Dec 12, 2019
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.
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.
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.