Flashback: Patrick Stewart on Taking Over the Enterprise on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’
By Joe Bergren
In March 1988, the season one wrap party for Star Trek: The Next Generation was held at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, a landmark famous for its appearances in movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and, most recently, La La Land. Along with its stargazing capabilities, the observatory also provides one of the best vantage points of Hollywood and the greater Los Angeles area. While speaking with ET, the perspective on Star Trek franchise creator Gene Roddenberry’s mind that night was a more personal one.
“The first year of the first generation of Star Trek, I had been fired,” said Roddenberry, standing in front of a banner that read: “Congrats on the First 26 Voyages,” noting the original series’ first season’s grand total of 26 hours of television. “And the first review we had of the show was: ‘Last night we had one of the worst things that had ever happened on TV in living color.’” The stark contrast between the inaugural seasons wasn’t lost on the legendary writer, who was now enjoying the success and critical acceptance of TNG, which premiered 30 years ago on Sept. 26, 1987.
“The way Paramount interested me in this one: They said it's impossible to do again, at which point my ears perked up,” Roddenberry had said from his office on the Paramount backlot the previous year, five months before the series would debut.
After a string of successful films with the original cast, amassing a now-legendary fan base, Roddenberry was attempting to defy all expectations by creating a spin-off Star Trek series. Among the skeptics was Leonard Nimoy, who told him that “it would be difficult to catch lightning in a bottle twice.” In order to pull off this endeavor, Roddenberry found someone whose artistic passion was also motivated by impossible odds.
“Throughout my career, I had always been attracted, sometimes fatally, to the adventure that lies in a project,” Patrick Stewart said a few months before the show’s premiere. “And occasionally, I get into trouble. I hope not this time.”
While a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stewart had watched the original series by catching episodes after Saturday matinees of productions such as King Lear and Richard IV. Roddenberry had seemingly found the perfect actor in Stewart to portray Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who would need to withstand an onslaught of comparisons to William Shatner. Stewart’s introduction to American television had been preceded by decades of performing universally beloved works, often in theater companies with cherished histories and long-standing traditions. Being a professional new kid in town as well as a Star Trek fan, Stewart knew how to prepare audiences for an addition to the well-documented mythology.
“I think they should look at this for the way it builds for what has gone before. All the foundations of Star Trek have been laid and they remain the same,” said Stewart.
“There are a lot of issues and challenges in the ’80s and ’90s at the end of the century that need talking about,” said Roddenberry, excited to continue doing what the original series had only been praised for in hindsight, using allegories to comment on social and cultural topics. He added, “And they need talking about in drama, because drama will move people, cause people to think much more than any straight show.”
According to Roddenberry, he would ask his writers, “What bugs you? What bugs you most? The way prisons are run?” His follow-up was: “Well, if something bugs you that much, go invent a planet where it's happening and write about that.”
With a two-hour premiere, the TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” accomplished quite a bit. It managed to establish new characters, display a new range of special effects and assure fans this crew would go to the same lengths as their Enterprise ancestors to protect each other. They further paid tribute to the original series with a cameo from DeForest Kelley, reprising his role in a hundred years’ worth of old age makeup.
The episode also introduced Q, a villain who became the show’s perennial antagonist over its seven seasons. Played by John de Lancie, the seemingly invincible entity criticizes humankind’s flaws and history of destruction. That diatribe allows Picard to speak of how far humanity has come in the centuries that follow the audience’s present day, re-establishing that the series would continue to act as a vision of the future we can aspire toward.
“I think, as corny as it sounds, that the show is popular because it has a positive vision of what life might be like in the 24th century,” Jonathan Frakes said in 1990, just as the series was filming its 80th episode, surpassing the original series’ run of 79 episodes. Commander Riker himself went on to direct several episodes of the show, and most recently helmed an installment of the TNG-inspired FOX series The Orville.
“It's nice to have a positive role model to show people who are not just in conflict and violence all the time -- that there are other ways of solving problems and I think this show does that very well,” Gates McFadden said in 1990.
“I think that, basically, human beings have a desire to dream, and it's through those dreams that we really learn about ourselves,” said Levar Burton, who was on his third groundbreaking TV show after Roots and Reading Rainbow. “And this dream that Gene Roddenberry has dreamed has really taken on significant meaning for a lot of people.”
TNG’s representation of a progressive society eventually attracted guest stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, who knew firsthand the impact Star Trek’s trademark diversity has on society. “This is one of the few shows that take place in the future that I saw as kid where there were any black people. You know, Lieutenant Uhura was there,” Goldberg said on set in 1988, adding: “It's very important that the future be hopeful, and that's what this is.”
Part of TNG’s success can also be measured by the number of Star Trek franchises that followed (as well as the memes), all on account of Picard and company breaking new ground in Roddenberry’s beloved universe. Its impact has extended all the way to the recent premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, which continues the franchise’s tradition of reflecting our diverse society.
“We're doing our best to uphold the legacy that is Star Trek,” Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green said. Along with being the first black female lead of a Star Trek series, Martin-Green is proud of Discovery’s other diversity firsts, which include an Asian female captain and an openly gay character. “I think, if you wanna actualize anything, you have to be able to see it, so to show people what they really look like, to be an actual mirror to what our society looks like, is a really big deal.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation can be found on CBS All Access (along with Star Trek: Discovery and every Star Trek series) and on Hulu.