Coriolanus (2011) Review

Coriolanus (2011) Director: Ralph Fiennes

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, 2011’s Coriolanus is a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s play as if it took place in our post-9/11 milieu. It presents yet another hand-held, shaky camera documentary-style movie (which has since become something of a cliché), as we are taken through a dark and grey bombed-out warzone filled with violent explosions, graffiti, and the endless sound of machine gun fire. There is actually quite a bit of overlap between this version of Coriolanus and movies like The Hurt Locker.

Fiennes plays the titular character Caius Martius Coriolanus, a vicious, blood-soaked general of “Rome” (a vague contemporary nation likely located somewhere in the Balkans). It brings to mind Kosovo, Iraq, or Syria (Coriolanus was filmed in the Balkans in the very same halls where Milosevic once haunted). In this dark, war-torn era, Coriolanus utterly despises the common people of his own country while facing off against his nemesis and general of the Volscis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). In spite of his victories on the battlefield, Coriolanus is banished by the riotous people of Rome. This leads him to defect to the Volscis and jointly march on Rome, but before he can destroy his home city, Coriolanus is persuaded of peace by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). In the end, he is brutally stabbed to death by a conspiracy of Volscis. Other notable actors who appear in Coriolanus include: Jessica Chastain as Virgilia (Coriolanus’s wife) and Brian Cox as Senator Menenius.        

While I can appreciate the extraordinary vision that went into creating this film, generally speaking, it seems to me that something is lost when removing the intended context from which a Shakespearean play is set. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus to illuminate something deeply important about ancient Rome, the nature of a republic as a political regime, and an examination of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. It has long been a controversial play. Beloved by the Nazis, Coriolanus was later reworked by the likes of Bertolt Brecht among others –Coriolanus’s open contempt for the common people runs the risk of serving as propaganda for the worst among us. Perhaps this is why so few movie versions of the play have been made. At any rate, Fiennes’s interpretation of Coriolanus is remarkable in many respects, but I prefer the plays of Shakespeare performed in their intended context.    

On John Alvis’s “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered”

In John Alvis’s essay entitled “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered” he wrestles with the extent to which Coriolanus represents the “Magnanimous Man” as discussed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Alvis notes that “Caius Martius Coriolanus has proved the most belittled of Shakespeare’s tragic creations,” and he wonders why would Shakespeare would construct a tragedy around this “truculent, austere, and half-repellent Roman warrior.” Coriolanus is an odd choice for a tragic hero since he lacks the nuance of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear. However, he does share kinship with the “classical ideal of the superlatively honorable man” as developed by Aristotle in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, or the great-souled man, in all of his grandeur as well as his many limitations.

Alvis dismisses criticisms of Coriolanus by both Shaw and Bradley. He then runs through some of the stronger arguments for those who defend Coriolanus as Shakespeare’s example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, like Rodney Poisson whose essay essentially argues that “the shoddy and second rate… inherit the earth precisely because the magnanimous man cannot be shifty or ruthless, and that noble anger is helpless against the calculation of the base.” In other words, Poisson argues that Coriolanus does indeed represent Aristotle’s archetype, but that he is prevented from full expression of his being by the Plebians. Whereas R.W. Battenhouse suggests that Coriolanus actually develops Christian predilections intended to demonstrate the limitations of the pagan ethic, perhaps best exemplified in the Christian paragon of womanly virtue in the character of Virgilia.

After sufficiently examining these two positions, Alvis takes a closer look at Aristotle’s original claims regarding magnanimity:

“Aristotle says the great-souled man can be distinguished from the pusillanimous by the greatness of his claims… He is undeniably greater than anyone else in his city, yet we have seen that he is also something less than the great-souled man of Aristotle in as much as his claims exceed his just deserts. A more decisive difference between the character exhibited by Coriolanus and that of the magnanimous man comes to sight when we appreciate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Coriolanus’ dependency upon the opinions of others.”

Since Coriolanus does not meet all of Aristotle’s criteria for magnanimity, Alvis lays out his chief argument as follows: “Coriolanus’s tragedy resides precisely in his failure to encompass the elusive ideal of the Ethics. As I see it, the play does enforce the relevance of the Aristotelian measure, though not, as Battenhouse says, in order to criticize it nor, as Poisson believes, in order to show Coriolanus in admirable conformity with it. Rather, I think Shakespeare intends us to understand his protagonist as a tragically defective imitation of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. His actions quite frequently recall those ascribed to the Aristotelian model, but his character and fate suggest an imperfect, and typically Roman, misunderstanding of what it means to be great-souled.”

Coriolanus is merely an “imitation” as evidenced when he is contrasted with Achilles. Both heroes believe they are self-sufficient and they do not depend on others for praise (at least on the surface). However, Achilles becomes ennobled by his tragic realization of Patroclus’s death as well as Priam’s appeal to his superiority. Achilles’s short life ends as he finally detaches himself from others. However, Coriolanus does not experience any such transformation –he ends right where he began, reminiscing about his solo victory over the city of Corioles before his life is ended in a traitorous conspiracy. Does he ever receive the fame he desires? Alvis answers, “He knows no other end for his virtue than the rewards of renown.” Rather than providing an example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, instead Coriolanus shows the tension between great-souledness and the sheer use of power when exercised to enforce admiration.

