Trek 50: Part 8 – The Next Generation

TNG_warp_head“Let’s make sure history never forgets the name…Enterprise.”
-Picard (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”)

Welcome back nerds! This week, we’re looking at the groundbreaking series that proved that, after 3 TOS seasons and 4 (at the time) feature films, Star Trek still had a whole lot more to explore. TNG would run for seven seasons and would inspire four more feature films starring Picard and friends. It also reignited Star Trek’s momentum, inspiring three more spin offs.

The fans were not quick to embrace the new show until the writing staff ramped up the stakes with the legendary season three cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard gets captured by the Borg (more on them later). By today’s standards, it’s a miracle the show made it past its first two seasons. The former was tonally all over the place (and awkwardly sexual in places) and the latter was truncated by a writers strike, but when it found its footing in season three, it was magnificent.

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Magnificence is irrelevant…but even Locutus of Borg thinks the show rocks

It’s the show I grew up watching, and it’s never really ever lost its appeal. I’m marathoning it right now (again) on blu-ray and I still love it, even though I’ve seen every episode countless times. This series kept Star Trek relevant, introducing the new crew early enough so that, when the original crew was saying their goodbyes (The Undiscovered Country aired during TNG’s 5th season), the TNG crew had begun to gain a fanbase of their own.

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Season one cast (from L to R): Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), Troi (Marina Sirtis), Yar (Denise Crosby, Worf (Michael Dorn), Picard, (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), LaForge (LeVar Burton)

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

The Ship: U.S.S. Enterprise-D (Galaxy Class) Gasp, you say! What happened to the Enterprise B and C?! Fear not! We will meet them. I promise.

The Captain: Jean-Luc Picard, the classiest captain in Starfleet. Diplomat, gentleman, and scholar, Captain Picard is basically my personal hero.

Elementary-Dear-Data

Data may be playing Sherlock Holmes here, but Picard is the one rocking the dark suit and black cravat like he means to bring it back into fashion through sheer force of will.

The Premise: The newest Starfleet flagship is off, exploring the galaxy and getting into crazy space hijinks. TOS villains like the Romulans and the Klingons (who are no longer villains) are back, with more attention paid to exploring their culture. We’ve also got new villains like the Ferengi (who are quickly retconned into more comedic characters), the militaristic Cardassians (and the origins of the Federation rebel group the Maquis, which we’ll see in later series), and the Borg (the coolest Federation villain ever). This series also introduces the recurring omnipotent character Q (John DeLancie) who features in some of the series’ most fun episodes.

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Q is basically Space Loki, but with a fondness for mariachi bands and relaxed poses

The Best Episodes: There are tons. The big critical darlings are “The Inner Light” in which Picard lives an entire lifetime amongst a long dead race in the span of about 20 minutes of real time, and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” in which a temporal anomaly brings the doomed Enterprise C forward in time, disrupting the timeline. “The Measure of a Man” is another good one, in which Picard argues for the Android Data’s status as a sentient being. “Chain of Command,” an intense 2 part episode, has Picard being sent on a secret reconnaissance mission in which he’s captured and tortured by a sadistic Cardassian, played by David Warner (of St. John Talbot and Chancellor Gorkon fame). Also, there’s “Tapestry” where Picard is given a chance to right a brutal mistake from his youth by Q, only to discover that an artificial heart may be worth more than the lessons lost by not needing one.

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Wheeee! Character development!

Another favorite of mine is the Inception-esque “Frame of Mind” in which Riker loses all conception of reality while acting in a play about an insane asylum only to discover that he is actually crazy and trapped in an insane asylum…except things aren’t what they seem.

Fans tend not to like it, but I adore the two parter “Time’s Arrow” in which Data is sent back to 19th century America in pursuit of life-draining aliens, and meets Mark Twain and Jack London.

