Last year, I compared the final episodes of every Star Trek series that had finished its run, so it was only a matter of time before I reversed the polarity and looked at where each series began.* While a story’s ending determines how the audience remembers it, the beginning determines if they’ll stick around long enough to remember anything in the first place. That’s especially true of TV shows and novels – long stories where the audience can easily stop if they get bored. Since there are eight premieres to examine, I’m splitting them into two posts. This week, we look at the bottom four and see if there are any gems of wisdom to be salvaged.
TNG has easily the best finale of any Trek show, so it might be surprising that Captain Picard and his crew start in such humble origins. Encounter at Farpoint isn’t the worst Star Trek episode out there,* but it’s very bad, and the reasons why are foundational: it tries to tell two stories at the same time. I don’t mean the common TV practice of an A plot and a B plot. That technique features one primary plot for the story’s main action and a secondary plot that’s usually for character development. I’d rarely recommend it in a novel, but it works okay for TV. Instead, Farpoint has two A plots.
The first plot is the mystery of Farpoint Station: how it was built so quickly by a relatively low-tech species, and why it always seems to have whatever visitors want the moment they think of it. That’s not the most gripping premise I’ve ever heard of since the initial stakes are quite low, but it could have served. The second plot is Q putting humanity on trial as a “savage race.”
These two stories aren’t related in any way except that Q announces he’ll decide humanity’s fate based on whether or not they can solve the problem at Farpoint. But the Farpoint mystery has nothing to do with the moral issues Q supposedly cares about. Instead, it’s a question of whether the crew can figure out that Farpoint is actually an enslaved alien life-form. The only moral moment is when Picard decides not to fire on the life-form’s mate, but there’s no reason he would since it’s not threatening his ship. Q might as well have picked a random holodeck episode and said that was a test for humanity.
With two unrelated plots competing for space, Encounter at Farpoint feels constantly underdeveloped, even though it’s twice the length of a normal episode. Even if each plot was great on its own, the choice to combine them was never going to work. And unfortunately, neither plot is good on its own either. The Farpoint mystery is just unengaging, as it has no meaningful stakes until fairly late in the episode, when a mysterious ship appears and starts shooting at the planet. Even then, the characters seem remarkably unconcerned about the mounting civilian casualties, and if they’re not concerned, why should I be?
Meanwhile the Q plot is just as boring, but not for lack of stakes. Q is planning to trap humanity in the Sol system forever, which sounds pretty bad. Instead, this story drags because the characters have no agency in it. There’s nothing they can do against Q, and it’s almost immediately clear he won’t be swayed by any of their arguments. Nor is what Q says at all interesting or profound, other than one very brief moment where he mocks American foreign policy in the Cold War. The rest is just trolling Picard while we wait for the episode to start again. That’s why the best Q episodes have him appear to stir up some trouble, then leave our heroes to deal with it. He’s just too powerful otherwise.
The episode further slows itself down so we can do introductions for each main character. Data and Riker hang out on the holodeck. Picard and Crusher begin the longest will-they-won’t-they of all time. Wesley goes up to the bridge for a look around. Worf bakes a Klingon blood pie. Okay, that last one didn’t actually happen, but I bet it took you a second to be sure.
None of these character introductions are related to the plot, and they slow the episode down even more. I’m not sure why the writers decided we needed to meet each character like they were in a job interview. Audiences can get to know a character and enjoy a plot at the same time!
Speaking of characters, the final nail in the Encounter at Farpoint coffin is that none of them are really working yet.
- Picard is a grumpy jerk who orders subordinates to perform dangerous tasks for no reason, a far cry from the beloved leader of later seasons.
- Data’s cultural ignorance is dialed up to eleven, which raises questions of how he could have attended Starfleet Academy for four years without learning anything about human socializing.
- Troi stares daggers at Riker in a scene where she’s supposed to be happy to see him.
- Worf and Yar probably get the worst of it, with our Klingon friend unable to tell that he can’t shoot someone through the viewscreen while the chief of security has nothing to add when the ship’s security is brought up.
