With Star Trek finally back on TV after twelve years in Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise has arguably returned to its roots once more. In some ways, twelve years doesn’t seem that long, though television has arguably changed a lot in that time. The last time the franchise had this long a gap was eighteen years – a mere six more than now – between the original child Star Trek and the first spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation.
TNG, as it came to be known, which celebrated its thirtieth birthday yesterday, ran between 1987 and 2004, returning to the franchise’s original medium in much the same way as Discovery, following a series of successful movies featuring Captain Kirk at the helm. It all sounds awfully familiar now you take the time to think about it.
Hopefully, Discovery will have a much stronger first season than The Next Generation, which controversially as it might be, has one of the weakest first couple of years of any of the shows. Yes, the cast were rather good, particularly Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart in the lead as Captain Jean Luc Picard and Brent Spiner’s Lieutenant Commander Data, but it was hard to deny that the show suffered from bad stories at the beginning.
John De Lancie’s omnipotent Q might be brilliant but the rest of the pilot episode ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ was all a little naff and it was followed by the bizarre ‘The Naked Now’, which acted as the first sequel to a Trek episode by having the entire cast acting out of character as The Original Series crew did in ‘The Naked Time’. Honestly, if you’re going to demonstrate you can carry on the franchise, don’t start by mining ideas from the original and play with characters personalities before you’ve even had a chance to establish them.
There were some good moments in Season One, despite this. ‘Conspiracy’ in particular teased an invasion of the Federation before abandoning the idea; the death of main character Tasha Yar in ‘Skin of Evil’, the return of the Romulans in the finale ‘The Neutral Zone’ and the debut of Data’s evil twin, Lore, in ‘Data Lore’. But there was too much rubbish to for the show to ever be considered good; Wesley Crusher falling onto a flowerbed and being sentenced to death in ‘Justice’ anyone?
Season Two was another mixed bag, though there were glimmers of improvement. The trial to determine whether Data was sentient in ‘The Measure of a Man’, the start of the Klingon arc with the first appearance of K’Ehleyr in ‘The Emissary’ and of course the terrific debut of the Borg (with Q thrown in) in ‘Q Who?’.
Truth be told, The Next Generation probably wouldn’t have got to Season Three today, at least not on critical merit, but we can be thankful it did. Was it coincidence that the show improved when the crew got better uniforms? I think so. The third year started to fulfill the show’s potential. There were some good Romulan stories, complete with a semi-recurring villain, Babylon 5‘s G’Kar Andreas Katsulas as Commander Tomalak; the development of the Klingon arc with Worf’s brother Kurn and the villainous Duras; and the wonderful return of Mark Lenard’s Sarek in ‘Sarek’ and the arrival of Data’s daughter Lal in ‘The Offspring’.
It was also the year that delivered two of the show’s greatest stories. ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ brought back Tasha Yar and introduced the Enterprise-C via an alternate reality and had huge ramifications moving forward, while the invasion of the Alpha Quadrant by the Borg and Picard’s shocking transformation into Locutus in ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ delivered one of the greatest TV season cliffhangers of all time.
Seasons Four through Six continued that winning streak and while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might be the strongest show of the franchise, The Next Generation was arguably the strongest Trek show to meet Gene Roddenberry’s vision. It expanded on his concept of a brighter future, humanity working with other races and exploring the galaxy.
The quality of episodes continued in Season Four; ‘The Best of Both Worlds: Part 2’ put everything on the line in a thrilling conclusion to the Borg invasion storyline. Q sending the crew on a Robin Hood style adventure in ‘Q-Pid’ led to Worf’s immortal line “I am not a merry man”, while K’Ehleyr, Duras and Gowron returned to kick off the Klingon power struggle in ‘Reunion’, leading to the Klingon Civil War cliffhanger to the season and thrilling return of Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar’s half Romulan daughter Sela.
Season Five was Star Trek: The Next Generation at some of its very best, from the fascinating struggle of dialogues between two races in ‘Darmok’ to the emotional journey of Picard living a whole lifetime in ‘The Inner Light’. And the highlight was surely the return of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock himself and the battle against Sela and the Romulans in two-parter ‘Unification’.
