Recurring Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Denise Crosby, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Wil Wheaton
Arguably, this is the most important season in all of the Star Trek canon. While the original series is a strong example of how good Star Trek is, the franchise’s jump from one series to another was the real test of how expansive a Sci-Fi creation Gene Roddenberry’s show really was. Completely changing a cast was all but unheard of before in any pop culture incarnation. Perhaps the best way to describe the creation of the Next Generation is an experimental heart transplant. A risky, last-ditch effort to save a dying franchise. An ambitious prolonging of a slow franchise death, or boldly going where no man has gone before?
Few would have expected that in some circles, the Next Generation would have been considered superior to the adventures of Kirk, Spock and Bones. This is Star Trek warping away from the clunky plotting of the 60s origins and ropey practical effects, into an exciting new era. Everything screams a sleek design. The set is well crafted, feeling more than a TV studio designed to look like a clichéd starship cockpit. It’s not just the singular room, but vast corridors of the Enterprise to choose from in terms of where each story takes place. The set must have been a crippling worry to the crew of this show. We had just jumped into cinematic territory with the Star Trek movie run. A return to television budget would have been a catastrophic failure. But The Next Generation isn’t just adequately designed, but impressive. It’s not simply about updating, but breaking into new waters. One move that must have seemed risky at the time, but probably one of the main criteria that made the Next Generation as successful as it was, was a complete stepping away from past storylines. One of Gene Roddenberry’s main points on the birth of The Next Generation was the fact that the new series didn’t rely on the alien species of old. If Roddenberry had his way, The Next Generation wouldn’t feature Vulcans, Romulans or even Klingons. While there was obviously some relenting, as one of the new characters is a Klingon Lieutenant and eventually the Romulans do raise their infamous heads, the show never puts emphasis on them. It is always reaching out to try exciting new ideas. The main alien villain for Starfleet at the moment are the Ferengi, a mysterious hostile alien race that tangle with the Enterprise on numerous occasions. While at times, they do feel a little like rehashed Klingons (violently hostile, poking at Starfleet’s defences), they also have a coldly economical priority: they only undertake actions in which they can profit from, which creates interesting confrontations and storylines. Whenever they reappear, you are left trying to figure out their angle. There is also Q, a vastly superior super-being who crops up from time to time to test humanity and attempt to prove their worthlessness. Q also feels like he is a refined version of old villains (Apollo, Trelane), a mysterious entity with seemingly limitless power, whose superiority is partially an excuse to pit the crew against oddball challenges. Because of the strength of these new species, when the show does fall back and have an episode where Picard takes on a rogue Klingon vessel, it doesn’t feel like a series running out of ideas, but just another angle for the show to explore. As well as bad guys, there is also the introduction of the Holodeck, a limitless pit of storyline ideas. As Picard and Data make their way through their own holographic Noir adventure, you can imagine the writers taking the easy option and setting the whole season inside this Holodeck, new reiterations of fantasy worlds cropping up each week. As it stands, the Holodeck is the occasional treat and change of pace at certain points of the season. It is also a much simpler way of having a ‘return to the past’ episode without having to come up with a convoluted time travelling explanation, as Kirk’s series did one too many times. The Next Generation comes across as the much smarter show and, more importantly, one not about to run out of steam.
