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Alternate History in Star Trek part 6: The Birth of The Next Generation

By Tom Anderson

1987 finally saw the return of Star Trek to the small screen with Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). I have already written about this in other articles, here and there, so I won’t spend too much time summing it up here. Suffice to say that when this series became beloved and ‘our’ Star Trek to a whole new generation (mine, no pun intended), it is easy to forget just how controversial it was to produce something with the ‘Star Trek’ branding that, for the first time, did not follow the familiar crew of Kirk and co. As the earlier series (‘seasons’) were mostly weaker, it also took time to get established. Nonetheless, the continuing success, as I write this, of Star Trek: Picard demonstrates the level to which TNG eventually made its way into our hearts.

We skipped (of course) a century from the original series, or about 80 years from the films, to follow the new voyages of the Enterprise-D (originally the Enterprise Seven in early planning) under the command of Frenchman Captain Jean-Luc Picard (inspired by the contemporary popularity of Jacques Cousteau) played by Englishman Patrick Stewart. The American audience terrified of anything foreign could be reassured by second-in-command William T. Riker, a former estranged lover of ship’s counselor Deanna Troi. (This was reimagined from Will Decker and Ilia in Star Trek Phase II/Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just as the emotionless, fascinated-by-humans full-blooded Vulcan Xon was reimagined into the android Data). Incidentally, I can remember Roddenberry’s idea that the ship would need a space psychologist being relentlessly mocked in the 1990s, a criticism which (with more recent awareness of mental health issues) seems incredibly tone-deaf and idiotic. It is true that Troi’s empathic abilities too often devolved into “Captain, they’re hiding something!” though.

Rounding out the crew were others. The Klingon Commander Worf (Roddenberry was persuaded to back down on his intention not to feature the Klingons and Romulans again), telling a story of reconciliation between the powers intended to evoke Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Beverly Crusher, will-they-or-won’t-they partner of the Captain and widow of his friend Jack (awkward) was the chief medical officer, with her teen prodigy son Wesley Crusher initially a regular (and often disliked) character. Otherwise, things took a while to settle down; Tasha Yar, a Federation recruit from a hellish planet who was now security officer (seems like an interesting concept on paper) ended up being unceremoniously killed off when her actress chose to leave the series. Geordi LaForge, a blind man who saw via the aid of a technological ‘VISOR’, was eventually repurposed from navigation to engineering (replacing the unmemorably Argyll, who felt like Extruded Scotsman Product to replace Scotty). This did mean that the navigation slot on the bridge was frequently rotated around. Season 2 introduced the mysterious bartender Guinan and briefly replaced Beverly Crusher with Katherine Pulaski.

TNG ran for seven seasons, during which further spinoff media continued to be produced covering both TOS and TNG. I will therefore not attempt to cover it in its entirety in this article, but only get as far as the end of season 3 in 1990 – which happily coincides with the most famous cliffhanger in Star Trek history, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1”. I will then cover some of the spinoff media of those three years in other articles, before returning to televised TNG.

“Encounter at Farpoint”: The TV movie-length pilot episode. I can gush about this for hours because I feel it’s criminally underrated. I didn’t see it until I’d already seen the generally-stronger fourth and fifth seasons, yet it still blew me away and I will happily rewatch it now. “Farpoint” introduces the trickster superbeing Q (resembling Trelane from TOS) who, memorably played by John de Lancie, still excites fan imagination to this day with his appearances in “Picard”. Q puts humanity on trial, and brings up elements from our past which lead him to characterise us as a primitive and savage race. Some of these are expected, such as a Tudor-era captain and a WW2 officer, but then he displays something unfamiliar: the strange armour of the drug-fuelled Fourth World Militia soldiers of the Third World War. His choice of kangaroo court is also taken from the Post-Atomic Horror of the late 21st century which followed that war. This is the first time Star Trek ever said much of anything about this era. It now feels so central to Star Trek’s mythology that humanity was smashed back to its foundations, before choosing to rebuild in a positive direction after First Contact, that it is striking to realise that the concept did not exist before this episode. This also began Star Trek’s occasional habit of using settings which belong to its past but our future (DS9 would later do the same in “Past Tense” for example).

Most season 1 TNG episodes are rather bad and forgettable as the series was still finding its feet, but I will mention a few memorable and AH/time travel relevant ones.

