1987 contributed an awful lot to pop culture history. Full House and A Different World premiered. Guns N’ Roses released Appetite for Destruction, and U2 debuted The Joshua Tree. And then there were Muppet Babies Happy Meal toys. As only the future could say, OMG!
Another launch from 1987 that has withstood the fickle test of pop culture time and remains a fervent fan favorite to this day is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which premiered on TV screens thirty years ago this week. The show featured a spaceship full of unforgettable characters on a mission to explore the universe and everything in between: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Cmdr. Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner), Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), and Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden).
It had been nearly twenty years since the original Star Trek series aired for three seasons on CBS and following its cancellation, became appreciated for the groundbreaking and ahead-of-its-time show that it was. By the time The Next Generation blasted off on television screens, Capt. Kirk and company were already four movies deep into their big-screen adventures. Would a return to a Star Trek world without Shatner and Nimoy work on TV?
The answer—critically, commercially, and among fans—was yes. When TNG concluded, after seven seasons and nearly 200 episodes, its place in the Star Trek—and more importantly, pop culture—world had been solidified. Even in its last season, the series was still holding onto the title of highest-rated syndicated drama in TV history (averaging 15-20 million viewers each week).
Popular and critically acclaimed Trek series would follow TNG, including Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, and J. J. Abrams rebooted the original series beginning with 2009’s blockbuster film Star Trek. And just this month, as the brand-new Trek series, Discovery, sets sail on CBS a year after the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the universe Gene Roddenberry created seems poised to continue to expand and evolve. But for this Trek fan, nothing can match The Next Generation.
Star Trek: The Next Generation — Compelling, Funny, Thoughtful. Make it so!
Ranking the greatness of the Star Trek shows can really never be anything but subjective. So I’m going to be unabashedly subjective in declaring TNG the GREATEST TREK. From a cheeky, omnipotent trickster to a mechanized race fond of cube-living, an android who dreams of being human (and loves cats!) and a bartender who listens and rocks fabulous geometric hats, Star Trek: The Next Generation was, more than anything, about its characters. Save for the occasional dramatic two-parter or other recurring thread, each week the crew of the Enterprise-D found themselves traversing the depths of space, negotiating treaties between hostile races, solving archaeological mysteries, or learning to tap dance.
That, to me, is what made TNG so great—and why it holds up so well in reruns (thank you, BBC America!). By not tying the characters or the show to one singular, overarching storyline, the showrunners were free to take deep dives on complicated issues, like whether Commander Data, as an android, should be considered the property of Starfleet or a sentient individual with inherent rights (see “The Measure of a Man,” season 2, episode 9). Or the environmental effects of deep-space travel (see “Force of Nature,” season 7, episode 9). They could also let loose and turn the bridge crew into Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the result is silly and charming and just the right dose of fun (see “Qpid,” season 4, episode 20).
“Data’s Day” (season 4, episode 11), my favorite episode, captures the engaging blend of free-form storytelling that TNG did so well. The main plot of the episode is Data keeping an audio diary for Starfleet command of a typical day for him on the Enterprise. On this typical day, he’s preparing to attend the wedding of two shipmates. He goes to the replicating center to pick out a gift, gets some dance lessons from Beverly, and visits the arboretum. He also solves a shipboard accident involving a suspicious Vulcan ambassador. The mix of the everyday with the very Trek subplot is pure TNG delight.
Whether complex, amusing, challenging, or absorbing, The Next Generation relied on its characters to explore the universe as well as the subject matter, resulting in a series of strong, smart, and singular men and women and one that felt (and still feels) lived-in, a show that was intelligent, thoughtful, compelling, entertaining, and supremely rewatchable even thirty years later.
Celebrating Star Trek: The Next Generation at 30
Many of the show’s cast have been sharing their memories and affection for the series on social media:
I can't believe it is 30 years since TNG premiered! Despite my horrendous performance in Ep1 they didn't fire me and blessed my life.— Marina Sirtis (@Marina_Sirtis) September 28, 2017
I love my Star Trek family... and that includes all of you! Happy Anniversary to us!!! https://t.co/SN0RbzcBjA— LeVar Burton (@levarburton) September 28, 2017
So much affection for these old, wildly attractive people on the 30th anniversary of TNG. Sincere thanks to all.— Brent Spiner (@BrentSpiner) September 29, 2017
Happy 30th???????? pic.twitter.com/iQGwXaCr1c— Jonathan Frakes (@jonathansfrakes) September 29, 2017
What a crazy trip it's been and continues to be! Thank you Gene & all of you extraordinary fans! https://t.co/LIBG6mJc1q— Denise Crosby (@TheDeniseCrosby) September 29, 2017
#StarTrekTNG30 thanks everybody for tweeting your memories and support! What an awesome world with you in it!!— Gates McFadden (@gates_mcfadden) September 29, 2017
I can't believe it's been thirty years. Happy anniversary to the best space family anyone could ever ask for. I love you guys. pic.twitter.com/PDuthdB6YD— Wil Wheaton (@wilw) September 28, 2017
Can you believe it's been 30 years since The Next Generation premiered? What are some of your favorite episodes and character moments?