TNG at 20: A Good Day to Die

28-Sep-07 1:57 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 2 comments.

This is it: the entire week has been building up to this. Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 20 today, having aired "Encounter at Farpoint" on Monday, September 28th, 1987.

How best to mark this event? What would be an appropriate climax to this week of commemorative blogging? I could reflect on how different my life would be had my father not sat me down to watch the latest iteration of the show he had grown up with. I could analyze the show's cultural impact, or wax poetic about its message of hope and optimism for humanity's future. I could take a serious look at its special effects, its genesis from Star Trek Phase II, or the franchise's future.

But I think the most dramatic impact the debut of two decades ago was on a most beleaguered class: the red shirts.

When TNG debut, it marked a dramatic change in Starfleet's taxonomy: red, previously the shirt color of security and engineering personnel, was now worn by the indispensable command track. Former redshirts the quadrant over breathed a sign of relief to receive their new uniforms, as in the era of the gold-dressed Kirk, a red shirt was the mark of death, with these expendable bodyguards suffering more away team fatalities than any other group. This trend wasn't just a popular misconception born of fear and superstition, either: courtesy StarTrek.com, a recent statistical study proves what an unfair lot redshirts have.

Not everyone appreciates the burden of being a TOS-era redshirt; in fact, some groups are downright insensitive. Courtesy TrekToday comes news of a health care company that promises its clients "the RedShirt Treatment". Independent Health promises that, no matter who you are, when you call, or what your problem is, you're pretty much screwed.

But that's okay, because even though death is final (unless you're Spock, Kirk, Scotty — or even Denise Crosby), Eternal Image will be the last ones to let you down. When you're ready for the final frontier, this Michigan-based funerary company will ensure you receive the honor normally reserved for photon torpedoes: to be buried or cremated in the Star Trek-branded funeral or urn of your choice. (Tip of the hat to Dayton Ward)

Star Trek is a story with powerful lessons for all of humanity. But most of all, The Next Generation offers us hope for change and for a better future — no matter your shirt color. So live long — or die trying!


Also in the TNG at 20 series:

TNG at 20: But Don't Take My Word For It

27-Sep-07 5:22 PM by
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The upcoming TNG complete series box set has a bonus disc of unique features, interviews, and documentaries. Though there is some unearthed arcana from decades ago, much of the material is retrospective in nature, created exclusively for this DVD collection.

It can be fun to look at the making of Star Trek: TNG as it was actually being made. Without the benefit of hindsight, documentaries that are as old as the show they're inspecting have a certain nostalgic quality. And who brings that magic to life better than LeVar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow?

Before (and while!) he was Geordi LaForge but after Kunta Kinte, Mr. Burton hosted this PBS children's educational series that explored the power of books, fiction, and imagination. He took advantage of being an explorer of both space and imagination when he brought the show he hosted behind the scenes of his "other" show. Now available on YouTube as a three-part series is that episode of Reading Rainbow.

So open the video — and open your mind.

Also in the TNG at 20 series:

TNG at 20: The Voyage Continues

26-Sep-07 6:00 PM by
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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.

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TNG at 20: The Human Condition

25-Sep-07 11:59 PM by
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Star Trek is a tale not of aliens, technology, and anomalies, but of humanity. However evolved the future's citizens claim to be, they still find ways to learn and and places to grow. Though Worf or Data or even Wesley may've developed the most over The Next Generation's seven years, the hero I found to be the deepest, most complex, and most intricate was their guide through the stars: the very human Captain Picard.

As many commanding officers do, Jean-Luc Picard initially came across as a stiff and remote authority figure: barking orders, didactically lecturing his crew, and providing an extremely straight man for the tomfoolery of Q. But when Picard was given the opportunity to not be a foil but take the center stage for himself, his humanity truly shined.

Though we met almost everyone else's parents and children, Picard had neither. Yet it was his estranged relationship with his brother Robert that we found most empathetic. This wasn't an unknown child appearing on his doorstep or a licentious mother causing him embarrassment; it was two siblings — one who stayed in the family business, the other a prodigal son. That very basic bond is one with which many of us have struggled, and though we'd hope to overcome such issues by the 24th century, it gives us hope to see a man as great as Picard overcome them.

It is one of many trials Picard faced in his time aboard the Enterprise. He lived decades in an unreal life — separated first from his starship family, then from the one he came to love. He was given the chance to put right what once went wrong, only to see the entire tapestry of his life come unravelled. He loved one woman, only to have duty take her away; he loved another, only to give her away himself. Despite a broken heart, he was held prisoner, tortured to the point of a broken mind.

And, of course, there was Wolf 359: where he was a mere onlooker as his own mind and body were used to send hundreds of his fellow Starfleet officers to their deaths. How does any man — not an android, not an empath, but just a man — overcome so much tragedy?