Alvis, John “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered.” Interpretation Journal, September 1978, Vol. 7, No. 3.

John Alvis was a renowned scholar and professor at the University of Dallas. He tragically died in 2019.

“Valour is the Chiefest Virtue:” A Reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Coriolanus at the gates of Rome
Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1795)

One of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, Coriolanus turns our attention back to the early founding of the Roman Republic during a crisis which threatens the city’s future. The fledgling republic faces threats both foreign and domestic, and the city’s greatest warrior is refusing to humble himself before the people. One of four great tragedies Shakespeare penned about Rome, Coriolanus serves as the natural introduction to Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, which take place several centuries later. As a whole, these three plays form a trilogy which examine key moments in the rise and fall of Rome. Coriolanus shows us the birth of the republic on the brink of civil war, while Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra portray the fall of the republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. In all three plays we are invited to consider questions of political philosophy, and therefore, of human nature.  

Unlike in Elizabethan/Jacobean England, which was ruled by a hereditary Christian monarchy, the setting of Coriolanus is the 6th century BC not long after Rome has managed to unshackle itself from the rule of kings. The Etruscan Tarquins have finally been banished, following the rape of a maiden woman named Lucretia by the son of Tarquin “The Proud.” This hideous violation of Roman custom tragically leads to Lucretia’s suicide, and in outrage, Rome rises up and overthrows the foreign Tarquin kings. Now, Rome has been re-founded as a republic (509 BC) under the shared governorship of two consuls appointed by the Senate each year. The elite of the city are a cohort of aristocratic, land-owning families –the Patricians– who serve in the Senate and as military generals. On the flipside, are the commoners, or Plebians –the cobblers, farmers, tradesmen and so on. They represent the “working class” in our modern vernacular. These two classes of citizenry, the Patricians and Plebians, are naturally distinct from one another, but in Coriolanus they are also at odds. Their antagonism wreaks havoc on the city, threatening to end the rule of self-government. By showing us this moment of crisis within the quintessential classical republic of antiquity, Shakespeare illuminates certain unpleasant truths about the tragic nature of politics.

At this point, Rome is a small, swampy city of seven hills located along the Tiber –it is not yet the global cultural mecca we have come to recognize today as a legacy of the decadent Roman Empire. According to Suetonius, it was not until the reign of Caesar Augustus that the magnificence of Rome began to take shape (“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”). In contrast, ancient Rome is merely one polis among many, a city at war with other nearby Italian tribes like the Volsci. Rome is not a state in the modern sense, but rather a city (“polis”) in the ancient sense. Perhaps it need not be said that the politics of Rome stands in stark contrast to our own. The Roman polis is small in size and it is distinguished by its geographic location, political regime, and civic religion. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s own age –the Renaissance– he bore witness to the remarkable rediscovery of classical antiquity and its ancient republican ideal, a regime which produces citizens rather than subjects. Writing from under a Christian monarchy, Shakespeare hearkens back to this pagan republic –a political community filled with immense human flourishing as mythological gods and heroes serve an integral function in public life. In a word, ancient Rome could not be more distant from our own modern age. There are no problematic notions of an “afterlife” as found in some of Shakespeare’s other plays like Hamlet. Neither are there modern absolutist notions of a single monotheistic divinity which transcends all political horizons. If characters want to live forever, rather than retreating into prolonged periods of prayer and asceticism, these characters must instead valiantly win enduring fame on the battlefield. As noted by Machiavelli, the genius of the Roman republic is that it subordinated religion to politics. At any rate, in order to protect itself from enemies, Rome relies heavily on the bravery of its warriors –and no Roman is more courageous than Caius Martius (later known as Coriolanus). He is a fierce, relentless warrior filled with self-assurance, self-fulfillment, and thumos. Like Achilles, Themistocles, or Alcibiades, “Noble” Martius “has no equal” and “will not spare to gird the gods” or “bemock the modest moon” and he “disdains the shadow he walks on at noon.” Indeed “his nature is too noble for the world… he would not flatter Neptune for his trident, or Jove’s for power to thunder.” Above all, he desires honor and fame. Martius is the archetypal classical hero –proud, strong, and confident. He is universally respected by the Patricians and the Senate alike. However, he maintains a posture of open contempt for the common people –the Plebians– who have recently been given their own political voice in the form of the tribunate (formed in 494 BC). A total of five tribunes have been granted to the people in order to “defend their vulgar wisdoms” (1.1.210), though only two of the tribunes are actually named in the play, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus. Ostensibly, they both serve as the voice of the Plebians, elevating their concerns and defending their opinions, but Martius varyingly refers to them as “dissentious rogues” with wayward opinions who cry incoherently against the senate, as well as “fragments,” “rabble,” “rats to gnaw their garners,” and “worshipful mutineers.” He generally regards the Plebians as dirty, meek, ungrateful, and unnecessary. His character is noble to some, but loathsome to others.