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Guinan is less impressed by Mark Twain than Data is…

There are literally dozens of episodes I could gush about, but I have to mention the Robin Hood episode “Q-Pid” because it features the recurring character Vash (Jennifer Hetrick), my favorite of Picard’s love interests.

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This is Vash (from “Captain’s Holiday”). She’s like Space Indiana Jones and is basically the best.

She’s sassy, strong, brilliant, and I am super sad that she and Picard don’t ever make things official because I love her so much. In this episode, Q starts shipping Picard and Vash hardcore (for obvious reasons), so he puts them into a recreation of the Robin Hood universe and basically tries desperately to make them a couple.

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“Oh lord, Q’s writing fan-fiction again…”

TNG also has one of Trek’s best series finales, “All Good Things…” in which Q pulls Picard back and forth through time so the good captain can save humanity from a huge temporal anomaly. It’s a crazy satisfying ending that is only slightly outdone by DS9’s explosive 10-part series finale which we’ll talk about later.

It’s all good, and you should watch it. *flails*

Why It’s Awesome: Like with TOS, the cast is just wonderful and you really fall in love with all of them, especially once the characters move past their shouty-melodramatic first season selves and start to gel.

Celebrity City

The season 2 cast saw the departure of Dr. Crusher (but only temporarily!) who was replaced with Diana Muldaur as Dr. Pulaski (top left; who’s sort of a sassy female McCoy). This is also when Riker grew the beard (thank the heavens), Geordi became chief engineer, and Worf became security chief.

Though still very episodic in nature, this series began to have longer character arcs and recurring storylines (such as the aforementioned Q, Worf’s son, Alexander, Data’s evil twin Lore, and Picard’s lingering PTSD following his capture by the Borg) that gave the whole thing not only more cohesion, but more stability in terms of creating the Star Trek universe as a more internally consistent entity. It also gave us more insight into Roddenberry’s universe. TOS was very ship-focused, but TNG (along with the TOS films) gave us a deeper look into how the Federation itself works.

We also got a bunch of great cameos from our beloved TOS crew. McCoy shows up in the pilot, now an aged ambassador, who’s giving the ship a sendoff. Sarek, Spock’s father, shows up in season 3, suffering from a debilitating disease that eventually ends his life. Spock himself shows up in season 5’s “Unification” two parter in which he’s gone rogue and is trying to bring Vulcan and Romulus back together as per their shared heritage. And in season 6’s “Relics,” Scotty is discovered trapped inside a transporter buffer (in a ship crashed on a massive Dyson Sphere which is never explained or revisited anytime throughout the series…which is a shame…). According to the books, Scotty goes on to become the head of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, which is cool. We’ll also see Kirk and Chekov in Generations, and Sulu and Janice Rand have an awesome cameo in Voyager.

I think what makes this series work so well was because it set a lot of standards for ensemble shows that came after it. By the time we get to later Trek series, the Star Trek formula is so well entrenched that the writers really need to go above and beyond to break out of that mold. But in TNG, the formula was established for the first time, taking the best of TOS and modernizing the aesthetic into something incredibly relevant to American audiences. By today’s standards, it seems perhaps naive, and the lack of a heavily serialized format seems weird in a post-Lost world, but the quality of the writing in a great deal of the episodes holds up very well. You just have to kind of fight through the weirdness that is the first season and then you’ll be fine.

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After season 2, Gates McFadden returned *hugs Beverly Crusher*, and Wesley got promoted to Ensign (and then went off to the Academy to make things official, but decided he didn’t like it). We’ve also got Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), who was added in season 2. She’s the best. Also, I love how Troi looks like a character in a drama concerning a rich dynastic family who is rife with corruption and jealousy. Beverly looks like she reeeally wants to tell Guinan a secret, too. Worf is…being Worf…

Alright, alright, I’ll go now. This is one of the best TV shows ever and you’re wrong if you say otherwise. *runs away*

Next week, we’re going to be looking at Generations, a movie that has actually really grown on me over the years.

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