Grumpy Old Fan | Living long, prospering

Because we live in an age of reboots, revamps, retcons and relaunches, by now we know the issues involved. Mostly they boil down to a balancing test: How faithful is the new material to the established work, and how compelling is it otherwise?

Of course, corporate-controlled superhero comics have had more than their share of reboots, revamps, retcons and relaunches, in all shapes and sizes, going back at least as far as the first Superboy stories. I’m not here today to dissect any particular one. Instead, the calendar gives me the chance to talk about one of the most successful sequel series in sci-fi history.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (It aired on different days in syndication, so I saw it first on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1987.) For many fans, TNG was the gateway into an ever-expanding 24th century. Three more sequel/spinoff series followed, as well as four movies featuring the TNG cast, such that the saga of Jean-Luc Picard and his intrepid crew spanned 15 years, including seven TV seasons.

Naturally, I am old enough -- and you knew that phrase was coming, right? -- to remember a world where Star Trek consisted only of 79 TV episodes, a couple-dozen half-hour cartoons, various officially sanctioned (but non-canonical) novels, short stories and comics, and an endless supply of fan-generated writings. Those were the original voyages of James T. Kirk and company (even the movies were a few years in the future), and they were nowhere near as slick or cohesive as TNG’s more professional take.

In fact, TNG did something very valuable for Star Trek, and that was something many fans considered anathema: The Next Generation successfully separated Star Trek from its characters, building what became “the franchise” on the ideals which remained. Again, there are lessons here for superhero comics, so let’s slingshot back a few decades and take a look, shall we?

* * *

In 1973, the writer David Gerrold published The World of Star Trek,* a thoughtful -- and sometimes brutal -- analysis of the original series. Gerrold’s words carried a lot of weight. He had written the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” and co-wrote the story that became “The Cloud Minders,” and stayed involved with Star Trek through the early years of TNG. In the early ‘70s, though, when all there was were those 79 episodes -- and plenty of time to consider them -- Gerrold laid out methodically how the series went from “Format” to “Formula.”

See, Star Trek began life as a sort of reaction to science-fiction TV anthologies like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. In fact, in his pitch to the networks, series creator Gene Roddenberry called it “a television ‘first’”:**

A one-hour science-fiction series with continuing characters.

Combining the most varied in drama-action-adventure with complete production practicality.

And with almost limitless storytelling potential.

Star Trek is a new kind of television science fiction with all the advantages of an anthology, but none of the limitations [italics in original].

Roddenberry stressed kinship with those anthologies because they represented the sort of high-minded storytelling he wanted to showcase. There had been sci-fi shows on TV before, but they were kid-oriented space operas like Rocky Jones or Captain Video, and Roddenberry had loftier goals. (Ironically, as the story goes, CBS showed great interest in Star Trek, but it turned out they just wanted to use some of Roddenberry’s ideas for their own Lost in Space.) What I take from all of this is that early in Star Trek’s development, the emphasis was just as much -- if not more -- on that storytelling structure than on the show’s characters.

Indeed, it took a few tries for the familiar trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to come together. Soon, though, they were a three-headed dramatic engine, with Spock and McCoy providing logical and emotional arguments to Kirk, who often ended up balancing those conflicting views. This served the show’s purpose fairly well. Gerrold explained that the show worked best not as “Kirk in Danger,” but as “Kirk Makes a Decision.” Spock didn’t just spout cold logic, he stood for the unfamiliar world of the future. Conversely, since he viewed those technological trappings suspiciously, McCoy spoke for the viewer. In the middle was Kirk, whose consciousness wasn’t raised much higher than that of the viewer’s, but who felt at home in the 23rd century.

It worked well, but it ended up leaving other characters out in the cold (or worse, in the case of certain single-appearance security personnel). Moreover, it became a hallmark of the show’s descent into Formula: Why would the ship’s three most valuable officers insist on putting themselves in danger week after week? In WOST, Gerrold suggested a specially trained “Contact Team” that would do the beaming-down while Kirk could make Decisions from the safety of the ship. Eventually, this became TNG’s “Away Team,” led by the action-oriented Commander Riker.

The Away Team was just one example of TNG trying to improve on its storied predecessor. The expanded cast was another. Although in step with ‘80s ensemble dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, TNG’s original nine-person lineup had its roots in the aborted Star Trek: Phase II series from the mid-1970s. Before Phase II evolved into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it had to deal with Leonard “Spock” Nimoy’s departure. Spock’s ostensible replacement was Lt. Xon, a young Vulcan eager to learn human customs. Xon became Data, and TMP’s Decker and Ilia were the model for TNG’s Riker and Troi. Security Chief Tasha Yar (and Worf, later) was a permanent replacement for the original series’ disposable security officers. Even Picard’s elder-statesman persona could be traced back to the older-and-wiser ex-Admiral Kirk.

Again, all these cast changes should underscore Star Trek’s emphasis on storytelling over characters. The series didn’t always have Kirk/Spock/McCoy, and in a sense it risked becoming too reliant upon their relationships. TNG didn’t really try to replicate the trio, either: neither Picard nor Riker were entirely Kirk, Data wasn’t Spock (because he was originally supposed to be Xon), and the closest the series came to McCoy (besides the elderly Admiral’s pilot-episode cameo) was Season 2’s Katherine Pulaski, the irascible one-year replacement for Dr. Crusher. Instead, the series gave most of its main cast (except Worf, for obvious reasons) the same humanistic viewpoint, just filtered through different roles and personalities. As the series went on, viewers learned various other details: Picard was an amateur archaeologist, Riker played the trombone, Troi had a sweet tooth, Dr. Crusher liked to dance, etc. They were fun to be around, but they weren’t archetypes.

