Thursday, September 28, 2017

Happy Thirtieth (!) Anniversary To Star Trek: The Next Generation!

I originally wrote this post five years ago, for Star Trek: The Next Generation's 25th Anniversary. Since I have nothing new to add, I'm digging it out of mothballs and posting it again (with appropriate tweaks) for the 30th!

Believe it or not, it was exactly thirty years ago today that Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. It first aired back on September 28, 1987. That was THIRTY YEARS AGO! 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 Emmys. It was also 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 Kardashians, er, I mean Cardassians 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 absolutely dreadful and are 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 two full seasons to get its bearings? I'm thinking probably not.

ST:TNG also suffered from a large number of just plain dull characters. Counselor Troi? Dr. Crusher? 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, particularly Kirl, Spock and McCoy. There extreme personalities often made for some dynamic interactions. ST:TNG's three most interesting characters— Picard, Data and Worf— paled greatly in comparison.

A good part of the blame for the dull characters has to lie with series creator Gene Roddenberry. "The Great Bird Of The Galaxy" 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 dull TV.

That wasn't the only peculiar idea he had for the show. For some reason 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 (!), and covered by gigantic codpieces. 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 every week in order to create tension. In practically every episode the B-plot involved some piece of the Enterprise-D's technology malfunctioning and putting the crew in danger. Sure, Kirk's ship broke down now and then, but Picard's 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 him as the screen faded to black— 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 the show's 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 Saturday night at 11 pm, the next at 1:30 am Sunday morning. Sometimes it would even pop up in the afternoon! You just never knew when it might air. I used to record the show every week but I couldn't just set the timer on the VCR and forget it, because there was no guarantee as to when it might start. Many's the night I would stay up until 1 or even 2 am waiting for the show to begin so I could hit the record button (and then I'd 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. Thirty years in the past, to be exact. Thanks to home video and streaming I can now 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!

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