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Celebrating the 30-Year Legacy of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'

28 Sep, 2017 By: John Latchem


Today marks the 30th anniversary of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which premiered in first-run syndication Sept. 28, 1987.

At the time, few put much stock in the prospects of Paramount’s attempt to bring “Star Trek” back to the small screen, despite the success the crew of the original series had been enjoying in movie theaters. However, despite a bumpy start, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would go on to represent a significant milestone in the evolution of science-fiction on television.

By the mid 1980s, television networks weren’t interested in weekly sci-fi dramas anymore. In the 1960s, shows such as the original “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space” proved there was a market for it, but advancements in visual effects over the ensuing decades would prove problematic for such productions, especially with Star Wars raising audience expectations. Space-based shows were either too expensive for networks to pursue when done right, or would seem too cheesy when done on the cheap, to the point where audiences would stay away.

For example, the 1978 “Battlestar Galactica” generated a significant fan base, but not large enough for ABC to justify its weekly budget. So, the network canceled the show, then retooled its premise to cut costs. The result, “Galactica 1980,” was widely panned as one of the worst shows of all time.

“Star Trek,” of course, had migrated to the big screen by 1979 with the first film starring the cast of the original 1966-69 show. That project had evolved from an attempt by Paramount to revive “Star Trek” on television in the 1970s by making it the anchor of a new TV network. When those plans fell through, the success of Star Wars inspired Paramount executives to bring their own vaunted space franchise into cinemas.

While the business of Star Wars may have had some influence on its existence, the creative direction of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is more of a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s visually stunning ode to space exploration that was released in 1968, when the original “Star Trek” was still on the air.

While Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a box office success, it was also a troubled production that proved expensive for the studio, which overhauled the film production team to ensure a tighter budget on the sequels. This led to what most fans regard as the best of the “Trek” films, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was followed in 1984 by Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 1986 by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The three formed a tidy trilogy, with Star Trek IV proving to be the biggest box office hit of the entire franchise (a title it would hold until the J.J. Abrams movies).

During production of the fourth movie, the studio decided to take advantage of the 20th anniversary of the franchise with a new TV show. With production budgets of the films once again inching upward, the studio decided a cast of unknowns would be a cost-effective alternative way of carrying on the franchise. (Indeed, the fifth film to feature the original cast would fall victim to budget restrictions.)

By this time, network sci-fi was usually just a high-concept adjustment to an otherwise normal TV show — Knight Rider and its talking robotic car had just finished airing on NBC. Paramount decided to air the new “Star Trek” episodes in syndication, bypassing networks and selling the episode rights directly to stations in local markets. Syndication is typically a distribution model for reruns of old shows and movies, but using it for original content wasn’t unheard of, such as with American airings of the British show “Space: 1999” in the 1970s.

As to the problem of production costs, the show’s visual effects team decided it could save time and money by compositing the show on video tape, resulting in complex visual effects that at the resolution of televisions at the time would appear to be motion-picture quality. (This process, however, wasn’t suitable for high-definition, leading to the show being painstakingly remastered in the past few years for a Blu-ray release).

Gene Roddenberry returned to create the show, essentially reinventing the concept he had brought to NBC more than 20 years earlier, refining it to reflect changes to his humanist philosophy over the ensuing decades. Roddenberry’s involvement with the new show might be considered ironic in some circles, given how the show was a response to the movies, which didn’t achieve their measure of success until after Roddenberry’s role in their production was reduced following the first film.

Likewise, it could be argued that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” didn’t take off until many of the storytelling restraints Roddenberry imposed upon it were lifted after he took on a reduced role in its production in the later seasons. He died in 1991.

By then the show had caught on, and its success led to a glut of programming using first-run syndication, such as the long run of “Baywatch” following a brief network run. Hollywood being the hot-bed of imitation that it is, by the 1990s many shows in this new wave of syndication were low-budget sci-fi and fantasy efforts, such as “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and its spinoff, “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

Paramount itself would produce one such show in the form of “War of the Worlds,” a two-season sequel to the 1953 film based on the H.G. Wells novel.

By 1993, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was popular enough to justify its own spinoff, and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” was born, inverting the “Trek” formula by being set on board a space station rather than a ship.

With syndication having proved viable, distributors also began to piece together ad hoc networks for their shows, such as the “Prime Time Entertainment Network,” which aired “Babylon 5,” a space station-based rival to “DS9,” and “Time Trax,” a show about a time traveling cop aimed at the “Quantum Leap” crowd.

By the mid 1990s, deregulation would allow these syndication relationships to coalesce into new national networks, with the WB and Paramount’s UPN joining CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. With “Star Trek: The Next Generation” coming to an end in 1994 (and itself migrating to the big screen), and “DS9” proving a success amid an increasingly crowded syndication field, Paramount decided that a fourth “Trek” show, “Star Trek: Voyager,” would anchor its new network, finally realizing the plans it has previously tried in the 1970s.

As if on cue amid this resurgence, the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) launched in 1992, and over time cable channels would prove to be a viable home for televised sci-fi. “Stargate SG-1,” based on the 1994 Stargate movie, would premiere on Showtime in 1997 before itself migrating to the Sci-Fi Channel.

All these shows, but especially “Star Trek,” would prove to be a stomping ground for sci-fi writers on TV.

Prominent “TNG” and “DS9” writer/producer Ronald D. Moore and several other writers from those shows would go on to produce the 2003-09 remake of “Battlestar Galactica” for Sci-Fi Channel that many consider to be one of the hallmarks of the current age of prestige serialized television dramas. After that, Moore adapted “Outlander” for Starz.

Another notable “DS9” writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, went on to produce “Andromeda,” a future-set sci-fi show based on ideas by Gene Roddenberry.

“Star Trek; Voyager” alum Bryan Fuller was later responsible for the likes of “Dead Like Me,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Hannibal” and “American Gods.”

Still other “Trek” veterans would stay on with the franchise, with “Star Trek: Enterprise” airing for four seasons on UPN following the end of “Voyager.” With the end of “Enterprise” in 2005, producers felt it was only appropriate to conclude where it started, setting the finale of the 18-year run of revived “Star Trek” as another adventure for members of the “TNG” crew.

Even writers who didn’t work on “Trek” were certainly influenced by it, given “TNG” an even bigger footprint on the landscape of television over the past 30 years.

So, it’s only fitting that one of the latest entries in this legacy is “The Orville,” a loving homage to “TNG” created by long-time fan Seth MacFarlane and produced by many of talents who cut their teeth on “Star Trek” so many years ago.

And, of course, the franchise itself is back on TV with “Star Trek: Discovery,” which, in keeping with the tradition of finding new distribution models to deliver new “Star Trek,” is the flagship of the CBS All-Access streaming service.

In many ways, “Discovery” is a bold departure from the franchise fans might be used to — a reinvention of “Star Trek” for the golden age of television of the 21st century. And in that, the franchise has in its own way come full circle, as the wide-ranging impact that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had on the television landscape will continue to be felt for years to come.



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