“If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are”: Encounter at Farpoint (TNG) vs. Emissary (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Encounter at Farpoint” (season 1, episode 1)

Written by DC Fontana and Gene Roddenberry; directed by Corey Allen; first aired in 1987

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We meet the crew of the Enterprise D, a shiny new starship boldly going not just where no man, but where no one, has gone before. En route to pick up several new crew members at the mysterious Farpoint Station, Captain Picard is confronted by the god-like Q, who puts him on trial for the collective crimes of humanity. Picard demands humanity be judged by what it is now, not by what it was in the “grievously savage” 20th and 21st centuries, and Q agrees. He allows the Enterprise to continue to Farpoint, where they must try to make sense of strange occurrences and an attack by a very unusual alien vessel … all while Q watches, and judges.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Emissary” (season 1, episode 1)

Teleplay by Michael Piller; story by Michael Piller and Rick Berman; directed by David Carson; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We meet the crew of Deep Space Nine, a space station that isn’t boldly going anywhere … well, except for a short trip over to that mysterious new wormhole that just appeared. Three years after losing his wife in the Borg assault on Earth, a disillusioned Commander Sisko takes command of the station, which was abandoned by the Cardassians at the end of their brutal occupation of the planet Bajor. Tasked with fostering good relations between the Federation and Bajor’s fragile Provisional Government, Sisko gets to work forging delicate, pragmatic relationships with the station’s wary residents. Things are made even more complicated when the wormhole, leading to the distant Gamma Quadrant, is discovered near Bajor. It could be a blessing for the Bajorans, if the crew of DS9 can defend it from the Cardassians … and if Sisko can learn to communicate with the mysterious aliens that live inside it, maybe exercising some of his own demons in the process.

Farpoint 2

Leading up to the debut of Star Trek: Discovery, Trek vs. Trek is looking at some of the Star Trek pilot episodes that have come before. ‘Vision’ is a vital part of how Star Trek is received and talked about by its fans, and in pop culture in general; referring to the franchise as ‘Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future’ is a well-worn cliché at this point, one I’m sure I’ve used once or twice on this very blog. It’s also a cliché to judge the various series of Trek on their adherence to Roddenberry’s vision, something I, personally, am less likely to do. But what we will do here over the next few weeks, in addition to examining some of Trek’s first episodes as episodes unto themselves, is explore and compare the vision these episodes set out for the series they’re introducing. How do they establish, continue, challenge, or add nuance to the philosophy, tropes, and traditions of Trek? This week, we’ll compare two pilot episodes – and two series, for that matter – which compliment and challenge each other nicely … and which embody the tension between those different interpretations of ‘Roddenberry’s vision’.

“Encounter at Farpoint” is probably the first memory I have of an episode of TV being not just entertainment, not just a story, but an event. I was very young when it first aired, but I can remember picking up on at least some of the hype surrounding TNG’s debut, even if I didn’t understand the reasons for it at the time. “Encounter” might have carried an even bigger burden of expectations than Discovery’s first episode; Trek had been around for decades by that point, in one form or another, but TNG was the first of those forms not to feature the original, iconic cast. “Encounter” faced the paradoxical challenge of being something new and something old at the same time, carving out a new place for itself on TV while living up to the legacy of TOS, and we can clearly see this work being done throughout much of the episode.

Farpoint 3

We’re given lingering, dramatic introductions to two new elements of this new Enterprise: the holodeck, which would go on to earn the focus it receives here by featuring prominently not just in TNG, but in DS9 and Voyager as well; and saucer separation, which … would only appear a handful of times after this episode (perhaps illustrating the fact that TNG would, maybe inevitably for budget reasons, eventually come to have more in common with the smaller-scale philosophical sci-fi of TOS than the larger-scale space opera of the films). We’re given a couple of long looks around the new bridge, one of them through the eyes of young Wesley Crusher, as if to recreate the wonder returning TOS viewers might remember from their own first time seeing the bridge of the original Enterprise. And, of course, we get an appearance from now-Admiral McCoy, hanging a lantern on Data’s role as the Spock of TNG, and literally giving this new ship and its crew the approval of at least one member of the original Enterprise crew.

