Star Trek: The Next Generation part 2

Season One: A Flock Of Spaceships (1987-88)

One wonders if the late 80’s was not the best time to reimagine Star Trek. After all, the original Star Trek was a burly man’s man type of show, where the guys fixed everything with generous helpings of fist and firepower, and the women mostly shut up, wore miniskirts, toted around clipboards and talked on the intergalactic telephone. Jump forward to the 80’s, where being “sensitive” was the in-thing for males, spandex wasn’t a fashion death trap (yet), and nobody dared tell anyone to “tone it down a notch”. Almost instantly, Star Trek: The Next Generation drove away die hard Trekkies with it’s touchy-feely 80’s bungling – here, the men wore the miniskirts, the woman on bridge liked to talk about emotions pretty much 24/7, the galaxy was finally VD-free after Kirk’s five-year rampage, and they were contractually obligated to include both a robot and a child genius with the crew.

Actually, I was fine with the robot (sigh… android) angle – but gag me with a spoon if Wesley wasn’t one of the most instantly-hated figures in Star Trek. Sure, we all imagined ourselves as the new crew members on the Enterprise, we just didn’t want to see some pasty punk up there doing us one better. You’d think that, after Wesley saving the ship for the 23rd time, that Starfleet would have installed a child prodigy on every ship as policy.

I also had a large problem with the whole “kids” angle. For the uninitiated, one of the much-vaunted features of TNG’s Enterprise was that it housed entire families instead of swingin’ single bachelors and floozies. Like many things with the first season of the various Treks, it was mentioned once or twice for good dramatic situations, then largely forgotten about until the script needed some kids in danger of being eaten by giant space cockroaches. Honestly, it was a dumb idea – the Enterprise was in severe danger each and every week, and only a sadistic parent would think that this exploding, anomaly-attracting deathtrap was a great place for a kindergarten class.

For a show that became as successful as TNG, it’s amazing how uniformly awful the first season was. Bad ideas (such as having a full-time crewperson who’s sole job is to be a living polygraph test) were embraced, while cool scifi ones (such as the saucer separation) were forgotten and abandoned. Models looked like models, computer effects were in their infancy, and alien worlds either looked like a L.A. park or a used stage set from the 60’s Star Trek. The only thing that saved outright mockery is that this was honestly the best-looking show on TV up to that point. The public simply didn’t know better, and it did look vastly superior to Kirk’s Enterprise.

What’s worse lay behind the scenes with drama. Even as his health worsened, Gene Roddenberry retained an iron grip on the show and mandated dozens of set-in-stone rules about the Trek universe that writers had no leeway with. He further cornered writers by insisting that in his future, the Starfleet crew would be above petty human emotions like anger and jealousy, which took away several avenues of conflict that would have made for more interesting tales. Conflict, in TNG, had to almost always be from an external threat, not internal clashes.

After some fights, long-time Trek writers left the show, and Roddenberry tried to continue to reuse old Star Trek plots (and relics from the proposed Star Trek: Phase Two show) in any way possible. Most notably – and shocking for a show of this kind – one of the main characters was killed off in the middle of the first season. Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar (the security chief), felt unsatisfied that her role was given any depth, and wanted out – undoubtedly kicking herself for years afterward for the decision.

Still, it was new, it was fairly interesting, and it slowly gained a dedicated audience. This novelty feeling sustained about the first half of the year, although its shaky footing would make it harder to regain lost ground later on.

Season Two: Pimp My Spacecaddy (1988-89)

Although TNG wasn’t in immediate danger of dying, the creators knew that they’d run into some serious problems with the first season, and were in for even more trouble if they didn’t turn things around. While a first good step would have been to airlock Wesley and jettison him as a publicity stunt (“Next week on Star Trek: The Next Generation… Wesley takes the worst left turn of his life when he should’ve taken a right!”), they instead took the more cautious steps of pulling back the more outlandish elements of the show in order to make it relatable to the audience. Certain characters were given the spotlight in special episodes, giving the actors more of a chance to get a good feel for their roles. And the end of the 80’s was in sight.

