How Star Trek: The Next Generation Changed Pop Culture Forever

As 'The Next Generation' turns 25, we look at the ways in which it introduced us to the future we all live in

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This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first of many extensions of Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train To The Stars” concept for a television series. Although it’s easy to make fun of the series for its many quirks — it was, after all, a show where everyone wore space-age onesies for the first three years — what’s often overlooked is that, in many ways, Star Trek: The Next Generation turned out to be an eerie predictor of the world we live in today.

I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, where people point out the way in which the show’s futuristic technology — The Holodeck! Geordi’s visor! Warp drive! — has started to work its way into our reality. (And, yes, I know; Star Trek: The Next Generation invented the iPad more than two decades before Steve Jobs. They even called it the PADD, somewhat presciently.) I’d rather focus on the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation, seemingly by accident, managed to create a model of what pop culture would be like a quarter of a century later — and no one really noticed.

Such grand ambitions clearly weren’t the primary motivator behind the creation of the series. That was a simple business decision. Looking at the success of the Star Trek movie series — Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the fifth most successful movie of the year in 1986 — executives at Paramount, which owned the series at the time, asked themselves whether or not they could return the property to the small screen on a regular basis and make it profitable. In one sense, this wasn’t a new idea; movies had been translated into television shows for years by this point, with wildly variable results. However, what Paramount had in mind was something less common; instead of transferring the same characters, settings and status quo of the movies to the small screen, recasted with cheaper actors, they wanted to create something that would be Star Trek, but also leave enough space (no pun intended) for the successful movie series to continue without their appeal lessened by the same material being available each week for free on TV.

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What emerged from this need was a show that was both a sequel to the original Trek, but almost entirely new at the same time. The mission survived the translation — although “where no man has gone before” was updated for the ’80s and became “no one“. A surface reading of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation could cast both shows as the same beast, but that’s not really the case. The Next Generation was a more thoughtful series — at times, to its detriment — one that was less likely to jump into action or romance the closest sexy alien lady that week than it was to sit down and talk about its feelings before deciding that, well, maybe things are very complicated and perhaps inaction is a valid response to events after all. The Next Generation was a new take on the Star Trek mission statement, separate enough from what had come before — and what the movie audiences were paying for when they watched Kirk, Spock et al. save the day in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, both made and released during The Next Generation‘s run — to turn the sure thing into something that must have seemed far riskier at the time.

These days, of course, we’re used to the idea of rebooting series and franchises and getting new takes on what had come before, keeping the best bits and discarding what doesn’t fit for something that everyone hopes is better. That wasn’t the case back in 1987. Back then, translations between media tried their best to faithfully replicate previous iterations, and even oddities like the Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks Dragnet movie that predated The Next Generation by a matter of months tried their hardest to offer affectionate homage to their predecessors, even as they pretended to parody them. Star Trek: The Next Generation may not be a reboot in the common usage of the term today: It takes place in the same continuity as the earlier series, and doesn’t seek to replace it or undo anything that came before, but for all intents and purposes it was a reboot for the concept and a chance for Roddenberry and staff to correct whatever mistakes or bad decisions had been forced on the original.

The show was an unknown quantity, of course. Star Trek without William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy? Who would watch such a thing, the common wisdom wondered, secretly expecting a flop. Instead, the show was a hit and, within five years and the addition of spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a successful franchise. The creators of the Star Trek television series — Roddenberry himself, but also producers and show runners like Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor and many others — managed not only to demonstrate how to make fans accept a reboot of a much-beloved concept, but also turn said concept into a repeatable, formulaic format that could sustain multiple series running concurrently. Not only does modern-day reboot culture have its first blossoming here, but so does procedural culture. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the team behind all things Star Trek successfully managed to turn story into commodity — and, more importantly, have everyone from the creators to the fans, accept this as a really good thing. CSI and Law & Order? You’re welcome.

