In 1994, the Star Trek franchise was at a crossroads. The Next Generation had long since achieved mainstream popularity, but was coming to an end in anticipation of a leap to the big screen. Deep Space Nine, in many ways the moody, mature, neglected stepchild of the franchise, had the spotlight to itself for a brief time at the end of its second season and the beginning of its third, before it would be superseded by the January 1995 launch of a new TV network whose banner would be carried by the brand-new Star Trek: Voyager.
I Didn’t Want to Admit That it Was Over: The Next Generation at an End
The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a stressful one for a cast and crew stretched to its limit. Much of producers Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor’s attention was elsewhere, overseeing the preproduction of Generations and Voyager. Writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga were writing the upcoming film and then the series finale, and so were absent or distracted for part of the season, while other writers had left the year before to join the Deep space Nine staff; the show had stopped accepting script and story submissions from the public, a policy that had served as the big break for several long-term staff writers (including the aforementioned Moore & Braga) and a venue for outside-the-box story concepts. This led to a slight paucity of ideas, out of which came a series of episodes introducing new family members for the crew — in the portion of the season aired in 1994 alone, there were episodes about Worf’s brother, Doctor Crusher’s grandmother (plus her family’s ancestral ghost lover, in a gothic soap-opera twist), a duplicate of Worf’s son (appearing as an adult via time travel shenanigans), and Captain Picard’s fake son. The 1993 portion of the season had also introduced Commander La Forge’s parents, Counselor Troi’s dead sister, and Data’s mother.
Those episodes haven’t lived on in many fans’ minds as highlights of the series, but there are others in the final season that have much better reputations. “The Pegasus” uses that most tried-and-true Trek trope, the rogue admiral, in this case Terry O’Quinn as Commander Riker’s former captain. Many rogue admirals have been former commanding officers or close friends of the main cast, but usually the drama comes in the protagonist coming to see them as a fraud, or a flawed being, and having to disconnect; the difference here is that Riker is complicit in the admiral’s scheme to recover technology from the ship they shared years before, even though it violates a treaty with the Romulans. Riker does come clean eventually, but not before betraying Picard’s trust trying to maintain the coverup of a mutiny that occurred when Riker was a junior officer. The fresh-faced Ensign Riker sided with his captain, they fought their way off the ship, watched it disappear, and for years that was that. The fact that the technology that caused the mutiny and the coverup was a cloaking device provides the Obvious Metaphor of the Week, but on the way there it also provides more conflict between the main cast than is typical for The Next Generation, which typically hews close to Gene Roddenberry’s directive that the protagonists are highly-evolved people and therefore conflict has to come mainly from outside the main cast, from guest stars or situations or forces of nature. There’s something to be said for providing an unabashedly optimistic view of humanity’s future, and it’s one of the reasons the Star Trek franchise has endured for fifty years (even though that viewpoint was a retcon…but that’s another article); however, it’s especially in that context that a little flaw goes a long way, and allowing Riker to have this incident haunting his conscience adds depth to his characterization that goes all the way back to the show’s pilot. In one of the first scenes between Picard and Riker, Picard said he wanted a first officer who would take orders, but also push back when necessary, someone who would be loyal but also not let his captain make foolhardy decisions. Here, seven years later, we have a story about Riker blindly following his captain because he was fresh out of Starfleet Academy and didn’t know any better, the memory of which must have tempered his loyalty with a kernel of wisdom that grew as he gained experience and confidence. One lesson of every rogue admiral episode is that the people with the power aren’t always right, and their orders sometimes can’t be absolute even in a military system. The cloaking device itself also ties into Roddenberry’s idea of a better form of humanity — he infamously made the decision that Starfleet would never use the cloaking device because “our heroes don’t sneak around.” And because they don’t sneak around, Riker comes clean to Picard about the secret he’s been carrying and Picard comes clean to the Romulans, and it’s this honesty rather than any battle that undoes Admiral Terry O’Quinn’s scheme to, essentially, sneak around. This is what it means, in this episode, to be a highly evolved 24th-century human being: you have the maturity to find people you can trust and actually trust them; when you make a mistake you make amends honestly and forthrightly. It’s not that different from what it means to be a good 21st-century human being; the aspirational component is that in Star Trek it’s the norm. We have the power, in our time, to make that happen.
“Lower Decks,” originally aired a few weeks later, is a unique episode for the The Next Generation, and serves to define the series by opposition. Instead of our normal main cast, we follow a group of junior officers to get their perspective on what is, underneath the hood, a standard episode’s worth of intrigue. It’s been established that the Enterprise-D has over a thousand people on board, but other than the occasional minor character who’s managed to get a name and not be killed off by the end of any given episode, to this point we haven’t really gotten to know many of them. The two we did get to know a little — transporter chief O’Brien and his wife, Keiko — were shipped off to Deep Space Nine when that show got started. That thousand people was a mere statistic for people to write down in their trivia lists, along with the ship’s length or the number of decks it has. (Of course we don’t have to keep our own starship trivia files any more, now that we can just point a browser to Memory Alpha.) The bare mechanics of the plot are, honestly, a bit typical, but that’s actually an advantage when many plot beats are witheld from the audience because it’s the junior officers who provide our point of view. It’s an intriguing glimpse of what life is like in the Star Trek universe for some people who don’t run whole departments on starships, who carry out orders without knowing their full context. Though they’re not as spiritually complete and self-fulfilled as the show’s main characters, as they’re at the beginning of their careers and still trying to impress their superior officers to get ahead — they still embody the show’s idealized conception of interpersonal relations in the gleaming future, never indulging in cattiness or back-stabbing to get ahead. That TNG had such an atypical episode just a couple of months before coming to an end can be taken as an impressive willingness to play around with a well-worn format, an acknowledgement that coming up with twenty-six hours of television every season is hard, or a bit of both.