Oddly enough, the one character the creators felt like they had to nix was Picard’s on-again, off-again squeeze Beverly Crusher, replacing her with a crusty, snippy Dr. Pulaski. Now, Pulaski was never a TNG fave, but they had a gem of a good idea bringing in at least one character who fell outside of the “let’s all get along, go TEAM!” mentality of the starship. Unfortunately, her stint was as short as it was forgettable.

Better changes included giving Geordi more to work with than “I’m blind and they make me wear this giant hair barrett so people will know to treat me different”, and he finally becomes an engineer. Of course, all of the parents on the ship began to freak out since the guy who was in charge of keeping life support going and plasma from streaming into all the halls was technically not able to see squat, but at least Geordi was happy. Enterprise also got a new hangout bar, Ten Forward, and a mysterious and wizened bartender known as Whoopi Goldberg. Sure, this was more of a “low key cocktail hour” bar than a “rough and rowdy Western saloon” kind of place, but at least it was a start in giving the crew a social life outside of the holodeck. Guinan? Personally, I could take her or leave her, but the truth was that she was the only character who was able to listen to Data’s endless babbling about human traits without trying to sever his neck with a laser chainsaw. And the show needed that.

I didn’t talk much about season one’s episodes, mostly because there weren’t many that stood out as worthy for discussion. Sure, you had Yar’s death, Data’s brother, and the introduction of the oh-so-not-terrifying Ferengi, but these were mere pinpricks of interest against a sea of blandness. Season two bumped things up a notch to “adequate”, with episode standouts such as “The Measure of a Man” (solidifying Trekkies’ odd passion for Data) and “Q Who?” (which introduced TNG’s favorite villains, the Borg). Season two also had the show’s one and only clip show (“Shades of Grey”), which was cobbled together because of the 1988 writers’ strike.

Season Three: Warped Drive (1989-90)

If a TV show makes it to its third season, one of two things are happening: either it’s struggling for life amidst a sea of network-approved twiddlings, or it has found its place in the world and is striding forward with much self confidence. In season three, TNG walked the walk and talked the unending talk.

Beverly Crusher returned to the Enterprise (big shoulder shrug of indifference here), and various crew members were given promotions and more screen time – including perennial favorites Data and Worf. Data makes a kid, we have a screeching introduction to Troi’s mom, Geordi fails as both a boyfriend and a mentor, Riker is accused of murder, and Picard wears skimpy swimwear. As a whole, the season is a rollercoaster ride – not of extreme excitement, but varying crevasses, peaks and valleys of quality. There’s some terrific Trek in here, and also some of the worst.

But for once, I’ll be positive – there’s a reason why season three is considered the start of TNG’s golden age. Well, two reasons: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Best of Both Worlds Part I”. Two of the all-time best Trek episodes, period, and both in this season.

My favorite books and TV shows are ones that don’t just think of a cool idea and carry that for its entire run – it’s when they think of a cool idea, then top it with a great idea, and then continually pop new, innovative ideas along the way. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is an episode where someone’s imagination went above and beyond at Paramount, and we reaped a story where you couldn’t get enough cool stuff that was thrown your way. A rift in space causes the entire timeline to shift, bringing us on board a battle-scarred Enterprise (with Tasha Yar returning) in the midst of an intergalactic war. To make matters more interesting, the Enterprise-C shows up from its era, giving making Trekkies squick all over themselves in glee. It’s a mystery, a terrific set piece, and action galore – perfect.

What was equally good, in its own way, was TNG’s first two-part cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds Part I”. In a daring move to shake up the Enterprise’s little happy fun club, Picard is kidnapped by the insidious Borg, who proceed to transform our bald cappy into one of them and launch an unstoppable rampage across the galaxy toward Earth. It’s dark, it’s uncertain, and it’s full of some all-time classic Trek moments. The cliffhanger at the end – when Riker must decide to use the Enterprise’s (ahem) retrofitted deflector dish to deal a death blow to the Borg ship holding Picard – is a nail-biter, and launched this show into previously unreached levels of popularity.

Season Four: There’s No Good Reason You Should Ever Be Naked On The Holodeck, Mr. Crusher (1990-91)

Although he’s proven himself to be a kindred geek and all-around nice guy, Wil Wheaton’s (Wesley Crusher) departure from the show – with Wesley entering Starfleet Academy – was mourned about as much as Jar-Jar’s elimination from Revenge of the Sith. He’d be back for only a couple more episodes – plus a strangely brief cameo in Star Trek Nemesis — and largely forgotten about otherwise. It was just one of the reasons why season four got so darned good.

