Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

You, Me And "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

An obsession in five acts.

You're about nine, and you always watch tv with your dad. It's your thing—he's usually nursing a Coors Light, you're doing your best to hang upside down on the couch until your head starts pounding. Sometimes you watch golf and fall in love with Payne Stewart; sometimes you watch "MacGyver" and wish your dad had his hair. But then you start watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, because obviously that is when the best show on television should be scheduled, and your routine becomes: 1.) watch "TNG" together 2.) Mom and Dad go out to some dinner party and you eat Tony's Pizza with your brother. Your dad mentions something about how you should maybe start watching the old show, or get the VHS tapes of the movies, but you're like "is Data in them? THEN NO." At some point, you watch Wrath of Khan and are horrified.

This essay is part of a series about our favorite TV shows past.

Previously: The Terror Of "Twin Peaks": His Name Is BOB

There's something so appealing about the uniforms—how you can tell who does what and how much power he has just by looking at the color and the pips on the collar. Riker, he of the impressive beard, looks so much like someone your parents would be friends with. It's so great to see the guy from "Reading Rainbow" blind and thriving and an engineer. Lady Doctors! You've met a few of them, but none have a son as dorkily side-part handsome as Wesley Crusher. Picard is possibly the coolest person you know. If only you knew what "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" was so you could drink it leisurely before your sporting romp on the holodeck.

You're about eleven, and you're in luck: "TNG" is now on every weekday at four. It's summer, so that's awesome. But your mom has put the kibosh on summer television watching, because she's the type of math professor mom who would do something like that, and you're only allowed television if you spend a Summer Marble on it.

Perhaps the reader does not understand the Marble Summer Economy:

Things that Earn (One) Marble: Chores, Being Nice to Sibling, Reading for Sixty Minutes, Mowing Lawn, Writing a Play, Journaling, Going on a Contemplative Walk, Helping in the Garden, Scooping Dog Poop, Respecting Parents

Things that Cost (Several) Marbles: A Ride to the Pool, An Hour of Television, A New Gameboy Game (approx. 1 billion marbles).

Every day, you do whatever it takes to get the marbles to watch "Star Trek." You make your dog go poop so you can pick it up. You make your brother act up so you can be nice to him. You mow the lawn within an inch of its life. Your collected plays are proliferating. But "Star Trek" is five days a week, and always perfect. This is before the Borg, before the complicated good-evil split. Everything and everyone, save the dastardly Ferengi, are just so awesomely noble. This is right about the episode when Picard's mind is captured by some foreign planet, he starts wearing burlap all the time, has a wife, and becomes super proficient at the pan flute. Don't ask more about that episode—it was called "If Wishes Were Horses"—because you can't return to it, lest you ruin it entirely. Like the best of your ludicrously hot, well-muscled, Christian ex-boyfriends, it is meant to be remembered, in all its glory, but never reexperienced.

You're about twelve, and summer vacation could not be more filled with strife. Do you buy a bikini or not? What Would Deanna Troi Do? The obvious answer is buy a skin-tight lilac jumpsuit with a v-neck, but that obviously wouldn’t work at the pool, which is basically all B-cup boobs and skinny dudes with bull cuts and/or highlights.

You want to spend every day waiting for someone to call you on your private number (743-2544) and talk about what happened at the pool yesterday but your parents take you CAMPING on the BOAT and it is so BORING especially with the incessant HIKING but have no fear: your mom bought you three new "TNG" novels, including the very racy Imzadi, which is all about how Deanna and Riker are not just soul mates, but universe mates, like bound and destined forever, and everyone else says it must be so, but then why, ISTL (In Star Trek Life) does Deanna start making out with Worf? It's not that you don't like him because he's a Klingon, because duh, that's racist, or planetist, but he is just so sincere and/or angry, especially when speaking Klingon, which you could learn to speak from the handbook your brother got you for your birthday, but bygones. A glorified security guard! His beard has nothing on Riker's beard. Plus Riker is "Number One"—it's his job.

You've read some trashy Lois Duncan in your time, but nothing compares to Imzadi and the other two novels that are so satisfying that you forget them entirely the instant you finish them. Plus your mom reads them too, which is either awesome or uncomfortable. Maybe you'll just keep pouting and wearing your Umbro shorts.

You are somewhere in the middle of middle school and doing A+ work at being everything you are not. You're on the math team but refuse to put on the team sweatshirt, covered in math puns, until the very last minute. You pretend you have a doctor's appointment when really you're getting out of class to do complicated word problems with the other nerds. You're really into Simon & Garfunkel but fill your BMG 10-for-1 CD order with Warren G and Tupac. The way you can tell if you're cool is whether or not someone links arms with you on the walk back from lunch, and you spent at least 75% of your energy on a given day anticipating that 100-foot walk.

