If you have never watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, you might be better off skipping this one.
Way back in 2011, I was happily in the middle of my PhD studies. I had transferred to the University of Nottingham the previous year when my supervisor changed jobs, and though they had kindly agreed to match the studentship I was receiving at Royal Holloway, I was left with just five hundred pounds a month once the tuition fees were taken care of – and that was before my rent was paid.
So, I wasn’t all that well off.
As a result, I was always grateful for a free meal, and when my more well-heeled brother generously offered to take me for a pizza in Shad Thames one summer evening, I eagerly acquiesced.
The restaurant in question was new, but my sibling had already dined there a couple of times and said I would like it.
In this he was correct – though I wouldn’t have liked the prices, had I been paying.
Halfway through our dining experience, there was a minor commotion when a commanding-looking bald man entered the restaurant with a couple of compatriots, passing our table as he did so. The head waiter and his team immediately rushed to accommodate the new arrival, and though I could only see him from behind at this point, I thought I recognised the voice. The newly arrived gourmand was possessed of what can only be described as stentorian tones, and – being the expert television historian that I am – it took but a parsec before I grabbed my brother’s arm and blurted out: ‘Don’t look now, but Patrick Stewart has just come in.’
Now, to me, Patrick Stewart will forever be Sejanus, the Emperor Tiberius’s less than trusty lieutenant in the BBC’s 1976 production of I, Claudius; he who comes a cropper on the steps of the Senate when his nefarious ambition finally gets the better of him. If that doesn’t ring any bells, you might remember his powerful yet dialogue-free turn as Karla, George Smiley’s nemesis, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
As far as my fellow diners were concerned, however, it was none other than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard who had just beamed down for a spot of tagliatelle and vino, and for the next hour my sibling and I got to see him in all his splendour – and, perhaps more pertinently, to hear him.
For to say that Mr Stewart’s voice carries well would be an understatement; he’s done a quite a bit of theatre, you know.
Having expertly built up your anticipation of something momentous happening, I must now admit there is not really a lot more to tell. We tried not to stare, and Jean-Luc got on with his meal, probably quite liking the fact that everyone was trying not to stare. He didn’t order tea (Earl Grey, hot), or say ‘Make it so’ when the head waiter recommended the special, but he seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as he would have done sharing a drop of Aldebaran whisky with Guinan in Ten Forward.
I did advise you to skip this one if you weren’t familiar with Star Trek, didn’t I?
Towards the end of the meal, my brother decided to avail himself of the bathroom facilities, only to find his progress blocked by – guess who? – Mr Stewart himself, who was again being flirted with by the maitre d’. My brother hoped one of them might move in order to allow him past, but that turned out to be as likely as a Klingon backing down from a Bat’leth duel.
One might almost say that, in my brother’s moment of need, Captain Picard boldly refused to let him go.
I can’t remember much else about the evening. I’m sure my brother gained access to the loo eventually (though the doors almost certainly didn’t slide open and close with a satisfying ‘ssshhht’; it was posh, but not that posh).
I certainly couldn’t have afforded to pay the bill without him.
Why, then, am I now recalling this evening from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? Well, I am currently on a trek of my own: through the epic seven-season run of Star Trek: The Next Generation – or TNG, as I am apparently obliged to call it (I prefer Next Gen, myself). Now, you know me; as far as I am concerned, there is only one true successor to Star Trek (yes, just plain old Star Trek; not Star Trek: The Original Series, or TOS, as Trekkers – or possible TOS-ers? – would probably have me say), and that is Star Trek: The Animated Series (you guessed it: TAS), about which I have blogged previously. You will doubtless recall that, though Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (or the Big Bird of the Universe, as he apparently liked to be known) initially gave the cartoon version his blessing, he later thought again and announced that it was no longer canon (despite the fact that it debuted concepts such as the Holodeck, which would become a key feature of several TNG episodes). Although the Next Gen began its syndicated run in the US in 1987, we didn’t get it in the UK until September 1990. Reassuringly, it was in the same 6 pm BBC2 slot that repeats of the classic series (which I can’t help calling it) had occupied since the early 1970s. By 1990 I was all grown up, and had been at work in our great capital for nearly a year. So, even if I concluded my labours at 5 pm, it’s unlikely I would have completed my commute home to Essex in time to catch the beginning of each episode – yet I do recall watching that first season quite clearly, more out of curiosity than anything else.
My main memory is of DeForest Kelley turning up in some outrageous prosthetics and bell bottoms to play an aged Doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy in a brief first episode cameo, though it struck me at the time that several of the new characters were in fact designed to fill the boots of original series ‘types’. Instead of the unemotional (half-) Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), we had the unemotional android Data (Brent Spiner) – though he was far keener to get in touch with his latent humanity than Spock had ever been. As one of the central alien crew members, who therefore experienced the occasional culture clash with his fellow officers, Klingon officer Worf (Michael Dorn) could also be seen to possess certain elements of Spock, though he had been given some notable distinguishing traits of his own. For example, whereas Spock would murmur the word ‘fascinating’ at least three times an episode, Worf could instead be relied upon to refer to his ‘honour’ on a regular basis. Meanwhile, since Stewart’s captain was clearly intended as a more cerebral character than action hero predecessor Kirk (William ‘Bill’ Shatner), the clean-cut derring-do was initially allocated to Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) – at least until he grew a beard in season two. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) had replaced Scotty (James Doohan) as chief engineer, and though forced to wear a visor due to his visual impairment, proved no less capable or passionate when it came to warp capacity. On the plus side, there were now more female characters in command roles: the short-lived Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), none of whom were stuck on comms as Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) had been, and therefore got to beam down as part of the away team on a more regular basis. There was even a teenager, Wesley ‘Wes’ Crusher (Wil Wheaton), for the kids to identify with. Wes was apparently much loathed, but for my money, Wheaton’s performance was one of the more compelling elements of early episodes.