Whereas our first introduction to Martius is filled with both triumph and arrogance, our initial introduction of the Plebians shows the people brimming with anger and resentment. They are famished, despite a granary surplus, and disillusioned with war against the Volscians. In their populist rage, they seek to place blame at the feet of the best of Rome –especially Caius Martius “the chief enemy to the people” (1.1.5). This riotous citizenry even suggests killing Martius. The Plebians believe Rome is ruled by a rich plutocracy which they regard as unfair and elitist. They look upward with envy at the educated warrior class of Rome. As has often been said, what the Plebians desire above all else is “bread and circuses” in order to be satisfied with life in the city, however both needs being currently unmet, the republic sits in a state of disharmony. Notably at the time Shakespeare was writing, England was enmeshed in plague and anger among the lower classes (Shakespeare, himself, was accused of hoarding his surplus grains). At any rate, some Patricians in Rome are better at speaking with the Plebians than Martius, men like Consul Cominius or Senator Menenius Agrippa.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays, as with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, take efforts to carefully draw our attention to the likes of Martius and the strength of the Roman spirit where “it is held that valour is the chiefest virtue.” Rome is a timocratic culture wherein a man would rather die than dishonor himself. Indeed, even Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia values her son’s honor above all else, including his own life. She says she is “pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame” and she would rather have given birth to eleven sons who die nobly for their country rather than one who simply sits voluptuously surfeit out of action. She is a fierce woman, full of thumos (in some ways her character echoes Lady Macbeth). She wants her son to be the best warrior as well as consul. Her character is starkly contrasted with Coriolanus’s gentle wife Virgilia (whom he calls his “gracious silence”). Consider the following remarks made by Volumnia:   

“The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
As Grecian sword contemning” (1.3.41-44).

She is a woman who both envies and praises the ancient warrior ethos. Needless to say, Martius wins an incredible victory over the Volscis by single-handedly raiding their city of Corioles (or “Corioli”), though Martius is technically under the consulship of Cominius and the generalship Titus Lartius. After refusing to accept defeat, Martius then battles his arch-nemesis and Volsci general, Tullus Aufidius (their relationship is one of “ancient malice” or “ancient envy”). Both men survive the fight but Martius returns to Rome with an injured left arm, crowned with an oaken garland, a valiant hero who is now dubbed “Coriolanus,” the conqueror of Corioles.

Spurred on by his supremely ambitious mother Volumnia, Coriolanus is somewhat reluctantly made a Consul of Rome (“I had rather be their servant in my way, than sway them in their”). This warrior now controversially becomes a politician. However, the delicate art of politics requires a very different skillset from the field of battle. When Martius is compelled to follow the city’s custom and “mildly” parade himself before the Plebians in the gown of “humility,” he once again fails to conceal his disgust for them, excoriating the Plebians as the “the beast with many heads” and refusing to “stoop to th’heard.” In response, the Plebians rise up and riot against Coriolanus, banishing the great warrior from Rome (aided by the two rabble-rousing tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, as well as their aediles plebii, assistants to the tribunes). If he returns, Martius will be threatened with the ancient punishment for traitors –he will be tossed off the Tarpeian Rock. The Tribune Brutus offers the following reflections as to why Coriolanus was banished:

“Caius Martius was
A worthy ooficer I’th’ war, but insolent,
O’ercome with pride, ambitious past all thinking,
Self-loving” (4.6 .29-32)

Volsci general Tullus Aufidius also offers the following reflections upon hearing the news of Coriolanus’s banishment:

“Whether ‘twas pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; or whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From th’ casque to th’ cushion but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controlled the war; but one of these–
As he hath spices of them all –not all,
For I dare so far free him—made him feared,
So hated and so banished” (4.7.37-48)

Like a beggar, the now-banished Coriolanus wanders southward from Rome to the Volsci city of Antium (Aufidius’s hometown) where Aufidius has already been warned that Coriolanus is en route, and that Rome is in open revolt. When he arrives, Aufidius surprisingly welcomes Coriolanus with a warm embrace. Together, they march on Rome, laying waste to the countryside along the way. After a string of victories, the Volscian soldiers praise Coriolanus for his courage, but it soon becomes clear that being the best warrior poses its own problems. Corionalus’s popularity quickly becomes a threat to Aufidius who begins plotting against his former enemy. Both Senator Menenius Agrippa and Consul Cominius exit the city gates of Rome but they fail to persuade Coriolanus against massacring Rome. Coriolanus is finally persuaded only when his mother Volumnia arrives with his wife Virgilia, their son, and a noblewoman named Valeria. Eventually Coriolanus relents. Upon seeing that he cannot escape his bloodline, he realizes that if he destroys, Rome he will destroy himself. He is intrinsically tied to his city and its people. Coriolanus is then made to realize that he is, in fact, not the “author of himself.” He decides to pursue a peaceful path between Rome and the Volscis. However, the peace is short-lived as a conspiracy instigated by Aufidius then fatally assassinates Coriolanus. Here we see a key moment in the Roman republic, a regime which both begins and ends with an assassination. Perhaps Coriolanus achieves his ambitions of fame and glory after all, as Aufidius claims he will become a “noble memory.”       

Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus
Richard Westall (c. 1800)

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows us the fragility of the ancient Roman Republic –its internal divisions threatening the long-term viability of the republican regime. It seems unlikely from this vantage point that such a city would ever rise up and conquer the known world. However, Shakespeare nevertheless highlights the Rome for a reason. Rome offers an extreme case of a human ideal. It is a regime filled with excesses and deprivations, virtues and vices. In many ways, it is hard for us to avoid Shakespeare’s admiration for the Roman Republic, the undefeated eternal city. It has long been a popular academic theory that Shakespeare used Rome as a metaphor for England (i.e. “Shakespeare’s Rome is filled with Englishmen”), however Shakespeare’s pagan republic is culturally distinct from Christian monarchic England in more ways than one, and Shakespeare takes great imaginative efforts to present Rome as it truly was –an ancient city filled with proud citizens who speak their minds, a prevalent warrior ethos, a timocratic love of honor, and a rich evolving mythology which is integral to civic life. Unlike Christian medieval artwork which often portrays the life of Jesus in various medieval settings like Jesus in Ghent or Bruges and so on, Shakespeare places Coriolanus squarely in Rome, in an effort to accurately portray him in his own context. In Shakespeare’s day, Rome was often viewed as the pinnacle of human civilization (the legacy of the Greeks had only re-emerged in Western Europe after the fall of Byzantium perhaps in the 1450s). From a young age, Shakespeare would have been exposed to the Latin poets Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Horace, Catallus, and Ovid. He also would have read the likes of Livy and Plutarch (both of whom are key sources for Coriolanus). Thus, if Rome is to be regarded as the height of human civilization, it was necessary to portray it honestly.      

However, there is an extraordinary amount of nuance in Coriolanus, this is not simply another vain, conservative praise of the past. Shakespeare’s Roman republic contains both virtues and vices. Its virtue is expressed in its ability to produce warriors like Caius Martius Coriolanus, who can defend the city from its enemies. Its vice lies in its inability to keep the working-class Plebians sufficiently fed and entertained (a problem which will soon be resolved). One organ of the body is being led to rebellion. In turn, the city has failed to educate the Plebians, leading them to be easily swept up in vague superstitions and zealous pathos-invoking rhetoric. And this notion of rhetoric serves a key function in the play. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus in unrhymed blank verse iambic pentameter –a style which lacks the flowery poetry as found in his other works like Romeo and Juliet. This deprivation of poetry reveals to us something about the character of Rome. Republican Rome is filled with the predominance of rhetoric –many characters deliver vast elaborate speeches because, for citizens in a republic, persuasion is an essential tool, even if characters in the play have few moments alone, and therefore few moments to soliloquize. The austere nature of the Roman republic, while praiseworthy for its spiritedness and elevation of reason, still lacks education, philosophy, and self-knowledge. It struggles to see the good wholistically, in spite of the metaphor of the “body” as invoked by Menenius. While Rome has an abundance of thumos, it lacks eros, the kind of love which acknowledges one’s own lack of self-sufficiency. This deprivation is perhaps best displayed among the Plebians. They long for completeness, the kind achieved by the Patricians. In the Platonic sense, thumos, or the heroic attitude, claims to be self-sufficient, whereas eros is vulnerable, tender, lacking, and poetic, like the story of love propounded by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Both thumos and eros are irrational ways of being, and thus, according to Plato, logos is needed to rein in their excesses. Suffice it to say there are profound tensions between these attitudes in Coriolanus.

When there is an imbalance in the city, various sections of the city believe they can live independently –the Plebians believe they can overthrow the arrogant Patricians since they (the Plebians) are the laborers who toil for the sake of the city, while the warriors like Coriolanus believe they can dispense with the Plebians entirely without consequence. Imagining himself to be the “author of himself,” Coriolanis sees himself as independent and superior to any city. However, a wholly self-determined person, living in isolation outside the city, would surely be either a god or beast (according to Aristotle). Contra Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, such a man would be unrecognizable to other humans. Therefore, from within the safe confines of the city, we often point to an imagined “state of nature” in order to justify this or that school of political thought, particularly in our own age of absolutist ideologies. However, Coriolanus shows us the tragic impossibility of our own self-sufficiency in this respect –to quote John Donne, “no man is unto himself an island.” The mythic image of an isolated farmer who is wholly self-sustained is little more than a fantasy. According to Aristotle’s Politics, the polis comes into being in order to satisfy the dictates of mere subsistence, but it allows for the flourishing of human life thanks to the birth of culture, art, economic development, and the division of labor –it allows for one person to become an artist, and another to become a magistrate. And since no city-dweller can serve all functions, there is a natural deprivation which makes a person feel unfulfilled in certain respects because each human being desires to become whole and complete. Coriolanus exposes this unsettling but necessary truth about human life and, in doing so, Shakespeare shows us that different classes are actually part of a greater whole, necessary for the health of the body politic, even if they wish to pretend otherwise. Despite representing the peak of heroic virtue, Coriolanus himself is not entirely self-reliant. Whether he realizes it or not, Coriolanus is intrinsically connected to Rome –he needs Rome, just as much as Rome needs him. With that being said, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus satisfies classical standards for poetics and tragedy –it both edifies as well as delights. Coriolanus offers a lesson in temperance for troubled times. Patricians like Coriolanus would do well to wear the gown of “humility” and transform themselves into “friends of the people” by showing compassion for their struggles and paying deference to their customs and superstitions, but above all, the Patricians must learn to understand and respect the Plebian desire for “bread and circuses.” Coriolanus cautions us that greatness necessarily breeds resentment, but in order to be a more complete hero, true greatness also requires diplomacy and the tact of a politician. There is also a lesson for the Plebians in Coriolanus. They would do well to honor their heroes and temper their natural proclivities for populist resentment and banishment, otherwise they risk destroying their own city. In revealing these tensions within the city –between Patrician and Plebian, virtue and vice, war and peace, greatness and mediocrity—Shakespeare subtly lifts the veil of illusion shrouding the idea of self-sufficiency (i.e. he reminds us we are not as independent as we might believe) and he invites us to consider one of the greatest political regimes in antiquity during a period of disharmony so that we may regard it, warts and all, with an eye toward Aristotelian moderation.

