Saturday, January 22, 2011

TNG Season 1 Recap

It's that time again. As Matt and I have said over and over, TNG is our personal favorite series and the one that introduced us to the franchise, so it holds a special place in our hearts. How does it hold up under our rigorous intellectual standards? Let's find out.
To boldly pose where no one has posed before...

Kevin's Thoughts

Going into this season, I think Matt and I agreed, this was going to be a weaker season in comparison to the later heights the show reaches. Obviously, it's unfair to rate the first season against what the show would eventually achieve. The season should stand or fall on its own, and all in all, there is a lot to like. Like the two pilots of TOS, the show manages to give almost every cast member at least the skeleton of a three-dimensional, interesting character. I'll discuss this more when we group some favorite and least favorites, but if Season 1 has a defining sin, it's inconsistency. Going from "Encounter at Farpoint" to "Code of Honor" to "Where No One Has Gone Before" to "Justice" is enough to give the viewer whiplash. It makes you wonder how much creative juice is actually in the tank. Fortunately, the back half levels out in at least average territory, and everyone should be allowed growing pains, but the jump from high to low and back again was distracting in its severity in the first twelve or so episodes.

The first season of any dramatic series has some special abilities and special problems. Writers have the luxury of having a lot of their writing work done for them, in a way. The universe has to be shown and explained, and that lets you use necessary exposition to carry a plot forward. It's the one time you can get away with a ten-second pan of your ship, in other words. Here, the writers excel. Like its TOS forbearer, this Federation feels like a real place with real people and real rules. Once you accept as fiat the ability to faster than light, there is an internally coherent, interesting civilization at work, and any chance we get to explore its structure and inner workings ("Coming of Age", "Conspiracy"), it usually turns into a good episode.

The downside of any first season is that you never really know what works and what doesn't until you do it. Story ideas and plans may not mesh with acting ability. Cast and crew rotations may cause good ideas to be put aside, and I don't think it's being unduly harsh to say that TNG suffers from this problem, maybe even moreso than most shows. I think it's forgivable given that Star Trek has (almost) always tried to do more than the average show, so it makes sense their growing pains are bigger as well. TNG has some great episodes, but I never quite get the feeling the show is sure of itself like I do in later seasons.

Something I do like about season 1, and this is something I couldn't have identified until watching TOS for the blog, is that the ideas that make Star Trek what it is are not only present in TNG, but in a more mature form. There are several omnipotent beings judging Kirk and company in TOS, but with some Trelane-related exceptions, they tend to be a little two-dimensional and sparkly. Q is the distillation of a key theme in TOS and the result is efficient, energetic writing that can't but be entertaining. Setting aside the preachier anti-twentieth century elements, the Federation ideals espoused by Picard are largely the same as Kirk's, just expressed with the cohesion of a discrete school of philosophy. The decades of experience the crew brought to the season paid dividends not just in the refinement of their production, but of their ideas as well.

Matthew's Thoughts

TNG Season One. The "Bad" season of TNG. The "Cheesy" one. And so on and so on. How true is this? Well, our numbers bear out the notion that Season One is just a tad below average. But personally, and maybe this is nostalgia talking, I find a lot to love in it.

First off, and this is a marked difference from any Trek before it, there is a concerted effort to build continuity in this show. Season One has a lot of episodes that reference either other TNG shows or past Trek stories. As a fan, I really appreciate this - and as a newbie (with TNG being my first real sustained exposure to Trek) I think this is appealing. Far from being daunting, it makes me want to know more.

