Why Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season is surprisingly good, and what its restoration may mean for other classic shows

When a friend is telling you about a long-running show they love, you’re inevitably going to hear something like “it takes a while to get really good” or “the first season kinda sucks”. We seem unable to resist pointing out a show’s relative shortcomings even when we adore it. Perhaps we’re afraid of seeming to lack critical thinking, or we try to ensure that our recommendation will hold water if the person initially finds the show a chore.

That’s understandable, and useful in the latter case: there’s no point sending someone to a set of episodes that do indeed kinda suck when they will genuinely benefit from persisting through them. The unfortunate consequence is that these provisos get thrown around so often, particularly online, that they become immutable facts rather than possible reactions.

So these facts state that the last two seasons of The X-Files are indisputably awful, and Twin Peaks went down the toilet, without question, once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed. These statements often have a sound basis, particularly if the problems were generated by production hurdles. However, what were clearly bumps in the road for each show have since been transformed into the nails in their coffin. The vehemence or ambivalence of a few outspoken viewers and critics has become the dominant narrative.

The upside of this is that viewers who then approach those installments cautiously may be pleasantly surprised. “Hey, Robert Patrick puts a lot of energy back into this show,” they might say. “Wait, the Windom Earle story is quite creepy and cool, and this finale is spectacular,” they will hopefully rave in shock. And in some cases the quality is so high, or at least not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests, that the show might seem like a revelation.

Such discoveries are rare, but the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation comes close. Yes, it’s as uneven and occasionally cheesy as the dominant narrative has long insisted. However, I was expecting each episode to be a poorly conceived, awkwardly acted, horribly dated test of my endurance.

That’s what I’ve long heard and, quite honestly, believed. Although I’ve seen much of the rest of The Next Generation, of the first season I had only seen the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”, and five of the final episodes nearly two decades ago. I had seen “Farpoint” most recently, and it remains an oddly structured, unsubtle affair with a number of painful moments, such as Denise Crosby’s jarringly overblown rant to Q in his courtroom. Patrick Stewart and John de Lancie give the show a pulse and verve, but the shoehorned-in Q storyline offsets de Lancie’s value somewhat. I assumed that, from what I’d heard, the rest of the first season would be similarly addled.

So, being a Trek fan, I nonetheless picked up the Blu-ray of the first season. This was largely due to my fascination with CBS’s immense restoration project rather than a desire to see these specific episodes; I was looking forward to later seasons much more. But I also sensed that the high-quality presentation might make the episodes less painful.

Not only are they mostly harmless, but a number of first season episodes are pretty damn good. Some stories are intriguing and involving, and there’s a confidence that I assumed TNG didn’t develop until much later. The cast are already exhibiting the charisma and warmth that made them so appealing in later seasons, with Gates McFadden the biggest surprise. This season, Beverly Crusher has more idiosyncrasy and inner life than the plot device she would frequently be later on. This is perhaps partly due to the will-they-won’t they relationship between Crusher and Picard, which was later dropped without explanation. Her evident, uncertain feelings about Picard gave Crusher a vulnerability that McFadden played charmingly.

Certain episodes I had heard little about proved to be solid Trek hours, such as “Home Soil’, where the crew discover microscopic, non-organic intelligent life on a seemingly dead world. The SF concepts in this season are more wondrous than later in the series when technobabble so often took over, which is welcome. “Heart of Glory” was a confident showcase for Worf, tackling questions of identity and loyalty when your heritage and upbringing are at odds. And “Coming of Age” makes the 24th century Star Trek universe feel lived in for the first time, as Wesley takes the Starfleet Academy entrance exam while Picard is investigated by Starfleet internal affairs for unknown reasons.

Ah, Wesley Crusher, that eternal symbol of early TNG’s alleged mediocrity. Having not seen most of the first season, I had not witnessed most of the evidence for Wesley’s colossal failings as a character before he was eased down from gee-whiz boy genius to junior crewmember. I’d like to say it was all a beat-up, but the Wesley character is certainly a big problem in a number of first season episodes. But that’s the writers’ fault, not Wil Wheaton’s. He’s not breathtakingly good in the role, but it would be hard for any young actor to make this role work. Several episodes see Wesley essentially save the ship, realising the solution at the last minute thanks to his improbable knowledge of starship engineering because the scripts have made the Starfleet officers too dumb to notice what we viewers (and Wesley) can see as plain as day.

