Why Star Trek: The Next Generation’s serialization was just right

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Joel Schlosberg. Be sure to check out his blog!]

Now that franchises and mega-franchises rule the screen big and small, with a Star Trek Cinematic Universe seriously floated as a not-at-all-desperate ploy to make Trek relevant again, the way Star Trek: The Next Generation approached long-form storytelling is no longer the model. These days, Trek’s lack of ongoing serialization outside of Deep Space Nine is seen as shallow. But it still has much to offer.

It’s easy to forget that the original series’ episodic planet-of-the-week structure was intentional, pitched as the way a show anchored by recurring characters could capture the spirit of the era’s popular anthologies and westerns. Those unlimited horizons of “new worlds” gave rise to TOS’s wave of innovative concepts. But while ideas like the Mirror Universe emerged full-blown, the lack of follow-through held other concepts back.

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There was never a real sense that the Enterprise’s crew was affected by the passage of time on their “five-year mission”, or had personal lives outside of their roles. The return of the Klingons and Romulans didn’t make them more than nasties. Guest characters were just people who showed up (even if a Harry Mudd might do so more than once), with only Christopher Pike’s atypical return bringing depth. Endings casually opened cans of worms that were never heard of again: finding a way to get telekinesis at will, the Federation getting cloaking technology while having the will to use it, and so on.

The Next Generation added just enough serialization to fix all those flaws without going too far in the opposite direction.

Events had consequences, and also stakes beyond the end of the episode. But each episode or two-parter told a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. TOS-originated races like the Klingons had room to grow. Characters and places were revisited, but not to the post-Empire Strikes Back Star Wars extent of making the universe feel small.

Enough off-duty activities were seen to give a sense of the crew having full lives, while pulling back from veering into soap opera territory. As producer Jeri Taylor later said about the recurring appearances of Worf’s son Alexander, “It was almost the sitcom thing, with the single parent and his trials and tribulations … to make Worf a suburban dad did not seem to be serving him well.” (Though, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have revealed a vast craving for seeing violence-prone men deal with mundane family issues.) Characters might not go through drastic changes, but that made some stories possible; Imagine “All Good Things…” starring Walter White.

Why Star Trek: The Next Generation's serialization was just right

Failed buildups, like the Ferengi as a threat, were simply dropped. The death of a major character, which looks like a hurried stopgap via an run-of-the-mill villain of the week (probably because it was; however, that lack of buildup made it shocking) led to the series highlight of a quasi-resurrection.

Most of all, discovering connections in TNG was fun, not a chore. They emerged as a gradual bonus reward for paying attention to often-disparate episodes, instead of being required for having a clue of what was going on to begin with.

TNG’s balance has not been recaptured since.

For its fixed location, DS9’s serialization was the way to go (and could potentially work for other, non-exploration centered shows in the Trek universe). Voyager was inconsistent on its overarching getting-home goal, and its Reset Button endings were more episodic than TOS. Though, for all its problems, Voyager became like an anthology show, which gave individual episodes more leeway to have completely off-the-wall premises leading into the inevitable return to normal. Enterprise’s final seasons belatedly tried something new with a season-long arc, then a season full of shorter arcs.

In fact, the movies featuring the TNG cast had a hard time largely because the show was already able to tell stories on that scale with two-parters. In contrast, even DS9’s best two-parters relied too much on its ongoing storyline to ever work as mini-movies.

Outside of Star Trek, the X-Men franchise also pulls off kitchen-sink sci-fi concepts and social commentary with an ensemble cast. But its dense comic book continuity approach has always been more of a burden than an asset on the screen.

By the 2000s, the mid-budget syndicated sci-fi/fantasy show was fading, along with the conditions that helped it rule TV in the ‘90s. Cheaper original programming displaced reruns, while intricate, costly shows got the prestige. As following shows in order became easier, they didn’t have to make sense piecemeal.

