Twenty years ago this autumn, I was a sophomore in college. I remember watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG) with friends. While most of us were fans of speculative fiction, we had little idea of how entertaining and influential TNG would become.
I had grown up on the writings of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, but I had watched the original 1960s Star Trek only in reruns. During freshman year, I had fought for the dorm lounge television with people who preferred The Late Show With David Letterman over some old show with people wearing colorful pajamas, odd makeup, or both. But we were a small but dedicated band, and we made it to the stars. Among the friends I met then was my future wife.
Over the course of many late nights and foosball games, I learned about the United Federation of Planets, its Starfleet, and the Prime Directive that forbade its explorers from interfering in the internal affairs or development of alien worlds. The so-called "Wagon Train to the stars" combined Westerns with ray guns, and mythology with scientific speculation.
By the time TNG began, I was indeed a Trekkie — or "Trekker," as some prefer — having learned the cant among the franchise's fans: phasers, warp speed, and the Vulcan nerve pinch and salute. Of the eventual six movies with the space opera's original cast, the best two — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and IV: The Voyage Home — had already been released. Thanks to magazines such as Starlog and various "technical manuals," I learned about transporters and Jeffries tubes (the access tunnels throughout starships, named after an original series art director). Around Thanksgiving of 1987, I would attend my first science fiction convention, one run by Creation Entertainment in New York.
It's also worth remembering the context into which this Enterprise was launched — that, despite the success of multimedia franchises such as Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, there was little genre entertainment on television at that time. As we look forward to 2007's premieres of Heroes, Lost, or Battlestar Galactica: Razor, among others, note that 20 years ago, there was only Stephen Spielberg's anthology Amazing Stories, horror drama Friday the 13th: the Series, and another Earth-based movie spin-off, Starman. Weak visual effects, even weaker writing, and a lack of interest among mainstream viewers and networks had doomed all but the U.K.'s Doctor Who to short lifespans or syndication.
Fortunately, syndication gave TNG the time it needed to develop, unlike many shows until The X-Files. Many fans of the original crew and earlier Trek films had difficulty accepting a new cast and style. The captain was now a bald Frenchman rather than a Kennedyesque Canadian-American; the jumpsuits and military uniforms were now spandex (later with 1980s shoulderpads); and the acting and scripts/dialogue were a bit stiff. I found the first episode, "Encounter at Farpoint", to be slow, preachy, and not particularly promising.
But it soon grew on me, and at a time in my life when I wasn't watching much TV, I was pleasantly surprised to see TNG and, by extension, science fiction working its way back into mainstream consciousness. The strength of the show was not its pyrotechnics (which were better than in the 1960s) but in the heroic ensemble cast.
Patrick Stewart as the noble Capt. Jean-Luc Picard solved problems more often with diplomacy than with fisticuffs. Other memorable characters included Brent Spiner's Asimovian android Data, who yearned to be more human, and Michael Dorn's warrior Worf, who wanted to be more Klingon. LeVar Burton, as eventual chief engineer Geordi La Forge, was actually the best known actor at the time.
Despite the occasional bad writing, I came to appreciate creator Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision of the future, in which the best and brightest from hundreds of inhabited planets came together for the shared goals of exploration and defending galactic peace. Over time, even supporting characters became like family, and many episodes revisited humanistic themes and even specific plots from the original series, strengthening archetypes that nearly every genre show has followed since then: time travel, alternate universes, court martials, and so on.
But there can be no drama without conflict, and TNG reintroduced the classic adversaries of belligerent Klingons and scheming Romulans. While the mercantile Ferengi turned out to be better for comic relief, the nearly omnipotent "Q" (John de Lancie, following a long line of godlike beings in the otherwise agnostic or atheist Star Trek), martial Cardassians, and cybernetic, collective Borg transcended a mere TV show where the weapons were really made of plastic and the sets of plywood. Just as Capt. James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock are now part of popular culture, so too are the nightmarish Borg, which columnists for Computerworld still refer to.
