Once, a very long time ago, there was an amazingly inventive storyteller named Gene Roddenberry.
Gene was also an unabashed Progressivist.
That means he thought that Mankind (though he wouldn’t have called it that) is pre-determined to follow an evolutionary path of gradual progressive development, and that one day, we will “grow out of” war, poverty, and everything icky. We’ll get so smart that we’ll be able to solve all our own problems. (Of course, part of this “growing up” process will be realizing that God and Original Sin are silly superstitions and that Liberalism and Socialism have always been the way to go. You might also have noticed that there’s a healthy dose of Materialism mixed in there, so that our souls can evolve along with our bodies.)
Anyway, in 1964 Gene invented something called Star Trek.
Also, it was the 60s...
The effects were bad...
Did I mention the effects were bad?
The characters were hollow. The writing was obvious and preachy. It was clearly a platform for Roddenberry to tout his philosophical, sociological, and political agenda. As such, Star Trek's vision of the future was generally pretty short-sighted. I suppose we should cut him some slack, though. After all, it was the 60s...
I’m being too harsh. The Original Series has a lot of redeeming qualities. There must have been something there, or it couldn’t have launched a franchise which has lasted nearly 50 years! The Original Series should be discussed, absolutely. But not here. And not by me.
Due to the aforementioned 60s-ish quality of The Original Series (not to mention the unavoidable continuity issues involved in a 20-year span between it and The Next Generation), it is fitting, I think, to recognize two Trek canons: one including Kirk, Spock, etc. and their escapades, and another including everything else (i.e., The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and movies VII-X (or VII-IX if, like me, you think Star Trek: Nemesis was a huge waste of time. Remind me to go into that another time.)
Of course, now we’ve got a third canon (the best one) drummed up by the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot, but that’ll also have to wait.
On 28 September 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, ushering in a new era for the franchise. Next Gen didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It followed right on the heels of the enormously successful (and actually really good) Trek movie “trilogy”: The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home (a.k.a. movies II-IV).
Nevertheless, The Next Generation breathed new life into Trek like nothing else could. After 20 years, Star Trek was back on television, which was where it belonged. Roddenberry had originally billed Trek as “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars.” It was supposed to be an episodic, romp-roaring, let’s go find new junk to almost get killed by (and I suppose find a way to get along with in the end). Given the freedom, a budget, and some new production technology, finally, Star Trek's take on science fiction could be realized. There was only one problem. It was the 80s...
Did I mention it was the 80s?
But, the fundamentals were there, and, more importantly, Next Gen (inadvertently) fought against its inheritance (of both The Original Series and the 80s).
At the end of Season One, Tasha Yar, Head of Security=dead...
Her death really was kind of a bummer at the time. Her death was totally meaningless. It was this Armus guy...
So, he’s like a sentient puddle of oil or something that incarnates pure evil and he bitch slaps Tasha to make an example of her and she dies before she hits the ground. That’s it. Goodbye. Crusher doesn’t even try to save her. Anyway, it turned out to be pretty awesome, though, ‘cause with her went one of the 80s-est elements of the show. That whole character was really poorly conceived. She was pretty much just a personification of Women’s Liberation. That should be clear from the hair alone really.
So Tasha was replaced as Head of Security/Tactical Officer by Mr. Worf, resident Klingon (a much more sensible choice for the position, obviously)...
Just look at all those forehead ridges! He must mean business.
Season Three introduced new uniforms, with an all-new 90s cut...
See how the collar got higher and more militaristic? Improvement.
Deanna's hair grew less permy as the seasons progressed, and in Season Six she finally abandoned the 80s catsuit...
...and put on an actual uniform. Look what she had evolved into by the time the movies came around.
Oh, and they got that damned kid off the bridge. What the balls were you thinking Picard? This is freaking Starfleet!
Look at him. Look how dumb he is. Jesus. And the sweaters! He wants to be Bill Cosby.
At the beginning, Next Gen was even worse than The Original Series on the obviously-has-an-agenda-front. Picard never blew anything up, not even as a last resort. It was all talking and “there’s got to be another way.” Just look at the ships! Kirk’s Enterprise had been a tight, fast little boat with big guns.
Picard’s ship was big, bulbous, and, though actually significantly faster than the old ship, the new Enterprise looked like it might need a HoverRound to make it to the fridge.
If you listen really carefully you might be able to hear it farting.
Oh, and it carried families! Are you kidding me? Seriously? I mean, I get that Starfleet isn’t exactly the Federation Military, but it serves that function if it has to. That’s just irresponsible. Yeah, I wonder how many kids they killed when it crash landed at the end of the first Next Gen movie. Anyway. It’s all about that Roddenberry-esque optimism, I guess. Retarded.
But I said that Next Gen fought against its inheritance. Quite. Next Gen redid the Klingons (replete with forehead ridges, as we saw). Also they were a culture this time, not just hand-me-down Mongols. Next Gen paid a lot more attention to the “science” part of “science fiction”; i.e., it kinda started to make sense. Kinda. More importantly, the stories became compelling, not to mention their effect on the characters, which, as a result, became compelling in themselves over time. Of course, it's Star Trek, so the dialogue was still pretty preachy a lot of the time, but hey.
So you may have realized I'm of the opinion that Star Trek: The Next Generation was at its best when it (accidentally or otherwise) left behind Roddenberry’s progressive B.S. and made a realistic story about realistic characters with realistic conflicts (internal or external). You see, the universe has to be dangerous, and humans have to be imperfect. That’s what makes it compelling—it’s reality (given the premise that humans could travel through space faster than the speed of light and encounter alien species).
What's real is that humans never really change. We're still the same complicated, flawed, sinful, even brutal creatures we were 20,000 years ago. Just because we know more about stuff and how it works doesn't make us better people. Besides, otherwise, what’s there to tell? One time a ship called the Enterprise flew around and scanned a nebula? Isn’t it better when the Klingons (a.k.a. humanity’s violent, savage tendencies) de-cloak and wage battle to the death against Captain Kirk and his “enterprising” crew (who embody the virtues of courage, wonder at the beauty of the universe around them, peace, community, justice, and a desire for wisdom)?
Stay tuned for the next post in this series: the Top Ten Next Gen episodes.