Friday, August 5, 2016

The Next Generation of Television; or, It's Tough Being the Bastard Child of a Legend; or, How Gene Roddenberry Destroyed Star Trek; or, How Michael Piller Saved Star Trek; or, One Big, Happy Family; or, Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes

When last we encountered the intrepid hero of our articles--the mythic property "Star Trek"--he found himself at last in a truly enviable position.  Having braved the dangerous world of big-screen cinema, he had carved out a place for himself as a fun, character-driven franchise for the 1980s.  Star Trek IV, to no one's real surprise, was an absolute mega-hit, reaching an unprecedented audience of ordinary, movie-going Americans and thoroughly delighting them with its clever character comedy about a crew of misfits and their adventures in the contemporary world.  This was a film that anyone--emphasis anyone--could understand and enjoy, from the most fervent Trekkie to the most hardened Queen fan.  Star Trek was now an indelible part of the cultural mainstream--and it was also on a roll.

Faced with such unprecedented success, the studio rubbed its metaphorical hands together, and contemplated what to do next.  That there would be yet another big-screen Star Trek adventure was all but a given--and in a future post, we will consider that film and its sequel in turn--but Star Trek now was so popular that executives began to wonder if its audiences could not, perhaps, handle even more Star Trek than this.  Perhaps it was time to diversify the franchise, and take it back to its roots.

Star Trek was going to return to television.

There was, however, one big problem with this: or rather, a whole set of cascading problems, all leading to one extremely unpleasant conclusion.  First and foremost, the cast and crew of Star Trek, now much older and much richer, were not at all willing to return to the back-breaking 14-hour days of television, nor did the studio have any intentions of not making more films in order to let them do so.  If Star Trek was going to return to television, then, it would have to be on the basis of an entirely new cast, and thus probably an entirely new crew and setting.  This, however, presented its own set of problems; for Star Trek the film series had, over time, come to rely almost entirely on the strength of these original characters and their associated actors.  Star Trek IV had been a character comedy; and what it showed was that Kirk, Spock, and company were now so iconic and so beloved that they could be plunked down in 1980s San Francisco and still hold audiences riveted.  Casting a new crew, with new characters and new actors, would be a massively difficult undertaking, and would face significant opposition, not only from the hardcore fans for whom the original cast were gods of a sort, but also from the public at large, for whom Star Trek had become indelibly linked with these particular names and faces.  Even if this problem were overcome, any revival of Star Trek would also face an extraordinary, uphill battle in establishing itself as a television show; for by the 1980s, science fiction was, once again, basically extinct on television--meaning that any new Star Trek show would have to rely largely on the large and growing Star Trek fanbase, and not the general television-watching public, for its success.  This, though, presented its own problems; for the original show's fervent fanbase had watched and rewatched and scrutinized the original 79 hours of TOS so many times, and with such devotion, that virtually every deviance from the original would be noticed and criticized.

Hence, the studio quickly concluded, any new Star Trek show would have to possess some utterly undeniable imprimatur of true Star Trekness--something that would ensure that both the general public and the most hardcore fan alike would accept it, not just as a random sci-fi or drama show, to be judged on its own terms, but as Star Trek.

Faced with this dilemma, the studio, finally, was brought to take a very difficult and very dangerous, step; they went to Gene Roddenberry, and asked him to make the show for them.

This was, in fact, an almost unprecedented reversal of policy; for after the behind-the-scenes hell of TMP, Roddenberry had been kicked upstairs into a purely symbolic role as "executive consultant" on the films, able to comment on everything that went on but without any real power or influence.  On TWOK, Meyer had created his own version of Star Trek; on TSFS, Bennett had done the same; and on TVH, Nimoy had indulged his own vision to an extreme (and delightful) degree.  A powerless Roddenberry, marginalized and distrusted by the studio authorities, had heavily criticized these films on many different accounts, and continually pitched his own, alternate Star Trek movie (involving time travel and the Kennedies)--but he had not been listened to.  Star Trek the film franchise had a direction, a recipe, and a creative team--and this team did not include him.

The television show, though, would be different.  Here, Gene Roddenberry would, once again, be in charge.

This, however, posed a number of problems.  First and foremost, Roddenberry was, to put it mildly, not a well man.  Roddenberry had fought in WWII, and was far from young; and he also had significant problems with both alcohol and drugs to contend with.  He, apparently, did not initially want anything to do with making a new Star Trek series--but, in the course of negotiations with the studio, he was brought to agree to it anyway.

In truth, what the studio offered him was so tempting that it was almost impossible to refuse: complete power and creative control over Star Trek the television show, with an open-ended mandate to assemble his own team, come up with his own ideas, and make the show.  For a man used to years of ineffectively criticizing the work of others, this was practically irresistible.  He was also given, of course, an enormous amount of money--and that no doubt helped as well.

When the dust settled, Roddenberry was now definitely in charge, with a blank check to do whatever he wanted.  Quickly, he turned to some of the people who had, back in the '60s, helped him make Star Trek TOS happen: Bob Justman, Eddie Milkis, David Gerrold, and D.C. Fontana.  Many of these people had cut their creative teeth, so to speak, on the original Star Trek, and a lot of them had been thinking about it ever since.  They had, to say the least, some ideas--and quickly, this small group began to come up with the blueprint for a new generation of adventures.

This was, in truth, an interesting group of people assembled to plan the future both of science fiction on television and (supposedly) the human race; and it was an interesting time in which they lived.  In the '60s, optimism and struggle had been the order of the day; then, in the '70s, optimism had given way to malaise and profound pessimism for much of America.  Now, in the '80s, most of the country had, gradually, settled down to the idea that, perhaps, things were going to be alright after all; or, at least, keep going for significantly longer than they had thought.  Ronald Reagan was President now; and if about half of the country hated him passionately--criticizing his get-rich-quick policies and expecting his confrontational foreign policy to get the world blown up at any moment--the other half was starting to become pretty happy with this newfangled Conservative Movement now running things.  If you were the right sort of person, then you were now seeing significantly more prosperity and immeasurably more security in your life and in America; and if you weren't, well, at least you had Mr. T and Star Wars to take your mind off things.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times--but at least it was no longer the 1970s.  This, at least, everyone could agree on.

On the other hand, David Bowie was making some truly abysmal music.  Seriously, there is no question--'80s Bowie is the worst Bowie.  I mean, "Dancing in the Street"?  What is this garbage?

Star Trek the film series was indelibly a franchise for the '80s, and its new world of greater optimism and higher profits.  Star Trek The Next Generation, though, was born entirely out of the heads of people who had been working already in the '60s, and had had their lives dramatically changed by Star Trek's success in the '70s.  If Star Trek The Next Generation was in conception a vision of the future, then, it was a vision of old men, not young ones.  There were no "movement conservatives" on the Enterprise--and not even much in the way of recognizable 1980s "liberals" either.  Whatever TNG at its beginning was, it was something much older, and far stranger, than anything the 1980s had to offer.  

