Thank God for Star Trek: The Next Generation

All images: CBS/Paramount
All images: CBS/Paramount

Last year, Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today, Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 30. And while the original series is where it all began, modern Trek owes everything to TNG.

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The Next Generation proved that Star Trek was more than just the adventures of a certain group of characters, but an entire universe. The question of whether you can do Star Trek without Bones, Kirk, and Spock was answered by The Next Generation, which was a hit right from the start.

The Next Generation kept the basics of the original series intact: there was a ship named Enterprise, and a crew on a mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” If anything, the first season hewed too closely to its predecessor (for example, the episode “The Naked Now” was explicitly a sequel to “The Naked Time,” a not-quite-classic episode of the classic series).

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And yet, even in that season The Next Generation introduced some great things to Trek canon. Q, the omnipotent and capricious judge of humanity; the holodeck; Data’s “brother” Lore; Worf and his relationship to Klingon culture; a genuinely horrifying infiltration of Starfleet that the show never mentioned again (see entry #2). All of those things showed that The Next Generation was proudly carrying on the Trek tradition.

If The Next Generation had flopped it would have been disastrous, and Star Trek would surely have just withered away. We wouldn’t have gotten Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise at all.I bet that a few years ago, Paramount would have remembered they owned Star Trek and rebooted the way everything is now, so maybe we’d still have J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies, but we’d have nothing else. While you can argue about the quality of some of the other Trek TV shows, they all had episodes that made them worth existing. And they wouldn’t have without The Next Generation.

The Next Generation paved the way for the other shows to move beyond the Enterprise and its crew on exploratory missions. We saw the Trek universe on a space station, on a stranded ship, trying to get home. And then, yes, back on the Enterprise again, but this time at the dawn of the Federation.

Beyond keeping the legacy of Star Trek alive and expanding its scope, The Next Generation was iconic in its own right. “Kirk versus Picard” wouldn’t be a good debate if Patrick Stewart’s captain wasn’t a worthy, but very different, successor to the big chair. Data’s journey into personhood was a vital part of this show, and a major character arc; the old show lacked anything nearly as long-term. “Measure of a Man,” the episode where Data’s right to autonomy as a sentient being and not just an object is explored, remains one of the best episodes of television ever made.

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Illustration for article titled Thank God for iStar Trek: The Next Generation/i

The Next Generation is what gave us the opposite of jumping the shark: growing the beard. Will Riker grew a beard, and the show’s quality improved markedly. You want to know what other tropes this show has named? Have a gander. And here are some of the TV writers and makers that cut their teeth on TNG: Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Rene Echevarria (Teen Wolf), Naren Shankar (The Expanse), Richard Manning (Farscape), Hilary Bader (DCAU), and more all spent some time in this show’s writers room.

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While things were rocky behind the scenes and on-screen, The Next Generation has still earned its place not just in the pantheon of Star Trek, but in the pantheon of TV series, period. It’s what all other science fiction shows aspire to when their spinoffs get started. And thanks be to whatever god, gods, or nigh-omnipotent-alien-being-masquerading-as-a-god that made it so.

Katharine is the former managing editor of io9.

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DISCUSSION

One of the elements that may have contributed to both interest in the show and its long term success was that the films, starring the original cast, ran concurrently with the show. This may have helped transition some of the fan base from the original show to TNG and vice versa. Both TNG and the original series films mutually reinforced interest in one another.

Also, and this is just my opinion from own recollection, it seemed to me that the success of TNG was not a foregone conclusion. It was not a network show with the force of a network behind it but rather produced independently. And it took a while for it to get up to speed. My remember that I really wanted to like the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, but that the plot was awful and the acting wooden and heavily stereotyped. The actors eventually found the groove but the first season had some tough episodes to get through. If the show had been network produced it may have been cancelled.