Secondly, the actors carry the day. This is most likely why the show survived, and why despite some serious stinkers, I still have lots of love for Season One. The actors are usually good, sometimes really good, and are always charming. Many a commentator called TOS's casting "lightning in a bottle" and wondered whether any future Trek series could compete. Well, I'm of two minds. Perhaps that aspect was a bit overrated, and the stories were just as important. Or, on the other hand, perhaps Trek has done really well at casting, with a few exceptions. TNG, DS9 and Voyager are certainly strong casts. Heck, maybe it's just a numbers game - if you get 7 or 8 actors, 3 or 4 of them are bound to be good. Whatever it was, it works here.  There were some standout guest stars, too, especially the actors portraying Cyrus Redblock, Admiral Quinn, and the Traveler.

But thirdly, and I think this is the most important thing, TNG Season One creates a world. Even if there is a plot here or there that falls flat (and indeed there are several), the atmosphere is always solid. At no point does a plot come so unhinged that it doesn't feel like Star Trek anymore (cough... JJ Abrams... cough). I've mentioned "technology unchained" a few times, a concept Roddenberry put in his series bible that represents an emphasis on quality of life and ease of use, and I think TNG Season One made the average viewer feel like this was a real place, with real machines, real innovations, real progress. I can't think of many shows at all outside of TNG (and later Trek series)  that really nailed this. Other science fiction shows, those not set in the present anyway, have always seemed fakey to me, when compared to Trek. TNG, even in Season One, surpasses all other sci-fi shows, and bests TOS to boot, in consistent and "transporting" atmosphere. I feel like I'm there when I watch. And I so much want to be there. Even if TNG had seen six more seasons just like Season One, I'd have happily watched and awaited each new show with bated breath.


Matthew: To me, the episode of the season is "Where No One Has Gone Before." This episode takes Trek into really wild, weird, sci-fi territory. It shows what an increased budget and a few decades of extra experience can do for the Trek formula. It might not be the very best of the season in terms of execution along all three of our reviewing axes, but it's the episode that fires my imagination the most.

"Conspiracy" is obviously excellent. It builds tension consistently, organized around a really fun premise, that of alien infestation. The dialogue crackles, and the pace never wavers. We also get the most straightforward horror moments in Trek, with maggot lunches and exploding heads.

I should not neglect to mention the pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint." Despite a flabby second half (obviously padded to satisfy demands for a 2 hour premiere), for the most part this episode really hums along with exciting, brain-tickling ease. The intros to all characters are handled deftly, John DeLancie turns in a towering (and funny) performance as Q, and the sci-fi elements work pretty well.

"The Big Goodbye" won awards, despite what I think is a story with some serious holes. Nonetheless, putting characters in period costume is almost always a winning idea. The actors really rose to the occasion, with Stewart and McFadden especially turning in highly enjoyable performances.

"Hide and Q" also stands out, mainly on the strength of the acting. Not that the story idea (does absolute power corrupt?) is a slouch, either. I've always had a soft spot for "When the Bough Breaks," as well. Wesley gets a chance to not be annoying, we get a derelict civilization blinded by its former glories, and some nice guest acting and music really round this one out. "The Battle" also really kicks ass, in my book. We get a credible Ferengi threat, a good expansion of Picard's backstory, and hey, we get the Picard Maneuver, to boot. What's not to like?

Kevin: I agree with all of those, and would have to add "11001001" to that list. The episode had some neat ideas, some great effects, and most importantly for the episode, tangible chemistry between the people who were supposed to have it.

"The Battle" and "Big Goodbye" also stand out for me as episodes with great productions values and first rate acting. Both have some story issues, but the characters are so invested in those stories, I can't help but get pulled in as well.


Matthew: "Oh, my." (George Takei voice) There were dizzying highs, but there were also some devastating lows. We might as well begin the discussion with perhaps the worst full episode of Trek ever, "Code of Honor." Both horrifyingly racist as well as confoundingly dumb, this stinker threatened to derail TNG before it got moving at all.

"Justice," which might be "so bad it's good," still needs to be cited for how bad it is. The cheese factor is off the scale, while the story logic leaves a lot to be desired. The Edo's justice system is ludicrous on its face, and the resolution of the tale is beyond lame and perfunctory.

