As I write this, I can hardly believe that this September will mark the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). When the news of ST’s return to the cathode ray broke in the fall of 1986 (coinciding with the release of the movie, “The Voyage Home”), I was pretty excited. As were millions of other fellow Trekkies (by the way, I embrace the term “Trekkie”; I am not ashamed of it).
Over that next year after the announcement, I would glean tidbits and casting news via my devoted readership of “Starlog” magazine (the internet before the internet). There were also lengthy TNG articles on the series in “Cinefantastique” magazine (CFQ was one of the finest magazines of its type ever published; I still have many of the issues dating from 1982 to 1997).
The state of Star Trek at this point (1987) equalled 3 seasons of the original series (TOS), nearly 2 seasons of the animated series (TAS), and three movies. ST was big business in 1987, but not quite the multi-limbed juggernaut that it is today.
ST is an entertainment institution these days. Even during lulls in ‘official’ ST production there are fan films (including the excellent Star Trek Continues series), fan fiction, and websites/forums all over the internet. Star Trek is too big now to ever truly go away.
But this was NOT the case at the time of the premiere of TNG in 1987. Back then? If more than two successive ST movies failed, it could’ve easily stopped the franchise in its tracks. Luckily, that wasn’t the case with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and its sequel, The Search for Spock. Both of which were low enough in budget and high enough in profitability to keep the ST production wheels in motion.
This bit of box office momentum would eventually give Paramount (long before its merger with CBS) the incentive to bring ST back to the airwaves. For more about the complex (and intriguing) story of ST’s return to television? I highly recommend author/Treksperts Mark Altman and Ed Gross’ exhaustively researched book, “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek”.
So, during the week of September 28, 1987, TNG debuted in syndication and not on network TV, thus avoiding a pitfall that felled the original series with hyper-competitive network ratings… TNG would be sold to individual television stations. One must remember that in 1987 syndication meant game shows, kid-vid and morning talk shows. ST would be breaking new ground with a syndicated one-hour scripted series.
Anyway, these are my memories of the show…
I was about 20 or so when TNG debuted on a local LA-based station (KCOP 13) back in the days of antenna-based television; complete with scan lines, interference from trees/wind, ghosting, crappy reception, etc. We didn’t care. STAR TREK WAS BACK ON TELEVISION. Weekly.
To paraphrase the character of “Q” in the pilot, “There (were) preparations to make!”
I even remember buying a Sony high-quality “gold” VHS tape to record the 2 hour debut (at standard play no less; for optimal quality). I really thought this gold tape would be my ‘archive’ copy that I would clutch in my cold, liver-spotted hands on my deathbed. (I’ve since bought episodes of the show on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now blu ray… but hey, who knew, right?). Anyway, I was ready for the debut of TNG. I popped my Sony gold VHS tape into the VCR and pressed ‘record.’
ST’s long awaited return to television began with the enigmatically titled “Encounter at Farpoint”….
**** 30 YEAR OLD SPOILERS AHEAD ****
First thing I noticed? The opening theme song was a nice new orchestration of Jerry Goldsmith’s lavish theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (my favorite of the ST movie soundtracks) and was followed by new music from composer Dennis McCarthy. We then saw the new USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D unveiled. The new ship (and show) was of a time roughly 100 years after Kirk’s old USS Enterprise 1701.
The 1701-D had the same twin nacelles and saucer setup of the original, but seemed different enough to be believable as a century-later design. She reminded me, somewhat subconsciously at first, of a large, oceanic creature; with her bulky, majestic, somewhat top-heavy look. It was definitely a departure from the old series and the movies’ starship designs…
The new captain’s log was spoken by British actor Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is seen touring his ‘new command’, thus providing the audience some exposition about this new ship and her mission; to investigate a mysterious new starbase built for Starfleet by aliens called the Bandi on the remote planet of Deneb IV. Some crew members were not yet aboard, including the first officer Commander William Riker, but we see Picard on the bridge with tough, ALIENS-inspired security chief Tasha Yar (“48 HRS” costar Denise Crosby) and a doe-eyed, half-Betazoid ‘ship’s counselor’ named Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) who involuntarily feels the emotions of other beings, via her race’s natural empathic abilities.
