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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

15 Comments

  1. Jack Graham
    September 10, 2014 @ 3:08 am

    "…she'll always bring you home."

    Well, that turned out to not be true, didn't it. On at least two levels.

    Seriously though, a lovely redemptive reading. I'm not sure how sympathetic we're meant to feel towards Q, but pointing out that so many of his arguments hit home really does tilt things in an interesting direction, away from my reading of the trial scene in which Q looks like he's presiding over the standard revolutionary kangaroo court of Jack Cade through to Bane. I still think my original impression holds, but Q starts to look like one of those villains I have sympathy for because they're talking sense (c.f. Koba). Later Q will devolve somewhat, I think… but I seem to remember that his first sequel was actually pretty good, involving an unresolved debate about cynicism vs optimism about humankind, with Picard reading Hamlet's ironic rhapsody about the "paragon of animals" while Q dresses as Napoleon, and has loads of Napoleonic troops who are actually gorillas or something. Looking forward to your take on that one.

    I also agree with you about Marina and Denise, totally.

    More than anything else, this has made me want to watch Farpoint again.

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  2. Ross
    September 10, 2014 @ 5:06 am

    I'm always reminded of a session John de Lancie did at a convention around the time TNG was ending, when he spoke about them wanting, in the finale, to try to get back to some of Q's original chatacterization, as he felt that the character had sort of evolved to be "Picard's wacky sit-com uncle with godlike powers"

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  3. Josh Marsfelder
    September 10, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    "Well, that turned out to not be true, didn't it. On at least two levels."

    No, it did. The Enterprise is home. And Star Trek Generations never happened.

    I think it's important to keep in mind that Q's court is an authentic recreation of an actual human courtroom from history (well, Star Trek: The Next Generation history at any rate). He's responding to Picard's claims about how humans constantly improve themselves by holding him and his crew to actual human standards (Q scoffs at the idea humans always make "rapid progress"). And the only reason he does that is because Picard kept getting indignant and accusing Q of unfair "prosecution" and "judgment" when they were on the bridge. In other words, Q is saying "If you think I'm being unfair, let's remind you what your own people are capable of. And don't complain, because you asked for it."

    I also found it very cynically chilling, and effective, that Q's court should date from 2079, i.e. the 21st Century, which people in 1987 were already counting down to in the early stages of fervent Millennialism. This is a date that a huge amount of people who watched "Encounter at Farpoint" were likely going to live to see, and Roddenberry is saying if things do ever get better, they're gonna get a whole lot worse first.

    I do grant "All Good Things…": Moore and Braga did a good job bringing Q back to what he was originally supposed to be in that one. There may have been a few other episodes where he works-"Tapestry" and "Q Who" come to mind. But de Lancie is right: Q definitely does become the "wacky sitcom uncle" after awhile.

    I don't recall caring for "Hide and Q" very much, apart from the scene with LeVar Burton and Denise Crosby. I guess I'll see.

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  4. Dustin
    September 10, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    I've been following Tardis Eruditorum for most of this year as part of a process to learn more about the history of Doctor Who, a show I've only been watching regularly for, barely, five years. The show was something I came to enjoy after having let my love of Star Trek, the greatest pop-cultural fixation of my first twenty years, lapse as the franchise burned itself out. So this blog is a tremendously exciting project to me, having noticed it only a few days ago when I found a few of your comments over at the Eruditorum.

    The decline of Star Trek intersects interestingly with the end of my adolescence and some spiritual and political realignments I'm still figuring out. It was, for a long time, something I considered myself to have moved on from, something I stopped thinking about. I'm looking forward to following you as you move into TNG, a show I probably loved more than I've ever loved any other. I hope to learn a lot.

    That deLancie was meant to be wearing Oliver North's uniform is an entirely new connection to me. (North was a Marine Col., not an army one, though).

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  5. Ross
    September 10, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    You know, I'm a bit surprised to see this post here.

    I mean, okay, sure, I knew it was coming eventually, but I'm a bit surprised that there wasn't a Sensor Scan on a certain less successful show which premiered almost exactly a week before Farpoint aired.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    September 10, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    No real excuses, just missed it is all.

    Probably worth a look when I revise this for the book version. Writers aside, I'm intrigued by the pseudo-toyetic nature of the series. Ties in nicely with the Playmates Star Trek line, which was still one of the strangest toy lines in history.

