Make it so! Star Trek: The Next Generation remains radically hopeful television

In the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, Wayne Campbell makes a wise observation about the comparisons made between sparkling wine and champagne. “It is a lot like Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he notes of sparkling wine. “In many ways it’s superior, but will never be as recognised as the original.”

Wayne was right about many things, but even he couldn’t have foreseen the cultural impact of Next Gen from his vantage point in 1992.

The original Star Trek series, starring the likes of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, was great, and the Star Trek films were intermittently so too – all following a crew of spacefaring idealists exploring the universe and having velure-ensconced adventures. But in 1987 the story of Star Trek recommenced with a new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which skipped a century ahead and charted a fascinating new course with an all new crew on a new and improved USS Enterprise, a ship with a continuing mission to explore the universe under the steady hand of the uptight but charming Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).

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“For some people it was a burden, for some it was a privilege,” says Gates McFadden, who played Dr Beverly Crusher in TNG. “For me, because I wasn’t familiar with the first show, it wasn’t a burden at all! I was like, let’s go for it!”

Picard showrunner Terry Matalas tells me that “like the original series, there is something so unbelievably comforting about TNG”.

“It could be the [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry hope beamed into your living room, or the chemistry of the cast, or the freshness of those science fiction tales. But there is nothing better to have on your television on a lazy Sunday afternoon.”

TNG told a complex, thrilling and evolving story about what happens when humanity opts for hope over hopelessness: like all the other ships in Starfleet, the Enterprise is home to a diverse, multicultural crew who are free to pursue knowledge, equality and justice in a post-scarcity utopia.

“I’ve learned as I’ve grown how crucial it is to have hope,” McFadden says. “Because otherwise, there’s no point to anything! And the hope in Roddenberry’s vision of the future was so freaking huge.”

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What does she mean by “huge”? She laughs. “Well, to even get us to think about a world where we don’t have money any more, we don’t have greed, we can cure things. The idea that we can work together and all be up in space – together! – I think that reality gave people so much.”

The character development in Next Gen is an enormous part of its charm. Take Stewart’s Picard: a down-the-line man bound by duty, who comes to rely on his crew more and more. Or his first officer Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), the jazz-loving ladies man who secretly pined for his ex and colleague, ship counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Or Worf (Michael Dorn), a member of the war-mongering race the Klingons, who gradually becomes one of Star Trek’s most complex characters. Or Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), a blind and confident engineer who couldn’t talk to women to save his life. And, of course, Data (Brent Spiner): the artificial life form who longs to become human.

From left, front row: LeVar Burton, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner. From left, back row: Whoopi Goldberg, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis and Wil Wheaton.
United by principal. From left, front row: LeVar Burton, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner. From left, back row: Whoopi Goldberg, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis and Wil Wheaton. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The entire Enterprise crew are united by their principles, and TNG shows what happens when these principles meet practicality. There’s the United Federation of Planets, the ideologically driven group of planets united in peace, and Starfleet, who explore the universe while upholding the ideals of non-interference and discovery. The crew of the Enterprise believe in these ideals, but frequently the show challenges their resolve. Picard himself, in the superb Star Trek film First Contact, is confronted by his old enemies, the Borg, and is challenged when it becomes apparent he’s actually enjoying killing them. “Where were your evolved sensibilities then?” one character screams at him. It is in those moments of frisson, when the characters are torn between their ideals and reality, that Next Gen truly shines.

After a sublime seventh season and several films, the TNG story stopped. Then a few years ago we got two pretty wonky seasons of Picard, a show set 29 years after the final TNG film. But the third and final season of Picard – the finale of which is about to air – has, without spoiling anything, done something miraculous. Matalas took over from author Michael Chabon as showrunner alongside Akiva Goldsman in season two; in the third he has – if you’ll forgive the pun – single-handedly landed the ship.

The last season of Picard is peak Star Trek; it is TNG’s long-awaited eighth season. It reunites the classic cast for one last adventure, and is everything that makes Trek so prescient, so vital, and so timely, distilled down to a single whip-smart, passionate and emotionally articulate season of television. The performances are next level, the storytelling is breathtaking and the emotional heft is staggering. The world of TNG would be immeasurably poorer without it.

As a fan, it is wonderful to see the TNG story continue with such effortlessness after all these years. The common thread that links TNG and the final season of Picard is an idea: that together, we’re stronger.

“For me, that’s the most positive thing about Star Trek,” Gates says. “That if we work together, if we collaborate, if we stop being rigid, judgmental and open ourselves up to the possibility of learning something new or even being wrong! If we do that, and give love … we can achieve anything. That’s the genius of Star Trek.”