A Klingon named Worf (Michael Dorn) is also seen as a button pusher on the bridge (a nice way to reinforce that this series took place a full century later; the Klingons and Federation were now apparently at peace). Despite Roddenberry’s initial wish that Worf remain a ‘minor’ character, the idea of a regular Klingon on the bridge was simply too intriguing for him to remain in the background. Worf’s very presence begged for future exploration down the road.
Also seen on the bridge was a literal-minded, gold/white skinned android named Data (who seems to sport then-L.A. Lakers coach Pat Riley’s haircut). Data (played by TNG’s early breakout star, Brent Spiner) and Picard discuss their forthcoming mission at Farpoint Station and have a short, humorous exchange about the origins of the word “snoop” (which Data has never heard?).
Suddenly we hear that familiar wailing ‘red alert’ klaxon from TOS, and a mysterious forcefield grid appears to stop the Enterprise in her path.
An omnipotent godlike being named “Q” (uncomfortably similar, at first, to TOS’ omnipotent god-child “Trelane” from the episode “The Squire of Gothos”) appears on the bridge in different Earthly guises; a 16th century naval captain, a 20th century marine colonel, and a mid-21st century soldier from the ‘post-atomic horror’ of World War 3.
Q is played by John deLancie, who would become a recurring character throughout the run of the series (including the 1994 finale; the aptly titled, “All Good Things…”). Q warns Picard and his crew to “go back, whence thou camest” because the Q continuum believes that humanity of the enlightened 24th century is still “a dangerous, savage child-race.” Picard denies the charge vigorously and passionately.
This early part of the pilot episode had the late ST creator Gene Roddenberry’s fingerprints all over it. Roddenberry had an unwavering belief that humanity was a perfectible life form; growing and learning through its ‘trek through the stars’, growing ever closer towards something better.
Following an attempt by the Enterprise to escape, Q puts Picard and his officers on trial in a ‘courtroom’ modeled on the 2079 post-atomic horror of the pre-Federation Earth (a savage, dangerous time in ST history). Picard, as Kirk had many times in TOS, makes the case for humanity as an evolved race on the path to further enlightenment. Once again, Roddenberry was telegraphing his somewhat naive (yet oddly comforting) belief that, despite some dark days ahead, humanity will ultimately trek on down the path to enlightenment.
Q eventually allows the Enterprise to continue her mission to Farpoint station, but on probation; if she fails in her mission? All of humanity will be found ‘guilty’ of being savages, and our entire species will be forced to return to Earth and forever abandon its presence in outer space.
At Farpoint, Picard picks up waiting first officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes), blind-but-technologically-enabled navigator Lt. Geordi La Forge (“Roots” star LeVar Burton), chief medical officer Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her teenaged son Wesley (“Stand By Me” star Wil Wheaton). Crusher reveals to Riker that she knows “Jean-Luc” personally, since he brought her husband’s body home to her and her son years before.
There is also backstory between Riker and Troi, who were lovers at one time (similar to Decker and Ilia’s arc in 1979’s ST: The Motion Picture). This completes the introduction of the new ensemble.
Somewhere between the first and second halves of the pilot, there was one big surprise (for me, anyway) as original series’ star DeForest Kelley (nearly buried in heavy age makeup) briefly reprises his role as a 137 year old “admiral” Leonard McCoy. The admiral has a delightfully sentimental scene with the emotionless android Data (echoing the TOS-style banter of McCoy and Spock). It’s a cute scene, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. It’s a ‘blessing’ from the original cast, as well as a nice little gift to TOS fans. Unnecessary perhaps, but appreciated all the same.
The Farpoint mission reminds me of one of the slightly goofier ‘giant spaceborne creature’ stories we saw during the heyday of the 1973-4 animated Star Trek series, as the Farpoint station itself is revealed to be a giant, shapeshifting space-jellyfish that was captured by the Bandi and forced to turn itself into a starbase (?!).
Another giant shapeshifting creature, appearing in the form of a hostile enemy spacecraft, comes to the rescue of its “mate” trapped on Deneb IV. Picard and the crew come to realize this, and supply the trapped creature on the planet with enough energy to launch itself back into space and join its grateful companion in orbit over the planet.
Troi, of course, relates the emotional state of the two space jellyfish with some painfully obvious lines about the creatures feeling “great joy… and gratitude” to the Enterprise crew for their help. Q decides the Enterprise crew has potential and leaves… for the time being.
In the coda, Picard orders the ship to get on with its mission and “see what’s out there… engage!”
My feelings after the pilot’s debut were decidedly mixed, to be honest.