For Roddenberry quickly made one thing abundantly clear to everyone involved: The Next Generation was to be nothing less than a depiction of utopia.  On the films, he had been foiled in his attempts to depict this utopia as it should be, forced to give way to others' visions of character and community and meaning; but now, finally, he had the power.  The future society of the Federation would now be as he had always--at least since the '70s--wanted it to be: no religion, no money, no poverty, no war, and plenty of sex for everyone.

The influence of this rather archaic brand of utopianism is all over the initial concepts for TNG--not least in Roddenberry's famous, or rather infamous, dictum that, in the future, interpersonal conflict, of any kind, would no longer exist.  Starfleet officers, as the very highest paragons of a utopian society, were to be right-minded, brilliant, at peace with themselves and the world, and largely without flaws: Spock's tortured soul, McCoy's irritability, Kirk's bluster, were all part of the past, not the future.  Likewise, Starfleet was now, without a doubt, not a military affair; rather, exploration and scientific research were to be the order of the day.

David Gerrold also contributed a lot to this setting; from him came the idea that, in the future, uniforms and environments would be designed, not for the sake of military discipline, but for maximum comfort.  Uniforms would, naturally, consist of futuristic jumpsuits (a la TMP), the Enterprise herself would be all padded fabric, a psychiatrist would have a position on the bridge, and crews would bring their whole families, children and all, with them on their voyages.

Far from Horatio Hornblower's naval vessel, the Enterprise was now more like a futuristic cruise ship, peopled with scientists and humanitarians.  Also, it would contain men in unisex skirts:

What was happening to TNG in its initial stages was, in a sense, the opposite of what had happened to Star Trek the film franchise.  The latter had returned to the forgotten roots of Star Trek--'60s Westerns, military dramas, and Horatio Hornblower--and used them to craft universal stories about character and friendship.  TNG, however, was now carefully and deliberately jettisoning every one of its influences, instead presenting Star Trek as it had grown and morphed in its creators' minds over 20 long years in the wilderness--a life-changing event in each of their lives, every detail made significant by hindsight, endlessly hashed over at conventions and in interviews, enlarged with progressive, utopian dreams in the '1970s, remade and remolded endlessly in the image of political and philosophical opinions, likes, and dislikes, and gradually purified of every extraneous or contradictory element.  This was to be Star Trek not as character comedy, or Western, or naval adventure; this was to be Star Trek as Star Trek.  Purity of vision was now everything.

Initially, while Roddenberry was very much in charge, Gerrold and Fontana made enormous contributions on the creative front, while Justman and Milkis focused on getting the production side of things up and running.  This team, who had made TOS back in the day, was now to make TNG as well.

By the end of the first season, though, every single one of these people would be gone, and only Roddenberry would remain.

Before we get to how and why this happened, though, let us examine TNG as it appeared to viewers at the time of its premiere episode, Encounter at Farpoint, in 1987.

Encounter at Farpoint is, to put it mildly, not very good at all; it is dull and self-important, stuffed with blank, generally unpleasant characters, and with a plot that vacillates between bizarre and uninteresting in rapid succession.

To be fair, though, it does have some very good special effects, as well as a pair of space jellyfish.  Take what you can get.  Likewise, the character of Q, and the bizarre courtroom he presides over as he judges the human race on the charge of being "a grievously savage race," are legitimately disturbing and effective--Roddenberry's judgmental-god-fetish at its most stark and insane.

For all that it lacked, though, Farpoint is, after all, only a pilot episode; and pilots are often rough.  It would be what followed that would either doom TNG, or launch it into the heights of television greatness.

Unfortunately, the two seasons that followed would be, if anything, more of a disaster than the pilot, as TNG quickly shaped up to be one of the worst television shows I have ever seen--a truly remarkable combination of boring, sanctimonious, and corny.

To understand how and why this is so, let us briefly go over the characters, as conceived by Roddenberry initially, and as they appeared to viewers during its first two seasons.

First, there is Jean-Luc Picard, supposedly French (based on Roddenberry's affection for Jacques Cousteau), but played by the very bald, very English Shakespearean Patrick Stewart.  Stewart is, truly, an incredible actor; but you wouldn't know it from the first two seasons.  Picard in these seasons is, to put it mildly, basically an unpleasant jerk; hard-edged and demanding with those under him (his first interaction with Riker in the pilot is to yell at him and then make perform a dangerous and unnecessary task for no good reason), passive to the point of obsolescence (he spends most of the first season sitting around the bridge listening in and getting upset while Riker leads the missions), and with a general air of suppressed anxiety and tension about him (the result of Stewart's unfamiliarity with the stressful world of American television).  He also has the unfortunate honor of serving as the primary mouthpiece for Roddenberry's utopian ideas; which is another way of saying that he has the bad habit of breaking out, at the slightest provocation, into speeches, soliloquies, and asides about how primitive and awful humans used to be in the past (especially 20th century humans!), and how wonderful they are in the present--as though being perfect consists primarily of an obsessive need to discourse on one's own perfection and denigrate others.  A little insecure, Gene Roddenberry Jean Luc?

Whatever we may think of these utopian sentiments in the abstract, though, on screen they are dramatic death; and they also do an entirely predictable number on Picard's basic likeability as well.  After about the fifth one of these speeches, you kinda want to slug the man.

According to Patrick Stewart, Roddenberry initially advised the actor to read the Horatio Hornblower books in order to understand his character.  First-season Picard, though, is not so much Horatio Hornblower as he is someone's unpleasant, sanctimonious aunt.

Really, so mind-bogglingly awful is Picard's characterization at this point that his main "humanizing" trait is that he hates children.  I swear I'm not making this up.

Next in line is Riker, who is--basically--Kirk, if Kirk was also a smug bastard.  With Picard whining on the bridge, Riker is our more direct, heroic character--he gets to go down to the planet, defeat the bad-guy, and sleep with alien women on a regular basis.  Really, though, it's a lot weirder than that description lets on.  Kirk's talking computers to death was, at least, entertaining in a pulpy kind of way; Riker's defeating an ancient entity by quoting Sun Tzu to it until it's so impressed by him that it decides to let him go is know what, I don't even know.  What the heck is up with that, anyway?

Then there's Geordi.  Geordi, in the first season, is basically a character in search of character.  Besides the basic joke contained in his role first season--there's a blind guy flying the ship!--and his use as a walking sensor array--we need more information on this unknown object; go have the blind guy look at it!--there's just not a whole lot there.  In one episode, he randomly becomes a comic character--the kind of comic character who constantly makes jokes and laughs at everything on screen--but it doesn't last too long.  Really, in the first season, no characterization does.

