“Number One,” “Engage,” “Resistance is Futile,” “Make it so,” and “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” It is hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. The journey began with Encounter at Farpoint, not one of the franchise’s greatest, but one that showed off the incredibly advanced Enterprise-D, perhaps this incarnation’s best villain in Q, and of course the holodeck. It was a daring experiment, could you do Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (save for a random cameo in the pilot)? After seven years later, more than double the number of original series episodes, and an Emmy nomination for best drama TV series it was a definitive yes!
What Gene Roddenberry and company may not have realized at the time was that they had created something that would ultimately stand on its own as a cultural phenomenon. Not only did this series bring a fresh new younger demographic to the franchise, but it also made many of the characters household names, introduced new catchphrases, and expanded the known Star Trek universe exponentially. Additionally this version would continue the idea of the original series that you could provide entertainment while challenging the audience on an intellectual level.
There were some challenges early on. Much of the first season was relatively brutal as the series struggled to figure out what it wanted to be. The writers wanted to distance themselves from the original series, yet the second episode, “The Naked Now” was essentially a remake of an original series episode. The second season was marginally better with a handful of goodies such as “Measure of a Man” and “Q Who.” But it was not until season 3 when the show finally hit its stride. The turning point was “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” This was an episode that combined excitement and made you think. Would you have trusted your crazy bartender to send the Enterprise-C back into the temporal rift? Also this episode involved one of television’s best explanations for bringing a dead character back to life in Lieutenant Yar.
Season 3 began what we have come to know of as the TNG era of Star Trek, a mix of standalone and serialized episodes. The Klingon story arc with the House of Duras began in the third season with the episode “Sins of the Father.” But perhaps its most famous episode involved the cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds.” I distinctly recall painfully waiting out that summer trying to figure out if this was the end of Picard or if Commander Riker and company could somehow stop the Borg.
Fortunately, they did save Captain Picard and the series would only get better with each subsequent season. Eventually greater tie ins to the original series would take place as Spock, Scotty, and Sarek would all make memorable guest appearances. The show would last for seven years and much like the Enterprise-D, you might argue that she expired before her time, but at the same time you could also argue that the show never “jumped the shark” which according to Wikipedia is defined as “indicating the moment in its evolution when a brand, design or creative effort moves beyond the essential qualities that initially defined its success, beyond relevance or recovery.”
One thing that truly separated TNG from the original series was the depth of the ensemble cast. The original show was about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, with occasional expansions of the second tier co-stars. TNG had much deeper characters, it has been suggested that Picard, Riker, and Wesley Crusher were created to be the three embodiments of Gene Roddenberry. Picard as the present day Gene Roddenberry, Riker as Gene as a younger man, and Wesley Crusher as Gene as a young boy. Whether it played out that way on the show or not is to be debated, but certainly part of what made the show so successful was the cast of characters that we had come to love.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard was the ultimate father figure, man of ethics and character, and someone that we could all learn something from as a leader. He began as sort of this older out-of-touch commanding officer who could not relate to his crew. He definitely softened over time, for the better, which culminated in the series finale with the decision to finally sit down and play poker with his senior officers.
Commander William Riker was TNG’s answer to Captain Kirk, or perhaps more accurately a re-creation of Captain Decker from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (as well as Star Trek: Phase II). In this time period, commanding officers of starships would not lead the landing parties, leaving that duty to the first officer. Riker, just as Picard, was also a rigid character who ultimately added humor and a more lighthearted approach to life on a starship. Just do not go over his head or he’ll “snap you back so far you’ll feel like a first year cadet again.”
Lieutenant Commander Data was sort of an inverse of Spock. Whereas Spock wanted to shun his human side, the Android and emotionless Data strove to better understand and embrace what it meant to be human. His perfection was his imperfection.
Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge was originally the blind helmsman of the Enteprise-D, which was in some ways a clever joke of having a blind man drive the ship. Over the course of the series, LaForge would eventually become Chief Engineer and Data’s best friend.
Lieutenant Worf began as essentially a background character to one of the most important characters in the franchise and also gave us a greater understanding of what it means to be a Klingon. In having a Klingon on the bridge, it was also a statement of how we can put aside our differences with even our mortal enemies. Worf would set the record for most episodes of Star Trek after playing this character in an additional four seasons of the spinoff Deep Space Nine, in all four TNG movies, as well as his grandfather in Star Trek VI.
Counselor Troi began as a mysterious alien woman who had a past with Commander Riker, wore a hideous intergalactic cheerleader uniform, and was nearly written off the show. But over the run of the series, she would earn her keep as Picard’s sounding board and trusted advisor.
Doctor Crusher was probably the least developed of the characters of TNG despite having the most involved back story. Unlike Troi, she actually was written off of the show, only to be brought back following the ill fated Doctor Pulaski experiment.
Star Trek: The Next Generation would live long past 1994 in the form of four feature films. Some fans would argue that First Contact might even be the best of the entire franchise. The show would pave the way for the spinoffs Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, an amazing legacy for a show that many critics and fans thought would never last.