I have to say I was skeptical of Star Trek's return to television.
One thing about Gene Roddenberry and company, they don't lack in balls. Star Trek: the Next Generation was an attempt to prove that Roddenberry hadn't just lucked into some great characters and a great, gun-blazing, wagon train to the stars premise.
He was going to prove that he had created a universe. A place where an endless series of adventures could be set.
And in many ways, Next Generation (hereafter referred to as TNG) was about as different from the original series as possible. A Klingon stood on the bridge of the Enterprise. The women dressed as same as the men. The Captain really *did* come in peace and actually asked the opinion of those around him. In fact, the ship was run by committee.
It was jarring, and it took some getting used to. In the meantime, however, the eye candy sure helped. Special effects had come a long way, and TNG brought that new technology to bear week after week.
For me, however, three things really stand out about TNG: the development of Worf (and Klingon culture in general), the Borg and the beginnings of the development of the Trekiverse.
Ronald Moore (now departed from the franchise and fuck you too Berman and Braga) deserves a lot of the credit both for the development of Worf and the culture of his race. If watch the credits you'll find that Moore wrote a lot of the episodes with a military bent and a lot of *those* featured our sullen, ridged-headed friend (naturally).
The Borg started out as an "alien of the week". They were the really big stick used by Q to bash a little of Picard's arrogance out of him (very little, but there was a lot of arrogance there you have to admit). However, the "Best of Both Worlds" they came back with a vengeance.
Now Trek has always longed for that "recurring villain" factor. In fact the origin of the Klingon race was an edict from Paramount to give the series a recurring villain. In TNG this lesson was taken to heart and a nemesis (Q) was built into the show from its very inception. Some other faltering attempts at a recurring villain had been tried (anyone remember when the Ferengi were introduced as the big, bad, mysterious villain?) with mixed results. However, Best of Both Worlds brought a whole new dimension to the table: the Cliffhanger.
And not just any cliffhanger, possibly the best one in television history. I still remember watching the clock and thinking to myself (this is cool and all, but there's 5 minutes left in the show, time for Data to pull something out of his ass and get this over with). And when I realized that they were going to make me wait till next *season* to find out what happened... well let's just say I was hooked.
Lastly, TNG really took to heart the concept that there was a whole universe out there and set to exploring that concept. Through the "alien of the week" mechanic, long built into the show, they began to add pillars to the universe. Weight-bearing ones too. The Ferengi, the Cardassians, the Bajorans and the Trill all were created by the TNG writing staff.
Minor, "lower decks" characters also served to fill out the show and the universe. Not everyone was a bridge officer, and actors were hired for short term commitments to show different elements of the ship and different sorts of characters. Ensign Ro, the Bajoran with a bad attitude (and template for Major Kira). Chief O'Brian, proving what we all knew all along, that Star Fleet, like all military organizations, really *was* run by the enlisted men. Barkley, the brilliant, but thoroughly introverted and Holodeck-addicted engineer. Ensign Lefler, a Star Fleet brat and party girl who lived her life by a series of obscure laws (and played by a smoking hot 20-something Ashley Judd at that).
These seeds took root and really showed just what could be done by treating the Trekiverse as a living, breathing place. When the crew left a world or an alien spacecraft at the end of an episode, you never knew if that was the last time they would be seen (as opposed to TOS where recurring characters were... well there were the Klingons, Romulans and Harcourt Fenton Mudd).
To be continued...