I wasn’t loving the new captain (at first). Picard initially came off as brusque and even downright cranky at times (“Shut off that damn noise!”), and his unease with children felt like an odd, unappealing trait to assign to the character.
It would take the perspective of an online friend of mine to cause me to eventually reevaluate that earlier “Grumpy Picard” and even come to enjoy the character’s cantankerousness.
In retrospect, Grumpy Picard kind of reminded me of the first incarnation of the Doctor in 1963’s earliest version of “Doctor Who”; gruff, impatient and even ill-tempered, but eventually warming up to both his traveling companions and the audience over a three year arc. Less-affable versions of The Doctor would recur with the 6th and 12th incarnations of the character, but “Grumpy Picard” would never return.
Later seasons would permanently smooth out Picard’s rough edges, and there would even be a definitive, in-story resolution to his ‘issues’ with children (with the 5th season standout episode “The Inner Light”). By series’ end, Captain Jean-Luc Picard would become an elegant blending of compassion, gentle wisdom and authority; and Sir Patrick Stewart would become a household name, continuing in the popular “X-Men” movies as psychic mutant Professor Charles Xavier (2017’s “Logan” was an amazing tour-de-force swan song for both Stewart and the character).
While I certainly understand the need to smooth out the character for broader appeal, Stewart’s “Grumpy Picard” of the earlier seasons was a bit of eccentric fun while he lasted.
Some characters in TNG would catch fire and others would not.
Data the android would be a huge breakout character with many of the fans. Data had a childlike naivete about the human condition, as he had a desire to one day ‘become a real boy’, much like Pinocchio. His quest to embrace humanity (and even its frailties) was the opposite of TOS’ Mr. Spock, who eschewed his half-human heritage in favor of his Vulcan side. Spiner, rather than play Data as a monotone machine, would play Data as a being who tries to understand humanity through experience and emulation; thus allowing the actor some measure of humor and expression. And Data’s friendship with Geordi La Forge would help reinforce TNG’s ‘office buddies’ style of camaraderie.
That camaraderie may have been a factor as to why this show was so popular with other friends of mine at work at the time; TNG was essentially a group of genial coworkers in space. Whereas TOS’ crew felt like “new frontier” explorers boldly racing to the moon, TNG’s crew felt more like ISS astronauts performing routine housekeeping and lab chores in space. “The final frontier” was more of a settled place now than an endless, untamed wilderness. Even the once scarce Federation starbases numbered in the hundreds by TNG’s timeline. Space was less ‘final frontier’ and more like ‘9-to-5 work day.’ And it seemed that my coworkers who watched these characters every week very much related to them in that way.
Back to the characters…
Michael Dorn’s Lt. Worf (Roddenberry’s ‘token’ Klingon) would also go on to enjoy great popularity; so much so that he’d return in another Star Trek spinoff, 1993’s “Deep Space Nine” during that show’s 4th season (rguably giving that series a renewed lease on life), and allowing an even deeper exploration of his character. Dorn himself has said in interviews that he felt his most of his best work as Worf was done on DS9 and not TNG.
Some of the less successful characters in the ensemble included Counselor Troi, who just didn’t seem to have a clearly delineated role on the show (at first, anyway). Her main job in the earlier seasons seemed to be standing around in evening gowns stating the obvious. It had to be a bit embarrassing for the talented and humorous Marina Sirtis (who is delightful at conventions). She was capable of so much more. This lack of purpose for the character was exacerbated in season 2 with the introduction of a sly, sympathetic, wizened ship’s bartender Guinan (played by Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg), who wound up doing more real ‘counseling’ for the crew than Counselor Troi. Luckily for Marina Sirtis, she had opportunities to do some good things later on in the show’s run (such as season 6’s “Face of the Enemy”).
And in another smart move, the character was finally ‘forced’ to put on a ship’s uniform in S6’s “Chain of Command” by a hard-ass (temporary) captain of the Enterprise (the memorable Capt. Jellico, played by “Total Recall”’s Ronny Cox). Things got a little better for Troi (and Sirtis) after she got out of that damned evening wear…
Another character who got a decidedly mixed reception was teenager Wesley Crusher, played by then-15 year old Wil Wheaton; another fine actor undermined by writers who didn’t seem to understand or relate to his character. Wheaton has since gone on to become an online media sensation (I follow him on Twitter and Instagram myself), much like his predecessor George Takei (TOS’ Mr. Sulu); whom I also follow. Wheaton and Sirtis (and Takei) have great abundances of wit and talent, but they were largely ill-served by their show’s powers-that-be. Such a shame…
First officer Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) was a solid character who held his own in many episodes (S2’s “Matter of Honor” and S6’s “Frame of Mind” being arguable bests), even if he was never quite a ‘breakout’ character like Data or Worf.
