Saturday, November 12, 2005

Pilot vs. Pilot

(Listening to: X&Y, Coldplay)

"I can't believe how bad this gorram script is, can you?"

So an interesting thing happened last night on cable television. The Sci-Fi Channel aired part one of "Serenity," the pilot episode of Joss Whedon's wonderous Firefly...and a few hours later, SpikeTV saw fit to air both parts of "Encounter at Farpoint," the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an equally great series. So, thanks to the magic of DVR, I was able to watch them both.

To put it rather mildly: some shows get their feet beneath them earlier than others.

It's pretty much accepted that the entirety of the first two seasons of Next Gen are ruthlessly bad when not entirely unwatchable, but "Farpoint" is something special. Cheesy. Stupid. Preposterous. Badly acted. Poorly directed. Yikes.

Now, sure, one should give them a little bit of leeway, some breathing room. After all, it was 1987. And it was just the pilot episode. But holy Q, how did a script as horrendous as "Encounter at Farpoint" get past a first draft, let alone produced and aired on national TV? Maybe if I weren't so familiar with the rest of the series, it wouldn't be so bad, but it's patently obvious the show's writers (and actors, for that matter) had no real idea of where their characters were going. No thoughts into their pasts, their futures. Each and everything in the episode seems based on one concept: "Hey, wouldn't this be a cool idea?"

An enormous net of energy appears from nowhere in the middle of space. An all-powerful race of beings, called the Q, claims responsibility. Humanity, put on trial for being a "dangerous, savage child-race." They must prove themselves, by solving an extraordinarily simplistic mystery about Farpoint Station.

Now, the whole humanity-on-trial bit makes no friggin' sense whatsoever. Why is Q picking on the Enterprise and Picard, anyway? It's not entirely peopled by humans, after all. And why is he stopping the Enterprise from venturing further into space? Remember, they're on their way to Farpoint Station to pick up half their command crew, mostly made up of humans. Why didn't the Q stop them? Beats me. Maybe he felt it would be easier to make Picard surrender. He is French, after all.

In addition to the dumb plot, the episode also has that unshakable "first episode" smell: characters do everything short of flashing a driver's license at the camera to try to get the audience to remember who they are. Examples of this kind of clunky writing are everywhere, but here's a good one:

YAR: Sir, as Chief of Security, it is my job to make sure that--
PICARD: You have your orders, Lieutenant Yar!


PICARD: Lieutenant Worf, you will command the saucer section.
WORF: Sir, as a Klingon, for me to run away while my captain goes into battle--
PICARD: You have your orders, Lieutenant!

Oh, this is a good one, you'll like this...

LA FORGE: Commander, I was just in contact with the...
RIKER: A little informal, aren't we, Lieutenant?
LA FORGE: Oh. [clears throat] Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, reporting as ordered, sir.

So, the episode is badly written, which is its biggest flaw, but even the actors -- with the possible exception of Patrick Stewart -- are weak when they're not embarassing. Especially Brent Spiner -- apparently, the "Data has no emotions" thing either hadn't been entirely decided on or he forgot, because Data stands around grinning half the damn episode. He's also a lot less human: Picard treats him like a damn computer, and it's practically justified. (Data also uses contractions, it should be noted. This wouldn't be a big deal, really, except that the writers would later bend over backwards to make sure we understood that Data can't use contractions -- in fact, the plots of episodes like "Datalore" and "The Offspring" would hinge on his inability to say "couldn't". So.)

And don't get me started on Counselor Troi's blubbering. Weep, weep, weep, all the time. Thankfully, the directors would soon learn to put a leash on her. Damn.

Now, "Farpoint" has a lot of value for a Trekkie like myself, despite its low quality. There's the historical merit of this being the pilot. And it's a shock to look at it now and see how young everyone is -- it's most jarring for Beverly Crusher, whose hair looks four or five shades darker and makes her look like an entirely new person. And there's the goofy pajama-like uniforms they wore back in the first two seasons. And the cheesy effects. It's fun.

"Serenity," on the other hand, is a perfect example of a show that hit the ground running. Not only does it feel like Joss Whedon has already completely developed the entire 'verse in which Firefly exists, but he doesn't feel the need to have his actors stand around and spell it out for the audience. Sure, there are a few lines of dialogue hanging around that are clearly written in to make sure the people watching understand what's going on -- Wash has a line where he comes out and says he's Zoe's husband, for example -- but they're integrated with far more skill and subtlety than in "Farpoint." There's certainly none of that "Kaylee, Engineer, reporting as ordered, Cap'n!" nonsense.

The actors already, even at this early stage, embody their characters perfectly. And the story the episode tells isn't completely idiotic, like the one in "Farpoint." It's really one of the better pilot episodes I think I've ever seen.

The final irony: "Encounter at Farpoint" was aired, in all its crappy entirety, to a national television audience. It led to the show running for seven seasons and becoming a great series.

"Serenity" wasn't aired until after the show was cancelled. Fox couldn't stop screwing with the series. It never really picked up an audience. They ran less than a dozen episodes.

Funny, huh?

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