Other episodes are more obviously the products of The Next Generation‘s position at the head of a larger franchise, with responsibilities for the future. As it had established the background of Deep Space Nine in several episodes in its fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons, TNG used two episodes of its seventh season to lay the foundation for Voyager while resolving the closest thing TNG had to a dangling plot thread. “Journey’s End” is the show’s farewell to Wesley Crusher, that much-reviled character whose career at Starfleet Academy had only occasionally been mentioned in the previous three years; he comes back here not as a know-it-all teenager but as a moody young man who decides that Starfleet isn’t the right path for him, despite what everyone has told him for his entire life. (Cut him some slack; you might not have had your whole life mapped out at 22 either.) The last straw that puts him in conflict with Captain Picard, and therefore the show in general, to such an extent that he’s given his sendoff is…Native American removal. Usually when Star Trek comments on social issues there’s some thinly-veiled metaphor involved (like when the guy who’s black on the right side of his face hates the guy who’s black on the left side of his face because racism is stupid), and here the commentary on the displacement and genocide at the heart of the political structures in North America is made through Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew being ordered to move a Native American colony whose new home, the planet they moved to when it became clear that they couldn’t maintain their cultural identity on Earth, is given away to the Cardassians in a new treaty solidifying the border. In this scenario, at least, everyone involved knows that the removal order is atrocious, but interstellar politics is the art of the possible, as they say.
While the show’s heart is in the right place, the treatment of Native customs & traditions might as well include a neon sign saying WHITE PEOPLE WROTE THIS, with a bevy of generic lines like “the Habak is holy to us,” “everything is sacred to us,” and “we have very strong ties to our ancestors. We believe their actions guide us even now.” This is poised to become even more problematic when it seems like Wesley is going to join the settlers following a mystical vision of his dead father…but his guide turns out to be The Traveler, an enigmatic person who had appeared much earlier in the series to comment on how special Wesley was. And so, in the midst of a firefight between the settlers and Cardassians, he leaves to explore higher planes of existence with The Traveler. As one does. As the episode wraps up, obviously we cannot have Our Heroes actually remove a tribe from their home; that circle is squared via an agreement that sees the Natives give up their Federation citizenship, and therefore the protection of Starfleet, to remain in their chosen home no matter what side of the border it’s on. In a normal TNG plot this would be the last we hear about any of this; while these particular Native Americans don’t recur (and are really only there to set up Chakotay’s background on Voyager), the conflict sparked in this episode reverberates for years.
The penultimate episode of The Next Generation, “Preemptive Strike,” returns to this conflict in a more advanced state. A two-part Deep Space Nine story introduced the Maquis, the formal name for a terrorist resistance group formed by colonists from the worlds ceded to the Cardassians. The Maquis say they want the Cardassians to leave them alone on their worlds, while the Cardassians say those worlds belong to Cardassia and they’ll do what they please, and the Federation would like tensions to die down before the larger political situation is inflamed even more. Ro, a particularly well-liked minor character from TNG, is sent undercover to draw a Maquis cell into a trap, but ultimately bonds with some of the people she finds there and decides that she can’t go through with her mission. This depiction of a terrorist group, starting with a valid grievance against being treated as a bargaining chip by their government and continuing with a well-liked character making a personal moral decision to join them, is one of the most 1990s things about this year of Star Trek, though not one that anyone could have known at the time. As a result of some egregious acts, some tragedies, and a whole lot of propaganda, we’re used to thinking very differently about terrorism now. One element of that is thinking of it as terrorism rather than terrorists, individual people who have the same sorts of motivations that anyone else does but feel themselves pushed to extremes. Obviously the Maquis are given a more sympathetic cause than some real-world terrorists have, but the fact that the conversation is even happening, let alone in a show and a franchise that almost exclusively features military officers, isn’t something you see very much in popular culture any more.
But the most notable episode of The Next Generation‘s final season, clearly, is the series finale. “All Good Things…” features Captain Picard slipping to and fro between TNG’s past, present, and future to solve the same mystery, using this premise as a way to insert all the little details Trekkies have a reputation for obsessing over (an attention to detail that’s only become more prevalent in more genres and fandoms in the last twenty years, with more shows being pored over by fans for the smallest details of production design or echoes in dialogue) while remaining true to the enduring themes of the series in a way that both draws the show to a close and shows why, on a deeper level, it really never ends.
For a series sometimes criticized for its episodes being too disconnected, with the “reset button” being pushed at the end of many episodes so that the status quo was rarely shifted significantly, not to mention a series finale that couldn’t upset the status quo as much as other such endings because its cast and crew were promised a film series, this serves as a lovely thematic justification. Everything that would have rocked the boat is offloaded to the future Picard slips forward to, one in which he’s a lonely old man with a vineyard and a degenerative illness (basically Alzheimer’s disease in all but name) instead of a captain and an explorer, Riker is a bitter admiral with a desk job (mostly), Data has gained emotions and a position at Cambridge, Geordi is a novelist who’s married to Leah Brahms (one of the more problematic moves in the episode, since when Brahms appeared on the show in the fourth season Geordi’s behavior toward her was extremely inappropriate and she turned him down definitively), Worf has rejoined Klingon society but is marginalized with a desk job of his own, Doctor Crusher married Picard, divorced him, and now captains her own ship, and Counselor Troi died at some point to give Riker and Worf a reason to become estranged. All of this is introduced as Picard has to gather everyone together for one more mission, while the “past” segments of the episode see Picard first arriving on the Enterprise just before TNG’s pilot, with many of the characters whose actors would have the most trouble playing them seven years younger conveniently left on the planet they were waiting on at the beginning of that episode, and two notable additions: Miles O’Brien, who obviously hadn’t moved over to Deep Space Nine yet, and Tasha Yar, the security chief whose death in the first season was a scab the show kept picking at over the course of its run. The “present day” crew members don’t get as much development as their past or future counterparts, but what little they do get is significant, and they’ve had seven years of development by this time anyway. The past and future time periods are defined by the ways in which they’ve departed from the present or not yet arrived at it, putting interesting twists on the familiar.
While the mechanics of the plot are complex and invite a couple plot holes along the way, it does, significantly, require all three crews who are simultaneously the same people, on three Enterprises that are simultaneously the same Enterprise, to meet in the middle of a tear in the fabric of time and sacrifice themselves in order to save humanity. Humanity thus saved, Picard is deposited back in his subjective present, back to the beginning of the episode. This is another go-to example of the “reset button” gripe, but it means that the significance of the events is thematic; that Picard remembers the entire episode enables him to express those themes. He tells his senior staff, his dear friends, about the losses and the strife he’s seen in their futures not only so they can be avoid such fates but so they can learn from them. The past, present and future are distinctive — we see that enough in the outstanding production design that presents the same sets in three different ways to convince us that we’re seeing three different time periods — but remain closely tied together in ways that aren’t strictly linear, and must be united.
