Friday, September 28, 2012

Happy 25th Birthday, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Can you believe it was 25 years ago today that Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered? Yep, it first aired back on September 29, 1987. 25 years! What the hell's going on with the flow of time lately? 

ST:TNG was the highest rated syndicated show ever, averaging around 20 million viewers per episode. That was more than some prime time series generated at the time, and far more than any series could ever hope to achieve today (to be fair, some stations aired the show twice a week, which naturally doubled the ratings). It racked up a whopping 18 Emmy Awards and was the only syndicated program to ever be nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. Not bad for a show about people exploring outer space in their pajamas.

I was a huge fan of the series back in the day (by that of course I mean I was an avid enthusiast of the show, not that I myself was huge). After all, this was the first brand new live action Star Trek content to be aired in almost two decades! I dutifully recorded it every week on my trusty VCR (ask your parents, kids) and spent many a paycheck on Trek related merchandise.

The series featured a great cast (especially Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner), top notch writing and for the most part, slick state of the art special effects.

ST:TNG gave us many new and memorable alien races: the greedy, capitalistic Ferengi, the Nazi-like Cardassians (not Kardashians!) and best of all, the relentless, unstoppable Borg.

It also took the Klingons, who were pretty much one-dimensional villains in the Original Series and greatly expanded their culture, making them one of the more interesting races on the show.

They even managed to feature a few guest appearances from Original Series characters, specifically McCoy, Spock, Sarek and Scotty.

Like the Original Series, ST:TNG used sci-fi to examine various controversial topics such as racism, terrorism, assisted suicide, child abuse, homosexuality and torture.

Despite all the accolades and my love for the show, even I have to admit that it wasn't perfect. Many of the First Season episodes are dreadful and a chore to sit through. The Second Season was better, but was marred and cut short by a lengthy writer's strike. In fact the final episode of Season Two strayed firmly into Family Ties territory as it gave us the first ever clip show in the history of Trek! The series finally hit its stride in Season 3 and from then on gave us a shuttlecraft full of memorable episodes. 

Part of me has to wonder: If it had been a network show, would they have given the series three full seasons to get its bearings? I'm thinking probably not.

ST:TNG also suffered from a large number of just plain dull characters. Dr. Crusher? Counselor Troi? I'm dozing just typing their names. For seven seasons all Counselor Troi ever did was sit in a chair with her arms crossed and say, "I sense great anger..." Her only memorable characteristic was that she liked chocolate. How fascinating. And other than her wildly inappropriate name I don't think we ever learned anything at all about Dr. Crusher. 

Even Geordi LaForge was pretty bland when you think about it. The only interesting thing about his character was that he was blind and wore a cool vision-enhancing VISOR.

The original Star Trek had some very vibrant and distinct characters, which made for some dynamic interactions. Funny that ST:TNG's three most interesting characters-- Picard, Data and Worf-- are pretty much analogues of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

A good part of the blame for the dull characters has to lie with series creator Gene Roddenberry. Mr. Roddenberry had the lofty notion that by the 24th Century, humanity will have advanced to the point where everyone will get along. That's a very nice sentiment, but... it ain't ever gonna happen. If humans haven't learned to live together in the past 5,000 years, there's no reason to think it'll happen in the next 300.

Nevertheless, Roddenberry was adamant that there be no conflict between crew members on the Enterprise. Apparently he never took any creative writing courses through the mail like I did or he'd have known that conflict is the basis of all drama. Without it, all you've got is a bunch of people sitting around holding hands, smiling and singing Kumbaya. Pleasant enough I suppose, but it sure makes for pretty dull TV.

Roddenberry had some other peculiar ideas for the show. He didn't want any of the alien races from the Original Series to appear on ST:TNG. That meant no Vulcans, Klingons or Romulans; fan-favorites the audience would be expecting to see. Luckily he was overruled on that one, else Lt. Worf would never have been a part of the crew.

He also toyed with the idea of not having a ship in the new series at all. He thought that by the 24th Century technology would have advanced to the point in which the crew would use some sort of "super transporter" to just teleport anywhere in the galaxy. He was outvoted on that one as well (no doubt by studio lawyers who'd happened to see the movie Stargate).

Some of his ideas were just downright kinky. He supposedly wanted the males of the newly created Ferengi race to be incredibly well-endowed, sporting enormous schlongs up to two feet long (!). Fortunately one of the producers took him aside and pointed out that the series was airing on regular TV, not HBO or Cinemax.  

