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Encounter at Dumbpoint

Here’s a screen grab from the teleplay to the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” by D.C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry—but really, the lameness is all Roddenberry. This comes near the end of the show. As you can see, as cringeworthy as the episode is, it could have been even worse. (All of these scripts are online.)

And yes, I know the episode is important for introducing the character of Q. As bad a writer as Roddenberry was, his ideas and dictums nevertheless led to many pivotal concepts and characters.

The cable channel H&I (“Heroes and Icons”) airs a nightly Star Trek block, six days a week. I often check out the Star Trek (8pm) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (9pm) episodes as they cycle through their inventory every three and seven months, respectively.

What can I say? I love Star Trek.

Last week, the TNG episodes flipped over from “All Good Things…” to “Encounter at Farpoint,” meaning the actors got seven years younger and OH GOD THIS FIRST SEASON SUCKS!

Having been an impressionable age (13) in the fall of 1987, and quite passionate about Star Trek, may I take you back to what that was like?

It was soooooo depressing—and weird, too.

We Trekkies were accustomed to waiting two to three years for a new movie—and Star Trek IV had been terrific, a crowd pleaser that was the first time in our lives we could say in public, “I’m a Star Trek fan,” and people were like, “Oh yeah, I liked that.”

The news that Trek was coming back to television was mindblowing. We followed cast updates in Starlog. (I was expecting “Cheryl” McFadden—her given first name—as Dr. Crusher.) Then, it finally premiered…Saturday night at 7pm, I think on September 26, 1987. (It might have been the week after in our market.)

On Martha’s Vineyard, it was on channel 5 from Boston, which had poor reception for our house at the bottom of Christiantown Road in West Tisbury. (My parents refused to put an aerial on the roof, so we had a crummy one in the attic.) I watched a very fuzzy TNG until cable finally arrived down our dirt road at the end of 1988.

The VFX and production design were movie quality. Not surprising—it was mostly the movie sets, and ILM did the effects. It was obvious that Patrick Stewart (who I recognized from Dune) was a superior actor—and that Data was a super interesting character.

Other than that…we sort of forced ourselves to like it, a la Stockholm Syndrome. At the local comic book shop, the proprietor was dismissive, and I remember he cracked that Riker looked like a young Ronald Reagan. (Jonathan Frakes is a super awesome person who made himself into a viable director, but he was cursed by being a character actor in a leading man’s body. In the first season, pre-beard, he was told to play Riker as an unsmiling Gary Cooper, and he looks terribly uncomfortable.)

The first ten episodes are especially terrible, except for “Where No One Has Gone Before” which is phenomenal and seems like an accident. (They did have a terrific young director in those first two years, Rob Bowman, who debuted with that episode.) The human characters are lame, the shows are tired retreads of old plots, Wesley is insufferable, they weren’t sure if Picard or Riker was the lead…it was just so disappointing.

The nadir was the third episode, “Code of Honor,” with the planet run by the bare-chested African warriors who cartoonishly torment the Enterprise with their absurd behavior. It is flat-out racist and even in 1987, I was like, “Uh…did they really do this?” (The casting was the work of director Russ Mayberry, who was fired by Roddenberry—Gene got that right—and replaced by Les Landau during shooting.)

Also, about “Code of Honor,” sorry to say, as much as I love Fred Steiner, his lone score for The Next Generation is old-fashioned and cringe-worthy. Fred was originally going to rotate along with Dennis McCarthy and Ron Jones, but was not asked back. The other outside composer in the first season, George Romanis, who scored the stinker “Too Short a Season,” was apparently an old crony of somebody’s (maybe Roddenberry, maybe Bob Justman) who was given the episode as a retirement present—he never worked again.

This first season was, especially in its first half, so consistently terrible, that you started to doubt your own sanity. “Maybe we’re stupid?” you would think to yourself. “Maybe this is just as good as they can make it? Or maybe this IS good, and we don’t understand it…?”

