Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka TNG), aired on the US television with the two-part episode “Encounter at Farpoint”. It was the second installment of the Star Trek franchise on the TV, a bit less than 20 years after the last episode (but many syndications through the 70s and 80s made Trek being a staple in the pop culture), a year after the release of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and in my opinion one of the most ambitious TV Sci-Fi project from the 80s.
The show itself takes place in the 24th Century, almost a century later after “The Original Series” took place, with a new crew and the “Enterprise-D”, a brand-new class of starship.
It is interesting to get back to it, considering its anniversary coincides with the beginning of “Star Trek: Discovery” last week on the CBS All-Access, trying to cash in the fanbase as Games of Thrones do through a subscription fee (honestly, it is outrageous considering the rest of the world have it included inside their Netflix package). It is also interesting how many fans were outraged on the new crew of the USS Enterprise. Apparently there are some fans so extreme they even do not recognize Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as canon. But back then, there was no Internet so not much amplification chamber for trolls.
What I can say that for most (I say most) 170 episodes, it was such an engaging ride spanned through 7 seasons. What I think made it a success?
First, the design of the ship. The ship is wonderful, the computer system (voiced by Majel Barett, Gene Roddenberry’s second wife) and interface (the LCARS) was such a savvy and eye-candy UI interface (remember, the Apple Macintosh just came in few years before and Windows was not the most gorgeous GUI), the bridge is a spartan but yet well designed and spacious, clearly designed for exploration and diplomatic missions.
Second, it was the crew. You can have the nicest ship, yet have a crew you dont feel attached to. Thats how I felt for example with the NX-01 Enterprise crew (ST:Enterprise). Captain Jean-Luc Picard (acted by Patrick Stewart) was in my opinion the best Captain of the Trek franchise. Picard maintained the hierarchy intact but also knew to listen to his senior officers. Picard was the man putting diplomacy first before setting the phaser on maximum charge and most of all Picard had the best quotes ever in episodes highly charged with philosophical meanings. There are so many episodes I can cite where Picard was completely awesome showing his remarkable acting.
For instance “The Inner Light” in which Picard has his brain held captive by a interstellar probe making him revive the last years of a scholar in a planet slowly dying from its star becoming a supernova. Try not to cry on this one. There is also the episode “The Measure of A Man” in which Picard defends Data (always referred as “Mr. Data”) in court as a scientist proclaim that Data is dispensable machine, even if it has a conscience. You have also the famous “Best of Both Worlds (part I and II)” in which the Federation gets first-hand contact with the Borg and get assimilated as Locutus of Borg, leading the massacre of Wolf 359. You have “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” in which Picard and the Captain of a new alien race are beamed down on a planet, such alien race using a metaphoric language in their communication. Another one is “Sarek” and “Unification (part I and II)” in which Picard decides to mind-meld with Sarek suffering from a sort of Vulcan form of dementia, holding his condition the time of his diplomatic mission and Picard travel to Romulus to find Spock. Want some more awesome Picard-centric episode? “The Drumhead”, in which a sabotage on the Enterprise becomes the spark in a chain of reactions resulting in a witch hunt and with one of the most memorable quote from Picard “With the first link, the chain is forged….”. Or “Chain of Command (part 1 and 2)” in which Picard captured and tortured by the Cardassians (playing a saber rattling dance with the Federation via the intermediate of Captain Jellico) is standing up to his oppressor by yelling him “there are four lights!”. Or “Sins of Father” in which Picard stands by his Lt. Commander Worf in front of the Klingon High Council, serving as his mentor in front of the accusations of treasons of his late father. You know what, just check out the video below:
As a first officer, we had Commander William “Will” Riker (played by Johnathan Frakes). He was the man to get beamed down with the away team, he was the womanizer but yet sharing this ambiguous and odd relationship with Deanna Troi (I will come back later to it). You know it is interesting how the “Riker’s beard” made a huge effect on him, by Season 2 you have to admit that such beard was making Riker a pretty handsome man. He was harboring this side of James Kirk, boldly going where no man went before, but was also capable of the most calculated and stern decision that you would expect from a first officer. If I have to pick an Riker-centric episode, I would definitely recommend the episode “Frame of Mind”. Another episode is “The Outcast” in which Riker falls in love with an androgynous alien, discussing about the place of transgenders in society and their acceptance, thirty years before “Caitlin Jenner” and the infamous “bathroom bills”.