For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

Star Trek TNG: Season 1, Episodes One and Two “Encounter at Farpoint Parts I & II”

Stardate: 41153.7
Original Air Date: September 27, 1987
Writer: DC Fontana and Gene Roddenberry
Director: Corey Allen

“Humanity is no longer a savage race!”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

By the late 1980s, there had been no new episodes of Star Trek for some two decades in spite of a highly successful run during syndication as well as a brief but slightly mediocre animated series in the 1970s. A reboot series entitled Star Trek: Phase II was announced in the late 1970s, however it ultimately failed to launch. Then, after four successful motion pictures, the return of live-action Star Trek to television finally came in 1987 with The Next Generation, a show featuring an all-new crew plus many of the original creatives, especially creator Gene Roddenberry, writer DC Fontana, and producer Robert Justman. This show was to be distinct from its predecessor in many ways, but perhaps the starkest difference is its context. While the original series was shot in the 1960s, with all manner of social commentary on the Cold War, American Imperialism, racism, the Vietnam War, youth culture and so on, The Next Generation was to be a show for a decidedly post-Cold War audience, yet one which nevertheless still retains many of the optimistic science fiction themes of the original series.         

Before Star Trek: The Next Generation was given the chance to grow and flourish into the beloved science fiction series many fans came to know, its early seasons were often beset by tumult behind the scenes. Apparently, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to rule the show like a tyrant (in part as a response to him being cut out of the movies) so he instituted a variety of rigid rules –including the infamous screenwriting injunction that none of the crewmen could face interpersonal conflicts. At the time, Roddenberry was suffering from declining health, and many of the actors found the set intense, while writers were frustrated with various roadblocks put in their way. With that being said, I still enjoy many of these early episodes and thankfully Star Trek: The Next Generation has endured. Today, many viewers regard it as one of the best science fiction shows ever made –and rightly so.  

Below is a terse list of the key members of The Next Generation crew:

  • Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the dutiful, gentlemanly captain of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D (or simply “Enterprise-D”).
    • Jean-Luc Picard is played by Patrick Stewart (1940-present), a celebrated Royal Shakespearean actor who apparently lived out of his suitcase during early filming for TNG because he was a bit skeptical of how successful the show would actually become (Gene Roddenberry was also hesitant about initially hiring Patrick Stewart because he wanted a more traditionally “masculine” actor to portray the captain). Stewart was a bit stiff as a cast member at first, but some of the other actors helped to loosen up his stuffy sense of austere professionalism, while Stewart served as a model of excellence and an advocate for other cast members. Post-Star Trek, Patrick Stewart has appeared in many popular Hollywood films like the X-Men series. He married three times and has two children. He was married from 2000-2003 to Wendy Neuss (his second wife), a Star Trek TNG producer. He is also a close friend of fellow X-Men actor, Ian McKellan, who officiated his third wedding
  • Commander William Riker(“Number One”), the first officer aboard the Enterprise-D.
    • William Riker is played by Jonathan Frakes (1952-present) an actor and film director (after the end of Star Trek TNG he directed two of the TNG films, including First Contact and Insurrection). Formerly a resident of Maine, he and his wife and two children relocated to California in 2008.   
  • Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, a blind helmsman aboard the Enterprise-D during Season 1, but the chief engineer for the rest of the series. Despite being blind since birth, Geordi wears a prosthetic VISOR to assist his “sight.”
    • Geordi La Forge is played by Levar Burton (1957-present), an actor who appeared in other noteworthy programs like Roots and the PBS children’s show Reading Rainbow. He and his wife have two children and reside in Sherman Oaks, CA. In his youth, he made the courageous decision to step away from seminary and organized religion more broadly. He has directed a variety of different Star Trek episodes spanning multiple series, more than any other cast member.  
  • Lieutenant Commander Data, a synthetic life form with artificial intelligence and sentience who is an anatomically fully functional android. He is the second officer and chief operations officer aboard the Enterprise-D.
    • Data is played by Brent Spiner (1949-present), a theater, television, and film actor as well as a musician. In 2021, he published a memoir which also doubled as a fictitious noir-esque detective story regarding a crazed, murderous fan claiming to be “Lal,” the android daughter of Data as featured in the third season episode “The Offspring.” He and his wife have one child.  
  • Lieutenant Worf, a Klingon warrior in Starfleet leader aboard the Enterprise-D.
    • Worf is played by Michael Dorn (1952-present), an actor who has appeared in a variety of television shows and movies (his first film appearance was in 1976’s Rocky as Apollo Creed’s bodyguard). He is also an accomplished pilot and it appears he does not have any children.     
  • Lieutenant Natasha “Tasha” Yar, chief of security aboard the USS Enterprise-D. The character’s concept was based upon the character of Vasquez from the film Aliens (1986).
    • Tasha Yar is played by Denise Crosby (1957-present), granddaughter of world-famous crooner Bing Crosby (whom she sadly never met). She was born out of wedlock into a fractured family and an absentee father. In adulthood, she embarked on a modeling career (posing nude for Playboy in 1979) before becoming an actor, appearing in shows like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and The X-Files among others. Crosby married Geoffrey Edwards, son of the famous film director Blake Edwards, and then appeared in a string of her father-in-law’s films including Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther (both following the death of Peter Sellers). She and Edwards separated in 1990 and later remarried Ken Sylk and they had one son together. Crosby has described her experience on Star Trek TNG as “miserable” during the first season, and after twenty-two episodes she became the first Star Trek actor to request that her character be killed off (in “Skin of Evil” near the end of Season 1), though she later returned as both Tasha Yar and a character called Sela. She was apparently frustrated that her character, Tasha Yar, lacked depth and she feared turning into Uhura, saying only “aye, aye, captain” for years to come. The character of Tasha Yar later became the inspiration for other notable female science fiction characters, like Kara Thrace in the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica.  
  • Counselor/Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi, a half-human, half-Betazoid with the acute ability to sense emotions, and with a romantic past linked to William Riker. Her father was a Starfleet officer.
    • Deanna Troi is played by Marina Sirtis (1955-present), an actor born in London who emigrated to Los Angeles. In 1992, she married an actor and rock guitarist named Michael Lamper. Tragically, he died in his sleep in 2019 and Sirtis emigrated back to London at that time citing his death, growing tensions in the United States, and a desire to pursue a career in the British film and television industry. She does not have children.    
  • Dr. Beverly Crusher, chief medical officer aboard the Enterprise-D. She is a widow whose husband passed away amidst tragic circumstances and she has one son, Wesley “Wes” Crusher (Wil Wheaton).  
    • Dr. Crusher is played by Gates McFadden (1949-present), a television, film, and theatre actor and choreographer. She has one son (Brent Spiner is actually her son’s godfather). During the fourth season of TNG, she wore a laboratory coat as a uniform to conceal her pregnancy.
    • Wes is played by Wil Wheaton (1972-present), an actor, gamer, comedian, audiobook narrator, and writer who has appeared in a variety of television programs and films. He was tragically forced into acting at a young age by his “abusive” parents (who are strongly politically conservative, whereas Wheaton has been a self-proclaimed moderate or liberal). He resides in Arcadia, CA with his wife and her two children from a previous relationship (Wheaton legally adopted both children). He has been open about his struggles with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and alcoholism.   

It is the 24th century, 78 years after the events of the original series (the 2360s to 2370s). A newly constructed starship known as the Enterprise-D (a “galaxy class starship”) is set to embark on its maiden voyage under the nascent command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Enterprise is sent to Deneb IV, homeworld of the Bandi people and beyond which lies the great unexplored mass of the galaxy. The Bandi have offered their remote outpost known as “Farpoint Station” to Starfleet, however before it can be accepted, the station is in need of inspection. In his inaugural captain’s log, Picard notes that the Enterprise is currently short-staffed, missing a variety of key positions, including its first officer, a role which will be filled by Commander William Riker who is scheduled to meet them at Deneb IV.

Suddenly, Counselor Troi senses a strange presence (“a powerful mind”) and an expansive grid appears before the ship (it is somewhat reminiscent of the “Tholian Web” which appears in the second season of TOS). Then a hostile omnipotent alien entity known as Q appears on the Bridge (John de Lancie). Donning several different visages, including garb from the 16th century and an American military officer’s outfit from the 1950s, Q demands that the Enterprise turn around because humans are excessively violent and have ventured too far into space. “Thou art notified that thou kind have infiltrated the galaxy too far… return to thine own solar system.” He asks that Picard and crew answer for centuries of human capriciousness: “…and 400 years before that you were murdering each other in tribal god images.”

When Q disappears, the Enterprise attempts to flee the situation. Picard orders that the saucer module be separated from the rest of the ship in order to protect the lives of the families and citizens of the Federation who are aboard. Picard transfers command to the “Battle Bridge” on the stardrive section. Meanwhile, the powerful energy force of Q (in the form of a bubble-like orb hurtling through space) catches up with the separated section of the Enterprise. Q then transports Picard and others into a mock Grand Inquisitor scenario (which Counselor notes is curiously not a dream or a simulation). It is an odd trial featuring a rowdy cohort of people who look like Mongolians, apparently it is reminiscent of a “mid-21st century” trial (there was some sort of nuclear holocaust in the 21st century –a “post atomic horror”). While serving as the presiding judge, Q accuses humanity of being a “grievously savage race.” In the course of the trial, which presents an amusing dialectic between Picard and Q, Picard requests the chance for he and his crew to prove themselves, a challenge which Q readily accepts.     

