Star Trek catch-up: The Next Generation (part 1)

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons from 1987 to 1994. It was by far the most successful Star Trek series, and it’s difficult to overstate its impact on pop culture, both at the time and now. For most of its run, it was one of the only ongoing science fiction series on television, and its competitors tended to be either short-lived knock-offs (seaQuest DSV) or cheap and decidedly niche (…Doctor Who).

These days TNG is often dismissed as “too utopian”, with too-perfect characters and an artificial lack of conflict. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. By this point in his life, Roddenberry definitely had strange ideas about what Starfleet and the Federation would and wouldn’t do, and some of his notions about what a utopia looked like were … troubling. I strongly feel that Star Trek is at its best when those ideas are subverted, deconstructed, or just politely ignored.

On the other hand, I don’t think the characters or setting were excessively perfect, or even conflict-free. But TNG is like The West Wing: it’s a series about intelligent people who are making wholehearted, good faith attempts to do the right thing.

The other reason I think that some people dismiss TNG is that it hasn’t always aged well, and it’s harder to be forgiving of the ’80s and ’90s than the ’60s. Television has moved on to serialised storytelling with more complicated — if not antiheroic or outright villainous — characters, and TNG’s good-hearted, episodic nature is no longer fashionable.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the darker, serialised SF TV we have now is still inspired by TNG, if only in terms of the creators striving to be different. Babylon 5, for example, was very much in dialogue with TNG, and strove to set itself apart from that whole style of television.

Personally, I think there’s room for both forms. Even in the same franchise. So I can’t get into arguments about whether or not DS9 is better than TNG, because they set out to do completely different things, and each excelled. And it’s too soon to say whether Disco will excel, but it’s as much a product of its time as TNG was.

Because TNG ran for so long, and had so many watchable episodes, I’ve split this post into two parts.

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The Norah Satie Discourse

“The Drumhead”. Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 4, episode 21: the discovery of a spy aboard the Enterprise, along with possible sabotage of the ship’s engines, triggers an investigation led by retired Rear Admiral Norah Satie (played by veteran British actress Jean Simmons) which quickly turns into a witch hunt.

“The Drumhead” is one of those iconic TNG episodes. There’s an ethical dilemma which serves as a metaphor for real world issues, external forces trigger polite disagreement between members of the main cast, Patrick Stewart gives an inspirational speech, and then it’s never spoken of again.

I don’t say this as faint praise. TNG was a great series, which suffers now because its episodic storytelling style is no longer fashionable. And this is one of the best episodes, representing the series at its peak. Though it was conceived as an allegory for McCarthyism, “The Drumhead”‘s exploration of justice, paranoia and the value of civil liberties is particularly relevant in the hellscape of the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless. I have a lot of feelings about Norah Satie, the way she was written, and her treatment in-universe.

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