5.31.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 26: The Next Generation (Seasons 1 and 2)

The first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation are remarkably different from the rest of the series. I always assumed this was due to the cast and crew figuring out what worked and what didn't before settling into the visual and tonal consistency of the later seasons. And while that certainly accounts for some of the differences, there is, as always, more to the story.


Before we get to it, let's reintroduce the major players:

Gene Roddenberry: Creator of Star Trek. Removed from the driver's seat of the movies and still bitter about it at the onset of TNG, he went nowhere without his attorney Leonard Maizlish.

Susan Sackett: Longtime personal assistant / girlfriend of Roddenberry's and production associate on TNG. Excommunicated (her characterization) from all things Trek after Roddenberry's death.

David Gerrold: Longtime Trek enthusiast and personal friend of the Roddenberrys, sci-fi author, and unrecognized-by-law co-author of the TNG Bible.

DC Fontana: While not a co-creator of the show, as Gerrold was, a writer with a similar longstanding relationship with Trek and with Roddenberry.

and Rick Berman: The"studio guy," and future overseer of the Trekverse. According to David Gerrold, "Rick was installed on the show by the studio as a way to keep a control on the show, to keep the budgets in line, make sure the scripts were done. Rick was there to manage the details and ensure that production moved along."

It's tempting to imagine Rick Berman as one of the ambassadors from any number of TOS episodes, i.e. the petty-authority who's there just to get in the Captain's way, remind him of regulations, and be a general pest. But Berman claims to have always gotten along with Gene (and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) just fine, and I've seen/ read little to disprove that.

From Gerrold's view, though, "Gene didn't like Berman at all. (Rick) was busy playing studio politics, and he and (Maizlish) would work together to get rid of everybody who was a threat to their power. And nobody knew from one day to the next who Gene was friends with, because Gene didn't even remember who he was friends with from one day to the next. (But) Berman knew how to play studio politics and Maizlish didn't."

Berman, to Gerrold's obvious consternation, didn't involve himself in the wars brewing between Maizlish and everyone else.

Understandable.
That point about Gene not knowing who he was friends with from one day to the next cannot be understated. By the mid-80s, Roddenberry's mental faculties were beginning to fail him, and he relied more and more on his friends and family to keep him focused, a situation Maizlish by all accounts manipulated to his own personal (and short-lived) advantage.

"At his best," Gerrold continues, "Gene could sit down with a bottle of Scotch and a ream of paper. And 8 hours later he'd get up and he'd have a finished script and a half-empty bottle of scotch. (...) He could inspire people to be better than they believed they were capable of. That was his greatest virtue. He was a man who could sell ice to penguins."

One comes across these sort of anecdotes a lot when reading up on Roddenberry and all this stuff (notably not Harlan Ellison:) he was possessed with an abundance of Irish charm, and writing/ revision-wise, when he was on, he was on. But as time and the ravages of his various appetites took their toll, he increasingly lost the ability to focus. He never finished any of his various projects, and his work began to get a little... wonky. When asked which parts exactly of the TNG bible Gene wrote, Gerrold said: "Gene wrote one 16-page draft of the bible, and less than a dozen memos, several of which were embarrassing for their sexual content."


This comment about the sexual content is interesting. As recounted in Susan Sackett's Inside Star Trek and Walter Koenig's Warped Factors, Gene's never-finished manuscript for The God Thing had several brazen scenes that seemed out of place, even for such a scattered and unfinished piece of work. Koenig was asked by Gene to help finish the script in the late 1970s and did so, adding 83 pages to Gene's initial 69, but that "in his (pages) there were several out-of-left-field scenes in which female sirens tantalized Captain Kirk while they engaged in a weightless free-for-all, rolling in oil, their bodies glistening in what began as a sensual gymnastic event for Kirk and turned into a deadly contest for his life. "

A guy who won the original script on eBay confirms both the content and confusion of this. "(Page 59) They were nude of course except for their paragame sandals, and young women that way had a disconcerting way of looking quite different. It disconcerted Kirk that the thought made his own genitals tighten against the metallic mesh which protected male vulnerability during the game." Is it just me, or do those sentences look a bit jumbled?


Sexed-up hi-jinks were part and parcel of TOS, of course, and do not alone paint a picture of a troubled mind. (Nor should the above screencaps, from the S1 episode "Justice," be taken as garden variety examples; they are the exception rather than the rule for two seasons of rather sexless content, actually.) But taken alongside so many other anecdotes about Gene's lack of focus in these years, it's clear Gene was nowhere near his best in the pivotal first few years of TNG's creation. (Indeed, the revisions he made at the time to his will were thrown out when records of his psychological state and daily-toxicology-reports were reviewed; this had the unfortunate result of disenfranchising Roddenberry's daughters from his first marriage from participating in the considerable windfall of profits they otherwise would have shared from TNG.) What little writing he was able to complete seemed preoccupied with things the show could in no way film for a mainstream audience, added to which, he rejected most things the writers brought to him.