You have cheerleading practice everyday after school but then you go home, make some Bagel Bites, and hang out with your real friends on television. They would never link arms; they stiff-arm walk with a purpose. Everyone's cool because everyone's on the motherfucking ENTERPRISE.

At some point the local affiliate decided to alternate "Next Generation" with the original series. You force yourself to watch but always feel nauseated by the color of Kirk's uniform, the fine sheen of sweat on his face. You know enough to know that he's supposed to be sexy, but the 60s coloring and the ramshackle bridge makes you queasy. In contrast, the "Next Generation" Enterprise is everything a Type-A girl desires—clean, stark lines, steely grays, pressed uniforms. Sex is present, but so much less volatile.

There's a girl that sits next to you in your English class—very meek, almost to the point of invisibility. One day her Beverly Crusher bookmark slips out and onto the floor. You pick it up; stare longingly. If you were less self-conscious, less terrified of yourself, you would start a conversation and become this girl's best friend. You could watch your favorite show and have the best conversations. But you're a coward. It's unclear whether your small town has made you a coward and you've done it to yourself, but the results are the same: the thing you love the most must remain your own unutterable secret.

Because there's this other kid in your grade, the kid with four nipples (everyone talks about it all the time, because that's the only thing there is to talk about) who, when angry, usually after someone makes fun of his four nipples, starts talking in Klingon. Cursing. Calling people "sons of mother's hog sluts," that sort of thing. That is the kind of kid who likes "Star Trek." It morphs abject before your eyes.


You're in college and in slow recovery from years of play-acting at cool. You are the very cliche of the smart girl goes to college; stops wearing so many collared Oxford shirts; realizes boys like her. You want to date them all. Friends proliferate. You give up math because you want to. "Star Trek" becomes part of a long foreign voyage from which you have kept no souvenirs.

But then one of these new proliferating friends—one who seems the most confident, most at ease with herself, dating a senior as a freshman, that kind of girl with that kind of magnetism—somehow gets on the topic of "Star Trek," and how much she loved it. SHE IS NOT EVEN DRUNK. IT IS AMAZING. She's talking about the way that other people talk about their Nirvana phase, or how we all went through that weird period of wearing knee socks. She had a huge crush on Dr. Julian Bashir (totally subpar, but fine, okay) and conventions and her BEVERLY CRUSHER UNIFORM and their communicators and pips and your emotions expand and multiply like that wormhole you take to get to Deep Space Nine.

You can't tell if you're jealous, sad that you didn't know her when you were 12, or so blissed out that you know her today. You'd seen "Star Trek" fans represented so uniformly, as such clear exemplars of antisocial behavior. But this, this is a new social calculus: "Star Trek" could breed all sorts.


When you love a show as a young person, it can manifest in all manner of ways. Some start swearing in Klingon, some read fanfic erotica. Some buy the technical manual and figure out how to craft a make-shift phasor. Some just learn codes of behavior, adopt understandings of tolerance and commitment and duty. Most, once grown, do not outwardly manifest the signs of their childhood devotion. Yet in certain situations, the evidence emerges, like so many bubbles striving for the surface.

Today, you could name dozens of people, from all paths of life, with whom you've breathlessly, earnestly, gigglingly exchanged "Next Gen" stories. Because there's no such thing as a casual "Next Generation" fan: you either understand wholly or not at all. Upon encountering another, details begin to babble out—slowly at first, then a flood: COLM MEANEY! His WIFE KEIKO! Data acquires EMOTIONS!

It's unclear whether these moments are meant as confession or catharsis, but the result remains the same. You are bonded to that person, and that person to you. How you dealt with your "Star Trek" consumption—how you hid it, or chose not to hide it—becomes as a crucial a personal narrative as the story of how you lost your virginity.

You may or may not find this all a bit overdetermined. But we are in no small part what we consume. Our media texts become signifiers of self, status, character. There was a reason why the obsession demanded, at one point, to be written in second-person and another reason why I can write about it, to an audience of thousands today. Why I can put my name beside it and own it in a Google Search. "Star Trek" meant something to me at age 13 that I could not speak. It means just as much, if not more, today, even if I cannot even bring myself to watch even one episode, lest it ruin my perfect memory of it.

Perhaps the obsessions that matter the most are the ones to which we can never fully admit, to which we can never truly return.

Previously in series: The Terror Of "Twin Peaks": His Name Is BOB

Anne Helen Petersen writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood.

