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Looking back at Star Trek: The Next Generation on its 25th anniversary

We had orange carpet in our living room in Oklahoma where, on regular weeknights, I would stay up, semi-religiously, and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, usually instead of doing my algebra homework. My seventh-grade algebra teacher was a smug, straw-haired, lip-smacking wearer of short-sleeve dress shirts named Mr. White, whom I remember because his method of reacting to classroom disturbances involved flexing his biceps one at a time and saying “I call this one Thunder, and I call this one Lightning. Let me know if you’d like an introduction.” Mr. White spent the first part of every class bivouacked behind his desk reading Whitetail Bowhunter magazine, which gave me time to get caught up, imperfectly, if I’d skipped a problem set the night before. We had orange carpet in the living room, and on the wall across from the TV my parents had hung a couple of large 1930s advertising posters for Royal Mail cruises, so that when the black reaches of space appeared on the TV screen during Star Trek: The Next Generation, you could see the posters’ reflections in the glass — the Enterprise sliding at its usual bold angle out of the starry darkness, SOUTH AMERICA BY ROYAL MAIL, with its big blue-and-black ocean liner and flaming tropical sunset, coruscating like a nebula all around it. Me in pajamas on the couch. Sometimes my dad would watch with me; sometimes the rest of the house was asleep.

I wasn’t a Trekkie, not really. The minutiae of setting, which is the language of the truly devout, mostly left me cold. I didn’t know the rules of tri-dimensional chess or care about Romulan politics. I’d tried watching the original Star Trek and found its cartoon-bright universe — the soundstage brawls, the sonar blorps, the happy overacting — almost incomprehensible. For some reason, though, The Next Generation awakened in me a feeling of terrible and suffocating yearning — that hopeless childish escape wish that’s the wake of a certain kind of fantasy. That feeling that in a different world you’d be happy. I carefully recorded each episode on our VCR — I remember buying the VHS tapes, in cellophane-wrapped three-packs — and typed out labels on an enormous electric typewriter. One VHS tape held two Next Generation episodes, plus commercials, so I had to fast-forward through the first episode in order to get the episode-length timings. “Who Watches the Watchers 0:00:00” b/w “Deja Q 0:58:59.” This seemed extremely important, possibly because so many Next Generation episodes themselves hinged on matters of fine timing, radiation leaks with critical exposure imminent, warp jumps that had to be calculated to the nanosecond (yet somehow always involved a character yelling “Now!”). Except to get the episode lengths, I don’t think I ever played the tapes. None of my friends watched the show, or at least we never talked about it. For me, the series was just a strange, fleeting ritual, an hour here or there when everything hushed and got bright.

It’s 25 years old now, Star Trek: The Next Generation, 25 this week — the first episode premiered on September 28, 1987. Hard to believe, in all the usual ways. I recently rewatched the whole run, all 178 episodes, which was a long exercise in critical nostalgia. One of the problems in revisiting sci-fi is that, sooner or later, every voyage into the future becomes a voyage into the past. Traveling to The Next Generation’s 24th century sent me hurtling backward at about Warp 9. That’s partly because the show is bound so strongly in my memory with those solitary misfit hours of adolescence, but also because The Next Generation itself is helplessly, and kind of movingly, of its time. You can’t help but notice this, watching it now. The first sign is that, for a franchise that famously defines space as an extension of the Old West, The Next Generation very quickly dispenses with almost any sense of a frontier. Captain Kirk’s Enterprise was a ship of phaser-happy explorers always pressing onward toward the next undiscovered planet on which they could stage a fistfight; in comparison, Captain Picard’s Enterprise is a calm, sleek vessel of end-of-history galactic administration — a kind of faster-than-light embassy, complete with chamber music concerts. There’s very little fighting; there’s a great deal of personal growth and trade-pact negotiation. Many, many episodes turn on the decidedly nonstandard TV plot of something has gone wrong with a diplomat. In “Sarek,” for instance (Season 3, Episode 23), Data’s performance of the Brahms string quintet makes Spock’s father, a powerful ambassador, cry, which isn’t supposed to happen to Vulcans; in “Loud As a Whisper” (Season 2, Episode 5), a deaf diplomat loses his telepathic interpreters and has to teach the aliens whose peace treaty he’s brokering sign language. There’s an only-global-superpower, world-policeman feel to most of this: The Klingons, the wild, violent others of the Kirk series, are now allies of the Federation. Everything’s running smoothly. The crew’s heroic quest is just to keep it that way.

So they transport medical supplies; they help overextended colonies fix their weather-control systems. Gene Roddenberry’s guiding vision of the Star Trek franchise was, famously, that it would offer an optimistic vision of humanity’s future. The Soviet Union collapsed a couple of years into the filming of The Next Generation, and the show’s optimistic future became startlingly coterminous with the optimistic present of the George H.W. Bush administration. Where else but space could you find a thousand points of light? The grand adventure of the NCC-1701-D was no longer to spread civilization, or even defend it; it was just to keep the machinery oiled. Remember 1991, America?

