The Continuing Mission
Star Trek: The Next Generation is 25-years old this week. I gave myself the length of the soundtrack to the landmark two-parter, “Best of Both Worlds,” to write about it.
Thinking about The Next Generation (TNG) feels like recalling a favorite schoolteacher or remembering old dorm pals. I was nine when TNG debuted. I was, what, sixteen when it took its final bow in 1994.
I watched TNG on broadcast television, when the episodes were new. I watched it on video tapes, noting hints of the larger galactic backdrop and studying how the stories were built. I watched late-night re-runs of the show on the couch in my college dorm’s common area, canoodling with the woman who would become my wife.
Once, I was stoked with fervent fandom. I didn’t watch the show every week, I read it, text and subtext, drinking in what was on stage and behind the scenes. We had a subscription to Starlog at the house, when I was growing up, brimming with TNG news and interviews.
My version of fanfic, back then, was to write and play out roleplaying-game adventures. I designed various Star Trek RPG systems based on whatever dice-and-paper RPG technology I could get my hands on, from West End Games’ D6 System to a home-brew game that owed a lot to Ars Magica. I put together binders describing the pitch and premise of Star Trek adventure series that gave me the thrill not only of pretending to be a Starfleet officer but of getting to write or develop a Trek television series.
This hobby of Trek series-building went on for a decade or more. I handed off a semi-weekly Trek RPG series when I left Chicago at the beginning of the 21st century for the Twin Cities, where I eventually tried to get another Trek game going.
Once, I studied TNG, poring over it as the folklore of my age.
The Next Generation wasn’t my sole mentor for storytelling, but it was an important one. For years, when I was watching television and thinking of it as storytelling school, Next Generation was one of my favorite classes. I loved its combination of formula and surprise, of iconic adventure coupled with dramatic dilemmas. I loved how it sketched and implied a galaxy bigger than its TV budget, bigger than the walls of its sets, more mysterious than its SFX could always accommodate on its production schedule. I loved how it combined a sort of incredible workplace with the dangers and astonishment of a wondrous universe.
To me, TNG depicted two workplaces I admired and dreamed about: bold astronauts exploring the cosmos and creative professionals building imaginary worlds, character by character and story by story. I didn’t have the right mix of stuff to become an astronaut.
Once, I was passionate about TNG.
Today, that passion manifests as a kind of wonderful familiarity. I love TNG, still, like I love my education. I’ve forgotten a lot about the show, just as I can no longer run a mile in any respectable timeframe, but “Darmok” remains my favorite episode and I can tell you how the stardates work on the show, more or less. The gaps in my memory let me be surprised every now and again when I browse the episodes on Netflix (“Hey, I forgot that episode was so late in the run of the show!”), which I also sort of love.
The Next Generation taught me a lot and introduced me to some great friends. And although I’ve changed a lot since we met—I design games and write stories for a living now—I still think about my years with TNG. (In fact, as I sit here with the musical score from “Best of Both Worlds” in my headphones, I have some pretty good fanfic brewing about Picard and a Borg archaeological site.) Picture me like Richard Dreyfuss thinking back in Stand By Me.
I’ve never known any starship quite like I knew the Enterprise that was voyaging when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?
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