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Star Trek: The Next Generation •••••

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Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation
 
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time to review the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: The NextGeneration.


 
 
It was a long time coming. And it had a lot to live up to. Let’s recap.


More than a decade after the cancellation of the Star Trek’s original series, Paramount studios began recognizing the lucrative potential of another TV series. This new series was put on hold while the original series enjoyed a run of successful feature length movies in the early to mid-1980s. Finally, the green light was given. Paramount executive Rick Berman assembled a number of Star Trek veteran writers, including Bob Justman, DC Fontana, and David Gerrold. In 1987 a new series was born featuring many unknown actors and a couple of established stars.
 

The first two seasons were uneven due to conflicts between Gene Roddenberry and the writing staff, not to mention the 1988 writers’ strike. But by the third season, it became clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation had found its footing and was able to produce episodes that met or even exceeded the quality of the original series. This new series lasted seven seasons and created an informal norm of seven seasons for future trek series.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was also an ensemble cast, like ST:TOS. But unlike ST:TOS, TNG had a captain at the helm who was seasoned, reasoned… and bald. Capt. Jean Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) was often described as talking his enemies to death (thanks to his use of diplomacy over phasers). His second in command was the brash and dashing Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes). Scott, you may remember an episode from ST:TOS called “The Enemy Within” in which Kirk is split into two personalities: one niceand one mean. It’s my theory that they did this with Picard and Riker. They took the calm, rational side of Kirk and made Picard – and the green-woman-slaying side of Kirk and made Riker.

Along for the ride were

  • Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) who was an unemotional android who wanted to be human with all its emotional baggage. Compare this to Mr. Spock from ST:TOS, who was constantly trying to rid himself of emotion and was embarrassed by his own half-human heritage.
  • Counselor Deanna Troy (Marina Sirtis) from Betazed, who could sensethe emotions of other beings – similar in many ways to Dr. McCoy who was the “feeling” part of Kirk’s threesome.
  • Lt. Commander Geordi Laforge (LaVar Burton) who was at the helm and eventually became the Chief Engineer.
  • Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) who was an orphan who survived the rape colonies of some distant planet.
  • Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) who was from the planet Klingon.He represented the detente between the USSR and the USA.
  • Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) who was the ship’s doctor and occasional love interest for Capt. Picard.
  • Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) the teen age boy-wonder who was a super genius and son to Dr. Crusher. His father had died in an accident while under Picard’s command.Wesley Crusher was considered the most reviled character in the entire Star Trek universe dueto his annoying personality.

ST:TNG had a slow start. The writers seemed to be rewriting Original Series episodes with the new cast. Season One also featured what many call the worst episode in Star Trek history (possibly in all of modern television) for its racial insensitivity. At the end of season one, Denise Crosby left the show – with her character receiving an anti-climactic demise.

Season two was not much better with lackluster episodes. By mid-season the writing had gotten much better and the episode “The Measure of a Man” was hailed as a return to the roots of ST:TOS. It dealt with the existential question of whether Mr. Data could be considered aperson or if he was mere property – mirroring the issues of slavery from the 1800s. Paramount needed an ‘anchor’ show for their new network and with the increased ratings and improved writing, ST:TNG was green-lit for a third season.

Greg, while the first two seasons were uneven, the third season of ST:TNG was remarkable in its quality and consistency. The writing during seasons three and four may be considered the high-water mark in the history of Trek television. In season three there are episodes of psychological interest (“A Matter of Perspective”), military intrigue (“The Best of Both Worlds”), heartache (“The Offspring”), and comedy(“Deja Q”). Season three proved that Star Trek could thrive without the iconic characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Seasons five, six, and seven of TNG were also strong but a bit more uneven.

ST:TNG managed to accomplish something that most fans of the original series would have deemed impossible. Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of Captain Jean Luc Picard was so strong and adept that to this day arguments persist on Star Trek discussion boards about which Captain was better, Picard or Kirk. Picard was a captain with more modern sensibilities. Unlike Kirk, who often thought with his penis, Picard was cerebral, poised, and diplomatic. If Kirk was an action hero, Picard was the scholar, albeit one with charisma, charm, and impeccable leadership skills. Picard often carried entire episodes with his deep commanding voice, his intelligence, and his charisma.

