One of my early posts in this blog touched on the “Star Trek Lives” phenomenon of the 1970’s. For those who may not have experienced it, Star Trek fandom at that time was building momentum to such a degree that it seemed inevitable Paramount Pictures (who owned the rights to the Trek property) would have to give in and bring back Star Trek in some form. The rest, as they say, is history. We got the animated Saturday morning show featuring the voices of (most of) the original cast. We got Star Trek: The Motion Picture and numerous big screen sequels.
However, one thing fans had been clamoring for never came to pass – namely: new live action TV adventures for Captain Kirk and his beloved starship Enterprise. This is completely understandable in light of the success of Star Trek as a theatrical movie series in the early and mid 1980’s. Yet, there was always that secret hope that, by some miracle, a new weekly series would spring up. Sadly, by the time Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released, the actors were getting a little long in the tooth and the films were raking in big bucks while leaving Shatner, Nimoy, et al free from the rigors of weekly TV production. The dream we started dreaming in the early ’70’s would have to stay a dream. Star Trek lived … just not in our living rooms.
Then something both wonderful and detestable happened. Gene Roddenberry and the bulk of his original production team created Star Trek: The Next Generation. This new series, set approximately 80 years after events in the original, would depict new characters played by new actors aboard a new U.S.S. Enterprise. It would be sold directly into syndication, bypassing networks like the dreaded NBC, which had cancelled the original series all those years before, and give the producers that much more control. I can recall both excited anticipation and righteous outrage. I’m sure other fans felt a similar mix of conflicting emotions. After 18 years, we would finally have a new Star Trek TV show! Yet it somehow felt wrong – like it wasn’t going to be Star Trek; like it couldn’t possibly live up to the original. The world had just experienced the debacle that was “New Coke” – why would we want to go through that again with our precious Star Trek? Nevertheless, some 27 million viewers tuned in when the show premiered in September, 1987 – myself among them. I was not impressed…initially.
I read an interview with Gene Roddenberry shortly after the launch of his new show. In it he pointed out that fans were calling the new series a rip-off of Star Trek. In his defense, he mused, “Star Trek was our show…how can you rip-off your own show?” Perhaps that’s a good point. All the same, Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed doomed, right out of the gate, to suffer from weak scripts, stilted performances, overreaching characterizations, and far too much techno-babble. By the middle of the first season, I also began wondering how many times a teenage boy could save the ship before I would stop tuning in altogether. But I din’t stop tuning in. Neither did millions of others. That was due as much to curiosity about how bad the next episode would be than to any real interest in this universe or the characters it contained. Or so I thought.
Having never acted on TV or in any other medium, I can’t say how difficult it is for members of an ensemble cast to get comfortable in their roles and with the relationships of their characters. Nor can I say what elements must be brought to the writing to produce high-quality, entertaining stories. I imagine these things must be tough under any circumstances. They must be even tougher though under the constant shadow of a juggernaut like the original Star Trek. Yet Roddenberry and his crew persisted. His cast got more comfortable. His writers delivered better scripts. Slowly but surely the newest incarnation of Star Trek began to stand on its own, finally out from under the shadow of its famous predecessor.
This was most evident during the second and third seasons of Next Gen (or TNG as we fans tend to refer to it). In my opinion, some of the best stories of the entire seven year run were broadcast during seasons two and three; the 3rd season finale being about the finest of them all. It was an episode entitled “The Best of Both Worlds” and it was a cliffhanger. This was new ground for Trek fans.
In it, the captain we’d come to know and love was abducted by a super powerful alien race and genetically altered so as to assist them in their quest to conquer humanity. In addition, there were other shake-ups aboard our newly beloved ship: the well respected first officer being offered a promotion which would require leaving the Enterprise; the introduction of an arrogant new Starfleet officer, and the crew’s inability to rescue their revered captain which left little choice but to try to destroy him. There are so many meaningful story arcs in this episode and each of them does to us what Star Trek has always done best – forces us to reflect on our own feelings and see our own struggles and conflicts played out by the daring Enterprise crew.
Story elements notwithstanding, several titillating (and frankly, disturbing) things surrounded this episode. No one in the fan community was entirely sure that Patrick Stewart would return as Captain Picard in season four. None of us had ever had the joy/sorrow of a Star Trek cliffhanger on TV before. In fact, the cliffhanger virtually guaranteed that the show would return for a fourth season – something else which we’d never before experienced. The entire broadcast history of Star Trek: The Next Generation had been a roller coaster and June, 1990 was the pinnacle of the highest ramp on the ride. Would the descent be full of heart stopping excitement or a plunge into the wasteland of television ridiculousness? (As in the entire season of Dallas that was later revealed to have been a bad dream – uggggh!!!!)
I was involved in the tedious and stressful process of purchasing my first house that summer. The cliffhanger aired about two weeks before we closed – right around the time when a weekly distraction from life’s difficulties was most welcome. I was also blown away by what I perceived as a “theatrical motion picture quality” about that whole episode. How could I possibly get through an entire summer waiting to see how it would all turn out?
I remodeled the first floor of that house that summer and spent a good portion of the time discussing the TNG cliffhanger with my neighbor while I took breaks from the intense heat. I cannot a recall a summer in my entire adult life that seemed to take longer to pass than that one did. When the fourth season premiere finally aired in September, we got together with our neighbors to watch it. I can recall thinking, as the flashbacks from Part 1 of the episode came onto the screen, that the long hot summer waiting for Star Trek: The Next Generation was as bad as, if not worse than, the 18 years we had to wait for new live-action Star Trek on TV in the first place. And that, I believe, is the best statement I can make about TNG. That summer proved to me that, where television drama is concerned, you can go home again.