I’ve been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the beginning for my own educational value. The thing that interests me is watching how the writers (and actors) of a show find their footing as an episodic series develops. There is some continuity and continuing story arcs (this would be embellished much later with the TNG sister series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but for the most part TNG is a weekly episodic science fiction series. The first season of TNG is fascinating to watch, because for at least the first half of the season it blunders and trips its way through, trying to shake The Original Star Trek Series and find its own identity. There are a lot of blunders in the first 12-15 episodes, but the writers were lucky to be in a time where they were able to figure things out and make mistakes before the show started to find its identity. If this show were today, it probably would have been cancelled after about 10 episodes because the networks today would just have no patience for it. I’m not talking just in terms of the content of the storytelling and the time in the 80’s when TNG first started (that has to be considered), but in the age of shows such as LOST, I think there is more demand for characters and story arcs to be worked out ahead of time. That’s not a bad thing of course, but I think having to think about and set things in stone with your characters so far ahead of time sacrifices the organic process of just allowing the characters to develop as the series moves forward. In continuity storytelling you need to have more of the characters arcs planned out. But what i liked about the later series DS9 was that while it established continuity in the story, the majority of the episodes were episodic, giving the series leeway and freedom to organically develop the characters. The results in the long run are much stronger. Both continuity and episodic storytelling have their pluses and drawbacks. But for an episodic series like TNG, its interesting to see where the writers changed their minds about who the characters were.
The most obvious and radical change for a character is probably with Lt. Worf. Worf at the very beginning of the series is pretty much a typical Klingon, with the twist that’s joined Starfleet now that the long war with the Klingon’s has been over for 20 years. But Worf’s back story at the beginning is completely different, as he would occasionally bring up in conversation his life on the Klingon home world, recognizing through a hallucenation a spiky pig like creature he recognizes as a pet he once had as a child. It took the writers a very long while before they got around to everyone’s favorite Klingon (Episode 19 “Heart of Glory” was the first Worf-centered episode). By the time “Heart of Glory” came around, a full on back story was finally created for Worf, as well as the rules and customs pertaining to Klingon’s that would become a part of the series mythos. Worf was no longer raised on the Klingon homeworld, but instead an orphan, found at the Kitomer attacks and taken in by human foster parents. Other rituals emerged, such as the Klingon’s roar after a death of another Klingon (to warn spirits in the afterlife a Klingon was coming). Worf’s principles of Honor and Duty become established at this pointed, and even tested as Worf challenges a Klingon captain, who threatens to destroy the enterprise warp core with a phaser. The strength of Worf’s spirituality and call as a Klingon warrior is also made known. There’s more development and later Worf learns of the corrupt politics of the Klingon homeworld. But when they finally got around to establishing his character, the episode winds up being a very good start. When I was a kid, Worf was always my favorite character on TNG because of the code of principles to which he lived his life. He still is my favorite character in all of Star Trek.
Other characters in the series have a more interesting evolution. Beardless Riker in Season 1 is interesting, and you could see it took some time for Jonathan Frakes to get into Riker’s head. I think it helped when Frakes asked the TNG writers if Riker could have a beard, which seems trivial at first, but the beard helped make him a little older and appear more experienced as a first officer. I think Frakes grounds himself more as Riker in Season 2 and starts to understand better who he is. In Season 1, at times Riker can be a little bombastic and over the top. I noticed in a few episodes, like Hide & Q, when Riker receives the omnipotent powers of the Q, he gets a little silly in the way his ego suddenly makes him arrogant, and he takes a kind of ‘crossing his arms, god-like stance’ after demonstrating his powers, which is more funny to watch than we can really take him seriously. Not just because Riker would become smarter and more grounded in later seasons, but I kind of got the impression that he should already know better that having that kind of power would come with a price. But whatever. It does become a part of his character later on that Riker’s emotions usually get in the way of his judgement, which starts to establish itself here (even if its a bit over the top).
Tasha Yar is a bit more problematic. Of course, we all know she is killed before the end of season one in a meaningless way, but even before Denise Crosby decided to leave the series, I felt the writers never really understood who she was supposed to be. We know she was an orphan (in her last few episodes when we find out Worf was also an orphan, the two of them start to develop some sort of relationship, but its too little to late at that point), she came from a hostile background, having to spend most of her life surviving than really being able to decide what she wanted for herself. However, I think Tasha turned out to be much more important for the writers later on, because if you think about it, the writers reinvented her as a completely different character: Major Kira on DS9. Now I don’t know its true that Tasha later inspired the character of Kira, but with Kira, they both have very similar backstories of tough women who were hardened by a brutal upbringing. It seemed like everything the writers wanted to do with Tasha they were able to put into Kira to create a fully developed character. Later on in TNG, even after Tasha’s death, they did get some decent mileage from what they could with her character (Her arc in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” was terrific, which gave her a dignified death. I didn’t care Sela, Tasha’s Romulan daughter who showed up later on, and they weren’t really able to go anywhere with it.) While Tasha may not have survived TNG, we certainly wouldn’t have gotten such a great character out of Major Kira without her existance.
