I finished watching (or, I suppose, re-watching) the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation earlier this week. It was an interesting experience, especially since a lot of these episodes I hadn’t seen since I was nine or ten years old or so. I remember watching “The Naked Now” in 1987, furiously trying to figure out who was the ‘hero’ in this show, since nobody seemed to be cooler than anyone else. I remember that I wound up settling on Riker, since he was the tall white man with hair, and 1980s television had taught me that such men were heroic by default. It was confusing that he wasn’t in charge, though.
What was also confusing to nine-year-old me was what on earth Tasha Yar and Data were going to do in her bedroom.
Anyway, fast forward about a quarter century, and here we are: the best episode and the worst episode (in my estimation) in the first season of this iconic show.
The Worst Episode: “Code of Honor”
Since I want to end this post on the upswing, let’s start with the bad one, shall we? This episode has been called “the worst episode of Star Trek ever made”, apparently. I can see it, since this episode is borderline racist, overtly sexist, and entirely stupid.
The Enterprise needs a vaccine from this planet to help some other planets with a nasty plague. The aliens on this planet are intended to be like Africans from a semi-traditional African tribal civilization. Sort of. The important thing that comes across here is that all the aliens are black people. Now, this isn’t racist in and of itself (obviously), but the extent to which these actors are portraying a caricature of African Tribal culture comes close. They come off as silly and savage and they wear ridiculous, shiny outfits that look like the stuff a genie would wear.
Then, their leader up and steals himself a woman – Tasha Yar – and gives out an artificial, inauthentic triumphant laugh before beaming down to the planet.
Okay, so that’s silly. Of course, Troi is harping on and on about how that’s their culture and they need to play along with his little game and so on. Granted, it’s probably good that they did just beam up Tasha and then bombard that jerks house with photon torpedoes (peaceful relations and so-on), but still you want to say ‘seriously, Starfleet? We’re going to let this slide?’ This, of course, is why I would make a crappy diplomat.
Anywho, this dude is in the middle of some kind of land-grab attempt that involves switching wives or something (the women own the property, the men run the property). He wants to marry Tasha, since this means his current first wife will challenge her to a duel to the death. Tasha, to her credit, says “whatever, lady – you can have the jackass” to which the woman responds “how can you not love him? Is he not manly and attractive?”
Tasha’s response is “well, obviously I am attracted to my kidnapper, what with his strong manly body and what-not.” Wow. Like, just wow. Somewhere out there, a bunch of young men got a bunch of really incorrect ideas on wooing women. “I know,” they say to their buddies, “if I drug her and throw her in the back of my El Camino, she will totally want to do it when she wakes up in my basement!”
No, 1987 teenage boys. Bad.
Anyway, the episode culminates in a ridiculous duel between Tasha and Wife in a maze of neon tubes while wielding what ~amounts to fatally poisonous porcupines on one hand. All around them, the men cheer and hoot as though they’re watching a mud wrestling exhibition at a monster truck rally. At least the episode had the decency of having them wear clothing. As it stands, the fight isn’t so much sexist as it is really, really dumb. Whatever happened to just fighting with knives? Why are they jumping around in a neon box full of weird glowing tubes? What kind of battle scenarios is this planet used to? Do their wars always happen in jungle gyms? If they did, wouldn’t you devise a weapon that you were less likely to kill yourself with? Sheesh.
In the end, everything works out – doesn’t really matter how, does it? The fact is that, while I was watching this episode, I wasn’t sure to what degree I ought to be offended. I mean, if these ‘aliens’ weren’t arbitrarily cast as African Americans, would it feel as racist as it did? I don’t know, honestly. I felt like I was watching some weird offspring of Flash Gordon and a Blacksploitation flick. Not good, Star Trek. Not good at all.
The Best Episode: “Too Short a Season”
Now, this episode was a good indicator of how interesting TNG was going to become in future seasons. Don’t get me wrong – the first season of TNG wasn’t terrible by any means. There were about as many solid episodes as there were duds, and much of the silliness could be explained by merely shaking your head and saying “Oh, 1987, you cad, you.” When I think of
what this show was competing with on television – the likes of MacGyver, Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, ALF, and Matlock – it stands up just fine. “Too Short a Season”, though, was an episode with legitimate emotional depth and a nice, clean arc.
The episode deals with an elderly Starfleet admiral with a degenerative disease being asked to return to a planet he once negotiated a hostage release from in order to negotiate another hostage release. He beams up with his charming wife and caretaker, and the story gets rolling. Then weird stuff starts happening – the old man starts getting younger, becoming more virile, more like his young, brash self. You can tell he was once a hero of the Federation, clever and resolute.
How is this happening? Well, he’s taken an experimental drug to make himself younger. He hated being confined to a chair, to surrendering to old age, and so he risked the dangerous procedure to make himself strong and ready for the tough task of negotiating the release of innocent people from bloodthirsty terrorists. The cost, though, is alienation from his wife (whom he loves) and very nearly failing his mission.
At the same time as he is trying to become younger, he is also trying to atone for what he did to this planet in question years ago. To get the hostages back that first time, the terrorists wanted advanced weapons. So, he gave them to them, but he also gave them to all the other factions on the planet. He thought this would even things out and keep the peace, but instead it resulted in decades of bloody civil war and the death of tens of millions. By getting younger, he is metaphorically turning back the clock – he is trying to do the right thing this time. In the end, he gives his life for it. No one is pleased, not even the terrorist leader who simply wanted to make him suffer.
This episode had a certain weight to it. It was powerful at moments, and the acting was superb. Though not the best episode in this series by half, it was a very, very good one and showed just how far one could take the ‘morality play in space’ concept.
That’s it for now. When I finish watching the second season (whenever that happens), I’ll do this again, methinks. Anyway, thanks for reading!