Hard as it is to believe, this fall marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG). While many doubted that “Star Trek” could continue without its original cast and characters, “TNG” became a runaway television hit that propelled the franchise into the 1990s and 21st century.
Debuting on NBC in 1966, the original Star Trek (“TOS” for “The Original Series”) was clearly a product of the Cold War. As played by William Shatner, Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was a JFK-like man of action, frequently engaging in fistfights and space battles, as well as a womanizer who seemed to have an old flame in every port/planet. Indeed, “TNG” writer Ron Moore described “TOS” as a ”morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.” (NYT, September 18,2006) Though humanity and several other species had joined together in an UN-like “Federation” of planets, they still faced an enemy in the form of the evil Klingon Empire, a warrior-like race that served as an allegory for the Soviet Union.
When “Next Generation” started in syndication in the fall of 1987, geopolitics had changed with the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev gaining power in the Soviet Union and implementing his dual policies of perestroika (economic liberalization) and glasnost (political openness). Though no one could have imagined how rapidly it would conclude, the Cold War was winding down, with the Berlin Wall falling and Soviet Union collapsing during the show’s seven-year run. Reflecting these historic events, “TNG” portrayed a future where there was peace between the Federation and the Klingons, with Mr. Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon officer, serving aboard the Enterprise. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by the then-unknown Patrick Stewart, was more of a diplomat than Shatner’s Kirk, looking for non-violent solutions to interplanetary disputes. Though Stewart became a sex symbol, Picard was no Kirk when it came to women, reflecting the rise of feminism in the intervening years. He rarely had romantic relationships, though there was persistent sexual tension between him and longtime friend, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden).
Though the show was supposed to focus on the ensemble cast, as opposed to the Big Three of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in “TOS,” Picard and android Commander Data (Brent Spiner), and to a lesser extent, Lt. Worf, became the center of gravity of the action on “TNG.” The other characters, most notably First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), were not particularly interesting.
Though the show quickly became a ratings success, it did not really hit its creative stride until the season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds, ” when the Federation’s arch-enemy, the Borg, takes Picard hostage and assimilates him into their collective. When the season ended, the Borg are poised to attack Earth and Picard’s fate is unclear. The suspense would be resolved in the fall with the planet emerging safe and Picard rescued, and the success of “TNG” guaranteed. The program would run until 1994 and four more films starring Stewart and his cast mates would follow between 1994 and 2002 (though only “First Contact,” (1996) which also centered around a Borg invasion, was particularly good).
The success of “TNG” ensured the “Star Trek” franchise would not end with Kirk and Spock. Three more television shows followed and though none reached the ratings heights of “TNG,” new episodes of “Star Trek” would air until “Enterprise” went off the air after only four seasons in 2005.
Though I thought “Enterprise’s” cancellation would mark the end of “Trek,” J.J. Abram’s reboot was a major hit when it premiered in 2009 and a sequel will follow in the summer of 2013. Still, he would never have had the chance if “The Next Generation” hadn’t shown that the franchise could “live long and prosper” without its original actors.