The series also relied much too heavily on the ship breaking down in order to provide tension. In practically every episode the B-plot involved some piece of ship's technology malfunctioning and putting the crew in danger. Sure, Kirk's Enterprise broke down now and then, but Picard's ship was worse than an old used car. It became a crutch for the writers whenever they couldn't think of any other way to fill the time slot.

ST:TNG provided me with many memorable and sometimes shocking moments over the years. Remember that the series aired before the internet cropped up, in an era in which you didn't have to work at avoiding spoilers. Back then the only way to find out what was going to happen was to just sit down and watch the show.

The third season finale, in which Captain Picard is captured and assimilated by the Borg and Commander Riker gives the order to fire on the Borg ship-- absolutely floored me. I was not expecting that and had no idea such a shocking denouement was coming. I spent a long and anxious summer waiting for the follow up to air in the fall. 

The problem with their cliffhanger episodes though was that the setups were always way better than their lackluster resolutions the next season. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "You know how to set up the cliffhanger, you just don't know how to resolve the cliffhanger."

As much as I loved the show, watching it (or rather trying to watch it) was a grueling chore, due to my local TV station. It was just plain hard work to even find the show where I lived. In my hometown ST:TNG was usually relegated to the wee hours of Sunday morning, in time slots normally occupied by Aerosol Toupee and Psychic Hotline infomercials.

One week it might be on at 11 pm, the next at 1:30 am. Sometimes it would even pop up in the afternoon. You just never knew. I used to record the show every week but there was no way I could just set the timer on the VCR and forget it, because there was no guarantee as to when it might air. Many's the night I would stay up until 1 or even 2 am waiting for it to start so I could hit the record button (and have to go to work at 6 am the next day!).

I never understood the local station's attitude toward the show. This wasn't some execrable drivel like Mama's Family, this was an award winning, critically acclaimed series that regularly got higher ratings than some network shows. Plus it had a built in audience of rabid fans. So why the shabby treatment?

Sometimes I wonder if the station's programming director secretly hated the show and deliberately aired it at such a dismal hour in hope that the ratings would sag and he could justify canceling it. Why else would you pay for an no-doubt expensive syndicated program and then air it when no one was awake?

Ah well, that's all in the past now. 25 years in the past, to be exact. Thanks to home video and the internet I can watch the show anytime I want.

So Happy Birthday, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'll close with a joke: What did Captain Picard say when he took his sewing machine to the repair shop? Make it sew! Haw!

1 comment:

  1. This didn't seem to fit anywhere in the above post, but I felt like writing it *somewhere.* Consider this the equivalent to a DVD extra.

    As I stated above, ST:TNG inexplicably and consistently received extremely shabby treatment by my local TV station. This started from the very first episode.

    I vividly remember the night it premiered. The local station, Channel 10, had been heavily promoting the series for months, saying it would air Saturday, October 3 at 10:30 pm.

    Finally the premiere date arrived. I was practically beside myself with excitement. 10:30 pm FINALLY arrived, the local news ended, I pushed "record" on the VCR, and... The Bob Knight Show started. What. The. Hell.

    Bob Knight, as you probably know, was at that time the basketball coach at Indiana University and was considered like unto a god in Indiana. You know him. He's the guy who threw the chair, and the one who in a press conference told a female reporter, "If rape is inevitable, lay back and enjoy it." I think he's the one Morrissey was singing about in the song, This Charming Man.

    For some unfathomable reason Coach Knight, who lived and worked in Bloomington, had a TV show that aired in Terre Haute, my home town. On his fascinating show he and a co-host would watch highlights of the latest game, and Coach, in his droning monotone, would spout the usual platitudes such as, "Our team gave 110%" or "The other team wanted a win more than we did." It gave the word "soporific" a whole new meaning.

    Worst of all, this snooze fest lasted an entire hour. I sat there an entire hour glaring at the screen, trying my best to wish Coach Knight into the cornfield, to no avail.

    Maybe this helps explain why I hate televised sports so much.

    After an interminable hour that seemed more like six, Coach Knight blew a kiss to the camera and said goodnight, and ST: TNG FINALLY premiered, at 11:30 pm instead of 10:30 pm as their five straight months of ads had promised.

    No explanation for the delay, no excuses, no apologies. It was a grim harbinger of things to come...


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