50 Comments / Post A Comment

davidwatts (#72)

I got a graduate degree in international affairs largely because I thought working at The State Department was the closest I could get to Starfleet.

And, as someone who linked to a photo of Julian Bashir in an article I once wrote and now it COMES UP if you google image search me, meaning I basically AM Julian Bashir — YOU TAKE THAT BACK ABOUT JULIAN BASHIR.

RK Fire (#10,307)

@davidwatts Oh really? Hey there. Heeeeeeey.

Diplogeek (#241,494)

@davidwatts I just registered for an account purely so that I could comment on this article and this comment in particular. I work at State, and one of the best parts of this job is that I have a bunch of coworkers with similarly geekish leanings. I knew that I had found my people when a group of us had a lengthy conversation about the relative merits of the Trek movies on the shuttle home from work.

Also, I second your assessment of Julian Bashir. He's my favorite Star Trek character of all time!

AHP (#240,564)

OH NO OH NO — "If Wishes Were Horses" is in fact an episode of DS9. So says the friend from Act V who just gchatted me frantically to tell me so.

Vulpes (#946)

@AHP I think she means The Inner Light, which is widely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever.

Saralyn@twitter (#12,501)

@AHP Inner Light is pretty great.

@Vulpes She means "The Inner Light" which is one of the greatest Star Trek episodes ever, yes.

OH ANNE HELEN PETERSON if you are ever traveling through Waco, Texas, please call me and I will buy you dinner, perhaps at the (awesome) local pizza joint where my dad and I went SPECIFICALLY to watch "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" and we both *literally* GASPED IN HORROR when we saw all the debris of Starfleet ships floating around at Wolf 359. Oh man. IT WAS INTENSE.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Still gives me chills when I think of Data begging for his e-chip to be turned back on. Oof.

Re: Julian Bashir. Have other nerds here assembled noticed how Julian Bashir = Gaius Baltar almost exactly? Was this deliberate?

Vulpes (#946)

@barnhouse Goody-two-shoes, undersexed Gaius Baltar, maybe.

@barnhouse Ron Moore, who produced BSG, wrote for DS9, so yes, it's probably deliberate, or at least the result of both being written by the same person.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Keith Edwards@twitter HA so interesting. I was definitely more a DS9 guy than a TNG one, so. Hmm.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@barnhouse I tried re-watching DS9 as an adult, thinking I would prefer its darker themes and longer plotlines, but I absolutely don't. The (mostly) self-contained nature of the TNG episodes is a huge part of their appeal for me.

Plus it's really hard not for me not to read the DS9 Ferengi — who were basically space pirates in TNG — as some sort of waaaay over-the-top anitsemitic caricature, even though I very much know that was not the intention. (And also the episode where a random black lady walks onto DS9 one day and everyone goes to Sisko, who has been single for like 6 seasons, and is like "Heeeey you should DEFINITELY check out this new lady, she's just your type!")

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@stuffisthings And yes, longtime Awl comment readers, I AM trying to make "That one DS9 storyline is racist" a thing. DEAL WITH IT.

jfruh (#713)

@stuffisthings not going to lie, I maaaaay have gotten into arguments on rec.arts.tv.ds9 on this very topic back in the day

@barnhouse Definitely made that connection in my brain a billion times.

Vulpes (#946)

To this day, I still read virtually every Star Trek novel that comes out. And I poured over the Technical Manual, not to built a phaser, but just to know how the Enterprise worked.

Imzadi is SO GOOD!!!! The sequel? Meh.

Oh, if you want to reexperience watching TNG, I recommend this: http://www.tor.com/features/series/star-trek-the-next-generation-rewatch

I totally drank Earl Grey Tea (hot) because of Picard. I was only slightly disappointed that it's oily and slightly bitter. I like to pretend these days I'm a rival captain with just as awesome a crew who drinks his tea, oolong, hot, with milk and sugar. Take that, Picard.

Saralyn@twitter (#12,501)

I discovered TNG on Spike in high school and fell immediately in love with Wesley. Because what type A, overachieving, nerdy girl wouldn't? But I also developed a parallel love for Picard that has lasted until this day.

Danzig! (#5,318)

One of my earliest memories – I must have been 2 because I'm certain it was in LA – is of sitting in my babysitter's house, chewing intently on green plastic army men and watching the opening credits to TNG and thinking "this is the show for me". I had a metal figurine of the Enterprise and it was my second most prized object behind the Batmobile toy my parents bought for the son of a family friend on his birthday.

I still love Star Trek in theory but it tends to put me to sleep with its plainly stated humanist values

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Danzig! Man that is the first time I've thought of that figurine in so many years. The childhood memories, they surge forth.

