Guest Blogger: Mark Clark, author of Star Trek FAQ (Applause Books)
In a previous blog entry, I answered the question (posed by reviewer of my book Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise), is Star Trek all it’s cracked up to be? For the record, I responded with an emphatic yes. But what about Star Trek: The Next Generation? In my forthcoming companion volume, Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know about the Feature Films, I write about the quality of the sequel series:
During its prime era (from Seasons Three through Six), Star Trek: The Next Generation consistently delivered elegantly produced, convincingly performed, character-driven stories enriched by imaginative, thought-provoking science fiction concepts. The series was as ambitious and well-crafted as any on the air. Simply put, it was one of the best shows on television. But The Next Generation, while collecting an impressive haul of Emmys in various technical categories, for many years was shut out of these more prestigious “creative” categories. This became a source of frustration for the show’s producers and cast, who believed Emmy voters didn’t take the series seriously because it was syndicated, and because it was science fiction.
“Because our show doesn’t air on one of the traditional networks, we continually face the frustration of being an anomaly,” Berman complained to a reporter from Entertainment Tonight, in a story about the production of Next Gen’s landmark eightieth episode (one more than the original program). “We can only hope our show will be acknowledged by the industry, which an increasing number of viewers have obviously been enjoying for the past four seasons regardless of where they watch it.”
In the same interview, Patrick Stewart seemed even more irritated. “We’re conscious of that some people think of us as ‘That syndicated kid’s show,’ and as far as a large part of the TV industry is concerned, we are,” Stewart fumed. “Otherwise, how can you explain the total absence of Emmy nominations for directing, writing and acting?” Stewart went on to compare Star Trek with Shakespeare, pointing out that the Bard’s plays were also considered escapist entertainment in their day, but “clearly his plays could be very serious, too.”
Indeed, looking back, Star Trek: The Next Generation compares favorably with many of the programs that earned higher ratings and greater Emmy recognition during its prime years (from Season Three in 1989-90 through Season Six in 1992-93).
Situation comedies dominated this era in television. Shows such as Cheers, Roseanne, The Cosby Show and Murphy Brown ruled the Nielsen ratings. For the 1989-90 season, no drama series finished in the Top 10. The top-rated dramas were L.A. Law and Murder, She Wrote, which tied for Number 14. In the Heat of the Night (Number 17) and Matlock (Number 20) also cracked the Top 20. Over the next three seasons, only three dramas cracked the Top 20: Murder, She Wrote (all three seasons), Matlock (in 1990-91), and Northern Exposure (in 1991-92 and ’92-93). Today, Next Gen boasts a far larger following than any of those series.
The critical darlings of the era were L.A. Law (which won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1990 and ‘91), Northern Exposure (Emmy champion in 1992) and Picket Fences (the 1993 Emmy winner), along with frequent nominees China Beach, thirtysomething, and Law & Order. A science fiction series rubbed elbows with this distinguished company, but it wasn’t Next Gen; it was Quantum Leap, Emmy nominated for three consecutive seasons from 1990 through 1992. Yet The Next Generation, arguably, was more innovative and in form and adventurous in content than any of those more celebrated programs.
The Next Generation was belatedly honored with an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Dramatic Series following its final season in 1994, which was somewhat ironic since the show’s teleplays were very inconsistent that year. Although it failed to win that year (losing to Picket Fences), Next Gen became the first syndicated program ever nominated for the award. Next Gen won a George Foster Peabody Award for the Season One episode “The Big Goodbye.” It was the first syndicated program ever to win the award. Over the next several seasons, the Peabody Award (not widely known outside the broadcasting industry but cherished within it) went to China Beach, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. Peabody voters, at least, considered The Next Generation on par with the finest dramas on TV from the very beginning.
Of course, this analysis leaves open the question of which series was better, the original or Next Gen. But that’s an issue for another day – and, perhaps, for a future blog entry.
Star Trek FAQ tells the complete story of Star Trek, from the before the beginning (the books, films, and TV shows that inspired producer Gene Roddenberry to create Star Trek) until after the end (when the show emerged as a cultural phenomenon in syndication), and including dramatic behind-the-scenes stories (e.g., Leonard Nimoy’s struggle with alcoholism and actress Grace Lee Whitney’s controversial firing) often omitted from “authorized” histories of the program. Along with in-depth looks at the pre- and post-Trek careers of the show’s iconic leads, Star Trek FAQ includes profiles of guest stars and “redshirt” extras alike, as well as the many writers, technicians, and artisans whose efforts enabled Star Trek to take flight. The book also explores the show’s unprecedented resurgence in the 1970s with chapters devoted to early Star Trek fiction, merchandising, and the short-lived animated series. Combining a wealth of fascinating information about every facet of the show’s production with original analysis of Star Trek‘s enduring appeal and cultural influence, Star Trek FAQ goes where no Star Trek book has gone before.