On TNG 25th Anniversary

Posted by Jack on 2012-07-23 at 15:58
Tagged: scifi

There's an event tonight that I'm looking forward to in the utmost: TNG 25th Anniversary in theaters.

It's a couple of episodes, some behind the scenes footage, a sneak peak, and most importantly the chance to geek out to some classic TNG on the big screen in newly remastered high def.

The event, and the accompanying blu-ray releases over the next several years underline the desire that we trekkies have for a new series. After all, Enterprise has been off the air for 7 years now. The 2009 movie and its forthcoming sequels are enough to sate us, for now, but their glitz and sleek action don't scratch the fundamental itch of a Star Trek at its best. I am not one that hates the new films, but I recognize that Trek movies in general have always been about trading some of the series' best attributes (it's willingness to approach philosophy with sci-fi, it's vision of humanity and the Federation as benevolent keepers of a utopian society) for attributes that attract the laymen of Trek canon, the casual summer blockbuster ticket.

No, what Trekkies are thirsting for is another series. One with a set of characters we can grow to know well, like we feel we know Picard or Data or Riker or Geordie. One that takes us to new places with new challenges and, certainly, new foes. But what we have to remember is that 7 years of no series isn't anything. There was a full decade between the end of TOS and the release of the first movie, almost another decade on top of that before TNG started. 20 years separates the series.

Now, 7 years from the truncated end of Enterprise, we hear rumors. We salivate over premises that, frankly, aren't very strong. We are so desperate for a new series that we cling to these rumors and draw hope from them. Personally, though, I can wait. If we want to return to the halcyon days of Trek (like the 90s, which started and ended without ever knowing a day without a new Trek episode on the schedule) the first series to break the ice has to be phenomenal. It has to explode on the scene.

In this light, it's easy to find a new respect for TNG. After a 20 year drought, 10 of which were filled with movies featuring the old cast, they had to come on, pay homage but, more importantly, find their own niche. They did this by advancing the timeline 100 years to a more mature, more organized Federation that focused more on a peaceful exploration with strict rules about non-interference. Simultaneously though, conflicts were bigger and badder, the stakes higher. TNG came in after 20 years of the same characters off and on and managed to up the ante on practically every front. Then, given 100 more episodes (more than twice as many) they managed to turn Trek from a series into a franchise that dominated TV sci-fi for another 15 years afterwards.

This is what I want. I don't want another series. I want another era. If we have to wait for another 13 years to get the chance at having another 15 year age of Trek then I'll wait. One good series is worth 10 ST: Cardinals or other proposed series.


Taking the above to heart, what would a new series have to look like? First let's try to distill what makes Trek Trek. Here's my barest definition.

  1. The Future. This should be pretty obvious. I don't think there's much Trek in a modern day series.
  2. Human. Trek is inherently about humanity. Our journey through the stars and our trials and tribulations.
  3. Federation. Inasmuch as Trek is human, it's also about a future in which we are banded together with many other species with similar ideals. Watching Trek without the Federation would be just watching sci-fi that happens to be in the Trek universe. Enterprise gets a pass because it was a prequel, but I think that ground has been trod.

Elaborating on the above, this is what I'd like to see in a new series.

Prime Universe. Abrams' films are fine and exist handily in another universe which allows them to be considered wholly separate from every bit of Trek 'til now. Let's take advantage of that fact and stick to the prime universe that's already so well established.

Expand the Timeline... but not too far. Enterprise set a pretty firm range of dates for time travel becoming trivial enough that it's regulated. Personally, I believe that once we get too much temporal flexibility, the premise will become too stretched. If time travel is an easy tool it means that you get infinite retries on the best outcome and nobody has to live with unintended consequences as long as they are in control of a time machine. Fortunately there's about 600 years between the end of VOY (2378) and the temporal police of the 31st century in Enterprise, although I think time travel would've likely become a tool sometime before that.

Enterprise. DS9 is my favorite Trek even though it's close with TNG and TOS, however I believe that DS9 was able to drastically change the core premise of Trek (by being on a space station rather than roving the galaxy) because TNG had given the series a good lead in. A new series should return to the Trek fundamental of exploration and diplomacy on the Enterprise to start on solid ground before considering a more studious (if rewarding) approach.

Another aspect of this point, and why it's "Enterprise" and not "On a Ship" is that I want the core cast to be good at what they do, the best even. There's a trend in TV and movies lately to have anti-hero or flawed characters. This was part of the ST: Cardinal premise that I thought was terrible. I want to see shining examples of logic, efficiency, and compassion. The traits that make us, as a species, great. I don't want the same tired and conflicted main characters that you can find in every modern drama or sci-fi. I want to see my captain struggle to maintain or restore order in the galaxy, not struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

Crew Diversity. One of the great aspects of TNG was the ability to bring many viewpoints to bear. The TNG crew had plenty of humans, but also Troi, Worf, Data, and even Barclay to bring viewpoints other than human Elite Starfleet officers. TOS struggles with this in universe (Spock being the only non-human) but excelled in it out of universe (having a black woman, an asian man, and a Russian on the bridge in the late 60s). DS9 focuses on the Federation vs. Bajor contrast with Kira and various semi-regular Bajorans, but also includes Worf, Dax, Odo and Quark providing outside influences (coincidentally being on a space station instead of a ship is a definite plus in the diversity). VOY and ENT made attempts but were unsuccessful at accomplishing this, despite the seeds of possibility.

Screen Time. The final thing I'd like to see in a Trek series is a lot of screen time. These days, there's been a definite trend toward short seasons. For the most part, this is good. If Game of Thrones has only 12 episodes to tell you a compelling arc, then you know each episode is going to be packed with content. Same thing with Breaking Bad, or Mad Men. The source of entertainment is the drama and the 12 episode season is very conducive to having drama dripping from every episode. But drama is not what Trek is about, at least not all the time.

Imagine cutting TNG down to twelve episodes a season. You have to ditch a full 92 episodes. Sure, you could start easily enough, forgetting bad episodes like Sub Rosa (my personal least favorite) but pretty soon you're going to be cutting into episodes that are great, but not great enough. For example, The Measure of a Man. That episode would never get made if all 12 episodes had to be action packed drama fests. It's too wordy and plodding. Yet it's a great exploration into the topic of whether Data is human or deserves rights and, more generally, whether a human creation can ever have the same rights as humans themselves. Trek philosophy via sci-fi at its greatest would've never made it in a short season.

Now, I'm not saying that it has to be a full 26 episode season either, but whatever number, there needs to be plenty of time to ponder alongside the time for tension and drama. This is especially true if the new Trek follows the modern drama formula where each episode relies on the last. A Trek show has never been done like this (DS9 comes the closest toward the end), but this is not incompatible with having occasional one-offs and philosophical episodes that are woven into that framework.

This is roughly what I'd like to see, not only because it would please me, but also because I think it would provide a solid base for subsequent series and, therefore, another era of Trek on the airwaves. This is just a base however. I mentioned above that TNG upped the ante on virtually every aspect of TOS. While a modern series would obviously have the effects and make-up in the bag (even over 2005 Enterprise), it'd be tough to up the ante on TNG/DS9 era Trek. The story is going to be the deciding factor and that's wide open for interpretation. This is why I can be patient. Anyone can make a show that fulfills the above criteria but it's going to take a special someone to really make it awesome.