By its third year, TNG became a worthy successor to Roddenberry's legacy, even as the "great bird of the galaxy" was in failing health. The introduction of the Borg, the Klingon civil war, and incremental character development (including the return of Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher) started a balancing act between purely episodic plots and longer story arcs that continues to this day. Yes, TNG is in hindsight rather static, but it laid the groundwork for the more arc-driven shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and the aforementioned Lost and Heroes.
Many of my favorite episodes — "Yesterday's Enterprise", "Sins of the Father", "Sarek" and "The Best of Both Worlds" — are from Season 3. (Yes, we Trekkies like to refer to specific episodes by title.) Unlike some of its descendants, the crew of the starship Enterprise (registry NCC-1701-D) was composed of the best and brightest who were able to rise to the greatest challenges and still be sympathetic people.
As the Cold War ended in the real world, Star Trek continued exemplifying SF as social allegory. On the other hand, Roddenberry's direction of the franchise relaxed, the story arcs and character development got stronger, if not always successfully. Star Trek, and indeed much genre fiction, has shown few happy families, competent admirals, or foes who don't eventually get watered down.
The eventual trend toward a "darker" tone was offset in TNG by lighter character studies, allowing even underdeveloped characters such as Marina Sirtis' Counselor Troi and Wil Wheaton's ensign Wesley Crusher to evolve past a touchy-feely pseudoshrink and an annoying child genius, respectively. Author David Brin has lauded the Federation's meritocracy, which has made the novels and various books and games based on Star Trek (one of the largest shared universes in SF, if you count all the contributors) especially accessible.
The show was further strengthened by guest stars: from Whoopi Goldberg as recurring bartender Guinan, to physicist Stephen Hawking as himself in a holodeck scene, to members of the original cast (most notably Mark Lenard and Leonard Nimoy as ur-Vulcans Sarek and Spock, respectively). In fact, like its later peers, Quantum Leap, Highlander, and Lois & Clark, many actors passed through TNG on their way to later success.
By the time TNG wound down in 1994, it had earned its place among the best SF shows of all time. Its seven-year lifespan has guaranteed many years of reruns in syndication, and it launched spin-offs Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Star Trek: Voyager. The Enterprise-D continued its voyage on the silver screen, though I feel that the movies featuring the Next Gen cast focused too much on conflict rather than on crew's strengths of diplomacy and friendship, but they each had something to offer the fans.
The seventh Star Trek film, Generations, finally had Captains Kirk and Picard meet, even if the plot was a bit muddled. First Contact was the best, using the Borg and the Enterprise-E. Insurrection and Nemesis tried to bring back some intrigue and family, but weren't strong enough to retain interest from the general audience.
DS9 continued Roddenberry's ideals as it continued to explore post-Cold War uncertainty and conflict with an even stronger ensemble. The Odyssey-inspired Voyager and retconning Enterprise were weaker, to the point that Trek is now taking a break before Paramount and J.J. Abrams attempt to reboot it with the eleventh movie in 2008.
Fortunately, TNG's influence can still be seen. The story arcs of non-Trek space operas Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis, Serenity/Firefly, and the revisionist Battlestar Galactica all share ideas and sometimes writers and actors from Trek. While this subgenre of SF is not as popular at the moment as cyberpunk, comic book superheroes, or alien conspiracies, I continue to be inspired by the intrepid cast and crew of The Next Generation.
To my fellow Trekkers, may you Live Long and Prosper —
GeneD is a lifelong science fiction fan and a copy editor at Computerworld magazine near Boston. As "Ensign Barney Blintz" and "Capt. Tzu Tien Lung," he participated in various Star Trek RPGs. Read his blog at http://360.yahoo.com/edemaitre.
Also in the TNG at 20 series:
- T-Minus One Week and Counting
- To Everything, There Is a Season
- Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Spock Gone?
- The Human Condition
- But Don't Take My Word For It
- A Good Day to Die