The Next Generation Survives the Generations

Yesterday, Star Trek: TNG turned 27 years old. That makes it slightly over two years younger than I am. It’s clearly not something I was watching during its original run on television, but something that I first discovered during my freshman year of college. It was 2003 and Spike TV was a brand new station. They had very little to offer aside from their goofy dubbed-over Japanese game show MXC, copious CSI reruns, and of course, plenty of Star Trek. Since I began my college career in the snowy, sleepy town of Johnstown, PA where the cool white snow started falling from the sky in early October, there were plenty of days, nights and weekends where I was stuck in the dorm with nothing to do but eat cheddar Chex Mix and watch Trek. Spike didn’t air the original series, but had plenty of TNG and DS9 to quench my thirst and instantly hook me to the franchise. I even ended up with the AIM screen name BajoranWrinkle9, because… well, there’s no real good reason for that.

Some years passed and I got away from the shows. Dealing with the post-graduation tribulations of changing jobs every six months for five years, moving my residence annually, getting married and the rest of life’s confusion understandably got in the way of watching old television from the 80s and 90s. About five years ago I started fresh, re-watching TNG and DS9 from their starts, and remembered what I found so wonderful about the Trek universe.

I used to have a friend who said Star Trek was a soap opera for men. I don’t support that definition, as I know more female Trek fans than males, and I believe assigning gender to anything (especially a television show) is demeaning and inappropriate. That definition, based on a skin-deep observation of something involving laser gun battles, space travel, aliens, technology and women in tight uniforms, is an assessment you’d get from someone who doesn’t really understand what Star Trek is actually about.

It’s like when people ask if I’m more of a Star Wars or Star Trek fan. To this day, I fail to see the connection, and don’t understand the basis of the question at all. Aside from the fact both franchises take place in outer space, I don’t find anything comparable between the two. It’s like asking me if I’m more of a fan of jazz music or baked beans. Is there a reason I need to pick one? If someone asks me which I prefer, I instantly know they’re not a real fan of either.

I’ve found Star Trek to be particularly important over the past few years. Since 2010 I’ve bought a house, developed successful businesses, and become a parent twice in the same day. There have been hard times and there have been easy times. I’ve gone through seasons of complete elation and months of rather dark worry and depression. I’ve made good decisions and very poor ones. I’ve drifted away from some people and closer to others. And the existence of my now four-person family has completely retooled the way I think about absolutely everything, the way I approach life, and the way I interact with the universe.

With me through all these changes, I can always turn on an episode of Star Trek and find Picard battling with issues that resonate with ones in my own life. I can empathize with Sisko deliberating over a problem that reminds me of a conflict I had not long ago. Under the flashy exterior of a franchise about futuristic people in space dealing with crazy situations and speaking technobabble, every episode of Star Trek is a story about life – and not a futuristic life we see as some fantastic voyeur, but about our life. Real life. Present-day life. The context is different, but the morals, the problems, the resolutions and the dilemmas are the same.

The purpose of Star Trek has always been to instill in its viewers that it’s up to us, regular human beings, to make the best of our existence. We’re a flawed organism. We will always have quarrels and doubts and prejudices and fears that won’t go away, even hundreds of years from now. We make really bad decisions sometimes, and other times make great ones, and both are equally important and need to be used for learning. I’ve always felt Mr. Roddenberry’s purpose with Star Trek is to encourage people to accept ourselves for all the good and bad that we are, and to challenge us to create a civilization that works together, learns together, and builds together. Otherwise – eventually – we’re in trouble. It’s a series of fictional television shows. It’s entertainment, fantasy, sci-fi – but it’s also an allegory for life.

Having a family has brought these life concepts to a new light, as I suppose they do for everyone once they reach the point they’re no longer just living for themselves. Star Trek has become even more relevant to me as I feel more of the stories instead of just watch them. Everything I do now, more than ever, impacts more than just myself. I see the real-life relevance behind the episodes, and know that the writers who created these episodes pulled these stories from their own, similar challenges. It gives a perspective that can be shared and appreciated. And that’s why, 27 years after TNG’s first episode aired, the show keeps getting more important to me. It all holds up through the generations, some pun intended.

I’ve still only watched about half of the original series episodes, half the films, and have never seen a single minute of Voyager or Enterprise. I’m sure the fact I entered Trek fandom with TNG and DS9 is partly what makes them my favorites, but I also like knowing that there’s still hundreds of hours of brand-new (to me) Trek out there waiting when I’m ready. And someday I’ll be super excited for the crews of Janeway and Archer to entertain, educate and inspire me.

That’s the nicest part about art – it never goes away. I hope that 27 years from now, when my kids are 28, they’ll have something they love and appreciate just as much.

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