It's 25 years old now, Star Trek: The Next Generation, 25 this week — the first episode premiered on September 28, 1987. Hard to believe, in all the usual ways. I recently rewatched the whole run, all 178 episodes, which was a long exercise in critical nostalgia. One of the problems in revisiting sci-fi is that, sooner or later, every voyage into the future becomes a voyage into the past. Traveling to The Next Generation's24th century sent me hurtling backward at about Warp 9. That's partly because the show is bound so strongly in my memory with those solitary misfit hours of adolescence, but also because The Next Generation itself is helplessly, and kind of movingly, of its time. You can't help but notice this, watching it now. The first sign is that, for a franchise that famously defines space as an extension of the Old West, The Next Generation very quickly dispenses with almost any sense of a frontier. Captain Kirk's Enterprise was a ship of phaser-happy explorers always pressing onward toward the next undiscovered planet on which they could stage a fistfight; in comparison, Captain Picard's Enterprise is a calm, sleek vessel of end-of-history galactic administration — a kind of faster-than-light embassy, complete with chamber music concerts. There's very little fighting; there's a great deal of personal growth and trade-pact negotiation. Many, many episodes turn on the decidedly nonstandard TV plot of something has gone wrong with a diplomat. In “Sarek,” for instance (Season 3, Episode 23), Data's performance of the Brahms string quintet makes Spock's father, a powerful ambassador, cry, which isn't supposed to happen to Vulcans; in “Loud As a Whisper” (Season 2, Episode 5), a deaf diplomat loses his telepathic interpreters and has to teach the aliens whose peace treaty he's brokering sign language. There's an only-global-superpower, world-policeman feel to most of this: The Klingons, the wild, violent others of the Kirk series, are now allies of the Federation. Everything's running smoothly. The crew's heroic quest is just to keep it that way.
So they transport medical supplies; they help overextended colonies fix their weather-control systems. Gene Roddenberry's guiding vision of the Star Trek franchise was, famously, that it would offer an optimistic vision of humanity's future. The Soviet Union collapsed a couple of years into the filming of The Next Generation, and the show's optimistic future became startlingly coterminous with the optimistic present of the George H.W. Bush administration. Where else but space could you find a thousand points of light? The grand adventure of the NCC-1701-D was no longer to spread civilization, or even defend it; it was just to keep the machinery oiled. Remember 1991, America?