Space, The Final Frontier…
It seems like these days, we have such a vast bounty of science fiction and fantasy TV shows to chew on, that we hardly know where to start. I’m of a personal opinion that the mid 2000’s saw (are seeing) a new golden age of TV, as both serialized storytelling and science fiction themes made a huge comeback. Going against popular studio logic, viewers have proved themselves able to handle hour-long episodes that promote a continuous storyline over the course of a season instead of isolated, stand-alone efforts. The boon of DVD, and DVD TV box sets, have also gone a long way to making these shows more palpable. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Farscape, Firefly, Supernatural, Jericho, Heroes, Doctor Who… the list goes on. It’s also become a more friendly era for the scifi-loving geek, as his or her visual diet is also embraced by ever-growing portions of the mainstream.
This was not always so. In the mid-1980’s, the word “Trekkies” was said with extreme disdain by many, geeks lacked the unifying power of the internet, and good scifi offerings were slim at best, particularly on television. The 1960’s Star Trek series, the 70’s Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, the 80’s V: The Mini-Series — these were the bulk of the scifi fan’s menu, outside of cartoons. A large part of this was the lack of demand and the higher cost of such shows, due to special effects and completely constructed settings. Even Paramount balked at bringing back Star Trek for a second series in the 70’s, opting instead to start the more profitable film franchise. The movies kept the Star Trek name going strong, and while scifi television was weak, the 80’s saw a number of classic scifi flicks, such as Return of the Jedi, The Last Starfighter, Ghostbusters and Transformers whet the public appetite.
1987 became the perfect storm for both science fiction television and Star Trek. Paramount knew the audience was right there, built in, and positioned themselves to draw in a completely new crowd of fans with a little something called Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Here And Now
It’s hard to convey to you how influential The Next Generation (TNG for short) was in my life. Although as I write this I have only a passing interest in Star Trek and only take an annual voyage with Star Treks II and VI, I cannot deny how TNG helped shape me into the hardcore geek I am today – and I am grateful.
Unsurprisingly, The Next Generation is looked back by 20- and 30-somethings today as one of “the best” shows of their time. TNG became such a powerhouse of a show that it all but dominated science fiction for seven years, and continued to cast a huge shadow over its spin-off offspring. For many of us, this was the first show that we became slavishly devoted to, memorizing pretend facts about pretend starships, contemplating romantic pairings between the crewmembers (or between the crewmembers and ourselves), and fervently wishing that we could spend one, just one day on the Enterprise.
TNG was my escape drug of choice, and captivated my imagination through my entire teenage years. I built Star Trek models out of Legos (c’mon, Legos are cool), I created Star Trek movies with a camcorder in my house, I joined a bulletin board Star Trek roleplayers group, I bought billions of Star Trek novels (which came out at the same rate and quality of romance paperbacks), and I even had a Starfleet emblem on my jacket for my senior class picture. Everyone who knew me knew that I was a Trekkie – so much so that I still receive Star Trek-themed presents from time to time. Heck, even the other day at seminary our prof asked who those capitalist aliens were with the big ears, and I spouted out “Ferengi” and then clapped a hand over my mouth in shame.
The greatest appeal to me was, and always has been, the technology. Star Trek immersed itself in fantastic technology that plausibly connected itself to real-world science. Watch the original series, and think of communicators as flip-top cell phones, or the data discs they used as flash drives. TNG was huge on touch-screen controls long before the iPhone, for instance, and it always seemed like the Enterprise was a technological Christmas tree of toys that was waiting to be explored. From the uniforms to the datapads to the infamously quirky holodeck, it was a future setting that felt relatable. Plus, the geeky fan boy in me could never get enough of spaceships sparring, wormholes realigning, or the ultra-creepy Borg.
Watching this show became a weekly ritual, one shared by many friends and family members. You know how they say that smells bring back powerful memories of specific places and times? Well, it’s sort of like that with me whenever I think of the opening credits to The Next Generation. That encapsulated the feel of the early 90’s for me. I think the zenith of my excitement came around season five, right when the show was getting extra helpings of special effects (ooh, computers! morphing!) and new characters (rock on, Ensign Ro). By the time that the final episode aired, I was heading out for college and a new phase in my life – but Star Trek would never be truly forgotten.