Although the Klingons were now friends (sort of) with the Federation of Planets, there were some not very intimidating new villains in the form of the Ferengi, plus a recurring, seemingly omnipotent otherworldly entity called Q (John de Lancie), who delighted in tormenting Picard and crew with various dilemmas before putting everything back to how it should be at the end of the episode.
I didn’t take to TNG like a duck to water, but I quite enjoyed the first season. However, real life intervened – as it always does – and by the time I started university in 1992 I had rather lost track of the show. We were still a couple of years behind transmissions in the US, where by this point it was onto its sixth, penultimate season (the one I’m watching now). However, a couple of the friends I made over the next few years turned out to be Trekkies – or Trekkers (what is the difference? Does anyone know, or care – aside of the Trekkies/Trekkers themselves?) – and would buy all the latest episodes on VHS. As fate would have it, I ended up sharing a student house with one of these chaps, to whom I shall refer as Paul D, and we often had impromptu viewing sessions based on his recommendations, as follows:
- You’ve got to watch this one – Picard gets turned into a Borg! (‘The Best of Both Worlds’)
- You’ve got to watch this one – Picard gets tortured by a Cardassian! (‘Chain of Command’)
- You’ve got to watch this one – Picard changes his own past! (‘Tapestry’)
- You don’t need to watch this one – Picard falls in love, but it doesn’t last… (‘We’ll Always Have Paris’, ‘Captain’s Holiday’, ‘The Perfect Mate’, ‘Lessons’, blah)
Paul D kept his tapes – in no particular order – in a big cardboard box in the corner of our living room, and sometimes I would simply rummage around and take pot luck. Of course, we all had to watch the one where Picard is transported both backwards and forwards in time by Q (again), for the grand finale: ‘All Good Things’. It had been broadcast in the US in May 1994, but although British terrestrial viewers would have to wait until 1996 to see it transmitted, we already had the VHS! This was in early 1995, the penultimate term of our final year at university – so it very much felt like the end of an era.
Then, what seemed like a couple of weeks later, we were heading to the nearest multiplex (in Hanley, I think) to see Star Trek: Generations – the first TNG movie! This represented a symbolic passing of the tricorder from the original series crew (though only Kirk, Scotty and Chekov actually appeared, the latter two in cameos clearly intended for Spock and Bones) to Picard and co. – and my, how excited we were. Watching it now, it isn’t particularly strong in structural terms, but that didn’t seem to matter at the time. To mark the occasion, another of my Trekkie/Trekker chums, Luke (let’s call him Skywalker, though that isn’t his real name), lent me a Star Trek communicator pin badge, in order that I would fit in.
They were, indeed, great days. However, I once again struggled to keep up with the Trekverse post-university. Although I very much enjoyed the second TNG movie, Star Trek: First Contact, when I saw it with Skywalker at the cinema, that was the last time I really made the effort. I quite enjoyed the first season of prequel Star Trek: Enterprise, which starred Scott Bakula as Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Jonathan Archer, and I particularly liked the episode in which Bakula’s erstwhile Quantum Leap colleague Dean Stockwell turned up as a baddie, using a Ziggy-like handset to procure information regarding Archer’s identity. However, real life intervened once more when I departed our shores to teach English in Italy, and by the time I moved back to the UK the show had been cancelled (the first since the original series not to reach the seven-season mark).
And that’s where my Trekking could easily have come to an end – but the coming of the digital era meant that my relationship with TNG was, in fact, only just beginning. However, for reasons of length, you will have to wait until next week to find out how and why the next phase came about.
Watch this ‘space’…
Dr Richard Hewett is Senior Lecturer in Contextual Studies for Film and Television at University of the Arts London. He has previously contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television, Adaptation, Comedy Studies and Series – International Journal of Serial Narratives. His 2017 monograph, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, was published in paperback form in 2020. For further information on academic publications, see here.
 Please note that I am surmising; I can’t actually remember what was served at the Captain’s Table.
 That is the best line in the blog, to be honest. You might as well stop now.
 Sorry, wrong sci-fi franchise.
 I know, I know; it was the Great Bird of the Galaxy. They are equally silly epithets.
 Perhaps my brother taped it for me? What a lot I do owe him.
 Doubtless known by some former colleagues as ‘the Shat’.
 I think fans were just jealous that he got to work on the bridge of the Enterprise, and they didn’t. In the words of the Shat: get a life!
 This is of course not to be confused with the Federation in Blake’s 7 – but that is another story, for another blog.