Around the time the movie Star Trek: The Journey Home was entering production Paramount set out to translate Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future for a new generation. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation and it has defined science fiction for an entire generation. It started weak but finished strong and, for myself in particular, the future will always be tinted by its aesthetics and dreams, for better or for worse. In 1987 Jean Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D departed for Farpoint and once again took us where no man had gone before.
The captain and his ship set out into a much more chaotic, unpredictable age than his predecessor. This incarnation of Rodenberry’s vision for the future would see the end of Lennin’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet bloc. The nature of many of the political institutions of the time would begin changing radically as a result and the timeliness of the Star Trek universe would sometimes wobble but, by and large, still had a strong resonance. The Next Generation still had a lot to say and people were still in a mood to hear it.
If Star Trek: The Original Series was defined by the bridge then Star Trek: The Next Generation was defined by the courtroom. From the very first episode the theme of weighing our decisions in the most objective, most all-knowing way possible, and whether we should be judged by intentions or outcomes would be was a big theme of the show. The world and culture had changed in twenty years. People were no longer just interested in what decisions we should make – decades of foreign intervention to counter the Russians had made us wonder what the consequences of our decisions would be.
NextGen addressed the political issues of its time in its own way, with the Romulans serving as a stand in for the continued danger of communism, and the addition of the Bajorans and Cardassians becoming proxies for the issues of religious and ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Maquis stand in for the terrorist groups that result from political jerrymandering – but in this the showrunners failed to account for the reality of the situation as they have no religious or ideological component to their crusade. Perhaps to the showrunners terrorism is no more than politics but the fact is that doesn’t ring true to the situation on the ground in real life. At least not for most people, myself included.
Like its predecessor, NextGen has no overarching plot, although it does introduce two of the greatest antagonizing forces in the history of the franchise: The omnipotent Q and the all-consuming Borg. Both threaten the crew repeatedly throughout the show’s seven season run and stretch beyond the end of it to meddle with other crews in Starfleet.
The Borg are a pretty simple take on the issue of whether we will drive our own advancement or allow other forces to supplant our free will and control us like sheep. They could be a metaphor for any number of social phenomenon – or even social media! – or a very literal take on the dangers of letting technology too far into our lives. People can enter or leave the collective, although only with difficulty, and they served as an interesting metaphor for the line between groups and the individual. But, while menacing, the Borg were not particularly deep and suffered from over exposure before their time was ended. Like the mirror universe, they probably shouldn’t have been given as much screen time as they eventually were.
But Q. He was a different matter. The franchise’s second greatest villain (arguably its greatest) Q is the uncaring, impersonal perspective of the universe. He dares the crew to try and examine the universe from a perspective other than that of optimistic explorers, to take human goals out of the equation and try and accept the universe and human nature for what they are, typically placing the crew in danger to prove some point about human frailty. Q is a contentious figure in the fanbase. He’s arrogant and high-handed, free with the flaws of those around him, but that is to serve as a foil to the attitude of the cast who – by all accounts – are free with the flaws of the people they meet in ways that can easily come off as arrogant and high-handed. Q bookends the series and meddles in some memorable ways along the way, including introducing the Federation to the Borg.
The whole show is full moral mosaics, playing a sort of Othello with the conscience, where a situation that seems one way will flip to another with the addition of just a few pieces of the puzzle. Two episodes in the fourth season, “The Drumhead” and “The Mind’s Eye”, highlight this. In one, McCarthyesque paranoia about Romulan operatives nearly convicts an innocent man. In the other, Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge is brainwashed as a Romulan operative and caught only through carefully applied paranoia on the part of the crew. It’s only clear principles that keep the good ship Enterprise from foundering in the treacherous waters.
The cast of NextGen is… well, larger than The Original Series, although not necessarily as strong. Stand out performances come from Patric Stewart, as Captain Jean Luc Picard, Michael Dorn, as Worf Rozhenko and Brent Spiner as Data (who is an android). But the show spreads character development across a good seven or eight characters per season, leaving plenty of time spent with other members of the cast. While actors like Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, LaVar Burton and Gates McFadden did well with their characters they aren’t in quite the same league as the top three actors on the show – or the core three of The Original Series. On the other hand, the greater variety of stories in a greater variety of posts around the ship add a much needed dimension to the show.