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But modern-day pop culture owes more to Star Trek: The Next Generation than just making the world a safer place for NCIS: Los Angeles. TNG was a massively successful show; when the show finished in 1994, it had become the highest-rated drama in syndicated television, boasting 15 to 20 million viewers a week. This was far beyond anything managed by the original Star Trek — a show that had, after all, been canceled twice in its three-year run. This kind of success took the show far beyond any expectation of “cult” and transcended what was expected of genre television in general. Star Trek: The Next Generation, somehow, made nerd culture mainstream for the first time. (For those wanting to quibble with the “first time” thing by pointing to the success of Star Wars… Okay, I might give you that, but I would argue that Star Wars‘ original release was more phenomenon fad, whereas The Next Generation sustained its level of popularity fairly consistently for seven years. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.)

This may seem less impressive in today’s world filled with Avengers, Dark Knights who Rise and Spider-Men, Amazing or otherwise. Nowadays, nerd culture is pop culture, in many ways. But before Star Trek: The Next Generation, that wasn’t the case. Genre programming had been on the decline since the 1960s, replaced by more action-oriented series for men and soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty for women. Even though the fervor for Star Trek faded when that show finished (Deep Space Nine and Voyager both performed well in terms of ratings, but nowhere near the level of The Next Generation, and the less said about Enterprise, the better), nerd culture had broken through and refused to disappear entirely. The X-Files, Buffy, Lost… There’s always been at least one successful, zeitgeist-defining genre show on American television since The Next Generation (today’s, I’d argue, is Doctor Who. An import, sure, but it sets the tone in a way that nothing else really matches on the small screen these days) — something that would have seemed unimaginable before Captain Picard stood up on a weekly basis, tugged on his jersey and told his faithful audience to make it so.

Preparing us for a world of reboots and procedural franchises, making the geek mainstream… there’s a lot to be thankful for when it comes to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It may not have been the best of the Treks — that’s Deep Space Nine as far as I’m concerned, although you can argue in the comments about the merits of that choice — and it may even, at times, sailed a little too close to being hokey or even dull, but no one can complain that it didn’t fulfill the one promise it made at the start of every single episode, to boldly go where no one had gone before. And, of course, take us along for the ride.

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34 comments
ThePegasusFactor
ThePegasusFactor

Lovely. :) TNG is my favorite Trek series--the Magnum Opus of the franchise, in my view. However, I've watched and thoroughly enjoyed all five series (as well as all of the movies and animated episodes.) DS9 is my second favorite, followed by TOS, Voyager, and Enterprise (which I think most agree is the weakest, but is still far from horrible. Kind of a shame that it's even shorter than the original series.) TNG is an incredible show in so many ways...one of the greatest ever made, and it's no surprise at all that its popularity and influence are so infinitely enduring while most shows, fandoms, etc., end up falling by the wayside. Somewhat funnily, it has a real timeless quality. Star Trek in general is endlessly engaging (no pun intended.) It's the dreaming and fantasizing about the future, the science-fiction and technology and application of  current knowledge to predict what tomorrow may bring, the sense of wanderlust and adventuring and questing and discovery...and most of all, what makes it addicting to me is the wonderful characterization. With TNG, I love the entire main cast, and have some very, very strong favorite characters. I also have a few strong faves among the main casts of DS9, Voyager, amp; Enterprise, and of course, several from TOS.

seanbon
seanbon

If you liked Enterprise, that's fine. No one can take that way from you. I will say I found it repetitive, boring and unengaging. The characters were flat and dull, and the storylines were hand-me-downs from TNG and VOY (and fit about as well as your older brother's longjohns). It's the only role Scott Bakula has ever been in that I actively disliked. I don't think it was his fault, I think the writers simply had no earthly idea what to do with that character and it showed. 

If you view Enterprise as its own thing, outside the Star Trek umbrella, it's simply boring. Viewed in comparison to TNG and DS9, it's pretty damned terrible.

filmbuff4ever
filmbuff4ever

- “And, yes, I know; Star Trek: The Next Generation invented the iPad more than two decades before Steve Jobs. They even called it the PADD, somewhat presciently.”