Meanwhile, the USS Hood drops Commander William Riker at FarPoint Station where he meets future crew members: Dr. Crusher, her son Wes, and Geordi La Forge. He also meets the Bandi administrator of Farpoint Station, Groppler Zorn (Michael Bell), who mentions that if Starfleet does not accept the station, Farpoint will be forced to seek an alliance with the Ferengi. It quickly becomes apparent that something strange is happening at Farpoint Station, especially after Riker asks for an apple and it suddenly appears. A similarly unusual event occurs with Dr. Crusher while she is shopping for a gold-patterned fabric.

When Riker beams aboard the Enterprise, he is greeted mostly by cold, antagonism from Captain Picard who issues a test for Riker to manually reattach the saucer to the stardrive section (he passes with flying colors in an inspiring scene reminiscent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). We are also treated to a beautiful scene of pure nostalgia for fans –Data transports an unnamed Admiral to the USS Hood via a shuttlecraft. It turns out to be an elderly 137-year-old Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. While cantankerously grumbling about Vulcans, Bones remarks, “Well this is a new ship, but she’s got the right name… You treat her like a lady. And she’ll always bring you home” as he walks off into the distance with Data. This was DeForest Kelley’s final onscreen performance. Picard bids Bones farewell with a fond message: “Bon voyage, mon ami” but then Q reappears and delivers a 24-hour ultimatum for the Enterprise to prove itself under some critical test at Farpoint Station.

As the strange mystery of Farpoint Station unfolds, it becomes apparent that the station is harnessing geothermal energy, and that it was constructed rapidly by unknown means. Its technology is extraordinarily advanced, unrecognizable to Starfleet officers. Suddenly, there is a “perimeter alert” and an unknown saucer-shaped vessel arrives (it is twelve times the volume of the Enterprise). Despite several attempts, the vessel is unresponsive to outreach. While Q pushes Picard to confront the unknown vessel with violence, Picard decides to peacefully solve the mystery. As it turns out, the unknown vessel is actually a living creature (like a giant “space jellyfish”). It promptly attacks the station on the planet surface below and kidnaps Groppler Zorn. We learn that Groppler Zorn and the Bandi have been hiding a secret –they once captured one of these “space jellyfish” only to discover that it possesses immense power –it can convert energy into matter. This is how the Bandi managed to construct Farpoint Station so quickly and so effectively: by harnessing the energy of this imprisoned creature which, in effect, became Farpoint Station. Meanwhile the other vessel, or “space jellyfish,” has arrived to merely rescue and retrieve its imprisoned mate. Thus, Picard delivers the evacuation order for Farpoint Station and then fires an energy beam downward which releases the entrapped “space jellyfish” from captivity, allowing it to return to its partner (one is blue, the other is pink). As the two “space jellyfish” float away together, Counselor Troi senses a feeling of “great joy and gratitude.”

Since the Enterprise has passed the test, Q then reluctantly leaves the Enterprise but he “will not promise never to appear again.” Picard then instructs Farpoint Station to be rebuilt and speaks with his new first officer as the episode concludes:

Riker: “Just hoping this isn’t the usual way our missions will go.”
Picard: “Oh no, number one, I’m sure most will be much more interesting. Let’s see what’s out there… Engage!”

My Thoughts on “Encounter at Farpoint”

I was a bit dismayed to learn that many Trekkies/Trekkers regard “Encounter At Farpoint” a relatively lackluster introduction to the show. In contrast, I had a lot of fun with this episode. To be fair, it is a bit clunky and rough around the edges –indeed many of the characters seem cold and distant from one another, and often unnecessarily surly and stern for reasons unknown. Obviously, there was quite a lot of tension going on behind the scenes and, in many ways, this dual episode represents two scripts smashed together to extend the episode’s runtime (DC Fontana’s Farpoint Station narrative and Roddenberry’s Q narrative), but I still loved it –everything from the reveal of the holodeck to a surprise cameo by everyone’s favorite country doctor. In this episode, the new crew of the Enterprise-D is introduced in an exciting manner as we are whisked away to a mysterious outpost, asked to solve a hidden secret, and we are given the first appearance of Q (a character who closely resemble Trelane from “The Squire of Gothos” in the original series). I find myself both intrigued and puzzled by the character of Q –who is he and what does he want? Why does he test humanity for moral weakness? Will he ever use his godlike powers for good, or is he a-moral? Will he ever be proven correct in that humanity will eventually show itself to be a “savage race”?

In addition to Q, there are several other compelling character threads, including the mysterious past “Imzadi” relationship between Commander Riker and Counselor Troi, as well as the shadowy past of Picard and Dr. Crusher (and, by extension, her son Wesley). And along those lines I am still a bit befuddled about Picard’s odd remark to Riker that children make him uncomfortable and he is not a “family man.” Perhaps this was added to build a potential fatherly narrative arc between Picard and Wesley, as well as a rekindled romance between Picard and Dr. Crusher. At any rate, “Encounter at Farpoint” managed to evoke a sense of wonder and awe in me.     