This is shown to Picard and to the audience by Q, the god/interrogator/prosecutor/jester who has hounded, tested, and mocked Our Heroes for the duration of the series, an appearance that ties this finale closer to the series premiere while further emphasizing the show’s dedication to broadening human perspectives. Q reveals in “All Good Things…” that the trial commenced way back in “Encounter at Farpoint,” to decide whether humanity deserves its trek among the stars, is ongoing, that we’re still being judged and we can still be found unworthy. But now, what we’re being judged on isn’t just the ability to solve a particular mystery, as both the premiere and the finale posited, but whether we can expand our minds. “Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknowable possibilities of existence,” Q says.
And so The Next Generation, while admitting the shifts that people go through over the course of their lives and the constant push for personal growth and self-fulfillment that’s at the core of its utopian ideology, ends with the sense that there’s no true end point. The journey goes ever on. We’re told this in the voiceover at the beginning of every single episode: the Enterprise’s mission is continuing. There will always be strange new worlds to find. There will always be new life, and new civilizations. There will always be places where no one has gone before. It’s not enough just to go; we must go boldly, which is what this group of friends is doing. And we must broaden our horizons beyond even these lofty goals. The human adventure is just beginning.
It’s Easy to Be a Saint in Paradise: Deep Space Nine in the Spotlight
Two weeks later, on Deep Space Nine, they blew up the Enterprise.
Deep Space Nine began with an aim quite unlike that of The Next Generation. While TNG would end most episodes by resolving the scenario of the week and having the Enterprise warp away to another mission, leaving us in the audience (as well as tie-in novel and comic-book writers) to imagine what happened next, DS9 is set on a space station in the middle of what’s happening “next” in the ongoing conflict between the Cardassians and the Bajorans, which had been introduced in TNG’s fifth season. Setting the series in the aftermath of a situation the Enterprise literally warped away from at the end of an episode, on a space station that’s not leaving, was a profound shift in what was at that time the universal format of the Star Trek franchise. By 1994, heading into the tail end of its second season, DS9 had settled into a format of alternating episodes that furthered ongoing storylines about regional conflicts with more typical exploration episodes, most of which took place on the other side of a wormhole to the gamma quadrant of our galaxy, DS9’s door to strange new worlds. Both types of episode allowed DS9 to demonstrate the somewhat jaundiced eye with which it viewed the idealized, utopian conception of humanity set up by TNG.
In “Paradise,” which starts out as an exploration episode, albeit on “our” side of the wormhole, Commander Sisko and Chief O’Brien find a group of survivors from a ship that crashed years before. When they beam down to investigate, they find that an energy field has rendered their technology useless, trapping them on the planet as well. They find that the survivors have set up their own low-tech agrarian society, guided by the utopian ideals of a woman named Alixus, who immediately starts trying to integrate Sisko and O’Brien into a lifestyle vagyely reminiscent of a commune or a kibbutz. After reading some of Alixus’ writings, Sisko is quick to point out how convenient it must be that a person who argued that the conveniences of 24th-century technology only served to make humankind lazy and dull should happen to crash in a place where those wondrous works of technology — warp travel, library computers, food replicators — were inoperable.
The vague sense that the Star Trek society as conceived of by The Next Generation is a little too well put-together is transposed to this smaller society, where Sisko and O’Brien’s refusal to change out of their Starfleet uniforms sets them at odds with Alixus and the others, and their insistence on continuing to try to communicate with the ship they left in orbit draws her ire in force. She may have a practical point about the uniforms, mostly-black jumpsuits that must be dreadful while working in the fields, but they carry symbolic meaning. In response, Alixus sentences Sisko to a day locked inside a cargo container baking in the hot sun, a method of punishment (you might say torture) used by the community due to the pragmatic calculation that they have too few able-bodied members to lock them up in rooms for extended periods of time. For the people of Alixus’ community it’s a simple, effective, and cruel way to impose order. After a day, Sisko is brought to Alixus, exhausted and dehydrated, and told that he can have a much-needed glass of water if only he’ll take the first step and give up his uniform. What happens next is a crucial expression of DS9’s reaction to utopianism, and the scene that most differentiates Sisko from the Star Trek stars who preceded him. If contronted with this situation, Kirk would have fought his way out; Picard would have made a stirring speech condemning the harshness of the community’s “justice” and appealing to the essential moral rectitude of the community. Sisko does neither. Sisko gets back in the box. He decides that if Alixus and her supporters are going to be draconian in service of their ostensibly virtuous way of life, he can be equally stubborn. He staggers outside, stumbling to the ground on the way; O’Brien starts moving forward to help but Sisko waves him off; Sisko limps to the container, and pulls the door shut from within. He gets back in the box.
Rather than brashly standing in opposition and rallying others to his cause, Sisko stoically obeys the rules of the community he’s in, to the letter, and lets that testify to Alixus’ despotism and the cult-like atmosphere she’s been meticulously constructing. The episode ends on a somewhat ambigious note, though: O’Brien eventually discovers the device Alixus has been using to suppress technology, freeing Sisko and confronting her in front of the entire community, but when they take Alixus and her son away to answer for deceiving the colonists (and allowing several people to die without the benefit of modern medicine), nobody else chooses to go with them and rejoin Federation society. They may have been lied to, and they may have been manipulated, and they may have suffered from hard work and harsh conditions, but for all we’re shown, everyone chooses to table the debate over whether to establish contact with anyone else. Nobody asks about friends or family they may have left behind, and nobody expresses a desire to return to a life free of tilling fields. It’s a reminder that as much as we may love our own technology and wonder at many of the advances we’re shown on TV, there are people even within that narrative who choose to step outside of it.