“Where No One Has Gone Before”: As discussed in the last Pocket Books articles, at least one TOS novel influenced this story. The Enterprise, supposedly due to new drive breakthroughs by an arrogant scientist – but actually due to the abilities of his alien servant, the Traveller – is flung first into another galaxy, and then another realm altogether. This starts a link between the latter and Wesley Crusher that will be built on later. Also note the title, which references the different opening narration of TNG (‘one’ rather than ‘man’): it was relentlessly mocked at the time for political correctness, and it’s probably just as well the internet didn’t really exist yet. (Picard also sees his mother in a vision, possibly relevant for the series of Star Trek: Picard that’s current at the time of writing).

“Justice”: In this rather poor attempt at a TOS-like story, the Enterprise visits a utopian planet where there is no crime – because any crime is punishable by death, no matter how minor, as Wesley Crusher (of course) discovers. Also features classic early TNG complete idiocy about religion, usually smothering offensiveness with amusing cluelessness. Worthy of mention only because, like its TOS predecessors, it feels in part like it’s going for a Twilight Zone ‘what if the world was like this’ scenario.

“The Battle”: Picard meets his old ship, the Stargazer, which the recently-introduced trading Ferengi want to trade back to him. We get Picard’s backstory and see flashbacks to the titular battle in which the Stargazer was lost. This led later writers (notably Michael Jan Friedman) to do spinoff novels about the Stargazer and its crew, and the Picard series recently introduced a successor ship also called the Stargazer.

“Hide and Q”: The awful second Q episode, in which Riker temporarily gets Q-like powers. I mention it only because Q’s strangely random use of ‘animal things’ in Napoleonic costumes as minions may be a reference to Trelane’s own Napoleonic fascinations from TOS. A novel by Peter David would eventually try to make the link between Q and Trelane specific.

“The Big Goodbye” and “11001001” are both early attempts at using the holodeck (presented as new, though something similar appeared in TOS) to depict historical settings, a 1930s gumshoe detective novel and a jazz bar respectively. The holodeck would frequently be used in lieu of actual time travel from then on, with the stakes always presented oddly (characters trapped in the holodeck as though you can’t just turn it off, etc.) These plots, which fans rapidly became tired of, would have made more sense if the holodeck had been some mysterious piece of alien technology the crew were experimenting with, rather than some standard bit of entertainment equipment it’s considered OK to let children play in. “11001001” also features the new Enterprise’s self-destruct sequence for the first time.

“Datalore” is noteworthy as it introduces Data’s “brother” Lore, built by the same creator of android, Dr Noonien Soong. No prizes for guessing that he turns out to be evil. “Angel One” is set on a planet with a matriarchal society and the roles of men and women reversed from the norms we are used to on Earth (in western societies). This is very hard to write convincingly (speaking as someone whose own science fiction features such a setting) and early TNG unsurprisingly doesn’t succeed at it. It’s more noteworthy due to background mentions of the Romulans potentially rising again, which will be built on later.

“Coming of Age”, which is mostly about Wesley Crusher taking the Starfleet Academy entrance exam, is noteworthy because this is the first time a Vulcan gets a speaking role on TNG – illustrating that, at least in the case of Spock and Vulcans, Roddenberry had succeeded in avoiding TNG being tied to these fan favourites. The following episode “Heart of Glory” is similarly the first time Klingons feature other than Worf; the way they are presented illustrates that the writers still had yet to settle on a coherent identity for them. “Coming of Age” also features one of the more interesting ideas in early TNG, that Starfleet is being infiltrated by a conspiracy.

“We’ll Always Have Paris” is technically the first TNG episode to feature true time travel. In a script affected by the 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Picard encounters a former lover who is now married to Dr Manheim, whose experiments are causing time-space distortions. This leads to lots of examples of the crew running into their past selves etc. and Data has to figure out which of three versions of himself is the one who should use antimatter to halt the experiments. Also features a holodeck recreation of Paris (referencing “Casablanca”) which is one of the best examples in fiction of “the Eiffel Tower moves around so it’s always in the background of every Paris shot”!

“Conspiracy” follows up on “Coming of Age” when it turns out Starfleet is being infiltrated by puppeteer-parasites. In a memorable scene, it turns out the officer who was investigating the conspiracy is himself home to the parasites’ queen creature, whom Picard and Riker blow up in a memorably bloody scene. Supposedly the parasites might return, but this was never followed up on (except in spinoff novels). It was likely supposed to tie into a building mysterious threat which eventually became the Borg, and as the conception of the latter changed, the connection was lost.