This was a wonderful article, btw

Oh Star Trek. That's all I have to say because otherwise all I'm thinking is, damn I so want a Beverly Crusher costume!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@happymisanthrope Isn't a "Beverly Crusher costume" just a standard Starfleet medical uniform from that era? Or does it also come with a red wig?

kiggle@twitter (#241,423)

This was wonderful, of course. I just wanted to comment and say that while it's pretty cute you don't want to re-watch TNG today for fear of 'ruining' your child-like perfect view of them, I think you're making a huge mistake by doing that.

I can identify with this essay very strongly all the way up and down, except I have re-watched every episode a few times now since I became an adult. It has been the *best* part of the whole thing.

Don't be afraid. Watch one over again. Share it with someone who hasn't had the pleasure.

zc (#241,424)

@AHP: I signed up just to say basically what kiggle said. The show is easily as good, if not better, as an adult. The first couple seasons might feel rough with grown-up sensibilities, but you really need to. And the episode you refer to, The Inner Light, is I'm sure even more beautiful than you remember. Please, give it another try.

@kiggle@twitter I'm not rewatching for fear of going back to a full blown obsession.

LindyAlso (#241,425)

Created an account just to say this: Anne Helen Peterson, we are the same. High-five from my 13-year-old self to yours.

oxla (#12,069)

important resource for obsessives/people who appreciate the good in the world: http://sttngfashion.tumblr.com

flapadactyl (#12,522)

@oxla OMG Fashion It So is the best! Face braids! Pleated satin boots! Everything Guinan wears!!

But seriously, what's the answer to this F/M/K:

Picard, Data, Worf

and also

Guinan, Troi, Data

It's so hard to decide, and it really determines what kind of night you're going to have!

skyslang (#11,283)

This is by far the best in the series. So well written and evocative!

Lux Alptraum (#3,933)

Yeah. This is pretty much my childhood. I can't even begin to express how much I love TNG (which I rewatched not that long ago and loved just as much as ever).

Also, I am learning as an adult that quite a few people I know totally jacked it to Imzadi in their youth. Man, that book was steamy.

wee_ramekin (#33,118)

Y'all know about LARP Trek, right?

Sarah Corn@facebook (#241,430)

Tears. All of them. I loved TNG to death all through elementary school, and even brought the newspaper article about "All Good Things…" to my 6th grade class' show-and-tell as visual aid for my recap of all seven years.

The re-releases on Blu-ray and the theater screenings have reawakened it all, and more. I finally bought that engineering costume, with the working phaser and tricorder, I never had the guts to wear as a kid.

Anne Helen Petersen, I will echo others in this thread. If you ever find yourself traveling through Indianapolis, drinks are on me.

laurel (#4,035)

I think ST and TNG ruined my ex for real life.

frautracey (#241,443)

I totally relate to this! But, go back and watch the shows again because they stand the test of time and will reinforce for you why you liked them so much!

On a related note, I loved the Anne of Green Gables movies so much as a child that I didn't want to read the books and therefore ruin the movies. When I finally read them a couple of years ago, it solidified my love for both the movies and the books. I'm sure the same will be true of rewatching Star Trek.

@frautracey I'm with Anne Helen Pretense on this one. When you watch the first and second seasons, you really notice that it started as a low-budget show. Those early episodes were probably put together with some spit, duct tape and a few computer graphics from an old Commodore 64. The great thing is, I don't remember them being that bad. The characters and plot mattered a whole lot more than the two-bit computer animation. Which is why the show survived past those lean years.

Re-watching those first episodes was a bit like watching the orginial Star Trek from the 60s, amusing in an ironic sense. Twenty years later, I'm much more hyper sensitive to the special effects and it detracts from your memory of the episodes. Plus the characters weren't yet as wel developed so you can tell the actors are still kind of feeling their way around. That said, anything past the first two seasons does stand the test of time pretty well. "The Best of Both Worlds" is one of the best movies ever made even though it has never been shown on the big screen.

I could have written this. Thank you for writing this.

Anne Helen Petersen, while I don't usually like to promote my own stuff in comments, I want to share with you this little essay I wrote for The Hairpin about a year ago. I think it will demonstrate how kindred we really are: http://thehairpin.com/2012/03/the-best-time-i-rescued-patrick-stewart

Additionally I know you are not my friend Ashley but really you could be–she too is obsessed with old Hollywood and Star Trek. I think y'all would like each other.

Either way, thank you for writing this.

