Review: Star Trek: TNG ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ (Blu-ray)

The first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was just released on Blu-ray. TrekMovie has already reviewed the full set but (like we did with the remastered original Star Trek series), today we begin our reviews of the individual episodes from the series, starting with the two-part pilot "Encounter at Farpoint."    



REVIEW: "Encounter at Farpoint" from Star Trek: TNG S1 Blu-ray
by Jeff Bond

The Trek Remastered quest continues, what is it—six years later? And it’s kind of a miracle. You might think that redoing visual effects from scratch (the approach taken for the original Star Trek Remastered project) is a bigger challenge than what’s being done with Star Trek – The Next Generation in its upgrading from original broadcast quality to HD, but you’d be wrong—the physical process of tracking down elements (sometimes as many as a dozen or so per shot depending on how many spaceships are in the frame) and recompositing everything is pretty staggering, and CBS/Paramount is spending a mint to do this. It’s something I don’t think any of us thought would happen this soon, and it’s kind of a gift.

It’s also, of course, an opportunity to look back at these shows all over again, so you’ll have to put up with my (and others’) sometimes jaundiced perspective on TNG. I came to the series as an adult Trekkie, someone that had been watching TOS since I was 10 years old—so naturally I not only compared the new show to the old one, I also picked up on the pretty obvious lifts of ideas from the original series that haunted TNG during its first season. Watching the show’s first two years was an exercise in frustration—it clearly showed promise, but compared to the first year of TOS, TNG’s stories and characters lacked focus, the show seemed to meander from scene to scene, and particularly in the handling of Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher character, there often seemed to be some confusion as to whether the show was being written and produced for adults or for younger viewers. But it was new Star Trek, so we all continued to watch—and by year three the show got remarkably better.

A new Star Trek show with a new ship and a new crew sets out in "Encounter at Farpoint"

“Encounter at Farpoint” was written by Dorothy Fontana and Gene Roddenberry, and executive produced by Robert H. Justman—so its Trek bona fides can’t really be questioned. However by 1987, Roddenberry had evolved into something more like a futurist than a dramatic television series producer, and his ideas sometimes were at odds with the goal of creating the drama and conflict that should ideally draw audiences in.

The basic story of “Farpoint” involves a mystery regarding a newly constructed starbase on the planet Deneb IV—something that would probably have eaten up a standard hour of television. Supposedly late in the game Roddenberry added the idea of a god-like alien being interrupting the Enterprise D’s mission and putting humanity on trial—a rather standard trope from the original series.

Away team beaming down in "Encounter at Farpoint"

I remember watching the premiere of the series and being embarrassed by what really seemed like a lame rehash of the Trelane character from TOS’s “The Squire of Gothos.” Of course Q (John DeLancie) would eventually become one of the show’s most popular recurring characters, and DeLancie does start to make the role his own by the end of the episode. But the borrowing and rehashing of old ideas was endemic to the show. Data (Brent Spiner) was a retread not only of Spock, but of Roddenberry’s rejected pilot The Questor Tapes; Riker and Troi were retreads of Decker and Ilia from Star Trek – The Motion Picture (who in turn were holdovers from Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Phase II series project), and Marinis Sirtis’s character would have been a retread of tough Latina Vasquez from Aliens until Denise Crosby was cast in the security officer role that became Tasha Yar, and Sirtis became touchy-feely Counselor Troi.

Picard and Q face off in "Encounter at Farpoint"

Most TV shows succeed or fail on their casting, and TNG’s casting strengths are evident immediately in “Farpoint.” Patrick Stewart (who had been suggested by Bob Justman for the role while Roddenberry wanted Stephen Macht, a younger, more virile actor) is immediately authoritative and interesting as Jean-Luc Picard, Brent Spiner shows the mix of innocence and humor that would make him ultimately rival Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in popularity, Michael Dorn (despite his early, slightly ridiculous-looking makeup) immediately turns a minor role into a star turn with his grumpy attitude (which reminds me of acting teacher—and former Trek actor—Jeff Corey’s advice to look at what everyone else in the cast is doing and do something completely different), and Jonathan Frakes shows some charismatic charm as Riker. I’d almost forgotten that Colm Meaney is there right at the beginning in another nothing role that would eventually break through and earn him big stories on TNG and a role on DS9.

