In 1987, TV really needed some science fiction. It had been many moons since Star Trek graced TV screens across the world and despite an interest in starting up Star Trek Phase II in 1979 (which lead in time to the Star Trek Motion Picture), Paramount wasn’t convinced that another TV series could work. In fairness, I can see why.
The original Star Trek series was a program of its time. Filmed in the turbulent 1960′s, it was a statement on the counter culture movement, an optimistic statement that there was a Utopian future of spiritual prosperity and fine alien ladies.
In the introverted and superficial 1980′s, what kind of future could American TV culture look forward to? And would it get canceled after all that hard work?
Finally, Star Trek: The Next Generation was given the go-ahead and despite a very rocky first season, succeeded in winning the acceptance of fandom and non-fandom alike. The rich baritone Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the awkward Pinocchio android Data, the tooth grinding Worf and lovely Tasha Yar dragged the otherwise idealized crew of know-it-alls through a series of million dollar budget adventures that looked backward and forward into building an enduring TV legacy. Peabody Award and Emmy Awards surround the 7 year spanning program, so it must be the perfect TV experience, no?
Well… yes and no. I do like that that this series takes place 80 years after the classic crew’s adventures in space. Inserting such a wide berth of time introduces a new culture that the audience has to learn all over again. Of course, the fact that this culture is isolated and boringly placid doesn’t motivate the audience into a commitment to these strangers, but in time they would create a kind of wallpaper against which TV programming would play. Much like the classic 60′s Star Trek, there is something comforting about the fact that you could easily find the program playing late at night on some UHF channel. However, the talking head syndrome and technobabble-filled scripts do make staying awake a challenge sometimes.
For myself, I was never much of a Star Trek fan. I backed into the Next Gen series in its second year after overhearing two friends at school discussing it (that’s all it takes folks). I then got a job making props from the series for sale at a mail order company. As the program entered its third season (the good one), I began to get committed to these characters. The story lines had more conflict, action and dramatic tension… and the costumes were way cooler.
To answer my earlier question of what would the future from an 80′s perspective look like, all you have to do is turn on any random Star Trek Next Gen episode and you’ll see a board meeting in progress. Whereas Captain Kirk was more of a classic father figure who made rash judgments and wild decisions based on a whim that affected the lives of so many, Picard was a different sort of fellow. Picard tabled almost everything. Most episodes of Next Generation follow a certain kind of logic where the ship is en route to something or other and encounters an anomaly or alien craft and it is at that point that entire adventure is tabled.
Looking back now (through the lenses of the overly emotional and apocalyptic journey toward mythical fulfillment or extinction that is Battlestar Galactica), it seems very odd. At the time, the politics of modern business were extending outwards into society and this type of behavior just seemed natural. In fact, books were released that used Picard’s role as captain as a model for good supervisory skills. This was the era that gave us most of the self-made businesses and start-ups that ruled the 90′s, after all. Pooling your resources instead of making rash decisions was the vision of the future that Next Gen gave us.
It makes more sense, sure… but for my entertainment I prefer Kirk‘s poker face or wry grin as he gives an order to Picard asking the entire command crew… and Wesley… to convene in the ready room.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Paramount decided to release the entire program in one gigantic DVD box set. Despite the fact that the series is already available in multiple formats and collections, this is their decision. Looking around online for reviews, I’m not convinced that it is a wise purchase. The set is comprised of seven unmarked green cases that open up to reveal the individual discs that make up each year of programming. The inferior packaging opens the door to the brittle cases cracking and the discs themselves becoming dislodged and getting scratched. Not what you want to happen after shelling out $400, is it?
In addition to the episodes as they appeared on TV those many many years past (anyone else feeling older yet?), there is an additional bonus disc per season which is unique to this collection. The bonuses mainly focus on retrospectives, the special effects, the legacy of Trek and costume design. While many new interviews were conducted with cast and crew, I’m still not 100% sold on this set.
As the Star Trek phenomenon enters its next phase (which sounds like a first phase all over again), it’s interesting to look back at the Next Gen era. While it does have its strengths and weaknesses (and one of the best series finales this side of Blake’s 7), it’s importance stems from the fact that it created a brand new phenomenon during its 7 years, it created the casual sci-fi fan. No longer was the program restricted to the much derided sad lonely fans who painstakingly pored over technical manuals and fan fiction.
1987 was the beginning of the era of the acceptable geek. Whereas it was once a sign of a troubled personality to wait in line at midnight for a book, videogame, DVD or movie ticket, it is now more or less expected. There are services to deliver DVDs to your door, online blogs that debate and analyze everything from scripts to bloopers, a slew of cable stations full of programming devoted to gaming, research into the paranormal and even science fiction TV series. Fans have become the majority at last.
This nation of passionate entertainment collectors and fans also justifies a $400 DVD set of previously available material.