Monday, August 14, 2017

Celebrating 30 Years of the Next Generation

This September marks the 30th anniversary of one of television’s most beloved shows. Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in syndication in 1987 and opened the world to Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future started just over 20 years before. Star Trek was one of those shows that became a cult favourite and helped shape television for decades to come, but aside from the movies and dozens of stories told in comics and novels, the story of the United Federation of Planets was limited to the original starship Enterprise and her crew. Names like Kirk and Spock had become household, “beam me up” was a popular phrase, and most people knew the iconic ship. Yet the actors from the original crew were aging, and the idea for a new series set in the universe was being kicked around. Various studios were approached, but it wasn’t until Paramount Studios approached Gene Roddenberry with the idea that the show would run on syndication that true traction was gained. Being syndicated freed up the producers of the show from the demands of network television and opened up several possibilities in distribution. Gene was promised that he would be in charge, and the go ahead was given. A new crew would be running a new Enterprise, set close to a century after the adventures of Kirk and company, and fans were anxiously holding their breaths.

Many were skeptical of a new crew on a new ship. Every element that was released was criticized by some. There were some among the critics and fanbase that felt the new show was doomed from the start. Even the actor hired to play the new captain, British actor Patrick Stewart, thought they would be cancelled soon, to the point where he lived out of his suitcase for the first few months of the series. People thought that the new uniforms were bad (what, give the captain a red uniform?!), the ship was not right, and that the characters were going to be dull. I mean, an android and a Klingon on the bridge? Did they learn nothing of Kirk’s missions? In spite of the criticisms, there was also much eager anticipation from the fans. For almost two decades the only way they could watch Star Trek was on reruns and in the movie theaters, but at last they were getting new Trek! While there were plenty of doubters, the majority of fans were willing to give the new show a fair chance.

September 28, 1987 saw “Encounter at Farpoint” air for the first time. I remember it well. I had recently started the seventh grade, and soon TNG night was a family staple in my home. My parents had raised us on Star Trek. I had seen all of the movies and watched many of the original episodes on television. I loved “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Amok Time”. I was excited to see something new. We gathered in the basement of our acreage home and adjusted the rabbit ear antennae so that the picture came in clearly. As a young boy just beginning his journey into adolescence, my eyes were wide with wonder and amazement. Seeing the Enterprise in the opening shot gave me chills. I hoped that I was watching the beginning of something special, and I was indeed, although it would take a few years for me to realize it. We met Captain Jean-Luc Picard, his first officer William Riker, and a host of characters that would soon become like family to me. There was the android officer, Data, who wanted to be human more than anything else. Deanna Troi was the emotion-reading empath and councillor on the ship. Tasha Yar became an early favourite of mine as I loved watching this tough-as-nails lady kick butt. Geordi La Forge was the blind helmsman that soon became one that I identified with the most. Doctor Beverly Crusher balanced drive with compassion, and I must admit that I loved how her teenage son, Wesley, was able to be a part of the adventure. Ah, and there was Worf, the stoic Klingon officer who showed us that our enemies can indeed become our allies. In the pilot episode we met Q, the omnipotent trickster who put Picard and his crew on trial for the crimes of humanity. Little did we know how important this imp would be in the series. I was overjoyed when Admiral Leonard H McCoy appeared in his cameo, and was happy to know that the old crew was not forgotten. When the two hours was finished, my family and I talked about how great it was to have new Star Trek on the television. We looked forward to next week’s episode.

