Nerd Factor: To Boldly Go Where No Show Had Gone Before

Dr. Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

Thirty-five years ago, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted. Arriving on Sept. 28, 1987, the series ushered in an entirely new era of Trek. In retrospect, it is also amazing that this new era happened at all. Today, Star Trek is a true popular culture franchise, spinning out in a variety of media. Back in ’87 though, Trek was pretty much running on old school Enterprise energy. 

The original television series was a fan favorite but also a commercial disaster. NBC had canceled the show in 1968. A fan campaign saved it for a third season, but then NBC killed it for good in 1969. Spinning out into syndicated reruns, the series was finally able to flourish as a phenomenon. That did not prompt much of a return to television though, leading only to the two season Saturday morning Star Trek cartoon (1973-1974). 

The franchise got a boost when Star Wars ignited an era of blockbuster science fiction films. Trek went to the big screen. By 1987 though, there had only been four of these movies. And every last one of these series centered on the original starship Enterprise and its crew. 

As the name implies, Next Generation was an attempt to put someone else in the captain’s chair. Captain Kirk was gone. Captain Jean-Luc Picard arrived. In hindsight this might seem odd, but the question was serious. Could the Trek formula work with a new cast?

Another major challenge was that Next Generation was not on any television network. With all of the programming options we have now, we forget that in the 1980s, the name of the game was network. Perhaps the memories of NBC’s betrayal still lingered. Instead, this new Enterprise would warp forward in syndication. Television stations independently bought the program. Sure, it ran regularly but not with the branding and promotional power of a giant TV network. 

I remember going into the pilot episode with a certain giddy thrill, the intoxicating mix of anticipation and dread that diehard fans experience when there is a major change in their favorite franchise. The pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” was an exciting introduction to the new cast. Its antagonist, the cosmically powered Q, was also an engaging foe. I felt good about this new series. It could really boldly go into the final frontier.

In its first season Next Generation did not always live up to that potential. I remember really worrying about this show at the time. I wanted this new Trek to work. While there were some great stories, there was also a lot of mediocrity, plus some truly bad episodes.

Somehow it survived. In retrospect, I believe that this was the power of character. Science fiction series will often give us really interesting protagonists. In particular, Picard was certainly a fascinating captain, quite different from Kirk but equally effective. The android Data also had an involving personal quest to understand humanity that echoed Spock’s dichotomy in the original series. The rest would flesh out a bit later, but most were compelling even in the earliest stages. By its third season, the series had hit its stride, developing some terrific science fiction stories. 

Next Generation’s success pushed Trek into a true media franchise. Since its debut, there have been eight other television series, five of which are currently producing new episodes are cornerstones for the Paramount+ streaming network. This show truly changed everything for Trek. 

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