“Paradise” also introduces a minor plot thread that continues through several episodes in the second season: Sisko asks O’Brien to tutor his son, Jake, to prepare him to enter Starfleet Academy. Jake’s story here may be seen as a reaction of sorts to the way that TNG handled the “young man preparing for Starfleet” aspect of Wesley Crusher’s character: while Wesley’s trajectory was that of the good little boy-genius who was made a member of the crew as a teenager, left for the academy, and eventually quit in grand, melodramatic fashion, Jake short-circuited that story early on by realizing that he wouldn’t be happy at the Academy or in Starfleet, and openly and honestly communicating that to his father. Both are ways that many real-life families deal with the unease that children sometimes develop as they start to consider how their parents have mapped out their lives. The way Jake deals with the issue, though, in a few scenes scattered across a few episodes, shows DS9’s desire to move away from some of the tropes of TNG as well as a desire to deal with the interiority of its characters in a more mature way. It’s just one way that the relationship between Ben and Jake Sisko actually does represent a Roddenberrian idealized humanity: if the post-scarcity economy posited by Star Trek frees humanity from the oppressive economic structures we operate under today, allowing us time and resources to seek to better ourselves in more profound ways, surely the choice of a civilian life is as valid as the choice to join Starfleet, or anything else Jake might want to do with his life. Because he’s an evolved 24th-century human, and because he deeply loves his son, Ben Sisko recognizes that and stops assuming that his son will make the same choices he did. (The father-and-son relationship between the Siskos is also a fantastic representation of a loving African-American family, one that’s as badly needed now as it was twenty years ago, considering the pervasive and cruel stereotypes of absent fathers and wayward sons. It’s one aspect of the series that Avery Brooks took to heart and advocated for over its entire run, going so far as to (successfully) request substantial changes to the series finale.)
“The Maquis,” a two-part episode aired in April 1994 in between the two Next Generation episodes about the situation on the Cardassian-Federation border, introduces the terrorist group that aims to resist what they see as the abandonment of their homes by a government they see fewer reasons to trust. The bombing of a freighter departing DS9 brings Cal Hudson, Sisko’s friend and Starfleet envoy to the colonists remaining on what are now technically Cardassian worlds, to the station; as Our Heroes’ best friends must do in such circumstances, Hudson betrays his uniform and joins the Maquis after Sisko finds out that somehow both sides of the civilian conflict have managed to outfit their ships with military-grade weapons. The uniform, as seen in “Paradise” and episodes to come in later seasons, is a particular sticking point for Sisko: he keeps Hudson’s in a bag and offers him a way out, a way to leave the narrative of the terrorist and return to the narrative of the honorable, if conflicted, military officer. Hudson pulls out a phaser and disintegrates the bag, leaving his career behind in favor of his cause.
This is the start of a new craze coming into fashion in Starfleet: defecting to the Maquis. For the defectors it combines the romantic notion of fighting for people’s freedom with the self-righteousness of someone who chooses to give up a privileged life for a cause they believe in, someone who has the option of fighting for someone else’s freedom. In its next few seasons, Deep Space Nine would tell this story several times from several different perspectives. Here we see Ben Sisko forced to confront his friend, who may have a point but is ultimately going too far by arming the colonists and leading raids himself. In the third-season episode “Defiant,” Major Kira, whose background is as a terrorist in the Bajoran movement that forced the Cardassians off of Bajor after fifty years of brutal occupation, confronts another Starfleet officer who’s felt the allure of the Maquis cause but is occupied with exposing Cardassian perfidy. “You’re really not cut out for this, are you? Being a terrorist, I mean. You’re not very good at it,” she says. “You’re acting more like a Starfleet officer who’s more interested in intelligence reports and Cardassian politics than in actually hurting Cardassians. …the Maquis are terrorists and the only thing terrorists care about is attacking the enemy. I know. I was a terrorist.” The people turning away from Starfleet to join the Maquis may think themselves noble, and certainly the Cardassians are not often to be trusted, but most of them come with Federation mindsets and Starfleet training, which can combine with the self-righteousness of a martyr to form a fatal inability to shift strategies. In the second part of “The Maquis,” Sisko diagnoses the cause of this:
The trouble is Earth. …On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the demilitarized zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints, just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive whether it meets with Federation approval or not.
Star Trek‘s utopianism is a wonderful thing; the idea that humanity can eliminate the violent impulses that create war, the desperation that creates crime, and the socioeconomic structures that create poverty has been an inspiration to countless fans for decades. We can be better, so we must do better, in the here and now, to pave the way. But if you live in that utopia, you’ll run into problems when you make policy for people who don’t. And if you’re raised in that utopia, you may not be prepared for what you find when you leave it, even if it’s for a good cause. Also, if you’re in a position of privilege and you want to support a social and political movement that you believe in deeply, barging in and immediately expecting to run your own group is going to be distinctly problematic. (This is a critique that DS9 and the general zeitgeist of 1994 aren’t quite sophisticated enough to make explicitly, though the ease with which one can read it into various episodes speaks to the show’s continued relevance.)
