Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Last Outpost
After a couple of dodgy instalments, James' TNG look-back comes to a very watchable episode. Here's his review of The Last Outpost...
This review contains spoilers.
1.5 The Last Outpost
The first couple of episodes of TNG displayed some unusual evidence of forward planning, mentioning the Ferengi once or twice but not actually showing them. The race would become an integral part of Star Trek lore by the time Quark was made a regular character for Deep Space Nine, but it's easy to forget that the first glimpse of them, which occurred in this very episode, was sort of… weird.
The plot sees the Enterprise track a Ferengi vessel (which has stolen a T9 energy converter from a Federation relay station) to a remote planet. As well as making a measure of official (and somewhat antagonistic) contact with the Ferengi, they also find themselves united (sort of…) against a common foe.
As an episode, it works surprisingly well. If you try to forget that you know anything about the Ferengi, it's all quite tense, at first, and they spend a lot of time having meetings and conferences (which, I don't know about you, is one of the things I love about the show. In fact, I'm going to start tracking how long it is until they have a meeting in each episode.) There's a brilliant twist about halfway through, when Picard discovers the truth about the energy field that's draining the Enterprise's power, and the ending is Star Trek at its best - big idea philosophical nonsense. Not so much "shoot first and ask questions later" as "ask questions first and swap moral quandaries later."
Of course, this is one of the first episodes where you do get a good amount of gunplay. It's also the first that's got a sense of humour, with Geordi finally displaying some personality and Data getting stuck in a Chinese finger trap (which serves as a metaphor for the episode's wider story. Hey, subtext!).
At the time it first aired, this episode was flatly reviled, however, because the Ferengi were twitchy, manic, and hyperactive to the point of being grating. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing that the Ferengi turn out fine, it's very easy to forgive the flaws of this early portrayal and enjoy it the way it was supposed to be enjoyed. It's deliberately very funny ("They shamelessly clothe their women, inviting others to unclothe them! The very depth of perversion!") and therefore hard not to laugh, even if the Ferengi do appear to be a race so overcome by their defining characteristic that you wonder how they managed to collaborate long enough to build a functioning society in the first place (see also Klingons).
Of course, Riker saves the day not using weapons or raw strength, but by quoting Sun Tzu without so much as firing a shot. That, friends, is what you want out of a Star Trek episode.
TNG WTF: As weapons go, The Ferengi laser-whips are completely insane. It's pretty telling that they more or less disappeared forever after their appearance in this episode.
TNG LOL: The denouement of the "Chinese Finger Traps" sub-plot is pretty funny, even if it basically rips off (some might say "homages") the ending of The Trouble With Tribbles. Also, when their initial escape plan fails, Picard says "Merde". Just discreet enough to slip past the censors, then!
All that said, my personal favourite moment is when DaiMon Tarr answers a hail by delivering the very deadpan "Your alien images again shock us." As far as burns go, that one's harsh enough to strip the paint off the ship's hull.
Mistakes & Minutia: Worf, the supposedly fierce Klingon warrior, gets his ass handed to him twice by the Ferengi, part of a long tradition of Worf failing to win fights.
Time Until Meeting: 12 minutes, 43 seconds. There's a lot of standing around chatting about 6 minutes in, but the decisive moment comes at 12:43, when Picard barks "Conference evaluation!" and the main cast retires to a side room to continue the same discussion they were just having in front of the extras. A meeting so good, it had its own announcement!
Captain's Log: Believe it or not, after the last couple of "so bad they're not even good-bad" episodes, this one is great fun. The plot takes a couple of surprising twists, and the Ferengi, while completely ridiculous, are genuinely hilarious. There's even a bit of cod philosophy chucked in alongside an interesting high-concept sci-fi piece about a sentry who stands guard long after the civilisation that created it has died. Even the cast are starting to act like themselves. Finally, an episode of TNG that actually resembles TNG. And the scenes on the planet really benefit from the Blu-Ray re-mastering.
Watch or Skip? Definitely watch.
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