It’s Debate Day! This week: best teevee pilot! To read Aaron’s side (the silly and absurd side), click here: The LOST Pilot: TV’s Best Pilot Episode! To read my side (the awesome and righteous side), read on!
Awesome shows don’t get made if they don’t have awesome pilots. There’ve been some doozies that I considered for best ever: Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica both immediately jumped to mind, and I’m really fond of the Burn Notice pilot (sue me). But for me, the only pilot worthy of the crown is Star Trek: The Next Generation’s series premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint.”
Plot spoilers for the first episode of a show that aired in 1987 to follow!
A great pilot should first and foremost establish the major characters we’re going to be seeing on the show. While some pilots show us characters that might not make it into the show, or who might even be recast by the time the show airs, “Encounter” doesn’t have that problem. We get to meet all the principle crew members of the Starship Enterprise: Captain Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, Crusher, Troi, and Geordi. The pilot gives us a great chance to connect with the crew and learn their individual foibles. Picard is an intelligent, capable leader, but hates children. Riker is brave and trustworthy, but has an insubordinate streak. And the rest: Data is a robot, Worf is a Klingon, Crusher is a mom, Troi has cleavage, and Geordi wears glasses. In only two hours we have a full picture of the core members of the Enterprise crew whom we’re going to spend the next seven seasons with.
The best pilots are often better than the first seasons of the show that follow them, mostly due to higher budgets than your average episode, but also because of superior writing and acting. “Encounter at Farpoint” is one of the best episodes of the entire show’s run, certainly better than anything else in season one. It really sets the tone for the show and lays out a roadmap for the emotional development of the characters throughout the seasons.
Can I just be honest for a second? Season one of TNG pretty much sucks. Oh, there are some good episodes here and there, but then you’ve got Tasha Yar, a character so terrible that they killed her halfway through the first season. Her only claim to fame was making digital love with Data while they were both drunk on space germs. We’re also subjected to Wesley Crusher, an annoying know-it-all kid that even Picard can’t stand (sorry Wil Wheaton, you’re cool now). Then there’s the overarching plot of season one, where a secret cabal within Starfleet is turning the Federation to its own seedy purposes. The culprit? A race of alien parasites that’s infected some high-ranking officers. How do Picard and Riker deal with this threat? By shooting the queen with a phaser. Seriously, that’s it. They don’t outsmart it or try to reason with it. They just blast it to hell.
Encounter is much more in line with the best episodes of the original series and with what TNG would evolve into later on. The plot is essentially a mystery involving weird aliens at the edge of space. Picard’s mission is to figure out what’s causing all the oddities around Farpoint Station, and what secrets the Bendi people and their shady leader, Groppler Zorn, are hiding.
It turns out that Zorn is just a big old jerk who kidnapped an enormous space-dwelling alien to power his station. This creature has the power to transform matter, making it a perfect target for human exploitation. When the creature’s mate shows up for vengeance on Zorn, Picard realizes what’s going on and chooses to free the trapped alien, giving up Farpoint Station in the process. It turns out the station was just an adorable alien jellyfish the whole time.
We really see who Picard is as a character in this scene. He could have attempted to destroy the alien’s mate, but instead he sought the most diplomatic and compassionate solution, a trait that he carries through the entire rest of the show. Except in First Contact, where he turns into a genocidal murderer for unclear reasons, but that’s neither here nor there.
The coolest thing about “Encounter” is the introduction of perhaps the most interesting character in Star Trek and the closest thing to a main antagonist that TNG has: Q. Played brilliantly by John de Lancie, Q is an omnipotent god-being who apparently exists solely to screw with Picard, usually by calling him “mon capitan,” designing elaborate illusions for him, and giving him moral quandaries to deal with. In his first appearance, he surprises the Enterprise on the edge of explored space, taking human form and berating Picard for all of humanity’s past atrocities. Enterprise tries to run away, but Q, now a field of energy, gives chase. Picard pushes his starship all the way to Warp 9.6, but that’s child’s play for Q, who goes Warp 9.8 just to mess with the humans. Picard has to surrender.
Q then subjects Picard to a trial for all humanity and transports the crew to a courtroom of his own making, modeling it after the comically brutal Eugenics Wars/World War III, a cataclysm that nearly wiped out humanity. Q himself is the judge, chewing on all scenery brought before him, especially his badass judge chair, while his drug-enhanced shock troopers dispense swift justice to the fools who question him. Oh, he also freezes Tasha Yar, which is killer, but he unfreezes her later, so he loses points for that.
Picard insists that humanity has evolved beyond its barbarism during World War III, but Q is unconvinced. He uses Farpoint Station as a test to see if Picard, and the rest of humanity, are worthy to explore the unknown parts of the galaxy. Because Picard is the best Starfleet Captain of all time, he easily passes Q’s ridiculous test, and Q allows the Enterprise to boldly go where no man has gone before. Of course, he isn’t satisfied with just one test, and promises Picard that this won’t be their last encounter. This sets up the framework for the entire show, an amazing recurring antagonist, and a dynamic hero/villain relationship that lets the writers explore morality without being bound by reality. Q’s narcissism and irreverence are always a welcome sight on TNG, and the core of his character is established in “Encounter”.
As if this all wasn’t awesome enough, the episode includes a cameo by DeForest Kelley, reprising his role as Leonard “Bones” McCoy, now a Starfleet Admiral. This is just a cool nod to the series’ origins and to the fans. Bones has a great conversation with Data where he compares the android to Spock, his age-old frenemy. Bones was an awesome character, and while Spock, Scotty, and Kirk would all show up later in TNG, I’m glad they picked Bones, the emotional center, for the pilot. After all, what would Star Trek be without his casual racism?
I’m done talking about the episode, but I can’t end without mentioning the pilot of the original series. Star Trek had two pilots: “The Cage,” which was rejected, and “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the one that actually aired. They’re both really good, but check out the Shatner-less “The Cage” if you get a chance. It’s a really cerebral, introspective episode which the execs thought was too slow-paced, but intriguing enough to order a rare second pilot. I couldn’t pick it for best pilot ever, but it’s definitely in the running.
“Encounter at Farpoint” is just a damn awesome episode, not to mention a sweet-ass pilot. I can’t think of any other first episode that so perfectly establishes the main cast, the tone of the show, the direction of the series, and the relationship with the main antagonist. There’s no better pilot ever aired anywhere in space, and that’s not an illusion or a dream: that’s a fact.
So who’s right, me or Aaron? Sound off below! But you better vote for me. Or else things.