Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One REVIEW

The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation season one

"Captain, I sense someone is looking at us." "Shush - they can hear you!"


Release Date: 23 July 2012
1987-1988 | 12 | 1183 minutes | £69.99
Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Denise Crosby

It’s hard to remember, now that The Next Generation has been canonised as a television classic (especially if you weren’t around at the time), but when the Enterprise-D first left space dock 25 years ago, its mission was viewed with considerable scepticism and suspicion. As Patrick Stewart recalls, many thought that making a sequel to Star Trek was a mission doomed to failure – he assumed it would be a one-year gig.

Once details emerged about the bridge crew, the naysayers had some ammunition. “Kirk’s replacement is a bald Frenchman?” “An android who wants to be human – that’s just Spock in reverse, isn’t it?” “Why’s that guy got a hair clip on his face?” “Have they really called the doctor Crusher?” “A brainiac kid in a chunky-knit jumper? Pass me my revolver.”

As the first few episodes aired, evidence for the prosecution accumulated. Consider this: in Next Gen’s pilot, “Encounter At Farpoint”, the crew encounter a god-like being. The second story recycles the premise of original series episode “The Naked Time”. In the third, a crew member takes part in a gladiatorial battle to the death – “Amok Time”, anyone? After three weeks, you could have been forgiven for concluding that The Next Generation was a series trading on past glories, with no ideas of its own. Later episodes like DC Fontana’s “Lonely Among Us” hardly help to dispel this impression: its Trek’s Greatest Hits script quickly ticks off Mysterious Space Cloud, Possession By Creatures Of Pure Energy and Bickering Alien Ambassadors.

Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his trusted aides, mostly veterans of the ‘60s series, had carefully considered nearly every detail, but some of the conclusions reached were questionable, particularly a key cornerstone: Roddenberry’s insistence that the people of the 24th century were more “evolved” than modern-day folk. A noble, idealistic idea, but one that reduces the possibilities for conflict (generally considered essential for drama). Flawed characters are interesting, aren’t they? Just watch First Contact (with its vengeful, obsessive Picard), or Star Trek VI (with its Klingon-hating Kirk) for proof of that. Paragons of virtue may be aspirational figures, but they can also be harder to relate to, and there are times in season one, when our heroes explain that they’ve left behind such primitive habits as acquiring possessions or keeping animals for food, that they come across as smug – their patronising attitude to the defrosted 21st century people of “The Neutral Zone” in particular is hugely irritating. Humanity may have banished famine, overcome racism, sexism and greed, but they still don’t seem to have conquered pride.

You can challenge other details too. You can see the logic in making the Enterprise a comfortable place to live on a long mission, but when your crew has to go into combat it seems a little lackadaisical – decadent, even – for them to be lolling about on comfy chairs on a pastel-coloured bridge. And it feels downright odd to have kids on-board when, say, the Enterprise dashes off to investigate possible Romulan attacks on Federation colonies (“The Neutral Zone”); we only saw the “saucer separation” twice in this season, after which it was (with one exception) conveniently forgotten.

It’s also weird no one considered it important to establish a regular Chief Engineer (at this stage, Geordi’s the helmsman, and there’s a revolving door policy approach to staffing the engine room), and the series is lacking a decent villain. With the Klingons and the Romulans for the most part sidelined, we have to make do with the Ferengi, jumping up and down, as actor Armin Shimerman memorably put it, like “crazed gerbils”. As comic relief, they’re adequate, but as a Klingon puts it in “Heart Of Glory”, “As adversaries, the Ferengi are… not very worthy”.