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  7. Josh Marsfelder
    September 10, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

    Welcome aboard! I would be honoured if sharing my memories helped other people rediscover what they loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would probably make this whole thing worthwhile.

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  8. Ross
    September 10, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    Most of humanity has a hard time remembering it. Or at least remembering that it's not the one about the five kids who fight pollution.

    Obviously, the toyetic nature is probably the biggest deal about it, but I've been blogging about the show off and on for a few years, and I think there's actually a case to me made that it's trying the exact opposite strategy to TNG at "trying to be Star Trek for the 80s" — playing down the "Utopian vision of the future" business everyone latched onto and grabbing hold of the, for want of a better word, lighthearted weird bits and broad allegory

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  9. T. Hartwell
    September 10, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    "This is precisely what every single actor in the history of theatrical arts has ever done, because in theatre you have to make sure the people at the way back of the auditorium who got the cheap seats can still make out what's supposed to be going on."

    Well, not entirely, since smaller theatres do exist and all. It often depends on the actor and their training, but most performers can modulate their performances based on whether they're doing, say, a show in a theatre that seats 1000 versus a show in the round that seats 100. Theatre as an artform is in a large part centered around heightened emotions (no surprise it birthed the musical), but subtler and more naturalistic performances do happen (and it can vary by director as well).

    Agreed 100%, though, that Sirtis gets unfairly maligned here. Always suspicious that she gets blasted for the stuff she gets here, while Nimoy gets praised for doing much of the same stuff in "Devil in the Dark". I do feel Sirtis has particular strengths as an actress that the production team seems at times unwilling to develop, which hurts her character a bit. It's interesting watching this where you can see flashes of an almost…I don't know if "bubbly" is the right word, but certainly a brighter character than what was developed. Sorta makes you wonder how that would've worked had it been pushed further.

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  10. Prankster
    September 13, 2014 @ 5:50 am

    Wellll…let's not forget that a nuclear war (which may or may not have had something to do with the genetic supermen) has always been part of Trek's future history, and I think "Farpoint" was simply acknowledging that. It's actually interesting that TNG clung to that component of Trek's backstory even as real-world events made it seem ever less likely–I actually recall them specifically mentioning nuclear fallout being an issue in Earth's past in an episode that must have aired only a year or two after the Berlin Wall fell. That was, of course, a huge component of the original show–it was pretty unflinching about where things were headed, but it also insisted that things would eventually improve, which is a big part of why it endured. Frankly, that unflinching aspect is something the later TNG-era shows sometimes lacked, often embracing a mindlessly sunny, and unconvincing, optimism.

    Q as wacky sitcom uncle is pretty undeniable as a characterization (though surely DeLancie's own inclination towards humour helped shape the character?) but I'm generally in favour of what he became for a number of reasons. For one thing, TNG could be so damn humourless, and Q was one of the few elements that actually had me laughing out loud. It's hard not to root for Picard to let him join the crew in "Q Who?"–think of how much fun the show could have been! Secondly, Q's outright malevolence (especially in Hide and Q) would have posed narrative problems if it had been allowed to continue–I mean, the Enterprise crew can only outright defeat him one or two times (if at all) before it starts to get silly. (And of course, the one time they arguably "defeat" him, Hide and Q, is one of the worst episodes to feature the character, whereas the episode where they basically let him "win", Q Who?, is one of the best–ditto "Tapestry" and "All Good Things", to an extent.) Having him be more of a Mr. Mxyzptlk-style mischievous imp with weird agendas helps him fit more elegantly, and entertainingly, into the show, IMHO.

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  11. Prankster
    September 13, 2014 @ 6:16 am

    Hey Josh. Been checking your blog for a while now, very interesting stuff, and I'm always keen to read commentary on Trek! Suffice to say I seem to disagree with you on a LOT of stuff, but it's always interesting to hear your perspective!

    It was interesting to hear you be so hard on Roddenberry in the early going, and it did crystallize some of my own thoughts about him (it's funny how so many acclaimed "sole authors"s of genre shows and movies turn out to have merely been one member of a team–see also George Lucas, Chris Carter). However, I do feel like you have to give the later, 80s and early 90s Roddenberry some credit. While he may not have initially intended Trek as the utopian dream that people attributed to it, it did unquestionably evolve into that (there's probably a whole book to be written about how fandom really did, in this case, help shape a property into something more) and Roddenberry quite wholeheartedly embraced that, to his credit. TNG is definitely, in the early going at least, his brainchild in a way that the later original cast movies weren't; I've often felt that part V was actually a bit of a raspberry directed at Roddenberry's vision for TNG, mocking as it does the concept of both diplomatic and personal co-operation. Certainly, Roddenberry had a lot of dumb ideas–his insistence on a future with no interpersonal conflict literally hobbled Trek for DECADES–but the first season or two of TNG is unquestionably his baby, with all the good and bad that goes with it.

