Around the time JJ Abrams semi-reboot of Star Trek was released, back in 2009, I set out on my own ‘on-going mission’ to rewatch (or in some cases watch for the first time) the entirety of the Star Trek TV and film canon.
I’ve already posted reviews of a few of the films (The Wrath of Kahn, First Contact and Insurrection) but here I’m going to focus on what is, for me, the main run of the TV show from the launch of The Next Generation in the mid 80s to the climax of Voyager in the late 90s.
Of course none of these could exist without Gene Roddenberry’s original 1960s show which was certainly groundbreaking in several ways but sadly petered off rather swiftly leading to its cancellation after just three of its five years.
Its success on syndicated repeats though kept the ideas it espoused alive and, following an animated series and the launch of the film series in the late 70s, led to the idea of the series’ first not quite reboot, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
While the idea is a little clichéd now (and was even then) ‘TNG‘ set its stall as a real development from the off with bigger budgets and bigger ideas permeating its seven seasons.
While the first few seasons are somewhat hobbled by some of Roddenberry’s more 60s ideals; there’s still a strong streak of the originals idea of a strapping Star Fleet officer having his end away with exotic aliens, they do hint at the greater development beyond.
The opening episodes, Encounter At Farpoint, strongly indicate a lot of this with new life form, Q (John De Lancie for the entire run), putting the human race on trial and exploring morality and ethics in a very obvious way that, as it goes on, becomes a slightly more subtly handled linchpin of the ongoing franchise.
While this is a bit of a one-off at first, as the series’ goes on and we get past the rather two-dimensional introduction to new races like the Ferengi, and on wider television we move into the era or Twin Peaks and The X-Files, things start to coalesce with deeper ideas being investigated in the traditional hard sci-if way of finding things in the future setting to reflect the current world and current ideas.
Along with this it introduces some characters who have become not just staples of the Star Trek world but, in some cases, have slipped into broader popular culture.
Of course there’s the crew, led by Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, who’s phrase ‘make it so’ has entered the pop culture sphere as has the actor who would go on to become Professor X for much of the X-Men film franchise. Another notable character who has crossed over a little is the android crewman, Data (Brent Spiner) and, latterly, Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher.
To my mind though the most important thing TNG gave us was one of the new ‘species’ it introduced, The Borg. Playing on particularly timely obsessions with technology, in many ways they prefigure the likes of The Matrix by a good decade and develop as the show goes on into one of TV’s most interesting villains and continue to develop into one of the main antagonists of Voyager.
As TNG goes on it also develops from a standard ‘monster of the week’ style format into a broader storytelling context that grows into a universe building piece.
In its final episodes this allows it all to come full circle, back to elements introduced in the opening Q story making for a generally satisfying climax before the Enterprise-D crew headed onto the silver screen.
What the universe building also led into was the expansion of the franchise into other series, first Deep Space Nine and then Voyager.
In some ways ‘DS9‘ continues in the style of TNG with standalone episodes making the bulk of the first couple of seasons, but even then there are much more obvious overarching themes at play and heading into different directions than TNG dealt with.
This is particularly focussed around the aftermath of war, foreign policy & diplomacy and religion due to its setting in the recently liberated Bajoran system following a lengthy occupation by the Cardassian Empire.
While all of these are dealt with in a way that still suits early evening prime time TV, DS9 does take things a step further than TNG as it goes on and actual war breaks out, taking up the bulk of the last few seasons in a largely ongoing story (with occasional asides).
In this it gets increasingly ‘dark’ (for wont of a better word) with lead characters even dying a long way into the run in very effective fashion and with the aftermath of this dealt with in surprising depth.
It’s during this that the already impressive practical special effects begin to dabble with CGI and, while rudimentary by today’s standards, it opens up the storytelling into more action oriented territory which is something Star Trek as a whole often lacked.
Thankfully it does this without losing the story or the ideas as has become a problem with over heavy CGI sci-fi since, including, sadly the last couple of Trek films, particularly Star Trek Beyond
While it’s often considered the lesser series, Voyager continues much of this and, in one sense, with the most ambitious concept of all as it launches its crew to the other side of the galaxy and traces their attempts to get home.
Across its seven seasons Voyager does have its wobbles and maybe a few too many moments of apparent luck and coincidentally bumping into past characters that doesn’t fit the epic trek of the ongoing story but, in between it has some of the more interesting stand alone stories as the conceit removes much of the galactic baggage that had built up across TNG and DS9.
Of course it would be remiss to not also mention that it gives the Trek universe its first female lead in the form of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) who grows and develops into probably at least an equal to DS9‘s Captian Sisko (Avery Brooks) – I’ll be honest no one is going to best Kirk or Picard.
The last few seasons again provide the highlights as The Borg loom larger and again CGI is used to create things more inventive than a parade of humans with forehead prosthetics (though there are still plenty of them), like Species 8472 who for TV at the time are quite a feat of animation.
What possibly hampers Voyager somewhat is that many of the ideas it explores are just retreads of what we’ve seen before, with new aspects in most cases but it still has a little too much of a hint of repetition, particularly with first the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) then former Borg Seven Of Nine’s (Jeri Ryan) explorations of humanity more than echoing TNG’s Data.
The other thing that feels a shame is that the series ends rather abruptly and, while it satisfies part of the main story, it feels there was more to tell and wrap up before coming to an end.
While it’s obvious that TNG is the superior of the three series in many ways they all have their share of merits and, on my personal ‘trek’ it was the concluding part of DS9 and much of Voyager that provided many highlights, possibly because I had seen them less than TNG.
Along with this though they stand as some of the foundations of the TV renaissance of recent years (along with The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and others) that has led to the likes of Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and the Marvel Netflix shows with wider concepts and ongoing stories becoming the main focus of TV rather than the more easily disposable medium it had previously been.