We had also Lt. Commander Data (played by Brent Spiner), a unique (well there was two copies, Lore and B-4) android created by Dr. Noonian Soong (the descendant of Arik Soong, the scientist that created the “Augments”). Data was in my opinion one of the best representation of the diversity in the TNG universe. He was unique and very puzzling for any human. I felt Data was showing an allegory of a Aspie: friendly, socially awkward that has trouble to identify social cues, very savvy and sometimes tell much more than expected from him. But Data sometimes showed how much humanity he had. For instance, this “Pen Pal” episode in which he violates the Prime Directive to save a girl he had sympathized through communication channel from a catastrophic geologic event. The other one that really shed a tear was “The Offspring” in which Data creates a child android, giving this child android the choice of its own gender identity (Hello! 1987!). The android decides to become a girl and named “Lal”. Data becomes a father, enjoying fatherhood only to discover that Lal suffers from a fatal electronic malfunction that needs her decommissioning. Try not to shed a tear as a parent, if you learn your child has a terminal disease. But maybe the best acting from Brent Spiner was playing the role of “Lore”, Data’s “older brother” that was dismantled by Soong because of his mercurial and psychopathic traits. Seeing Brent Spiner playing both the naive and friendly Data and the manipulative, deceptive and murderer (he summoned and lured the crystalline entity on Omicron Theta resulting in the killing of any lifeforms on the planet and even tried to do the same to the Enterprise crew). Brent Spiner remarklable acting was again to be seen on Star Trek:Enterprise in the episodes he played Dr. Arik Soong.
We also had Lt. Commander Worf Rozhenko (acted by Michael Dorn), the only Klingon from the fleet taking place after the Khitomer accords that settled the feud of the Klingon Empire with the Federation of planets. Worf grew up amongst humans torn between his Klingon heritage and growing amongst the Federation. There are so many good episodes with Worf, especially the ones involving his Klingon heritage and his struggle to get accepted amongst his compatriots. For instance, you have this episode in which the Enterprise rescues a Klingon vessel containing three outlaws, putting Worf at odds between his loyalty for the Federation and the loyalty for the Klingons. There is the “Reunion” episode that set Worf into a character of a Greek mythology that will haunt him even in Deep Space Nine.
We had Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (acted by LeVar Burton), a engineer born with blindness but equipped with a particular set of visor. Despite’s being congenitally blind, Geordi showed to be one of the most talented engineer in the Federation, saving the Enterprise from many situations. Geordi also showed some pride in his disability, in the episode “The Masterpiece Society” in which he faces the astounishment of a society in which eugenism is considered as a virtue and disability a failure that does not have a place.
We also had Counsellor Deanna Troi (played by Marina Sirtis) that played the role of a Betazed, capable to read others mind and emotion. She was the ship counsellor and also part of the dilemma of serving in the same ship than Riker, her former “Imzadi”. Deanna Troi role was at the beginning though to be defined but as the series goes, she showed to be instrumental to the series. My favorite episode with Troi? “Face of The Enemy” in which she is posing as a Roman agent of the dreaded Tal’Shiar, playing diametrically the behavior that is associated with her by playing a ruthless and fearless Romulan agent. We also had Dr. Beverly Crusher (played by Gates McFarren) that played the doctor and confident to Jean-Luc Picard due to their close relationship (Dr. Crusher’s husband was Picard best friend) and of course Wesley Crusher (played by William Wheaton). Wesley was honestly a pain in the neck during the first two seasons, leading to the climatic “Shut up Wesley!” quote.
Another niceties of the Enterprise-D is the holodeck, allowing to recreate a virtual environment that is too real to be true. Imagine breaking the fourth wall and entering inside a movie. Some of the best episodes were Holodeck-centered episodes. For example, the episode in which Picard see himself re-enacting Dixon Hill, giving this “roman noir” episodes straight outta the Prohibition era, the episodes in which Data plays Sherlock Holmes with Geordi as his buddy and by mistake giving life to Moriarty.
But there are so many episodes that really raises questions on the society as we know it and address questions that very few series ever bring on the TV: gender identity (there are even in the season 1 episode a few times you can see men wearing sort robe uniforms), the impact of interfering on a “primitive society” (the episode “Who watch the watchers” is another good one to watch), the issue of being born with a disability and societies in which eugenism is considered as the norm, the challenge of becoming a senior in a society in which becoming a senior is considered inadequate and is marked by your death at your 60th birthday (the episode “Half A Life”) or getting brought into a world in which money and material possession so dear to us has no more meanings (the episode “The Neutral Zone”). There is an episode that question to which extent can we allow us to develop warfare against our biggest enemy (“I Borg” and the virus to contaminate the Borg Collective).
There are also some single gems that does not fit the Trek narrative but are damn good. For example “Yesterday’s Enterprise” in which the Khitomers accords never happened resulting in an all-out battle against the Klingon for over 30 years. There are the episodes with Q, this malicious superpower entity presented in the pilot as the judge setting a trial on the Enterprise crew for the crimes mankind was held responsible. Some of them are plenty funny, some of them are deadly costly to the Enterprise such as “Q Who” in which Q introduce Picard to the Borg.
If you want to watch TNG but not interested to buy the whole collection, you have two choices: BBC America usually play them on the weekends and Netflix gives you access to everything Trek (except the movies). I am just warning you that the first two seasons are pretty campy as Roddenberry hired most of the old writers from TOS and feels most of a time some sort of reheated dish. But by the mid-season 2 and the injection of a new generation of writers, the show takes up and becomes very fascinating.