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.
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.
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.