How did “Star Trek: The Next Generation” differentiate itself from the original series?


When the public heard Star Trek (1966) was coming back to television nearly 20 years after the original series had gone off the air, the news was immediately met with criticism. Would it feature the same characters as the original? Would the same actors portray them? If not, is it still Star Trek? Can you do this without Shatner and Nimoy? Why do we need another Star Trek series? To put it bluntly, the response wasn’t great, and the outlook wasn’t positive. (Patrick Stewart has even said he eventually took the job expecting it to fail, mainly hoping it would give him some more experience in front of the camera for whatever came next in his career.)

However, the longevity of the original series had shocked the executives at Paramount and made them eager to find a way to milk more success from their asset. The success of the films starring the original series cast never slipped. But the studio realized that the actors of the first show and films, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in particular, had become big stars. Their salary demands for a new series would be more than the budget would allow and could weaken the appeal of the still-successful films, so a new cast was conceived. They called the show The Next Generation (1987) and named its ship the Enterprise-D—a new series for new people, with strokes of the familiar.

Trek creator Gene Roddenberry came on board for The Next Generation, which would be the only spin-off for which he had any control, only several years before his death in 1991. The show was sold into first-run syndication right away to increase its profitability and audience exposure.

Roddenberry had some very specific ideas about the series and its characters. Chief among them was his avoidance of any interpersonal conflict between the crewmembers, as he believed that interpersonal conflict would have no need to exist in the 24th century. The Next Generation’s concept says Earth is a unified, peaceful planet where hunger, war, and poverty no longer exist. People don’t work to earn money and achieve material wealth anymore. Those concepts were made irrelevant by the invention of the replicator, and people now work in harmony to better themselves. Ambition is now fueled by intellect and status, and collaborative environments are commonplace.

As Time explains, “The Next Generation was a more thoughtful series — at times, to its detriment — one that was less likely to jump into action or romance the closest sexy alien lady that week than it was to sit down and talk about its feelings before deciding that, well, maybe things are very complicated and perhaps inaction is a valid response to events after all. The Next Generation was a new take on the Star Trek mission statement, separate enough from what had come before — and what the movie audiences were paying for when they watched Kirk, Spock et al. save the day in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, both made and released during The Next Generation‘s run — to turn the sure thing into something that must have seemed far riskier at the time.”

All these ideas led to some very awkward and, frankly, bad episodes within the first few seasons of the show. Roddenberry had become challenging to work with in his later years, and his stubbornness about the concept and scope of the series led to many writing obstacles, which were fueled by the characters’ inability to have any conflict with each other. Other odds considerations were made; for example, Roddenberry pitched the show without starships, thinking people might use another form of conveyance by that point.

Roddenberry’s vision for the series came through a prism of the original series, whose cancellation he still resented. He saw TNG as an opportunity to continue many of the original show’s ideas. Following Roddenberry’s death, the strictness of these ideas eased up, and the show found its stride.

Roddenberry wasn’t initially keen on Patrick Stewart for the part of French-born Jean Luc Picard, either. Entertainmeny Weekly writes, “As Stewart and others explain, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry didn’t think a bald Englishman could play ‘the new Captain Kirk’ and initially fought the notion of Stewart even reading for the part. When it came down to final casting and Stewart read for the studio, Roddenberry had him do it in a wig — one that had to be shipped from England to Los Angeles.”

Broader thematic changes also differentiate The Next Generation from the original series. These are made immediately apparent by the presence of Worf (Michael Dorn) as a member of the ship’s bridge crew. In the original series, a show fueled by the conflicts of the cold war wherein the Federation, Klingons and Romulans stood in for the world’s bitter superpowers, The Next Generation finds Klingons not only within Starfleet but also serving as officers on their flagship vessels. This changes the perspective of the series for the new era and reimagines the series’ antagonists.

The crew is an amalgam of types in addition to Picard and Worf: Georgi LaForge (LeVar Burton), the blind African-American engineer; Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the sexy and hugely observant half-human, half-Betazoid empath; Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), the gifted medical officer with a subtle passion and complicated history with Picard; Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), the haughty and capable first officer; Data (Brent Spiner) the android with a Pinocchio complex and dreams of understanding humanity; and Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), the short-lived and headstrong security officer. The cast epitomizes the diversity Roddenberry dreamed of collaborating without conflict in the future.

The Next Generation, while primarily a procedural drama, also contains story arcs that span many episodes—something the original series doesn’t do. TNG features recurring characters like Q (John DeLancie) who provide connective tissue between episodes and, in a large diversion, puts children and families on board the ship. The presence of entire family units offers greater dramatic appeal to situations wherein the whole vessel is in trouble and allows (for better or worse) the creation of characters like Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), a child showing his eagerness to be part of the universe’s greatest exploratory team. On a grand scale, The Next Generation focuses heavily on issues concerning people, morals, cooperation, and diplomacy through perspectives different from its predecessor.

The show went on to become a legend and one of the most recognizable parts of the Star Trek franchise. It created some landmark television episodes, such as “The Best of Both Worlds,” which features the series’ recurring antagonists The Borg, a collective hive-mind lifeform that represents a possible negative outcome of humanity’s overdependence on technology. That two-part episode serves as a pinnacle episode of the series and, arguably, the franchise as a whole.