Last year, Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today, Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 30. And while the original series is where it all began, modern Trek owes everything to TNG.
The Next Generation proved that Star Trek was more than just the adventures of a certain group of characters, but an entire universe. The question of whether you can do Star Trek without Bones, Kirk, and Spock was answered by The Next Generation, which was a hit right from the start.
The Next Generation kept the basics of the original series intact: there was a ship named Enterprise, and a crew on a mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” If anything, the first season hewed too closely to its predecessor (for example, the episode “The Naked Now” was explicitly a sequel to “The Naked Time,” a not-quite-classic episode of the classic series).
And yet, even in that season The Next Generation introduced some great things to Trek canon. Q, the omnipotent and capricious judge of humanity; the holodeck; Data’s “brother” Lore; Worf and his relationship to Klingon culture; a genuinely horrifying infiltration of Starfleet that the show never mentioned again (see entry #2). All of those things showed that The Next Generation was proudly carrying on the Trek tradition.
If The Next Generation had flopped it would have been disastrous, and Star Trek would surely have just withered away. We wouldn’t have gotten Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise at all.I bet that a few years ago, Paramount would have remembered they owned Star Trek and rebooted the way everything is now, so maybe we’d still have J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies, but we’d have nothing else. While you can argue about the quality of some of the other Trek TV shows, they all had episodes that made them worth existing. And they wouldn’t have without The Next Generation.
The Next Generation paved the way for the other shows to move beyond the Enterprise and its crew on exploratory missions. We saw the Trek universe on a space station, on a stranded ship, trying to get home. And then, yes, back on the Enterprise again, but this time at the dawn of the Federation.
Beyond keeping the legacy of Star Trek alive and expanding its scope, The Next Generation was iconic in its own right. “Kirk versus Picard” wouldn’t be a good debate if Patrick Stewart’s captain wasn’t a worthy, but very different, successor to the big chair. Data’s journey into personhood was a vital part of this show, and a major character arc; the old show lacked anything nearly as long-term. “Measure of a Man,” the episode where Data’s right to autonomy as a sentient being and not just an object is explored, remains one of the best episodes of television ever made.
The Next Generation is what gave us the opposite of jumping the shark: growing the beard. Will Riker grew a beard, and the show’s quality improved markedly. You want to know what other tropes this show has named? Have a gander. And here are some of the TV writers and makers that cut their teeth on TNG: Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Rene Echevarria (Teen Wolf), Naren Shankar (The Expanse), Richard Manning (Farscape), Hilary Bader (DCAU), and more all spent some time in this show’s writers room.
While things were rocky behind the scenes and on-screen, The Next Generation has still earned its place not just in the pantheon of Star Trek, but in the pantheon of TV series, period. It’s what all other science fiction shows aspire to when their spinoffs get started. And thanks be to whatever god, gods, or nigh-omnipotent-alien-being-masquerading-as-a-god that made it so.