Geordi La Forge still has yet to become Chief Engineer. In fact, in the first season they go through several Chief engineers…one I think gets killed, and the rest are just interchangeable actors. Geordi has a few moments of development, as in the episode “Heart of Glory” where Geordi’s vision through his visor is connected to the Bridge Viewscreen and we see the kind of infrared vision he sees the world in. His character gets a nice moment there. There’s also some good development for him in “The Arsenal of Freedom”, where Geordi learns on the job so to speak when he has to take command of the Enterprise from an invisible alien threat, leading to separating the saucer section. These leadership qualities he displays would definitely become important to his character later by the time he’s made into Chief Engineer.
With Data, the writers were clearly excited about the potential of this new android character, and he certainly gets a lot of attention and development. Some early rules about his character are established here, as we find out Data can’t speak contractions. He gets lucky with Tasha Yar in the second episode, “The Naked Now”, when the Enterprise is infected with a virus that renders everyone intoxicated. It’s a terrible episode, but Data’s moment with Yar does become an important story point in the second season episode, “The Measure of a Man”. So the “Naked Now” episode thankfully wasn’t a total waste. In the early season, we also get the episode “Datalore”, which introduces Data’s darker half, his android brother Lore. I never real cared for Data’s aspirations to be more human (as some people argue to him, why would you want to be less than what you are, considering he has incredible speed, strength, and a positronic brain). Data could probably learn from other species like Worf and regard himself as his own species. But I suppose its not the fact that Data wants to be human, but the fact that he at least admires the lessons of humanity to which he wants to lead his life by. At this early stage you can see the writers were still trying to figure him out, but he’s clearly the one character they had the most interest in, and probably one of the more solidly developed characters from the first season.
Apart from Tasha Yar, Counselor Troi probably had the least development through the first season. She serves her function for the most part, and while we do see other sides of her in “Haven”, which introduces her domineering mother Lwaxana, it also goes into the backstory a little bit with her relationship to Riker, which we also see a few signs of in the pilot episode. But overall she isn’t really given much to do this season. Marina Sirtis seems to get a better handle on Troi and a little more control over her character’s emotions after the first few episodes. In the pilot, she gets overly emotional and over the top, and they were wise to tone her character down. Although in the pilot she has one of the most unintentionally funny lines, after Q freezes a crew member in ice, she proclaims, “He’s Frozen!!” Thanks, Troi! Here outfit of course changes to her tight jumpsuit, showing off her figure, and her hair goes into the bun for the remainder of the season, probably a subtle way of telling the audience they’re trying to tone down her emotions from the first episode (I can’t remember if she looses the bun by the second season). But by the seasons end, I don’t think they quite had handle on her. Personally, I think Troi is okay, but to me she’s not one of the more interesting characters on the series.
Then of course they’re Wesley Crusher. Personally, I don’t hate Wesley Crusher, and I think Wil Wheaton does the best he can as a child actor here. But its the writing for him here that’s just awful. Wesley, this child from the future, seems to have this 1950’s “gee-whiz” kid like attitude sometimes. He should have never been put in a position of saving the Enterprise so many times in the beginning, because while he’s a boy genius, there are few moments in season 1 where he’s treated with sincerity as a teenager. The morals he has to learn are pretty cringe worthy (like one episode where a society is addicted to a narcotic drug, and Wesley suddenly becomes a poster boy in once scene for the Reagan era ‘War on Drugs’. A sign of the times I suppose, but I bet even Wil was probably cringing through some of the dialogue he had to speak in that scene). I also got annoyed after awhile to everyone referring to Wesley as “the boy”, and in some episodes he makes a few cringe worthy remarks about all the grown ups around him. Wesley: “(sigh) Adults.” Ugh. Wes however gets at least one decent episode in Season 1, called “Coming of Age” where we see him tested and apply for the first time to Starfleet Academy. It’s the one time in the season where they actually treat him like a normal teenager, and all the anxieties and stress he has to deal with. There’s also a great scene in that episode where Wes has his Psychological test, where he has to make a decision to save one crew member or the other, which is reflected of his feelings towards Picard during the time he was a child when Picard had to sacrifice Wes’ father to save his comrades. It’s a good character development scene for Wes, as he experiences what Picard went through when he had to make the same choice about his father.
