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Re-Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation

Space: the final frontier . . .
These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise . . .
Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds . . .
To seek out new life and new civilisations . . .
To boldly go where no man has gone before.

It was with these words, first heard almost four dozen years ago, that one of the greatest SF television series of all time announced itself to the world. Through three years of network television and, more importantly, decades of syndication, Gene Roddenberry‘s Star Trek would give us one of the defining friendships of modern entertainment, audacious storytelling courtesy of some of the finest writers in the business, American television’s first inter-racial kiss and a plethora of catchphrases, which would permeate pop culture to an incredible degree.

Beam me up, Scotty.

That is illogical, Captain.

I cannae change the laws of physics.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker!

Me engines cannae take much more o’ this, Cap’n.

You green-blooded hobgoblin!

Live long and prosper.

I could go on – trust me, your patience for snippets of dialogue will be up long before my reservoir of Star Trek sayings – stop me now before I kill again!

And yet, for all that I hold the original series in high regard, it would be a new programme, aired two decades later – an updating of Star Trek for a new generation – that would really cement the Great Bird of the Galaxy‘s signature creation in my affections.

Debuting twenty-one years after Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura and co. first ventured onto our screens, Star Trek: The Next Generation was an ambitious attempt to update a cultural phenomenon for a new audience. Gone was the impulsive cold warrior, replaced by a seasoned diplomat. The irascible country doctor now the single mother of a young boy-genius. Science Officer, Mr Spock, constantly struggling to keep the emotions of his unwanted human side under check, replaced – in a brilliant piece of not-quite-symmetry – by an android whose fondest wish is to be human.

There were other changes, too, such as a larger cast, more interesting roles for women and African Americans, more exploration of story arcs over the course of different seasons. We encountered many more races in this new series than we had in the original Star Trek, where it was essentially Klingons, Romulans and a succession of one-off monsters. The presence of first officer, William Riker, allowed the show to have a Kirk-like man-of-action who could play the romantic lead and – more importantly for my inner pedant – lead the hazardous missions planet-side; it never sat well with me that Kirk would put himself at risk so often when he had an entire starship to command. Picard’s use of his bridge crew struck me as much more responsible.

Of course, any show like this lives or dies by its characters and its stories, and Star Trek: The Next Generation had a surfeit of quality on both counts. Patrick Stewart brought a Shakespearean gravitas to his portayal of Captain Jean-Luc Picard – an officer whose past held an almost Kirk-like swagger, but who had matured into a diplomat and explorer of great reputation. The android, Lieutenant-Commander Data, expertly portrayed by Brent Spiner, always striving to understand humanity but never quite managing in his quest to be human; it’s to the writers’ credit that they never succumbed to what must have been a huge temptation in that regard. Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon security officer, who walked the constant tightrope of trying to adhere to his people’s code of honour while simultaneously upholding the values of Starfleet. Geordi La Forge, the ‘blind’ chief engineer, Wesley Crusher, the genius teenager. Deana Troi, half-betazoid ship’s counsellor. Whoopi Goldberg, magnificent as the enigmatic Guinan. The list goes on.

Conventional wisdom has it that ST:TNG is a show best started at Season Three – but I disagree. While certainly not at the same regular quality of later seasons, the first two years lay down important character beats and plot elements. The beginning of Picard’s enduring discomfort when forced to deal with children. Riker’s mischievous sense of humour. Data’s many hobbies, through which he sought to approach the human condition. Diana Muldaur‘s wonderfully abrasive Doctor Pulaski, constantly sniping at all and sundry (the closest any of the Star Trek franchises would get to Doctor McCoy until Karl Urban‘s uncanny channeling of DeForest Kelley in J. J. Abrams‘ reboot).

Absolutely, Season Three was a triumph, taking in the ‘Enemy Mine‘-style ordeal of ‘The Enemy‘, the Cold War tension of ‘The Defector‘, the emotional intensity (and fanboy catnip) of ‘Sarek‘, and – of course – the magnificent cliffhanger series finale ‘The Best of Both Worlds: Part 1‘ (I’m so pleased I discovered ST:TNG on video rather than having to go through the anguished wait for the second half of that episode to come along at the beginning of Season Four!).

But to jump straight in is to miss the introduction of the near-omnipotent pain-in-the-@$$, John de Lancie‘s Q, the discovery of Data’s dark twin in ‘Datalore‘, the first testing of Worf’s constant nature-versus-nurture struggle in ‘Heart of Glory‘, the wrenching death of a bridge crew stalwart in ‘Skin of Evil‘, the beginning of Data’s Sherlock Holmes obsession in ‘Elementary, Dear Data‘, Riker’s fish-out-of-water officer exchange stint aboard a Klingon Bird of Prey in ‘A Matter of Honour‘, and my personal favourite: ‘The Measure of a Man‘, in which Data’s sentience – indeed, his entire right to exist – is put to trial by an unscrupulous cyberneticist.

I am, as of the point of writing, only halfway through my re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but already I can see how well it holds up after all these years – in fact, as much time has passed since the series concluded as had elapsed between the original Star Trek and ST:TNG. If one disregards the usual complaints about disregarded physics – artificial gravity without spin, the implausibility of inertial dampeners, etc – which all film and TV science fiction suffers from Star Trek: The Next Generation is still one of the best examples of small-screen SF we have, and even though there is more good television about than I’m ever likely to have the time to view, I’m content that re-watching this excellent series is time well spent.

Space: the final frontier . . .
These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise . . .
It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds . . .
To seek out new life and new civilisations . . .
To boldly go where no one has gone before.

Make it so.