Again, only Data gets much character development over the course of the show. Like Spock, he struggles with understanding humanity. Unlike Spock he has no emotions at all and he gets an evil twin brother and mad genius father to go along with his struggle! This is good from the crazy space adventure side of the show as well as the character development side.
With seven seasons of Next Generation you’d think there would be more stand out episodes than The Original Series and you’d be right – but oddly, not as many per season. One thing the show did get right was it’s season finale cliff hangers – many of the best episodes in the series were two part episodes with one half aired at the end of one season, forcing us to wait on tenterhooks for months for the conclusion. Great episodes include “The Naked Now”, “Elementary, Dear Data”, “Ship in a Bottle”, “The Measure of a Man”, “Q Who”, “Lower Decks”, “Qpid”, “Relics”, “Tapestry”, “Timescape”, “The Redemption” Parts One and Two, “Descent” Parts One and Two and “All Good Things…” Parts One and Two.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” unites the crew of Picard’s Enterprise with the previous ship of that name in a time travelling incident that shifts the nature of the timeline for a brief moment and leaves the ships with a difficult choice to make. It’s an endearing throwback to “The City on the Edge of Forever” and gives early core crew member Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and sets up several interesting elements for the future.
“Chain of Command” Parts One and Two throw everything out of the window – Picard isn’t on the Enterprise! The crew has a new CO and they hate him! The Cardassians are terrible people! Okay, that last one is nothing new. The real strength of this show is the second half, as Picard confronts his Cardassian interrogator in a battle of wills to shake the heavens. The ending, where Picard brushes aside dystopia and affirms that There! Are! Four! Lights! is the stuff of legends.
“I, Borg” fleshes out the Borg when the crew rescues a drone from a crashed Borg ship and find that, with time, he evolves into an individual no longer bound by the dictates of the Collective and leaving them with an ethical dilemma… what with they do with Hugh the drone? The consequences of their decision would be felt years later in the two part episode “Descent” but more than anything the episode is a testament to the fact that you can’t know your enemy until you’ve lived with him. It also marks the beginning of the end for the Borg menace, as a narrative device if not in universe.
“The Chase” shows that many of the major humanoid races of the Alpha Quadrant are struggling to piece together a message encoded into their own DNA resulting in the revelation that they are all descendants of another progenitor race, making it one of the most important myth building episodes in the franchise and serving as an excellent metaphor for the senselessness of human racism, given the shared heritage our own DNA points to.
Of course, the two greatest episodes of Star Trek ever made are “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts One and Two. The first conflict with the Borg, the Battle of Wolf 359, rewrites the situation in the Alpha Quadrant from top to bottom and leaves the crew of the Enterprise reeling. In fact, the entire history of the franchise can be dated by its place before and after “The Best of Both Worlds”. It marks the beginning of a shift in the franchise from the strong single story, high concept scifi format to the more grandiose, space opera story telling of that would dominate the franchise in more modern incarnations. That doesn’t stop it from being the greatest moment in the franchise for here we see all the strengths of both sides of the franchise firing at full force. Truly, the best of both worlds.
Like Kirk and Co., Picard and his crew would go on to feature films. They’d blow up an Enterprise, travel through time and generally get into mischief. The very first film was a crossover with Kirk, and not a bad one at that. Sadly the next generation of Star Trek films didn’t hit the heights of the first, the only way in which the follow-up didn’t measure up to the original. The only truly great NextGen film was Star Trek: First Contact, pitting Picard against the Borg one final time, but this time with a new ship and in the past as the Borg try to change history and assimilate humanity before they achieve faster than light travel. We also get to see the first contact between humanity and the Vulcans, a major point of the mythos that we’ve never seen before.
“Encounter at Farpoint” was a pretty bleh pilot episode for a sequel series to a TV show that failed in the ratings after only three years. But The Next Generation gained steam as it went and became a scifi juggernaut on the backs of solid writing and a great cast. The show was so successful two further series were added to the franchise running almost simultaneously but it’s my humble opinion that nothing has quite matched the greatness of the franchise in this era. But the very nature of Star Trek calls us to boldly go to new places and the franchise traveled onwards to the orbit of Bajor and the edge of a wormhole into unexplored space, all under the watchful eye of of a new crew and facing new problems…