“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid.” -Q
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was Paramount’s attempt to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time after they sort of threw away the first bottle. It started off very slowly, although it eventually built itself into a worthy successor of the “Star Trek” mantle. The first season and much of the second is nigh on unwatchable, and was so even at the time. The rule of thumb really does stand, that if you see Riker without a beard or Troi in a miniskirt, just shut the episode off.
There were none of the long story arcs that came to typify the great science fiction shows of the last twenty years. Recurrent characters and themes were present to be sure, but the series was constructed almost entirely of standalone episodes, which contained only passing references to events outside of their self-contained arc. The show made a habit of two-part cliff hangers to end seasons, inadvertently creating a boon for DVD sales years down the road (want both parts of “Best of Both Worlds”? Then you’ll need to buy two DVD box sets).
Those standalone episodes though were at once the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the show. As with the original “Star Trek” and later with “The X-Files,” the standalone episodes were at their best when treated as individual short stories in an anthology. They allowed the writers a platform for over a hundred unique and self contained science fiction stories. For all the strengths of heavily serialized television, standalone episodes are simply not one of them. Take something like “Battlestar Galactica” and name an episode from each season that could be watched cold and seen as great individual stories by someone who hasn’t seen any other episodes.
The drawback of the standalone episodes is that 178 episodes is a whole lot of space to fill if you don’t have season arcs drawing out the broad picture in advance. That’s when you get the lazy outlining of “an episode like this, an episode like that.” Looking back on the episodes, there’s a distinct impression that you can hear echoes of the writer’s meetings between seasons: start with resolving the cliff hanger, end with another one, pencil in a Borg episode, a Q episode, a time travel episode, a holodeck goes crazy episode, a Prime Directive episode, a Klingon episode, a Data trying to be human episode, two episodes focusing on a random quirky non-central character, and pick the three main cast members who’ve gotten the least screen time in the last year and give them each an episode. One of those should be humorous.
That’s a harsh simplification but the reason we gripe is because when this show was good, it was really good. Many of those standalone episodes can hold their own against any science fiction shorts, whether on television, in film, or in print. “There are four lights” still echoes in my head at any mention of torture. Patrick Stewart’s mix of gravitas and gentle humanity dwarf what we normally see out of actors on science fiction television. His casting should be a primer for all casting directors: go to a production of Shakespeare and watch for the actor/actress who floors you. Hire that person immediately.
The most memorable recurrent characters were of course the Borg and Q, the bad and the ugly, if you will. The Borg draw from a variety of science fiction roots (Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series springs immediately to mind, but there are others) but they made a pitch perfect antagonist for the show. More than any mirror universe with goatees, the Borg are the dark mirror of our protagonists. Indeed, on a strictly superficial level, they are exactly the same: seek out new life and new civilizations, learn from them, incorporate them into society. Once you get to pointing out their genocidal techniques, we’re really only quibbling over methods, not principles.
One of the main elements that the show got right was its insistence on portraying the universe as a huge and wondrous and terrifying place. It has that feel we get now from “Doctor Who,” that sense that there is an infinity of worlds, an infinity of experiences. Most science fiction, especially the good science fiction, tends to shrink in over the course of the story. As more is revealed, the world becomes necessarily smaller. To not do so is to leave questions unanswered and frustrate the viewer. There’s a certain claustrophobia of a long running series as its storylines draw together and constrict for the finale. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” avoided that, emphasizing instead that there were always more worlds to explore.
Q’s character is critical to that idea, to that notion that the universe is unimaginably vast. He’s a talking corollary to Clarke’s Law: If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then any sufficiently advanced being is indistinguishable from god. He’s as far removed from the Doctor as the Doctor is from us wee bald apes, but with the brilliant twist that he’s a trickster whose motives are so muddled that you can never quite be sure if he’s on the side of the angels or the demons. He stages a court on the fate of humanity, bookending the start and end of the series, but he leaves us with both a promise and a threat: The trial never ends.
“The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind to new horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.” -Q
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.