So how does the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation hold up, after nearly 25 years? Um, it’s hard to say. All in all, it’s not that good. But then, it wasn’t that good at the time, either. But then again – if you were interested in science fiction TV, it was sort of all we had. And none of knew how good the show was going to get in the years to come, so some of the episodes seemed pretty good at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight, trying to rate the first season of Next Generation without considering the other six seasons is sort of like grading something on that weird curve that your high school English teacher used that nobody could understand.
Amongst the best episodes of the season:
• Heart of Glory– The Worf-focus episode for the season doesn’t go as far as later Klingon stories will, but it introduces all the main beats and themes that they will play with, and has quite a compelling climax between Worf and the episode’s antagonist.
• Skin of Evil – An episode that really showcases Picard’s command style, as well as Patrick Stewart’s strength at playing grim determination. A confrontation with a genuinely malevolent threat makes for a far better display of the show’s themes than the self-aware speech-making that you get in Hide and Q and The Neutral Zone.
• Arsenal of Freedom – Possibly my overall favorite episode of the season. It doesn’t stand out in the same way as the above two do, but it’s the very best story for effectively highlighting the ensemble nature of the crew, giving each character (except for Wesley, who is absent) something meaningful to contribute.
For the worst episodes, there are many, but certainly they would include The Naked Now, Lonely Among Us, and Too Short a Season. Furthermore, there is a bunch of episodes that were okay, but had huge flaws in their basic premise, structure or other elements of execution, or are just plain mediocre. These include Justice, The Battle, When the Bough Breaks, Home Soil, Symbiosis, We’ll Always Have Paris, and The Neutral Zone.
One of the things that separated Next Generation from the original series was the idea of having the command duties split between the captain and the first officer. We see that idea playing a lot in this first season, with Picard staying on bridge while Riker leads the away team to the planet they are exploring. As the series goes on, we’ll see less and less of this.
It’s interesting to see the characters developing over these episodes. Picard is often quite cold, socially awkward and abrupt, delivering on what the pilot episode promised. At the same time, we get more and more glimpses of his tender side and vulnerability, which Patrick Stewart does very well at. Still, it is only a glimpse, and with the benefit of hindsight we know there are much better things to come.
The same can be said of Data, the show’s other original standout character. He is interesting over this season, and Brent Spiner performs well, but there are actually very few standout “Data” episodes. So far, we haven’t seen too much beyond the comic relief potential of the character.
For me, one of the things I keep finding myself looking for is the humanity of the stories – the moments of genuine emotion and authentic representation of what people are like. You occasionally get this with moments of Picard’s vulnerability, but often these are obscured by a bunch of pseudo-enlightened blahdiddyblahblah that seemed impressive at the time but now feel empty and trite.
On the other hand, the character who has surprised me the most is Riker. At the time, I was not much of a fan of Riker, only becoming one later on. Yet watching these episodes again, I can see that it is often Riker whose reactions to situations are the ones that I find the most believable. He’s not perfect by any means, and his under examination over seven years there are definitely some flaws to the character that largely came about from external forces (how long did it take that guy to become a Captain of his own ship?), but I do find him an interesting one to watch.
For the rest of the cast, everyone has had their moments. Dr. Crusher is the other character who I find easy to connect with on a regular basis. She’s the only one of the leads who didn’t have a “focus” episode (if we count Arsenal of Freedom for Geordi) but still had a number of good moments where she got to show her stuff as doctor, mother, officer, and potential love interest for Picard. Geordi so far has just come across as a nice guy who is pretty well-adjusted to his “handicap” – likeable, but not much more. Worf didn’t have much to do most of the time other than brood around and be tough and alien – except in Heart of Glory where he was awesome.
The others – Tasha, Wesley, and Troi – I found largely unappealing. I wanted to like Tasha, but she so often seemed so emotionally immature that I just found her hard to believe. Troi was a character that struggled to find a purpose. Sometimes it made sense for her to be involved and offering input – and then it was good – but other times it didn’t, and she just felt extraneous. Wesley was similar – often lacking any real purpose in the action of the show, but also struggling to find a personality beyond youthful, clever, and earnest. My memory is that Troi improves overall but Wesley doesn’t. We shall see.
My picks for the best episode for each character are:
• Picard – Skin of Evil – Patrick Stewart’s best opportunity to showcase Picard’s strongest qualities, with the least amount of annoyance.
• Riker – The Last Outpost – A tough call, but this episode puts him at the centre of the action and allows him to really represent Next Generation’s ideals as wells.
• Geordi – Arsenal of Freedom – Geordi in command! This happens twice in the season, but this is where he is really tested as a commander.
• Tasha – Code of Honor – One of the few episodes to actually give Tasha anything substantial to do, and a reasonably good character study at that.
• Worf – Heart of Glory – The obvious choice. A great story for Worf, setting the stage for all the later development about him.
• Dr. Crusher –Symbiosis – Another tough call. She gets to argue directly with Picard, which highlights both her principles and her close relationship with the Captain.
