In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy vowed to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade, it touched off in the United States a fascination with space the likes of which had never before been seen. By 1966, several men and women were exploring the vast unknown reaches of our galaxy. They were the crew of the USS Enterprise on the weekly serialized science fiction show Star Trek.
Created by visionary Gene Rodenberry, the original Star Trek series tapped into the national zeitgeist of space exploration with unusual daring and optimism. And it’s bold, forward thinking ideas weren’t simply confined to the realm of science fiction. Star Trek depicted the first multi-racial kiss on TV and showed, in the midst of the Cold War and Vietnam, a humanity that had transcended it’s racial and cultural differences and joined together to conquer the stars.
As groundbreaking as Star Trek was, the fan base remained fervent but small, and it was cancelled after only three seasons. The last episode aired in June 1969. A little over a month later, the exploratory attitudes envisaged on Star Trek became reality, as Kennedy’s dream came true and humankind stepped onto the surface of the moon for the first time.
Star Trek was gone, but by no means forgotten. In the ’80s and ’90s, no less than six feature films featuring almost all of the original cast members, were wildly successful. But Rodenberry was already shopping around the idea of another series. The plan was to “reboot” Star Trek by setting the new series several generations after Kirk and Spock, with an all-new crew and state-of-the-art Enterprise. It was called, appropriately, The Next Generation.
The Next Generation, which premiered in 1987, is arguably the most famous, or at least the most beloved of the Star Trek series. Its success was even greater than the original series, airing for seven years and paving the way for three more live-action series (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), and a host of other feature films. One doesn’t have to do much research into Star Trek lore to find that most fans revere The Next Generation as the “Trek of all Treks”, the series by which all other Treks are weighed.
Now we are fortunate to revisit the beginning of this touchstone show with the stunning Blu-Ray remaster of all 25 of The Next Generations’s first season episodes, brilliantly touched up for 1080i viewing. Make no mistake; this isn’t just a standard upconvert job from videotape. The footage has been recreated from the original film elements, and the payoff is huge. The episodes look as brand new now as they would have in 1987.
For the uninitiated, The Next Generation featured Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), a resourceful but reserved man, as Captain of the new Enterprise 11701-D. The inexperienced and brash William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) served as First Officer. And the diverse crew was rounded out with the android Data (Brent Spiner), the blind helmsman Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her son, Wesley (Wil Wheaton), the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn), and Security Officer Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby). Rather than the five-year mission of the original Enterprise, Picard and Co. were assigned an “ongoing” mission, which smartly allowed producers to keep the show around as long as they needed.
From the outset, The Next Generation wrestles with some of the philosophical underpinnings that made Star Trek more than just standard entertainment. In the very first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, the crew is visited by an omnipotent God-like being called Q, who became a long-running antagonist on the show. Calling humanity a “dangerous, savage, child-race”, Q puts Picard on trial for being human. Eventually the Captain is given one last chance to prove himself worthier than his violent ancestors. Data, by his own admission “vastly superior in many ways” to his organic counterparts, admits to Riker in the same episode that he would gladly give up all of his advantages just to be human.
The complexities of human nature was a theme often explored on Star Trek, first in the original series by the Vulcan Spock, who often failed to see the logic in Captain Kirk’s thinking. In The Next Generation, Data stands in as the baffled non-human, often humorously oblivious to when he is making social gaffes. In fact there is a sharp sense of humor running through the series, evident from the very beginning. When Data refers to French as an “obscure Earth language”, it’s impossible not to smile at how the generally calm and collected Picard bristles.
The Next Generation does display some typical first-season growing pains – much of it can be a tad overdramatic and sentimental at times, and it’s apparent that the writers are struggling to find places in the series for several of the characters, particularly the women. Most of the episodes’ conflicts are resolved at the end of the hour, giving the show a kind of “freak of the week” feel.
Where the original Star Trek was blatantly interventionist, The Next Generation is much more laissez-faire. The crew of the new Enterprise never intentionally alters or influences the evolutionary progress of any race. In one episode, giving the chance by another powerful entity to wipe out a group of two-timing enemies called the Ferengi, Riker responds, “Then they would learn nothing.” This benign peace-keeping philosophy made The Next Generation‘s approach to difficult situations much more sympathetic than its predecessor.
The extras here include three half-hour “making of” specials exclusively made by CBS Home Video, which go very in depth into the stories behind the origin of the series, a well-edited gag reel, and several behind-the-scenes featurettes with footage of cast and crew interviews from 1987, when this season was filming. A case can be made that were it not for The Next Generation, Star Trek would have faded into relative obscurity as just another ’60s/’70s era phenomenon. It’s doubtful that it would have remained at the center of the pop-culture sci-fi pantheon for as long as it has.
It’s clear that Star Trek is here to stay; the last film in theaters, J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek (another reboot), grossed over $300 million worldwide and, just like The Next Generation did in 1987, will undoubtedly keep Star Trek relevant or an entirely new generation of Trekkies.