The Last Outpost (ST:TNG Rewatch. Season 1, Episode 4)

Rewatching TNG after about a 20-year break.

This odd episode introduced the Ferengi, a parody of the capitalist patriarchy. I only remember bits and pieces of this episode, possibly because the pieces really don’t fit together very well.

The long opening sequence gives us a good look at how the bridge crew deals with an evolving situation. We open with a chase scene, that quickly becomes a standoff, then morphs to Picard talking tough with the Ferengi, and then expressing a willingness to do business so reluctantly that the Ferengi (rather implausibly) interpret it as a demand for unconditional surrender. Along the way we get a temporary communications breakdown that sends LaForge down to engineering, an odd historical digression that establishes only Data and Picard really understand the concept of nationalism, and and then a scene in Engineering so that LaForge can tell Riker the technobabble that he (LaForge) learned off-camera while the rest of the bridge crew was discussing history.  It seems far more sensible just to have an engineer deliver that report, but I guess they wanted to give the lines to LaForge (who at this point in the series has not yet been promoted to chief engineer).

Next we have a shift in tactics as the Ferengi realize Picard had been bluffing, and then Picard suggests substantial cooperation. All this is before we get to the surface of the strange new world they are orbiting.

In my review of the previous episode, Code of Honor, I noted Picard’s uncharacteristic discomfort with diplomacy and Riker’s uncharacteristic suggestion that Picard be patient. By contrast, in this episode, from his opening captain’s log, to his shifts between bombast, conciliation, bluffing, and willingness to cooperate, Picard demonstrates the rhetorical fluency that we recognize in later episodes. He is the voice of calm, as the bridge crew (excepting Troi) seem ready for a fight. Picard even briefly accuses LaForge of jumping the gun: “Why are we closing? Don’t anticipate.”  Within seconds, three different officers indicate that an outside force is acting on the ship. Given the number of times outside forces affect the motion of the Enterprise, I was surprised to see Picard so quick to blame a bridge officer, even if his scolding was very mild.

In addition to the over-long bridge sequences, we also have an even slower briefing room scene, which opens with a shot of two young boys playing. Riker shoos them out, calling them by name, then says to Picard, “Boys will be boys” — a phrase that these days sounds fairly ominous.  The boys were written into the episode only so that they could leave a finger puzzle toy to distract Data while he’s providing some exposition.  I remembered Picard reaching across the briefing room table and through a hologram to free Data’s fingers from the puzzle, and I remember being a little surprised that, after the show took so much time to demonstrate how the finger puzzle worked, and after LaForge had some dialogue describing how the alien power-draining beam worked in terms of giving and responding to pushes, it turned out the finger puzzle didn’t provide a hint about how to escape the planet-based starship-nerfing field.

My interest perked up a bit at the idea of the Enterprise and the Ferengi crew participating in a joint exploration of the planet. But then we get another odd twist — while our landing party beamed off the ship in a group, on the planet surface Riker materializes alone and has an existential moment where he howls into an abyss just before a commercial break. That then leads to an extended sequence where he finds the rest of the landing party one at a time. Geordi gives some serious sass when he’s found hanging upside down (with the harness they used to support the actor cropped out of frame), but the sequence doesn’t accomplish more than filling up time in a low-budget, existentially bizarre way.

I give the designers credit for seeing the value of unusual weapon that gives the Ferengi the chance to move in unusual ways, but it’s hard to imagine using a whip as an interface for aiming and firing a zappy space gun. The wind-up to use that device is so visible and takes so much time it’s hard to imagine it being useful in practice.

After this rewatch I see the “release yourself from the trap by not resisting the trap” finger puzzle solution bit might possibly foreshadow the non-aggressive way Riker responded to the challenge issued by the Tkon guardian, but that’s a stretch. The episode established It was difficult to take the Ferengi seriously as threat.

Notable SFX in this episode included a custom shot of the Enterprise’s external lights flickering out, and then later powering back up. I understand the series created the glowing lights by filming the model in several different passes, with different lighting and at different exposures, so making the lights flicker was more a less a simple post-production process, but given how frequently the series reuses stock footage I always like spotting a custom shot.