Lately, I’ve been watching Star Trek again. Or more to the point, I’ve been watching The Next Generation on Netflix, that is, when I’m not working, writing, taking media courses or running copious errands. Ever since I became a father, television has dropped several ranks on the priority list. My wife and I were joking the other night about how we used to lie on opposite couches on a Sunday afternoon and mumble to each other, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” That boredom was so frustrating at the time; now it’s looked back upon with reverence and longing. We’d murder for a boring day like that.
When our son came to us his taste in TV was a bit, shall we say, delayed. Cartoons well below his age level were the go-to. Trying to encourage him to take a step ahead we suggested he give TNG a go, figuring he’d grok the whiz-bang of the space battles while subliminally processing the messages. And of course we’d be happy to watch it with him. So what began as an exercise in maturity for our lad has turned into a nostalgic trip for myself.
Some of these episodes I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and it’s sometimes sad to realize that what enthralled you as a teenager can come off to a more seasoned palate as cheap, juvenile or otherwise lacking. That first season in particular was really rough going, in terms of the writing, the acting (with the sole exception of the masterful Patrick Stewart, probably the only reason anything worked in the first year) and the show’s overall ambition, or lack thereof. Airing in first-run syndication rather than on a network saved it from becoming a swiftly forgotten, ill-advised follow-up to a 60’s classic, along with the devotion of fans so grateful for new Trek on TV that they stayed with it throughout its growing pains. (One wonders if the struggling Agents of SHIELD will likewise endure.) But I remember sitting on my mom’s bed glued to her television (the main one in our basement didn’t work most of the time) being thrilled by the sight of the Enterprise-D blasting through the warp barrier to travel beyond the boundaries of the universe to a place where thought and reality intertwined in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and wondering how they could possibly make it back unharmed. I recall thinking how awesome it was to see the Klingons back causing trouble in “Heart of Glory.” I remember the nightmares I got when a guy’s head exploded under Picard and Riker’s phasers in “Conspiracy.” I remember the massive crush I had on Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher and how stunning she looked made up as a 40’s moll in “The Big Goodbye.” And I remember obsessively checking Starweek to see when the next new episode was going to air – in fact, I believe I may have insisted that my mom purchase the Saturday paper strictly for that reason – and being crestfallen at the long wait between seasons one and two (thanks a lot, Writers Guild strike of ’88).
As wobbly as some of the earlier episodes of the show were, what endeared it to me and I suspect the majority of the fans, was the ever-present nobility of the characters, effortlessly upstanding in their morals and always trying to do right by the universe even when challenged at their very cores. Was it a realistic portrayal of human beings? Probably not. But we could aspire to be like them. The Next Generation provided that model for me as I grew through my teenage years and evolved from being embarrassed to admit I liked it lest the girls think I was weird, to going merrily to conventions and “talking Trek” with comrades at every opportunity – often to the chagrin of my best friend who’s indifferent to it to this day. As the show went on and I got older, I found my response to it evolving as well. My tastes were growing more sophisticated the more I learned about literature and history, and I found myself less than enamored with the show’s switch in its golden years to out-there-for-the-sake-of-being-out-there sci-fi premises and plots resolved through mindless technobabble. Maybe another time I’ll get into a detailed analysis of where I think things started to go wrong (it all began when they changed the style of the music late in Season Four), but by the end I was ready to vomit if I saw one more episode about reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit tetryon or verteron particles. And yet this too was a formative moment for me. Because it was when I began to think, “you know what? I could do better.” I understood there was no drama in pulling an imaginary subatomic particle out of the proverbial arse to deus ex the machina. That wasn’t how you told stories. Not well, anyhow. Not how I wanted to tell them, or how I wanted to see them being told.
As the number of episodes remaining in Season Seven dwindled, I was still watching, but with a sense of sadness at lost opportunities – “all the stories in the galaxy to tell and they did another broken holodeck episode? And why is the music so bad?” There were gems here and there but the entire enterprise (sorry) felt a bit like it was slumping to the finish line, with the creative energy diverted to getting Deep Space Nine up and running, but oh yeah, we’ve got this other one that I guess we have to pay some meager level of attention to. Stewart and the gang were giving it their all, but it was obviously time to go, just as the teenager inevitably turns twenty and braces for a new set of challenges. The finale, “All Good Things…,” was a great sendoff; not perfect, as it too relied on technobabble to solve the central dilemma, but it did top the gift with a beautiful bow in Captain Picard sitting down for the senior staff poker game for the first time and announcing that “the sky’s the limit.” It was a touching parting sentiment for myself as well, reminding me that I didn’t have to be satisfied with stories that didn’t give me what I wanted from them. Instead, I could create my own. The end of their journey was the beginning of my own.
And now I’m seeing it again, with my boy, and wondering how he’ll look back on it in future years – if it will ever mean as much to him as it does to me. If watching The Next Generation does nothing else for him, I hope it will at least inspire him, when he’s out on a clear night, to look up – and imagine what might lie out there in the stars.