Then there's Data, the android of androids.  Data would later become, justly, TNG's most popular character, and even in the first years he doesn't do too badly for himself.  In the first two seasons, though, he's mostly used for comic relief--in the sense of "ha ha, Data is too stupid to understand this obvious figure of speech!".  In fact, "Data is stupid" is one of the key writing devices used in the first two seasons of TNG to lighten the mood, and it is often taken to bizarre extremes.  Data spends a sizeable chunk of one episode, for instance, with his fingers stuck in a Chinese finger puzzle.  This is, apparently, hilarious.

Worf, is, for the most part, a thoroughly background presence at first.  Roddenberry very much disliked the idea of having a Klingon crewman onboard (it was Bob Justman's idea), and Michael Dorn was hired initially only on a trial basis.  For most of his appearances, Worf is not given too much character besides being gruff and angry--but, with a background of pure Beige n' Boring, Worf is by far the most entertaining and interesting thing going on in TNG season one.  Heart of Glory, the initial Worf-centric episode, is without a doubt one of the strongest episodes of the first two seasons--a rare example of character, rather than sci-fi based, plotting.

Then there's Wesley.  Poor, poor Wesley--the nerd Black Legend, Jar Jar Binks for the '80s, without a doubt the most hated television character of all time.

Really, it's not all bad--Wil Wheaton is a good actor for his age, and his character does get much better in later seasons, like everything else.  None of this, though takes away from the fundamental fact that Wesley is, truly, one of the most ill-conceived and poorly presented characters in all of television history.

Wesley Crusher was created, quite literally, as Gene Roddenberry's fantasy version of himself as a young man.  This is not some kind of obscure, psychologizing interpretation of the character--Roddenberry himself said so.  "Wesley," for the uninitiated, is Roddenberry's middle name; and Wesley, for the uninitiated, is basically a super-genius teenager who gets to fly the ship, save it from danger, and be promoted to "acting-Ensign" at the age of fifteen.  When this promotion came through onscreen, Roddenberry held a ceremony on set where he gave Wil Wheaton his own real-life Ensign insignia; and in the same episode, onscreen, an alien mystic fervently tells Captain Picard that Wesley is a genius on the level of Mozart or Da Vinci, with the potential to transcend space and time.

In truth, the writing for Wesley is so horrific--constantly presenting him as smarter than the adults, making him almost unrecognizable as a human being--that, as even Wil Wheaton has acknowledged, it's little wonder that he's become a byword in television history.  If you're building a zeppelin, the warning is: remember the Hindenberg!  If you're writing a child character on a television show, the warning is: remember Wesley Crusher!

Then there are the female characters.  I lump them together because all three are, in the first season, clear victims of Gene Roddenberry's...issues with women.  You'll see what I mean.

The initial conception of Beverly Crusher, doctor of the Enterprise and successor to the beloved Doctor McCoy, was, quite literally, "Wesley's Hot Mom."  This is not an exaggeration.  The original Writer's Bible of TNG attributes Wesley's getting a bridge position in part to the fact that his mother "has the walk of a striptease queen."  When Gates McFadden auditioned for the part, she was not asked to read a medical scene, or one involving danger or drama: she instead performed, for Roddenberry and the producers, a scene from "the Naked Now" (one of the worst first-season episodes) where a comically drunk Dr. Crusher comes on to Picard.

Crusher does, in fact, get more to do than this in the first season (she's gone for the second)--but not that much.  Her role is basically confined to being Wesley's mom, having a strange pseudo-romantic relationship with Picard, and saying medical stuff.  Take what you can get.

Troi, for her part, is essentially Ilia from TMP--an attractive female alien with limited telepathic abilities and a past love-affair with the heroic first officer--but, thankfully, with the sillier "hypersexual" parts of Ilia's character cut out.  Roddenberry did, though, very much want her to have three breasts--before D.C. Fontana (the only female member of the cabal putting TNG together) flatly put her foot down.  Roddenberry...I ask you.

In any event, Troi in the first two seasons is also quite possibly one of the worst-executed and conceived characters in the history of television (I seem to be saying that a lot).  Her role on the show is, basically, to serve as a walking emotional sensor array; she senses danger in a vague way, cries about it, and that's about it.  Oh, and she also dresses like this:

So dire was Troi's character in the first season that she was written entirely out of a large number of episodes because the writers had no idea what to do with her.  In fact, so difficult did the writers find her that she came perilously close to being eliminated altogether.

Then there's Tasha Yar, who was eliminated half-way through the first season after her actress got fed up with her basically nonexistent part.  Yar was created by Roddenberry after watching Alien; originally hispanic ("Macha Hernandez"), she was de-ethnicized after Denise Crosby got the part.  Yar was created to be a (sexy) warrior-woman character, but she also doesn't fare too well onscreen, for obvious reasons.  In The Naked Now, she gets space drunk and seduces Data.  In Code of Honor, she impresses an alien chieftain so much with her beauty and karate skills that he kidnaps her to make her his wife/concubine, then has her duel his previous wife to the death.  Despite this, Yar is made to express a raw, nearly irresistible attraction for the chieftain's masculine dynamism and strength.  Again: Roddenberry, I ask you.  I ask you.

Anyway, those are the characters, such as they are--but, in truth, they don't get all that much to do.  TNG for its first two years is an almost entirely plot-driven show, with one strange, wacky sci-fi plot after another.  A few of them are very good (Heart of Glory, Measure of a Man, Q Who)--many of them are so abysmal they make Spock's Brain look like Hamlet (Justice, Angel One, The Last Outpost, The Outrageous Okona, et cetera et cetera et cetera)--and some of them are absurdly offensive as well (Code of Honor does "Planet of the Stupid Black People"--Up the Long Ladder does "Planet of the Stupid, Backward, Drunken Irish People").  It is, to say the least, a mixed bag; it is, rather more honestly, simply bad television, with bad characters and poor writing.

Why did this happen?  Well, for that, we will have to look behind the scenes.  Put simply, the studio's experiment--of putting Roddenberry back in charge after all these years--did not turn out at all well.

The trouble, such as it is, was this: in putting TNG together, Roddenberry had laid down very, very clear dictums on exactly what could and could not happen in his universe.  Chief among these was that there could be no conflict between the main characters, and that all of the characters would be, basically, perfect people, without internal struggle.  Between them, these two rules eliminated the two basic sources of drama in television writing--conflict with others, and conflict with self.

The writers hired to write for TNG thus found themselves faced with an almost insoluble dilemma--what the hell were they supposed to write about?  How did you write a show about perfect people living in utopia?  Who were these people anyway?

To deal with this, Roddenberry quickly, as on TMP, took to obsessively rewriting scripts, changing credits, and so on, without consulting anyone else and in complete disregard for the writers' opinions and feelings.