I don't know — yet Picard did so, and somehow became stronger for it. And he showed his unwavering spirit in his love for Shakespeare, archaelogy — and his crew. The most brilliant Star Trek short story I ever read was "The Promise", by Shane Zeranski, which I will spoil for you by quoting Picard's breakdown when he realizes, after thirty years, he may never leave Kataan:

I loved them… and I never told them. I never told a one! Not Data, not Worf, not Riker… not even Beverly. And now they're gone and I'll never see them again! I always — expected that… that I might, but — but I won't… If only I could see them — just once more, just… once… more! They were my family… my family… and I've lost them.

I can hear each of these words come from Jean-Luc's mouth, and they speak of a man wracked with a despair that can come only from a deep and powerful passion. Picard engages in the full range of human experiences, from joy to sorrow; it is this fearlessness with which he faces his own nature that exemplifies Star Trek as an exploration not of mapping stars and studying nebula… but of charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

The full breadth of Picard's character is demonstrated in the videos presented after the jump:

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TNG at 20: T-Minus One Week and Counting

22-Sep-07 11:59 PM by
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October 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. A year after Russia beat America into space, the White House responded with a document, Introduction to Outer Space, urging America to win this race:

The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn on the exploration of outer space as their next objective.

"Where no one has gone before…" Gene Roddenberry took these words to heart, and less than a decade later, he went there — and brought the world with him.

His original Star Trek, which turned 40 last year, may not initially have been a commercial success; but its successor, true to its title, inspired the next generation of television viewers to look up. The passion the Star Trek franchise has stirred in its audience has proven timeless, and its impact on not just our popular culture, but on our scientific progress, is immeasurable. One space industry executive wrote, "We are in the commercial space flight industry and would like to testify that at least one out of two of all the actual entrepreneurs involved in this industry has been inspired by Star Trek."

Though Kirk, Spock, and McCoy marked the beginning, it was Picard, Riker, Data, and company that cemented the franchise in our hearts and souls. And we here at Showbits cannot fail to observe the beginning of that golden era.

September 28th marks twenty years since Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired. To commemorate this historic anniversary, we'll be blogging about Star Trek every day this week, culminating on Friday. We'll be providing news, retrospectives, analyses, and more. They'll be fun, nostalgic, thought-provoking, and who knows what else. So please join us on this wagon train to the stars… The sky's the limit!


Also in the TNG at 20 series:

Above and Beyond

12-Apr-07 10:22 AM by
Filed under Fade to Black, Star Trek; 4 comments.

Tonight, 119 parties in 32 countries will celebrate "Yuri's Night" — the 46th anniversary of mankind's first escape from Earth's atmosphere.

It seems a timely opportunity to ensure that those of you in or around New Mexico know of the upcoming opportunity to attend James Doohan's send-off. On April 27th, a memorial will be held for the actor who played Scotty on Star Trek: The Original Series, followed the next day by the liftoff of the Legacy Flight module and its payload of Mr. Doohan's ashes into outer space. Mr. Doohan's widow, Wende, has extended an invitation to any and all Star Trek fans to attend these special events.

This launch has been delayed many times since Doohan's passing on July 20th, 2005 — the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, died in 1991 and entered space in 1997. Finally, with Scotty beaming up to where he belongs, they will be in good company.

The Trek Life

Just an old country doctor…

20-Jan-07 11:58 AM by
Filed under Celebrities, Star Trek; 1 comment.

This week, I finally tackled Crucible: Provenance of Shadows, the first in a trilogy of books that independently examines each of the three main characters of Star Trek: The Original Series. At three times the length of most Trek novels, Crucible initially intimidated me — but with the Spock's book now out, and Kirk's due next month, it felt time to get cracking on McCoy's installment.

I'm enjoying the book thoroughly, and I'll go into more detail why once I've finished it. But I thought it worth writing today in memory of the actor who brought Bones to life, as today would've been his 87th birthday. It was a sad day eight years ago when DeForest Kelley was the first of the Enterprise's crew to pass beyond the galactic barrier, where he's since been joined by James Doohan. But as I read Crucible, it brings Mr. Kelley's performance back to life in a very real way. It's probably expected of today's Trek actors, but I doubt forty-one years ago, the crew of the Enterprise's maiden voyage realized they would be immortalized, with countless untold stories yet to be discovered and explored, in novels, comics, films, and fiction for decades to come. I can't imagine how different a scape our imaginations would be, had any other actor come to personify Leonard McCoy. I hope novels such as Crucible continue to do his legacy proud.

I regret that I'm not a bigger fan of westerns, as it seems that genre is where Mr. Kelley can most be seen outside the realm of Star Trek. Can anyone recommend some of his films?

Fortunately, he was more than an actor, as today I was delighted to discover a trilogy of Star Trek poems written by the late doctor. "The Big Bird's Dream" presents a rhyming narrative of Gene Roddenberry (whose nickname was "The Great Bird of the Galaxy") and his efforts to realize his screenplay dream. Be sure to follow the links to the two sequel poems as well.