Part X: How To Spin-Off your Franchise In a Few Easy Steps
To really sit here and discuss the differences between Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is to give a course on the history and evolution of television itself. I need not mention the advancements in make up, prosthetics, and computer effects technologies. That should be apparent. When TOS was on air (1966-1968) television was barely in its adolesence. Ideas like back story, and giving multi-level depth to characters were just not regularly used on TV in those days. It was simply one hour vignettes about solving whatever problem is introduced today, and TOS is very representative of that style. As beloved as the original Star Trek cast is, most of them remain one-dimensional until the closing credits of Star Trek VI.
By the late eighties though, television had certainly grown. Which works out great for a concept as rich as Star Trek’s. Twenty years or so gave everyone plenty of time to rethink things. Questions of Star Fleet’s rules are fixed such as: Why would both the captain and first officer always both go on the away teams? Why would they always bring their main navigators down as well? Wouldn’t there be other people for that? Little things that don’t quite add up in Starfleet’s protocol for operations. While they still don’t address Starfleet’s lack of seatbelts in TNG, the crew isn’t thrown violently around the bridge as much either.
Okay, so while thinking of specifications is noticed and appreciated, it doesn’t make for great entertainment. So whats the difference then? What makes TNG even worth it? Like I said, the changes in the format of television do the trick. TV kind of grew into Star Trek. The modern style of television presents a better environment for the concept to flourish. TNG is a genuine ensemble piece, as opposed to TOS’s one Kirk show. Season one introduces nine brand new characters, which is a risky business. Despite Obama’s campaign from 2008, people do not generally like change. So how did they do it? How did they successfully make a brand new show under the Star Trek name with nothing to connect the series except basically a few ideas?
Well, here they got clever. It’s just like playing with Play-do. They took the cast of TOS (though admittedly mostly Kirk and Spock) and played with their characters and squished them together, took them apart, held a mirror to them and voila, almost every person in TNG has some sort of reminiscence to the cast of old. Here’s how they did it.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart): Easy. Take everything about Captain Kirk and do the opposite. Instead of the smooth talking, reckless, ladies man we got with Captain Kirk. We get Picard, a well-read, thoughtful, and seemingly regal gentleman. Add a touch of McCoy’s grumpiness for flavor. More age and more wisdom, and more of what you’d expect the captain to be. Though people do love that young and handsome energy Kirk had. It won’t be Star Trek without that bit. You’re right, and so:
Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes): Riker is more or less a brand new Kirk. That sounds boring though no? Well here’s the twist, he’s not Captain! So we get to see Kirk without absolute authority. Okay, so these are nice spins on Captain Kirk. I liked that old friend relationship between the Captain and the Doctor too, what about that?
Oh TNG keeps that relationship, but check this out! The Doctor is lady! Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Captain Picard are old friends. Since she’s a lady though, could their friendship become… something more? Ooh la la. That’s nice, but what about McCoy’s miserable and outsider demeanor? Oh, done and done! And I mean Done!
Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn): Boom baby! You want a grumpy outsider, what do you say to Klingon!? Worf adds his own flavor to the whole thing as the lone Klingon adjusting amongst humans. Great! That sounds somewhat Spocky too. It sure does doesn’t it? In fact there’s plenty of Spock to go around!
Did you like that Spock was half human, and therefore had to deal with conflicting sides of himself? Introducing the stunning Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Part Beta-Zed and therefore an empath. (She can read people’s emotions.) She’s the ships counselor as well as Picard’s personal lie detector. She’s also a former flame of Riker to spice things up a bit.
That’s nice right, but not quite Spocky enough for you. I know. Okay, how’s this? Spock was a half-human Vulcan who didn’t want to be human, right? Well, what do you say to an android? It’s like super Spock! The same good nature as Spock, the same childlike curiosity that endeared us to begin with. Only thing about Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) though, he wants to be human!
Sweet! And the rest of the gang? We need that buddy relationship similar to the Sulu/Chekov dynamic. Sure, we’ve got Data manning the helm, so his counterpart will be none other than Lt. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton). This blind optimist is forced to make use of his visor, which causes him constant pain, but also helps him see better than we ever could.
Throw in Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), a strong, female, head of security. Sort of the Uhura of the crew, but with a tragic back story and toughness greater than most of the males.
Lastly, we have wonder kid Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton, I can’t say it without do the Stewie voice either). A super genius boy in his teens destined for greatness. Now the kids have someone to relate to!
Boom. There it is, a perfectly likable and relatable cast, reminiscent enough of the old cast to keep the change-haters at bay. TNG goes above and beyond though. They have the gumption to kill off one of the above before the first season is done. None of the Original cast died (except Spock, who came back) so this is just an early example of how TNG isn’t afraid to mix things up. Then they go ahead and have a minor character’s head explode in the season finale, and it’s just great.
By the second season things do get mixed quite a bit. Promotions are handed out, positions are shifted. Worf’s forehead becomes more consistent. Riker grows a beard. More Data. The storyline of episodes themselves are much more coherent. Dr. Crusher is replaced by Dr. Polaski (Diana Muldaur, who remains a welcome presence throughout the season) giving Wesley a chance to flourish without mom there. More Data. Wesley also, is also down-graded from wonder kid who knows more about the ship than anyone else to smart kid who has potential. Which is nice, Wesley constantly saving the day gets old quick. More Data. Focus gets shifted to less Riker, more Picard.
Oh, and more Data! Basically, they respond to what the people want. With five more seasons left to go and barely a whisper given so far from the Romulans and a new threat the Borg, I’m excited for what this series has in store. TNG may be the definitive Star Trek after all.