[NOTE: This is the second essay in Pete Tzinski’s 7 part series leading up to the premiere of the new Star Trek film. See also: Part 1]
Very shortly, a new Star Trek film will be on the big screen, after what feels like a lifetime. It is becoming inescapable: action figures are on the shelves, big light-up Enterprises are for sale (and could be sent to this author without complaint, you know), and the commercials are starting to get thick on the ground. For some time now, I’ve been digging through old Trek episodes, and my own memories about them. And I want to continue to talk about them.
For some time after the cancellation of the original television series, Star Trek was gone from the screens in all forms which weren’t animated (and, being done by Hanna Barbara, I used the term “animated” pretty lightly). Star Trek: The Original Series ended in 1969. Star Trek: The Motion Picture would appear in 1979, ten years after the show went away. There were movies after that, so it wasn’t completely gone…but on the small screen, it had a while to go.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on the air. That’s about eighteen years, and that is a very long time, especially in television years.
This was a very strange television series too. Everything had changed. The ship looked big and opulent. Gone was a Captain Kirk figure, replaced by the older, calmer Jean-Luc Picard. Here was a Klingon named Worf, lurking in the background. Here was an android! The galaxy was a very, very different place. In the Star Trek universe, something like seventy years had passed since Kirk’s original mission.
And an aside: if the series seems drastically different from the original one, then you should go look at some of the original concepts and ideas put forth and be surprised at how much different it might have initially been. The original designs for the bridge, full of couches and plants and things, are pretty shocking.
Even more strongly than in the original Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was on display in this series, sometimes to the series’ detriment. (Really? No money? Really?)
In the room that is the Star Trek universe, this is where I came in the door.
My earliest memories of Star Trek are of The Next Generation. I can specifically remember coming from my bedroom into the living room (not a very far walk, believe me) when we were living in the Caribbean, on an island named Saint Croix. On a very small television, my parents managed to get TNG episodes every week. (My mother was a lifetime devout Trekkie; my father had no idea what he’s gotten himself into marrying her). I can remember walking in and seeing the opening logos, the big, glorious Enterprise-D roaring past the screen. And if a lot of the stories evaded me, well, I was young. But the images were there, practically built in from the beginning.
The Next Generation is probably the series I’ve watched the most number of times, and I am still terribly fond of it. As I got older, and the desire to write my own stories gradually began to surface, it was to The Next Generation that I looked for guidance and imitation. It was the first time I really began to become aware of a television series structure, everything from one-off episodes, to cliffhangers, to character deaths and how to handle them. My writing abilities would go on to be reshaped and restructured by a whole host of other television shows and books…but TNG was there from the very beginning.
In my recent re-explorations of old Star Trek episodes, I’ve begun watching all of the series in almost random order, and I’ve been very surprised at how some of them hold up, or how some of them really fail to hold up (more on that later). As with The Original Series, I’ve been struck again and again by the effective, wonderful writing that’s present in The Next Generation.
One of my favorite stories is still “The Inner Light,” in which Picard’s mind is hijacked by an alien probe, and he lives a whole entire lifetime as a member of an alien species who is about to die. The whole episode is poignant and beautiful, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s being carried by an actor as powerful as Patrick Stewart. But for me, two things stand out from this episode. First, at the very end, when the probe is going up and everything is suddenly familiar, and an elderly Picard realizes that the probe is off to find someone. He says, in a trembling voice, “Oh. It’s me.” And his delivery is just astonishing. Beautiful. And second: the very ending scene, in which he opens a small box, and it contains the flute he played all the way through his life (which lasted only a few minutes). He clutches it to his chest. And then, he plays.
That piece of music, the suite from “The Inner Light”, is still one of my favorite instrumental pieces. Haunting and sad and beautiful. Magnificant.
But not everything had to be haunting or sad, in the series. What about the terrific story “The Best of Both Worlds?” Or “Descent” (both of them two-parters). I always felt a bit guilty saying it, but I thought the series really found its legs and improved after Gene Roddenberry passed away. From the fourth season on, I love the series.
(I remember watching, just once, an episode in which Picard and Data return to the ship and find that a virus has caused the crew to devolve. Dopey, I know, but…I was young and had a very, very active imagination. The weird crab-thing that Worf turned into gave me nightmares. I didn’t actually watch that episode again for fifteen years. There, you know my dark secrets.)
Reginald Barclay! The Duras Sisters! Lore! The Borg! Q, played brilliantly by John de Lancie! Once again, this was a character show, more than anything else. The plots were interesting and engaging, sure, but you couldn’t lose whole episodes to fancy special effects. It still came down to the dialogue and the characters (for good, or for ill).
In many ways, The Next Generation had the second-biggest impact on the Star Trek universe, aside from the act-of-creation brought about by The Original Series. It was The Next Generation universe in which we would have two more series set, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, and this universe supported both of those series just fine. If you think about it, the TNG universe is a huge and incredibly-detailed, fully-realized universe, as we explored all corners of it through a grand total of twenty-one seasons, counting all of those shows. That’s a pretty fantastic creation. It was a huge and glorious sandbox.
That is not to say that there weren’t some pretty bad episodes. There really were. Most of the first season, if you ask me. And the second season. That dorky episode in which Riker sleeps with a random woman, who gets him addicted on what looks like possibly the dumbest, most boring game in the universe (seriously; you live on a ship with friggin’ holodecks and get addicted to something that looks like Super Nintendo). And despite being played by the very-nice Wil Wheaton…Wesley Crusher was pretty awful. I always worry what youth-demographic he was there to identify with. I wonder if that demographic has met any girls yet?
I also think that from The Next Generation onward, Star Trek got a little harder to watch for the newcomer. It began to become a little bit insular. It was very definitely appealing to a certain type of fan. There were exceptions, of course, but I think it lost people, or deflected them, as it was busy creating things like technobabble. (Although, if you’re up on your science, you realize that while some of the science in Star Trek is ludicrously stupid…actually, a lot more good science than bad on display). It was this insulative quality, later on, which would hurt the Star Trek franchise. But for the time being, for The Next Generation, that problem was mostly being overcome by good writing and strong acting, enjoyable stories in which you could lose yourself for an hour.
Go watch “The Inner Light”, which is a perfect short story that requires no prior Star Trek knowledge. Or, if you’re already a fan, why not go watch “…All Good Things” again, just for the delight of a big three-pronged time travel adventure.
And just to warn those of you who, unprepared, choose to start at the very beginning…I’m sorry, but during the first handful of episodes, there are men wearing mini-skirts on the ship. It’s okay. It gets better from there. Just hang on. Trust me.