• Troi – Skin of Evil – Far and away the best use of Troi’s particular skills, as she works to understand the evil creature who has killed Tasha and holds her prisoner.
• Data – I found his to be the hardest to pick. Datalore was his “focus” episode, but it’s not a particularly standout Data story. He’s got some good moments in Skin of Evil, and probably Encounter at Farpoint gives the strongest overview of the character. But my pick would probably have to be Home Soil, which shows “action Data” while he dodges lasers, and also “android in search of humanity Data”, as he ponders the concept of inorganic life.
• Wesley – Coming of Age – The best of several mediocre Wesleystories, revealing some interesting emotional backstory for the character.
Some other notable comments about Season One:
• Number of Omnipotent, Semi-Omnipotent, Locally Omnipotent or super-highly advanced beings / races encountered by the Enterprise crew: 5 – Q, Portal (The Last Outpost), the Traveler (Where No One Has Gone Before), the Edo “gods” (Justice), the Aldeans (When the Bough Breaks), and Armus (Skin of Evil).
• Number of characters Brent Spiner got to play (counting characters Data was playing): 4 – Data, Lore (Datalore), Data as Sherlock Holmes (Lonely Among Us), and Data as a 1920’s private eye’s friend (The Big Goodbye).
• Number of named recurring characters: 4 – Q, Commander Remmick & Admiral Quinn, and Chief Engineer Argyle
• Number of Chief and Assistant Chief Engineers: 6 – Chief McDougall, Assistant Chief Shimoda, Chief Argyle, Assistant Chief Singh, Chief Logan, and Lt. Commander Leland T. Lynch.
• Number of episodes featuring Colm Meaney: 2 – Encounter at Farpoint and Lonely Among Us. In neither is he named, nor is he acting working in the transporter room.
• Number of guest actors who later went on to have major roles in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: 2 (not counting Michael Dorn or Colm Meaney) – Marc Alaimo from The Neutral Zone and Armin Shimmerman from The Last Outpost
• Number of Holodeck episodes (where a significant portion of the plot requires the Holodeck): 2 – The Big Goodbye and 11001001
• Number of Holodeck malfunctions: 1 – The Big Goodbye (unless one counts the disease from Angel One.)
• Number of Time Travel stories: 1 – We’ll Always Have Paris, although Where No Man Has Gone Before has shades of this
• Relatives of main characters who appear: 3 (not counting Dr. Crusher / Wesley) – Picard’s mother in Where No One Has Gone Before, and of course, Lwaxana Troi, Deana’s mother. Also, I’m counting Lore, Data’s “brother” from Datalore.
• Number of (Potential) romantic entanglements & heavy flirtations: 12 – Picard & Beverly, Riker & Troi, Picard & Jenice Manheim (We’ll Always Have Paris), Riker & Minuet (11001001), both Riker and Tasha with some free-love natives of Edo (Justice), Riker & Luisa Kim (Home Soil), Data & Tasha (The Naked Now), Tasha & some other guy she kissed (The Naked Now), Tasha & Lutan (Code of Honor), Worf & a Klingon woman Q creates (Hide and Q), and Troi & Wyatt Miller (Haven). Oh, and didn’t Picard kiss his holographic client in The Big Goodbye? That would make 13.
• Number of Enterprise crew members who die: 4 – Assistant Chief Engineer Singh (Lonely Among Us), two security officers (Heart of Glory),and Tasha Yar (Skin of Evil). Also Wesley and Worf in Hide and Q, but they are both brought back to life by Riker.
• Number of episodes in which a main character is possessed or otherwise mentally controlled: 2 – Picard in The Battle and Lonely Among Us. Also, depending on definitions, you could say Data in Skin of Evil.
• Number of New Life Forms Encountered for the First Time, not counting races of basically humanoid aliens: 8 – Q and the Space Jellyfish (Encounter at Farpoint), Portal (Last Outpost), a disembodied energy thing (Lonely Among Us), the Crystalline Entity (Datalore), the inorganic life form (Home Soil), Armus (Skin of Evil), and the Parasites (Conspiracy).
• Main Characters who didn’t appear in episodes:
– Tasha: Absent in 3 episodes (after her character dies)
– Troi: Absent in 4 episodes (explained in one as being away at a conference, I think)
– Worf: Absent in 2 episodes
– Wesley: Absent in 8 episode
• Number of direct references to prior incarnations of Star Trek: 2 – Dr. McCoy appearing in Encounter at Farpoint, and reference to the events of Naked Time in Naked Now.
• Number of episodes with Klingons (aside from Worf), Romulans, or Vulcans: 1 each (Heart of Glory, The Neutral Zone, and Conspiracy, respectively.
• Guest characters to watch out for in the future: Q, Lwaxana Troi (and Mr. Homm), Madeline (from The Big Goodbye) Lore, Daimon Bok, the Traveler, and (in a small way) Minuet.