The tablet was predicted by Stanley Kubrick and used in his 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” which preceded “Star Trek: The Next Generation” by 19 years. Science fiction didn’t begin with TNG and many concepts in the show were originated by others...

filmbuff4ever
filmbuff4ever

- “And, yes, I know; Star Trek: The Next Generation invented the iPad more than two decades before Steve Jobs. They even called it the PADD, somewhat presciently.”

The tablet was predicted by Stanley Kubrick and used in his 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” which preceded “Star Trek: The Next Generation” by 19 years. Science fiction didn’t begin with TNG and many concepts in the show were originated by others...

dan_the_honest
dan_the_honest

I'm with you 100% -- Deep Space Nine was far and away the best of all the Star Trek series (and better than any of the movies). Deep Space Nine was the most intelligent, insightful, clever, best written and acted series of them all. Among its many sterling episodes was "The Visitor," regarded as the most beloved Star Trek episode of all time -- kind of a "Field of Dreams" for outer space. Deep Space Nine started slowly, but took off at the end of the third season and never let down. Plus it had the only Star Trek commander/captain who should record an album: Avery Brooks. If you ever get a chance to see his one-man performance as Paul Robeson, go! His rendition of "Old Man River" will move your soul. He now teaches acting at Rutgers University.

Now I realize that what we call "best" is pretty subjective. But I really to think that Deep Space Nine stands head and shoulders above the other Star Trek series in every objective aspect -- that's not to say the other series were bad (well, okay, "Enterprise" was incredibly mediocre and the original -- which I watched religiously while in college -- does not hold up very well; Next Generation and Voyager were good shows), just that Deep Space Nine had the best scripts, acting, directing, and special effects of the bunch.

Reythia
Reythia

"Star Trek: The Next Generation may not be a reboot in the

common usage of the term today: It takes place in the same continuity as

the earlier series, and doesn’t seek to replace it or undo anything that came before, but for all intents and purposes it was a reboot for the concept."

And maybe this is something that today's movie and TV show directors and writers should contemplate.  People don't usually WANT a total "reboot", as if the original movie/show didn't exist.  That's why most Star Trek fans DESPISED the most recent movie (well, that and the not-Romulan Romulans.  And the major plot holes.).  But we DO like "add-ons" or "continuations" or "parallel stories".  In other words, please re-use the universe and overall concepts!  We LIKE that!  But we don't want to just un-do all the previous stories.  Why do you want to waste our time, by telling us a tale we've already heard before?  Why not tell us a NEW story instead?

d0x360
d0x360

Enterprise started off slowly but it got pretty good by episode 10 and continued to get better and better as it went on.

waltersabo
waltersabo

On Voyager everyone was angry and did they ever get back to earth? On DS-9 it seemed like a prison in space with odd lighting and wayyyy too much attention on the security officer. (That Captain won't talk about the series.)  Enterprise had a fun captain and hot crew and studied dilemmas we are more likely to witness ie "Humans? How can you stand the smell?"

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

well, when is the next Star Trek  show coming???? there is no real science fiction stuff  on TV right now... after the orgy of stargate proportion , there seems to have been a "run away from scifi cause it does not pay off" kind of attitude.

Common, this country needs badly the spirit of boldly going where no man has gone before ... sure it is a writer challenge, after the recent sci-fi movies and shows, the bar is very high for Star Trek to avoid the fall of the last series.

Anyway .. time to go back into space, producers, do something.

Brittany Lambert
Brittany Lambert

I think they decided to stop doing Star Trek shows solely because Enterprise did so poorly.  I think a Star Trek themed web series would pay off though.  I have to admit I'd love to see the franchise brought up to the 29th century and dealing with the Time-Ships such as Relativity or Atlantis.

brianmouland
brianmouland

In terms of acting ability going from William Shatner to Patrick Stewart was like going from Mac and Cheese to Steak and Eggs

SteveK77536
SteveK77536

I agree.  But I think Stewart had some better writers also.  And a better supporting cast of characters: Data ( a step up from Spock IMHO), Worf, and the unforgettable Q:

Q: Q the miserable, Q the desperate! What must I do to convince you people?