Blu-ray image: Brent Spiner as Data from "Encounter at Farpoint"

The female actors are not so fortunate. Sirtis eventually found a level for her “I sense great (fill in the emotion)” character that was less annoying, but in “Farpoint” she’s pretty unbearable, and Denise Crosby is saddled with a number of hyperemotional moments that are way outside her range as an actor. Sometimes switching actors’ roles works, but in this case Sirtis was always more convincing in later episodes when Troi got possessed or driven crazy and turned into a monster—she’s much better at the dark side than she is at sweetness and light, and she probably would have been a more convincing security officer than Crosby, who never seemed effective in any circumstance on the show. Gates McFadden’s Beverly Crusher has a few scenes with Picard that suggest dramatic depth, but they are ultimately only suggestions. Despite the much ballyhooed “romance” between Picard and Crusher, Crusher was always a tremendous missed opportunity, basically defined as a mother and caregiver with little in the way of defining personality traits.

Marina Sirtis as Troi in "Encounter at Farpoint"  

Technically, “Farpoint” is an exciting relaunch for the Trek concept, and the HD makeover shows the program as much slicker technically than it seemed at the time. Andy Probert’s Enterprise D has more than its share of detractors but I always loved it as a daring reimagining of the starship, and ILM’s visual effects set a new standard for the franchise. The recompositing upgrades from the original video composites are sharp and show off fantastic detail—the difference between the original, muddy Farpoint jellyfish creatures—one of which the dodgy Bandi race has imprisoned to construct their starbase—is like night and day, turning what originally looked like cheap TV effects to something that’s more like theatrical quality.

Blu-ray image: The USS Enterprise-D "Encounter at Farpoint"

For the most part, we’re looking at what the original effects were intended to look like (unlike the CG makeovers for the TOS Remastered project), but there are some very effective fixes done too. The timing for one shot of the Enterprise fleeing from Q’s pursuing energy ball has been tweaked to much more seamlessly portray the scale and velocity of the chase, and a late-in-the-game shot of the Enterprise beaming energy down to the captured jellyfish creature has been totally redone so that the beam is coming from the Enterprise phaser banks instead of the captain’s yacht where it issued from in the original shot. All of the effects show much more texture and detail and should help to rehabilitate TNG’s reputation for unconvincing video effects early in its run.

CBS fixed the energy beam for "Encounter at Farpoint"

For the most part, the show’s makeup and costuming holds up very well under the HD (TNG was shot on film, and DP Edward Brown no doubt worked under the assumption that his shots would have all the detail of a regular shot-on-film network TV show), although the look of the lighting goes from overly bright and flat (mostly on the bridge) to so dark you almost can’t make out details (for Picard’s first meeting with Riker in his ready room and some scenes in catacombs below the Bandi city). Director Corey Allen plays around with camera angles to create some unusual shots, but there’s still a stagey look to the show compared to the fluid camerawork and vivid cinematography of the original series—TNG wouldn’t find a strong visual look until Marvin Rush came onboard to shoot the show in season three.

The USS Enterprise-D with two space life-forms in "Encounter at Farpoint"

As a story, “Encounter at Farpoint” moves forward in fits and starts—moments of jeopardy and urgency stand weirdly alongside scenes of people just hanging out on the ship, engaging in conversation. TOS did this too—Kirk always had time for a cocktail with McCoy in the middle of an emergency—but the show’s music, editing and performances always managed to maintain some kind of background tension, and that’s missing here, leaving scenes like Picard’s visit to Crusher in sickbay seeming like it belongs in another episode. But Stewart at least always manages to make it seem like there’s something else boiling under the surface—it’s safe to say this show probably would have gotten nowhere without him. All in all, “Encounter at Farpoint” demonstrated the scope, the mix of ideas and intriguing characters that would eventually gel into an excellent television series—it’s a successful audition, but viewers would have to wait for the full payoff.

"Encounter at Farpoint" Old vs. New

Available Now  – price drop to $59.99

The six-disc TNG Season 1 set includes HD remasters (in 1080p and 7.1 DTS audio) of all 26 episodes, plus brand new special features You can order the set at discounted prices: Amazon has lowered their price to $59.99 to match Best Buy. Walmart is selling it for $78.86 

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One

The set is also available for pre-order at Amazon sites around the world.

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