The writers, though, were not at all used to this kind of behavior; and--just like Livingston on TMP--they very much did not appreciate it.  And Roddenberry did not at all appreciate this lack of appreciation.

TNG for its first two seasons was a graveyard for television writers.  David Gerrold estimates that the turnover for the first season alone was something on the order of thirty writers--thirty writers, that is, fired or departed over a single year of television.  This is, to say the least, unusual.  The writers who survived for any length of time describe themselves as almost literally shellshocked by the experience; no one wanted to get close to new arrivals, knowing that they would, most likely, be gone in a matter of weeks.  One writer was hired by Roddenberry, highly praised by him for his initial work, and then fired in little more than a week--the writer, a Star Trek fan from way back, went in a matter of days from feeling like a hero to unexpectedly finding his office furniture being moved out into the hallway.  The beleaguered writing staff took to hiding a board in one of the office bathrooms; on it were written each and every name of the innumerable writers who had perished in the trenches of the TNG writing department.  As the casualties piled up week after week, stress mounted--and writing got worse.

At the same time, Roddenberry himself was ailing physically and mentally--and, anxious to protect his position, he began to rely more and more on his attorney, Leonard Maizlich, to make sure his authority was protected and enforced.  Maizlich was, to say the least, a strange man, and his zealousness to protect his client's interests often took very extreme forms.  As many witnesses attest, Maizlich took to literally sneaking into writers' offices when they weren't there and skimming through their desks and computers for information; and he also began attending creative meetings with Roddenberry, giving script advice, and even rewriting (against union rules) on the downlow.  Maizlich's antics were largely responsible for ensuring the rapid departure of all of Roddenberry's TOS confidantes (Justman, Gerrold, Fontana, Milkis) over the course of the show's first season.  These were Roddenberry's friends--but they were not Maizlich's.  Watching outside writers promoted above them, subjected to literally inhumane treatment, one by one they packed their bags and departed.  According to Gerrold, when Roddenberry at last found himself alone, he broke down and wept.

Still, the show must go on; and so must the revolving door.  Writer after writer came in, failed to meet Roddenberry's exacting standards, and was kicked back out again on the street.  With no steady hand at the tiller besides Roddenberry's, the episodes, to say the least, suffered.

Finally, towards the end of the first season, Maurice Hurley, a tough, no-nonsense professional of the television industry, was brought in and began to gradually, with the help of Rick Berman, take over creative control of this foundering enterprise.  Hurley thought Roddenberry, his ideas, and his rules were crazy and terrible--but he agreed to abide by them, and to make sure others did as well.  Hurley was a television professional; he wanted, first and foremost, to do his job.  TNG was a whacky concept-driven sci-fi show about perfect people in a utopia--sure, whatever, let's make some television.

Faced with an impossible task and subject to enormous pressures, Hurley gradually assumed a near-dictatorial control over the writers' room, narrowly enforcing Roddenberry's vision while laying the groundwork for a newer, more focused TNG.

Since TNG's characters were awful and its basic rules made character drama effectively impossible (how do you do a character show when all the characters are perfect?), Hurley decided that the only option was to embrace the plot- and concept-driven storytelling TNG had used so far, and to do it as well and efficiently as possible.  By staying on target and not making waves, the groundwork could be laid for a decent sci-fi show--or, at the very least, a sci-fi show that wasn't a living hell to work on.

Most shows of TNG's quality and ratings would have been cancelled after the first season--Paramount, though, had invested a lot of money into reviving Star Trek; and they were also selling the show in first-run syndication, meaning that there was no network to please.  TNG would continue almost no matter what.

Faced with the challenge of planning the future of his bizarre show, Hurley decided that a new, threatening villain, and a long-term plot arc, were just what was needed.  To this end, he came up with a plan for the second season of TNG that would involve the Enterprise crew gradually encountering traces of the vicious alien Borg, a hive-mind consciousness of overwhelming power.  To this end, Hurley closed the first season by re-introducing the Romulans as an adversary--and a clever red herring.  According to Hurley's plan, over the course of the second season, it would slowly become clear that both Federation and Romulan alike were suffering from the attentions of the Borg--and faced with this existential threat, the two would unite to face this overwhelming enemy, closing out the season with a bang.

This was, to give Hurley his full credit, a very logical and practical solution to TNG's creative issues, and might well have worked out pretty well--after all, who cares how boring the characters are when there's a fascinating and overwhelming villain to face, and plenty of action and intrigue?

Unfortunately, it was then that disaster struck.  A massive writer's strike broke out, plunging the entire Hollywood world into chaos, and eventually delaying the start of the second season by months.  In the end, TNG season two was produced in a white-hot pitch of fury and panic, with no time for planning or delay; and was, rather unsurprisingly, generally unsatisfying, with practically all the problems of season one and a few of its own.  Hurley's tenure did, however, lead to two truly amazing episodes as good as anything in all of Star Trek: The Measure of a Man, one of the first episodes to examine the intriguing possibilities of Data as a character, and Q Who, which belatedly introduced the Borg to the world.  Hurley's basic instincts, then, were sound, and could pay off in big ways--but TNG was still not a good show.

Fed up with the extreme stress and frayed tempers of the TNG creative team, and having seen his carefully-planned plot arc go up in smoke, Hurley gave up and walked away--by his own account, he was so relieved and happy to be done with TNG that he actually laughed out loud as he left the studio lot.  With Hurley gone and Roddenberry now alone and rapidly deteriorating, TNG was once more rudderless and adrift.

The first two seasons of The Next Generation had not only suffered from creative problems--these issues had predictably led to lack of critical and fan approval as well.  TNG was far from the hit its predecessor had been--it was, rather, the acknowledged bastard child of the franchise, unloved and unappreciated by studio and general public alike.  The cast of TNG, of course, suffered from this; with little respect from audiences and little money to their name, they were reduced to working out of tiny, bathroom-less trailers and stealing craft food from the set of Cheers.  Denise Crosby's departure at the midpoint of Season One was also devastating to the cast's morale, as was Gates McFadden's firing at the end of Season One--for unlike TOS's cast, TNG's crew of misfit actors was, almost from the beginning, bonded at the hip, with adversity and lack of appreciation from the outside world only increasing that bond.  Denise Crosby showed up in later seasons in guest spots, her duties taken on by a greatly expanded role for Worf; but McFadden and Dr. Crusher were replaced for the second season by Diana Muldaur and the new character of Dr. Pulaski--who, to put it mildly, did not work out at all.

