Last week, Star Trek: The Next Generation fans celebrated the show's 30th anniversary, and I found myself thinking about why this particular Star Trek looms so large for me, when there are other versions and casts that I probably hold in higher esteem that even Patrick Stewart's brave crew.
Part of it is probably just generational and contextual. For a lot of us in this age bracket, TNG was our Star Trek, the first incarnation of the show of which we became dimly aware. Years later it was the way my college friends and I bonded: A purchase of the complete series on DVD became one of the most important social events in the history of my fraternity, the one show that everyone could get behind no matter what else might be going on.
The later series also started to get closer to serialized stories, especially with Deep Space 9. While that probably allowed some of the richest character development and storytelling in the franchise, I think I learned more from watching TNG's semi-static characters tackle problem after problem, episode after episode. They changed only a bit around the margins—but the circumstances they were asked to confront were constantly changing. There was no inescapable crisis like being marooned in the Delta Quadrant that trapped the characters with an overarching problem, nor any hateful legacy like the Cardassian Occupation that consistently haunted the cast and their interactions. There was just an ensemble of sharply drawn, semi-mutable characters, and a galaxy full of the unexpected that asked them to be their best.
The speech I return to the most out of the series is what Picard says to Wesley Crusher when he catches his surrogate son lying to a board of inquiry at the Federation Academy back on Earth. Wesley, who has grown up on the Enterprise with Picard and the rest of the crew, is covering up the fact that he was part of a stupid prank that cost another cadet their life. Picard is furious at the deception, but more than that he is shattered by the betrayal of the values that he was trying to instill in Wesley.
"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth," he says. "Whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth. It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based."
On a lesser show it would have been a good speech that amounts to a plot beat in a single episode. But in its way, TNG had spent years setting up this moment and this exchange. The characters and their relationships evolved incrementally—not as dramatically as they do on some shows, but in a way that's probably truer to life when you're dealing with adults who have achieved some self-knowledge. This conversation brought years of history into it, and left characters on a slightly different trajectory than they were before. Most importantly, it articulated the worldview that animated Picard and his ship.
What I admire so much about TNG is that it largely did portray characters who tried to live by those values. And where those values clashed, when personal belief ran headlong into professional obligation or scientific observation, those characters wrestled with those contradictions. More than any other Star Trek, TNG seemed to understand its own ethos, and how difficult and rewarding it can be for decent people to live a life of doing the right things for the right reasons. And it started with that first duty, of never shrinking from the truth.
It was a stirring message for me in college and trying to find a way to bridge the chasm between who I was and who I wanted to be. Now, as the show turns 30 and its grown children find themselves lost in what the Ringer's Justin Charity called "this dystopian kayfabe republic", its lessons and values have taken on the cast of urgency, not nostalgia.
What's your most resonant memory from The Next Generation?