Worse still, Wesley is obnoxious in his intelligence at a couple of points. It’s just terrible narrative logic to put a boy genius in a cast of adults on a starship, because every time he figures it out first it undermines our confidence in them as professionals. Star Trek characters don’t need to be infallible, but we expect them to not be idiots so that a child character’s presence can be justified.

But as the season continues, Wesley is softened into a wide-eyed young aspiring officer and his unlikely resourcefulness is rarely called upon. Besides, Wesley is not the reason certain other episodes are woeful. “Datalore” is as bad as the first season’s reputation suggests, a hackneyed evil-twin story where even Wesley behaves moronically for plot convenience, failing to be remotely suspicious of Lore. And “The Last Outpost” makes such a stunning hash of the Ferengi, TNG’s supposedly intimidating new villains, that it’s hard to believe Paramount weren’t willing to pay whatever was necessary to reshoot their scenes. TNG’s supposed big bads are short, hunched cretins who dance around like hyperactive mongooses, pawing at women and hissing.

So yeah, these episodes are as clumsy as I expected. But fortunately, they’re the minority. But what I can’t know for sure is whether the incredible restoration of the series for Blu-ray has made TNG’s early sins far less egregious than they would have been on DVD or even their original broadcast. On DVD, the first season looks like the screen has been smeared with a thin layer of mud. The upscaled videotape transfers look awful and old and cheap, even compared to later seasons on DVD, which begs the question of whether this has informed how the episodes have continued to be viewed over the years.

Now that CBS have returned to the original negatives and presented a far clearer picture than has ever been seen, the stigma of early TNG looking old and naff is largely gone. Yes, certain costume designs are unconscionably 80s and the occasional mullet reminds you of the season’s vintage. But the show was so beautifully made on a high budget that the poor presentation of standard-definition videotape is revealed to not have been appropriate for a cheaply made show, but a disservice to a handsome production.

The Next Generation looks so clear and sharp that it could have been filmed yesterday, and that is not hyperbole. Yes, filming techniques and the actor’s youth clearly reveal the show’s age, but the clarity of the image overpowers any preconceptions. It’s now possible to view the first season purely on its narrative merits and shortcomings instead of them being skewed by poorly coloured, fuzzy, artefact-ridden transfers.

The restoration is so effective that you feel as if you’re watching as high a quality presentation as any contemporary show, and that positive association makes one far more disposed to evaluate the series fairly. No, The Next Generation cannot hope to compete with the likes of Mad Men or Breaking Bad with regard to writing, acting, and directorial skill. But it will always be a product of its time, and we are now seeing what was produced in the 1980s in its best possible presentation. CBS don’t have some kind of magic algorithm to add more lines of resolution to the show. They were always there in the 35mm film and we just never got to see them until now. So the playing field is levelled, and TNG can now be judged at the limits of its potential.

Observing the impact of how The Next Generation is perceived by contemporary audiences as the restored episodes roll out on Blu-ray, in syndication, and on other outlets like Netflix will be fascinating. CBS have said that they were the first to take the plunge and restore a show trapped on videotape and that other studios are watching closely after facing similar dilemmas themselves. What other shows from the videotape era of the 1980s and 1990s might benefit from such a leap in presentation quality? If that muddy sheen which could only have prompted nostalgia at best and sneering contempt at worst is wiped away, then what other shows might enjoy re-evaluation? The X-Files seems to have largely been forgotten even by many of its fans and is unknown to younger audiences, so what might they make of the early seasons presented in shining high-definition? Might even Quantum Leap and MacGyver seem less pointedly of their time?

Hard to say, and I may even be being too kind to The Next Generation because I have such affection for the franchise. But we can expect more shows capable of high definition to be unlocked over the next decade, particularly with Illuminate Hollywood (who are working on alternating seasons of TNG with CBS Digital) now offering studios an automated method for reconstructing original show edits from 35mm negative. The momentum is there, so will it be worth it for discerning TV fans?

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