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STAR TREK At 50 - THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994)

Continuing our celebration of 50 years of Star Trek, we look at the Patrick Stewart led show.


Words by Michael James (@chinstroker)


The release of JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek has retroactively left Star Trek: The Next Generation (known form here on as TNG) in a rather unusual place in the history of the franchise. With the general public’s view of Trek being the show with the ‘guy with pointy ears’ re-solidified, and the events of the TNG-era Trek being consigned to an entirely different plain of existence by the alternate-reality-bending elements of said reboot, this incarnation and its sequels have seemingly had their time in the sun. The modern casual film-goer could probably be forgiven for viewing this era as a curiosity, as dated in its own way as the Original Series seemed to us TNG viewers back in the late '80s and early '90s. This is of course a mistake. In its own way TNG is as important as the original theatrical run of movies, starting with 1979’s reviled but misunderstood The Motion Picture, and Abrams’ Rock ‘n Roll reboot, in blowing on the franchise's embers and resuscitating it during difficult times.
TNG was actually Paramount’s second attempt at returning Trek to TV. The 'Great Bird of the Galaxy' himself, Gene Roddenberry, oversaw 'Star Trek: Phase 2', a TV project deemed so lofty that it was going to be used to launch a whole network. Shepherded by Roddenberry, it shared (going on the scant filmed test footage) a similar aesthetic to its primary-coloured predecessor as well as similar themes of science versus religion and the evolution of humanity into logical, fair minded super-beings. Of course, the unprecedented success of another ‘Star’ movie suddenly repurposed the pilot into being the foundation for The Motion Picture. Other episodes of the un-filmed season would morph into episodes of TNG, often during writer’s strikes, and often supplementing the 'Phase 2' characters of Decker and Ilia with their suspiciously similar TNG counterparts, Riker and Troi.
By the time Roddenberry began to develop TNG, with many of the old-hands who had helped make the original 79 episodes, such as Rob Justman and DC Fontana, he was largely consigned to being a symbolic figurehead of the franchise, often critical, usually side lined and reduced to meaningless fan-service titles such as 'executive consultant'. As the film series successfully continued on, under the stewardship of ex-TV producer Harve Bennett, many of Roddenberry’s philosophical elements had been eschewed. This was understandable, as the utopian world of scientific and philosophical discovery he had pushed for in the '60s was hardly fodder for action and conflict.
So while the films had taken a more militaristic, visceral route, it was with Gene’s alternate aesthetic of tight-fitting science jumpsuits, smooth comfortable environments, carpeted walls and psychoanalysis that the franchise he had lost control of in the earlier part of the decade re-emerged into television in 1987. With producer Rick Berman, Paramount Television Networks' ex-vice president for long form projects, at his side, the 'Great Bird' took his gamble and began production on what he was touting at conventions as the 'true' Roddenberry vision of Trek, not the post-Star Wars crowd pleasing, money making and well received nonsense being peddled by Bennett.
To say that the first season of the show is not indicative of the quality it would go on to attain is an understatement of Q-like proportions. It feels self consciously camp in a way the franchise had not been since the notorious third season of the Original Series. The sets were replete with glittery foam rocks and stock alien races that ranged from the absurd (Skin of Evil) to the downright offensive (Angel One, Code of Honor). Roddenberry’s school-boy fascination with sexuality and the joy of permissiveness is front and center in a way the films had sidestepped. Initial attempts to ignore the earlier show’s villains were disastrous, with Gene’s new villains, the Ferengi, being hastily consigned to bumbling comedy characters. Worst still, despite the embargo on direct references to the original show, many of the episodes felt like warmed up versions of superior earlier adventures, but less dynamically executed. This was partly down to Roddenberry’s increasingly absurdist view of the franchise's ethos, which he now had preached to the world over at conventions that had elevated him to almost deity levels, but which the original show rarely actually reflected. One of the strengths of the original was that it largely ignored Roddenberry’s conceit that man was perfect and right in all things, as the roster of writers increased and the network leaned on the show to be more action-adventure oriented and less 'cerebral'. Season one of TNG shows us what Trek must have looked like in Roddenberry’s mind all that time and, as people would decry of George Lucas a decade later, made us wonder if Star Trek was great despite, not because of, Gene Roddenberry. A visionary no doubt, but it was the collaborations of others such as Robert Justman, Gene Coon, Herb Solow, David Gerrold and DC Fontana (who would both return for TNG) to name a few, that made the Enterprise fly, and their contributions here could barely lift a runabout.
One thing Roddenberry and Berman got right was the core casting. Patrick Stewart was a left field choice, softened by the likeable Shatner-esque presence of the fresh faced Jonathan Frakes as his womanising second in command. Brent Spiner hit the ground running as the android Data, the observer of humanity in the opposite way the iconic Vulcan was. Not all of the character choices were as sharp, and it is a testimony to the touchy-feely sentiment of the decade that a prominent member of the bridge crew was a Counselor gifted with 'feeling' as a superpower. There were a few signs of the good things to come; John de Lancie consumed the scenery and flossed with the lighting rigs as the omnipotent Q from the first episode. Conspiracy, while ultimately copping out, broached the previously heretical idea of the Federation being less than perfect, and the portentous talk of Federation outposts and settlements simply vanishing, in the season’s final episode, would foreshadow the introduction of one of TNG’s most formidable villains, the Borg.
