I have a confession to make. I, James Whitbrook, io9 writer and Star Trek fan, have never seen a single, entire episode of The Next Generation. Not one.
Before your raise your pitchforks in fury, some context. As a child of the ‘90s, my first experience with Star Trek came with Voyager, my gateway drug to the franchise (which is partially why it is still my favorite Star Trek series, despite being more than aware of its various flaws). A curiosity for ‘60s sci-fi drew me to the original series shortly afterwards, and as a teenager I discovered and was enchanted by the moral complexity of Deep Space Nine. But despite progressively getting further and further into the franchise, and becoming a fan, The Next Generation was my white whale. A looming, hazy presence in the background of my exploration into Star Trek that I never ventured into, poking at the edges but never fully diving in. So while I considered myself a Star Trek fan, there was always a niggling thought at the back of my mind: Can I actually say that without having seen TNG?
The Next Generation is woven into the very fabric of scifi pop culture. Heck, it’s woven into the very fabric of pop culture at large, full-stop. The theme tune, the ship, the engaging and the making it so, the facepalms, they’ve evolved beyond merely being part of a TV series and into being part of our cultural lexicon. While I’ve experienced those aspects of pop culture countless times, it’s always been from the position of an outsider—understanding the context of TNG for its place in history and its influence, but never for it being something I am familiar with or love, like Doctor Who or Star Wars or myriad other pop culture stalwarts. It’s a strangely alienating feeling to be “out of the conversation”—and I’ve written before about how frustrating that can be as a genre fan—at the best of times, but this? For something as monolithic as TNG? This is on a whole other scale.
As the years passed, I largely kept my secret shame to myself; thanks to its iconic stature I’ve absorbed enough cultural radiation about TNG that I can bluff my way through a conversation about it with most people. Eventually I began to realize that being embarrassed about not having seen The Next Generation was a) kind of silly and b) largely stemming from being intimidated by its mythological presence in scifi. I was worried about trying to get into it because of its scope, and because of all the praise that was attached to that scope. Could I ever just sit down and enjoy it as part of a franchise I love, or would it be forever marred by the context of watching it knowing its place in the annals of pop culture history? Would it always be chasing the monolithic impression that it had conjured up in my head? Could it live up to the hype? It was that that put me off watching it for years, the expectation rather than the shame.
I realised recently however that, in a roundabout way, I’d given myself a unique opportunity to go into TNG fresh. It would be something new to me, instead of watching it through the eyes of intimate familiarity. Unless I happen to invent time-travel at some point, I’ll never be able to experience it in its original context as it aired, but, unlike many other iconic series where I’ve gone in knowing a lot about them already, I know barely anything substantial about TNG. I don’t know the great episodes, I don’t know the terrible episodes. I don’t know what happens to most of the characters (thanks to DS9, I obviously know how Worf ends up). It’s still all new to me.
There’s something exciting about that, being able to go into something and experience it for the first time—to experience something fresh, despite the exterior pop cultural legacy it has generated, to appreciate it as it is, and not for the legacy it has gone on to create. It’s something that suddenly makes watching The Next Generation a much more tempting prospect for me, more than it ever has been before: A fresh experience of a sci-fi classic. It’s about time that I made it so.