Q, too, is a return to a familiar concept from TOS: the godlike alien who playfully forces the crew to play out elaborate scenarios of his own creation. But the execution of that old concept feels surprisingly fresh here, and gives “Encounter” its best opportunities to really set out a vision for what TNG will be in its own right, beyond just an extension of the Star Trek legacy. His re-creation of a dystopian kangaroo court from the “post-atomic horror” of the mid-21st century provides the episode with what is, to me, by far its most interesting imagery. There are so many strangely specific details, like the drug-controlled soldiers, and while I’m not sure how comfortable I should be with the way East Asian cultures are represented in this scene, the depiction of a future dominated by Asian influences is welcome at least, given Hollywood sci-fi’s tendency to make every future American. And the idea of humanity being put on trial – and inevitably passing Q’s test, of course – shows us that TNG is set in a future which is not only advanced, but outright utopian. It signals that the crew of the Enterprise D aren’t just explorers, but exemplars of what humanity is capable of.

Farpoint 1

And when I say it’s inevitable that Q’s judgement will be favorable, I don’t just mean because proclaiming humanity to be a “grievously savage race” would be a depressing way to start a new series. Last time, I posited that, in the episode “Tapestry”, Q showed himself to have more respect and empathy for Picard, to be more invested in him, than he might like to admit, and I think we see the beginnings of that here, in the first appearance of both characters. When Q reappears on the Enterprise during the alien attack, he seems to be trying to goad Picard into a rash, violent response to the alien, but I think we’re given subtle clues that his taunting is meant to actually push Picard away from violence, and toward another solution. Significantly, he only reappears to goad Picard into violence after Picard is already, reluctantly, considering violence as an option … and the dynamic between the two characters is already well enough established that it’s obvious Picard will question anything Q says. I think Q rigs his own game in Picard’s favor, which would explain the subtle approving nod Q gives once the situation is peacefully resolved, and the fact that he really doesn’t seem all that upset about losing his chance to condemn humanity. In this way, Q serves almost as a stand-in for the writers of the series, going forward; they will test the crew of the Enterprise, but always with the intention of proving the best that humanity is capable of.

Giving Picard Q as a foil also allows for the moments in “Encounter” when the captain feels most like the character he will become later in the series. Like several other members of the main cast, the Picard we see here feels pretty close to what he will be later in the series, just … drawn a little more broadly. To me, Crusher and LaForge seem the most like themselves here (and their conversation about the constant pain Geordie’s visor causes him is a great, if very brief, part of the episode); the others are recognizable, but somewhat over-the-top versions of the characters they will become. This is understandable, of course, given that “Encounter” must quickly introduce not only the characters, but the sci-fi concepts behind many of them (Troi’s campy, melodramatic reaction to her empathic readings – “PAIN…” – certainly gets the point across, though I’m very glad it was abandoned later). Picard’s grumpy old man routine is a bit jarring; the character will continue to be somewhat rigid and socially awkward, but I don’t generally think of him as being  … cantankerous, the way he is at times in this episode. Where he does feel very much like the Picard I remember is in his conversations with Q, and when he’s talking about Q with the rest of the crew. When asked by Riker how they should proceed with Q watching their every move, Picard says they will go ahead just as if Q wasn’t watching, adding: “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.” That line reveals a lot, not only about Picard’s philosophy, but about the philosophy of TNG itself. The same can be said about this later exchange between Picard and Riker, about Q:

Riker: Captain, if he’s not open to evidence in our favor, where will you go from there?

Picard: I’ll attend to my duty.

R: To the bitter end?

P: I see nothing so bitter about that.

Emissary 1

“Emissary”, on the other hand, introduces us to DS9’s lead character, Commander Sisko, who does see something bitter about attending to his duty. He’s a Starfleet officer who already did his duty right up to the end, defending Earth against an assault by the Borg (led by a Borg-ified Picard himself). Sisko’s ship, the Saratoga, fought heroically, against all odds, at the Battle of Wolf 359 … but unlike the Enterprise, the Saratoga didn’t beat the odds. It was destroyed, along with much of its crew and their families, and while the Enterprise crew got their captain back from the Borg (in “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2”), Sisko’s wife Jennifer wasn’t so lucky. Sisko survived in an escape shuttle, as did his son Jake, but Jennifer was killed in the battle. By the time he is named commanding officer of Deep Space Nine, three years later, Sisko is cynical about his service in Starfleet in a way that feels like a 180-degree turn from those enthusiastic go-getters on board the Enterprise D.