“The Neutral Zone” finally brings back the Romulans, but it is more dominated by the crew discovering a satellite of cryogenically frozen humans – who turn out to be strawman examples of the worst of contemporary 1980s American capitalist society which the show castigated. A lot of people dislike this one, because it is a bit unsubtle about it. However, it also features colonies being scooped off planets wholesale – it turns out that the same is happening to the Romulans, so a third party is involved. (This would eventually be revealed to be the Borg; note that this does mean that the Borg were already attacking the Federation before Q became involved, so it is not that Q is responsible for the later Borg attacks, as some writers misunderstand).

The second season initially did not show any great promise, with awful episodes such as “The Child” and “The Outrageous Okona”. Another interesting holodeck take was “Elementary, Dear Data” in which Data’s enjoyment of playing Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck is undermined by him already knowing all the stories. The holodeck is once again treated as more of a malevolent genie than a piece of entertainment technology, with a mere slip of the tongue by Geordi (create a villain capable of defeating Data, not Sherlock Holmes) resulting in a super-genius Professor Moriarty taking over the ship. Fortunately, his very intelligence leads Moriarty to self-awareness and a desire to escape the holodeck, agreeing to shut down until then. (This would be followed up in a later episode).

“A Matter of Honour” involves Riker on an exchange programme to a Klingon ship, which better develops Klingon culture (though there are still some oddities, such as a Klingon saying work is more important to family than them, in contrast to what we see later). “The Measure of a Man”, one of the most iconic TNG episodes (and heavily influential on the recent Picard series) sees Data on trial for his status as a sentient being, as a Federation scientist seeks to build copies of him – which would end up as slaves, as Picard realises. “Contagion” features a confrontation between the Federation and the Romulans over the lost technology of the ancient Iconian species and their gateways, in which a series computer threat is literally cured by ‘turn it off and turn it back on again’. The Iconians would go on to feature again in DS9 and in an entire series of spinoff novels from multiple Star Trek settings.

“The Royale” features the crew finding a strange alien recreation of a hotel from a trashy novel – it turns out aliens built it from that novel as a setting for a lost Earth astronaut (whose capsule has a US flag with 52 stars on it). There’s an element of Twilight Zone horror about just how bad the setting is and the now deceased astronaut’s diary reflects that; the crew have to work to escape it, not unlike Groundhog Day (which had not been made at the time). It’s noteworthy not only for the seeming time travel of the 20th century setting, but also because of another titbit of information about the 21st century with the astronaut.

“Time Squared” is finally a return to actual time travel, but it’s a rather poor episode – as I mentioned in a previous article, it seems influenced by an old TOS comic, but the comic is rather better. The crew find a shuttlepod drifting, only to find it’s inhabited by a future version of Picard and the ship exploded behind him as he escaped. Both Picard’s bio-signs and the shuttle’s systems are out of synch with the present, in a way that doesn’t make sense and is never featured before or since. In the end Picard has to shoot himself and it’s also never clear what motivated him to leave his ship behind. Just forgettable overall.

“Q Who”, probably the most famous second season episode, sees the return of Q and the advent of the Borg. Q responds to Picard’s arrogant claim that they are ready for anything by flinging the Enterprise seven thousand light-years away to encounter the Borg: cybernetic organisms with a hive mind and a cubic ship, who assimilate others’ technology and become immune to it. (At this stage they were not presented as assimilating people – instead we see babies being grown in tubes and fitted with cybernetics). Guinan’s connection with both Q and the Borg is first hinted here. The Borg end up slicing a chunk out of the Enterprise to study, and killing 18 people in the process – it is their sheer indifference towards the crew which is all the more chilling, something lost in later depictions. Once again, John de Lancie’s performance as Q elevates the script considerably. He finally saves the ship from the Borg when Picard begs him and admits they are not ready for anything. When Picard raises the 18 deaths, Q simply replies: “If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid.