Pulaski in conception is basically McCoy lite--old, curmudgeonly, and supposedly wise.  Unfortunately, she is given very little to do, and is not written as particularly likeable or sympathetic.  What really sinks her completely as a character, though, is the decision by the writers to try and create a McCoy-Spock dynamic between her and Data.  This was, on paper, a decent thought--but in reality, it is absolutely disastrous.  Spock is a wise, ironical, and very thick-skinned Vulcan, with an indefinable sense of age and experience about him--Data, in contrast, is basically a child; innocent, somewhat clumsy and inexperienced, and with pure aspirations and dreams.  Likewise, Pulaski is immeasurably less warm and human than McCoy--and her dogmatic insistence that Data is nothing more than a machine, and has no real sentience and personhood at all, is nothing at all like McCoy's gentle ribbing of a friend and colleague.  McCoy and Spock teased each other, but this conflict was premised on a deep and underlying affection and respect.  Pulaski's attacks on Data, though, are premised entirely on Pulaski's firm belief that Data is worthy of absolutely no respect at all--and Data, unlike Spock, is far too innocent to respond in kind.  Their interactions are not so much a comedy double-act as child abuse.

In any event, Pulaski's bad characterization was only one more in a long line of creative misteps.  By the end of the second season, poor ratings, bad reviews, low budgets, and behind-the-scenes chaos all pointed to one conclusion: the attempt to revive Star Trek was a failure--an ambitious failure, but a failure all the same.  Once again, as with TMP, Gene Roddenberry had managed to both recreate and destroy Star Trek at the same time--and this time, there was no chance of a do-over.  The dream was dead.

Then, as so often in the history of Star Trek, the franchise got lucky.

This happened in several, closely-linked ways.  To begin with, by the end of the second season, Roddenberry was very old and very tired--and as a result he, gradually, began to step back from his position of unquestioned power.  Moving into his place, initiating an almost seamless transition of authority, was Rick Berman.

Ah, Rick Berman; a beloved hero during the height of Star Trek in the '90s, and now one of the most hated people in all of Trek fandom.

Why is Berman so hated now?  Well, it depends who you ask--but it certainly has something to do with the failure of Enterprise to be renewed for a fifth season, the agreed-upon awfulness of the Enterprise finale, and the general failure of Star Trek to catch on with younger generations in the 2000s.  The thing is, Star Trek currently is kind of a second-rate franchise--a distant memory for an entire generation of Star Wars fanatics.  For nearly four years, from 2005 to 2009, there were no Star Trek properties at all--and what followed, the JJ Abrams movies, proved deeply polarizing to fandom and the public at large.  Somehow, in the time between the '90s, when Star Trek ruled, and the 2000s, Star Trek must have lost its way.  This, at least, is how many people think of the matter.

Berman was the kingpin of Star Trek for close to fifteen years; and in that time, he helped oversee four Star Trek shows and four Star Trek movies--something on the order of five hundred hours of entertainment.  For some fans, this is an example of "oversaturation," for which Berman is ultimately to blame--for others, Berman is to be censured for the creative failures of these series and these films.  For some, Berman is remembered as the man who betrayed Roddenberry's genius and vision for the sake of cheap thrills and studio mandates--for others, he is the guy imposing an unoriginal, boring sameness on the franchise, keeping Star Trek static and old-fashioned and preventing it from being as creative and daring as it should have been.  Everything wrong with Star Trek during the '90s and the early '2000s is, at one time or other, placed at Berman's feet.

In my opinion, though, both the demonizations and the defences of Berman kind of miss the point.  Berman was never, never the creative force behind Star Trek.  He was, for the most part, simply the production guy, who made sure things got done and held everyone to a certain standard of quality in effects and props and every other department of shooting and filming.  True, he did also adopt a sort of public figurehead role as the guardian of Star Trek Orthodoxy and the Anointed Successor of Gene Roddenberry--but this role was never nearly as powerful or influential as the publicity would make it seem.  Berman did come up with creative ideas, and he would read all the scripts, object to things, even occasionally veto things--but he never worked in the writer's room, and was never the driving force behind any Star Trek show creatively.  I mean, we are talking about the guy who ran Deep Space Nine for its entire run--and while Berman was heavily involved with the original concepts for the show, and later with its production, Deep Space Nine during its run is indelibly the work of Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr.  Berman did, in fact, strongly object to the Dominion War, one of the central conceits of the overall arc of the show--but it, obviously, happened anyway.  Unlike Roddenberry, Berman was no dictator.  For the most part, he was content to let the creative types run the show, and to simply make sure that show actually happened.

I confess to a certain profound sense of irony about the way in which Berman, a famously gentle professional who labored tirelessly for fifteen years and brought Star Trek to its heights of popularity, has been demonized by modern Trek fandom--while Gene Roddenberry, a man who did almost kill Star Trek numerous times and whose egotistical and unbalanced antics made life a living hell for a lot of people involved with Star Trek for quite a long time, is still surrounded by a halo of sanctity and reverence.  Life isn't fair sometimes; and neither is fandom.

Still, when Berman took over from Roddenberry in Season Three of The Next Generation, all that controversy was many years in the future; and his takeover, and Roddenberry's consequent withdrawal, was from every possible perspective an enormous boon to the show and everyone involved.

Berman's first move, characteristically, was simply to change all the visual and production elements of the show that he didn't like, and that did not measure up to his exacting standards of quality.  The tight, spandex uniforms were replaced; the lighting (which sometimes, in the early years, involved putting giant pieces of black cardboard, frequently visible on camera, onto the walls of the bridge) was changed; the opening credits sequence was redone; Pulaski was canned, and Dr. Crusher returned.  A new regime of quality and consistency, encompassing every aspect of production, would now characterize everything involved in TNG for its remaining seasons.

Still, even if the production side of things was smoother, TNG was still very much in trouble in the writing department.  This was an area that Berman was not remotely prepared to deal with--and Star Trek was far from saved.

As if to underscore this point, a new writing-producer, Michael Wagner, was hired and almost immediately quit before the season even started.  The Next Generation writing staff were now facing an abyss; no stories, no leadership, and twenty-something hours of television to fill.

It was at that point that Star Trek the Next Generation was, really and truly, saved--not by Rick Berman or Gene Roddenberry or anyone else, but by a man named Michael Piller.

Michael Piller was, really, a remarkable man--and his impact on the world of television and film is vast and continuing.  That this is not often recognized is due mostly to the fact that he died, extremely young, of cancer in 2005.  Requiescat in pace.

Still, Piller's influence is very much with us today, in the many young writers he encouraged and trained and influenced throughout his tenure in television.  Throughout his career on TNG and DS9 and Voyager, Piller inaugurated and ran an open-door story policy--essentially, the writing staff would take story ideas from anyone, anywhere, inviting script submissions and pitches from even total amateurs.  Based on this process, Piller identified and hired writers who are now some of the luminaries of television; and he influenced, trained, and taught far more.  Among his finds, for instance, are Ronald D. Moore, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, Brannon Braga, and Jane Espensen.  Bryan Fuller, the man who is currently working on a new Trek show for 2017, also got his start as a total amateur pitching for DS9.  The number of writers he influenced, though, is too long to list.  For Piller had, as we shall see, very firm ideas about writing--and these he inculcated into every soul that came into his writing room.