And who could blame him? Picard and the Enterprise crew can talk heroically about doing their duty to the un-bitter end, and about being damned for what they really are, because they’re the protagonists of the story; we know “Encounter at Farpoint” won’t be their last mission. But Sisko is first introduced to us as an incidental character retroactively inserted into one of TNG’s darkest and largest-scale stories, “The Best of Both Worlds”, where he served on board a ship not lucky enough to be the focus of that story. The Saratoga’s crew are cannon fodder in the Federation’s fight against the Borg; Jennifer, a civilian, is one of many previously unnamed casualties in that fight. Sisko, and his wife, and his crew – they all were damned for what they really were, decent people trying to do the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All of this baggage helps make Sisko’s conversation with an un-Borg-ified Picard, shortly after taking command of the station, my favorite scene in “Emissary”. Tense, awkward conversations in TV shows usually just make me feel … well, tense and awkward, and too many of them feel like lazy, overly literal applications of the production note, ‘This needs more conflict’. But Sisko and Picard’s conflict, here, is firmly rooted in the genuine differences between these two characters and what they have experienced, and it demonstrates very clearly that Sisko will be both a very different commanding officer, and a very different lead character, than Picard on TNG. Picard’s “I’ll attend to my duty” attitude is on display again here, though both the writing and performance are more restrained than what we saw from Picard in “Encounter”. When Sisko bluntly informs Picard that they have in fact met before, “in battle”, Picard is clearly shaken. We can see the complex emotions play out, subtly, on his face and in his body language; we can imagine the inner struggle between the guilt he feels at being a part of the Borg assault, and the frustration he likely feels at being unfairly (though understandably) blamed – probably not for the first time – for things he did when he truly, literally wasn’t himself. But through all that, and through Sisko’s continuing hostility and borderline insubordination, Picard attends to his duty. He continues with the briefing – though in a more subdued tone – and expresses his disapproval of Sisko’s lack of appreciation for the new position, the opportunity and responsibility, Starfleet has entrusted to him. Picard sees all this primarily through a lens of duty, of principle, while Sisko is coming from a much more personal place. He is nursing a great personal loss while trying to cope with his responsibilities as a newly single parent, and it becomes clear, in this scene, that he’s questioning how much he has to sacrifice to Starfleet, to the ideals Picard values so much, before enough is enough. Picard’s appeals, first to Sisko’s ambition (“I would have thought that after 3 years spent at the Utopia Planitia Yards that you would be ready for a change”), and then to his professionalism (“As Starfleet officers, we do not always have the luxury to serve in an ideal environment”), don’t impress Sisko. It’s not enough for him, at this point, to be reminded that a Starfleet officer attends to their duties and holds to their principles. He needs to be reminded why anyone would do that, given how much it can cost them.

Emissary 2

After starting Sisko off in a much grittier place than Picard, “Emissary” then places him into a much grittier setting than Picard’s Enterprise. The darkly militaristic exterior of the station is already strikingly different from the sleek lines and light colors of the Enterprise D, and what we see inside the station sets it even further apart from TNG. Where “Encounter at Farpoint” wants us to marvel at its additions to Trek technology, like the holodeck, “Emissary” shows Chief O’Brien – himself a transplant from the flagship of the Federation – struggling to work longstanding Trek tech like the transporter, or even the station’s computer. Where “Encounter” makes a spectacle of saucer separation, and teases its implications for dramatic battle sequences in the future, “Emissary” turns the station’s lack of firepower into a source of drama during Major Kira’s standoff with a trio of well-armed Cardassian warships.