Lieutenant Worf: Die.

Q: Oh, very clever, Worf. Eat any good books lately?

Heather Kallinger
Heather Kallinger

TNG was the best Trek for me, although Voyager was responsible for me meeting my husband and the three beautiful geeklings born of our marriage. It began my true love of sci-fi and long-running serials

;) Although--the iPad, really? That's your choice for tech? It wasn't even the first tablet, FFS.

NadirKhan11
NadirKhan11

ENT was underrated and woefully cut short. It had potential. And we got to see Scott Bakula in a show of his own so many years after QL ...

Lynn Shumway
Lynn Shumway

Oh, wait, there's a picture of Tasha's hair. I always wanted that haircut(of course, on me it would be a big frizz ball, but still). Sorry about the half face there, Wil--you and Data were the show. I didn't ever watch the later shows(lack of TV, kids, college, etc.) Maybe someday. 

Conlan O'Connor
Conlan O'Connor

I'm glad that this article exists. As a high schooler, I can say that TNG (and Trek in general, no matter how many reboots made) is on it's way to being a completely forgotten show. At least it can be memorialized in some way.

Michelle Schlichter
Michelle Schlichter

I can't say much about Enterprise as it was shown on UPN and i didn't get that channel all that well.  same with the last few seasons of Voyager. 

I did borrow the last ep from a friend of Enterprise. I was not too thrilled with how it ended. I do think if Enterprise has be left on one of the networks that had a signal more often then not it would of done well ( all but the last ep.)

Voyager was good till they got Seven of Nine. then it turn in to all about her nanoprobes being able to fix just about all.. that got old quick. Don't get me wrong. i know DQ and Borg go hand in hand. but still..  they did need to get some of the char more back ground and let them expand more.

I grew up with TNG. and that will always be the best for me..

Brittany Lambert
Brittany Lambert

I agree, what were they thinking when they put it on UPN.  I watched it later when it showed re-runs on Sci-Fi.  I know what happens in the last episode,  but I don't think I could stand to watch it with what happens and all.  I actually like Voyager even after Seven of Nine, but I agree they tended for her nanoprobes fixing everything, but I think some of her dealing with humanity things are some of the most compelling parts of the show. 

 

The only thing that I love/hated about the show was the treatment of the Doctor.  He is by far my favorite Star Trek character.  I thought his story line always dealt with some interesting ethical delimas.

Corvus1
Corvus1

Just someone please, please, please get Damon Lindelof the hell away from the franchise before he destroys it with his daddy issues and women-hating themes...

Blaine Kyle Evans
Blaine Kyle Evans

"The less said about Enterprise, the better."

Really?  Do you really have to jump on the bandwagon with the other haters?  Enterprise was a fantastic series.   It told a story that deserved to be told, exploring an era in the history of the ST universe that is truly crucial.  So many seem to think that you have to hate Enterprise because, well, that's just what you do.

Have you actually even watched Enterprise?  The conflicted Captain Archer and brilliantly cast Commander Shran of the Andorians are some of the best characters in all of Trekdom.

Plus, where else can you get a pre-Family Guy Seth McFarlane playing a sass-talking Starfleet Engineer?

Reythia
Reythia

Archer is a good actor.  And yes, the Andorian setup was well done.  Unfortunately, there was an awful lot of random wasted time in the shows, involving an unconvincing and needless romance which felt more like a bad soap opera than anything else.

The series started with potential, and individual episodes were excellent.  But overall, it fell apart as the seasons went on.

De Baisch
De Baisch

Enterprise, as a whole, was a much better series than fans portray it. Most of them stopped watching during Season 1 and I can't say I can really blame them. When the show started, there had been 14 years of constant Star Trek on TV and 5 feature films in that time. The formulaic storytelling had become more than stale by then and "franchise fatigue" was showing.

