Why Star Trek: The Next Generation meant more than you thought

Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air in 1994, but even though it's been more than two decades since the show ended its voyage, it remains just as relevant today—and its messages are arguably timelier than ever. Here's a look back at a seemingly silly sci-fi show that was really much deeper than many viewers originally thought, and proved shockingly prophetic in a number of surprising ways.

Early looks at cyborg rights

As artificial intelligence becomes more complex, theorists predict it will eventually reach the point where machines are as smart as humans. Then what do we do with them legally? When we have smart machines, do we grant them the same basic rights as humans? The implications are staggering—and The Next Generation had a full episode focused on these issues in the '90s, long before we were really even thinking about AI rights.

In "The Measure of a Man," a Federation scientist wants to dismantle Data to create replicas of him. Of course, Data isn't cool with this because the procedure will kill him, and his resistance sparks a debate. Data is technically Federation property, and is as much a machine as a starship or a replicator—but Picard is able (with an awesome Shakespearean monologue, of course) to successfully argue that Data's consciousness makes him more than just property. The courts decide that even though Data's brain is different from a human brain, he still has the same rights.

It's an amazingly forward-thinking episode, and still ahead of its time today. We're just hoping our real-life AI is ultimately more Data, less Skynet.

Predicted tablet computers

Since there are so many iterations of Star Trek, it's easy to forget that some of the key elements of the universe appeared first in The Next Generation, not the original series—including the ridiculously correct prediction of tablet computers.

The original series had "electronic clipboards," but in The Next Generation, the idea was fully developed into the PADD, a handheld computer tablet. Everybody in the crew used them to interface with one another, send messages, and connect with the ship computer. Early PADDs were a little clunky, but by the time Deep Space Nine came around, they looked like any tablet we'd find in Best Buy—mostly a big touchscreen. They probably had space Clash of Clans.

Gene Roddenberry basically came up with the Apple aesthetic when using an "advanced doesn't mean clunkier" aesthetic while giving the production crew guidance on designing tech like the PADD. Advances in technology meant sleeker technology, simpler interfaces and fewer buttons. Although Apple has never made a public statement admitting a Star Trek influence, it is a little suspicious that they ended up calling their tablet the iPad.

Gave us a good look at a post-scarcity society

In a post-scarcity society, resources are no longer restricted by supply and demand; there's enough for everybody. Food, technology, medicine; all of these things are in abundance. Clearly we aren't there yet, but The Next Generation predicts that it's right around the corner, thanks to innovations in automation and technology.

The show gives us a really good look at that type of society—to an extent reached by few other science fiction shows. Money would no longer be an issue; in fact, money wouldn't exist. People would find the motivation to improve themselves not to pay the rent, but because of intrinsic human desire. The Next Generation offers a blueprint for the economy of the future.

Of course, Star Trek doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it gives us something to work towards, and an optimistic view of the future. In hindsight, maybe we'll one day see that The Next Generation inspired the people who created a post-scarcity society. (Hopefully it doesn't take a nuclear war, like it did in the Star Trek universe.)

Had a really positive outlook on disability rights

The Enterprise-D's chief engineer Geordi La Forge was born blind, but that didn't stop him from becoming an important part of the crew and an excellent engineer on par with Scotty.

Although La Forge has to use his visor to see, he's given the same dignity and respect as everybody else on the crew. Sometimes, La Forge's disability even makes him more suited for tasks—during "Encounter At Farpoint," for example, he uses his visor to pick out details in a tunnel that his other crew members can't see.

La Forge is absolutely groundbreaking in disability theory, showing that we shouldn't look at disability only as a problem that needs solving. A better approach is to make our society more open to disabled people. Instead of trying to force the disabled into non-disabled molds, we should work to integrate their differences into our society. Even today that's a pretty radical idea to put on TV, but The Next Generation did it decades ago. It isn't surprising at all that La Forge has become a favorite television character among disabled groups. He's an inspiration to us all.

Early look at LGBT rights on TV

For younger viewers, it might be hard to imagine a time when network TV was afraid to feature LGBT characters. But in the early '90s, it was still a groundbreaking concept—one the Next Generation writers embraced.

In the season five episode "The Outcast," the crew finds a civilization with unusual beliefs, learns a bit about them, has a conflict with their culture, and learns to resolve their differences—all pretty standard Star Trek stuff. Only this time, the alien species is the J'naii, an androgynous culture in which gender identity is illegal. Of course, Riker falls in love with one of them.

Not wanting to go too far with the episode, Riker's love interest Soren identifies as female, but the episode was pretty progressive for the time, exploring the idea that a person's gender identity is something they should be able to choose. Even today, that's a bold statement to make.

The episode actually ends up being a pretty big downer; in the poignant final act, Soren undergoes therapy to force her to accept an androgynous gender. Riker is sad… but moves on to another love interest in the next episode. All it's missing is an epic Picard speech.

TNG offered excellent life lessons

Even more than the original series, The Next Generation was well-known for diving into the murky waters of ethics and philosophy—and in the process, demonstrating how a sometimes silly space show could make profound statements about the meaning of life.