The list goes on, and these issues persist for most of the first season, and often into the second season. It’s not until season three that TNG really comes into its own, and that’s far too late for Encounter at Farpoint.
I’ll admit, it was a real challenge to decide whether Broken Bow should get seventh or eight place on this list, because it is also very bad. What finally edged this episode out over Farpoint is that conceptually, Broken Bow is mostly fine. It’s just that literally everything about the concept is executed badly. Very badly.
In Broken Bow, Starfleet sends out their first deep space vessel on an important mission of diplomacy. The Federation doesn’t even exist yet, and technology is much less advanced than shows that take place later in the timeline. Earth has strained relations with the Vulcans and is just starting to find its way in a galaxy full of much more powerful civilizations. That sounds like a great episode! Too bad every single thing goes wrong. The episode starts with a white farmer gunning down a Klingon played by Black actor Tommy Lister Jr., and that is somehow not the worst part.*
Most of the characters in this pilot are incredibly unpleasant to watch. Archer and Trip are unrepentantly racist against Vulcans for… not giving humans advanced tech fast enough. The entitlement on display is amazing. Don’t worry, the Vulcans are just as bad. In Enterprise, “suppressed emotions” apparently means “constantly seething with barely contained rage,” because that’s how every Vulcan is played in this episode, including T’Pol.
T’Pol is particularly horrible to Sato, who is written to be afraid of everything. Even when Sato is doing an objectively great job, the scenes are framed to emphasize how every single space thing terrifies her. Reed and Mayweather are the least obnoxious by virtue of having the least screen time, but they still find a moment to make puerile jokes about alien women.
Some of this will eventually be turned into character arcs. Archer and Trip become less racist, the Vulcans fix their rage issues, and Sato learns to be less afraid. But Enterprise is a classic example of making your characters so unlikable at the beginning that many viewers won’t even want to watch them grow. Plus, no amount of development will excuse making every high ranking officer a white dude like Broken Bow does, both on and off the ship.*
Then we get into the incompetence issue. Instead of emphasizing how hostile aliens have more advanced tech, the characters are portrayed as barely able to operate their own tech. Tucker can’t pilot a shuttle without bumping into stuff, but they keep picking him to fly shuttles. Archer can’t get through one diplomatic dinner without foaming at the mouth with rage about Vulcans not giving his dad more tech. When the characters land on a strange planet for an important search, Reed and Mayweather wander off to watch alien dancers instead. You know, cause neither of them has ever seen a pretty lady before.
This is almost as bad as Another Life. A crew of real astronauts would have wrapped up this whole problem in ten minutes. Oh, and we also have the ranking white dudes taking on jobs they aren’t remotely qualified for, so that’s nice. The ship’s Black pilot, Mayweather, is constantly starved for screen time, both in this episode and in the series as a whole. So when an important piloting job comes up, they obviously give it to Trip “Shuttle Crasher” Tucker. Nice?
The plot isn’t great either. We have a potentially interesting arc about rebel Suliban cut short before it can go anywhere, and the villains often seem to be waiting around for our heroes (for lack of a better term) to do something. But it’s hard to compete with just how awful the characters and worldbuilding are. Don’t worry, though, this episode does introduce the Temporal Cold War, which will go on to ruin Enterprise plots for years to come!
The Vulcan Hello* starts off with a lot of promise. We have Captain Georgiou and Commander Burnham exchanging top-quality banter while helping some local aliens with their drought problem. Very nice. It’s a little silly when they signal their ship by tracing out a giant combadge in the sand, but whatever: these are two engaging characters on a mission we care about, which is more than I can say for the previous two entries. I especially like Captain Georgiou, and I really hope they don’t kill her off, only to replace her with a cartoonishly evil clone from the Mirror Universe.
Once they return to the ship, the episode continues to show promise. Burnham also has great banter with Science Officer Saru, even if we do engage in a little Starfleet Racism™ by making broad generalizations about Saru’s species. Then it’s off to investigate a mysterious alien artifact, which is found near a damaged Federation outpost. No one knows what the artifact is, but it was clearly put here to draw Starfleet’s interest, so Burnham is gonna check it out. Also, everything in this show is exceptionally pretty. Easily the best special effects work we’ve seen on a Star Trek show yet.
