Star Trek: The Next Generation revisited

Thirty years ago next month, Star Trek: the Next Generation (hereafter TNG) debuted, but it wasn’t to universal acclaim. Lots of people resented the absence of Kirk, Spock and co, despite the fact that they were clearly at an age when they should be putting on their space slippers and spending time in an armchair rather than on the bridge.

The development of the show wasn’t a love nest either. In his great documentary about the birth of TNG, Chaos on the Bridge, William Shatner recounts the personality clashes that were going on behind the scenes.

Series creator Gene Roddenberry insisted that people wouldn’t have personal issues and petty conflicts in the 24th century because we would have evolved by then. Unfortunately, conflict is the heart of drama, so the development crew went through writer after writer as people failed to meet Roddenberry’s exacting demands.

Fortunately, Roddenberry had two of his old colleagues from the original series on board. In the 1960s, writer D.C Fontana had broken glass ceilings to be one of the few women given writing opportunities on a sci-fi show.

Fellow old hand, producer Robert H. Justman was instrumental in coming up with several of the best ideas in the new show: including the idea of the android crew member, Data. Justman had left the original show during the patchy series 3 because he was upset at the fall in standards. To be fair, how many times can you convince viewers that there are planets with a culture based on some period in Earth’s history?

With this level of talent, the production crew managed to sidestep various mad plans such as getting Patrick Stewart to perform in a wig (which had to be flown in specially from London for his audition). Even more bonkers was the idea that Captain Picard would lapse into an exaggerated French accent whenever things got too hairy.

When the first episode did finally hit the screen, Encounter at Far Point, I initially found Picard to be cold and unlikeable while Data was a revelation. Now having just watched lots of episodes again on Netflix, where the whole run is available, I have been really impressed by how good the show actually is, especially in the latter three seasons.

Part of this is due to the great villains, the Borg. Invented by producer, Maurice Hurley, the Borg were originally intended to be insectoids with a hive mind, but he had to settle for the cybernetic humanoids for cost reasons. The pitiless Borg with their cubic ships and relentless march to assimilate all other species are infinitely superior to most TNG aliens. Many of the races are just familiar faces from prime-time TV with what looks like Rice Krispies stuck to their foreheads.

Interestingly, Hurley didn’t even consider himself a science-fiction writer, having worked mostly on crime shows in the past. He ended up having a massive row with Roddenberry and the others, and eventually quit the show during series 2. Nevertheless, his vital contribution proves the rule that great creativity can actually come out of a bitter conflict.

My only gripe about TNG is that most of the time, the crew don’t actually go ‘where no one has gone before’. Whenever they arrive at a planet, someone has always got there first. Coincidentally, almost all the ‘aliens can happily terrorise the Enterprise crew in fluent English.

In the original series, the ‘first contact’ with aliens was much more sophisticated. The crew met rock monsters, aliens made of energy, as well as a race of flying pancakes. Finding a way to communicate with these weird beings was a major part of the crew’s work.

In TNG, this plot line only rarely appears, so the Enterprise isn’t exploring at all. One major exception is Encounter at Farpoint, where the crew encounter aliens without even knowing that they are doing so for much of the story.  Perhaps this is because it was written by D.C.Fontana drawing on her experience of the original run.

That aside, with TNG, Gene Roddenberry showed that lightning really can strike twice. In 1966, he created one of the best triple acts in TV history with the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. In 1987, he and his collaborators produced another fascinating crew that you really wanted to join on travels across the galaxy. On its thirtieth anniversary, TNG is well worth a second look.