Star Trek: The Next Generation, 20 Years later

Unsurprisingly, my memory of the last three seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation has proved to be a lot more reliable than my memory of the first four seasons. In fact, I’m pretty sure all I remembered about the first two seasons comes from “Skin of Evil” and that one episode where Riker’s unconscious and his brain is a clip show.

That said, Star Trek: The Next Generation holds up a lot better than I thought it was going to, and makes a lot more sense from an adult perspective. Things that baffled and haunted me as a child – Troi getting turned into a cake, Wesley having to choose between two random dudes who are about to get killed in a cargo bay, how Commander Riker could be the same person with and without a beard – all of these things seem less random and terrifying when you can keep the context in mind and understand what everybody’s talking about.

Here’s what I noticed as an adult:

1. 25% of this show is easily wish fulfillment

The most hated character in all of Star Trek history is Wesley Crusher, the random teenager who becomes a bridge officer on the Enterprise, and gets to be best friends with all the main characters, and constantly saves the day by being a special genius, because someone in the writer’s room dreamt about that when the original series was airing. Probably someone whose middle name was Wesley.

When I was a kid, Wesley scanned as a small adult to me, and didn’t make much of an impression, but, watching the show as a grown-up, I wanted to punch him just as hard as anybody else, and it’s for all the usual reasons. He’s a character who’s disproportionately awesome within the universe his story takes place in, and who has a disproportionately easy ride.

Wesley is the most obvious example of wish fulfillment on TNG, but the lessor, forgotten episodes that nobody ever talks about include a wealth of shallow characters (usually men) who come on board the Enterprise just long enough for everyone else to see how cool they are and admire them. There’s that random pirate with a heart of gold in What’s-It-Called, and that random convict who’s a super soldier in I-Forget.

Even Q is arguably a bit of wish fulfillment – an omnipotent being who shows up to make fun of all the other characters while they helplessly try to shoo him away.

After a while – especially when you’re watching this thing back-to-back – you can feel when the wish fulfillment’s starting, and you know that nothing remotely interesting is going to happen for the next 40 minutes.

2. TNG was more liberal in its politics than many shows today

I now believe that Captain Picard had more of an influence on shaping my values than anyone else in the world. I’m actually shocked by how forward TNG is about its liberal politics – having the characters explicitly talk about equality and tolerance and non-violence, but also demonstrating those things in practice.

Like, this is the show where the planet destroyer has a right to exist and we don’t want to kill it – and then, when somebody does kill it, everyone else is like :(.

The series paints a picture of what it would look like if entire generations had been raised not to be hateful and spiteful and prejudiced.

Partly as a consequence of the time it was made, TNG is not a “gritty reboot” of the original Star Trek, and it doesn’t have the pessimism and moral relativism that entered into the later instalments in the franchise. It acknowledges that there’s danger in greeting the universe warmly, and optimistically charging into the unknown – it gave us the Borg, after all, when the Borg were still scary – but it also locates our highest virtues in that optimistic charge.

The characters sometimes come across as being smug, and it’s too simplistic to suppose that any civilization will ever become a utopia, but this is a sci-fi show about how we can be better, more tolerant, compassionate, egalitarian people and it throws something like Stargate SG-1, which followed only a few years later, into pretty stark relief.

3. Boy, when they dropped the ball, did they ever

TNG is notable for the fact that it presents a scenario where men and women can work side by side and treat each other respectfully as friends and colleagues, without any sexist bullshit between them. In fact, the show goes out of its way, several times, to have the characters explain (to aliens) that, on Earth, men and women are now seen as having the same worth and status, and we see that that’s true from the way that the characters behave toward each other.

There’s still some sexist bullshit in the way TNG’s female characters are presented to the viewer, though. There are a few contenders for Most Sexist Moment in an Otherwise Not-Sexist Show, but the one I would pick is the weird, messed-up scene where Counsellor Troi and Dr. Crusher have an entire conversation while stretching and bending over in front of a mirror, because that’s what they do for exercise.

On the racism front, “Code of Honour” has already been described by one of the stars as a “racist piece of shit” so let’s just leave it at that.

4. This is the one time the slashers were right

When I was a teenager, and the internet became a thing, and filled with porn, I remember people saying that Q and Picard were supposed to have this homoerotic attraction to each other, which was total news to me.