When Piller came onto TNG in 1989, the show was spinning rapidly out of control, as panic mounted about the utter lack of workable script ideas.  Piller came in, though, full of confidence, with a very clear and definite idea of what he wanted to do--one that stood in direct contradiction to almost everything that had come before him.

Piller wanted to make TNG a character drama.

This was, really, a crazy idea--because TNG's characters were, as we have seen, truly awful--some of the least likeable and interesting people imaginable, alternately bizarre and insufferable.  These were perfect people living in a utopia, for Waru's sake!  They could neither have conflict with each other, nor within themselves.  Making TNG about the characters was a bit like making TOS about the Metrons.

Maurice Hurley had known better.  One reason why Q Who, his introduction to the Borg, works so well is because it relies on a sizeable sense of audience schadenfreude towards Picard and company.  Q was created by Gene Roddenberry as a personal stand-in for God--a judgmental bastard super-being for Picard and co to humiliate and prove wrong over and over again with their perfection and brilliance.  Q Who, cleverly, starts out in the same vein, with Picard insisting (once again) that humanity has perfected itself, can handle anything the galaxy throws at them, and doesn't need the judgmental-weirdo-god Q to help it out.  Here, though, Hurley deliberately subverts the trope; for in response to Picard's bluster, a mocking Q hurls the Enterprise across the Galaxy and shows them something they can't handle--the Borg, in all their overwhelming power.  In no time at all the entire Enterprise crew has been soundly defeated and pushed to the brink of annihilation, with a humbled Picard forced to literally beg Q for rescue.

If the Enterprise crew are a bunch of arrogant, sanctimonious bastards, Hurley realized, then humiliating them, pushing them to the brink, was perhaps the only way to get real drama out of them.  But to pay attention to them on their own, living their boring, sanctimonious lives--and worse, set entire plots around these lives--was dramatic death.  It couldn't be done.

Piller, though, believed otherwise--and he quickly set out to prove it as well.  Before he was even hired for the show, he was invited by his friend Michael Wagner, during the latter's vanishingly brief tenure as showrunner, to write a script for the show.  This episode, Evolution, featured a standard sci-fi plot about an obsessive scientist and the accidental creation of artificial lifeforms, nanites.

Piller, though, was interested, not in the nanites, but in the characters.  Since this was to be the first episode of the new season, Piller decided that he wanted to take some time to reintroduce Dr. Crusher to the ensemble--and especially show the impact of her absence and return on her son, Wesley.  This was not something that had been dealt with almost at all in the second season--but Piller knew that, realistically, it would be very impactful for this young man to lose his mother for a year.  Wesley, after all, was not just a super-genius Mozart space-time savant--he was also a teenage boy.

It was then that another thought occurred to Piller--one that tied his concerns about Wesley's characterization to the generic sci-fi plot he'd been saddled with.  The obsessive-scientist character, Piller realized, was, in fact, a lot like Wesley as he had been portrayed on the show up until now--an overachiever obsessively dedicated to his work over all else, a misfit without close friends, a man alone.  This scientist, obviously, was a lot more negative character in his conception than Wesley--indeed, he was saddled with the role of minor obstacle to the plot, as his anger at the nanites' disruption of his plans causes troubles for our heroes' attempts to communicate with them.  It was not, though, at all a stretch to say that this scientist--this sad, lonely, misanthropic man--was what Wesley would inevitably become if he continued on his current track.  A man who does not value relationships and character may get away with it for a while in his youth--but in the long run, he will be left alone and unhappy.  This was Piller's basic insight--and so he wrote a sci-fi show that was fundamentally not about probes or nanites or rare solar events, but about how Wesley Crusher, Gene Roddenberry's fantasy child-hero, was on the wrong track, and needed to change.  No one noticed, but a quiet revolution had taken place in the world of The Next Generation.

Indeed, no one had very much cause to take notice--for Piller was a famously gentle writer, kind to his characters and not too prone to making waves behind the scenes.  Piller did not come in and overturn the characters as he found them--he did not even rejoice in a mild form of schadenfreude towards them, as Hurley had (sometimes) done.  He liked the TNG characters, maybe even loved them--he just wanted to take them seriously as human beings, and tell stories about them.

Take what you can find.  Piller was hired to be showrunner on the basis of Evolution--not, according to him, because of any profound love for him or his vision, but because, as he was told, he was simply the only person who had written a script for TNG that the writing staff could use.  Evolution is not a great episode by any standard--but it does work.  For a TNG taking on water from every side, this was more than enough.

Piller's task now, though, was essentially impossible: create twenty-something hours of television from nothing.  This was something akin to taking the job of captaining the Titanic shortly after its unfortunate collision with an iceberg.

Piller, though, was full of life and confidence, and with the help of a crew of newly-hired and returning writers (among them Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler, and Melinda Snodgrass), he set to work writing and rewriting furiously, and never looked back.

According to the writers who worked on TNG's third season, it was an incredibly hectic time, with the staff constantly struggling simply to stay above water, come up with the next story idea, the next script.  So dire was the situation that an outside team of science fiction writers wrote them a script (Tin Man) that was filmed almost immediately without any rewriting--a virtual unknown in television.  Also due to this shortage of stories, Piller began the open-submission policy I talked of above--and almost immediately launched the writing career of one Ronald D. Moore with the okay The Bonding and the transcendentally-good The Defector.  Still, the appetite for stories was voracious--and the constant threat of impending disaster remained with the writers right up until the very end of the season.

Outside pressures, though, were one thing--the living hell of TNG's first two seasons was quite another. The TNG writing staff was harried, but it was no longer subject to the constant whims and rewriting of Roddenberry, or torn apart by constant firings.  It was one crew, with one captain, fighting together for a common cause.  And it did, against odds, succeed.

In comparison with Roddenberry's dictums, Piller's mandate was not too onerous: every show had to be fundamentally about, not weird sci-fi concepts, but the established characters.  Every show had to say something about one of the crew.

Piller took it for granted that these crewmembers were good, heroic people, to be respected and warmly appreciated--but he also took it for granted that they were recognizable human beings, with flaws and failings.  This much was not remotely open for debate.

TNG's third season is, in all honesty, an excellent season of television--and it only got better from there.  Somehow, in the face of universal behind-the-scenes disaster, with its creator dying and its staff falling apart, this absurd utopian television show managed to rally together and become something truly great.