But the main sticking point of the Next Generation is the new roster of characters. While the original crew might be the most iconic (Spock is so engrained into the fabric of Star Trek that it must have been a strain to picture the show without him), The Next Generation definitely has the better ensemble. The original series primarily focused on its three leads, occasionally making good use of Scotty, but letting the rest of the crew gather dust on the sidelines. Here, the writers use the Next Generation’s cast holistically, giving each character their time in the spotlight. Patrick Stewart is hell of an actor to choose to head the team and his gravitas might be the saving grace when it comes to replacing the iconic (although sadly inferior actor), William Shatner. He embodies everything about Starfleet, capturing its wisdom, pacifism and courage. While Kirk came across as an arrogant pioneer, heading into deep space and enforcing his culture to unknown planets, Picard feels more like how a captain should be. In fact, he almost spends the entire season showing Kirk up, calling him out on all of his unprofessional traits. His love interest is a permanent fixture on the crew, yet he doesn’t make a move out of his undying commitment to his rank. Kirk would have bedded her in a single episode and moved onto the next female character. Picard rarely goes out on an away team, understanding he cannot be sacrificed as a crew member, correcting the biggest plot hole of the original series (Kirk took the most crucial members of the team, including himself, and constantly dove into unknown dangers). While Kirk’s bravado definitely has an infectious fun that is slightly missing from proceedings here, Picard is definitely the stronger role model. This also gives way to a strong partnership between Picard and his first officer, Riker. Jonathan Frakes is able to capture that macho angle that Picard lacks. He is handsome, charming and steals the best action scenes. But unlike the last series, almost every cast member gets time to shine. Sometimes, they are kept in the background until specific episodes (Wil Wheaton, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn), or perhaps they are introduced early on with an unique angle that invests emotion early (LeForge’s blindness, Dr. Crusher’s relationship with Picard). Best of all is Brent Spiner’s Data, one of the best creations in the Star Trek universe. An android, found abandoned on a planet, at first Data feels like a poor man’s Spock. Being a robot, he is coldly calculating, spouting out needless specific facts and being able to see through the emotion of decisions. But it isn’t long before the character becomes so much deeper. Data’s unique trait is that he longs to be more human, constantly exploring what it means to be “human”. He adopts painting, jokes… one episode sees him rehearsing how to sneeze. It gives him an easygoing depth. Data’s storyline is able to open up beautifully with the show hardly ever slowing down. He fails to understand a funeral, but accidentally adopts it more whole-heartedly than his crew-mates. He gets a youthful joy when he discovers Sherlock Holmes. One subtly heart-breaking moment sees him describe himself as indispensable without batting an eyelid. He assumes he is moments from being thrown on the trash, as is common with androids. Despite everything he does, he doesn’t realise he is a true member of the team. For that reason, Data might very well emerge your favourite character.
Early reviews were slightly negative, critics stating that The Next Generation hadn’t truly broken away from the past. Their points do slightly stand in the first half of the season. A lot of the episodes do feel like storylines dragged up from the archives. A mysterious illness affects the crew one by one (amusingly one episode the mysterious illness is a common cold). The crew come face to face with a new culture with one bizarre rule. However, the argument against this criticism is that these stories are done so much better. The Original Series might have been inventive, but it often had a lacklustre episode, certain stories filling a season, rather than bolstering it. Certain stories were just kept on a loop, especially in Season Three. Here The Next Generation tries to truly answer them, giving satisfying conclusions to each story. There are only a few dud episodes here, which feels refreshingly appealing to an audience used to playing hit and miss with this show. Besides, by the end of the season, we are knee deep in some complex and interesting episodes. While there isn’t quite such thing as a recurring story, two episodes (buried apart from each other in the middle of the season), share the same conspiracy story. Due to the clues laid for the viewer beforehand, it makes the stakes feel so much higher. The ending is a gruesomely satisfying thriller, using effects that feel very 80s and strangely mature for the PG entertainment we would usually expect from Star Trek. But then there is of course a Star Trek first in this season of the show: the death of a principal character. Never before has the show dared kill off one of its lead actors, the one major death in the original movies, hastily backed out of in the next instalment. It provides a real punch to the episode and sends the viewer reeling. For a series that has been so stuck in routine, it is a rude awakening to the fan-base. Of course, this experience is slightly marred by the fact it was written in to accommodate an actor leaving the show, rather than naturally being written out. It also could have been a stronger ending, feeling bizarrely detached from everything else. With some strong storylines in place in this season, there are several better places for the character to meet their unexpected end. But regardless of the content, it still marks a first for the show and proves that the Next Generation, while not quite perfect, is still an exciting new beginning for the iconic show. Here’s to living long and prospering.
Final Verdict: Star Trek survives an exciting transition period and emerges stronger than ever. Terrific.