"Angel One" is an embarrassing trip through the annals of 80's feminist theory. Here, all the women are just as domineering and douchey as the men! Woo Hoo! That's progress... Some lame guest acting, terribly contrived situations, and speechifying that undercuts the message (guess these women can't really rule themselves after all) make this episode a confusing dud.

There are several episodes without strong sci-fi plots, that get bogged down in political struggles between factions I don't care about. "Symbiosis" sticks out for me as one of these tales. Despite some decent guest acting, its story never engaged me.

"Haven" is another somewhat lacking sci-fi plot, and the rest of the show falls to earth like a lead balloon, given the complete lack of chemistry between Deanna Troi and Wyatt Miller, who we are to take as a credible threat to Riker's sexual machismo. Uhh... no.

Kevin: I can't help but enjoy Haven for Lwaxana Troi and the moment Data asks every to continue their "petty bickering," but yes, it's a weak episode story-wise. To your list, I would add "Lonely Among Us" and "Home Soil." A combination of funereal pacing and some bizarre acting choices by main and guest cast alike make me skip these when I rewatch Season 1. They commit one of the gravest sins in my eyes. The episodes bore me. Other, truly awful, episodes at least engage me in the depth of their awfulness.


First, the numbers:

And now some pretty charts:

Kevin: Looking at the numbers, you can see that Season 1's problems are not the majority or even a plurality of the episodes are sub par, it's that the stinkers strewn between the good episodes are dragging the center of the bell curve a little to the left. There are a few more twos than fours and and few more ones than fives, and that makes all the difference. The bulk of the episodes in this season stand up to other seasons, as you can see by the high frequency of 3s and 6s in the middle of the charts.

Matthew: Just look at the difference between episodes 1-13 and 14-25. That will tell you the story of this season. The first half was all over the place, with some soaring highs and some nigh-soul-crushing lows. I think it is quite likely that the editorial and directing staff made some mid-course corrections that "righted the ship" so to speak, after some wild inconsistency. We never again saw episodes as wrong-headed or misguided as our disastrous duo of "Code" and "Angel." Season One settled into a pretty decent groove, with a bit more science fiction, some better pacing, and some better dialogue and acting.


Matthew: As Kevin said, this season suffers from inconsistency. There are some real gems, but some stinkers, too. If I were to put my finger on one thing that renders TNG Season One a subpar outing as a whole, it is a general willingness on the parts of the writers to focus on conflicts between factions, as opposed to "big idea" science fiction. Ligon? Karnas? Brekka? The Tallarians (however the hell it's spelled)? I just don't care very much. Give me a big idea like space/time/though equivalence ("Where No One Has Gone Before"), or omnipotence ("Farpoint" and "Hide and Q"), to really fire my imagination. Nonetheless, the actors are successful, and the atmosphere of the show is solidly engaging. I want to watch more of these people and I want to live in their world, even when a particular plot bores or offends me. So although future seasons will marry this aesthetic more fruitfully to big sci-fi ideas (or, in the case of some of the RDM Klingon tales, do political tales more effectively), I never tire of watching Season One. It's a charming display of growing pains. Like an awkward tween-ager reaching and groaning towards maturity, TNG Season One is quite endearing. I can hardly be said to have not enjoyed it. But Season Two will, in my opinion, ramp up the science fiction while continuing to develop the characters, and be the more enjoyable for it. We shall see.

Kevin: I hadn't realized it until you pointed it out, but yeah, they did go to the "alien of the week" conflict quite a bit, and it made me not care about several of the plots. The strongest stories are the ones that involve the crew and their lives and make me care and empathize with them. Fortunately, from our place in time, we know a lot more of that is coming. In the end, this will almost certainly be the weakest season by the numbers, but still, if this is your weak spot, that's not too shabby. The core of the Star Trek world is not only intact, but thriving, and even if some early (and severe) missteps give us pause, there was always enough to keep us coming back. I think I can safely speak for Matt and myself when I say that then, and now, we are eager to dive into season 2, and if for no other reason, that should indicate season 1 did its job.