I have to report, after watching the series again, that this seems to be an actual feature of the show rather than the product of purely lustful thinking.

The best piece of evidence is “Qpid,” which is a fairly typical “Q boards the Enterprise for no discernable reason and follows Picard around just to bother him” episode, except that this one is structured so that Picard’s unwanted girlfriend also shows up on the Enterprise for no reason and follows him around. There’s a very clear parallel drawn between the two situations, between Q and this woman, and between the ways Picard reacts to each of them. In fact, at one point, Q, who’s clearly kind of jealous now that this random woman’s prowling around, says outright that if he’d known Picard was straight he would have shown up as a woman.

The plot of “Qpid” – and nobody is reaching for this or making it up – is that there’s a guy who wants to get with Picard, and a girl who wants to get with Picard, and he doesn’t want to get with either of them, so eventually they just get with each other. The end.

This is textually a gay thing – it’s not made up at all.

5. The internet needs a supercut of Troi saying she can’t sense anything

The internet already has a supercut of Worf getting totally shut down when he makes a suggestion, and Worf getting beat up by people and doors, but somehow there is no supercut of Troi failing to sense anything.

This is amazing to me, since I’m pretty sure she outright fails to sense anything more often that she actually succeeds. Most of the time, it seems like the other characters ask her if she can sense something just to pacify the audience – like, “Yeah, having Troi sense that this guy is lying would be an obvious out, so let’s explain why she can’t do that.”

My stealth theory on this one is that there’s a secret Star Trek canon where Troi doesn’t actually have any powers except in a handful of situations where she’s dealing with other telepathic races. The rest of the time, she’s just super confident in her ability to read nonverbal communication and believes that it’s because she is an “empath.” Like how people declare themselves HSP and go on web forums to yell about how they can sense so much more than everyone else. Everyone is so tolerant and polite in the future that they haven’t thought to question her about it.

5-a. Fun fact the internet did teach me, though: Marina Sirtis was told she had to make up an alien accent, and that is where Troi’s distinctive way of speaking comes from. Never mind that no one else from her planet speaks that way.

5-b. Un-fun fact: she was also told that she was too fat for the costumes, and that is why she had to have a purple jumpsuit.

6. Data is human all along

Textually, the show makes a big deal out of how Data doesn’t have feelings, but Data is a very warm character, right from the beginning. He’s thoughtful, kind, polite, well-intentioned, and, at least in the earlier episodes, before Brent Spiner settles into a more subdued performance, Data also makes a lot of facial expressions and laughs and whistles “Pop Goes the Weasel” and stuff. Like most of us, he also has an emotional attachment to his cat and to Geordi La Forge (probably ranked in that order).

Taken together, the set-up has always been much less a Pinocchio situation than a Wizard of Oz situation – meaning, it feels like Data should discover that he’s embodied human qualities all along. That, just like the human characters, he’s been growing and changing and feeling and tolerating, and all that other stuff that people do. When he finally gets his emotion chip installed, it should be his proverbial heart-shaped watch – symbolic proof of something that’s always existed within him.

So, it’s hella weird and kind of disappointing when the story shifts (both through the latter part of the series and in Star Trek: Generations) so that Data getting an emotion chip is actually the proof that he never had feelings at all.

Generations ends with Data crying because he’s happy that his cat survived the movie, but Data always cared for Spot. That was the point of Spot. That was the point of Data.

The emotion chip sucks, and I hate it.

7. That stuff with Whoopi Goldberg hasn’t aged well

So… Guinan is a magical alien bar tender who only ever appears in order to give the other characters advice, and to smile at them sagely and mysteriously while they contemplate her words, before disappearing again to places unknown. Her only other personality trait is that she really hates the Borg and, even then, the point of her hating the Borg is so that she can tell a story about it that teaches one of the other characters a lesson. I think there’s a word for what this is.

I like Whoopi Goldberg, and I’m never sorry to see her, but, for me, the great unanswered mystery of Star Trek: The Next Generation is how the hell Guinan knows Picard (aside from random time travel in “Time’s Arrow”), and why they’re BFFs who are “closer than family.” I would have loved to have an answer to that at some point, either in the series or in Star Trek: Generations.