I was used to having many of my favourite shows get cancelled sooner than I would have liked, so I was expecting a few seasons of TNG before it was done. Happily, I was wrong. As I look back on the early seasons, I admit that some of the episodes were downright cringe worthy. In particular, “Justice” stood out to me as something that was just off, but I still watched it when it aired in reruns. Still, for every “Code of Honor” there was an episode that really entertained me, like “Where No One Has Gone Before”. While I missed seeing more of the Vulcans and Andorians, I was happy to see some new aliens appear. Some, like the Binars, came and went. Others, such as the Ferengi, changed a lot over the next few years. Then there were the classics, such as the Borg and the Cardassians, that were just great. The characters in particular came to mean a great deal to me. Before TNG came around, I remember crying only once at the death of a character. That was Spock. Well, after “Skin of Evil”, you can add Tasha Yar to that list. While we only knew her for a short time, the other main cast became like members of the family to us. We loved watching each one grow and develop into cultural icons. Soon, Picard became as famous as Kirk was, and it launched Patrick Stewart’s career into the stratosphere. Indeed, we enjoyed living the adventures of all of our main cast. Some were more loved than others (sorry Wesley), but in our home, we wouldn’t want to have changed any of them.

It wasn’t just the main cast that became important to us. Each season we looked forward to visits from Lwaxana Troi (played by Gene’s wife, Majel Barret), who chewed up each and every scene that she was in. Some of the crew members became favorites as well. There was the ever-awkward Lt. Barclay, the strong-willed Bajoran helm officer Ro Laren, and the ever-reliable Miles O’Brien (who would go onto becoming a key cast member of Deep Space Nine). There were some villains as well that would appear again and again to torment the crew. In addition to an almost annual visit from Q, the crew faced off against Data’s evil brother Lore, the Duras family, and Sela, the half-Romulan daughter of their former crewmate Tasha Yar. Of course, the best recurring character (in my opinion) was Guinan. Portrayed by Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, Guinan was created by Gene Roddenberry especially for her. She was the mysterious and wise hostess of Ten Forward. Goldberg was a huge Star Trek fan, and told her friend Levar Burton that she wanted to be on the show. Each time she appeared she gave us a memorable moment. Yes, the characters on TNG were, for the most part, fabulous.

One cannot look back at seven years of TNG and not acknowledge the bumps in the road. The show had some issues early on. Soon, Roddenberry lost some of his creative control, though he still left his mark in many good ways. Michael Piller and Rick Berman took over many of the production details, and soon the writing became top notch. While initially there were many who doubted that the magic of the original series could be recaptured, it soon became apparent that such worries were not warranted. Star Trek had always been known for being able to tackle important social issues by using science fiction and alien worlds to remind us of what was happening in our world. They tackled topics such as sexual identity, terrorism, and inherent rights of the individual. We explored the human condition as we explored the universe. We learned about us as we learned about alien species and technological gadgets.

As the show improved, the show did something that nobody ever expected it to do: it became a ratings juggernaut. The fanbase for the show grew and grew. It was unheard of for a syndicated show to start hitting #1 in many markets, but that is what happened. The Next Generation became a phenom unto itself and was taking down some of the heavy hitters in ratings, including the seemingly unbeatable Monday Night Football. As the fanbase grew, more people became familiar not just with this incarnation of the show but of the original series as well. This was in part due to the inclusion of some legendary characters (namely Sarek, Scotty, and Spock). The fan base was growing, and all things Trek were looking bright. In 1991, we celebrated a quarter century of Star Trek with Leonard Nimoy appearing on a special two-part episode and the sixth feature film featuring the Original Crew. TNG was drawing a huge audience and a third series, Deep Space Nine, was in the works. Sadly, in October of that year, we lost the Great Bird of the Galaxy and the Father of Trek. Gene Roddenberry passed away, leaving behind millions of grieving fans and a legacy of a future that was optimistic of our chances. While I mourned the loss of Gene, I was happy that he left behind a legacy of not just the original Star Trek, but the Next Generation as well.

So, this September, I encourage you to look up your favourite TNG episodes. Whether it is the “Inner Light”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “Darmok”, “Relics”, “The Measure of a Man”, or “The Best of Both Worlds”, enjoy the show that truly brought the next generation of Trek fans into the fold. May the lessons of this show continue to live long that we may all prosper.

To continue the celebration, for the next ten weeks I will guarantee an episode review of TNG. I will be selecting some of the episodes that are considered to be among the best and most popular. If there is one that you would like me to do, please leave your request in the comment section.  

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