“Up the Long Ladder” was accurately described by a critic as one of the weirdest TNG stories. Melinda M. Snodgrass (remember her from the TOS novels?) tried to tell a story about immigration (apparently) and ended up titling it after an anti-Protestant Irish song. The story is meant to be about how the Enterprise crew encounter two lost human colonies planted by the old colony ship Mariposa: the Bringloidi, Irish followers of a back-to-nature 22nd century cult, and the Mariposans, futurists who reproduce (imperfectly) by cloning – and then the Enterprise has to convince them to work together. However, it mostly ends up feeling like two completely separate stories, one which feels like an extremely offensive portrayal of ‘primitive’ Irish people from some 19th century American pamphlet, and one which perhaps gives us an early glimpse of the Federation’s distaste for cloning and genetic modification. Riker in particular is outraged by the idea of being cloned, which some critics speculated would lead to a later episode in which he has to cope with being duplicated (as indeed it did, in “Second Chances”). At one point the Mariposans actually take genetic samples from the crew against their will (as their own DNA has become degraded through too much copying) and the crew destroy the clones before they can reach consciousness. This feels like it should be a clumsy metaphor for abortion, but isn’t – nobody seems to consider the ethics of destroying adult but not yet conscious clones. Overall, one of the worst TNG episodes, and noteworthy only because background graphics nicely link with the backstory, presenting the Mariposa as a DY-500 evolution of the DY-100 Botany Bay that Khan appeared on in TOS.

“The Emissary” introduces Worf’s love interest K’Ehleyr, half-Klingon and half-human. There is a lost Klingon sleeper ship, whose now-awakening crew are not aware the Klingons have made peace with the Federation, and they must be intercepted before they can attack. What I really like about this story is the idea that it’s not just humans who do things like build sleeper ships – something that is frequently forgotten in the often human-centric day-to-day writing of Star Trek, in contrast to its ideals.

“Peak Performance” is, in my view, the best episode of the second season (even beating out “Q Who” and one of the best of the entire series). It follows on from “Q Who” and foreshadows the later reappearance of the Borg; Starfleet, aware of their technological disparity, decides to hold wargames in which Riker has to use an older, inferior ship to fight Picard in the Enterprise. It’s frequently held up by stupid people due to Riker’s quote about ‘combat being a minor province’ of being a Starfleet captain; those critics evidently didn’t pay attention to how straightforward combat indeed proved useless against the Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds” and it took intelligence and guile to defeat them – as Worf foreshadows here. Also features Data’s matches of ‘Stratagema’ against the Zakdorn strategist Kolrami, in which he illustrates how endless patience and playing for a draw can defeat a superior foe. Beforehand, his losses to Kolrami lead Data to lose self-confidence, and Picard has a memorable quote for him: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”

The third season opens with “Evolution”, the first appearance of nanotechnology in Star Trek (this would later become a bigger topic, including in relation to the Borg). The execrable “Who Watches the Watchers” is worthy of mention only because its civilisation is ‘just like Vulcan’ rather than the usual ‘just like Earth’ of Star Trek. “The Enemy” brings back the Romulans, with LaForge and a Romulan having to work together to survive a hellish planet in the Neutral Zone. “The Price” is the first appearance of a wormhole in Star Trek (unless you count The Motion Picture); two Ferengi end up stranded in the Delta Quadrant, which will be followed up by Voyager, and the nearby Barzan race appear again in Discovery.

In a reminder that terrorism was very much in the news in the late 1980s, the third season features three episodes almost in a row that involve it: “The Vengeance Factor”, “The Hunted” and “The High Ground”. The latter was banned (later edited) in the UK and Ireland for decades due to a cluelessly offensive throwaway line that IRA terrorism would lead to the unification of the island of Ireland in 2024 – thankfully not one of Star Trek’s predictions that looks likely to come true! What with this and the Bringloidi in “Up the Long Ladder”, the Irish would not get a good hearing in Star Trek until Colm Meaney’s O’Brien, already popular as a background character, was promoted to semi-main cast and then DS9.

“The Defector” features a Romulan admiral who takes the plunge and defects to the Federation, despite his own loyalties, due to knowing that a war is coming that will devastate both. It perhaps owes something to the novel “My Enemy, My Ally” by Diane Duane, and has a bittersweet (though very memorable) ending. “Deja Q” features the return of Q, now temporarily de-powered by his peers (an idea that had first been used in the TNG comics, which I’ll discuss in a future article). “A Matter of Perspective” is an interesting case of a murder mystery where different accounts of events are reconstructed on the holodeck – though its resolution again relies on the holodeck being presented almost like a malevolent genie rather than something under control.