You might be wondering: If the episode starts out so well, why is it sitting at #6? Are the rest of the episodes just that good? No. There’s one thing and one thing only that drags this episode down to a sixth-place spot: the Klingons. Everything about them is terrible, starting with their visual design. For better or worse, Star Trek loves redesigning the Klingons, and this time it’s clearly for the worse. They’re all bald for some reason, and their armor is so covered in spikes that I can’t imagine how they move without stabbing themselves. They’ve also lost the ability to enunciate properly, whether they’re speaking in English or their own language. I don’t know if this was an intentional choice or if it was caused by the prosthetics, but it sounds very silly.
Far worse than Klingon aesthetics is their role in the plot. We focus on T’Kuvma and his plan to make Kronos great again by provoking a brutal war with the Federation. The episode shows us nothing to make T’Kuvma’s view even a little sympathetic, and yet we spend a large chunk of screen time on him revving the other Klingons up for war. It’s frustrating to watch Star Trek’s most iconic villains reduced to violent caricatures, and it’s boring too. We have no reason to care about T’Kuvma, so he shouldn’t have this much screen time! He doesn’t even have to overcome any challenges to unite the other Klingon houses; he just turns on a beacon and they arrive. Why do we spend so much time on him?!
Then the Klingon side of the story infects Burnham with its awfulness. After a chat with Sarek, she decides that since the Klingons are trying to provoke a war, the best course of action is to… fire on them first? Then they’ll apparently go away. To be clear, she isn’t talking about a preemptive strike to destroy the Klingons before they can attack. That would make a ruthless kind of sense. But since her ship has no chance of doing that against a much larger enemy vessel, Burnham’s plan amounts to hoping the Klingons will go away because they respect her in-your-face attitude. This plan is obviously doomed, but Burnham believes in it so much that she mutinies trying to implement it. Fortunately, Georgiou stops her and it’s time for a nice trip to the brig.
In arguing for her plan, Burnham also demonstrates more of that Starfleet Racism we know and hate. When questioned on her absurd plan, Burnham claims that the Klingons are sure to attack because it’s “in their nature.” After another officer points out how racist that is, Burnham says, “It would be unwise to confuse race and culture.” Oh, so she doesn’t think Klingons are inherently violent, just their culture. I wonder if she thinks that Jews aren’t genetically greedy; we’re just raised in a greedy culture. Of course, the episode is set up to prove Burnham right, because Discovery’s Klingons are evil cartoon characters, which just makes it worse.
Once the battle actually starts, The Vulcan Hello picks back up. Burnham actually comes up with a good plan this time: capturing T’Kuvma so he can’t become a martyr. Plus the special effects are fun to watch. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough to salvage the episode. The awful Klingon depictions hang around its neck like a lead weight, and nothing is going to make that better. As a final kick in the teeth, Georgiou dies, and Burnham deliberately sabotages her own plan by killing T’Kuvma in revenge. Great. It’s arguable whether that was in character for Burnham, since her character is still being established, but it’s frustrating either way. Plus, we’ve just lost one of Star Trek’s best captains. Not a fantastic way to start a new show.
Warping in as the best of the worst, we have Caretaker, the first episode of Voyager’s seven-year trip through the Delta Quadrant. There’s good Trek, there’s bad Trek, and there’s okay Trek. Caretaker has to rank among the okayest Star Trek episodes I have ever seen.
It has a lot of the problems found in previous entries, but not nearly as bad. For example, instead of following Janeway at the beginning, we mostly follow Kim and Paris. Kim is the butt of several jokes, which is clearly setting up a series-long growth arc where he gains confidence and becomes more of a badass, right?* This sequence is similar to the extended character introductions from Encounter at Farpoint, but it goes by a lot quicker. Maybe that’s because most of the characters Paris and Kim meet will die when the ship is brought to the Delta Quadrant, so there’s no reason to spend a lot of time on them.
For the characters who do stick around, they’re not great, but they’re not nearly as bad as those in Broken Bow.
- Janeway is a bit of a cypher, and while she does pick on Kim a bit, she’s got nothing on Archer or Picard for general assholery. Also, she seems to know how to do her job, which is always nice to see in a captain.
- The episode tries comically hard to make Paris an edgy bad boy and it just does not work. Instead, he mostly comes across as inoffensively bland.
- Torres’s primary trait is having anger issues, which is not what I’d have picked for the first Latina main character, but Voyager’s gonna Voyager.
- Chakotay is the strangest. In some scenes, he appears to be a fiery resistance leader, passionate and ready to take charge. In others, he’s already wearing his subdued, almost wooden persona that he adopts for the rest of the series. I’m guessing the actor was getting mixed direction signals, but it’s impossible to say.
- The Doctor is the major bright spot, even though he doesn’t feature much in this episode. Everyone loves a bit of holographic sarcasm to spice up their episode.
The plot is also distinctly okay. While searching for Chakotay’s Maquis ship, Voyager is grabbed and pulled into the Delta Quadrant. This isn’t really a surprise to anyone, including those who watched when the show first aired thanks to all the marketing, but it’s a decent setup for exploring strange new worlds without any support from the rest of Starfleet.
The first major problem is a clash in tone. While the crew is very sad about being trapped in the Delta Quadrant, no one seems broken up about the dozens of people who just died when the ship made its unplanned journey. There’s even a scene where Kim, Paris, and the Doctor exchange lighthearted banter in a sick bay full of corpses. It’s the first sign of Voyager having a premise far darker than the writers seemed to want, and it won’t be the last.
The aliens we meet are all on the bad side of average. The Kazon don’t have time to achieve their full incompetence in this episode, but they are still a space-faring civilization that can’t seem to find any water. You have warp drives, Kazon. Go to another planet and pick some up! The Ocampa make even less sense. They only live nine years, which is absurd for a humanoid species, and apparently they don’t practice any kind of cooking to make their food taste better. That’s probably the least believable trait of any alien in Star Trek history, and I’m including the ones that age backward.
But of course, the worst alien we meet is Neelix. He’s so obviously full of crap that even the other characters exchange knowing looks as he boasts about how much he can help them. But for some reason they decide to trust him anyway, and he immediately betrays them to rescue Kes, his Ocampa girlfriend. I have no idea how the two of them could have formed a relationship since Kes was captured by the Kazon immediately upon leaving the sealed-off Ocampa city, but there you have it.
Then Janeway decides to take Neelix along for the ride because of all these supposed skills he clearly doesn’t have. It’s a terrible introduction for a terrible character. Oh, and he also acts like having plentiful water is some unimaginable luxury as if he’s from the desert planet too, but he’s not. Was he originally supposed to be a Kazon and someone forgot to change the script? Who knows!
Probably the episode’s most contentious moment is when Janeway destroys the Caretaker’s array to keep the Kazon from getting their hands on it, trapping Voyager and the Maquis in the Delta Quadrant. And yeah, this moment is widely mocked for a reason. All the characters needed was to set a short fuse on their explosives before teleporting back home. But this scene does take place during a battle with the Kazon, so that helps cover it. With some better dialogue and choreography, it wouldn’t be too difficult to set up a scenario where timed explosives weren’t an option. This is still a problem with the episode, but I’m not as hard on it as some Trekkies.
A final problem with the episode comes at the end, when the Maquis are seamlessly integrated into Voyager’s Starfleet crew. This is way too early for that, and it shows how absolutely uninterested the writers were in the idea of a split crew, even though that was the show’s entire premise. On the other hand, it does help prepare the audience for future stories with a lot of wasted potential, which is Voyager’s most reliable feature for the next seven seasons.
Thankfully, we’re now finished with the worst premieres that Star Trek has to offer, at least so far. With Paramount still intent on flooding the zone with new Trek shows, maybe they’ll manage to make something worse than Encounter at Farpoint. I doubt it, but anything’s possible. Tune in next time as we look at the first episodes that are actually, dare I say it, good!
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