No…it stunk. And that was finally proven two years later when, to our astonishment, it got totally serious and great—a subject for another time.

So, what happened? Gene Roddenberry had been smoking his press releases—along with many other things—and, not to be unkind, he was simply unfit to be running a television show at that stage in his life. The turmoil of the writing staff the first year has been well documented—even Shatner got into the act with one of his documentaries, Chaos on the Bridge—and the most egregious part was that Roddenberry had a Machiavellian lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, who was secretly rewriting scripts in Gene’s name.

The topic of Roddenberry—his foibles and self-promotion vs. his accomplishments legitimate vision—is not one I care to go into. I’ve met his son Rod on a few occasions, he is an amiable and practical fellow. He understands Star Trek has made him filthy rich, has done a good job being a responsible spokesperson in the press, and makes no pretenses that he’d rather be scuba diving.

It is a fact, to me, that Gene Sr. legitimately produced the first 13 episodes of the Original Series, which are the best and most significant ones they ever did—but after that, nothing under Gene’s direct control came out even remotely well. Pretty Maids All in a Row is egregious, his 1970s TV pilots tanked, The Motion Picture was a runaway production—and TNG was horrendous on his watch.

Oh! Random memory. I bought the TNG Writers’ Guide from one of those mail order places in 1987. It was mostly ghostwritten by David Gerrold, but had all these weird asides about sex (like saying Tasha had a “very female body”) and repeated descriptions of the female characters as “attractive”…folks, I give you Gene Roddenberry. Read it yourself.

I found the icky paragraph (in the character description of Riker) that has stuck with me to this day:

“Although Riker has a lively interest in women, he considers it a point of honor never to let it interfere with his duty. He is intellectually committed to sexual equality too—and tries hard to live up to that. The whole truth is, however, he is still young and hasn’t yet lived enough to understand how completely different the two sexes can be. He’s not fully aware that human females have needs of their own. For example, Riker doesn’t yet fully appreciate the power of the female need to be needed. This helps the fact that the ship’s lovely Betazed Counselor can enjoy his sterling youthful qualities without ever falling helplessly in love with him.”

WTF?!?! Gene, keep it in your pants!

I remember reading this in 1987, thinking, “This is what grown-ups are really like?” (I was 13.)

Halfway through the first season, Roddenberry agreed to step back, and handed the day-to-day writing–showrunning to Maurice Hurley, who was like an Irish drinking buddy. Hurley was at least a real writer, but given to a bleak, pointless, mean-spirited sensibility. He ran the writing staff through the end of season two. Season two sucks, too, but at least it has the excuse that the 1988 writers’ strike messed it up—and there are still some great episodes (“The Measure of a Man” and “QWho”). As there are in season one, to be honest (“11001001” and “Heart of Glory”). And Hurley was responsible for several of those.

I remember seeing “Conspiracy” in 1988—the neural parasites episode—and being so freaked out and disgusted by the exploding head and freaky, foreboding ending, I was like, “I’ll never watch Star Trek again.” Now, it’s pretty cool. The original concept for the episode was that Starfleet officers had gone rogue; Roddenberry said no way, and they changed it to the parasites.

All this aside—when the first season of TNG rolls around (BBC America also cycles through the episodes, they seem to get through a season a week), I always check it out. Maybe it’s the same way my wife likes to taste pickled ginger? She hates it, but can’t resist sampling it and making a pucker-face.

More likely, I simply like the nostalgia of remembering what it was like to be 13 years old in 1987 and excited by new Star Trek on television. It certainly offered more fun and fantasy than real-life concerns (like puberty and my parents’ divorce).

Seeing those early episodes triggers a lot of sense memories that connects me to that time—and it’s also fascinating to see the show stumble through so many weird and bad choices, considering how rigidly it adhered to its own, somewhat stuffy aesthetics in its latter years.

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