If the premise of the show was a conceptual departure from big-brother TNG, the second season’s finale, “The Jem’Hadar,” was a mission statement for just how far DS9 was willing to go to separate itself just two weeks after “All Good Things…” brought TNG to its beautiful conclusion. It starts innocently enough with Sisko taking his son to a world in the gamma quadrant, along with Nog, Jake’s friend and classmate, and Quark, Nog’s uncle and the station’s Ferengi bartender. The Ferengi had been introduced in the first season of TNG as something of an antisemitic stereotype — short, shrimpy men who lust after profit above all else — and DS9 codified the Ferengi as a society built around crony capitalism…for its men, at least, as the most we’re told about Ferengi women in DS9’s first two seasons is that they’re barred from earning profit, they’re not allowed to wear clothing, and they’re tasked with chewing their men’s food for them, all social mores that emphasize to the viewer just how vile Ferengi values are. (At least, if these things wouldn’t disgust you, you’re doing quite a lot wrong in your life and should spend a long time reconsidering it.) At the same time, Quark’s value in DS9’s ensemble is his ability to act as an outsider to show a different perspective on the Federation and its values. Between its main cast and recurring ensemble, DS9 was chock-a-block with outsiders to show different perspectives on the Federation and Starfleet, but Quark would get some of the most cutting critiques. When Sisko and Quark encounter a strange woman and are captured by an unknown enemy, we as viewers are prepared to view this as another typical capture-and-escape episode, another stock story Star Trek has used many times in its history; one scene that indicates that this episode will have deeper implications occurs when Sisko asks Quark to help free them and Quark objects to being ordered around:
While there’s obviously a fundamental conflict between the Ferengi’s basis in capitalism & misogyny and Quark’s representation of them as a relatively benign race compared to humanity’s record of atrocity — and Quark isn’t exactly the sort of character who would present an honest critique of his people’s history to an outsider — it nonetheless gives us yet another character calling the Federation’s moral standing into question. In “The Maquis,” Gul Dukat called out what he called “morally superior human beings” and what he saw as the weakness that comes with resisting the impulses that lead to fascism; while Dukat and the Cardassian society he represents were similarly reprehensible in many ways, the remark still stung a little. The Star Trek franchise is positively packed with mirrors of the Federation, each showing a slightly different angle warped and highlighted in a different way. Most of the parallels presented to this point had their roots in the Cold War, from the obvious political parallels with the Klingons to the more abstract fears of collectivism that expressed themselves in the Borg. Over the course of “The Jem’Hadar” we learn that the titular race acts as the infantry for the Dominion, the soldiers who are called in to forcibly take the resources the Dominion’s political leadership, the Founders, cannot obtain through negotiation. As the reach of the Dominion grows, so does its bargaining power. You can imagine that an overwhelming sphere of influence in the interstellar region you live in, combined with an overwhelming military force ready to rain down upon your world if you don’t take the deal being offered to you, would be a terribly convincing argument for going along with whatever the Founders and their envoys propose. If this sounds at all similar to an exaggerated critique of the United States’ cultural imperialism in the mid-1990s, it should. The Federation styles itself as a humanist power (if only we could hear ourselves. “Humanist.” Why, the very name is racist), with complex guidelines in place to protect the rights of distinct cultures in a multiplicity of voices, but for the most part the people we see within it are human and the centers of political power we see or hear about are on Earth, with some lip service paid to the contributions of other species. The conception of the Dominion that we see in “The Jem’Hadar,” developed from hints laid with a mention here and there in dialogue from earlier gamma quadrant episodes, is an interstellar power that backs up its cultural imperialism with good old-fashioned military imperialism, if that’s what it takes.
The introduction of a major recurring villain isn’t, in itself, much of a departure for Deep Space Nine; both of the previous live-action series in the franchise found some considerable success with alien races that could always be brought back to menace the Enterprise’s gallant crew. Even the critique of the Federation’s role in the galactic community might not have stood out to a viewer in 1994 who might not have guessed the degree to which the Dominion would go on to hold DS9’s interest, since the viewing audience has seen many dark mirrors held up to the Federation before. (The most blatant of these, and one of the most recent, being the episode “Crossover,” which saw two DS9 regulars visiting the Mirror Universe, unseen since the original series’ iconic “Mirror, Mirror,” and finding out that the seed of utopian idealism planted by Captain Kirk in the mind of Mirror Spock wilted and died in an alternate reality bent toward belligerence, warfare, and strife.) What really hammered home the independence DS9 craved for itself, and the independence it was granted for a short period of time after The Next Generation ended in May 1994 and before Voyager began in January 1995, was when the Jem’Hadar blew up the Enterprise. Metaphorically, of course.
When Sisko and Quark are taken prisoner by the Dominion, a Jem’Hadar envoy is sent to the station with the message that several ships on the other side of the wormhole, what the Dominion says is its territory, have been destroyed as interlopers, and that a Bajoran colony on a planet close to the wormhole has been eliminated. The USS Odyssey arrives to assist in recovering Sisko, and wouldn’t you know it’s a Galaxy-class ship, so it looks exactly like the Enterprise. And its captain is a white man who appears to be in his fifties or sixties and can come off as gruff in a serious situation, rather like dear old Captain Picard. He briefly patronizes the DS9 crew before waltzing into battle with the Jem’Hadar, distracting the enemy ships long enough to rescue the regular cast members, attempting to retreat, and, as we say in serious media criticism, getting blown up real good.
Just two episodes into Deep Space Nine‘s tenure as the only Star Trek show on the air, a metatextual stand-in for The Next Generation is conjured and immediately dismissed in dramatic fashion. The iconography of TNG is insufficient when confronted by this new threat, as the ethos of TNG is insufficient when confronted by the questions DS9 poses. But when the Dominion comes in force, and they come for Deep Space Nine, Ben Sisko intends to be ready for them.
I’m Going to Miss This Ship: Generations
In November, they blew up the Enterprise. For real this time.
Generations is a movie whose concept seems obvious — Kirk and Picard, together! — but which was arguably unnecessary. The previous movie, released during the franchise’s 25th anniversary while The Next Generation‘s popularity was peaking, had provided a grand send-off for the original crew as it existed in 1991. In his final monologue, Captain Kirk spoke of another crew continuing the voyages that his had taken and finally updates “where no man” to “where no one has gone before,” transitioning to the version used by TNG since it premiered in 1987. Considering that each of the first six movies, in one way or another, was about how old the crew was getting, it was a graceful hand-off from the original series crew to its successors, possibly done in that manner to respect Gene Roddenberry’s dictum that the two crews never directly meet. (Aside from Deforest Kelley’s brief cameo in TNG’s premiere episode, of course. Roddenberry, for his part, is said to have hated the movie for various reasons; he had long since been pushed out of any guiding role in the film series, but he had a significant role in the production of TNG in its first few years before his health declined.) By 1994, however, Roddenberry had died and many things he might not have allowed had come to pass, and it was decided that The Next Generation‘s introduction to the big screen must be an explicit hand-off between the two generations and their respective captains.