For example, check out season six's "Tapestry." The episode starts with Picard getting his space-pacemaker blown up, stopping his heart. He dies and goes to the afterlife, where Q shows up. (Worst Heaven ever.) Q gives Picard the chance to go back in time and undo the fight from his early 20s that messed up his heart in the first place—but when he does, Q shows Picard what his life would have looked like if he hadn't gotten into the fight. Instead of the awesome starship captain we know and love, he would have ended up being just some low-ranking schlub on the Enterprise. The moral of the story? Our mistakes make us who we are, and the best part of life is taking risks, even if it means being beaten up in the process.

Another example is the series finale, during which Picard realizes that after all his years of space exploration, his real adventure was one of self-discovery. Visiting far-flung corners of the galaxy is great, but learning more about ourselves—our strengths, weakness, limits, and deepest-held beliefs—can be even more valuable in the long run. Even if we don't get to hop around the galaxy on the Enterprise, we can still be explorers just like Picard. Thanks, Star Trek!

Created modern nerd culture

It's hard to imagine a time when Star Trek wasn't incredibly popular, but the franchise was in a very different place during the '80s. The movies did fine at the box office, but the original TV series—while definitely a syndicated mainstay—wasn't really a mainstream phenomenon. There really was a time when it wasn't cool to openly like things like Star Trek.

The Next Generation was the catalyst that changed nerd culture forever. Suddenly it became clear that not only could science fiction TV shows do well, but they could become pop culture sensations on their own. Not only that, but it showed studios that reboots worked, which for better or worse has become a staple of modern movies and TV.

Basically every modern science fiction show owes a debt to The Next Generation for making more room for the genre on TV. Modern popular nerd culture does too. The Next Generation remained consistently popular for seven years, and by the time it ended, other science fiction shows were ready to take up the reins. Small-screen sci-fi was here to stay.

Had excellent leadership lessons

We love Captain Kirk, but let's be honest: Picard is really the best Star Trek captain. Kirk was a cool swashbuckling adventurer, but Picard is what we really want from a starship captain: brave, inspirational, philosophical, and thoughtful.

Picard was so effective that people have actually studied his character to get insight into real-life leadership. One of the most important lessons? The importance of speaking to people in their own language and culture. Unlike Kirk, who would beam down to a planet to teach aliens about the United States Constitution, Picard always made sure to respect the cultural values of the civilizations he was working with. To him, communication meant talking to people on their terms, not just shoving Federation ideology down their throats.

Picard also taught us to never be too proud to ask for help from people you don't like, to value the ethical choice even when it's the difficult one, to never let your team become complacent, and to seize the opportunities that life presents. Over the course of the show, Picard was the boss we all wish we had. Well, maybe not the time he was turned into a Borg and tried to make the crew mindless cybernetic drones. We could do without that.

Taught us the value of life

In most science fiction, the bad guys are clearly evil, and anybody who threatens the main characters faces a maelstrom of laser blasts. Sometimes it's easy to fall back on a black and white view of the world, where everything is clearly delineated between good and evil.

The Next Generation was completely different, and showed us that even creatures or civilizations that are dangerous don't automatically deserve to die just because they threaten us. For example, when Picard ran into the Crystalline Entity, he didn't just blow it up right away, despite the fact that it had killed people—he studied it and tried to understand it, seeking a way to respect its right to live while protecting innocent civilians. A Federation scientist ended up destroying it anyway… but at least Picard tried.

An even cooler example is the episode "I, Borg," in which the crew finds an injured Borg drone and tries to bring it back to normal life. The Federation wants Picard to implant it with a computer virus and send it back into the Collective—essentially committing genocide. The Borg have assimilated millions of innocent lives, including Picard himself. If anybody has a right to be pissed off at them, it's Picard. But what does he do? He comes to his senses and refuses the order because the Borg have just as much right to live as the Federation. Just because their society is different and they're enemies, it doesn't justify genocide.

That's a profound lesson, especially today. Unfortunately, the writers totally forgot about it when they made the movie First Contact, but we'll just pretend Picard's out of character rantings don't exist.

Taught us the evils of political witch hunts

Out of the entire series, the most prophetic Next Generation episode was arguably "The Drumhead," which starts with an explosion and turns into a full-blown prophesy about the dangers of political witch hunts.

When the engine of the Enterprise is bombed, the Federation sends a special investigator to root out who did it. Crew member of the week Tarses gets blamed, simply because he's part Romulan. When Picard tries to stop the nonsense, he's threatened for even daring to defend someone considered an enemy of the Federation—and once Picard is accused, we know things have gone too far.

In the end, the case gets thrown out and everybody has a happy ending, but it's an effective example of how quickly things can get out of control when we start suspecting people just because of visual or cultural differences. It also demonstrates that once xenophobia starts, nobody's safe, including someone as clearly moral and patriotic as Picard. As he puts it, "With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured… the first thought forbidden… the first freedom denied – chains us all irrevocably." It's a lesson well worth remembering.

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