^ Riker also had a ‘twin’ born in a transporter accident (“Second Chances”) who, unlike Kirk’s ‘evil’ twin in TOS’ “Enemy Within”, was allowed to live; and even appeared on Deep Space Nine’s S3 episode “Defiant.”
^ I was never a big fan of ship’s doctor Beverly Crusher (McFadden) either; I wasn’t overly fond of how she was written. I thought her on-again/off-again romantic flirtation with the captain seemed cliched and dull. Dr. Crusher’s skill as a physician was also deeply questionable at times, as were her ethics.
The character was briefly replaced in season 2 by the wonderfully acerbic, no-nonsense Dr. Kate Pulaski (played by TOS veteran guest star, Diane Muldaur). However, pressure from some fan circles (and allegedly from Patrick Stewart as well) led to McFadden’s eventual return in season 3. I still occasionally wonder how the series might’ve unfolded had Pulaski been allowed to stay and flourish. Too bad…
Over the seven year run of the series, TNG would become a nice mix of must-see and ‘comfort food’ TV for me. I remember many nights rushing home from work to catch the latest episode, or watching the VHS tape later on, if I had to work that night. TNG was a nice weekly break from the chores of ‘adulting’; working, paying bills, trying to score occasional dates, and all of the other rituals of my life in those days (this was the ‘closeted geek’ me; the one who hadn’t yet discovered ST conventions or met my future fellow geek/wife).
At that time in my life, it was refreshing to have this weekly and sometimes much needed ‘pow wow in space’ with the hopelessly optimistic TNG crew every week.
Sometimes my friends and I would gather for occasional TNG parties as well; usually meeting at my place for TNG, pizza, and our own unique brand of live ‘commentary’ for the episode (we usually talked during the commercial breaks, or we would pause the VCR). Sometimes we’d watch three or more at time (long before binge-watching truly became a thing). TNG felt almost ideal for communal viewing with its large, colofrul ensemble and many quotable lines of dialogue. The show had ‘drinking game’ all over it (though my friends and I were a bit more sober minded, especially since they were usually driving to and from my place…).
And unlike TOS reruns, these were new episodes every week; not the same 78 over and over again.
The show was maturing in leaps and bounds as well, and it truly came into its own with season 3’s cliffhanger finale “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1, which saw Capt. Picard abducted and transformed into one of the cybernetically-enhanced villains, the Borg. The ending of BoBW part 1 was chilling; as a Borg-ified Picard stared with a laser-guided eye into the faces of his former crew…as second-in-command Riker gave the order to fire on his former captain (dun, dun DUUUUN!). This was “Who Shot J.R.” stuff. That cliffhanger put the show on the map and gave it an identity wholly separate from its predecessor.
TNG, while primarily episodic, also began a flirtation with serialized storylines; nothing like the 10-16 episode-arc seasons we see on television today (which seems to be the new norm), but rather little threads planted through episodes here and there, culminating in occasional two parters. “Best of Both Worlds” started a tradition of TNG ending the seasons with cliffhangers. Later arcs involved Worf raising a son, Data’s quest to be more human and Picard getting over his issues with family and children.
Luckily, TNG was successful enough in syndication to run for 7 seasons; more than twice as long as its predecessor on network television in the ‘60s. This allowed ample time to explore its cast of characters in ways that the original series rarely could (even with 6 movies). TNG was arguably more ‘soap opera’ in format than TOS, but that also gave it greater depth. Later shows, such as DS9 and ENT would take the arc-driven story format even further; with whole seasons devoted to single storylines.
There were also more crossovers with TOS characters too (beyond McCoy’s cameo in the pilot), with appearances by engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in S6’s “Relics” (played once again by James Doohan in arguably his best turn as the character).
Earlier in S3 we saw Spock’s father “Sarek” (played by Mark Lenard) and eventually Spock himself, in the highly rated two-parter “Unification” 1 & 2 in the middle of season 5 (Lenard’s Sarek would also appear in a death scene in part 1). Like Doohan’s Scotty, Mark Lenard’s Sarek would also have his best moments in TNG…
After working very hard at establishing its own identity, TNG was now more willing to embrace its lineage and heritage, too. It was not ashamed to give its parent series a big warm hug; candy console buttons and all.
