Thirty years ago on September 28, 1987 the two-hour pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint”, had its premiere on television. That episode not only returned the Trek franchise to the small screen after nearly a twenty-year absence (not counting 1973’s animated series), but it also began a major shift for sci fi as it revitalized the genre after a long period of failures and scarcity on television.
Star Trek Returns To TV!
The Trek franchise had already been revived on the big screen with a movie series that had delivered four installments by the time that TNG had its debut on television. But the new series ushered in a whole new generation of fans who still consider TNG the crown jewel of the franchise. It had a healthy seven-year run, outpacing its predecessor by four seasons, and delivered episodes that are now considered all-time classics for sci fi television (“A Matter of Honor”, “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Tin Man”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “Cause and Effect” to name just a few).
While the special effects and production values were amazing for a television series at that time and “Encounter at Farpoint” had the feel of a Star Trek episode, the first season did not quite fulfill on the promise of the pilot. In fact, it took a couple of seasons for the show to really find its way and to prove itself as worthy of the franchise’s legacy. But the fact that it ran in syndication and did not have network execs breathing down the backs of the creative team allowed the show the leeway it needed. Few fans consider the first couple of seasons the strongest for the show, but by its third year it had hit its stride and was well on its way to becoming the flagship of the franchise in the 90’s
While there may be plenty of lively debates about whether TNG or the original series are the best (and DS9 fans will insist their show belongs in that conversation), the fact is that TNG really soared when delivering on all cylinders. It also had a stellar cast that was not limited to just the main characters. Considering that this show not only gave us Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data, Worf, Riker, Troi, and the other regular cast members, it also introduced Q, the Borg, the Ferengi, the Cardassians, and more (while also expanding on the Klingons, Vulcans, and Romulans), definitely etching its legacy in sci fi lore.
Star Trek: TNG Leads The Way
On top of its accomplishments as a series, many sci fi fans may not realize that Star Trek: The Next Generation also played an important part in revitalizing sci fi and fantasy on television. Since the early 1970’s, sci fi had become increasingly shunned by the TV networks. And after several high-profile missteps from the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s such as Battlestar: Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Amazing Stories, the broadcast networks turned completely away from any attempts at ambitious sci fi. The genre was typically represented by superhero shows (The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk) or action/adventure entries (Knight Rider, Airwolf) that often incorporated only minimal sci fi elements into their stories. The few attempts to embrace sci fi during that time rarely lasted more than a baker’s dozen worth of episodes and were often shuffled to the nether regions of the schedule.
When Paramount decided to move forward with Star Trek: TNG, the studio approached the broadcast networks but was disappointed with their lack of commitment. So the decision was made to launch the show directly to the syndication market, where the original series was already a huge success. That proved the perfect strategy and allowed the series to move forward without the interference of network execs, and also to overcome its rocky start quality-wise and eventually become one of the all-time great sci fi shows.
The success of TNG away from the big-three broadcast networks proved that there was an audience for sci fi and fantasy television which resulted in a boom of off-network genre shows hitting the small screen over the next ten-plus years. While sci fi shows rarely lasted past a season or two on ABC, CBS, and NBC from 1970 to 1987, quite a number of major genre entries enjoyed multi-year runs away from the old school nets after TNG charted the way. Here’s some of the big ones: Babylon 5 (five year run on PTEN and TNT), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (seven year run in syndication), The X-Files (nine year run on the flegling FOX network), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (six year run in syndication), Xena: Warrior Princess (six year run in syndication), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seven year run on The WB), Star Trek: Voyager (seven year run on UPN).
Throughout the 90’s sci fi and fantasy thrived on television by avoiding the Big Three networks. In fact, it would not be until 2004, when a little show called Lost proved an unexpected hit, that the broadcast networks (by then the Big Four with FOX no longer the upstart) would finally start to give sci fi and fantasy a chance again on their schedules. But in the mean time, Star Trek: The Next Generation had led the way for the genre to expand and prove itself in the years after its 1987 debut.
Today, there are over one hundred sci fi and fantasy shows on television, with some of them destined to be considered classics such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle, and more. But there was a time when you could barely find half a dozen genre shows on the schedule and there was little hope that they would last long. Star Trek: TNG helped guide us out of that wasteland, and in the process established itself as an all-time great for the genre and television in general.
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