Nothing’s Ever Perfect, Even When You Make Number One
Bumblebee factual mishaps aside, I’ve made my stance very clear on how disillusioned I became over TNG (and Trek in general) in my movie reviews. As culturally and intellectually significant as Trek was, it suffered from a number of flaws that eventually drove me (and, I imagine, many others) away from the franchise.
Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic future utopia is, on the surface, an admirable goal, considering that Star Trek came out in the midst of a world hellbent on destroying itself as fast as possible. Shying away from religion of any sort, Roddenberry fully embraced humanism and incorporated that into the Trek shows – that mankind would, eventually, better itself and weed out all of the flaws, such as greed, anger and bunions. Unfortunately, this created three major problems in the show: that the humans in the series were almost always condescending holier-than-thou backpatters, that the mandated lack of inter-human conflict took several story avenues away from the show, and that eventually, to make good conflict, alien races would be brought in to substitute for human racial strife, corrupt virtues, etc. The galaxy in TNG is basically our world, just on a bigger scale and with more bumpy foreheads, and that negates Roddenberry’s whole future utopia.
Aside from the “let’s condescend toward alien races until they conform to the awesome blandness that is humanity” bent, Star Trek created people and speech patterns that simply were not as relatable to us as other shows managed to be. They looked like people, but with sort of a post-lobotomy attitude. Nobody ever went to the bathroom, light awkward kisses were the beginning and end of most physical relationships, jokes were strained to the point where one month infants could safely digest them, and everyone kept posing like they were mannequins in a shop window. It’s a weird place to be when the most passionate anyone gets is when they start to babble on about technical and scientific terms.
You could see shows like DS9 and Enterprise try, oh so hard, to fight against the mighty Trek current of conformity, and in some places, they managed to bend Roddenberry’s rules enough to make the universe more believable and relatable. However, it always struck me as trying to force a square peg into a round hole (probably using some interphasic extrapolator, or whatnot), just not suited for the enormous foundation that Trek poured in concrete.
These Are The Voyages Of The Starship Enterprise
They never met a threat they couldn’t solve by either talking it to death or reconfiguring the deflector dish somehow to “reverse polarity”. They enjoyed poker and orgasm-free sex, but never had to go to the toilet. They spoke in stilted, almost professionally-detached phrases, and couldn’t crack a good joke or do anything dark to save their lives. They randomly functioned as explorers, scientists, diplomats and half-hearted military enforcers. They… were the next generation of Trek. And at least two of them were balding.
It was a weird start to a weird premise: 80 years after Kirk and crew did their thing and troubled themselves with Tribbles, a new politically correct-brewed mix took the controls of a curvy Enterprise-D while learning the value of a good, long, moralistic speech. From its Shakespearean lead star Patrick Stewart, to an oddball mix of Klingons, playboys, androids, kids and handi-capable engineers, you were sure to never be left without something to look at.
However, it was far from a sure thing. The $1 million per episode price tag carried with it heavy expectations, and Paramount went all-out on an advertising blitz to generate huge interest (I recall Wesley Crusher showing up on the back of a box of Rice Krispies around that time). But as we all know, massive hype can often lead to massive backlash, especially when the first season staggered around like a drunk mule at a hoe down. It took a few seasons and some heavy-handed retooling to bring out the best in TNG’s characters and stories, but by the time the third season finale hit, TNG was as – if not more – popular than the original Trek.
In its seven-year run, TNG left its footprint on popular culture in ways that few shows ever have. To name a few: Picard’s flute; “There are four lights”; holodeck malfunctions; “Make it so”; the Picard maneuver; transporter malfunctions; the Borg; Q; technobabble; bumpy-head aliens; warp speed; Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra; the warp speed 5.5 limit.
In our second part, we’ll take a stroll through the seven seasons (and four movies) that cemented a legend.