After Star Wars and the successful big-screen Star Trek adventures, it's perhaps not so surprising that Gene Roddenberry managed to convince purse string-wielding studio heads in the 1980s that a Next Generation would be both possible and profitable. But the political climate had changed considerably since the 1960s, the Cold War had wound down, and we were now living in the Age of Greed. To be successful a second time, Star Trek had to change too.
A writer's guide was composed with which to sell and define where the Trek universe was in the 24th Century. The United Federation of Planets was a more appealing ideology to an America keen to see where the Reagan/Gorbachev faceoff was taking them. Starfleet's meritocratic philosophy had always embraced all races and species. Now Earth's utopian history, featuring the abolishment of poverty, was brandished prominently and proudly.
The new Enterprise, NCC 1701-D, was no longer a ship of war but an exploration vessel carrying families. The ethical and ethnical flagship also carried a former enemy (the Klingon Worf, played by Michael Dorn), and its Chief Engineer (Geordi LaForge) was blind and black. From every politically correct viewpoint, Paramount executives thought the future looked just swell!
Roddenberry's feminism now contrasted a pilot episode featuring ship's Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a mini-skirt with her ongoing inner strengths and also those of Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and the short-lived Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby). The arrival of Whoopi Goldberg in season 2 as mystic barkeep Guinan is a great example of the good the original Trek did for racial groups--Goldberg has stated that she was inspired to become an actress in large part through seeing Nichelle Nichols' Uhura. Her credibility as an actress helped enormously alongside the strong central performances of Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard), Jonathan Frakes (First Officer Will Riker), and Brent Spiner (Data) in defining another wholly believable environment once again populated with well-defined characters. Star Trek, it turned out, did not depend for its success on any single group of actors.
Like its predecessor in the 1960s, TNG pioneered visual effects on TV, making it an increasingly jaw-dropping show to look at. And thanks also to the enduring success of the original show, phasers, tricorders, communicators and even phase inverters were already familiar to most viewers. But while technology was a useful tool in most crises, it now frequently seemed to be the cause of them too, as the show's writers continually warned about the dangers of over-reliance on technology (the Borg were the ultimate expression of this maxim). The word "technobabble" came to describe a weakness in many TNG scripts, which sacrificed the social and political allegories of the original and relied instead upon invented technological faults and their equally fictitious resolutions to provide drama within the Enterprise's self-contained society. (The holodeck's safety protocol override seemed to be next to the light switch given the number of times crew members were trapped within.) This emphasis on scientific jargon appealed strongly to an audience who were growing up for the first time in the late 1980s with the home computer--and gave rise to the clichéd image of the nerdy Trek fan.
Like in the original Trek, it was in the stories themselves that much of the show's success is to be found. That pesky Prime Directive kept moral dilemmas afloat ("Justice"/"Who Watches the Watchers?"/"First Contact"). More "what if" scenarios came out of time-travel episodes ("Cause and Effect"/"Time's Arrow"/"Yesterday's Enterprise"). And there were some episodes that touched on the political world, such as "The Arsenal of Freedom" questioning the supply of arms, "Chain of ommand" decrying the torture of political prisoners and "The Defector", which was called "The Cuban Missile Crisis of The Neutral Zone" by its writer. The show ran for more than twice as many episodes as its progenitor and therefore had more time to explore wider ranging issues.
But the choice of issues illustrates the change in the social climate that had occurred with the passing of a couple of decades. "Angel One" covered sexism; "The Outcast" was about homosexuality; "Symbiosis"--drug addiction; "The High Ground"--terrorism; "Ethics"--euthanasia; "Darmok"--language barriers; and "Journey's End"--displacement of Indians from their homeland. It would have been unthinkable for the original series to have tackled most of these.
TNG could so easily have been a failure, but it wasn't. It survived a writer's strike in its second year, the tragic death of Roddenberry just after Trek's 25th anniversary in 1991, and plenty of competition from would-be rival franchises. Yes, its maintenance of an optimistic future was appealing, but the strong stories and readily identifiable characters ensured the viewers' continuing loyalty.--Paul Tonks