This is the saddest story I know. It is the story of how I became addicted to an uncontrolled substance. My social life has suffered; while under the influence, I am incapable of coherent conversation. At critical hours of the evening, I will let the phone ring rather than risk disrupting my daily dose.
Only my closest friends are aware of the extent of my dependency. They regard me with a mixture of pity and contempt. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were something hip, like heroin or cocaine, but the monkey on my back is so infra-dig we’re embarrassed about mentioning it in public. Star Trek: The Next Generation is not a subject one likes to bring up in polite society. I am only now emerging from the closet in the hope that my confession will give heart to others who might be similarly afflicted.
One of the symptoms of this dependency is the way you fly into a howling rage whenever people make jokes about pointy Vulcan ears or being beamed up by Scotty, but please note the words Next and Generation, because we’re not talking about classic Star Trek here — that’s strictly for socially-challenged dweebs in anoraks. The Next Generation, however, is The Twilight Zone, Inspector Morse and LA Law all rolled into one. In fact, I would like to propose it as a contender for Best TV Series ever.
How did this happen? Like all addicts, I started off thinking I could control it: a snort of “warp factor” here, a shot of “subspace” there, and all of it strictly for recreational use. But I had reckoned without the persistence of the pushers: every weekday The Next Generation is screened on cable not once but twice nightly. I would slump on the couch after a hard day’s toil, switch on the telly, and there it would be, boldly going. And, before I knew where I was, I would be boldly going, too.
It is considered socially acceptable to be hooked on classy sitcoms or prestigious detective dramas, or the latest instant-cult import from the Twin Peaks school of dirty surrealism. It is even permissable to dip one’s toes into the world of soap. But a series in which the actors wear badly-fitting Baby-Gro and recite lines like “Set phasers on stun”?
Yet this is a show that has everything. Like soap opera, it draws on a comforting line-up of familiar characters. It’s just that one (Worf the Klingon) has what looks like a giant melted Mars Bar implanted in his forehead. Another (Geordi the blind engineer) wears 24th-century novelty Ray-Bans, and another (Data the android) has queasy white skin and a flapful of flashing lights in the side of his skull.
Like the best drama, this one poses a full complement of ethical dilemmas; it’s just that some of these involve the ins and outs of Klingon succession, or Romulan intrigue, or whether the rights of the individual should be extended to computer viruses. It offers carte blanche. Anything goes in outer space. One episode might be about Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s disastrous love-life (his strike-out rate is almost as bad as Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice). The next might have Dr Beverly Crusher kidnapped by terrorists, or the Enterprise repeatedly blown to bits in a time-warp.
I realised things were getting out of hand when I caught myself plotting to steal the life-size cardboard cut-out of Picard from a display in my local SF bookshop. My addiction is so advanced that I get a lump in my throat each time I hear the opening credits, with Patrick Stewart intoning the immortal words: “Space – the final frontier…” I am so far gone, there’s now no character on whom I have not had a sexual crush, and that includes Worf (very big, Worf) and Counsellor Deanna Troi, the busty Betazoid with empathic powers (“I am sensing immense anger”). I find myself wistfully wishing that I, too, were on board, earning Captain Picard’s trust.
But am I ashamed? Hell, no. On the contrary, I am proud to hail from a planet that shows itself capable of producing such a work of popular art. Its very tackiness – that innate sense of human superiority coupled with a conscientious effort to see things from the alien point of view, not to mention those uniforms – is what makes it great. If this is the sort of TV that is educating the masses, we can rest easy in our beds, for seldom has there been pop culture so life-affirming and morally sound. But what I like best is that it’s not that life-affirming or morally sound. Four centuries hence, war and hunger may have been abolished back on earth, but the United Federation of Planets still gets to beat the crap out of the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Borg, and anyone else whose ideology isn’t up to snuff. So suck on that, you twentieth-century earthlings, and — in the word(s) of Captain Picard ordering warp speed – “engage”.
This article was first published in GQ (UK) circa 1992, just after my very first cable TV connection.