As with the previous Star Trek films, Generations is interested in exploring themes of aging, nostalgia, and regret. It begins with Captain Kirk appearing at the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B, the first ship in decades that will carry that name and not have him as its captain. He’s apparently been retired for some time, which is difficult to picture for a character like Kirk, who’s been presented most significantly as a man of action. (A deleted scene was to show Kirk space diving as a way of maintaining some thrill in his life.) He’s greeted by a gaggle of journalists and Captain John Harriman, the new steward of the new Enterprise, all of whom treat Kirk like a cross between a beloved relic and a storybook hero. Even Demora Sulu, the daughter of Kirk’s old crew-mate and friend, relates to Kirk through the stories her father told her. Everyone has done to Kirk the man what our pop culture environment did to Kirk the character: reduce him to a few characteristics, and a few stories that highlight those characteristics, to the detriment of the subtleties and contradictions that make up a real, messy, human life. (Someone prone to more cynicism than I’m willing to exhibit regarding this movie could look at Harriman gleefully telling Kirk he read about his missions in grade school and see younger fans — even the writers of this movie, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, borrowed from the TNG staff and writing a feature film for the first time — geeking out in the presence of William Shatner. The actor, like the character, has become a titanic figure for better and worse. Perhaps Kirk too went through the shift into self-parody that Shatner pulled off brilliantly.) Like many people find late in life, Kirk has apparently outlived his usefulness…until Harriman, intimidated by what must be his first command, let alone one proceeding under the eye of a childhood hero, turns to Kirk for advice. Kirk has a chance to wrest command back from the younger man who’s supposed to have it, as he did in The Motion Picture, but instead he decides to leave this new captain to his bridge…while Kirk goes below decks to dashingly save the ship and its crew. After all, Jim Kirk isn’t going to give up all the glory, even when this heroic act turns out to be the one that leaves him (seemingly) sucked out into the expansive vacuum of space.
Originally, Kirk was to be joined in this opening sequence by Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock, reuniting the original series’ lead trio one more time. From what various parties have said over the years, a picture emerges of Leonard Nimoy being approached to direct the movie as well as make a cameo as Spock; he hadn’t retained the trepidation and anxiety which some of the original cast members expressed when The Next Generation began in 1987, and indeed he had appeared on the show in 1991, but he found his role in the Generations script to be too generic and opted to stay away from the production. DeForest Kelley’s absence has been explained over the years as either a similar issue with the script or an issue in obtaining insurance for the production to use Kelley, who was 73 years old and in a fragile state at the time. Reportedly George Takei was also asked to reprise the role of Sulu, but balked at having a mere cameo without much impact on the story of the movie. Kirk was instead accompanied by Scotty and Chekov, which to some fans felt like calling up the B-team. Admittedly, Nimoy’s comments about the script don’t ring entirely false, as one can easily imagine Spock slotted in for Scotty and McCoy for Chekov. This would avoid the awkwardness of a sequence in which Chekov, who had previously been a navigator and a security officer, looks for nurses and sets up a triage center in the absence of any trained medical staff. Whether this film had Scotty or Spock, though, Moore and Braga still kept the much-derided habit of the latter-day Star Trek writers to insert technobabble at various points in their scripts. James Doohan does what he can with lines like “There’s just no way to disrupt a gravimetric field of this magnitude!” and “Captain, it may be possible to simulate a torpedo blast using a resonance burst from the main deflector dish,” and one can imagine how Leonard Nimoy would have pitched his performance, but it still represents a bit of stumbling in the effort to fit characters and actors from the original series into a Next Generation movie with Next Generation writers. On a positive note, however, it’s the least graceful of the many generational bridges in the film, and while the B-team remark does have some merit, the presence of Scotty and Chekov shows them being close friends to Kirk in a way that the original series and previous movies rarely did. They deliver lines intended for the missing members of the great Kirk-Spock-Mccoy triumverate, but in doing so they show the original series crew as more of a tight-knit family, an ensemble in the tradition of TNG and the 1990s spinoffs.
The Enterprise-B sequence is representative of another generational shift as well, this time an aesthetic one. The instrument panels of the original series were filled with futuristic levers, buttons, and colored lights; The Next Generation, in another of Star Trek‘s prescient moves, used smooth touchscreens exclusively, with changeable displays that bring to mind our modern tablets. In the original-series movies made after TNG began, production designers Herman Zimmerman and Mike Okuda, both of whom made massive contributions to the franchise for many years, started slowly and subtly moved the look and feel of the ship in TNG’s direction. For Generations, with the final links being made between the two eras, all physical buttons have been eliminated, and the Enterprise-B panels are also touchscreens, albeit ones that retain the blue-and-green color combination of the previous movies rather than the muted yellows and oranges of TNG’s Okudagrams. Also, when Kirk is in the Enterprise-B’s deflector control room, he reprograms the ship’s systems using what are obviously precursors to TNG’s isolinear chips, in a nice bit of backward-looking continuity. The movie also looked forward technologically by being the first movie with a promotional website.
The film then moves to the 24th-and-three-quarters century, where it has a bit of a balancing act to do. One of the great strengths of The Next Generation was the fact that it had an ensemble of characters who would have different perspectives on a given episode’s events (well, different to a point), all of whom the audience had grown to care about to some degree. (TNG honed this formula, and then Deep Space Nine expanded it to include a sprawling guest cast as well.) In a 26-episode television season, you can cycle through episodes highlighting various characters; given a two-hour movie, substantial parts of which must also be given to Kirk and the villain of the piece, challenges arise. Generations deals with these challenges decently, using many of the relationships between the characters, though Picard and Data bear the brunt of the plot. (This isn’t as much of an issue in Generations as it would become in the following films.) The two characters who suffer the most have to be Worf and Doctor Crusher, both of whom have their most substantial roles in the first 24th-century scene, when the whole senior staff is assembled on a holographic 19th-century sailing vessel, cunnily using an extreme shift in locale to signify the transition between the movie’s two timeframes, to celebrate Worf’s promotion to lieutenant-commander. (This is also that geat rarity in Star Trek, an adventure that begins on the holodeck but isn’t a holodeck story.) Commander Riker drops Worf overboard into some freezing holo-water; when Data asks Dr. Crusher why everyone else finds it so funny, she tells him it’s because of the surprise and spontaneity of the moment, and so he pushes her into the water too, knocking Worf off the boat again. While this is obviously hilarious, and I’ve yet to watch or discuss the movie with anyone who doesn’t think so, the plot requires all of the other characters to be aghast at Data’s great offense.