Finally, there’s Picard. Of course being the lead actor, he requires the most development and backstory. Picard’s introduction throughout the first season is pretty good and after a few episodes Patrick Stewart starts to get more comfortable in the role. Some of his soapbox moralizing can get a little tedious, especially in the first half of the season, where Picard has to announce the moral or the lesson of the episode. It’s a part of his character of course, because he is a pretty grounded and serious person. But thankfully there’s characters like Q, who can come in and mock Picard’s moral stance when needed. But he does get some good moments. We see early on that he does not care for children, especially whenever Wesley Crusher would pop in on the bridge. It’s also nice to see that Picard is the anti-Kirk, one more willing to abide by the rules of Starfleet, especially when it comes to the Prime Directive. Someone should point out to Picard that the Prime Directive can come off more like a set of guidelines than rules. There are silly ways Picard feels obliged to live by the PD, such as in the episode “Justice” where Wesley falls into a forbidden flower bed and is sentenced to death by the alien society. Why exactly the Federation has to make peaceful relations with every society, especially when their laws would be backward and outrageous even to a Klingon is beyond me. But the Prime Directive only seems to be an issue when its convenient, which is one of the things that’s always kind of irked me about Star Trek. Another part of Picard that’s explored early on is his quasi romantic relationship with Beverly Crusher. Because of duty, it would be considered improper for Picard to ever explore his romantic feelings with Beverly, and while they play up the sexual tension a little more in this first season, it pretty much dies down by the time the rest of the series keeps going because there’s only so much the writers could really do with this relationship. Beverly has plenty of decent moments in Season 1, playing not only mother to Wesley but as Picard’s conscience in times of crisis. She doesn’t really get any stand alone episodes to further her development. And of course, Gates McFadden left the series in Season 2 to have a baby, so her character as of this point had to be put on hold.
As for the first season story lines, like I said earlier, it takes awhile (at least 10 or 12 episodes) before the show starts to find its footing. The first half of the season has issues shaking off the TOS vibe as it borrows moments and even whole episode plot lines while the series struggles to find its own voice. I think after the episode “Hide and Q”, where Riker is given the powers of the Q, the show starts to get a little better. The best episode of the season I think is “11001001”, because it not only has an engaging sci fi plot, but the strength of the episode lies in the development of its characters. The show always works best, especially in the first season when more time is spent developing the characters personalities as opposed to being driven by the plot, in which case, most of the plots of Season 1 are not very good. They made a mistake in one episode, called “Too Short A Season”, where the made the guest actor (an aging admiral) the central character of the story. When that happens, it not only takes away from the other actors in the series, but were being asked to invest in a character we have no previous emotional connection with. There’s no reason to care what happens to him. There are a few other episodes down the line where the guest actors take the spotlight (and I’m not talking about recurring guests like Barclay or Ensign Ro, but one shot characters). The guest actors in my mind should be supporting characters and bring out more of the main characters personalities. Some interesting tidbits from Season 1 come back later. For one, there’s Riker’s holodeck program character, Minuet, who makes a brief appearance in an episode a few seasons later when Riker is tricked with a hallucenation, as an alien probes his mind to make him think he’s in the future, and Riker knows the jig is up when he discovers that his dead wife in the future was a projection of Minuet! An interesting throwback for sure. Not much happens this season with the conflict of the Romulans or the Neutral Zone. Colm Meaney shows up in the first half of the Season, not yet as Chief O’Brian, but as a recurring crewman. He disappears for the second half, but its interesting to see when they brought him back later and start developing O’Brian as a character, who would later become a supporting character on DS9, as a kind of working class man, with his wife Keiko and his daughter Molly. In the episode “Sybiosis”, the aliens who had ridges on their noses looked like the first iterations of what would become the Bajorans.
|Minuet from episode “11001001”
Season 1 of TNG has its drawbacks for sure. But the writers learned a great deal from their successes and mistakes, and this show would go on to surpass the length of TOS by 4 more seasons, becoming one of the all out best Star Trek shows. I learned a great deal just seeing how the characters would change and how a show goes about finding its voice. I don’t plan to write about all the Seasons of TNG (I may be compelled to if I find a good reason for it), but I am interested to see where it reaches the point where the writers and actors become comfortable in their own skin, and where we can see TNG started to find a life of its own.