Then there’s Deanna “Someone is hiding something, but I can’t tell who or what” Troi. Oh Deanna, forever oscillating between the bleedin’ obvious and the hopelessly vague, like a psychic telling a hall full of pensioners that someone present has lost a loved one, and asking if anyone knows a “John”. She can’t even tell the difference between a man who’s committed murder and a man shocked at being accused of the crime (“Home Soil”). Placing a counsellor on-board the Enterprise was fair enough, but putting Troi on the bridge at Picard’s side just looks like a symptom of ‘80s America’s navel-gazing obsession with therapy. Troi would eventually find her place, but in season one it’s a relief that she’s absent from four episodes, as if the writers couldn’t work out what the hell to do with her.

She wasn’t the only one, either – barring one Klingon-centric episode and the odd bit of snarling, Worf is largely wasted, and the actresses playing Dr Crusher and security officer Tasha Yar were both unhappy with their lot – in Denise Crosby’s case, to the point where she begged to be written out.

Behind-the-scenes, there was turmoil, with Trek’s creator exercising his right to feed script after script into the mincer, causing both DC Fontana and David Gerrold to quickly move on, exasperated by Roddenberry’s control freakery. The results were often indifferent at best.

Choosing the weakest instalment is tricky, as there’s stiff competition. “Code Of Honor” is a strong contender, thanks to the dubious decision to cast African-Americans as its primitive, tribal aliens. Then there’s “Angel One”, a crude reverse-sexism fable on a par with Two Ronnies serial “The Worm That Turned” which sticks Riker in a glittery blouse, flashing one furry moob. “Justice” probably just edges it for the wooden spoon. Set on a soft-porn planet where scantily-clad hardbodies spend their days engaging in gentle jogging and mutual massage (yeuch), it dramatises the Prime Directive, only to cop-out in the end as Picard breaks it.

There are a few crackers, though. “The Big Goodbye”, featuring the debut of Dixon Hill, Picard’s holodeck altar-ego, is a joy, as is “Datalore”, which introduces Data’s villainous twin, Lore, giving us two Brent Spiners for the price of one. The sudden, arbitrary death of Tasha Yar makes “Skin Of Evil” quite a gut-punch. Then there’s “Conspiracy”, a weirdly un-Trek-like Body Snatchers thriller that climaxes in jawdroppingly gory body horror – it’s as if David Cronenberg temporarily took over Roddenberry’s captain’s chair.

And for all our nitpicking, The Next Generation got an astonishing amount right straight out of the gate: putting a Klingon on board; having a number two lead away missions; the brilliance of Data. Gene Roddenberry’s determination to give the audience something different – doggedly resisting falling back on familiar races like the Vulcans – was brave, and he had a knack for hiring the right person for the job. To give just one example: Michael Okuda’s graphics, seen on panels and displays throughout the ship, are still without peer.

Roddenberry also chose Patrick Stewart. It’s Stewart that holds it all together; his gravitas and intelligence command respect and ensure you take every situation seriously, no matter how preposterous. Only Picard could negotiate a truce with a glowing pink crystal (“Home Soil”) and maintain his dignity.

Season one may be flawed, then, flying at half-impulse rather than warp speed, but it does a solid job of laying the ground work. Thank god the public appetite for new Trek meant that, unlike so many production teams today, Roddenberry’s team got the time to learn lessons and improve. Over the coming years the actors would bed into their roles and the show would be finessed, but many of the avenues explored – the dramatic possibilities of the Holodeck, Data’s quest for humanity, the intricacies of Klingon culture – were first mapped out here. Next Gen fully flowered in its third and four seasons, but to fully appreciate what it eventually became you must start here.

Extras:

First, let’s address what’s absent from this new high-def release. The continuing absence of commentaries is a big disappointment. Bah – after 25 years, we expect at least a handful. One other gripe: it’d be nice if you didn’t need a 50” TV (or Super-vision) to read the menu options.