Generations is a direct outgrowth of its television predecessor in some significant ways. Most of its characters are only lightly reintroduced, and it’s replete with continuity references. Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan appears on the Enterprise-B, along with Malcolm McDowell’s Soran; because we already know that the El-Aurians are a long-lived race, they can also serve to link the opening sequence with the rest of the plot. Early in the film Picard learns that his brother Robert and nephew René, whom we saw in one episode four years earlier, burned to death to provide his character with an emotional journey. (Picard’s sister-in-law Marie goes unmentioned.) Data reacts to his ostensibly unsuccessful attempt at humor by retrieving the emotion chip that was introduced in one episode in 1990 and most recently seen in the seventh season premiere. A Romulan is borrowed from the TV show’s extensive archives of alien uniforms and prosthetics for one scene. The Borg, and their devastation of the El-Aurian home planet, are casually referenced. It turns out that the Romulans were looking for a substance stolen from them when Soran enlisted the aid of the Duras sisters, Lursa and B’Etor, who had appeared as antagonists on several occasions, and who reference their plans to upend the Klingon political structure that had previously been thwarted in TNG’s fifth season. The Farpoint mission, from the pilot episode, is casually name-dropped. The final battle hinges on the main weakness of cloaking devices in Klingon birds-of-prey — that they must lower their sheilds to cloak. Mind you, these are not criticisms: each of these aspects is reintroduced to the extent that it needs to be (the Borg penetrated pop culture as much as anything else invented for The Next Generation; there’s a reason the next movie would be based on them), and the sheer number of them adds depth to the film and takes advantage of the slow, gradual worldbuilding of the Star Trek universe. The common complaint that references will make something inaccessible to new audiences doesn’t hold much water as long as the elements necessary to understand the main plot are introduced with enough background to catch up; such references can equally serve to entice people to find out more about the franchise.
Guinan, the wise and enigmatic bartender of The Next Generation, is always handy to introduce a new plot element, as she had with the Borg several years earlier. Here she introduces the Nexus, Star Trek‘s sci-fi version of a mystical mind-reading paradise where you get what you want most and live inside joy. “You could wrap yourself in it like a blanket,” she says, a symbol which leaves some ambiguity — it’s intended to represent the soothing comfort of a warm blanket in winter, but it could also represent the clinginess of someone who should have grown out of their security blanket long ago. The two El-Aurians in the movie show both sides of that coin: Guinan has reached a state of zen about being ripped away from the Nexus, while Soran’s turned his frantic cries to go back to his fantasy into 78 years of plotting and planning.
We see Picard’s Nexus fantasy as well as Kirk’s, and both are bent away from what you might expect from the characters in order to fit the themes of the movie: both show the lives that the captains denied themselves in favor of the exploration and adventure of the starship captain’s life. Apparently the original concept for Kirk’s Nexus fantasy was to place him back on the Enterprise, his Enterprise, in the glory days of the original series that we’d then see Kirk idealize as much as some fans do. More feasibly, it might have been the Enterprise during the movie era, where there could have been believable roles for the rest of the old cast. Whether this was changed after it proved difficult to obtain the services of more of the old cast, or for thematic reasons, the fantasy as presented sees Kirk on Earth, at what looks vaguely like a twentieth-century farm house, out of Starfleet but about to go back (most fanon places this between the first two movies) even though it means leaving Antonia, whom he’d fallen deeply in love with. In this fantasy, he can retire from Starfleet then and there to marry Antonia. This certainly doesn’t fit the common conception of Kirk as a dashing galaxy-trotting rogue with an old flame on every starbase, but it does fit with the movie’s interest in families and legacies. Picard’s Nexus fantasy, meanwhile, is somewhat odder: René is there to soothe Picard’s grief, of course, but there’s also a vaguely Victorian mansion, with vaguely Victorian children, on Christmas, with some wildly anachronistic gifts…as well as a wife who looks a little too much like Doctor Crusher. This seems like an odd fit, to put it lightly, with Picard’s awkwardness around children as well as the pro-technology position he took in the past against his Luddite brother. Perhaps this is intended as a call back to the path not chosen, like Kirk’s fantasy, but it still seems like Picard’s fantasy would more likely be exploring unknown space, or making archaeological discoveries. This is probably an overreaction by Picard’s subconscious (or whatever drives whatever provides the fantasy — nitpicking the “rules” behind the Nexus is a fool’s errand) to his anxieties surrounding the family line and the worry that he’ll be the last Picard. Instead of being the last Picard, he’s provided with a bumper crop.
Picard realizes that his fantasy isn’t real and therefore would be inherently unsatisfying when he sees a reminder of the stars that Soran blew up. Guinan said earlier that if Picard went to the Nexus he would be so charmed by the fantasy that he would cease to care about anything outside of it, but his duty calls to him; his sense of moral rectitude, and his devotion to his duty in service of that morality, override even the Nexus. It’s been pointed out that it’s somewhat odd, at this juncture, that when Picard decides that he needs to leave the Nexus and go back to the surface of Veridian III where Soran is about to destroy another star, that he asks an echo of Guinan (left there when her body was ripped away at the beginning of the movie) to go with him. Given that he winds up going back with Kirk so that they can both have a fistfight with Soran, people say, what use would Guinan be? This, however, gets back to one of the core tenets of The Next Generation and part of the utopian vision Gene Roddenberry grafted onto the franchise: she may be able to talk him down, make him see reason. Guinan has had the same experience as Soran, of being torn away from a dream of paradise and returned to life as a refugee, and she’s gotten over it (if only just). She’s led a fruitful and productive life, eventually becoming a part of the grand adventure of the Enterprise crew. Maybe Soran must be made to see that there’s more to existence outside the Nexus than pain and death, but because Guinan cannot go with Picard this is not to be. Soran and Picard have conflicting conceptions of time: Soran sees it as a predator, stalking you, an unyielding process of entropy that will inevitably make the kill…unless you’re in the Nexus. Even when he speaks of the Borg, the monstrous hivemind that murdered his family and destroyed his home, he doesn’t seem to feel bitterness toward them specifically, but instead places the blame on the inexorable passage of time that would have killed them eventually no matter what the circumstance. Time is the fire in which we burn, and everyone’s time is running out. Picard, meanwhile, makes a standard argument against immortality, one that’s appeared in science fiction and moved into discussions of the transhumanist goal of actually eliminating aging: it is our mortality that defines us; it is the certainty of death that motivates us to accomplish things in life. It is a constant reminder to cherish every moment, and to fulfill Star Trek‘s ideal life of constant self-examination and self-improvement. The fact that one side of that debate is voiced by the protagonist of the film, and the other by a man who threatens the genocide of millions for what is presented as a selfish goal, might indicate which side the film comes down on.