TNG ended its run in May of 1994, and that year saw me recovering from a nasty motorcycle accident. I’d just been released from the hospital a couple weeks earlier after spending two months in hospital and rehab centers (and thanks to my sister I had a nice TV set in my rehab center room! Thanks again, sis!). Upon release from the rehab center, I was rooming with friends for a couple months while I was learning how to walk again, take care of myself, etc. In a couple of months I’d have my own place again. But while I was rooming with my friends, we made plans for a scaled down ‘Star Trek finale night’ at their house. We gathered around my 20” Sony Trinitron and watched the finale, “All Good Things…”
“All Good Things…” was a near-perfect finale for the show, with Picard jumping across three time periods, including the very beginning of the series (admirable attempts were made to have the cast and sets appear as their earlier selves/versions). The character of Q was back to bookend the whole thing. It wrapped up the series very well; despite a preponderance of technobabble regarding anti-time and static warp bubbles….
Through all the rough patches in my life (and there were quite a few in those rough & tumble days), ST TNG was a constant. It was ‘comfort food’ TV. I could just turn it on, or pop in a crowded VHS tape (filled with 6 or so carefully edited off-air broadcast episodes of the show) and for a brief while I could lose myself on that posh starship, with that wonderful carrot of a better universe dangling ahead of me. Life could, and would, get better. Even if I didn’t necessarily believe that, it was a lovely vision to cling to when things were bad. ST offered both temporary escape and comfort.
It was an inclusive future which seemed to have large enough quarters for everyone.
One thorny regret through TNG’s colorful 7 year run is that we fans never saw openly LGBTQ characters on the show. This was a true shame, since ST had such an historic reputation with breaking new ground with diverse characters at a time when television was largely lily-white. The LGBTQ omissions were made even more painfully obvious since other TV series at that time, even a few trashier ones (like “Melrose Place”), were already breaking that ceiling, however clumsily. TNG was followed by several movies (“Generations” “First Contact” “Insurrection” and “Nemesis”) and none of them had any openly LGBTQ characters either. That omission is a pointed one, since ST’s fanbase includes many from the LGBTQ community (a few of whom are good friends of mine). Many fans such as myself prefer to think that, in ST’s utopia, sexuality would be such a non-issue that it wouldn’t even merit discussion, but it’d be nice to see that view affirmed onscreen. The latest movie Star Trek Beyond (2016) included a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of Mr. Sulu meeting his husband and their daughter at a starbase, but that’s been it so far. Star Trek: Discovery, the upcoming new series, promises to have a regular gay character. Finally. We’ll see how that pans out. Better late than never.
Anyway, in regards to my own status as a card-carrying ST geek? I used to be pretty closeted to most of my coworkers in those unenlightened days (this was long before geek was chic, as it is today). If I started babbling on about the show with a non-Trekkie coworker, the genie would be out of the bottle.
Speaking of relationships, 20 years ago I met my then-future wife, and she was quite open in her fandom. In fact, her openness helped to forever push me out of the geek closet. She would, in fact, take me to my first ST convention in 2001. Here I was, 34 years old and a lifelong Trekkie, and I’d NEVER been to a ST convention (!).
For those who don’t know, ST conventions are, by and large, some of the most accepting and open-minded groupings of people you will ever meet in your life. If you don’t believe that, just go to one; you will see young, old, different religions, ethnicities, gay, straight, bi, transgender, the able-bodied, the disabled, etc. Everyone is included. And no one is mocked for their weight, height, clothes or appearance. It’s pretty much the opposite of most of internet culture.
It’s because of that inclusivity & acceptance that my wife and I feel utterly at home at conventions. It’s almost painful to leave them sometimes and go back into the ‘real’ world; a world that’s not always so loving and accepting.
And even if we never reach the stars in warp-powered starships, ST (and TNG) will have succeeded in one very important prophecy of the show; bringing together like-minded people from all over the planet who share a common dream about what humanity could become someday. That achievement alone is a worthy one, especially for a TV show.
I’ve met many good friends of mine through TNG (both in the ‘real’ world and online), and for that, I’m very grateful.
Happy 30th birthday, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Cake it so…