Looking back at it now, it's really not that bad (aside from a few truly juvenile episodes). I personally find it a better show than Voyager, whose very premise demanded a standard of internal continuity that was pretty much ignored by the end of Season 1. Was Enterprise truly great TV? Not by a long shot, but it's fairly enjoyable if given the chance.

sandifjm
sandifjm

I also liked Enterprise. More than Voyager or DS9 for that matter. I related to them as the first generation of deep space travelers.  They still used the solar calendar instead of stardates, the crew weren't all graduates of Starfleet academy, the communications officer was afraid of spaceflight, and nobody trusted the transporter yet.  

TNG is, and was always, my favourite of all the Star Trek franchises, but sometimes the crew were a little too 24th century perfect for my tastes. The crew of Enterprise looked and behaved like we would today if suddenly placed on a space ship with warp drive.

A vastly underrated series.

My Ainsel
My Ainsel

I'm just watching it now, coming to the end of S3, and really enjoying it.  They don't have the silly stories that DS9 and TNG occasionally did with Quark or Lwaxana (I haven't watched voayager) and I totally miss Q, but other than that it's good.  The Xindi are probably the most interesting alien race yet.

I have a problem with Shran though.  Having only just watched DS9 last year, all I can see is Weyoun and I spent that whole series wishing for him to be punched in his smug face.  It's hard to shake that feeling off for Shran, lol.

Heather Kallinger
Heather Kallinger

 I hated Enterprise when it was airing. I tried to watch it and I couldn't stand Archer, for beginners. But I gave it another chance a few years ago and quite enjoyed it. I'm sorry I shunned it the first time, but clearly, I just wasn't in a place for it yet.

Coopacabra
Coopacabra

How do you know he's jumping on the bandwagon?  People are allowed to dislike things.  I though Enterprise was a great show, but it never really felt like Star Trek to me.

Also, there is nowhere you can find a pre Family Guy Seth McFarlane playing a sass-talking Starfleet Engineer.  Family Guy premiered two years before Enterprise.

Graham Cairns
Graham Cairns

I, too, think ST:E was sadly under-rated. It was, at times uneven (the end of the first season, for example, got just plain muddled) .. but I thought the Xindi arc was actually great TV.

And one-off episodes like Carbon Creek were as good as any one-offs in any of the other series (well, except NextGen's Inner Light ... that was just an amazing 48 minutes of TV).

Yes, there were some disappointing eps - but nothing that reached the laughable dreck that was Spock's Brain in TOS .. or worse, the execrable Genesis for TNG where they de-evolve, only to be rescued by the worst deus ex machina ever. 

Seriously, if you dismissed ST:E the first time around, it's worth grabbing the box-sets and watching them .. 

Brian Ursrey
Brian Ursrey

 I liked Enterprise right up until the attack on Florida story line. I felt that the series seemed to parallel the 9/11 events here in the US, and it felt...wrong. Not morally wrong, per se; it felt off and way out of place. It was that story-line that lost me with Enterprise.

Mark Lane
Mark Lane

DS9 mirrored current events through out it's run. That's part of what made it so good.

Brandon h
Brandon h

DS9 was very good, but TNG was the best (VOY is the bastard child with it's Kiddie Trek story lines, ENT actually had some good episodes in it's final season). TNG didn't have the engaging serialized story of DS9's Dominion War (which some say paralleled Babylon 5 a little too much) but it had some of the best moral tales I've ever been exposed to. Who Watches the Watchers is my personal fav. 

Bailey Hirschburg
Bailey Hirschburg

I'd also mention conventions. They happened during the original series, but like lots of what's described in this story, they became mainstream with TNG's help. Can we honestly say San Diego Comic Con would be as high profile as it is today, without a decade or so of normalizing engagement/events between the fans and the franchise?

Talia Myres
Talia Myres

You have a typo in the first paragraph - what's often overlooked is that ft, - just thought you should know. Good article!

ZeroM666
ZeroM666

Nerds

Joseph Garvin
Joseph Garvin

Hello person on the internet! I see you are calling someone a nerd! How interesting.