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is one of the strongest and best-known episodes of TNG. Picard and company find a time rift, through which appears their own lost predecessor, the Enterprise-C. However, as it appears, the Enterprise-D changes; Worf vanishes, Tasha Yar is alive again, there are no families on board, everyone has darker uniforms and openly carries weapons, etc. Because the Enterprise-C disappeared during a pivotal battle in which its crew sacrificed itself to save Klingons from Romulans, peace did not continue between the Federation and Klingons, and in this changed timeline, the more militaristic Starfleet is fighting a losing war against the Klingons. This changed setting is far more interesting to my mind than the ooh-evil-is-cool nonsense of the Mirror Universe. Guinan plays a key role in convincing Picard to send the ship back, hinting at her abilities to know when time is changed. Tasha Yar, discovering her death in the prime timeline was meaningless, chooses to go back with the Enterprise-C crew to their deaths. Meanwhile, Picard fights to the death to protect the Enterprise-C from a Klingon attack as they re-enter the rift – leading to the memorable line “Let’s make sure history never forgets the name Enterprise.” The intervention succeeds and the prime timeline is restored – but the alternate Yar going back did introduce a thread that will be picked up on in a later episode. Worf barely appears in this episode, with the writers having commendably decided against making him the commander of the enemy Klingons (which wouldn’t make sense). Besides being a good time travel episode, this story is a masterclass in how to write an alternate timeline that’s dystopian without being stupid dystopian like the Mirror Universe. Peter David would feature it again in his novel Q-Squared. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the oddity that the Klingon-Federation backstory in this episode all but contradicts the one in the almost contemporaneous Star Trek VI (which I’ll discuss next time) but both the episode and film are so good that we feel driven to ignore it.

“The Offspring” features Data creating an android child named Lal (another major influence on the recent Picard series). “Sins of the Father” really establishes the Klingon culture we know and love, including Worf’s backstory and his family’s antagonist, Duras. A Klingon officer named Kurn is doing the opposite end of the same exchange programme that Riker did early on, and reveals that he is Worf’s brother. While Worf was raised by humans after the planet Khitomer was attacked, Kurn was raised by Klingons. (This sets up an interesting immigrant/adoptee dynamic, in which Worf is often more rigid about living up to imagined Klingon values than Kurn or other Klingons with more traditional upbringings). We get to see the Klingon capital city and their form of government, which will also be seen in Star Trek VI. Chancellor K’mpec ends up persuading Worf and Kurn to accept the lie that their father Mogh betrayed Khitomer to the Romulans, when it was actually Duras’ father – as to do otherwise would lead to civil war. This storyline is picked up again in the next season.

“Captain’s Holiday” features Picard taking the titular holiday on the casual sex planet of Risa, albeit more due to his interest in archaeology (Patrick Stewart had asked for ‘more sex and violence’). It introduces the recurring female adventurer-archaeologist Vash. Two time-travelling Vorgons from the 27th century (no relation to the Vogons from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) are looking for an artefact called the Tox Uthat, which can destroy a star. Picard destroys the Uthat rather than it fall into their hands – upon which they reveal that their histories indeed say he did so. “Hollow Pursuits” introduces the character of Reg Barclay, socially awkward and suffering from ‘holoaddiction’ in which he fills the holodeck with inappropriate recreations of the senior staff. Barclay goes on to be a fan favourite character after he progresses from this situation.

“Sarek” features Spock’s now very aged father from TOS, and the first on-screen acknowledgement of Spock and his family (after Roddenberry’s half-understandable desire to divorce the franchise from fan obsession over them). Notably, the story originally featured a generic ambassador before the writers had the idea to use Sarek!

Finally, season 3 ends with the famous cliffhanger “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I”. The Borg have finally reached Federation territory and begun destroying colonies. Meanwhile, Riker is being offered his own ship, and Commander Shelby has arrived to try to take his own role as first officer. In an unexpected twist, Picard is kidnapped by the Borg, and the crew discover to their horror that he has been assimilated and is under Borg control – referring to himself as ‘Locutus of Borg’. Data and Shelby have also discovered that the Borg ship seems to be more vulnerable to certain energy frequencies, and the ship’s main deflector has been adapted into a single-use cannon to try to destroy the Borg cube. Riker, now in command of the ship, has to face the decision of whether to fire on his own captain – and the season ends with the words “Mr Worf, fire!”

We will leave this rundown of TNG here, and return after looking at more spinoff media. It is striking how few actual time travel episodes there were, especially in contrast to the later Voyager’s over-reliance on them from the start. Most of the episodes I have mentioned above are purely because they are either noteworthy in their own right, or introduce characters and ideas I will be referring to in other and more relevant contexts. Stay tuned for the next article!



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