A friend of mine who had never watched Star Trek in any form recently decided—my endless nagging may have contributed—to check out The Next Generation. Halfway through season two he asked me, “Why do the characters start each episode acting like none of the previous episodes ever happened?”
For our purposes that’s a good definition of the “reset button.” (Some might say it’s a “soft” version of the reset button. The “hard” version would be instances of timeline modification that actually erase the events we’ve seen, or something equivalent. Star Trek: Voyager was often accused of both types of resets—more on that below.) Accustomed to modern serialized shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black and Breaking Bad, the fact that, for example, Picard could uncover a conspiracy at the highest levels of Starfleet (“Conspiracy”), or Counselor Troi could become pregnant with an alien (“The Child”), or Data could be “possessed” by an egomaniacal scientist (“The Schizoid Man”) and then never again address these experiences, was both perplexing and frustrating for my friend.
And yet TNG remains a beloved series, one that’s been painstakingly re-mastered and released in Blu-ray (2012-2015), and will surely be much celebrated next year, during its thirtieth anniversary.
Could the reset button be a contributing factor to the show’s success?
Form should follow function: When Paramount was considering the re-launch of Trek on television, neither NBC nor the Fox network “were willing to commit to enough episodes to justify the massive start-up costs involved.” [*] Eventually Paramount went with first-run syndication instead, but what’s relevant here is that having a large number of episodes per season was part of their business model. Successful in the ratings from the start, TNG (1987-1994) went on to air 178 episodes over 7 seasons. The show was not conceived with serialization in mind—quite the opposite—but imagine if it had been: heavy serialization over the course of that many episodes would have meant an exhausting amount of character changes, or the continual rotation of characters, or the kind of reliance on plot twists and reveals we associate with soap operas rather than primetime TV (not that TNG didn’t have its melodramatic, soapish moments, but I digress…).
Most serialized shows today have far fewer episodes per season than TNG. The first season of The Walking Dead, for instance, had 6 episodes, and the first season of Breaking Bad had 7.
One of the first science fiction shows that did feature heavy serialization was Babylon 5 (1993-1998), and even that ended after five seasons, or 110 episodes, because J. Michael Straczynski had essentially told his story. One of the results of Straczynski’s novelistic approach to B5 was that the tone of the show varied a lot less than TNG’s. It was also harder for B5 to gain new viewers as it progressed, since chronology was necessary to understand what was going on. With TNG, viewers could pretty much jump in at any moment. (That was my experience; I discovered the show in its third season and had no trouble following along).
And yet TNG did have some continuity—namely its characters. I like how Brannon Braga describes it: “To me, the show was an anthology show like The Twilight Zone, an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories I was really into, which were mind-bending things. This was a show where you could do anything.” [*] Thinking about TNG as an anthology show helps to highlight one of its strengths: its enormous range of stories, themes, and tones. Such diversity helped keep things fresh (mostly) over the course of 178 episodes.
Morality first: Braga’s comparison to The Twilight Zone is apposite for another reason. Just as that canonical show was heavily geared toward the exploration of moral quandaries, TNG also often foregrounded the morality of its stories. A serialized show, in which each episode works in a manner analogous to a chapter in a novel, will have a tougher time putting on a variety of individual “morality plays” than an anthology show, in which episodes are more closely akin to short stories. These can be expressly designed to highlight a particular issue or subject, and that was often the case with TNG (for example, “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Ethics,” “The First Duty,” and so on).
Psychology and adulthood: While this is still a hotly contested topic, some psychologists believe that our basic personalities don’t tend to change much after the age of thirty, and that while changes continue, they slow over time. I think it’s fair to say that over the course of several seasons of a TV show, many viewers basically remain the same, even if we undergo a few life-altering experiences during that time. Having TNG’s characters remain fundamentally the same throughout, despite their many adventures, could be one reason why it’s easy to empathize with them. Note: I’m not saying this raised the stakes dramatically or led to better storytelling, simply that it may have made it easier for the audience to grasp the characters and feel like they were relatable on an ongoing basis.
Getting out of bed in the morning: Seeing someone cope with all sorts of difficult experiences and essentially emerge undamaged can be refreshing, even inspiring. You watch TNG episodes like “Identity Crisis” or “Violations” or “Schisms” or “Frame of Mind” or “Chain of Command” and think, “If Geordi and Troi and Riker and Picard were able to come out okay from such apparently brutal experiences, I should be able to survive my 3 PM meeting with management on Tuesday.”