The God Thing was eventually "finished" by Michael Jan Friedman and is available now for purchase, but by all accounts, it's not the same story Koenig worked on.
Back to Gerrold:

"Gene was having very small strokes in meetings, and he wasn't nearly as active as we hoped he would be. We all stayed there as long as we did because of Gene. If it were any other show, we would say, "Fuck you," and walk off." (...) I was supposed to be a producer, but they kept whittling my duties. And my title. And my pay. And I finally got the very clear message that Gene's lawyer didn't like me. And that whatever Gene promised me, the lawyer was going to take away. And the lawyer was afraid that Gene was going lose control of the show. So what he did was significantly undermine everybody that might be a threat to Gene. He appointed himself chief of staff, and the result was that we had a lawyer running the show, a lawyer who had no knowledge of how to do television, no knowledge of what Star Trek was supposed to be about. And he was rewriting scripts."

This last bit, a violation of rules and etiquette the Writer's Guild takes very seriously, led to the plug being pulled on Roddenberry's (and Maizlish's) day-to-day involvement with the show. Later, when Gerrold sued to receive his due credit for co-creating TNG, "the Executive Director of the WGAW had a private meeting with (Gene) in which he explained several very good reasons why Gene should encourage a settlement. Not the least of these reasons was that Gene's own reputation would be sullied if the testimony continued. There were over twenty witnesses prepared to testify against Gene and his lawyer's behavior. (Maizlish) had turned it into a grudge match. He was fired and banned from the Paramount lot. (...) He thought he was protecting Gene, but he was hurting (and exploiting) him. I was the second or third person to leave, but there were 30 other people who followed me out the door in that first season alone."

Among these was DC Fontana, a serious blow, as outside of Gerrold, it's no exaggeration to say no one else involved in the franchise understood Trek as comprehensively as she did. (EDIT: I can't believe I neglected to mention Bob Justman, here, but ditto for him, times a thousand.)

Sackett discusses this co-creator controversy in her book and gives Roddenberry's side of things:

"Gene had charged David with the awesome task of finalizing the series bible, utilizing Gene's notes. To David, this was akin to co-creating the series itself, and indeed it was a monumental work when completed. To Gene, however, this was nothing short of Lucifer asking God for co-credit in creating the universe - it just wasn't going to happen. The studio eventually settled with him, but it would be years before there was renewed civility between them."

The terms of Gerrold's agreement with Paramount were that Roddenberry would continue to receive sole credit and that Gerrold could not disclose any details of the settlement. In the wake of all the above, Maizlish, Roddenberry, Gerrold, Sackett, Fontana and many others were gone, and the studio gave sole control of the successful-in-spite-of-itself franchise to Berman. Berman consolidated the creative team  (Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore, Ira S. Behr, and Brannon Braga) that would take Trek forward, but that is a tale for next time.


SEASONS ONE AND TWO

Despite the considerable chaos and confusion of all the above, seasons one and two of TNG are not without their charms. Although the characters take some time to find their sea legs ...

Especially Troi, who seems either in or near-to tears in just about every scene she's in until the third season.

... the core concepts are introduced and explored fairly well. As a bigger fan of the later seasons and the Berman era in general, I've tended to overlook the positives of seasons 1 and 2, so this rewatch was rather enlightening to me. I won't pretend they aren't a mess in many ways, but they're definitely an interesting mess. Not quite bullseyes, but the dartboard itself is more expansive than most television shows, then or after.

Marina Sirtis responds to seeing herself in comic book form.
The character of Wesley Crusher might suffer the most from the writing-room wars of the first two seasons, something he spends considerable time on in his Just a Geek and Memories of the Future vol. 1 books.
If the show had been cancelled before season 3, there'd still be plenty to talk about. Nevertheless, I only did a top 3 for seasons 1 and 2 and combined them into the top 6 below. Please feel free to take me to task in the comments. (Plot summaries provided by our friends at Memory-Alpha.)

6.
Season 1, Episode 24

Captain Picard encounters a woman from his past after her scientist husband's experiments begin to unravel the fabric of time.

Although the holodeck and the crew's extracurricular activities were hardly under-explored throughout Season One, here we get a pretty good representation of both, as well as a pretty solid and well-developed story.

I like in particular how matter-of-factly the cross-dimensional Datas deal with their predicament at story's end.

5.
Season 1, Episode 6

When an experimental engine modification throws the Enterprise to the edge of the known universe, the crew must rely on a mysterious alien to guide the ship home. 

Written by Diane Duane (who wrote a few memorable Pocket Books adventures of Spock and the gang) and Michael Reaves (who wrote the pretty-damn-good episode of New Voyages/ Phase 2, "World Enough and Time") and directed by TV vet Rob Bowman, this is a fairly standard Trekverse tale: engines run amok, thrown several thousand light years off course, how do we get home, yadda yadda. But that's not to say it's not fun to watch, and as a showcase for what kind of fx TNG was capable of, it's definitely a standout.


(If you're at all interested in Trek-geek continuity errors, the relevant section of the M-A is kinda fun. I wondered about some of the speed/ light-year numbers given in this episode even at the time of its original airing.)