Not only that, but the public, shockingly enough, actually noticed.  By the time TNG ended its third season with the greatest cliffhanger in television history (The Best of Both Worlds), this bastard step-child of a phenomenon found itself a bona fides television hit--and over the course of its last four years, TNG became, without a doubt, an American phenomenon even bigger than its predecessor, and one of the most popular shows of all time.  The appeal of TNG extended well beyond the fervent Star Trek fanbase--everyone watched The Next Generation, and virtually everyone loved it.  Star Trek The Next Generation, despite its British captain, was as American as apple pie.

In its third year, then, with Piller's steady hand at the helm, TNG had recreated itself almost from scratch, becoming something quite different from Roddenberry's future-utopian parable: a warm, gentle show about character and community and adventure.  Like the TOS films, TNG succeeded because it realized that Star Trek was not, fundamentally, a property about mind-bending science fiction concepts or progressive futurism: it was a story about good, heroic people, each a unique and indelible part of a community, living and fighting together among the kindly, twinkling stars.

TNG from its third season on is, in truth, an entirely different show than TNG during its first two seasons--the two have almost nothing in common besides the names of the characters.  The Federation now was not a bizarre utopia--it was mostly just America in the '80s, a place with many an asshole in a position of power, but basically good and right in the grand scheme of things.  A gentle humanism, based on affirming each person in their unique character within the bounds of community, was the order of the day--but there was still room for plenty of conflict, both with the outside world and within the crew.

In public, Piller and Berman continued to affirm Roddenberry's dictum about no character conflict--but this wasn't entirely accurate.  Piller, to be sure, had no interest in over-the-top drama, about bitter, wounded people savaging each other emotionally--but he was interested in stories about generally good people, members of a good and affirming family, facing conflict with the world, each other, and themselves.  As far as Piller was concerned, this left plenty of room for drama: What if Troi lost her powers?  What if Worf decided to commit suicide rather than live as a cripple?  What if a socially-inept Enterprise crewmember was addicted to the holodeck?  What if Wesley Crusher was involved in an accident through negligence?  What if someone were after Riker's job?

In Piller's world, conflict existed, and no one was perfect--but more important than any single-episode dramatic plot was making sure that each and every character was, in the end, respected and affirmed in their character and their humanity, week after week and season after season.  Picard might sometimes do the wrong thing--he might be tortured, humiliated, even broken--but at the end of the day, he was still Jean-Luc Picard, a good man, worthy of love and respect.

Piller, then, was fundamentally someone who believed in family--in a community founded on love, respect, and appreciation.  This--and not some utopian dream--is what TNG came, with his guidance, to stand for.

Every family, though, is made up of individuals; so let us start over, and reintroduce our characters, our heroes, the way they were always meant to be.

Picard has justly become something of a legend in the world of American popular culture.  For generations of Americans, he has been the statesman, the philosopher--a figure with all the authority and gravitas of a statue of Abraham Lincoln or Cicero.    Thoughtful, calm, but warmly affectionate and with a gentle sense of humor, Picard became a father figure for the ages--someone we trust implicitly, someone whose advice we respect and listen to, someone we would follow without question through hell and back again.

Patrick Stewart's performance is a marvel of sheer dramatic range, from the heights of pathos to the very subtlest shades of emotion.  No matter what he is called on to perform, Stewart is never less than pitch-perfect--and where Shatner molded everything to himself, making Kirk bizarre and over-the-top no matter the scenario, Stewart deliberately underplays his role, bringing everything down to the most recognizable and human level.  Shatner and Stewart are both Shakespeareans by training--but Stewart's is the Shakespeare of The Tempest, not Henry V.

No longer confined to the bridge, Picard's character grew by leaps and bounds over the later seasons.  For my money, though, his finest hour comes in The Best of Both Worlds, where he is assimilated by the Borg, and in the followup Family, where he is forced to return home to confront the emotional scars left by this experience.  Even in episodes where he has little to do, though, Picard is always there, a stable authority figure for the ages--always thinking, always guiding, and always, always, striving to do the right thing.

Riker is, basically, a good guy.  Oh sure, he has character traits that go beyond that--he plays jazz trombone, and poker, and so forth.  Riker in the later seasons, though, is defined less by character traits as  by his general normalcy, the sense we have of him as an energetic man who works hard and enjoys his life.  A lot of this is driven by Frakes' performance--no longer stiff and inhuman, but warm and filled with a pervasive, underlying joy and humor.  No matter the circumstance, Frakes looks like he's comfortable, relaxed, and having fun--as indeed behind the scenes he certainly was; for the playful antics and general rowdiness of the TNG cast on set have since become almost legendary.

Freed from the burden of being a stiff Kirk-junior, then, Riker becomes at times the everyman of TNG--a likeable person whom we can watch and sympathize with as he undergoes adventures both mundane and bizarre.

Riker's character in later seasons, though, does indeed feature some rather un-Roddenberryesque internal conflict; and what is more remarkable, this conflict serves in many ways as a critical commentary on Riker's character as presented in the early years of the show.  The specter of first-season Riker--the hard-nosed, Sun-Tzu-quoting careerist--lurks like a specter about Riker in his later years, posing a number of very insistent questions: How comfortable can Riker allow himself to get in his life?  What is he defined by, if not his career?  Who is Riker, anyway?

Careerist Riker is, basically, a jerk--a small, angry shadow of the joyful, larger-than-life Commander we know and love, showing his unpleasant face to the world in alternate realities and futures and occasionally in relationship to Troi, serving a constant reminder of just what Riker can become when given half the chance.  Riker, too, is haunted by this man he once was.  In The Best of Both Worlds, faced with angry, young competition for his job, Riker reflects ruefully on whether he's lost his edge, whether he's too comfortable and at peace simply living life with a job he enjoys and people he loves.  By the end of the two-parter, though, he has firmly concluded that no, he's just fine, thanks--that it's a very good thing to live life at peace, within the warmth of community and family, fighting for the people around him, not against them.  This plotline was conceived and written by Michael Piller, in large part as a very personal reflection on his own life and career--and it's conclusion is as pure a reflection of Piller's vision of Star Trek as anything.

Certainly, he has a point.  I mean, who really wants to be Careerist Riker?

Geordi is still, unfortunately, mostly a character in search of character--but he's clearly having fun now, and is also a loser.  As his character comes into focus during the later years, it becomes clear that Geordi is, quite simply, a nerd--someone who's driven to paroxyms of joy by the thought of touching a plasma field, but who also struggles a bit in certain social and romantic areas.  This is generally good for Geordi's likeability, even if it's bad for his dating prospects.

Seriously, though, Galaxy's Child--in which Geordi tries and miserably fails to romance a woman he fell in love with in hologram form after calling up a program of her to help him solve engine problems--is such a painfully awkward hour of television that watching it makes me want to crawl under a table and die.

Geordi, then, is a bit of an odd dude, and Levar Burton's enthusiastic performance can sometimes be a bit off-putting--but he's also never less than loveable.  Can we really ask any more?

