Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Star Trek The Next Generation (Season 1b)

<--Season 1a  Season 2a-->

Seeing the second half of season one makes me glad to have missed it on its original run. It is an improvement from earlier episodes, but in today’s television programming this series would not have made it into further seasons which would have been a shame as many consider it to have gone on to be among the best series ever aired on television.

This set of episodes has a few more clunky attempts to be too “spot-on” with a message:

“Angel One”
Merely embarrassing in its inept “caveman-like” attempt to comment on gender roles in a way that must have seemed fuddy-duddy to audiences at the time, let alone 25 years later.

An interesting take on what amounts to a form of terrorism. When one society needs something from the federation to continue to exist, they steal it rather than ask for help. Their plan works but they should have asked for help from the benevolent Federation. The moral of the story is that once we are advanced and developed enough such tactics will not be necessary. Back then there really was a liberal naïveté that might have justified this thinking. These days we understand all too well the hatred and evil that motivates terrorism.

The holodeck is used to good effect in this episode. What are the limits of artificial intelligence? At what point does interaction with a computer approximate or supersede interaction with a real person? This will be explored more in later seasons.

“When the Bough Breaks”
A mythical planet where all your needs are supplied freeing you up to artistic pursuits turns out to be a real place. And, if it sounds too good to be true it is. When people no longer need to know how to provide for themselves, they won’t. If the system fails… Unfortunately this episode is another sermon about a favorite topic in the Eighties: the hole in the ozone! Whatever happened to that impending disaster anyway?

Science fiction and fantasy work best when they reveal truths about society and culture in subtle, even subversive ways. Of course, the storyteller must be able to couch the truths in such a way that the viewer absorbs the thoughts without really seeing them. Otherwise, it just comes across as corny, obvious preaching. That is unfortunately the case with this eighties drug parable.

“The Neutral Zone”
STNG in later years would tend to have two storylines running each episode. This one does that very clearly, but unfortunately both are rather half baked. The Romulan story really is only half there. It was intended to tie into the next season’s opener, and from there back to a couple episodes from earlier in the season but circumstances beyond the production prohibited that from happening.

The story involving the people from the present is too cute, and too condescending. It reveals a disdain for the way things currently are in the world that does not work because it comes from a position of hubris. The show is looking down its nose at society, not trying to educate and change.

There are a few episodes that approach interesting ideas; even if they do not develop the story as well as they would be in later years:

“Home Soil”
The typical science fiction trope: “life so different that we fail to recognize it.”

“The Arsenal of Freedom”
Eighties irony—in which a planet that supplies weapons for war has been destroyed by its own product. The joke that the way to stop a sales pitch is to tell the guy you’ll buy was a bit too obvious.

“We’ll Always Have Paris”
The time travel story. A staple of science fiction and particularly Star Trek. They usually do not go over so well plot-wise. This one doesn’t suffer too much because it does not focus on the science. Picard gets some interesting back story—but this is no “Casablanca.”

Finally, there are a few good efforts—even if the production values are a bit wanting in the best sort of “Doctor Who” tradition.

“Too Short a Season”
This is a story of redemption. A man riddled with guilt gets a chance to go back to his greatest mistake—that also happens to be his greatest secret. His time is long past and he is far too old to really set things to rights, so he cheats. That is where our production values slip. They are not bad for their time, but we have come so far with the technology available today. When you saw the old, old admiral appear on screen so obviously played by a young actor, you had to know some de-aging was in store.

“Heart of Glory”
Our first Klingon story is an interesting look at cultural differences. Worf gets back story and also gets to prove he is a courageous man. The meaning of true courage and honor are explored in an effective way.

“Skin of Evil”
One of STMG’s most famous episodes. Finally someone on an away team other than a “red shirt” faces the ultimate danger. Unfortunately, it was not a choice the producers would have made if the actor wasn’t already looking to exit, and they would not repeat the experiment again—so the danger-level going forward is not very real. That being said it is a moving moment, making death in Star Trek a threat.

The way they chose to kill Yar off was also interesting. The nature of evil is explored in compelling ways. The conversation between Picard and the “Skin of Evil” is an interesting one that has a lot of truth to it.

“Coming of Age” and “Conspiracy”
The best episode of the first season is preceded by a set-up episode, giving the whole threat more weight. A conspiracy at the very heart of the federation with intrigue, betrayal and suspicion all around! It may just be a fun bit of excitement (with unfortunate effects at times) but we need our entertainment to, well entertain at times. Otherwise the show would become a series of Secular Humanist parables, and no one wants pure religious propaganda!

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