Saturday, October 22, 2016


In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Superman's a bad character, even by the relatively low standards of superhero comics, a simplistic power fantasy with more powers than most deities in old legends. Because he's a bad character he also suffers from a very weak rogues' gallery (aside from Lex, who's still legit.) To dredge up even the slimmest threat to Supes' own invincibility, most of them seem to be copycats of himself, either other Kryptonians or literal Clark Kent clones or bona-fide gods. Probably the most ridiculous of the ones I read through in a few issues of Superman before giving up on him in favor of the far more interesting X-Men was Mr. Mxyzptlk. Whereas other villains and Superman himself were overbuilt in proportion to the world they inhabit, Mr. Myx was just... nothing. Able to do anything, he was left with nothing to define him, no strengths or weaknesses except for his ridiculous dismissal spell gimmick.

So, talking about Q today, I can't help thinking Q amounted to TNG's own version of Mr. Myx: a completely flat overpowered antagonist lacking any defining characteristics, motivations or purpose.

Seriesdate 1.01 - 1.02
Encounter at Farpoint

I started these episode reviews in sort of a weird way, by skipping right over the show's pilot, which is sort of unfair because it was more professionally executed than pretty much everything else in season 1. It's got star and it's got trek, it's got mysterious alien creatures and technobabble, the acting's better rehearsed and the special effects more polished than in later, more blatantly rushed episodes.
It's got miniskirts!
It's also gibberish. The image above of Q's show-trial of the human species has nothing to do with anything that we think of as Star Trek, with warp speeds or the spirit of discovery or transporters or dilithium crystals or strange civilizations. The Star Trek universe may be vast but it still consists, at its best, of events on a certain scale, that of starships, their engines, force fields and crews. Here, stupidly enough, the very first episode blows right past its own selling points.

Desperate to set off with a bang, Roddenberry &co. crammed everything they possibly could into the pilot, wildly swerving from romantic subplots into quasi-imaginary tribunals set in the past and the Enterprise saucer section separating. Aaaahhh! Why is it separating? We've barely seen it in one piece for five minutes. It was still fresh! That's the sort of gimmick you pull out of your ass when the show starts getting old and you need something new to show the audience besides your regular routine. In the very first show, by definition, the routine is still fresh!
I have to wonder if the reason for season 1's low quality afterwards was simply that they blew their wad with the damn pilot.

And of course presiding over the whole mess we have Q. Instead of establishing the setting, getting to see what "business as usual" looks like for the Enterprise, instead of starting with some standard plot about phasering space-zombies or somesuch, instead of gradually ramping up the thrill and threat of the Enterprise's... enterprises... as the series goes on, the pilot slams you in the face with an omnipotent being.
There's a decent episode buried in this two-parter but it consists of about twenty minutes of a colony on a barren planet holding a giant space jellyfish captive. That perfectly valid Star Trek plot is buried in an hour of tedious tete-a-tete between Q and Picard belaboring the point of human social advancement while adding nothing to the story itself. Paradoxically, there's little for an omnipotent character to actually do but talk, since all actions are equally accessible.

Seriesdate 1.10
Hide and Q

Riker becomes a god. I mean a Q. Whatever.
Q returns, and offers to ascend Riker to Q-dom for no particular reason.
Riker is tempted and before long starts Jesus-ing it up, spewing miracles left and right. Then he returns his godhood for a full reimbursement of humanity because he's learned a valuable lesson about earning one's rewards and power and not taking things for granted and blah blah blah, is this freaking Sesame Street or something?
I'd comment further but unlike the pilot which was poorly conceived but well executed, this thing also drags endlessly, with more time spent on close-up reaction shots than plot or action.

It feels like... intermission. We interrupt your scheduled trekking through the stars to bring you some completely unrelated shallow moralizing containing no relevance to the rest of the series. Good plots have tension and a balance of power. Good characters have individual driving forces and limits. The problem with these omnipotent trickster characters who can do anything is that you can't ever let them actually do anything. Any action they undertake in true proportion with their abilities would completely wreck every other story element, so everything they do is always just for show, just make-believe... in other words, irrelevant. A better writer, Tolkien knew this well enough when he relegated Tom Bombadil to his secluded hut in the woods, and that's where Q should have stayed, lording over some isolated planet like the various gods, super-aliens and almighty energy clouds from the original Star Trek series.

That this episode's as close to being non-canon as possible without actually being fan fiction illustrates how poorly Q and his powers fit the rest of the show. Can't remember anyone in the rest of the six years of the series turning to Riker and asking "Hey, umm, dude, remember like, that one time you were a god? Was it cool?"

Seriesdate 2.16
Q Who

The very first Borg episode. Weird to include it here because while Q was an ill-contrived antagonist so powerful as to never fit the frame of reference of 24th century spacefaring, the Borg were beautifully conceived, a mighty menace with a unique aesthetic nonetheless rooted in the same narrative space as humanity and the Klingon and Romulan empires and all the rest. I'll return to this episode when I get around to discussing the Borg.

For now, I'm just amused that by Q's third appearance, the show's writers had apparently reached the same conclusion as I have about their Mr. Myx' immersion-breaking nature. Q's no longer shifting costumes every five seconds or conjuring houris for Worf as in previous episodes but serves merely as plot vehicle to get the Federation into contact with the Borg. A bad antagonist passing the torch to a much better one.
90% of what was wrong with TNG, in one screen

Still, it grates that something as momentous as the first Borg encounter should be brought about by some schmuck snapping his fingers. A slower build-up, with probes and ships going missing at the edge of space, grainy video of Borg vessels destroying border settlements, etc. would've worked much better. In fact this process had already been begun in the season 1 finale, The Neutral Zone. Q's presence adds nothing that a well-placed wormhole wouldn't have served just as well, and wastes screen time with the usual banter about what a bad boy he is.
The problem with a bad character or gimmick isn't just that it's bad in itself but that it warps other story elements around it, dragging them down. For instance, why is Guinan doing a woo-pah sort of move from a cheap kung fu movie all of a sudden? This image became quite famous (to her credit, Goldberg pulled it off as smoothly as could be expected) but much like Riker's stint as deity in episode ten, it's never mentioned again. She's squaring off against an omnipotent being in a finger-wiggling contest, utterly out of character for her as the wise old counselor, yet afterwards nobody ever seems to remember they've got a Q-equivalent do-er of voodoo aboard the Enterprise. It fit about as well as midichlorians.

Q was obviously intended as a major player from his bombastic introduction. Much like other first-season mis-steps however (*cough*Wesley*cough*) he was already getting sidelined by the second half of season 2 in favor of greater coherence. With every appearance he uses his powers less and less. By the fourth one, he ends up completely human. Science fiction should at least make some show of logical causality, throw around terms like lasers and antimatter or space-time fluxcakes... whatever. Finger wiggling? Not SciFi, people. Leave it to Harry Potter.

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