Grumbles die away the moment you clock the picture quality, though (something our score doesn’t reflect – hey, it’s not an extra!): the newly spruced-up show looks gorgeous. It’s rumoured that CBS Paramount spent as much as $9 million restoring the first season. Based on the results it was money extremely well spent. The step up from the DVDs is one of the biggest leaps in picture quality we’ve ever seen. Colours are solid and vibrant; previously unseen details now dazzlingly clear (in some cases almost too clear, exposing imperfections previously masked by standard def); the newly remastered special effects extremely impressive and never distracting in the way they could be on the Original Series Blu-rays. The Blu-ray transfer retains the significant level of grain present in the original film negative which gives the look a pleasing texture absent from most modern TV series.  Occasional dirt and white marks are present, but they don’t appear frequently enough to be a distraction. The 7.1 DTS-HD MA lossless soundtrack makes smart, sparse use of the surround channels for low level engine hums or rousing musical moments, and is rarely less than a pristine presentation (though note: a number of audio issues have been identified on certain discs).

Restoration featurette “Energized!” (24 minutes) makes clear what a Herculean labour it was, involving scanning thousands of boxes of film and sound recordings, and compositing together effects shots from the ground up. The fact that certain elements (like matte paintings, or the Crystalline Entity effect) no longer exist and have had to be recreated from scratch may induce a shiver of terror (what if they make them look… better?) but since the mantra of everyone interviewed is “We didn’t want to change anything” you’ll come aware reassured. Rest easy, Luddites: this isn’t like when they fiddled about with the original series (sacrilege!).

The main attraction is “Stardate Revisited”, a three-part, feature-length documentary about the birth of the show (93 minutes). It gets off to something of a stumbling start, beginning its account in October 1986, when it was announced that Star Trek would be returning; how the show came to be greenlit isn’t really discussed, and there’s nary a mention of Phase II, Roddenberry’s previous, aborted attempt to relaunch the Enterprise.

This is a minor slip, though, and it’s fascinating viewing all the same. Key interviewees include then-new-boy producer Rick Berman, old hands David Gerrold and DC Fontana (who at one point drops the bombshell that giving Troi three breasts was discussed; Fontana countered by pointing out that having two is troublesome enough…) and all the main cast. One of the most fascinating interviewees, however, is a name that’ll be unfamiliar to most. Actor Stephen Macht got down to the last two for the role of Picard, and says that Roddenberry told him, “You are the guy!”

Patrick Stewart is satisfyingly frank as he recalls his final audition, confesses feeling “massively insecure”, and recalls his concern that the show’s female roles were stereotyped. As that suggests, the deficiencies of the first season are not glossed over. Neither is the tumult in the writers’ room, with Roddenberry’s approach to rewriting scripts described variously as “slash and burn” and “evisceration”.

These talking heads are interspersed with production designs, vintage clips from a behind-the-scenes report on Entertainment Tonight, and – best of all – make-up test footage. This showcases different looks for three of the leads (see below): Data sports rosy cheeks, like he’s been slapped in the face, and is also available in battleship grey and bubblegum pink. Marina Sirtis tries out contacts with oversized black pupils (“Why, Miss Troi, what big eyes you have – have you been snorting amphetamines?”). But the breakout star is a stand-in modelling an alternate visor design; with his Jheri curl ‘do and Prince moustache, he makes you wish Geordi had had such superfly style.

You also get a ropey-quality gag reel (clearly taken from a video made for the crew’s entertainment), featuring Michael Dorn getting clobbered by the turbolift doors, Brent Spiner’s Jimmy Stewart impression, and a montage of double entendres; funny though it is, this does seem a little pointless, given that longer versions are knocking about on YouTube. Finally, four “mission log” featurettes (66 minutes) are ported over from the 2002 DVD release, and there are vintage trailers for every episode: be warned, the way the announcer pronounces it “Staaaar Trek” is highly infectious!

Ian Berriman (show)/Jordan Farley (picture/sound quality)

 

Read an interview about the Star Trek: The Next Generation restoration with CBS Digital’s Craig Weiss.
Read an interview with Gene Roddenberry’s son, Rod.

Read more of our DVD reviews.