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  12. K. Jones
    September 14, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    John de Lancie is formidable and captivating and had thoughts on how to make that character, the subtext and pastiche of devil figures in "heroic" fiction. But a lot of my affectedness I admit must come from hindsight. Q is a recurring character, his inclusion six episodes later implies that he was meant to be. This is already a departure from the episodic nature of the Original Series, where a returning character was nonexistent. TV as a medium had gravitated toward a broad serialization and so Q got a narrative, and an actor cognizant of how to play it.

    But the hindsight allows us to see Q differently, and what works, what keeps me curious, are the changes. Retcon, or iteration and organic changes are powerful tools for writers. Not all of Q's episodes are as strong as the first and last, and not every season has two appearances. But if all the Q episodes were watched back-to-back a coherent narrative is formed. And it becomes clear that Q's successes stem from the Unreliable Narrator. I'm curious how long that process was worked, because de Lancie sells it like it was there from the beginning. Q lies. Constantly. An omnipotent being, a time traveler, would have to. But his role in accelerating humanity by challenging them to should never have been as subtle as he (and de Lancie) play it as. Cut out the mundane 20+ episodes between his appearances and his mission is incredibly focused. His malevolence always just a misrepresentation of benevolence. His wickedness just cosmic brutal honesty.

    What I'll get to later about Q – particularly when we get to Q Who? – will be a reprise of the discussions we had earlier in the year about the success and importance of proper Magic existing in the Star Trek universe (right down to Q and Guinan's raising their hands toward one another as if to protect from curses, or Q's adherence to even the most banal of "deals" and loopholes).

    I'd also like to get into the long line of figures that Q hails from in pop culture fiction – it's not just the medieval heroic stories that feature Puckish tricksters – relevant to 20th Century science fiction will be the legacy of comics and super-heroes, the most prominent being Superman's own Mister Mxyzptlk. That will lead into just what role the trickster figure should and does serve in fiction, or for that matter, in meta-fiction or reality.

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  13. K. Jones
    September 14, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    As for Encounter at Farpoint itself … I'll be trying to catalog "good runs" of excellent episodes much like we did when we talked about say, the endrun of TOS season 2. TNG pleads it's case well here, but it's going to be few and far between before we can say that it surpasses its predecessor beyond just the modern accouterments and actors. But there's standout stuff to look for beyond cast familiarity and comfort and making it their own (but losing a bit of edge in doing so), in Season 1, including a few underdeveloped, but totally existent recurring narratives that begin here and are either sewn up or turned over by the last episode of this first season.

    Oh, and one final nitpick – I hate the uniforms. I have nostalgic feelings about them and indeed they're icons of that "Future Eighties" sense of design, but functionally, and fashionably, they're utterly bad. While I think this show attains its utopia by declaring utopianism to be impossible … I do think that a hopeful future should be accompanied by peak fashion. I've also since realized that my preference toward a slightly more military uniform look for Starfleet has nothing to do with their militarization and everything to do with the form, function and fashion of Nautical design. The Enterprise is often lauded for its elegant design and yet its crew's uniforms share no kinship with the gorgeous vessel. No Star Trek has hit my sweet spot as far as costume design, nor have they managed to avoid dated design, but TNG suffers it the worst.

    And there's Colm Meaney and Michael Dorn, barely there, at the beginning of the two most substantial Star Trek roles in the entire franchise.

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  14. 5tephe
    September 25, 2014 @ 9:43 pm

    Late arriving at this entry, but just want to say that I am excited to read this next pay off the blog. It's the section of Trek that I have more solid familiarity with than any other, excepting Voyager.

    I might be alone, but I loved Voyager.

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  15. Daru
    October 20, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    Not got a lot more to say that others have not already said – but so happy that my most meaningful period of Star Trek is being covered now by you Josh. I look forwards to sharing my memories and responses once I catch up with your posts.Thanks!

    Reply

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