Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Yesterday's Enterprise

25 years ago, the history of the future changed with the airing of "Encounter at Farpoint", the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm sure a lot of nerds have written about this momentous shift(Brian Phillips from Grantland among them), and I'm not sure how much commentary there is to add to the volumes written, so I'm going to attempt to engage in the dialogue in a more personal manner, rather than trying to examine broad tropes or themes.
It's almost hard to believe that until 1987, Trekkies only had Kirk, Spock and Bones and the original crew to enjoy, considering how universal characters like Picard, Data, and Worf have become. In fact, it's hard to imagine science fiction as an episodic entity at all without the influence of TNG. There's something about the way that TNG "engaged" its audience (pun intended) that made it one of the last science fiction programs that had a wider appeal and entered the mass pop culture consciousness. Their influence was strong enough that they were featured in four movies, and that there were an additional three television shows commissioned as a result of the success of TNG, which was anything but guaranteed when it premiered. Who knows where Star Trek would be without TNG?
I started watching TNG when I was about eight or nine years old. It became a ritual for me and my dad to watch TNG on Friday nights at 10 pm. We would make a bowl of popcorn at around 9:45 and make our way downstairs to the den, where he would take several minutes to get the VHS set up to record. My dad still has every episode on VHS with all of the commercials removed, mostly in order of presentation. Once the show had made it through the teaser, opening credits, and the episode's title had graced the screen, I could sit in "the curl" (what my dad would call the space behind his legs as they formed a sideways vee on the couch) and enjoy the show. I think I started watching at the beginning of the fifth season; I am not sure which was the first episode I actually watched - I think it might have been "Redemption Part 2", the season five premiere, but I have fond memories of watching tapes of season 4, including "Remember Me", which may have contributed to my childhood crush on Dr. Crusher. For the next three years, I was there every Friday night, watching with my dad, as the adventures became more ethically nebulous. I collected cards, pogs, and figurines, most of which I still have. It engaged my intellect in a way that few science-fiction shows have since, and in a way that Star Wars never could. (I remember being dumbfounded by Lucas' dialogue and characters even at age 10.) Although I know the plot of almost every episode of The Original Series, I have not watched many full episodes, and I did not watch any of the subsequent iterations of Star Trek (DS9, Voyager, or Enterprise); I'm not sure why, but I think it was because I felt like I had what I needed from TNG.
My wife and I have recently started watching through the series from the beginning, and I have been surprised at how many early episodes I had not seen in full, and how little I had missed them. Watching Season 1, in particular, is more a test of endurance than of entertainment; there are some standout episodes ("Conspiracy" in particular), but the bulk of the season is spent figuring out the characters and major ideas. Tasha Yar's death marked a significant improvement for the series, and Season 2 provides a marked improvement in quality and character development, including actually having one constant Chief Engineer (I think I counted six or seven in Season 1). We are now partway into Season 3, 54 episodes into the series, and I'm excited to start getting to episodes that are in my actual memory (as opposed to episodes that I know because I read the plots or had the cards). I'm glad Star Trek: The Next Generation was a personal cultural touchstone for me, and I'm glad that it has (mostly) held up 25 years later. I know I will not get to see any new voyages from that crew, but I can always go back to the voyages of yesterday's Enterprise.

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