But to prevent that genocide, to stop Soran at any cost, and to close the circle opened by the beginning of the film, Picard needs the help of James T. Kirk. While Picard realizes how unsatisfying it would be to stay in a life that’s not real because his duty pulls him out of the fantasy, Kirk has to try something risky, a jump over a ravine on horseback. (In the movie’s integration of William Shatner’s love of horses, he gets to ride his own.) When the risk gives him no thrill, he knows he can’t accept it. The first moment of friendship between Kirk and Picard comes when Kirk asks Picard if he’s considering retirement, the dream that Kirk is giving up, and he emphatically says that he’s not planning on it. “Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship,” Kirk says, “because while you’re there, you can make a difference.” Commanding a ship, once said to be Kirk’s first, best destiny, is what gives him the thrill he needs; it’s the reason he bullied his way back onto the Enterprise in The Motion Picture, it’s the reason he wanted to assume command despite protesting politely in The Wrath of Khan, and it’s what Starfleet finally recognized when his promotion to admiral was undone at the end of The Voyage Home. On the bridge of a starship, on the frontier among the stars, he can make a difference. (This is a clear point of similarity between the two captains — after all, even in their fantasies they imagine themselves still in their Starfleet uniforms. They’re almost as attached to those things as Ben Sisko is.) The difference he makes need not even be intensely personal — out of twelve Star Trek movies, half of them are about saving Earth from mortal danger, but the potential victims here are the people of an anonymous pre-industrial civilization on a far-away planet, whom Soran would casually condemn by destroying their star just to nudge the Nexus into the right position to pick him up. And so the two captains, sharing a love of the starship captain’s life no matter the century and a devotion to stopping genocide no matter the target, band together to stop Soran.
There are two momentous losses that come with the addition of Kirk to the movie. The first, of course, is Kirk himself; despite William Shatner’s stated desire to return to the role of Jim Kirk at various times in the last twenty years, and the series of novels he wrote with Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens about Kirk’s ongoing adventures after he’s resurrected, there was no reasonable way to get him out of Generations alive. Leaving him running around the twenty-fourth century would have been too much of a shift in the paradigm of the Star Trek franchise as it existed in 1994, far more so than having Spock and Scotty in a 24th-century setting (as The Next Generation had established); this was demonstrated well enough by the desire to move TNG into the film series in the first place. The other obvious option, depositing Kirk back into the Nexus, leaves the door open to bringing Shatner back if the desire is ever overwhelming but is dramatically unsatisfying as the finale of a movie. The generations can meet, and Soran can be stopped, but a sacrifice must be made. Given that backdrop, and all the metatextual importance heaped on the moment of such an iconic character’s death, the actual moment is interestingly small and personal. Kirk doesn’t die in a moment of bombast or braggadocio. He doesn’t die in a hail of phaser fire. He dies in a mass of twisted metal, having given his life to save millions of others, with concern for whether he was successful. He dies with a note of respect for Picard as the captain of the Enterprise, that posterity to whom he committed his future at the end of The Undiscovered Country. He dies with a hint of a smile on his lips — “It was…fun” — and a moment of almost mystical wonder, improvised by Shatner, a stunned “Oh my” as Kirk slips to what is truly his last undiscovered country.
The other loss is one of the enduring symbols of The Next Generation, our entry-point to the characters’ continuing adventures: the galaxy-class Enterprise-D. The beautiful design by Andrew Probert rarely looked as good as it does in Generations; while some shots from the television show reappear (the budget strikes again), the new shots are striking, and the film frame allows views that are more dynamic than many of the ones whose effect was somewhat dulled by repetition on TNG. Many of the interior sets had been slightly or drastically redesigned as well, and all of them were lit far less than they had always been. The lighting on TNG was even and bright, owing to the way the production designers approached television as a medium. With this transition to film, the lighting approach was far more moody, with on-screen lights providing much of the illumination rather than the large studio lights. (This is popularly referred to as “the day all the lightbulbs on the Enterprise burned out.”)
When the original Enterprise was destroyed in The Search for Spock, it was an elegiac occasion, a moment to reflect on the profundity of what Kirk was willing to sacrifice and the lengths he was prepared to go to to bring Spock back from the dead. (Insert shipping here, if that’s your thing. I don’t judge.) Each of the three movies to date had had long, loving shots of the Enterprise gliding through space, sometimes the same shots when required by a strict budget. Kirk and crew stood on a rocky ledge watching the Enterprise self-destruct in order to defeat a small band of Klingons with one Bird of Prey, McCoy reassuring his friend that he did what he had to do, the loss seeming almost as weighty as that of Spock in the previous movie. Generations destroys an Enterprise that had become just as beloved to some fans, but it treats this loss in a far more mechanistic way: the ship may have been how Our Heroes got to whatever adventure they were having each week, but the characters remain the same even without the ship. Picard doesn’t mourn the loss of his ship, he retrieves the photo album that serves as a reminder of his family’s history. Data doesn’t use his newly-found emotions to panic about the state of his paintings or other possessions, he’s overcome with joy at the knowledge that his cat is all right. The only member of the ensemble who expresses serious regret over the loss of the ship is Riker, whose ambitions (or lack thereof) to command a ship had been a recurring topic in the television show, but Picard immediately reassures him, and us, that there will be another Enterprise on the way. In just two of our Earth-years, as it turns out.
Still, on a spiritual level the original series has lost its place of prominence, and its star, so that The Next Generation can stand alone on the big screen. And in fulfilling that transition, The Next Generation has given up its place of prominence on television and lost one of its most important symbols so that its larger story can continue.
The Next Generation is dead. Long live The Next Generation.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is available on Blu-ray (in a gorgeous restoration) and DVD.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seasons two and three are available on DVD.
Star Trek: Generations is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
On page two: PTBN’s own Steve Rogers was kind enough to write a supplement about the hype that was being built for Star Trek: Voyager toward the end of 1994.