Friday, December 21, 2012

S1E09 The Battle

Season 1 Episode 9: The Battle

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: The plot is a little cheesy, but provides a reason to tell some good backstory on Captain Picard.
Notables: Origin of the "Picard Maneuver".

The plot of the episode leads a lot to be desired. Once again, the "scary" Ferengi are up to no good. They've found the Stargazer, a ship that Picard commanded during one of the first encounters with the Ferengi. During that encounter, the ship was severely damaged and Picard, through an act of desperation, invented the "Picard Maneuver" and destroyed the Ferengi ship (Side Note: the motion where Patrick Stewart adjusts the top part of his uniform is often referred to by fans as the "Picard Maneuver"). The ship was lost at some point, and the Ferengi have graciously offered to return it. Meanwhile the Ferengi are using some device to force Picard to relive those events and subtly alter his memory of them.

While I am not too keen on the plot, I do recommend this one because of Picard's backstory. The Stargazer is important to his character in a number of ways. At the time of TNG, Picard is presented as a seasoned veteran of Starfleet. The Stargazer on the other hand was his first command. I'm not sure if it comes up in this episode or another one, but he earned that command prematurely. Through the plot of the episode, Picard begins to doubt that he acted correctly in the battle that he relives over and over. While that comes from the use of a "technology" plot device, I think it emphasizes a very human trait.

Picard questions those events because, like most people, he doubts his memory of the past. Even though he has established himself as a captain (enough that he is in command of the most powerful ship in the Federation), his memories of that time we as a young and inexperienced captain. Even though Starfleet and his experience may tell him that what he did was rational and necessary, he still questions his actions.

This self analysis is a character trait that is very distinctive to me about Picard. In TOS, Kirk was a much more action-oriented character. Picard on the other hand is very reflective. In many episodes, he makes a point of asking others opinions. He even goes so far as to take people aside and encourage them to speak their mind. He doesn't settle on a course of action until he has heard many different opinions on it. Like the events of this episode, Picard never trusts one single viewpoint, even if it is his own. It's something I've always admired about his character and one of the reasons I recommend this episode.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

S1E08 Justice

Season 1 Episode 8: Justice

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: A bit campy at times, but it the first allegory episode that is a hallmark of the series.
Notables: Prime Directive. Wesley episode.

This episode is a fairly heavy handed allegory for the death penalty. And while it is a bit preachy, I like that it takes an idea and follows it to an extreme. This technique is something that reoccurs often in TNG. It's also one of my favorite uses of science fiction. Sometimes it can be hyperbolic, or reductionist, but I always like to think of it as an experimentation of sorts. In my imagination, the writers start out with an idea and just start writing and see where the story takes them. To bring it outside of Star Trek, the season of The Wire that explores legalization reminds me a lot of this kind of storytelling.

This next part is a bit spoiler-y for the episode if you haven't seen it.

It is also the second time that we see the Prime Directive. Having seen the show almost front to back and having seen many episodes literally dozens of times, there are constants of the Star Trek universe burned into my mind. One of these is the Prime Directive. It is something I remember as being almost universally upheld in the Star Trek universe.

This episode presents a plot that is fairly typical of the episodes that feature the Prime Directive. Wesley has broken the law of this less advanced civilizations and the penalty is death. Everyone seems to agree that the situation was unfair, but the leaders of the planet maintain that the law is the law. Picard is presented with either violating the Prime Directive, or letting Wesley die.

The end of the episode has Picard basically saying "Your laws are stupid" and leaving by force with Wesley. I was a bit shocked by that ending, given my recollection of the show, but I suppose it feeds into the overarching theme of the episode. The point was that all laws are imperfect and cannot allow for every possibility. Picard's violation of the Prime Directive just solidifies that point. The laws of the Federation are in some ways flawed in the same way as the planet in this episode.

S1E07 The Lonely Among Us

Season 1 Episode 6: The Lonely Among Us

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: A rather boring rendition of the Energy-Being plot
Notables: None

So this episode is the first in a long series of Energy Being plot lines. An alien that is made entirely of energy gets caught in the Enterprise's computer system. Of course, problems ensue and it takes a while for the crew to even realize that there is a sentient creature cause all the issues. It is not a very interesting episode and I would say that there are other instances of this plot device that are either more interesting or at least sillier.

S1E06 Where No One Has Gone Before

Season 1 Episode 6: Where No One Has Gone Before

Watchability: Extra Credit
Short Answer: This episode introduces the Traveler, who makes another notable appearance later in the series, but the episode does not have much else going for it.
Notables: Introduction of the Traveler. Classic Wesley saves the day plot.

This episode is the first one that has given me trouble on whether to recommend it or not. Truth be told it is a bit silly, but there are a couple things worth noting.