 Then, of course, there is Data, who quickly and justly rose to be TNG's most popular character.  Data is, in some sense, the Spock-character of the ensemble--featuring an excellent actor playing an inhuman role in extremely stylized fashion.  Where Spock expressed carefully-shielded inner conflict and pain, though, Data is a figure of complete transparency and guilelessness, his complexity masked by his complete lack of barriers and pretense.  While Spock expresses the tormented inner man inside all of us, Data is simply the child within--a figure of pure innocence, boundless wonder, and a painfully direct sense of aspiration.  Like every child, Data desperately wants to be like and imitate the people around him, the parents, brothers, and sisters of the Enterprise crew--he wants to understand them, to be more like them, to be accepted by them as one of their own.  He wants, most of all, to be a full and complete and mature human being--and unlike all too many jaded adults, he sees what a wonderful and transcendent thing that really is.  Data is not really a child--but he is an embodiment of a very real part of each one of us, child or grown-up: a part that longs for maturity, belonging, fulfillment--a part that many try very hard to bury and control.

Data is played by Brent Spiner with incredible energy and a painfully raw sense of desire-- making up, in Spockian style, for a purported lack of emotion with a superabundance of it.  The genius of Spiner's performance, though, comes in his ability to combine directness and energy with an astonishing clarity of emotion.  Nimoy's performance was helped by his character's gravitas and generally static profile, allowing the actor to imbue every single one of his (rare) movements and words with profound meaning; Data, though, is much more energetic, his movements and words both frequent and heavily stylized.  Spiner's ability to fulfill these highly technical demands on his attention while simultaneously conveying Data's inner life to the audience, in all its transparency and guilelessness, is truly exceptional; no matter how oddly Data may move or speak, no matter what he is saying or doing, we are never in any doubt what the character is thinking and feeling.

Despite the strangeness of his character and performance, then, Spiner succeeds in making Data as indelibly human as the rest of the cast--if not more so.  This is no small achievement.

Worf does, admittedly, suffer a bit from his role as the "muscle" of the Enterprise--a role that means he gets to be the one to suggest bellicose methods of action and then get shut down, and also means he has the honor of getting beaten up by every single adversary as a way of showing how dangerous they are.  In a sense, in his worst moments, Worf approximates the role of the "Mr. T" of Star Trek.  Also, the less said about his seventh-season "romance" with Troi the better.

On the other hand, Worf also gets without a doubt the best long-term character arc of any character on TNG, as he grapples with the Shakesperean intricacies of Klingon politics and his own role in Klingon society.  This arc is never anything less than excellent, establishing both Worf and Klingon society in general--confined until now to the rather dismal role of pseudo-communist heavies-- as unique and powerful parts of the Star Trek mythos.

It was largely on the basis of this arc that Worf became one of the most popular characters on the show--and it was due to this as well that there arose a large and continuing segment of the fandom devoted to Klingon society and language.  Without Worf, "Klingon" fandom as we know it--with Hamlet performed in Klingon, and communities of Klingon scholars all over the Internet--would not exist.

For his own part, though, Worf is simply a good man, strong and brave and honorable--and his culture is respected, even if not always understood.  Unlike the rest of the TNG characters, though, Worf would not have to rely on sporadic feature films to continue his character arc.  We will meet him again we discuss DS9.

There is little, really, to be said about Wesley in later seasons.  By the middle of the fourth season, he was gone as a regular character on the show, confined to occasional guest spots.  In these, though, he does, ironically, get a chance to shine far more than he ever did as "acting-ensign" of the USS Enterprise.  Wesley's first guest slot, The Game, is quite fun if not profound; but it is The First Duty that is without a doubt Wesley's finest hour--a dramatic tale of peer pressure and moral conflict for the ages.  Here, no longer saddled with the weight of Gene Roddenberry's fantasy life, Wesley is allowed to appear at last as a genuine human being--one capable of both making mistakes, and facing their consequences.  He is very much the better for it.

His final send-off Journey's End, though, is mostly a failure, which is a shame.  Still, Wesley ends up in a lot better place than he began, having gotten at least some chance to exist as a decent character.

Dr. Crusher, for her part, loses almost all of her unfortunate early aspects, and becomes for the most part simply a kind, caring person.  She is mostly called upon to do doctoring stuff, becoming a kind of archetype of the generous, caring physician--the kind who greets you warmly when you come into sickbay in the middle of the night with insomnia, talks to you gently about life, and then gives you a somnatic inducer and a hot milk toddy.

Like Geordi, Dr. Crusher does not, really, develop a lot of outstanding character qualities--and the ones she is given are, often, rather haphazard.  In one episode, for instance, we see her alone in her quarters before bed--and she is dressed in a bright pink outfit with matching ribbon, drinking a glass of wine, and pruning a rose bush.  She does, though, most of the time get to be a pretty recognizable and well-rounded human being, with some very good stories to her name (Remember Me and Ethics are standouts) and a stable presence on the show.

Troi, for her part, probably gains the most of all the characters from TNG's shift to a character drama.  Oh, don't get me wrong--she doesn't become an outstanding character, exactly.  She does, however, become a very strong one, with clear traits, likes and dislikes, and plenty of episodes to her name.  Troi never really loses the strangeness of her initial character traits--but what she gains is the ability to function as a recognizable human being in any story or environment imaginable, whether in disguise on the bridge of a Romulan warbird or flying through greenish-tinted clouds in a purple jumpsuit.  This is in large part to the credit of Marina Sirtis' increasingly laid-back and humorous performance, which never fails to bring out the very human actor in the strange alien character.  Due to Sirtis' versatility, Troi in later seasons becomes something of a go-to character for the writers--and there are quite a number of good episodes to her name.

Still, her wardrobe remains a bit strange.  I dunno about the whole purple-jumpsuit thing, really.

On the strength of these characters, TNG soared, making season after season of intelligent, character-based science fiction.  By the time it ended its run, in the summer of 1994, it was without a doubt one of the most beloved American television shows of all time, watched and loved by an entire nation.

It's, really, not hard to see why.  Star Trek TNG is, for me, the epitome of comfort-food entertainment--the television equivalent of a big plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Still, there is nothing stale or flavorless, and nothing clumsy, about Star Trek The Next Generation--it is, in every aspect, an intelligent, challenging, warm, and very human work of entertainment.  Here's to it.

This has been a very long post--but the saga of TNG was, as we have seen, a very long and a very rocky one.  The bastard child of the franchise, born of the pride of its creator and subject for years to his terrifying and oppressive whims, has somehow, with the help of caring and nurturing guardians, grown into a mature and intelligent success.  Star Trek has, once again, against all possible odds, made it--triumphing over the world of American television just as it had over that of American feature films.

Isn't that something worth celebrating?

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