When heavy serialization is a must, it gets shoehorned into premises as ill-fitting as the Terminator series, and there’s no longer the gateway to genre TV once ubiquitous with Trek, The Twilight Zone, or accessible one-offs like The X-Files’ monsters-of-the-week. And the current glut is simply not sustainable. The number of shows competing for viewers’ time and attention in ten-hour chunks dwarfs the tiring scale of ‘90s Trek. Ongoing income relies on either cheap streaming buffets or expensive full-season DVD sets aimed at existing fans. It’s a bubble headed for a pop.

It’s anyone’s guess what will follow, but shows that can be watched from any episode forward will have an advantage. Shows that are something like Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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  • Thomas Stockel

    Excellent article. While I am a hardcore TOS fan I do appreciate TNG and I’m glad it managed to weather those first couple years, and like you pointed out where Tasha is concerned they were able to make something good come from them.

    • Joel Schlosberg

      Thanks! I couldn’t ask for a better welcome to the site.

      Well of course, TOS is classic. When I was getting into Trek, TOS reruns were scarce, so by the time I was able to see it I had seen enough TNG reruns that I was watching TOS conscious of how its stuff would be expanded on later. But I had been into Twilight Zone even earlier, so the episodic nature of TOS just made it like an anthology show.

  • CthulhuBob

    I liked TNG but I was always a B5 fan first and foremost, that was because it was so densely plotted. I find that form much more compelling and have always believed that it was that show’s success that really started the boom in serial television (not Lost like most everyone else says). Still, a very well-written treatise, thanks!

    • Implying that Lost had a goal or continuity. Lost and Heroes are responsible for shows with huge casts and bizarre shit being main stream.

      • Joel Schlosberg

        It’s been suggested that Lost and Heroes were reacting to the early rise of the Internet by imitating its nonlinear, jumpy nature; while more recent shows have stopped trying to out-Internet a more well-established Internet, and heavy serialization is their way of being its linear, narrative antithesis.

      • CthulhuBob

        Heay I didn’t say that Lost did it well just that it seemed to kick off the current serialization craze.

    • Joel Schlosberg

      Haven’t seen B5 so I don’t have an informed opinion on it. There’s definitely a depth that can only be achieved in more involved serialization.

      Wasn’t the trend towards serialization well on its way long before Lost, with not only B5 but The Sopranos, Buffy and the mythology episodes of The X-Files before the turn of the millennium? It took a while into the ’00s for DVRs/Internet/season sets/etc. to become commonplace, but 2004 seems very late to me.

      • CthulhuBob

        B5 predates Sopranos and Buffy (starting roughly the same time as DS9) but more importantly it only had a handful of standalone episodes per season. It was very heavily serialized and far more than X-Files.

  • I was thinking about this the other day. I love DS-9 and it is the only series I saw every episode from, but what worked about it was the long ongoing story, it hangs together better as a series with an evolving status quo. By contrast TNG was better episode to episode because of the numerous stand alone episodes that were so good (especially those centered on Data and Picard in my opinion).

    Voyager, I think required an evolving narrative and continuity but did not deliver which is why I find it unrewarding to watch. It is okay for the Enterprise to be in working order a week later because they could reach a starbase, Voyager needed to show its scars unless they were addressed. There are many ways Voyager could have been done differently to greater impact.

    I actually think that with modern streaming in mind series that have strong continuity like DS-9, Twin Peaks, or Babylon 5 fair better because people are no longer missing episodes from week to week and nobody needs to give recaps (try watching the 4th season of “Angel” and see how many times they have to give a bullet point rundown of everything that has happened over the course of only a few days in universe, that shit would not fly if it had been released on Netflix these days).

    • Joel Schlosberg

      The long-term effect of streaming is an interesting question. It won’t ever be necessary anymore to do that sort of redundant summarization, now that it’s easier to watch episodes close together or at least catch up with summaries. And the ease of casually following serialization is changing the landscape, there are definitely more people catching up with DS9 via streaming than when it was largely fans of the other Trek series taking the leap of shelling out for the DVD sets.