4.
Season 2, Episode 16

Q throws the Enterprise into uncharted space where it encounters and is engaged by a vessel of a previously unknown species: the Borg. When the vessel instantly and effortlessly overwhelms the Enterprise, Picard realizes that the Federation may not be as ready for the future as he thought.

Here we have the first mention of The Borg, and their introduction is admirably mysterious. At the time I was rather annoyed at the lack of info, but over time I came to appreciate it. Their subsequent presence in the series is strengthened by their first appearing like this.


 
Though why anyone in the Q Continuum would be in any way intimidated by Guinan is never explained. Obviously there's more to her species than we ever learn, but unless she's omnipotent, there's no way Q would act the way he does here. Sure, Q exhibits many petty quirks and inconsistencies, but... come on.

3.
Season 1, Episode 1

Captain Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the USS Enterprise-D on its maiden voyage, to examine a new planetary station for trade with the Federation. On the way, they encounter Q, an omnipotent extra-dimensional being, who challenges humanity as a barbaric, inferior species. Picard and his new crew must hold off Q's challenge and solve the puzzle of Farpoint station on Deneb IV, a base that is far more than it seems to be.

I must have watched this one a hundred times when it first came out. The novelty of a new Trek show was pretty spectacular back in 1987. (Flash forward to 2013: There are a half-dozen fan-fic shows alone, never mind the 600+ hours of Trek-tv one can watch pretty much for free, on any number of platforms. Back then, when we wore buckles on our shoes and churned our own butter, Trek was a lot harder to come by.) The bits about World War 3 were likewise very intriguing to a young me.


I somehow had convinced myself in the years since then, though, that this wasn't all that good or that the characters didn't seem like themselves, or something. But not only are the characters pretty well established and (mostly) like how they'd come to be known in subsequent seasons, the story itself isn't all that bad.

 
 
It's weird to see Worf and Geordi in different roles, particularly Geordi. I think they were going for a "HEY! THE BLIND MAN IS FLYING THE SHIP!" sort of vibe with him at first, but he definitely works better in Engineering.
I was also impressed with the very ending. Although Troi/Riker's telepathic link is never mentioned anywhere else but in this episode, the concept of "Imzadi," i.e. Betazoid for beloved/ soul-mate, is resurrected in Nemesis, and given a nice bit of visual design at episode's end.

The aliens are reunited - one of those cosmic orgasms/ unities Roddenberry liked so much - but not before this nice bit of framing:

So, here at the very beginning of TNG, we have it established pretty clearly that Troi and Riker belong together, and at the very end (i.e. Nemesis) we see their marriage and the cast's "farewell party." Not a bad bit of book-ending. (This does not excuse the many other problems of Nemesis, but don't you worry, we'll get to those.)

2.
Season 2, Episode 12

The Enterprise investigates the wreckage of a 21st century Earth spaceship orbiting a distant planet and the appearance of a casino with inhabitants based on a rather poorly written paperback novel. 

This episode has always stuck with me over the years. On account of some of its imagery, to be sure, namely these two:

 

Apparently the original script by Tracy Tormé (son of Mel) was altered so much that he used his pseudonym Keith Mills; you can read more about this at the M-A should you so desire. I think the idea of being trapped in a poorly-written, boilerplate, forever-running alien videogame is a great one. (Ironically, it was rewritten because Maurice Hurley - who Berman says is the guy who created the Borg; one for Trek trivia night - thought it too closely resembled TOS "Piece of the Action;" I'd have guessed "Spectre of the Gun.") Its execution is a bit lacking, and compared to s3-and-beyond episodes, I might even consider it a failure. But against the backdrop of the second season (arguably the series' weakest, thanks in no small part to the Writers Stike that happened that year, or to the presence of Dr. Pulaski) it works well enough.


And finally:
1.
Season 2, Episode 11

The Enterprise and a Romulan warbird are attacked by the same computer virus that has already destroyed one Federation starship of the same class as the Enterprise

That's not the handiest plot summary, actually, as the real meat of this episode is the concept of the Iconians, an ancient, long-gone race whose lingering technology/ gateway provides the mystery of the story. The pics below bring The Guardian of Forever to mind, but one that doesn't talk and is surrounded by even more mysterious machinery and unknown alien symbolism.

 

On one hand, it's yet another "Some mysterious computer virus infects the Enteprise stories," but as such stories go, it's one of the better ones, and the fx are outstanding.


I must have bitched about the Romulan ship re-design in my life more than I've bitched about just about any other topic. I say this with considerable awareness of how trivial such a complaint is, but great Scott, Marty.

 
Picard doesn't like it, either.
I can't bring myself to care too passionately about the space-pretzel look these days, but it was nice to see the old design so lovingly recreated for Byrne's Trek stories. One weird thing about the Romulans is every time they re-appear, they always seem to throw out everything we've learned about the species / concept and start from scratch. It gets a little annoying.

Incidentally, this bit with Geordi's wild ride in the turbolift inspired this fun video mash-up. (EDIT: Huh, apparently that's just the clip; I swear at one point that link opened to an extended "remix" of Geordi flying around with lots of techno. My bookmark was either incorrect, or it changed. Ah well. Y'all know how Google works, if you want to hunt for it.)
NEXT:
The Best of Season 3