The fact that Deep Space Nine itself is a repurposed Cardassian station, and not a newly-constructed piece of cutting edge Starfleet technology, seems significant on a number of levels. Like the Borg, the Cardassians and their subjugation of the Bajoran people are among the darkest plot threads ever to come out of TNG … but they’re also among the most grounded in the history and politics of the real world. Making both the Cardassians and the Bajorans central to the premise of DS9 immediately signals that this series will not just be grittier than TNG, but that its approach to real-world issues will be less metaphorical, more direct, and, well, messier. Sisko and his crew don’t get to be the bold standard-bearers of 24th-century human enlightenment. They’re expected to help keep the peace on Bajor … but they’re expected to do it from the same space station where the tyrant Gul Dukat oversaw the Cardassians’ occupation of Bajor. In fact, it’s pointed out several times that Sisko will be carrying out his mission of peace from the very same office as Dukat, which was architecturally designed to place the commanding officer literally above those he oversees. When Major Kira and Sisko first meet, Kira, a Bajoran herself, is using the comm screen in that office to yell at a member of Bajor’s provisional government, and when Sisko enters, she assumes he’s come to take the office for himself. His reply – “I thought I’d say hello first, and then take the office, but we can do it in any order you’d like” – is a joke, and it’s charming, but I think there’s something troubling there, too, at least from a Bajoran perspective. “Encounter” starts off TNG by assuring the audience, unambiguously, that the Federation are the good guys, while “Emissary” opens DS9 with an open challenge to Sisko: prove you’re the good guys. Prove that you’re really here to help, that you’re not just more polite than the Cardassians, stopping to say hello before simply doing whatever you want. Dr. Bashir serves, in this episode at least, as a kind of caricature of the self-assured optimism we got from “Encounter”, and Kira’s rebuke of his naivety nicely sums up this challenge: when he rambles on enthusiastically about getting the chance to practice “frontier medicine” “in the wilderness”, Kira reminds him that Bajor isn’t some romantic setting for his own adventure, but a real place, where real people have real problems: “The Cardassians left behind a lot of injured people, doctor. You can make yourself useful by bringing your Federation medicine to the natives. Oh, you’ll find them a friendly, simple folk.”

Emissary 3

And while it will take time for Sisko to prove his good intentions to Kira and the Bajorans, he does get the chance in this episode to do so with the wormhole aliens … to prove, at least, that there is common ground on which they can come together and communicate. His experience inside the wormhole is a classic Trek concept – an encounter with beings that exist outside of linear time – and it’s integrated surprisingly well with DS9’s grimmer, more grounded elements. This is where we’re reassured that DS9’s darker tone isn’t just a stylistic choice, isn’t just an attempt to stand out from previous Trek, but is necessary to some of the things the show wants to say. When Sisko and Lt. Dax enter the wormhole, the different settings they see illustrate their very different mental states: a tranquil, beautiful day for the calm, centered Dax, and a desolate, stormy no-man’s-land for Sisko. It’s significant, then, that the aliens send Dax back to the station, and keep Sisko. They argue amongst themselves about what to do with him, appearing as people from his memories, but in spite of their arguing, it’s clear that something about him, specifically, makes him interesting to the aliens. After returning repeatedly to a vision of Jennifer dead on the Saratoga, and being told, “You exist here,” Sisko realizes that his inner turmoil – his inability to move on from the tragic events at Wolf 359 – means that he too exists, in a sense, outside of linear time, making him at least somewhat relatable to the wormhole aliens. This is a statement, I think, on where Sisko will fit into the complex, messy politics of Bajor and Deep Space 9. The very things that made Picard, and Sisko himself, question his dedication to Starfleet – his disillusionment, even his anger – are what make him uniquely qualified to serve as a liaison between the Federation and Bajor. Starfleet true-believers like Bashir, and even Picard, might struggle to deal with Bajoran representatives like Kira, who are more accustomed to fighting against authority than respecting it … who have spent most of their lives resisting the status quo, rather than enjoying it. But Sisko can at least begin to relate to the Bajorans’ anger and fear, to their mistrust of authority and their lack of faith in the status quo. As with the wormhole aliens, it’s only the smallest bit of common ground … but it’s a start.

Coming soon: we’ll compare the pilot episode of TOS to the pilot episode of … TOS? That’s right – 1 series, 2 very different pilots. And, at long last, we’ll finally take a long-awaited look at the first episode of … Enterprise? Well, yes … but we’ll be comparing it to the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery!


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