Saturday Cinema

Why 'Next Generation' was 'Star Trek' at its best

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' castParamount Television

September 08, 2016

Sept. 8, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Star Trek. We're celebrating the birthday of this beloved science fiction franchise with stories and music all week long. Here, Jay Gabler writes about how the Next Generation series made a perfect introduction to the sprawling Star Trek universe.

I wasn't a Star Trek kid. In part that's because there wasn't all that much Trek to be had when I was in grade school in the early '80s. The original series was long gone, and if my parents were going to take me to a movie, it certainly wasn't going to be The Wrath of Khan. I did catch that one on cable TV, and the ear-worm scene only bolstered my conviction that Star Trek was definitely not for me.

By the time I was in high school, though, my preferred science fiction franchise — Star Wars, need you ask? — was on hiatus, with George Lucas swearing he was finished forever. When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, I was too busy trying to figure out how to play the Star Wars role-playing game to get into it.

Another '80s reboot, though — The Twilight Zone — piqued my interest in that original series, and when Twilight Zone episodes started running in syndication on a local TV station, I'd sit on my mom's bed while she tried to sleep and videotape them, carefully editing the commercials out. After Twilight Zone ended each weeknight, another show came on in its first wave of syndication: Next Gen. Not ready to go to bed, I started watching Picard, Riker, and company go about their interstellar adventures.

I soon realized that it was precisely the qualities I'd always held against Trek — its episodic nature, its extended dialogue, its makeshift special effects — were exactly what made it special. Star Wars was a flashback to the swashbuckling era of science fiction, while Star Trek reflected the more intellectual turn the genre had taken in its Golden Age. There had to be a lot of episodes, because life, unlike fantasy, was complex. Star Wars was great for quick thrills, whereas Trek was a partner for life.

The genius of Next Generation was to understand those signal virtues, and to embrace them — rather than trying to ape Star Wars, as so many shows and movies had done for the past decade.

Next Generation (also known as Next Gen, or TNG) had, if anything, less action than the original series. Instead of a younger, sexier captain, it cast an older (though thrillingly virile) man — a plausible leader, whose drama came not from attempts to subdue his impulses but rather in attempting to let loose and take risks.

In other words, TNG knew that Spock was always the best character in the original series, and it put him in the captain's seat. It gave him a Kirk-like first officer to lead away parties, and created a super-Spock in the android Data. Putting a Klingon in charge of security was both believable (I mean, I know we're talking about hypothetical future alien races here) and an occasion for regular doses of humor.

Whereas the original series was so far ahead of its time that it could get away with some questionable acting, the stakes had been raised by the time TNG premiered; Gene Roddenberry and co-producer Rick Berman cast strong actors like the Shakespeare vet Patrick Stewart and versatile song-and-dance man Brent Spiner. Add some thoughtful writing over long, involved story arcs — as well as spiffed-up special effects — and you had Star Trek as its best self.

The baton was officially passed in the series-splicing movie Star Trek Generations (1994) — but like the original cast, the Next Gen cast were always a little awkward on film. Also as with the original cast, the new cast got it right the second time.

While Wrath of Khan (1982) was easily the best movie for the first crew (and arguably still the best feature film in the franchise), First Contact (1996) pitted Picard et al against the best antagonists Star Trek has seen: the Borg, who weren't instinctively impulsive like the Klingons but, rather, were so measured that Starfleet crew could beam right into the Borg cubes and walk around, knowing the Borg would only exert energy when and where it made most sense to do so.

The success of Next Gen inspired more spinoff series: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), which daringly had its crew staying in one place; Voyager (1995-2001), distinguished for having the franchise's first female captain but for little else; and Enterprise (2001-05), starring a woefully miscast Scott Bakula and opening each episode with a heinous pop ballad.

Eventually the franchise hit another fallow period, coming back in 2009 with a reboot that was native to movie screens, not TVs; a new television series is in development as well. The new movies are perfectly fine, and I'm sure the new series will be as well. Eventually, Star Trek will be great again. My hunch is that when it is, it will feel a lot more like TNG than the frenetic new movies: characters with long histories having patient conversations, demonstrating that a genuine exchange of ideas can be a lot more thrilling than just another shoot-out. That's the Star Trek way.

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