The first is the introduction of the Traveler. This alien creature is one of the many mostly-omniscient alien races created by the show. He isn't that great of a character, but he does make another appearance as a part of Wesley's "character arc", such as it is (you kind of get allusions to that if you watch the episode). I put this episode as "Extra Credit" mainly for continuity nuts, but I don't think there is anything in the episode that is critical to understanding what happens later.

The second reason to watch this episode is that it is the first of the classic "Wesley Crusher Saves the Day" plots. It's a bit of a reoccurring theme on the show. As is typical of these types of episodes, Wesley has the answer that can save the ship, but no one believes him because he is just a kid. Of course, he is right and the saves the day. It also establishes that he is pretty smart. At one point the Traveler compares Wesley to Mozart.

As a kid, I thought it was really annoying mainly because I thought Wesley was really annoying (as most boys my age did). Watching it again this time, one of the things that struck me was that Riker actually makes a point of admitting that he was wrong for not listening to Wesley. Though it comes off a bit trite, I think that highlights one of the values the show expresses, which is accountability.

S1E05 The Last Outpost

Season 1 Episode 5: The Last Outpost

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: A good episode that introduces an often used alien race.
Notables: This is the first appearance of the Ferengi. But more notably, the first appearance of Armin Shimerman, who is more famous for his role on DS9.

This episode is the first in the season that has a lot going for it. For one, it introduces the Ferengi. At the time, they were supposed to be the big bad of the show. In fact, when you watch this episode, you can see a lot of similarities to how the Klingons were portrayed in TOS. I am not sure what changed, but later in the show the Ferengi became much more comedic and less threatening.

I also feel like there are a lot of allusions to the Cold War. The Chinese finger trap is a great example. It is symbolic, not only of the plot of the episode itself, but of confrontation and compromise. In addition, the characters reference the writings of Sun Tzu at several points in the episode. These "history lessons" seem to be a common element throughout the series.

At times they are trite, but the idea of present day actors portraying how people in the future view our past is give the show writers an interesting way to comment on the present as history. There are a lot of references to China in this episode. I feel that the Ferengi represent the 1980s view of China (in relation to America) in the same way that the Klingons are a reflection of a 1960s view of Russia.

If you take that to its conclusion, there are some unfortunate aspects of how these races are portrayed (and perhaps that is a topic for a separate blog post), but the main take away is that the question of the episode seems to be "How do you trust someone you have no reason to trust?" Like the finger trap analogy that permeates the episode, I think the take away is that there points where the only option to survive to blindly trust.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

S1E04 Code of Honor

Season 1 Episode 4: Code of Honor

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: This an entirely forgettable "Prime Directive" episode.
Notables: None.

This episode is a perfect example of a throwaway episode. It does serve to introduce a plot device that is often used in the show. Starfleet has a "Prime Directive" which essentially says that they should not interfere in the laws of any race that is "less advanced". This is roughly defined as any race that has yet to develop Warp Drive (faster-than-light travel). The stated reason being that they might alter the evolution of an alien race.

It's a nice notion, and at times provides and explanation for why the Enterprise doesn't use it's often superior technology to get out of dodge. In those cases, the crew is forced to really examine the allegory set up by the "alien" culture. For this episode, I don't really see a lot that it brings to the table. For that I would say skip it.

Side Note: For those who have seen it, I was struck by an odd sub-thread in the episode. To recap, the plot of the episode, the leader of this planet captures Tasha Yar and claims her as a mate. In order to get out of this situation, she has to fight his previous wife. At several times throughout the episode, different people either hint or outright speculate that maybe she wanted to be kidnapped. At one point she says something like "I admit that I am a little attracted to strong men, but no one wants to be kidnapped!" For a show that is fairly progressive, it seemed completely out of place. By the third or fourth time it came up, it just seemed comical that no one on the ship believed her.

S1E03 Naked Now

Season 1 Episode 3: Naked Now

Watchability: Extra Credit
Short Answer: The episode is really bad. That being said it is one of the most "talked about" episodes, so it is probably worth watching for that conversation.
Notables: Rehash of an ST: Original Series plot.

This episode is probably the best "test" of my review format. I'll say this up front: It is one of the worst TNG episodes. In a lot of ways, this is a prime example of what made the first two seasons on TNG awful.

TNG came out almost 20 years after its predecessor. With that time gap came a lot of baggage. For one, there were several scripts that were written for the Original Series (TOS) that never made it to production before it was cancelled. Some of those were revamped to work for TNG. Also, there were episodes like this one, which merely recycled plots from TOS.

That being said, this episode is probably one of the most referenced episodes of TNG, because it is that bad. Data's often paraphrased line "I am FULLY functional" comes from this episode. For that reason, I have tagged this episode with "Iconic" and "Memes". This episode is not good, but chances are, if you are going to talk about TNG with anyone who has seen the show, this episode will come up eventually.

