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Did the Cold War’s End Transform Star Trek: The Next Generation?

What were the biases of the first two seasons' writers?

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July 14, 2014 - 3:58 pm

A very thoughtful, enlightening comment from Terrekain on The 10 Most Obnoxious, Overrated Alien Cultures in Star Trek:

None of these series were created in a vacuum.

The writers originally imagined an “introspective” series with episodic “lesson learning” (America-bashing), using alien races as props. Herb Wright, for example, was a socialist, college Vietnam protestor, and apologist for the Soviet Union, who created the Ferengi to represent an evil capitalistic race to be Star Trek’s new primary villain.

Needless to say, Wright frequently had confrontations with the lead writer who created the Borg, Maurice Hurley, proving the adage that “A man is defined by the character and nature of his enemies”.

This was why so many of the early alien races in TNG were written, as many have complained, like “cartoon caricatures”; transparently insulting to the intelligence of its American audience. The fatal flaw of TNG’s early writing (and therefore writers) is why the show was in real trouble in its first two seasons.

Basically, TNG was swimming against the tide back in the late 1980s, although it should be noted that many socialists in the United States and Hollywood still regarded World Socialism as the “winning side” even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

America’s “cultural zeitgeist” wasn’t buying TNG’s villains, in the same vein that many anti-war movies in the 2001-2008 era were losers, more badly-written propaganda than profit-driven endeavors to sell to an American audience.

Things came to a head, however, with a slate of anti-Left events in 1988-1989: The election of Bush, the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and uprisings against Communist Parties all over the from Asia to Europe. By the time the Berlin Wall was breached in late 1989, TNG’s executives realized they didn’t just risk being criticized for being naive or incompetent or even apologists;

They were at risk of being branded evil.

While that might seem strange to some Millennials today, for the sake of illustration: imagine branding Christians and Jews as religious terrorist bombers right after 9/11.

In hindsight, things like that are cheesy and laughable.

In the moment of the times and for the people living though them, it’s outrageous.

The result was a major shakeup that led to the release/re-assignment/firing of TNG’s writers and the hiring of writers who were less susceptible to showing contempt to their audience (especially in their major market, the United States).

One of those writers was the creator of the Borg’s understudy and friend, Michael Piller, who became the narrative driving force of the TNG series as well as its spinoffs like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Piller used open hiring to circumvent Hollywood’s closed-socialist hiring circles, discovering some of TNG’s best writers including Ron D. Moore and Rene Echeverria.

The Borg were not originally meant to be the primary villains of Star Trek TNG, but with Piller, they became the most recognizable and menacing villains of the 90s. The Ferengi, by contrast, were fleshed out in Deep Space Nine and received something of a more balanced narrative.

Stories inevitably tell you more about the authors than about the subjects. This was true for the producers and writing staff of TNG just before the Cold War ended, and the new staff inducted into TNG right after the people in Hollywood realized the jig was up.

Star Trek is not to be hailed as some sort of important creation on par with the combustion engine, the transistor, or even the Hoola Hoop.

But TNG does represent a case study, like a capsule in time, reflecting Hollywood’s response to prevailing attitudes in America during some interesting times.

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All Comments   (7)
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I remember being underwhelmed by the Ferengi, and glad when they brought the Romulans back (and I was blown away by the Borg). But TNG definitely got better after the 2nd season.

I read on the Star Trek website that Majel Barret (Roddenberry's widow) criticized the Dominion War storyline on DS9 because she said Gene would never have approved. The primary writer responded to the criticism by saying that although he respected Gene, he didn't think that Gene was always right and he felt the Dominion War arc was one of Star Trek's best. I happen to agree.

It's somehow satisfying that the audience yawned at the capitalist Ferengi as villains while embracing the collectivist Borg in the villain role. :-)
6 days ago
6 days ago Link To Comment
I think Gene Roddenberry's declining health had more to do with the changes that were made in the series. When Gene stepped down as Executive Producer at the start of season 3 and turned things over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller, the show definitely picked up, especially in the writing department which Piller oversaw.
When the series began, Roddenberry envisioned little or no conflicts between the main characters, as he believed the "Next Generation" should be more utopian than the original series. And like the original series, many of the aliens they encountered were waking allegories (Greed, Honor, Sex, Role Relations) for the perfect humans aboard the Enterprise to comment on.
As the series progressed post Roddenberry, the writers made Picard and his crew much more flawed and multi dimensional. The allegory of the week stuff worked in the original series, but modern sci-fi audiences expected more.
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, and if I remember correctly, Gene Roddenberry was also one of the primary reasons why the first Star Trek movie flopped. It was so bad and so over-budget that the writers revolted and actually placed him under effective house arrest. It also didn't help that Gene Roddenberry's initial plans for a sequel (ie, what Star Trek II would have been before Wrath of Khan was decided on) actually involved the Enterprise crew, after turning back in time for some reason, having to ensure JFK's assassination, something even the Hollywood executives at the time were aghast by. Actually, Gene Roddenberry being kept away from productive control over Star Trek was probably what ultimately saved the franchise.
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
Uh, er...

I've seen LOTS of Christian/Jewish terrorist characters after 9/11, on plenty of procedural dramas. For, like, "balance" you know. "Just asking 'what if...'"

I believe there was a Jewish suicide bomber on Law & Order, for instance.

For example:

Adam Sandler's Zohan movie was delightful until the end, when you find out who the real villains are.
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, and Numb3rs had a Christian fundamentalist organizing a hostage takeover, and even Bluebloods I think featured a Christian family who, ironically, behaved more like a Muslim family than the actual Muslim character of the day on the show (namely depicting them trying to do an honor killing on their own daughter because she tried to marry a Muslim).
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
Don't know. One of TNG's most offensively self-congratulatory episodes was after 1989 in "Time's Arrow" (1992), wherein characters of the perfect Socialist future convinced Mark Twain he was an idiot for thinking imperfections made life interesting. Or something like that. Last gasp of the pre-Piller era?
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have said for decades, if you meet someone who appears perfect in all things, back away slowly...there's something awfully wrong going on here, it's just well-hidden.

That's how I feel about the entire TNG universe. It's too perfect, too smug, something is seriously wrong going on here.
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
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