Sadly, the fifth season didn’t have quite the cliffhanger of previous years in ‘Time’s Arrow’ but more than made up for it in the sixth season two-parter ‘Chain Of Command’, which saw Picard replaced by the ruthless Captain Jellico (an excellent Ronny Cox) and tortured at the hands of David Warner’s evil Cardassian Gul Madred. Along with Ensign Ro and the Bajorans introduced in the previous season, the conflict with the Cardassians perfectly set up spin-off Deep Space Nine, which led to the first crossover as the Enterprise docked at the station and Doctor Bashir hung out with Data in the first of the late season six two-parter ‘Birthright.’
The sixth season also delivered some of the show’s most imaginative episodes, from Picard, LaForge, Data, and Troi trying to save the Enterprise from being destroyed by a Romulan warbird frozen in time in ‘Timescape’, to the creation of a duplicate Riker through a transporter accident in ‘Second Chances’. Riker descended into madness, flitting between a reality and a horrifying imprisonment in ‘Frame of Mind’ while Troi finally got a decent episode, waking up as a Romulan and getting caught up in a power struggle in ‘Face of the Enemy’. The series also gave us the return of James Doohan as the legendary Scotty in ‘Relics’ and brought two of its best villains – Lore and the Borg – together in season finale ‘Descent’, though it didn’t reach the heights of ‘The Best of Both Worlds’.
The final season felt a little weaker compared to the previous year and gave us some real clunkers, like Crusher falling in love with the ghost of her grandmother’s ghost in ‘Sub Rosa’, but episodes like alternate reality-shifting ‘Parallels’ were a highlight and it wrapped up the storylines of Ro and Wesley while helping to set up the Maquis (along with Deep Space Nine) ready for the next spin-off show Star Trek: Voyager. And while the show was gearing up for its first big-screen adventure the year after, it delivered possibly the best finale of them all in ‘All Good Things’, which saw Picard continue to battle Q for the fate of humanity, bringing things back to the pilot episode and jumping into the future.
The four follow on movies never seem to quite hit the critical highs of the Kirk era, with possible the exception of the largely superb Star Trek: First Contact. The long awaited meeting between Kirk and Picard made for a dramatic and yet uninspiring first movie in Star Trek Generations. The use of Klingon bad guys was certainly a backwards step considering the series and the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
The return of the series big bads the Borg gave fans the one truly cinematic Star Trek for the next generation era, mixing time travel, action and humour in First Contact. This was followed by Star Trek: Insurrection which, while it had lots of humour, felt like a backwards step too, more like a feature length episode of the show. The film series ended four years later when the first Romulan-centric movie Star Trek: Nemesis failed to give the crew the send off they deserved.
As for the cast, Picard was the consummate Starfleet captain, Patrick Stewart bringing gravitas to the role, while Brent Spiner’s Data and his search for humanity and Michael Dorn’s conflict as the first Klingon in Starfleet brought plenty of drama. Jonathan Frakes had lots of smug charm as the action First Officer Riker, though his greatest skill came as a director, including Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection.
Gates McFadden’s brought a level of maturity as ship’s doctor Beverly Crusher, having good rapport Picard and Marina Sirtis’ Deanna Troi, who made good use of a somewhat weaker role of ship’s counsellor (particularly as her wisdom was generally usurped by Whoopi Goldberg’s bartender Guinan). Levar Burton’s Geordi La Forge was a bit of a joke as the blind pilot of the Enterprise, though he became more suited to the role of chief engineer thereafter. It was a good, solid and very likeable crew and a worthy follow up to the Kirk era… even if the majority of characters were surely bettered by Deep Space Nine‘s eclectic cast.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation was good, it was *very* good. It had a rather lame start but developed during its third season into a strong sci-fi show, delivering some of the franchise’s all time classic episodes. Deep Space Nine might be better, but when I just want to sit down and enjoy an episode of Star Trek, this is the series which is my first port of call. Engage!
Are you a fan of The Next Generation? What is your favourite Star Trek series? Let us know!