      But while technically, streaming everything is already feasible, I don’t see the business side adding up. Since the appeal of streaming for casual viewers is the “watch everything for eight bucks a month” low cost, there will be a limit to the amount of funding it can raise even as the increasing complexity of serialization requires more of it. Even for particular classic shows, the interest by casual viewers will drop off when they get rotated off the big streaming sites.

  • Eliot Littlejohn

    while its true tng didnt have the same problem as tos. Where they would get in a wily misadventure and never mention it again but tng felt like a villain or anomalie of the week series sometimes. Other than the contuum puting them on trial. I thought they would build up stories and drop them like in conspiracy where the alien sent a deep space message before he died but that was the last we saw of them. i think thats why deep space nine and enterprise are underrated. At least they had good recurring villains while lore and the borg were good villains they only appeared four and six times. It was also kind of lame that worf was shoe horned into returning back to the enterprise at the end of redemption. Instead of cutting back to him on a klingon ship during episodes. Ultimately deciding to come back to the enterprise. I didnt mention sela and tomolock because tomolock only made vauge threats. Sela was droped just like the parasite aliens. It would have been cool for sela to go rouge and hijack a warbird in a khan like quest for revenge against the enterprise. What im saying is tng was only a lil better than tos in its serialization.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t build a setting by tearing it down. During the course of TNG the people in charge allowed increasing amounts of setting destruction (hard not to when those are their highest rated episodes) so that by the time you get to DS9 every critical episode is all about tearing down some aspect of the setting. The list is long; from disposable starships, to basic themes, to fundamentals of the established cultures, and even characters doing 180 degree shifts in presentation. It makes for some exciting episodes where something “you know” changes, but without those constraints the writing inevitably becomes rudderless.
    Constraints are essential to creativity. Destroying constraints is an act of lazy writing.
    Season one of TNG is where you can see what made the franchise come apart. Their writers were awful. They couldn’t write children, and had no problem letting their frustration with their own ineptitude play out on the screen in the form of Wesley Crusher. Reoccurring baddies? They wanted to demonize capitalists, okay fine, a lot you can do with that, but unfortunately they had no capacity to create anything more deep than a hateful cartoonish parody, viola Ferengi. They tried ripping off TOS episodes with no understanding of what made those episodes work and obvious zero interest in that source matter. In fact they really had no idea what half of the characters should be doing at any particular time leading to the infamous chief engineer conundrum.
    After that first season all the “good episodes” are destruction of the setting with some reoccurring themes. Either someone like the Borg show up to let us know that technology is inherently evil, or Federation gets portrayed as corrupt narrow minded and pettily prejudiced bureaucrats, or galaxy spanning threats pop up to threaten everything and never be mentioned again.
    The whole franchise is just embarrassing now with the nu-Trek taking the modern TNG generation fan memes created to dis the original series and treating them as canon interpretations of TOS while mining shallow references to great moments and presenting these as “plot”. TOS wasn’t perfect, it has some of the worst (and best) moments ever aired in any television program, but one thing everyone can agree on is that it was never meant to be a foundation for a complex ongoing franchise.
    Just let the franchise die and do something original, or do a complete re-imagining with an eye towards making it a complex franchise.

  • Cameron Vale

    Thinking about this only increased my admiration of TOS. Although the show is set on a spaceship, it’s really about the Federation. Almost every aspect of the show exists to show what a utopia this Federation is; the incredible medical technology and computers, the mysterious and cool alien character serving as an officer alongside regular human beings, the seemingly regular captain who manages his human weaknesses by following futuristic enlightened principles like the Prime Directive, and so on. And because of this primary focus given to something which is essentially offscreen, they could show seemingly world-changing things like the reveal of the Romulans while remaining fully episodic if they so intended, since it’s far from certain that the Enterprise would experience any kind of direct fallout from these events during its five-year mission in uncharted space.