Thirty years later, Star Trek: The Next Generation still offers valuable lessons about humanity

A press still of Star Trek: The Next Generation featuring the main cast.

Given our current state of constant political contention, Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for Star Trek: The Next Generation — a utopian future where humans explored new life and new civilizations, using the most logically sound and humane path — can sound downright quaint. But even today, 30 years after its premiere, the fictional allegories and conceptual ideas explored in TNG offer powerful, valuable lessons about humanity’s predilection toward both destruction and beauty. The show conveys a rare optimism to fuel its socially progressive science-fiction.

Patrick Stewart starred as Jean-Luc Picard, the patient, paternal captain with a French name, a British accent and an adorable bald head that served as a constant reminder of the supremely high-functioning brain inside. His cerebral, sensitive approach to diplomacy aboard his Enterprise-D was a strong contrast to the hot-headed Kirk from The Original Series. Picard offered a much-needed level-headed role model for the late 1980s and early 1990s as a new world order was emerging.

TNG premiered two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and during a time of great social change that offered the promise of a safer, more peaceful world. Social causes like third-wave feminism and gay rights, and new understandings of power and hegemony like postcolonialism, plus a rise in environmental activism, all began to bubble up, just as TNG was figuring out its place on network television.

But before it became the most successful Star Trek series, TNG had a few things to figure out. In addition to a Writers’ Guild of America strike in 1988 that plagued its second season, Roddenberry’s faltering psychological and physical health wreaked havoc in the writers’ room, causing 24 staff writers and producers to quit over the course of the series’ first three years.

The team that took over — including Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga — became the creative core that made TNG one of the best sci-fi shows of all time. While some of its representation is woefully miscalculated — particularly the treatment of its female stars, like the cleavage-clad Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the ship’s Counsellor with empathic abilities — it remains politically ahead of its time.

Set in 2364, 75 years after The Original SeriesTNG reveals an evolution of humanity even further into the future. Capitalism, imperialism, hunger, poverty and war are long outdated curios in history books read by Picard and his First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes). The advancement of technology has long eradicated common human predicaments like the allocation of resources; inside Starfleet ships, replicator technology create foods within seconds. TNG conveys such a hopeful attitude about our natural virtues that even the ship’s matter-of-fact-sounding android, Data (Brent Spiner), pines to be human, using the creative arts and social psychology as practical gateways to often hilarious results.

A fair share of TNG episodes use sci-fi allegory to consider contemporary ethical and social issues. Homosexuality, a controversial subject even in the ’90s, is explored in “The Outcast,” where Riker falls for a member of the androgynous alien species J’naii. Understanding cultural differences for international diplomacy is explored in multiple episodes and perhaps most famously in “Darmok,” when the Enterprise is tasked to communicate with the Tamarians, a mysterious culture whose language is composed of mythic referents, something Picard only figures out after undergoing a long and epic journey with a Tamarian captain.

Patience, intelligence and respect are key virtues in TNG-style diplomacy. Allowing resistant species to co-habitate in peace is another belief, though on more than one occasion TNG explores the tragic circumstances that force rebels to intervene when even the best-meaning Federation policies cannot protect entire planets and people. A few episodes featuring the charismatic Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes), a passionate Starfleet ensign committed to her people’s cause, nimbly demonstrate the Federation’s failings.

TNG explored psychological territory in a way few sci-fi shows have done since. Its abstract, conceptual puzzles are often based on a character’s subjective perspective not making any damn sense. In “Remember Me,” Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) seems to be the only one aware that crew members are disappearing. In “Frame of Mind,” Riker keeps reliving the same scenario as a mental institute patient in order to prevent aliens from inhabiting his thoughts.

TNG consistently proved it was founded on a highly informed understanding of human perception and its sheer subjectivity. It used a humanist framework to explore interesting concepts in hour-long network television episodes that were intellectually rewarding, socially resonant and, above all, undeniably entertaining — it even turned non-sci-fi fans into hardcore Trekkies, myself included.

Its pre-9/11 politics may feel somewhat irrelevant or outdated today, but TNG made itself a timeless watch by engaging with something bigger than current world affairs: the undeniable, deep-rooted motivations of the human psyche. In the process, the show provides a certainly hopeful, probably naive and yet, definitely spectacular blueprint for what the future of humanity can be.

Despite all of its aliens, gadgets and space travel, the series was first and foremost an examination of how to be human. And no matter what was happening outside the series, it showed us how to do so in times both cultured and barbaric.

Originally published in The National Post (Sept. 28, 2017)