S1E1&2 Encounter at Farpoint

Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2: Encounter at Farpoint

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: It's the pilot, it would be hard to tell you not to watch it.
Notables: Introduction of the character 'Q'.

I got into TNG after it had been on for a couple of years, so I didn't watch Encounter at Farpoint until I had already become a fan. I remember this episode as being entirely cringe worthy. I still think it is not that great, but it does serve to introduce a lot of concepts of the show. As campy as it is, the character of Q and his test of humanity is a reoccurring theme through-out the show.

At the time I started watching TNG, I had been reading a lot of "Golden Age" SciFi authors (at least by today's standards: Asimov, Clarke, Pohl, etc). In most of those novels (and a lot of current SciFi television), the view of the future is a very gritty pessimistic "realism". While that aspect of SciFi does a lot to explore the "human condition", TNG was fascinating to me because it took the opposite tack. Gene Roddenberry's vision for the show was very firmly rooted in showing the best of humanity and what we can achieve.

The main thrust of this episode is Q's supposition that humanity is guilty for the "sins of the past". In this episode, we see examples of some of the fictional atrocities that happen after present day and before the start of the Star Trek franchise. At lot of it is really campy, but there are a couple of things I like about it. Mainly, I like how it gives Picard the ability to say that humanity learns from its mistakes. To paraphrase, he asks Q to "test us as we are, not as we were."

That notion is interesting to me, in the context of the show it is referencing very fictional history, but it also can be seen as talking about our actual recent history. Where we are today, is informed by the past (World Wars I/II, slavery, the Cold War, or whatever else), but we live in a very different world that would not be the same without that history. And still, what the show says is that we are constantly growing, possibly becoming the best versions of ourselves.

So I would say that this episode is definitely worth watching. It's a little rough around the edges, but it does frame the entire series nicely.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why are we here?

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was a show that shaped a large part of my youth. It was the first show I can remember that I called my own. There were a number of shows that I watched with my family, I Love Lucy, Get Smart, and all the TGIF "Classics", but none of them held the same sense of ownership for me that TNG did. It was the show that I recorded and watched for myself. It was the first TV show that I can remember needing to see every week. And it was the show that caused me to dutifully maintain the VCR recording schedule.

But so much has changed in television since then. At the time, it was, for the most part, the only Sci-Fi show on television (at least American television). It also existed before the explosion of long-form story-telling. It wasn't until shows were sold on DVD that we saw season-long story arcs where every show needed to be seen in order. There were some outliers (Dallas, Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 all come to mine), but most shows were still one-off weekly stories. By having mostly self-contained episodes, TNG embraced the idea of Sci-Fi as allegory (much like The Twilight Zone). Each episode offered an opportunity to talk about something in everyday life in a way that, in their best moments, removed the baggage of the present.

Unfortunately, like many shows, TNG had some good days and some bad ones. In particular, I remember the first two seasons as being terrible. When the J.J. Abrams reboot came out, a friend of mine, who had never seen Star Trek, decided to watch TNG. She is a huge Sci-Fi fan and she had read several articles about how great TNG was. I tried warning her, but I don't think she made it through two episodes.

In a modern context, a lot of TNG does not hold up. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Fringe have much better ability to present a hook that draws you in from the get go. Each episode serves as lead in to the next. I don't think that method of storytelling is a bad thing. As an "art", television has evolved by leaps and bounds. Because television writers are better storytellers, we are able to have Sci-Fi shows that are more accessible and reach a wider audience.

Does that mean TNG has nothing to give in the new era of television? Besides being a loaded question, it is the purpose of this blog. My brother, who is fifteen years younger than me, recently told me that he was watching TNG on Netflix (PSA the whole series is on there). It made me think about how he must see the show. He and I share a lot of interests, but he has grown up in a world where he will probably never own a CD, where no one will own a "home" phone, and where TV is smarter than it's ever been (Honey Boo Boo not withstanding).

How would I guide my brother (or my friend) to help him see TNG as I know it? It has been a number of years since I watched the show front to back, so I decided that I would re-watch it. After watching couple a episodes, I was shocked to discover that I liked the beginning much more than I remember. As a result, I decided that I would record my thoughts here. Hopefully it will serve as a guide of the episodes to watch and the ones to avoid.

I may put some other editorial content in from time to time, but main goal is to put a post for each episode. I would also like to tag them in various ways ("Continuity", "Iconic", etc) to help people see a list of interesting episodes at a glance. I will also label each one with a three point scale: Recommended, Extra Credit, or Skip. If I'm lucky, I will also give some interesting context/commentary as well. The main goal is to give a easy guide of episodes to watch for those who have never seen TNG. If you have seen the show and would like to add your own commentary about the episode, please do so in the comments.

Welcome to my blog, and I hope you enjoy as I explore The Next Generation for the next generation (give or take 5 years).