Monday, September 24, 2007

Twenty years of Star Trek-y goodness

When I was in college, my friends and I would gather each week to watch new episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." In order to be let into my friend's apartment, he required us to announce loudly into the speaker on the building's front door that we would "like to be beamed directly into the warp core." Keep in mind that this front door was on a busy street and that speaking those words meant that every single person passing by could hear you and, yes, judge you. I tell this story because the humiliation that I underwent each Sunday night just to get into that apartment and watch ST:TNG with my friends convinced me that I must be one hell of a fan. And a big nerd. And maybe a masochist, not that any of those things are mutually exclusive. This is all to say, I really loved "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The show is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, and I can't help but feel nostalgic. Looking back, there were so many things I loved about the show, including the fact that it was nothing like the original Star Trek which, let's face it, was filled with enough cheese to choke a rat. Here are a few other reasons why I loved ST:TNG:

1) Good stories. Sure, there were a lot of crappy stories, mostly involving Worf, but there was an awful lot of good stuff, too. The Borg were brilliant creations that became chilling and worthy adversaries. And the show was never afraid to tell quiet stories either -- "Legacy," in which Picard lives a whole life inside his head, and "Darmok," in which Picard and an alien learn to speak to one another -- paved the way for the kind of mature storytelling that characterizes today's elite sci-fi shows like "Battlestar Galactica."

2) Very little Roddenberry. Producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller seemed to pretty much ignore Gene Roddenberry -- and for that I say thank you. No offense to Roddenberry. He was a visionary and without him, Star Trek would never have existed. But honestly, he didn't always have the best storytelling instincts: hey, let's have a world with no conflict! Hey, let's have a female character with three breasts! Hey, let's invent Ferengi! The less Roddenberry had to do with TNG, the better it got.

3) Patrick Stewart.
He had that voice, that accent, and that shiny, sexy bald head. He made bad actors (that's you, Gates McFadden) look decent and good actors (hi, Brent Spiner) look even better. The show would have been nothing without him.

4) Data.Who would have thought that ripping off Pinocchio would be such a good move? Data was, hands down, one of the finest characters ever created in the Star Trek universe. Sure, he was a refinement of Spock, and sure, they tried to copy him in every other Star Trek show to follow, but Data was a prime example of how good Star Trek could be when it focused on characters with strong, compelling internal conflicts. Plus, Data could crack a joke and he had that cute cat.

5) Strong relationships.I should clarify right away and say that I don't mean romantic relationships because, dear God, watching Star Trek deal with romance was like watching 14 year old boys deal with romance...except the 14 year old boys would have done it better. But the show excelled at friendships, whether between Data and Geordie or the faux father-son thing going on with Picard and Wes. The characters always worked best when they bounced off each other, with each interaction strengthening their appeal. They made you believe these folks all cared about each other.

6) An excellent final episode.Where so many other shows have failed, TNG managed to create a compelling, affectionate and satisfying final episode. It referenced its first episode. It brought back old nemeses (I missed you, Q). It wrapped up long-running questions. And it remembered why we all watched the show in the first place: the characters...and also to see stuff blowing up. They threw plenty of that in at the end, too.

7) Good movies.
TNG spawned some pretty darn good movies. And I'm going to say it right here: I liked "Generations." It was no "First Contact," but damn it, it had Shatner riding a horse and wearing a girdle while Stewart just kinda watched, appalled You can't tell me that's not great cinema. Plus, Malcolm Macdowell -- who doesn't love that angry little pug?

8) Pretty good special effects for a TV show.For a syndicated sci-fi show, The Next Generation blew shit up pretty spectacularly. From Borg cubes to Enterprises to Styrofoam cities, they knew how to explode stuff without eliciting any laughter. Twenty years later, I'm still impressed.

9) A detailed fictional universe. The writers and producers of TNG created such a detailed universe, their made-up science even made sense. Maybe it's because they knew the show was being watched by obsessive-compulsive fans making flow charts, but whatever the reason, you've got to credit them for making the unbelievable seem real. So real, in fact, that I'm fairly sure I still remember how a warp core works. Something about dilithium crystals....

10) It spawned some other decent shows and kept the Star Trek franchise alive and well for another 20 years. The Next Generation deserves its own spot of honor in the TV pantheon, but it also deserves a pat on the proverbial back for keeping the Star Trek ball rolling for another couple decades. I enjoyed "Deep Space Nine" (for a while at least) and I watched "Voyager" until the (very) bitter end. I gave up on "Enterprise" after realizing I didn't actually like Scott Bakula, but whatever my opinion of the later shows were, they still kept the Star Trek machine alive and well, creating new generations of sci-fi nerds. And now, finally, it's given J.J. Abrams something to do so he doesn't have to go back to "Lost" and try to figure out what the hell is going on over there what with the polar bears and the dead Hobbit.

In short, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" gave us a hell of a lot of good stuff. It was worth getting beamed into the warp core every week just to watch it.


Shan said...

Huzzah! Not much I can add to this Liz. (EW also had a special insert in last week's issue recognizing the anniversary, which was pretty cool).

Great summary and appreciation of a seminal television show that rarely got the accolades for writing and acting that it deserved.

Rosey said...

First, my wife loves your blog and reads it all the time, and I especially enjoyed my wife reading me this post, and I completely agree with most of what you have to say. However, my ST:TNG nerddom overcame me in a bad way. 'Legacy' is the episode when Tasha Yar's long-lost sister appears and tries to hoodwink Data (which could never work, natch). 'The Inner Light' is the one you are thinking of, when the alien satellite makes Jean-Luc live an entire lifetime in the span of minutes.

Yes, I am a huge dork. I guess that's why the wife keeps me around.

Liz said...

Thank you so much for correcting the Legacy mistake. Doh! I was worried I had it wrong when I wrote it but I didn't have a chance to check. I'm glad I've got fellow dorks to back me up. :-) And I'm glad your wife likes the blog!

cubicalgirl said...

Wow! Is the show really 20 years old? I remember being a 10-year-old kid and watching the first episode and getting instantly hooked. This show got me interested in science, got me reading, and made me pround of being a smart girl (because dumb girls don't get to go to Starfleet Academy and zoom around the stars in a spaceship!). I may not wear my communicator pin anymore, but I will always have a fondness for TNG.

Liz said...

Hear, hear, cubicalgirl! I couldn't have said it any better myself.