And it breaks. Oh, how often the Enterprise breaks. Geordi LaForge, who is the chief engineer but who still has to crawl on his hands and knees through the ship’s cramped interconnecting Jeffries tubes to spot-fix most problems himself — well, let’s please note that after a couple of weeks of welding between-decks trifusium relays in order to prevent cascading sensor-pattern overruns from harmonically generating a reactor-core breach, I would not retain Geordi’s amiable disposition. No siree. One of my uncles was a tech geek who lived in a geodesic dome house and built (and subsequently crashed) his own airplane. One Christmas, not long after I discovered Star Trek, he gave us a towering beige computer — it must have run MS-DOS, if that — and gave me a quick course in hacking the autoexec.bat file. I was the only one in my family who used this PC, which I remember as physically fortress-like, and it was always broken, and always broken in some complicated and hard-to-define way. It would work, but loading programs, or whatever it was I was trying to do with it, would be elaborately difficult. If the constant malfunctions Scotty had to cope with on the first Star Trek series were drawn from large-scale stuff, war experience and manufacturing and the rapid expansion of infrastructure — let’s get this tank/aircraft carrier/highway system running, boys — Geordi’s troubles seem to reflect the small-scale nightmares of late-’80s personal computing. Machines — nanobots, space stations, the ship itself — are constantly becoming sentient. (“This thing has a will of its own!”) Whole episodes revolve around arbitrary glitches and bugs: The Iconian virus that nearly blows up the ship in “Contagion”; the signal error that traps Picard, Data, and Dr. Crusher in the Holodeck in “The Big Goodbye.” As well as every other episode in which anyone goes into the Holodeck, ever.

The Next Generation drew something like 20 million viewers a week in its heyday, practically an American Idol number, and the penetration of the show’s keywords — energize, engage, Number One, I am Locutus of Borg, resistance is futile, make it so — was light-years beyond insane for a syndicated sci-fi show. But in a way, it’s no wonder. The Enterprise crew was driving a misfiring IBM PC in the service of a quasi-neoliberal agenda, and at the same time, so were we.

But why, then, that yearning? No one lies awake at night longing to be transported to a convincing imaginative representation of early-’90s social themes, or if they do I have yet to find their chat rooms. It’s obviously the case that the great subject of almost all American television — family1 — is also at large on the bridge of the Enterprise. Like The West Wing, the show offers a fantasy of smart friends working together and supporting each other that’s designed to make you want to join them. When you’re a skinny 13-year-old who’s scared a third of the time and bored another third, the idea of roaming the constellations with Captain Picard, whom adventure follows like a shadow and who always knows what to do, will obviously have a certain appeal. And as the show advanced through its run, The Next Generation became extremely good at fusing its thematic concerns with the kind of intense fan service a long-running sci-fi series probably can’t do without. Loneliness barely exists in it; characters who are depicted by themselves are usually about to be attacked by glowing balls of light or semitransparent children. By the third or fourth season, the showrunners had realized that TNG’s two major themes, the android Data’s ongoing inquiry into “what it means to be human” and Picard’s personification of enlightened humanism, could just as easily be explored around a poker table, or while feeding Data’s cat, as they could during computer meltdowns and alien standoffs. Data’s little visor and Troi’s relationship with her mother and Picard and Crusher’s breakfasts and Geordi’s dating woes and Picard’s discomfort around children — all of this stuff seemed peripheral, but assuming you wanted to hang out with these people in the first place, it was a delight. As the writers knew it would be, of course, but when you’re 13, or if you have an imperfect heart, it’s impossible not to respond to it.

But I think The Next Generation’s underlying appeal went beyond the image of happy, smart people saving you a seat in Ten Forward. As an example here, think about the Harry Potter series. One of the reasons J.K. Rowling’s books exerted such an appeal over every sentient creature on earth is that they resolved, indeed fused, a cultural contradiction. She took the aesthetic of old-fashioned English boarding-school life and placed it at the center of a narrative about political inclusiveness. You get to keep the scarves, the medieval dining hall, the verdant lawns, the sense of privilege (you’re a wizard, Harry), while not only losing the snobbery and racism but actually casting them as the villains of the series. It’s the Slytherins and Death Eaters who have it in for mudbloods, not Harry and his friends, Hogwarts’ true heirs. The result of this, I would argue, is an absolutely bonkers subliminal reconfiguration of basically the entire cultural heritage of England. It’s as if Rowling reboots a 1,000-year-old national tradition into something that’s (a) totally unearned but (b) also way better than the original. Of course it electrified people.

