It's strange to feel nostalgic for something you never actually experienced. When I began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix a few weeks ago, I had only the vaguest memories of it from catching clips as a kid. The shimmer of Data's skin. The folds of Worf's brow, like an eternally confused exchange student.
I knew, of course, that this is what made Patrick Stewart's commercial career. And I'd gathered from the way an uncle talked about the show that Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise had been a surrogate father to many Trekkies as they sat watching it on the floor of their dark bedrooms, the cool glow of their TVs a comfort against the ache of adolescence, as their real fathers puttered around somewhere downstairs.
[Original Star Trek The Next Generation Trailer.mp4 on server]
The original "Star Trek: The Next Generation" trailer. Would you have watched?
"[W]hat actually has me coming back episode after episode is perhaps the greatest TV crush I've ever had. No, not Commander William T. Riker, though he does look like he walked straight out of a Fantastic Sams ad."
In many ways, starting Next Generation now feels like walking into a party 30 years too late: everyone's putting on their coats to go home, and they look up and say, "Sorry, the booze is all gone, and every good conversation is over." I was born a month before the premiere of the Next Generation series, which ran from 1987 to 1994. Even by the end of the seventh season, I would still have been too young to have really bonded with the Enterprise and its crew.
As I now begin the second season of the show, it sometimes seems like I've stepped sideways into the lost memories of an alternate childhood, one in which I binged on Next Generation reruns, knew the crew's first names, and marked time by when they changed their hair or their uniforms.
"In one episode, the crew talk to the only teenage crew member about the perils of doing drugs, which probably made Nancy Reagan very happy."
Star Trek—at least the Star Trek that I love, not the Star Trek that's crashing into movie theaters on Friday—is rarely violent. When Captain Picard sends his "away team" to investigate planets or abandoned ships or meet with alien races, the crewmates "set phasers to stun," using lethal force only as a last resort. Each episode's victories, every triumph over an adversary, is due to a deft bit of rhetorical maneuvering, usually Picard's. This is one of the joys of coming to the show as an adult: I get to see Patrick Stewart flex his famous Shakespearean muscle in the jumpsuit of a Starfleet officer—sometimes literally ("Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction"), but more often as he slyly engages in a battle of wits with powerful foes whom most humans have never faced.
"'Star Trek: The Next Generation' is a pre-internet show about a post-internet age, one in which the internet was never invented."
Instead of combat, the show poses questions about humanity's role in the universe. The crew is guided ultimately by the Prime Directive, the highest commandment in the United Federation of Planets, which prevents Starfleet officers from interfering with the development of alien species. A noble enough sentiment, but one that often presents a tricky moral quandary for the characters (and for the viewers, too).
When Commander Riker, the Enterprise's first officer, encounters a planet on which women hold all positions of power, rendering men subservient, he is prevented by the Prime Directive from intervening when a group of men are sentenced to death for political dissidence. In another, super-'80s plotline, Picard and the ship's doctor cannot help the citizens of a planet who are all addicted to a narcotic substance developed on another nearby planet. (Also in this episode, the crew talk to the only teenage crew member about the perils of doing drugs, which probably made Nancy Reagan very happy).
Ultimately, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a pre-internet show about a post-internet age, one in which the internet was never invented. As such, it's hopeful, spirited, and questioning. But, to be frank, what actually has me coming back episode after episode is perhaps the greatest TV crush I've ever had. No, not Commander William T. Riker, though he does look like he walked straight out of a Fantastic Sams ad. It's Lieutenant Commander Data, an android who loves Sherlock Holmes cosplaying, is extraordinarily polite, and just wants to understand what a joke is.