As has been well documented elsewhere, tensions were high behind the scenes of Star Trek TNG in these early seasons. It was Paramount who demanded that Roddenberry create a 2-hour double episode, however Roddenberry only wanted to make a 1-hour episode. They compromised with a 90-minute episode (but only after Paramount executives threatened to toss Roddenberry off the lot). This confusion left Fontana and Roddenberry with a haphazard writing project ahead of them. DC Fontana’s original working title for this episode was “Meeting at Farpoint” while Roddenberry added in the Q subplot.   

Director Corey Allen (1934-2010) was an actor and director. He played the role of Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). His father was Carl Cohen, a Las Vegas casino industry magnate. In total, Corey Allen directed five Star Trek TNG episodes and four Star Trek DS9 episodes, among numerous other television shows. He died in 2010.    

Star Trek Trivia:

  • The planet Deneb IV is mentioned in the classic Season 1 episode of Star Trek TOS “Where No man Has Gone Before,” wherein Captain Kirk states that he has been worried about a colleague, Gary Mitchell, “ever since that night on Deneb IV.”
  • John de Lancie (1948-present) plays Q in this episode. He has continued to reprise his celebrated role of Q in many other Star Trek episodes. John de Lancie is a Shakespearean stage and screen actor who has been involved in a variety of intriguing projects over the years. He co-wrote the Star Trek novel I, Q with Peter David, along with several other Star Trek books and audiobooks. He has narrated for various major orchestras and has also appeared as a voice actor in a number of television shows and video games. He is also an accomplished sailor, and a celebrated secular activist and humanist. He and his wife have two sons.   
  • This episode features the first moment in which Captain Picard uses the term “engage!”
  • In this episode, Q uses the power of “freezing” against at least two Enterprise crewmen.
  • At one point in this episode, Picard interrogates Commander Riker about a past instance wherein the USS Hood visited Altair III and Riker refused to allow Captain Robert DeSoto onto the planet’s surface because it was too dangerous.    
  • Geordi’s VISOR appliance is described as a “remarkable piece of bio-electronic engineering” by which he “sees” much of the EM spectrum ranging from simple heat and infrared to radio waves. It is also noted that the VISOR causes him some mild pain, though he declines painkillers and rejects exploratory surgery to correct his vision.
  • When Wesley Crusher visits the bridge of the Enterprise, Picard explains that the panel on the right of the captain’s chair is used for log entries, library computer access retrieval, view screen control, and intercom and so on. The panel on the left contains the back-up conn and ops panels plus shield and armament controls. The forward view screen is controlled from the ops position (the view screen uses high-resolution, multi-spectral imaging sensors.
  • During the introduction of the holodeck, Data whistles the song “Pop goes the Weasel.”
  • The first appearance of the holodeck is a “woodland pattern” which is a duplicate of earth, based on the transporter technology, and the holodeck has thousands more patterns.
  • We learn that Picard was previously a first officer.
  • During the trial scene, it is revealed that in the year 2036 earth declared that no citizen could be held accountable for the whole of the human race.
  • The term “Imzadi” is first used in this episode to denote the relationship between Counselor Troi and Commander Riker (Imzadi means something akin to “soulmate”). The widely popular novel Imzadi takes place before the show and examines the relationship between Troi and Riker.
  • Data says he is “superior in many ways” to Riker, though he would “gladly give it up to be human.”
  • There is an odd scene in this episode in which Data is confused about the meaning of the word “snoop.”
  • During one brief but memorable moment in this episode, Dr. Crusher explains to her son Wesley that travelers like Captain Picard have no time for a family. As she does so, she gazes off into the distance as if to recall a tragic memory. But the moment quickly passes. Later, Picard also says he is “not a family man.”
  • It is revealed that Galaxy class starships computers, like the one aboard the Enterprise-D, have the ability locate anyone aboard the Enterprise.
  • This episode introduces the idea that the saucer section can separate itself from the rest of the ship. The effect is used only three more times in the TNG series, as well as in the film Star Trek Generations.
  • The cameo by “Admiral McCoy” was DeForest Kelley’s final television appearance before his death in 1999. He said it was an honor to have been invited, and he requested nothing more than the minimum pay.
  • Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II is quoted in the trial scene (“Kill all lawyers”).
  • Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry named Captain Picard for (one or both of) the twin brothers Auguste Piccard and Jean Piccard, both 20th-century Swiss scientists. Jean-Luc Picard was originally set to be named “Julien Picard.”
  • Tasha Yar’s original working name was “Macha Hernandez” and then “Tanya.” Her surname was suggested by Robert Lewin, who drew inspiration from the Babi Yar atrocities in Ukraine during World War II.
  • The chairs aboard the Enterprise appear noticeably reclined in this episode. They are changed in later seasons.
  • This episode gives the first mention of Ferengi Alliance in Star Trek.
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully triumphant score for Star Trek TNG was taken from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
  • Gene Roddenberry initially wanted Deanna Troi to have four breasts. Thankfully this was scrapped due to Roddenberry’s wife and DC Fontana disregarding the idea (though a three-breasted alien appears in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier a la Total Recall).
  • Michael Bell (1938-present) played Groppler Zorn in this episode. He has appeared in numerous television shows and lent his voice to various cartoons and video games. He is married to Victoria Bell, an actress, and they have one daughter, Ashley Bell, also an actress. Michael Bell has developed a reputation over the years for his union activism in Hollywood.

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