Star Trek does something similar, though with an American contradiction that’s arguably even more fundamental. It was already possible, by the early ’90s and actually long before them, to trace the terms of the current partisan divide in America. Conservatives — think in Jonathan Haidt–ish terms here — value tradition, authority, and group identity; liberals value tolerance, fairness, and care. Or whatever; you can draw the distinctions however you’d like. The point is, The Next Generation depicts a strict military hierarchy acting with great moral clarity in the name of civilization, all anti-postmodern, “conservative” stuff — but the values they’re so conservatively clear about are ideals like peace and open-mindedness and squishy concern for the perspectives of different cultures. “Liberal” ideals, in other words. You could say, roughly, that the Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of goal. They sail through the universe with colonialist confidence sticking up for postcolonial ideals. I mean, Starfleet has a Prime Directive … but it’s explicitly non-interventionist! This is so weird that it’s almost hard to notice; your mind just sort of slides over it. But it’s fascinating in numberless ways. Picard is both indisputably the most patriarchal Star Trek captain and indisputably the least likely to punch anyone in the face. No one is more individualist than the individuals of the Enterprise,2 but their individualism has led them to reject most forms of private property (because it actually holds them back, they’re so boldly individualistic) and embrace ultra-centralized health care. The show is able to indulge a serious jones for the classical Western canon — Shakespeare, Mozart, et al. — without really running against the grain of multiculturalism at all, at least by late-’80s standards. Data will be listing some violinists whose style his programming can mimic, and some of them will be Heifetz and some of them will be aliens a guy just made up for the script. It’s totally nuts, but it’s also a fantasy of the American psyche that, if you can get into it, makes a lot of fine things suddenly seem possible, and makes some debilitating anxieties just sort of fall away.

The thing I can’t shake, having recently finished all 133 hours of the series (a fact that fills me with something between relief and mourning), is that Data’s positronic brain doesn’t have Wi-Fi. When The Next Generation wants to impress you with the superhuman information-retrieval capabilities of a 24th-century android, it shows him, um, reading really fast. Not that you expect a late-’80s TV show to be remotely accurate with respect to near-future technology, but there’s something about TNG’s enormous pass on networking, that total failure to see it as part of the Federation’s eventual culture, that seems more revealing than any of the technology — warp fields, the iPad — it did successfully predict. There are episodes, kind of a lot of them, actually, in which Data has to be shut down for one reason or another, and one of the other crew members (usually but not always Geordi) pushes the hidden catch on his head that opens his cranial access panel, and a little square of hair swings up off his scalp and you see his metallic skull. And there are tiny banks of Christmas-type LED lights blinking on it in more or less rhythmic sequence, almost like the lights on a wireless modem. But the main impression you get is of the enclosedness of Data’s head, its protected separateness. The idea seems to be that the model for a thinking computer should be not a cloud of information, but a hard shell containing a thoroughly distinct self.

By contrast, when Picard is kidnapped and assimilated by the Borg, the race of hive-minded albino cyborgs that poses the major existential threat to the Federation during the series, what’s emphasized is the physical violation this entails, how Picard’s body is ripped open to receive the Borg implants that erase his individual consciousness. The Next Generation is surprisingly anxious about the idea of sharing thoughts in general. With the exception of the telepathic Betazoids, who are mostly seen positively through ship counselor Deanna Troi, a half-Betazoid, creatures that communicate through mind reading or centralized consciousness are either seen as villainous or as so remotely alien that they can’t be comprehended. (This, in a series that usually treats alien races as exaggerations of particular human traits, is exactly the same way that Carrie’s friends on Sex and the City are all concentrated versions of single aspects of Carrie.) Networking, either natural or technological, transgresses against Star Trek‘s ideal of individualism, in which personal development is always toward independence, uniqueness, and competence. Picard’s first officer, Will Riker, gains the captain’s trust in the very first episode by turning off the computer’s auto-docking routine and bringing the ship into space-dock by himself. Technology is meant to be a tool that you can use or not; it’s not supposed to change the way you think. No one is ever alone on the Enterprise, but there are depths to which togetherness can’t penetrate.

Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its final episode in 1994, the year before I got my first e-mail address. Watching it again over the last couple of months, I’ve had moments when I didn’t intuitively know whose future I was supposed to be imagining. I mean, series lore suggests that we, the current denizens of Federation Sector 001, Sol System, are going to grow up to become the self-reliant, fencing-class-taking, light-to-casual computer-employers of 24th century. On the other hand, I’ve seen a race of electronically linked humanoids who share information in a vast decentralized net to which they all have access; who see data as a kind of neutral atmosphere, like air; who use technology to share thoughts and impressions at all times; who are never out of contact with one another; and who react to the briefest removal from their shared consciousness with an itchy, frantic eagerness (cf. “Hugh”) to get back. Remind you of anyone? They fly around in giant cubes and occasionally wipe out whole civilizations, like Apple Maps.

I have no idea whether the heroic (but responsible!) individualism of the Enterprise crew is a relic, a quaint throwback that was already being assimilated by the Internet while Star Trek was busy articulating it, or whether the kind of humanism Captain Picard represents can survive the transition to online culture more intact than TNG wants us to think. Part of me desperately wants to believe the latter. But The Next Generation is 25 years old, and what I’m certain of is this: I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. And — another part of me wants to add — oh, God, make it so.

Filed Under: Magazines, Movies, Star Trek

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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