Sunday, March 8, 2009


I'm a STAR TREK fan. Grew up watching the show in syndication (it inhabits some of my earliest conscious memories), experienced all of the feature films as they went along, read all sorts of TREK books and related materials. I think it's the best show of its kind and among the best things television has ever produced. When STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION was announced (I feel a grey hair poking through when I realize this was over 20 years ago), I was very excited. To say the series that subsequently emerged was a disappointment is to commit bold understatement. A few years ago, I dashed off a short little piece about the series and its problems. Life is being rather hard on me at the moment, so here's my vintage rant:

30 Dec., 2004

Where to begin? The characters in ST:TNG were just dreadful. The crew was a collection of shiny, happy, perfect, cold fish, with no depth, no passions that ever seemed more than a put-on and who were evocative of nothing--the sort of people you'd send millions of miles away just to get rid of them. This was probably inevitable given the circumstances of their creation. Most of them weren't created as "characters" at all but rather were conceived as nothing more than line-item gimmicks--an empath, a Klingon, a teenager, a Pinnochio-modeled android, a blind man at the helm.

Whatever glue Gene Roddenberry was sniffing at the time convinced him that the last--a blind man leading them--was a fantastic metaphor. Perhaps sensing an unfortunate metatextual truth behind this given what the series became, the show's creators eventually packed off the blind guy to Engineering.

Most of the show's significant elements were cannibalized from earlier projects. Storywise, a gap of about 80 years is supposed to exist between the original series and TNG but they're still using exactly the same technology as they were in the original. All of the same equipment with all of the same capabilities and limitations--technology hasn't advanced an inch in eight decades. TNG's one technological "innovation" was the holodeck and even it was lifted from the STAR TREK: PHASE TWO project from the '70s (which had mutated into ST: THE MOTION PICTURE, sans holodeck). That project also provided two of the other central TNG characters: Will Riker was Will Decker from STP2, with Troi as Ilia, the empath with whom he'd formerly had a relationship. They'd actually carried over into THE MOTION PICTURE but were rehashed into TNG anyway. TNG also lifted the theme music from that film. A move dictated by budget? Who knows? It can't help but add to that retread feel and the first feature film is not a project a wise creator of a new series would want to invoke.[1]

TNG also cannibalized the original series for stories. The first season of TNG was littered, from beginning to end, with plots and other elements lifted directly from the original. This unmotley crew of gimmicks spent their first season blandly going where the original Enterprise crew had boldly gone before. The show improved significantly later but its major defects were structural and stayed with it throughout (which is why it's so hard to watch in re-runs). The improvements shouldn't be overstated either: TNG ran for 7 seasons, and if one were to extract all the good-to-great episodes from the entire run there wouldn't be enough to fill a single season. I found much of it nearly unwatchable on first run and it holds up even worse on attempted subsequent viewings.

The show reflects all the shortcomings of its era. It's pretentiously moralistic, cringe-inducingly preachy, boring ("violence" on tv was a big no-no at the time, which meant, in practice, little action) and so politically correct it can barely stand even itself.[2] Like the characters, everything about the production design screamed the blandness the show delivered. The bland crew was dressed in bland uniforms that made them look like hotel porters, which was appropriate because the bridge of the new Enterprise looked like a hotel lobby. Aliens were inevitably plastered with gratuitous (and bad) prosthetics about the head and face. Even Romulans, who, being an offshoot of the Vulcans, had always looked pretty much like Vulcans, had to get the bumpy-headed treatment.[3] The writers seemed genuinely committed to the notion--and this is one of the things I hated most about TNG--that meaningless technobabble is a substitute for competent writing. On real TREK, Kirk would stop the planet-killing machine by single-handedly--and suicidally--flying a starship right into it to blow it up from the inside, escaping by the skin of his teeth at the very last second. On TNG, on the other hand, the ultimate outcome of what seemed like dozens of episodes hinged on whether a polymorphic induction framistat could be made to generate a positronic field, or whether Geordi and the robot could rejigger a 10 power electron thingamabob to elliptically convert alpha waves into magnetized mercury particles. "Make it so, Number One." And he does, and the universe is saved. Except that's really, really stupid and about as unengaging as it gets. This was a problem TNG never overcame.

Overall, TNG was just a really awful idea, done, for the most part, badly.[4] Unworthy of the STAR TREK name, it stands primarily as a monument to TREK creator Gene Roddenberry's declining creative powers toward the end of his life.



[1] THE NEXT GENRERATION was essentially ST: THE MOTION PICTURE: THE SERIES. I've always wondered if all that rehashing was Gene Roddenberry's way of thumbing his nose at Paramount. He'd had a great deal of input into THE MOTION PICTURE and it had been pretty disastrous (an informal nickname that developed among Trek fans was "The Motionless Picture"). Afterwards, he was made a mere consultant and spent the rest of his life with a feeling that the original TREK had been taken away from him, bitterly complaining about the directions in which the franchise was taken--directions which produced some of the finest work in its history. It's almost as if he wished to return to the point at which he'd lost creative control and continue from there. All the cannibalization could have been (and probably was) merely laziness--it's easier to cannibalize older work than do anything original--but it makes me wonder...

[2] The ship was a military vessel but Roddenberry--down on "militarism" in his declining years--populated it with entire families, children and all. That this wasn't given the two seconds of thought necessary to dismiss it says much about how well-conceived was the series.

[3] This injured a storyline involving Spock (from the real STAR TREK but still alive at the time of TNG), and his efforts towards managing a reunification with Vulcan--he certainly wouldn't be able to pass as a TNG Romulan with his prosthetic-free forehead.

[4] Q was pretty cool, though.