Picard was also bald. I commend you for pointing out that important fact. Bald villains are a dime a dozen, but a bald hero? I love it. Societal baldism is a severely neglected “ism”, and yes, as a bald man, I am slightly biased here 😉

While ST:TNG did a lot of things right, it also did some things painfully wrong.The character of Wesley Crusher was an utter disaster. The goal was to attract a younger audience by putting a teenager on the bridge, but the absurdity of a teenager saving the Enterprise on multiple occasions was almost too much to bear. Another mistake was made in the portrayal of Deanna Troi, a betazoid with a plunging neckline who in the early seasons spent every episode sensing the feelings of encountered alien races. To their credit, the show-runners finally gave the character a command rank, more serious dialogue, and a more professional uniform.

ST:TNG pushed the boundaries of the ensemble cast. In ST:TOS there were three lead characters in Kirk, Spock,and McCoy – and the secondaries: Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. But in ST:TNG, while Picard was the leader, the rest of the crew held equal status. That can make for a very difficult time making sure everyone gets equal dialogue, and their own “special” shows.

Still, I will never forgive the constant push by Gates McFadden to create a romance between Picard and Dr. Crusher. It was unnecessary and a distraction from the rest of interpersonal dynamics at play. Ultimately that relationship was resolved in the episode “Detached”where the two must escape captivity and are joined telepathically – ultimately revealing their true feelings.

Perhaps the best episode was “Darmok” where Picard is forced to work with an alien in order to stay alive on a dangerous planet. The alien only speaks in metaphor. And it is through the sharing of each others’ myths that they find a common ground. While it feels a bit like“Alien Mine,” the story has special meaning for me as a reader of Joseph Campbell’s work: to fully understand another race, you need to understand their mythology. It’s quite a powerful and insightful message for “just a TV show.”

The heroes in this second incarnation of Star Trek are more diverse than in ST:TOS. Of course we’ve already talked about the difference between the macho Kirk and the cerebral Picard. But we also see strong women in Troi, Yar, and Dr. Crusher. With the rise of women in the workplace in the1990s, ST:TNG presented women who were at the top of their professions. We also see a Klingon (who had represented the USSR) on the bridge of the Enterprise representing the possibility of true detente in the 24th century. Worf represented the archetype of the fish-out-of-water, and the changeling. Geordi LaForge was a Black man running the engineering section. We begin to see a more balanced future than even ST:TOS offered. And, we see the beginnings of a recognition of the LGBT+ community in the episode “The Outcast” where Soren – a gender-neutral alien – falls in love with Riker. She is then forced to undergo “therapy” to become a true neutral.

While it took some time to find its groove, I give Star Trek: The Next Generation a full 5 Reels for excellent science fiction storytelling. And 5 Heroes for a diverse range of heroic characters.

I didn’t have as much of a problem with the Crusher-Picard quasi-romance as you did, Gregger. The classic hero’s journey usually includes the hero’s encounter with a lover or temptress. Unlike Kirk, Picard had precious few love interests and the show runners seemed content to let Riker be the horndog. So a few flirtatious episodes with these two characters seemed harmless to me.

One thing that TNG did better than TOS was incorporate humor into episodes. There were characters and episodes that were at times laugh-out-loud funny. The character of Q, for example, was played with hilarity and brilliance by John de Lancie, and the character of Reginald Barclay was played by Dwight Schultz with great bumbling nimbleness. Worf’s unintentional deadpan humor was also on display in a few episodes.

It’s hard to rate TNG when the first two seasons earned, at best, 2 out of 5 Reels, whereas the last five seasons earned all 5 Reels. I’m going to be kind and base my overall ratings of The Next Generation on the best that the series had to offer, and thus I’m going to match my ratings with yours, Greg. I give it the 5 full Reels and 5 Hero points.

Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: The Next Generation

 


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