Lately I’ve been watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on G4. Why a channel ostensibly devoted to videogames is running three hours of Star Trek each weeknight is beyond me, but I’ll take it.
Watching the show has reminded me just how much of a Star Trek fan (aka geek) I was as a kid. I never watched the original show, but my father was a huge fan of it, so when TNG came around, he got me watching it. And thus was born an adolescent love that lasted for many years.
I watched the show pretty religiously until around the sixth season, when my burgeoning social life in elementary and high school drew my interests in other directions. But from 1988 to 1992, I was really into Star Trek. This was expressed primarily in my reading many of the tie-in novels, especially those written by Peter David. (If I ever make it as a writer, I’ll owe a debt to David’s Star Trek novels.) I also played Star Trek during recess with a childhood friend, Chris, who vaguely resembled a blond Spock and was given to using two taped-together batteries as a phaser. I was usually the commanding officer (I continually promoted myself over time until I became the “Starfleet Commander”) whereas Chris was always my second banana. While I was always fighting some enemy ship or setting the self-destruct on our own vessel, Chris was happy to pretend we were on an alien planet examining some exotic life-form. The most amusing thing I recall from those days (if anything can be more amusing than the entire situation) was that my “character” eventually developed the ability to morph into the Alien (from the Alien movies) at will, much like the Incredible Hulk.
Eventually, Chris moved away and I lost interest in Star Trek, though I did catch the last episode of TNG, and I always made sure to see the films when they came out.
As a kid, I enjoyed a lot of the more superficial aspects of ST:TNG: the starships, the weird aliens, the Borg, Data, and whatnot. But watching it now—especially in the current political environment—I’m drawn in by how incredibly optimistic the show is. Everyone on the show is so understanding, so respectful of one another. There’s not much shouting and hardly any conflict among the main characters. Realistic? Hard to say. Four centuries is a long time to try and get it right. But realistic or not, it’s certainly optimistic.
TNG took a lot of flack for its optimism in later years. Ronald D. Moore, the man behind the revamped Battlestar Galactica, cut his teeth on the various Star Trek shows, and judging from BSG, I have to wonder whether he felt smothered by the feel-good nature of TNG. Certainly when he got his hands on Deep Space Nine he set to work darkening the tone and creating conflict among the characters.
I’ve long stated that American pop culture seems to have a nostalgia cycle of about twenty years, and if that’s true, TNG nostalgia should be coming up pretty soon. And watching the reruns on G4, I think it might happen. That optimism is immensely refreshing, and a stark contrast to BSG, which tends to augment our cultural anxiety through its paranoid and depressing storylines. More than any other Star Trek series (including the original), TNG emphasized the potential of the human species to grow and evolve, to move beyond our petty conflicts and respect one another. It was about exploration of both the galaxy and—to use a hoary expression—the human condition.
It’s interesting that TNG aired just before the boom of the mid-to-late nineties. Then, during the boom, the other Star Trek shows—Deep Space Nine in particular—became darker and more action-oriented. Like TNG, they were just slightly ahead of the cultural milieu.
Given the near-self-destruction of the Star Wars franchise, I think Star Trek has the potential for a good nostalgic boost and renewed cultural cache. It’s a great time to rediscover the show; it’s been out of the public eye for some time, and the recent films have been box office failures with storylines that were quite different in style and tone than the television series anyway. Yes, TNG is a bit stiff at times—fans of the original series sometimes referred to it as a “talk show in space”—but the ideas are still interesting and the characters are like old, familiar friends.
My father was a very big fan of the original series, and to this day it’s a little weird for me to watch it because he picked up so many of Shatner’s mannerisms (no, not the odd speech patterns—mostly facial expressions, particularly the wry humorous ones). While I don’t seem to have picked up any of Captain Picard’s mannerisms (unfortunately, mine seem to have come entirely from a youthful fondness for the early work of Jim Carrey), I certainly looked up the man, and would happily share a drink with him any day—no doubt a stiff, British drink (despite his ostensible French heritage), followed by slightly awkward conversation and eventually an unspoken, respectful, but obvious dismissal from the good captain, who has determined I am an odd fellow and would probably have ended up in the blue uniform instead of red.