Star Trek: The Next Generation – 35 Years Later
As a four-year-old in 1978, Star Trek didn’t mean much to me beyond being a show my dad enjoyed. That changed when Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP) was released. With Star Trek updated to reflect a big-budget aesthetic rivaling Star Wars, it was now one of my favorite sagas. But… it was still very much of his generation whereas Star Wars was mine. But then in 1987… they announced a new generation for Star Trek.
My dad was the first to tell me that a new Star Trek show was coming to television in the Fall. It would be set seventy-eight years after the latest adventures in the movies, on board the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D! It seemed far out!
A few weeks later, I was flipping through an issue of DC’s Star Trek comic and reached an article about the upcoming “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG). It would feature the Enterprise NCC-1701-D (confirming what my dad had told me), commanded by a Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I squinted and read almost aloud, “Wait, what?! ‘Jeen-Luke… Pickerd’?!??”
During the summer, I was excited to watch Star Trek IV on VHS. Suddenly, at the beginning of that tape… it appeared. A new vision of Trek was unveiled as an announcer introduced the forthcoming show, describing each of its main characters. I still remember that trailer, word for word, all these years later… because I played it several times before finally watching Star Trek IV! Doubt and cynicism about the new show was instantly transmuted into excitement!
The show looked awesome!! The Enterprise-D didn’t replace the refitted original as my favorite design, but it did look like the next logical evolution of starship design for Star Trek: a much larger ship with curved organic lines rather than geometric ones.
The crew looked great too. Now that I heard how Picard’s name was pronounced, it sounded much better! I immediately recognized Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck from the 1984 film Dune. I thought he was a good, unique choice. And he wasn’t the only familiar face.
The trailer confirmed rumors about LeVar Burton as the new helmsman who was blind and wore a prosthetic on his head which allowed him to see. I knew Burton from Reading Rainbow, Roots, and a few public service spots. His VISOR prop was much simpler and better than I’d imagined. (I was envisioning a RoboCop helmet or something similar on his head.)
Wil Wheaton was another familiar actor, from the film Stand by Me. Billed in the trailer as Doctor Crusher’s “brilliant” son Wesley, I knew he’d be a young scientific prodigy (before I even knew what that word meant).
The other faces were completely unknown to me, but I played that trailer repeatedly to at least memorize who each character was. I liked the idea of a Klingon Starfleet officer (he even looked like the film Klingons!).
I thought the uniform change to spandex jumpsuits made sense, since they looked flexible (although I preferred the maroon tunics from the movies). I’d noticed they went back to the colors of gold, blue and red for department divisions, but I was confused.… Captain Picard and Commander Riker were wearing red while Security Officer Yar wore gold. Why the switch? I could only speculate. I was now dying of curiosity all through the summer.
The show finally premiered on 28th September 1987, about a month after I started eighth grade. It was an exciting, memorable night. The pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, was a two-hour movie event on local ABC stations. This was Star Trek’s triumphant return to live-action television, eighteen years after being cancelled on NBC. And this time… I was living to witness it. TNG was to be a Star Trek show for my generation, as the original series was my dad’s.
I was excited to hear that Jerry Goldsmith’s TMP theme was now the opening theme of this show, firmly rooting this in the Star Trek universe. Despite immediately recognizing Q (John de Lancie) as a rip-off of Trelane from “The Squire of Gothos”, I was captivated with getting to know Picard and his crew, and how they confronted such a powerful life-form. After two hours of this plot unraveling, I was satisfied the show was “off to a good start.”
The new Enterprise didn’t disappoint, either in its exterior or interior, largely thanks to them being the work of Andrew Probert, who’d been instrumental in the design work on TMP. Most of the Enterprise-D sets were reworkings of the movie sets, but care was taken to ensure the look of the universe was developing naturally.
The android Data was immediately likable. He was essentially a recreation of Gene Roddenberry’s from another pilot he’d tried to sell before, called “The Questor Tapes”. I could see that Data’s social awkwardness would be a source of humor, but when he revealed his aspiration to be human, I recognized how the character could truly excel. He’s easily one of Roddenberry’s most ingenious creations.
Counselor Deanna Troi’s presence made sense to me, being that a ship on long deep-space voyages with whole families would need a healer for people’s mental and emotional states. I could definitely see that she and Riker came from Decker and Ilia from TMP and wondered how that relationship would play out.
As the first season continued through the winter and into the spring of 1988, I excitedly tuned in each week, hoping the next episode would be a good one. There were a few gems that first season, but in retrospect, I can see why it irritated many older fans. It portrayed the Federation and 24th-century humans as slightly too perfect, almost to the point of being smug towards other cultures as well as humans of the past (particularly us in the 20th century). Even through shockers such as Lieutenant Yar’s death in “Skin of Evil”, the gore in “Conspiracy” and a lackluster second season, I continued to stick with TNG, wishing the show would eventually improve. And it did.
Today, we look back fondly upon The Next Generation for the high-quality content produced during its third through sixth seasons and a spectacular finale in 1994, which harkened back to “Farpoint” and showed how much these characters had grown. The series proved itself and embedded itself into our culture as effectively as its predecessor did. As we celebrate thirty-five years since its premiere, I’m reminded of the excitement I felt as a young kid. I was not only unaware that it would be the show that would define my teen years but also unaware of the struggle the show went through to become the franchise’s high point we remember today.
A freelance writer, Douglas has several years experience writing newsletters, sales copy and movie reviews. He is also the author of the screenplays Supralight and Bloodstone: The Sorceress and the Warrior. His reviews of Star Trek films (as well as a DS9 retrospective) have been published on the TrekSphere website.