TNG (and its successors) could make its cast less archetypal because it invested pretty heavily in making its setting believable -- and by that I mean in two significant ways. First, it doubled down on jargon (the dreaded “technobabble”) which sounded at least plausible under the rules of modern science. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it tried very hard to abide by the existing “rules” of Star Trek. The problem with the latter was that the original series hadn’t exactly been conceived with a successor in mind, so its rules sometimes developed on the fly. Early in the series, Spock’s people were Vulcanians and the Enterprise belonged to the United Earth Space Probe Agency. Leonard Nimoy made up the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on the set one day, reasoning that regardless of the script direction, Spock wouldn’t be so gauche as to club someone unconscious with the butt of a phaser. By 1987, after 79 episodes, four movies and all the rest, Star Trek as a whole was generally cohesive, but it still had some rough edges.

Therefore, TNG had to do what long-running corporate-controlled superhero serials find themselves having to do -- namely, draw a line around What Works and What Doesn’t. To that end TNG forgot about all of the original series’ various omnipotent/omniscient aliens, like the Organians,*** Trelane and the Melkot, in favor of “Q” and his Continuum. It built up Klingon culture from the race’s handful of original-series episodes and movie appearances. Generally, it attempted to distill the original’s ethos into what cast and crew called “Gene’s Vision.” You’d think this would have been easier when Gene Roddenberry was actually involved with the show. For various reasons, though, that involvement was heaviest in TNG’s first couple of seasons, which also happen to feature most of the weaker episodes.

Now, that may just be coincidence, but my impression of the show early on was that it tried very hard to feel like an episode of Star Trek from the 1960s, with the emphasis on “1960s.” As much as I loved those original episodes, I had gotten used to how television looked and sounded in the 1980s. It was as if TNG couldn’t quite distinguish what about the original series worked, and what didn’t. TNG needed to become its own thing while still remaining recognizable as Star Trek, and that meant fewer looks back. Thus, the Ferengi became comic-relief villains, not the “new Klingons.” The Romulans returned whenever the series needed to make a post-Cold War statement, but the oily, unctuous Cardassians also had an uneasy truce with the Federation. And then there were the Borg. ...

I’m not sure what to call it -- TNG’s first real grown-up moment, perhaps? -- but the cliffhanger at the end of “The Best of Both Worlds (Part 1)” kicked off a summer of speculation. For all we fans knew, there was a real possibility that Part 2 would feature the end of Jean-Luc Picard’s tenure as Enterprise captain, with Riker easing into the big chair and the eager Cmdr. Shelby as the ship’s new First Officer. To me, that was more than just suspense, because it recognized that Star Trek didn’t necessarily belong to a particular cast of characters. After all, Picard’s crew had done pretty well next to Kirk’s, so why not promote Riker? Happily, the series didn’t deal directly with that particular set of unfortunate circumstances (although DC did, in an alternate-universe comics story it just had to call “The Worst of Both Worlds”), but the point remains. Star Trek could survive all manner of tweaks, as long as it stayed true to a basic philosophy.

Thus, each of the three subsequent Trek series removed some element of the existing Trek setup -- first the starship, then the familiar setting, and eventually the 24th century itself -- but the philosophy remained. In 2006, I even tried to derive a Grand Unified Theory of Star Trek, the details of which aren’t important. What does matter is the extent to which the idea of Star Trek has transcended the particulars of Star Trek.

It almost goes without saying that we analyze today’s superhero comics in much the same way. Naturally we must look past the details, because they have become impermanent almost as a matter of course. What TNG demonstrates is that the very elements which seem fundamental can themselves be broken down and reassembled in equally-effective ways. Many of DC’s reboots, from Wonder Woman to Green Arrow to the Shade, have played with these fundamentals, albeit with varying degrees of success. We are obliged to ask how faithful these changes are to the established work (including the original creator’s intention), and we may find ourselves justifying those changes depending on how compelling they may be. However, if the spirit of the original comes through, that counts for a lot. The Next Generation took chances the original series never did (or never got the chance to do), and produced some of Star Trek’s most memorable moments -- among them “The Inner Light,” which took Picard about as far away from the Enterprise as he could ever get.

Now, of course, Star Trek has gone back to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, using yet another alternate timeline to justify an original-series reboot. The last filmed voyage of the TNG crew was almost ten years ago, although the series lives on as you might expect, in novels, comics, and the occasional computer game. After 18 years’ worth of TV and movies, the 24th and 22nd centuries had gotten full to bursting with stories and minutiae. Thus, the future of Trek has returned to the 23rd century, with a brash young cast attempting credibly to fill some pretty big boots. The new Trek has done its own distilling and taken its own chances, and while it looks pretty successful, it may never be as long-lived as its predecessors. (In fact, it’s entirely possible that before too long, J.J. Abrams and company might consider rebooting The Next Generation -- but now my head is starting to hurt. ...)

Fortunately, over the years since TNG’s premiere, Trek has been guided by people who (for the most part) have held fast to the original’s egalitarian, heavily-armed-Peace-Corps spirit. You can look at the best episodes of any sequel series -- “The Measure Of A Man,” “In The Pale Moonlight,” “Distant Origin,” “Terra Prime” -- and think yeah, that’s Star Trek. Superhero comics should be so lucky.


* [Note: the link goes to the revised 1984 edition.]

** [My quote comes from The Making Of Star Trek, by Stephen Whitfield.  Another version of the pitch may be found here.]

*** [The first arc of DC’s first Star Trek series featured a Federation/Klingon war engineered by the Excalbians, who had to neutralize the Organians to do it.  Both sets of powerful aliens ended up going to another dimension to settle their differences, which (if one were so inclined) explained the Organians’ absence from Star Trek III, IV, V, and VI, as well as TNG.]

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