I know everyone will say this, but you should go watch The Inner Light. It does hold up. It makes me cry. I watched it twice last year. The final scene as he watches the probe launch and the truth dawns on him – Patrick Stewart at his very finest. Every single time I see it I have that feeling of a swelling in my chest and that sharp intake of air that your body does to keep you from passing out of feeling too much. Do it.

ragazza (#241,456)

I only discovered DS9 was on Hulu a few weeks ago–I lost a couple of days to it. Love all the new series, even Voyager! TNG 4-EVA!

you're a kitty! (#240,787)

@ragazza Voyager was my jam and I am not even a little bit ashamed of it.

Also I am pretty sure that watching TOS/TNG/Voyager over a large number of impressionable years is (a) why I'm in the sciences now and (b) a huge part of why I've always been an optimist about the future of the human race. That was some formative stuff.

Targaryen (#241,458)

You guyssss I'm watching TNG right now! This article is so. awesome.

gregoryroy (#241,460)

I watched this program last night. It's great.

laundress (#241,466)

Created an account just to say this. A large part of the happiness of my marriage is our mutual, never ending affection for TNG. We both grew up watching Next Gen and discovered our shared love of it early on in our relationship. Now whenever I'm having a bad day, he knows I just want to curl up on the couch drinking earl grey tea HOT out of my vintage TNG coffee mugs and watch a few classic episodes.
Related: check out @TNG_S8 on Twitter.

Maven (#241,473)

I too created an account to chime in. Watching TNG with my dad every night is a major memory of high school. I shipped hard for Riker and Troi before we called it shipping. And, ahem, I may have once been in a relationship where I was occasionally called Imzadi. (In fact, this secret nerdly connection I had with this dude is one reason we went from a 1 night stand to a 5 year relationship.)

Over the past year I rewatched all of TNG and then moved on to DS9, Voyager, and even Enterprise. I just couldn't stand to give up that world after I was done with TNG. And while I have to admit that I transferred my main allegiance to DS9 while watching that show, I will always have big love for TNG.

Speaking of which, DS9 fans, if you're not reading the recaps on the AV Club, you're really missing out. Great writing, great community, and just TONS of nerding out in the comments section. There are old recaps of TNG too.

gigglyfart (#207,205)


Ohmygod, the one where the Enterprise gets all jacked up when it flies into some sort of matter/string thing and the computer shuts down and locks all the doors

…and Deanna is trapped on the bridge as the highest ranking officer, with that angry Bjorn ensign that Riker banged once…

Meanwhile, JLP is trapped in the turbo lift with two children and an injured leg, and they have to climb out before the turbo lift falls down the shaft…

Meanwhile, Data and Riker are trapped in an engine room access tunnel behind an electrical malfunction so they use Data's body to break the electrical field so they can get by and then RIKER TAKES OFF DATA'S HEAD AND PLUGS IT INTO THE MAIN COMPUTER…

Meanwhile, Geordie and Beverly are trapped in cargo bay 4 between a plasma fire and OUTER SPACE with a billion barrels of flammable shit and they have to hold onto a ladder while they open the blast doors to let the flammable shit get sucked out…

Meanwhile, WORF is in ten forward DELIVERING KEIKO'S BABY

That one is so good.

(I still sleep with a picture of Wesley under my pillow.)

Diplogeek (#241,494)

@gigglyfart Ensign Ro! She was ready to kill Troi, and I could completely relate, because Troi couldn't make a damn decision, just sort of hemmed and hawed about everyone's feelings. And all the kids sing that stupid mountaineering song as they climb up the turbolift. Ah, good times.

My first crush was…Captain Picard. My mother liked Riker and I never understood it.

But my heart (sorry, AHP) belongs to Julian Bashir.

And Gul Dukat. Before he got religion and all.

And Vedek Bareil.

You guys, I'm not coherent, I just have a DS9 marathon on and the Klingons are threatening to invade Cardassia and Sisko just threw down on the Defiant and I really needed to talk about it.

Also: GARAK.

@Megan Nicholls@facebook I'm so glad you said that about Dukat. My bestie says I'm insane, but seriously, before Season 5 or so, he had a lot of potential to get his shit together and be a real man that I could love (or Nerys could love in my place) but then HE WENT ENTIRELY INSANE WITH HIS NARCISSISTIC FANATACISM!

Not Julian, though. He's like a sweet little bro. But QUARK! Ugh, love that fucking Ferengi and want to sex him up and that makes even me very uncomfortable.

facioergosum (#244,863)

LOVED the article.

You have a marvelous way with words, madam. I giggled at this line: "Like the best of your ludicrously hot, well-muscled, Christian ex-boyfriends, it is meant to be remembered, in all its glory, but never re-experienced." It's just so authentic, lol! :D

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