Or, you know, where she comes from. Or how long she’s been alive. Or why she’s tending bar on the Enterprise. Or WTF she does when no one’s there to ask her questions. Oh my god.

8. TNG could have been Star Trek: Time Paradox

I always associate a hard-on for time travel with Star Trek: Voyager, which had an overabundance of time travel story lines that went nowhere and didn’t make sense. The time travel/time paradox story lines on TNG make a lot more sense than the ones on Star Trek: Voyager (in fact, I would argue that “Cause and Effect” is one of the best time loop stories ever), but I forgot there were so many of them.

Usually, it’s not straight-up time travel. It’s more like a time loop, or a time anomaly – time slows down in one place and moves normally in another; Captain Picard from five-minutes-from-now travels five minutes into the past, and it’s socially awkward; a con-man from the future shows up to study the Enterprise; they go to the 1800s to live like Doctor Who; Q shows Picard the future in order to tell him he’s not a fuck-up as a human being; aliens show Riker the future in order to mess with his head; other things I don’t remember.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a frillion time paradox episodes. I’m just saying – it happened a lot.

9. Ensign Ro is a much better reboot of Tasha Yar

Spoilers if you haven’t ever heard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show made a name for itself partly by killing off one of its main characters in the first season. In “Skin of Evil,” the Chief of Security, Tasha Yar, is suddenly murdered by the titular skin as a way to demonstrate the concept “evil.” To the show’s credit, she then stays dead, and the tears that people cry for her have meaning.

Having re-watched the first season, though, it’s clear that Tasha wasn’t really gelling as well as most of the other characters, up to that point. It’s hard to say whether this is an acting thing or a production thing, but there’s a real miss-match between the way the character is explained to us and the way the character comes across on screen. Everything we’re told about Tasha is that she’s super tough because she had this hard-knock life and stuff, but she comes across as a very gentle, upbeat person, who’s not particularly troubled by her past.

Flash forward to Ensign Ro – who was created after the producers met Michelle Forbes – and you have a character who also grew up on a violent planet, under similarly difficult circumstances, but this time she’s not very nice.

Ensign Ro – later Lieutenant Ro, later I’m-Resigning-My-Commission-So-That-I-Can-Join-Some-Outlaw-Freedom-Fighters-Or-Possibly-Terrorists Ro – seems like somebody who had a hard life. Part of that is the writing – Tasha was written to be totally in love with Starfleet and in a much better place in her life since joining it; Ro is written to be abrasive, to clash with the other characters, and to challenge the idea that Starfleet is always doing the right thing – but part of it is also that Michelle Forbes is good at playing serious, angry, and passionate. Ro immediately connects more because both the story and performance work to convince us that she’s carrying the past around with her, and that it’s relevant to who she is and her decisions.

If Tasha Yar had been more like Ensign Ro, I don’t think she would have been killed by evil skin.

10. Chief O’Brien was there

I associate this character so much with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that I literally forgot that he was ever in this show, let alone that he had a pretty consistent recurring role. But there you go. Colm Meaney – second most appearances in Star Trek after Michael Dorn.

Conclusion

Let’s be real. Star Trek: The Next Generation is deservedly the king of first-wave sci-fi television. It’s a more developed version of the original Star Trek, that delves more deeply into Star Trek’s themes, and that epitomizes the first-wave sci-fi notion that exploring the unknown will open the door to friendship and personal growth.

It may not seem like TNG is all that challenging, but it consistently presents a plausible version of Earth (or American) culture that is not the culture we live in, but may be the one we’d like to have. On top of that, the vast majority of episodes across all seven seasons deliver in terms of telling tightly-written, self-contained science fiction stories that are some combination of interesting, surprising, and culturally-relevant.

My list above did not even touch on achievements like “Chain of Command” – the “There are four lights!” episode that is possibly one of the best and most realistic engagements with torture in popular culture – or “Darmok” – which is strikingly original and more or less the perfect example of what you can do with the genre. Both of those episodes, and several others, were cemented in my mind after the first time I saw them, in ways that few other TV shows can claim.

No TV show is going to produce 178 episodes and have them all be winners. And, although I naturally gravitate to pointing out the losers, TNG had a lot more winners than losers over all, and it still stands up as being a pretty good show.

Image: Star Trek: The Next Generation; Paramount | November 21, 2014