Roddenberry’s health would begin to sharply decline throughout the show's early seasons, and while he continued to be a potent figurehead to the wide-eyed young writers, (who viewed him in an almost mythic light), the lion’s share of the show-running was being taken on by Berman, who would continue in this capacity through to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. It should be mentioned at this point that Berman is now viewed as a controversial figure in Trek history, but his role in nurturing new talent and keeping the franchise alive cannot be underestimated.
As the production values increased from the first season, we had our first bona-fide classics (Q Who, The Measure of a Man), but the show had still yet to find its own identity and world. This development was hindered by a combination of the revolving door of TV writers, Roddenberry’s continued insistence that character conflict and violence be avoided, as well as a crippling writers' strike that resulted in a number of 'Phase 2' scripts and a (gulp!) clips show being shoe-horned in. It was with the show's third year that everything changed. The introduction of Michael Piller as head writer seemed to be just what the franchise needed and the double header of Berman and Piller on-board along with a burgeoning team of hungry writers, many first generation Trek fans; it was time to get serious. Ronald D Moore and Ira Steven Behr lead the writing charge, part idolising and part challenging Roddenberry to feature more dynamic and edgy storytelling that had more in common with the films Harve Bennet was making adjacent to their TV counterpart. In a matter of weeks we got a staggering array of high quality episodes such as Ronald D Moore’s sensitive The Bonding and his intrigue-laden The Defector. Richard Danus brought us the hilarious Deja Q, which borders on Jim Carrey levels of surreal humor. The cinematic Yesterday’s Enterprise with its mind bending Groundhog Day structure and back-lit visuals gave us an early idea of how the show night look on the big screen, and Ron Moore would hit it out of the park again with Sins of the Father, rebooting the Klingons in a way that defined them for many years to come. But it was with the season straddling two-parter The Best of Both Worlds that The Next Gen (as it is affectionately know to fans) earned its wings. By defining the almost Clive Barker-esque, cadaverous Borg Collective, and shockingly raising the stakes by having our hero and Captain abducted, and in an act analogous to rape, be assimilated into their hive mind, The Next Generation had arrived and was starting to make the Original Series look like a dinosaur.
As the show moved into its fourth season, the stakes were raised by talk that Patrick Stewart was trying to negotiate out of his contract (he never expected the show to move beyond pilot) and that the Borg cliffhanger was contrived in case he should not return. I have no idea to the truth of this, but it added a palpable edge to the tension and became a vital part of the folklore of the show. It was also indicative of this new regime that Picard was not simply diving back into action the next week. We got a lyrical, peril free episode called Family, which is essentially 45 minutes of Picard 'dealing' with the psychological weight of his experiences. Contrasted with the garish kitsch of TNG’s first season, it is like night and day. With the dying Roddenberry’s involvement essentially nonexistent by this point, it was down to Piller, Moore and Behr, along with newer recruits such as Brannon Braga and RenĂ© Echevarria, to deliver classics such as First Contact and The Drumhead. This quality continued through a fifth and sixth season with other must-see episodes such as Darmok, Unification (which saw a return for Leonard Nimoy as Spock, legitimizing TNG as true Trek 'canon'), Cause and Effect, The Inner Light, Relics and Chain of Command, where we see our Captain tortured by a Cardassian (another great new villain created in this era) in scenes that would have made Roddenberry gasp.
The show faltered in its seventh year as actors began to think of their next gigs and a lot of the writing staff jumped ship to the even less Roddenberry-eque Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. While this season had a lot of filler, and downright headscratchers (Masks, anyone? ANYONE?), it went out with a bang with the Ronald D Moore/Brannon Braga penned All Good Things. It is rare that a series-ender is both a poignant love-letter to the show itself, but also a solid episode in its own right. This is made even more ironic considering how quickly and easily the pair wrote it, contrasted with the agony of writing the far less interesting feature Generations, mere months later.
There are a number of things one must consider, contextually, when viewing TNG today. We exist in a very different landscape now that only the final few episodes of Enterprise years later would briefly crossover with. The 'adventure of the week' formula seems almost as archaic in this post-24, post-Lost culture as the Buster Crabbe serials that influenced Star Wars did to children of my generation. Much of the production values and acting styles, particularly in the earlier seasons, might appear unusual and jarring to a modern Netflix sensibility but it is key to consider certain things; firstly, this was it. This was pre-X-Files, Pre-Xena, Pre-Buffy. Weekly science fiction was virtually non-existent, particularly on the scale we saw here. This, along with the likeability and comfort gained from the weekly (yes, they made nearly 30 episodes a year; none of this 12 episodes nonsense) time spent in the company of these characters, recaptured the very simple formula of lightning in a bottle that Gene and his team caught in the '60s: people we like, doing stuff we want to.
The legacy of TNG is uncertain now that Trek is shinier and faster than ever. Episodes such as Measure of a Man, Darmok and Drumhead that explored moral issues through the prism of sci-fi, supported by Stewart's authoritative baritone and the sympathetic writing of Piller and his team might seem quaint, but for fans of a certain age, this is what Star Trek is, and should be, about.


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