After the nasty Borg attack, which would have repercussions stretching into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the crew of the Enterprise is a little more world-weary, but still perky enough to work at Starbucks. “Family” becomes the theme of the season, with Picard traveling to visit his brother, Data dealing with his own evil twin, and Worf discovering that unprotected Klingon sex leads to annoying consequences. Also, the crew is a family, blah de blah blah, Earl Grey, hot.

It’s not my favorite season, mostly because a majority of the episodes were disposable (if somewhat fun). More smatterings of interesting story bits – like Tasha Yar’s daughter, the introduction of the Trill race (one of which would become a main character in DS9), a day in the life of Data, and a Klingon civil war – sustained the quality and the fervor of fans.

Season Five: The Anemone Anomaly (1991-92)

Season five holds a special place in my heart, due to my heightened Trek fandom at the time (The Undiscovered Country came out that year), as well as some particularly interesting stories and better uses of technology.

“Darmok” and “The Inner Light” were not just examples of good Star Trek, but fine pieces of television storytelling, period. How do you communicate with a race of aliens when your translator doesn’t work? What if you could live someone else’s entire life in the span of a few minutes? Questions like these hooked the viewers into staying with the show. Other cool episodes included “Disaster” (a ship-wide disaster fragments the crew into pockets of survivors), “Conundrum” (the crew forgets who they are in the middle of a battle), and “Cause and Effect” (your standard causality time loop tale).

The introduction of feisty Ensign Ro, a character who was supposed to crossover to DS9 later on, was a fan favorite, as was the much-hyped RETURN OF SPOCK. Considering that Spock’s still returning for Star Trek 11, I have to give him credit for his desire to not stay dead.

TNG started to look better, as well. For this season only, if I recall correctly, the titles got a bit of a tweak to look a little less 80’s. Uniforms were updated, earth tones phased out, and computer effects started to make headway as they became more affordable to do. Good times, good buds.

Season Six: I Sense Geekiness, Captain (1992-93)

Besides starting with the old Trek chestnut of time travel (Picard meets Mark Twain? Puh-lease.), season six cut loose and had a lot more fun as the Star Trek franchise exploded into a second spinoff – Deep Space Nine. Now, Trekkies had an unbelievable TWO shows to watch each week, both with their own tone and vision. It was like a little nerd nuclear bomb went off, and radiated joy throughout the land.

It wasn’t a bad season, although the show started to become more and more addicted to publicity stunt shows – Scotty returns! The crew are transformed into kids! Stephen Hawking! The Borg return! Again! Repeated holodeck malfunctions and lame Klingon tales aside, it was a truly fun season to be a Star Trek fan. Picard unfairly got another all-time classic episode, “Chain of Command”, where he memorably withstands mental torture and comes out with dignity intact.

It was announced this year that the seventh season would be TNG’s last, which was met with much sadness, wailing and gnashing of teeth among the Trek community.

Season Seven: The Transporter Blues (1993-94)

And thus, the end of one of the most cherished and memorable Star Trek eras came to pass. After over 150 episodes of galaxy-spanning scifi, TNG faced down its final season with a grim determination to see it done right, or at least to limp to the finish line with a jaunty smile.

Although you could certainly argue that there was plenty of character development and continued plot threads over the course of the series, TNG’s episodes, even into the seventh year, were mostly islands to themselves. Guest characters drifted in and out of the series, but largely failed to make a lasting impact (although in Ro’s case, she delivers a shocking decision that flew in the face of both Picard and tepid Starfleet tradition).

It wasn’t as horrible or forgettable of a season as the first two of the series – the actors and effects artists were too seasoned for that by now – but season seven failed to rock the Trek universe in any large substantial way, apart from the finale. What’s even worse is some completely fruity tales of warp drive limitations, demeaning bodice-ripping romance accounts, and Wesley returns to protect an Indian Reservation Planet. Completely serious, here.