  1. I'd like to point out (as I made the point to Kevin in person), that even though you're grading the show on a curve, Season 1 episodes averaged a 5.76 score on a 2-10 scale, or only roughly a quarter point below exactly the middle on average. I'm willing to buy the argument that Season 2, overall, is a weaker season, but the curve that you're giving TNG so far is a pretty gentle one...
    - Carl

  2. I've never quite understood what people mean by "grading on a curve." And I'm a college instructor.

    We're not altering our opinions of episodes in order to make them conform to any preconceived notion. We're just assuming that, like anything in nature, things will approach a standard distribution. If TNG rips off a season with a preponderance of 4's and 5's, thus skewing the curve, then that's just what the results will look like.

    Also, spoiler alert, but I'm pretty sure Season 2 will trump Season 1, even with "Shades of Gray" mixed in there.

  3. Kevin had said that he expected a curve, so that a lot of episodes would be grouped around the middle without a lot of really bad episodes or really good ones. It's a little early to know what the standard distribution will look like overall (obviously), but if S1 is getting a lot of 5s and 6s, it's hard to see how the later seasons aren't going to be all 9s and 10s...
    - Carl

  4. I don't think the series as a whole will show the same level of distribution. That wouldn't really make any sense. To have a true standard distribution, seasons 1 athrough 7 would have to do something like this:


    But how could any series survive 2 disastrous seasons like this? I mean, maybe Dollhouse Season 4 was going to be GREAT - but who the hell could slog through the torture of the first two seasons?

    I do think there will be a rising and falling curve to the show as a whole, but it will be a lot gentler than a standard distribution.

    Not all shows would have this sort of "curve" though. TOS, for instance, started strong and sloped down with each season. DS9 improved over time, ending strong. Voyager has a pretty good curve, like TNG. Enterprise stayed pretty bad for three seasons and then shot straight up in Season 4.

  5. Thanks for this great website! I watched a few TNGs in the 90s, recently re-discovered the series on BBC America (have watched a lot of episodes from later seasons), and now have started at the beginning of Season 1 on Amazon. I have never watched any other Star Trek shows, but I love the TNG characters and stories, and love reading your re-caps and ratings! I am actually thinking skipping Season 2 though -- Dr. Crusher is my favorite character and I can't imagine an entire season without her! Is it really worth slogging through Season 2 with no Beverly???

    1. My short answer is yes. But at a minimum you should watch Measure of a Man, Contagion, Q Who, Elementary Dear Data, The Emissary, and Peak Performance. These episodes are either terrific or introduce crucial plot/character elements going forward.

      Check out our recap to get a general feel for S2. It is more consistently strong than S1.

      Thanks for reading and keep commenting!

    2. Thanks for the quick reply! I will give Season 2 a go. Since my intro to the series was the later seasons, when the characters and stories were well-developed, it's strange to see how uneven Season 1 is! But if Season 2 is better, we'll watch even without Beverly!

    3. I would throw in The Child if you either like Counselor Troi at all, or like big emotional storytelling. It's not a perfect episode, but I found several of the Troi/Riker scenes to be gangbusters.

      And The Emissary is just genius. Right down to the MJ inspired jumpsuits.

  6. I love Troi! One reason I never got into sci-fi as a kid was they all seemed like boys' stories, and when I first started watching TNG, it was Crusher and Troi who drew me in, and I then grew to love all the main characters. Watching season 1, it seems the show runners really had no idea what to do with Troi until later seasons. Season 1 seems very strange to me for a lot of reasons -- no-beard Riker, weird seats on the bridge, uneven acting (Code of Honor, wow, you guys are right about that one) -- but I am enjoying the introductions to all the main characters. Looking forward to season 2 now, with your recommendations.