any Season 1 episode without worrying about needing context from earlier episodes. There were a couple of notable exceptions to this formula, though.
The guest character of Q (John de Lancie) plays a role in both the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, and in the episode Hide and Q. “Q” is an alien entity with godlike power that takes an interest in humanity in the episode pilot. Q revisits the show in its ninth episode and tests Commander Riker. In both encounters, the human crew are up to the challenge presented by Q. We learn further than the Q are interested in humanity due to what they perceive to be humanity’s vast potential.
The show also has a two-episode arc in Episode 18, Coming of Age and Episode 24, Conspiracy. In this arc, Starfleet itself comes under attack from an alien race that covertly takes control of Starfleet leadership by imbedding themselves literally inside the bodies of Starfleet officers. Picard and his crew in this arc had to utilize the talent of the individual members of Picard’s officers group to uncover this scheme and ultimately defeat it.
The other somewhat less overt season-long arc is that of the distant threat of the Romulan Empire. The Romulans are mentioned frequently and somewhat fearfully throughout the season – including vague references to their ability to cloak their starships from Starfleet censors. This threat meets a payoff in the season finale when Picard comes face to face with the Romulan Empire – only then to discover that the Federation and the Romulans must work together against an unknown new threat to them both.
Most of Season One is an introduction to the large ensemble cast of characters themselves.
Picard is the Captain of the vessel. He is – from a distance – an almost quintessentially perfect future human. He is well read with particular interest in Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. He is a combination diplomat and military man and it is clear he prefers the diplomat role. The show portrays him as more than capable as a military man, though, and particularly as a navigator of starships.
The show, in my opinion, misfired a bit with Picard for much of the season. For a twenty-fourth century Starfleet Captain, he was almost a little too well versed in literature and poetry. In fact, for much of the season, I was left with the impression that Jean-Luc might have preferred to be an English professor at a University than his current job. As the season progressed, the show found a better balance of Captain and scholar.
Best Picard episode: Symbiosis: Here we get a Captain that keeps his mind on his job, his philosophy as a member of Starfleet, and he still manages to outthink the bad guys in this episode and achieve a good outcome while adhering to all of his core principles.
Worst Picard episode: There are several to choose from, because Picard makes some pretty terrible captaining decisions throughout Season One, but my least favorite Picard episode was Lonely Among Us. In this gem, an energy-based alien life form takes over Picard’s body, convinces Picard to resign from Starfleet, and explore the universe with it. We are led to believe that Picard chooses to do this and that he does so of his own volition. Honorable mention here though goes to Datalore where Picard ignores Wesley’s attempts to inform him that Lore was impersonating Commander Data. Picard becomes so angry with Wesley for the suggestion that he removes him from the bridge and Wesley threatens to resign. If Wesley had not ignored Picard’s orders to confine himself to his quarters, Lore would have destroyed the ship. When it was clear after that Wesley had been correct all along, Picard did not apologize. He just sent him back to work.
Data is an officer on the ship who is an android. The character is consistently great – whether in a comedic role (in the aforementioned “Lonely Among Us” he is hilariously obsessed with Sherlock Holmes) and Data is also great in more serious work. In DataLore, Brent Spiner played Data’s identical twin Android brother and the performance is one of the best of the season by an antagonist. I don’t really have anything negative to say about Data as a character or Brent Spiner’s portrayal. Wait… I just remembered that Data inexplicably got drunk and had sex with Lt. Yar in The Naked Now. That was the worst of Data this season.
Speaking of Lt. Yar… in contrast with Data, there is very little that is positive to say about the character. The writers may have had plans to eventually do big things with Yar but for almost the entirety of Season One, she served the plot function of being kind of bad at her job. At some point, Denise Crosby apparently decided she did not want to continue on with the show so the writing team off-handedly had her killed by an oil-slick looking monster in Skin of Evil. It seemed like a somewhat realistic way for a Chief of Security to die within the universe but it was far from a glorious send-off.
Yar was replaced by her Klingon underling, Lt. Worf. Worf spent almost the entirety of Season One doing virtually nothing at all. He just stood around on the bridge and barely talked. Finally though, in Heart of Glory, we began to learn more about Worf and his backstory. It was interesting and I am looking forward to learning more about him in coming seasons. He was a Klingon orphan, raised by humans, with very little contact with his own race until his adulthood. Worf taking over as Chief of Security was an improvement inasmuch as I think the writing team probably preferred having the hulking Klingon face off against bad guys – and take the occasional beating – than having a 1980s television audience watch the female Tasha Yar take similar beatings.
Geordi La Forge is another officer on the ship and his job – usually – is to set the course of the ship before Picard tells him to engage. Among the bridge officers, he probably has the most interest in Data. He and the android officer spend time together cultivating Data’s creative (i.e. human) side. Geordi’s big moment during Season One was The Arsenal of Freedom wherein he temporarily became Captain of the Enterprise. The episode – not surprisingly for a 1980s television episode – subtly focused on the racial aspect of Geordi’s captaincy and treated his sitting in the Captain’s chair as though LeVar Burton were breaking real life color barriers for the show. I have not done the research, but I assume he did. In any case, the character went through a trial-by-fire in that captain’s chair, including putting down a mutiny from a higher ranking Chief Engineer and winning a military battle as well. Burton is terrific actor and even when he did not have much to do in an episode, he brought a warmth to the crew that helped to overcome some writing deficiencies on the show (more on that in a minute.)
First Officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes) plays a more Captain Kirk(ish) next in command to Patrick Stewart’s statesman-esque Picard. Riker is the frequent fighter / lover on the ship. He leads the Away Teams, he sleeps with the attractive female aliens (Justice and Angel One come to mind first – though there are other instances, I’m sure) Riker also once seemed to fall in love with a woman generated by the holodeck in 11001001. For the most part though, none of these dalliances interfere with his job performance which is typically excellent. Riker saves the day repeatedly throughout Season One, but perhaps most notably in in Hide and Q as well as Conspiracy. It is stated in the pilot episode and again in Haven that Riker has a past romantic history with Counselor Troi. However, the plot adds virtually nothing to that backstory during season one – other than Riker’s obvious anger about Troi’s wedding in Haven. Making the matter stranger is that Riker and Troi both seem to, uh, partake, separately, in the local “sex planet” culture in Justice, and without the misgivings you might expect if they had buriee feelings for each other.
Counselor Troi has several episodes wherein she shines in the first season of the show. In Haven, she is slated to get married – and she decides to go along with the plan as per Betazoid custom. Troi is both apprehensive about the marriage and engaging with the man who clearly thought she would be someone else once they meet. It was a fun performance. On the other end of the spectrum, Troi is terrific opposite the evil Armus in Skin of Evil. It’s actually too bad that the episode is otherwise so flawed because this might be Troi’s best performance and Marina Sirtis’s best acting. Troi wonderfully uses her own skill set, as an empath, to learn the weaknesses of the evil alien (despite being its captive) and she is able to help Picard use those weaknesses against it. I have to believe that Troi in this type of setting is how the writers imagined the character when they created her.
Dr. Beverly Crusher is the Chief Medical Officer on the ship. The first half of the season is replete with catastrophic failures on her part. In The Naked Now, she bears most of the blame for the spread of a dangerous infection through the ship. They were lucky that everyone on the ship did not die. In The Battle, she waits way too long to take Picard’s headaches seriously. She was the only person on the ship with authority to remove Picard’s from his role as captain as he increasingly lost his wits and she just… didn’t do anything. In Lonely Among Us, she is temporarily possessed by an energy being, and when it leaves her, she has short-term amnesia. She keeps this experience from everyone – despite being the Chie Medical Officer. Had she not done this, Picard may have avoided his near death experience at the end of the episode.
As bad as things start for Dr. Crusher, though, they move in the opposite direction in the second half of the season. In The Arsenal of Freedom, Dr. Crusher has her best moments of the season. She successfully helps Picard treat her own serious injuries after a big fall – despite the fact she is going into shock as she advises him. In the same episode, she is the officer who gives the best advice on how to defeat Minos’ planetary defenses. In Conspiracy, Dr. Crusher discovers the alien creature on the back of the Admiral’s neck and it is Dr. Crusher who conceives of the plan for Riker to infiltrate the aliens disguised as one of their own. She even creates the disguise by making Riker’s neck look like that of the Admiral.
Wesley Crusher is the other regular cast member. He is Dr. Crusher’s teenage son. We learn immediately that Wesley is a genius. In fact, his genius is so pronounced that a highly advanced alien species takes notice in Where No One Has Gone Before. Many episodes feature Wesley’s genius saving the ship. In fact, he saved the ship in The Naked Now, Where No One Has Gone Before, The Battle, The Big Goodbye, Datalore, and When the Bow Breaks. That amounted to “Wesley saves the day” in six of the first sixteen episodes. Wesley stopped saving the day at this point, though, and applies for Starfleet in Coming of Age. The episode makes it clear that he tests well, however, he does not get into the Academy. (In hindsight, we might consider that the aliens covertly taking over Starfleet did not want Wesley’s competence among their ranks.) Wesley plays little role in the last several episodes of Season One wherein the rest of the cast gets an opportunity to shine.
The major failing of Season One, in my opinion, is that its large ensemble cast does not advance relationships with each other in virtually any of its twenty-five episodes. We are told in the pilot that Riker and Troi have a romantic history and it comes up only once, somewhat indirectly, and is essentially never revisited. Much of the rest of the plot of season one overtly ignores that history, too, putting Riker and Troi in situations that should be awkward for exes – though neither seem to realize. We learn that Dr. Crusher has feelings for Captain Picard early on. We are never really told why. A few episodes provide some innuendo toward a romantic pairing there, but essentially nothing really happens. Data’s only “friend” on the bridge seems to be Geordi – and that is not explored much. Most of the time, the other officers just laugh about Data with a look of “can you believe this guy? Wow!” as though they just met him. Yar’s funeral scene alludes to friendships she developed with the bridge… and absolutely none of it occurred on screen.
When we are presented with exceptions to “no friendships on the bridge” it was almost jarring. Troi sought out Dr. Crusher during We’ll Always Have Paris to check on her feelings regarding Picard and his ex, and my internal reaction was to try to remember if those two have had a friendly non-work themed conversation on the show before.
Overall, this is a show where (in Season One at least) the individual pieces are interesting but the writers have not bothered working out how to fit them together. We have a lot of plot devices in uniforms. The show, instead of being about the people on the Enterprise, focuses the stories on the odd things the crew encounters. As a result, we arrive at the end of season one without knowing the crew much better than when we started. It’s difficult to invest emotionally in people you do not know. That is probably why losing Yar did not resonate much with me while watching it. I hardly knew her.
Sometimes, a show requires a season to figure out what works and what does not. I am hopeful that season two will iron out these problems so that we can boldly go where no one has gone before in a more audience-engaging way.