Monday, May 11, 2009

To Boldly Go, Part III : The Next Generation

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Next Generation was my first Star Trek love as a kid and I enjoyed most of the show's good seasons (three through seven) as they were originally broadcast. The Next Generation was a lot of what the original series wasn't. It was (at times) a more serious drama, with more serious actors, and with writers who may have taken things a bit more seriously. Additionally, the basic structure of the show was adjusted to meet common sense realities. Away missions for instance, didn't involve the three most important people on the ship, but the First Officer (Commander Riker) and more carefully selected teams. And unlike the original series, some attention was paid to continuity of plot and character development as the show progressed.

Over time, it's become apparent that the Next Generation has simultaneously aged well in some regards and terribly in others. Perhaps because the show strove to take itself so much more seriously than the Original Trek, the bad episodes of the Next Generation are really bad. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy going to the Nazi planet is so over the top it's possible to just sit back and enjoy it, but Wesley Crusher's faced with execution for trampling the flowers (Justice)? Or the bad Vegas casino on the alien world where people go in, but never come out (The Royale)? Just terrible. And that's to say nothing of the aging disease (Unnatural Selection) or the inhibition shedding disease (The Naked Now) or any number of other plots rehashed from the original series.

What the Next Generation had going for it from day one was Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard and Stewart's range shined through even the worst of times.

What Was Awesome:

# The Borg. Star Trek's ultimate villain was ruthless in their quest for simultaneous biological and mechanical perfection. The Borg were frightening in their introduction in season 2's "Q Who" and they brought the Star Trek universe as we know it to it's knees in the "Best of Both Worlds" cliffhanger.

# "Darmok," where Captain Picard had to learn to communicate with an an alien captain who's race spoke only in metaphors.

# The Klingons. The cartoon villains from the original series were remade into the popular warrior culture Star Trek fans know today. Ron Moore's Klingon saga- "Sins of the Father," "Reunion," and "Redemption"- was a template for the political and personal drama that would later make up Deep Space Nine.

# "The Inner Light," one of those fine examples of what the format of Star Trek is capable of. Captain Picard lives a lifetime in the shoes of an alien on a dying world, getting married, having children, and having grandchildren, all as part of the dying race's plan to share their culture with the rest of the galaxy.

# "Frame of Mind," "Parallels," or any of the other Brannon Braga mindfucks that made us question the true nature of reality.

# "Tapestry," the Next Generation's version of "It's A Wonderful Life," with Q taking Picard on a tour of the key moments of his life in the midst of a near death crisis. And yes, there's a reason why a lot of these best moments involve Patrick Stewart.

# The holodeck and the ridiculous fun of the early holodeck episodes ("The Big Goodbye," "Elementary Dear, Data," and "Hollow Pursuits").

# The poker games with Commander Riker and the rest of the officers. These were pure character moments, only rarely connected to the plot and they provided the characters a depth that most of the other Treks tended to struggle with.

# "Yesterday's Enterprise," not for the reappearance of Tasha Yar or her heroic decision to sacrifice herself to restore the time line, but for the truly dark and different image of the Enterprise as a warship in a galaxy at war.

# Captain Picard's relationship with Dr. Crusher, which was constantly teased but only given significant screen time in season seven.

# Later episodes like "The Wounded" and "Half a Life" which dealt with real, raw human frailties. "The Wounded" was unique in that it showcased the little utilized Chief O'Brien and his former commanding officer, while "Half a Life" showcases Lwaxana Troi and her new found love who is not long for this world.

# Data, who was created to be the Spock of The Next Generation and wound up exceeding Spock in terms of his exploration of the human condition.

What Was Not Awesome:

# What they did to the Borg. First, they humanized them and made them all warm and cuddly in "I, Borg." Then, they gave the Borg emotions and put them under the control of Data's evil twin brother. If only it wasn't worse than it sounds.

# Wesley Crusher, boy genius, saving the ship again.

# Deanna Troi. There may not have been a more pointless character on Star Trek. I was listening to a podcast the other day that described Troi something like this: Any time a shifty, sceevy looking alien would get on the view screen, the empath would tell Captain Picard, "he's lying," as if none of the rest of us could tell that the shifty alien wasn't telling the truth.

# The second season, in which Dr. Crusher was replaced with the obnoxious Dr. Pulaski and the season finale consisted of a terrible clip show. To be fair, there were perhaps more high points than in season one ("Elementary, Dear Data, "Q Who," "A Matter Of Honor," and "The Measure Of A Man"), but there's a lot there that's tough to get through.

# Any of the all too familiar subplots where the ship is put in danger by spatial distortions or spatial creatures or some other unnecessary threat. There were far too many episodes where good character work was interrupted by these useless subplots, as if Star Trek couldn't exist without putting someone in danger every week.

# Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), commenting that the 24th century way of life may be worth giving up cigars for. I think Ron Moore was so incensed by this little pc nugget that he decided to make the doctor on Battlestar Galactica a cigarette smoking fiend.

# Geordi's incompetence with women. 30 year-old men can be shy or stupid. Not both.

# Tasha Yar's death. Yes, it was supposed to be meaningless, but that's not what we watch tv for. You can't kill off a main character like a red shirt.

# Underground tunnels and caves. This would be a complaint of mine throughout all the modern incarnations of Star Trek. I've been in one real set of caverns in my life and it took an elevator to get down to them. Yet virtually every planet in the Star Trek universe has massive caverns, all of which look quite similar. Given the number of more modern science fiction shows that relied heavily on location shooting (Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and even X-Files), the heavy use of sound stages for these sorts of scenes stands out even more over time. It gives a cheap look to a show that looks good otherwise.

# "Force of Nature," the ridiculous environmental episode where it's discovered that warp drive is destroying the galaxy. A warp speed limit is set to minimize damage, a ridiculous idea if warp drive really was destroying the fabric of space. That speed limit is subsequently ignored in all later incarnations of Star Trek.

# Any of the episodes dealing possession by alien life forms. It was done in the original Star Trek and none of the Next Generation episodes on the subject had anything new to offer.

# Worf's relationship with Counselor Troi. Ugh.


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