TNG Rewatch: Encounter at Farpoint (Season 1, Episode 1)

Introduction

For a while, I’ve been meaning to go through and not only rewatch all of the TNG episodes, but to write about each of them. Doing so will allow me to examine the overarching themes that develop over the course of the series, and how all of those are in dialog with each other.

I don’t plan on recapping each episode super thoroughly; by now, most people have (or should have) seen the episodes since TNG is almost (gulp) 30 years old [if you haven’t watched this series, stop now and go binge watch them on Netflix]. For very detailed episode summaries, I’d advise going over to Memory Alpha and reading what the fine folks there have written. Here’s the episode summary for “Encounter at Farpoint.”

Themes and Discussion

This first episode sets up the notion that humanity has changed for the better and is more than a “savage child race.” Star Trek holds the notion that we can change and that we will. Having the crew “tested” in the opening episode is a way of saying to the audience, “here’s why humans are pretty terrible now, and why we’ll get worse, but then we’ll get better, and this crew is here to show all of you what is possible for all of us.” The idea that we can, as a society, rise above violence is a critical part of Star Trek’s underlying ideology.

In this particular series, Picard differentiates himself from Kirk immediately by being a thinking man, not a fighting man. His goals are to assess and understand the situation and try to find a peaceful or diplomatic way out, not fight his way out.

Even though Picard tells Riker that he’s not a family man, this episode is, in many ways, centered around the notion of family and loved ones. In this episode, we see or explore the relationships of the Crushers, Riker and Troi, and that of the two space entities the Enterprise reunites. This theme is fitting, as the rest of the series revisits it again and again; it is arguably one of the series’ most important themes. Picard may not think of himself as a family man, but he is the man around whom the crew build a family, and that family is their most important one. Perhaps that is a comment on the families you build versus the families you are born into.

You will notice as we go through the series that none of the main crew members are married or have a family (with the exception of Beverly, who has Wesley, and later, Worf, who will have Alexander), despite living on a ship supposedly full of families. Many of the senior officers have various relationships, but most of those only last an episode (Riker and Troi are the exception, and they are on-again-off-again). Did you ever notice that the beds in the crew quarters of the senior officers are just large enough for one person? And many of the families introduced throughout the series are single-parent families, where one of the parents has died. Let’s look at that some more in future episodes and see how this tracks throughout the show.

 Information seeking behavior

When I was doing research in grad school for this paper and others, I found that there was not a lot of literature on the representation of information seeking in literature or popular culture, so part of this exercise is to chronicle that behavior in TNG here.

Most of the information seeking in this episode comes out of direct sensory experience rather than looking for information in the computer. Geordi uses his enhanced vision to examine the walls of Farpoint station. Troi uses her empathic abilities to sense the entities. Riker and Picard question Zorn directly.

Technology/interfaces

We get a first view of many features of this new Enterprise: the transporters, the sleek touch interfaces, Gerodi’s VISOR, and the voice controlled computer. The most impressive is the holodeck (and this one gets the most screen time), which converts energy into matter much the same way the transporters and replicators do. We also get the first view of the saucer separation, which is only used two other times in the series (“Arsenal of Freedom” and “The Best of Both Worlds” part 2) and once in the movies (Generations). 

Use of weapons/force by Starfleet/Federation

Something I’ve been thinking about tracking for a while in Star Trek is the actual use of force. The Federation can easily be read as imperialistic (a flip side of the Borg, really, but that’s a long post for another time), so I’ve been interested in seeing how this plays out in terms of use of force. This is an issue that we are more attuned to now, especially in light of the many instances of the overuse of force by police, so I’m curious how TNG’s portrayal of force might appear to a modern audience.

Uses of weapons/force in this episode:

  1. Torres goes for his phaser when Q initially comes aboard, but Q freezes him before he can use it.
  2. Picard fires photon torpedoes at the Q entity when it is pursuing the ship, but as a way of distracting them and allowing the saucer section to continue to Farpoint.
  3. Riker and Data use phasers to release Zorn from the entity.
  4. Picard has the phasers rigged to send an energy beam to the entity on the planet.

What’s interesting here is that Torres apparently carries a phaser around everywhere. That doesn’t seem like standard procedure, especially when not even the chief of security carries a weapon on board.

The other uses of weapons in this episode by the Enterprise crew are pretty benign in nature; in the last case, the use is subverting the weapon to turn it into aid.

Assorted Musings

Although Picard later tells the story of “a young lieutenant commander I recruited as a first officer,” (in “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1) we hear in this episode that Riker has been assigned to the Enterprise and Picard seems to know little about him.

In the marketplace on the station, Crusher tells the Bandi merchant that she’d like to buy the entire bolt of fabric, to send it to the ship, and “charge it to Dr. Crusher.” As Starfleet and the Federation do not use currency, this seems out of place. In other episodes later on–and in First Contact–we are often told about how the drive for money is ancient and a bit unseemly.

Troi tells Groppler Zorn that she is only half Betazoid and that her “father was a Starfleet officer.” Um, that’s not a species or a race; that’s a job title. He couldn’t have been a Betazoid Starfleet officer? Are we to assume that Starfleet = human? Even though Star Trek is anthropocentric, this still seems a bit heavy-handed.

In this first episode, Conn and Ops are in different places. Here, Conn is to the captain’s left and Ops to the right. In later episodes, Conn is on the right and Ops on the left.

When Picard is on the battle bridge, he sends a signal of surrender with “no terms or conditions.” In one of the few other scenes on the battle bridge, in “Best of Both Worlds,” Riker and Locutus discuss surrender and terms.

Boy, is everyone jumping out of their seats in this episode.

It’s very interesting to me that a show that eschews religion begins and ends with an omnipotent being (alpha and omega, anyone?). Q starts the Enterprise D on its journeys and is with them at the end of the series. He shows up in 8 episodes (well, 10, if you count each half of the premier and finale as separate episodes), with an average of 25 episodes between appearances. Most of the time, Q is there to be the show’s Loki and cause trouble. Other times, he changes the trajectory of the show: testing the crew at Farpoint, bringing the ship in contact with the Borg, and helping Picard with the anomaly at the end of the series.

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