But speaking of the finale, no one could speak ill of how the Enterprise received its television send-off, wrapping the series right back to where it started: with Q holding Picard and humanity on trial. Cameos galore and some fun visions of a possible future made the tears bearable.

TNG’s legacy stretched long after the close of the series, of course. TNG characters continued to pop up in DS9, Voyager and Enterprise, and four movies were to follow (including the darkly chilling First Contact). It might have been naïve to the point of brain damage, and intellectually insulting at times, but TNG did what the classic Star Trek series could not: it made it a must-see show for each and every week over seven fascinating years.

The Next Generation Sample Platter (“Encounter at Farpoint” and “All Good Things…”)

I wanted to end my reminiscing of TNG with something a little bit different, if you’ll indulge me. At the time of this writing, it’s been a good decade and a half since I’ve willingly seen any of these episodes, and I got a tad nostalgic and curious for them. So I decided to watch and jot down my thoughts on two episodes: the first and last of the show. How do they hold up today? What’s the contrast between them? And does it still pain me to admit that Picard ever wore a skirt?

Ahh, gotta love that Alexander Courage score…

“Encounter at Farpoint”, the first episode, begins somewhat unusually, by showing the credits against a starfield with no other action. As the show took its first few timid steps out of the gate, it occasionally looks and sounds much like a soap opera, and you can just see the cast members with a bewildered “What the hell am I supposed to do with that line of dialogue?” look on their faces.

While Picard acts more like a pompous dill pickle than usual (it’s a gas when he’s chewing into Wesley, who’s all about invading Picard’s private space), there’s enough fun to be found here. I always love the pilot episodes of seasons, mostly because they’re so busy trying to cram in tons of introductions, facts, settings and stories that you aren’t left with much time to complain if the episode is actually good or not. Within the first few minutes, we get a completely unnecessary saucer separation, a look at the battle bridge, a visit from Q, and loads of goofy looks from Troi and Yar (who both look like heavily made up guppies). Later on, we’re treated with a pointless yet thrilling cameo from “Admiral” McCoy, who’s just as grouchy as ever. “You treat her like a lady,” McCoy says about the Enterprise, “And she’ll always bring you home.”

The story itself is a rather bland mystery about a planet-based “space station” that has the ability to conjure up apples when asked. The ending is telegraphed about a half-hour in, leaving the majority of the pilot to dither about with characters walking two feet, speeches with a little too much emotion, and a scenic tour of the Enterprise (which heavily points out a primitive MapQuest system that helps you locate crewmembers you’re too lazy to find yourself). By the end when Q is just glaring at Picard for a good twenty minutes and the space jellyfish start rubbing tentacles and transmitting love poetry through Troi’s head, you’re just ready for it to be over and something new to begin.

With “All Good Things…”, we flash-forward to the seventh season series finale. Every popular and long-running show struggles with the monumental question of how to send things off right, to do the whole run justice, to give everyone their final glorious moments in the sun, etcetera etcetera. Some fail spectacularly, and some manage to pull the rabbit out of the hat to the delighted applause of its loyal fans. I’d like to think that TNG found its rabbit.

Constructing itself around a time-themed mystery, Picard is yanked backwards and forwards through time, experiencing his past (events prior to the series’ pilot), the present, and a possible future. Watching this, I was reminded of the legacy of the seven seasons: Picard’s more likable persona, Riker’s beard, Troi and Worf’s romance (barf), and the general comfort ability of the cast in their roles. The different time periods offer the cast additional opportunities to have a bit of fun: Geordi finally gets to take off his visor, Tasha Yar returns, and Data becomes a professor at Cambridge.

The pre-season one glimpses are some of the most fun. In addition to Yar, O’Brian returns and everyone gets to pretend like they don’t know what’s happened for the subsequent seven years. They even dug out all of the old season one costumes (including my close friends, the miniskirt/go-go boots combination).

While the majority of the show is an elaborate mystery – which, while clever, is hardly that complex – there’s still a decent battle scene and some geeky fun. What’s perhaps the best is that there’s no great sadness in this episode, as you get with some shows sensing their own demise. The final scene isn’t a massive speech, a heroic pose, or a tearful goodbye – it’s Picard joining the officers’ weekly poker game for the first time. A new beginning, of sorts.

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