And if TNG doesn’t feel immediately realistic on these grounds, perhaps it’s because we’re unfairly judging the characters by our own limited standards. TNG is saying, “These are advanced, 24th century people. Look at what they can handle. They’re incredibly resourceful and resilient. They hardly ever succumb to self-pity, they continually focus on self-improvement, and no matter what, they keep trekking on. We’ll get there one day.” Escapist, sure, but unlike many of today’s serialized shows, which regularly threaten, traumatize, or outright kill their core characters, TNG’s approach is more optimistic and uplifting. It aligns nicely with Star Trek’s overall hopeful message about a utopian future, perpetuating the aesthetic that drew many viewers to Trek in the first place.
Voyaging home: One reason TNG’s “anthology” approach to storytelling probably didn’t serve Voyager well is that the two series’ fictional mandates were starkly different. TNG’s mission was, famously, “to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” We were explicitly told that in the opening narration. Voyager didn’t have an opening narration, but if it had, it might been something like “Fleeing from the perils of the Delta Quadrant, the U.S.S. Voyager leads a ragtag crew, on a lonely quest—for a shining planet known as Earth.” While TNG was conceived as an abstract exploration of endless possibilities, Voyager had a concrete mission: to safely get back home. Serialization or heavy continuity would have been a better strategy to chronicle Voyager’s epic journey, and I believe viewers were ultimately disappointed that the show didn’t take that approach. We’re back to function and form; these series had quite different functions, and yet were molded with the same form.
Ronald D. Moore has always been fond of continuity, but quickly learned that Paramount wasn’t a fan. He first found resistance to continuity while working on TNG. He recalls, for instance, that when he conceived the episode “Family,” Gene Rodenberry “didn’t like the continuity from “Best of Both Worlds” ” [*] But in retrospect, as I’ve been saying, it may have been to TNG’s benefit that continuity was played down.
Moore later tried to readjust Voyager’s course, but ultimately—and for complex reasons—left the show after a brief stint. Here is Braga again, with some telling comments: “Ron came aboard as a writer and—God, I have a lot of regrets—he came aboard wanting the show to do all sorts of things. He wanted the show to have continuity. When the ship got fucked up, he wanted it to stay fucked up. For characters to have lasting consequences. He was really into that. He wanted to eradicate the so-called reset button, and that’s not something the studio was interested in, because this thing was a big seller in syndication.” [*] In this instance, I think the studio made the wrong call. On the other hand, their decision indirectly helped bring the reimagined Battlestar Galactica into existence, so we can’t complain too much…
“Cause and Effect.” This popular fifth-season episode may be the ultimate triumph of the reset button. In the episode’s teaser the ship is destroyed, and then act one begins as though nothing’s the matter. The show manages to reset itself four times, embedding its own resetting (a “temporal causality loop”) into the story’s narrative structure, and doing it quite compellingly. (Viewers were apparently thrown off by this at first, and called in to ask if something was wrong with the broadcast.) This is one of Braga’s triumphs: he’s taken a storytelling constraint and turned into an engine of drama.
But beyond its craft and entertainment value, I think the show can also be read as a meta-textual commentary on the part of TNG’s writers. Data is able to utilize his advanced positronic brain to send a short message to himself across loops, one so subtle it will be undetected by the rest of the crew. Kind of like the writers smuggling in small bits of continuity across seasons without the Paramount execs catching on, don’t you think? Ron Moore: “We very much wanted to do more serialized storytelling, and we would try to sneak it in whenever possible. You have casual references to other episodes or events or other characters just as part of the fabric of the show, but you had to be careful.” [*]
By the time Deep Space Nine came around, some of those restrictions were lifted, but as mentioned, I don’t think Ds9’s approach would have been optimal for TNG, either. Ds9 deliberately went for a darker, grittier tone, and was constructed around a stationary, relationship-bound premise, rather than an exploratory, star-hopping one.
The future: Discussing Star Trek: Discovery, showrunner Bryan Fuller recently said: “I would strongly recommend that we never do 26 episodes. I think it would fatigue the show. Ideally I would like to do 10 episodes. I think that’s a tighter story.” The show’s initial season has been reported as having 13 episodes.
Gone is the reset button, clearly. But beyond that, can we infer that the show won’t be as uplifting or utopian as TNG? Will it focus less on individual morality tales and more on sequential character experiences? Will its characters be more traumatized? Perhaps. But that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. With sufficient craft and skill, Discovery might help to expand Star Trek’s parameters, and what it means to contemporary audiences. It’s a tall order, but even partial success could make for interesting viewing. Science fiction is inevitably a reflection of its own present, and 2017 will no doubt be very different from 1987. That’s one reality even the most far-flung spaceship can’t escape.
[*] Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek.