It was the autumn of 1987 and America was in a bit of a dark place. The Cold War was ongoing, and the future of the world was still uncertain. Many still feared nuclear war, and the ripples of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were still making their way through our culture. That summer, there was a major crash of an American airliner, killing almost everyone on board, and in October the stock market experienced Black Monday, a terrifying and sudden stock market plunge. Perhaps more notably: the year before the space shuttle Challenger had broken up after launch, killing almost everyone on board while frightened school children watched from their classrooms. America’s trust in technology and NASA’s mission of space exploration were certainly in peril. Hope in the country’s future was in jeopardy, and many readers today can probably relate. Recent polls indicate that many in the US are pessimistic about the future, but that may be changing.
In that fall of 1987, big changes were also coming to American televisions. The Fox network made its debut, along with Married with Children, The Tracey Ullman show, and the first glimpses of The Simpsons — forever changing animation on American television. 1987 was also the year that Star Trek: The Next Generation first hit the air waves. Though in some ways these shows are just entertainment, it’s also undeniable that they also help spread ideas, change people’s minds and define our national identity. Many today believe that social media is having a negative impact on the world, and I remember people around me echoing similar thoughts about The Simpsons and Married With Children. When my cousin wrote a short blurb about Al Bundy for the young people’s section in the newspaper, he was reprimanded at school.
But if media can have a negative impact on society, then it can likely also have positive effects. Perhaps a show with a message of hope can spread hope. Perhaps news stories about exploration, scientific discovery, astronauts and space stations can too. But first, we have to convince people that these things are a good idea. This brings me back to TNG.
Like many young viewers, I wasn’t drawn in at first. I was skeptical of the new captain with his Shakespearean accent, of his new crew, and of the focus on diplomacy. Sure, I was just a kid, but I knew Kirk and Spock and had watched the original Star Trek movies with my dad and wasn’t sure this new series was for me. Television networks were also skeptical, including Fox which only made an offer for 13 episodes. Seeing an opportunity, Paramount (Star Trek’s parent company) decided to put the show on syndication on independent television stations. The show would not have a standard viewing time across the country, but Paramount would get a direct cut of the ad revenue, as would the local stations. This could have backfired spectacularly,
Lucky for us, TNG received strong ratings and they only grew with time. People like me came around too and ended up loving the show later on, a sentiment also shared by Mike and Rich of Red Letter Media. As we now know, the show continued to be a success, spawned four films, sold countless VHS tapes and DVDs, and continued to be watched on streaming services.
Now we have new Star Trek series — and several of them! — but are they a good fit? As in 1987, some viewers are skeptical, including the aforementioned Mike and Rich. The complaints are that the new shows are too dark and discard with the themes from the old series. On reddit, some fans have even proclaimed Seth MacFarlane’s show The Orville as the true successor to classic Trek.
What is it about Star Trek: The Next Generation that made it so successful, and why are fans criticizing the new series today? Are we just being picky, like we were in 1987? Maybe, but I’ll argue that’s not the case. Why?
The answer is something that many political campaigns understand: we need hope in the future and new Trek is too dark. Humans need something positive to believe in, not just in their personal lives, but in their communities, societies, and civilizations. It’s why simple slogans like Hope and Make America Great Again have an impact, whatever those eventually actually mean to the voters. It’s also why people love NASA, with over 70% saying that support its mission of space exploration and over 80% of polled Americas saying the space station had a positive impact on the country. 80%! Imagine any politician today, or any TV show, being widely supported by 80% of Americans. In a time where Americans are uncertain about climate science and medical research, they still broadly support one of our most scientific programs.
Today, we’re living in dark and troubling times again, perhaps even more-so than in the 80’s. The pandemic is ongoing, political division is as bad as ever, and people are looking for guidance and answers.
But there is an upside, for writers and politicians, entertainers and scientists, and I don’t just mean this in a cynical “let’s make money” sense. Now, more than ever, programs like NASA and shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation can have an impact. Last year, I enjoyed Tiger King and Lovecraft Country, as well as reruns of shows like The Wire, but I’m still craving the hopeful message of Star Trek, and many Americans are too. We can see this in the trending news from the recent mission to Mars: NASA’s Perseverance rover, and also in the popularity of books like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
Despite everyone’s skepticism, the new Star Trek shows have been a hit online as well, with Star Trek: Discovery earning a ton of views for CBS, as well as lots of pirating. Star Trek Picard also got high ratings. Does this mean we crave darker TV now, and that there’s no hope for a return to the classic themes of TNG? I don’t think so. The shows themselves can adapt if they want to, and if not then perhaps shows like The Orville will take their place. People are looking to science and to the stars for hope. Scientists, writers, and would-be politicians — let’s not let them down.