Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation +25

Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 25 this week. Inconceivable (to borrow a word from something else which turned 25 this week)!

The original Star Trek had mediocre ratings and was cancelled after three seasons. It didn't become a world-wide phenomenon until it was syndicated.

There was talk of reviving the original series for years. They did make a Saturday morning cartoon version which featured some of science fiction's best writers. They went through multiple scripts for movies but these were judged "not big enough". It wasn't until Star Wars set box office records that Paramount got serious about making a movie version followed by several sequels.

Originally the studio wanted to do both movies and a TV series with the same cast. Eventually reality set in and they split Star Trek into two franchises - the original cast in feature-length films and an all-new cast on TV.

Gene Roddenberry had one condition for a new series - it had to be syndicated instead of broadcast on a network. He did not want to fight network executives again. Fortunately, the FCC had recently changed its rules on the number of stations in a market. Suddenly there was a market for prime-time, syndicated programming that could match broadcast TV for production values.

The original show had a racially diverse, multinational cast plus one alien. The new one was even more diverse and multinational plus two aliens, and an android (and a kid).

Unfortunately, the first season was a dud. Roddenberry pushed non-violent conflict resolution in every episode. There was no saving the universe from invading space-bacteria or evil clouds. Roddenberry's health forced him to leave the show part-way into the second season. This may or may not have had a direct affect but the quality of the episodes improved a great deal during the second season. The first season was mainly duds. Ideas such as the planet of barely-dressed joggers or the planet with dominant women might sound good on paper but looked dumb on the screen. The second season had a couple of the show's most memorable episodes like the one where Data got in over his head playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck.

Roddenberry's gamble on syndication paid off. The show was able to experiment in ways that the original never could. In one episode the entire crew regressed into primitive creatures. In another a library ship merged with the Enterprise and the ship began transforming into a temple. Captain Picard linked with a satellite from a long-dead civilization and experienced the adult life of one of its individuals.

Eventually the original cast grew old and the new cast took over the movies. This turned out poorly with only one good movie out of four tries.

The days of syndication ended with the establishment of new networks. The last two Star Trek-inspired shows were on Paramount's channel rather than being syndicated and could not match the excitement of the original Trek or ST:TNG.

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