Star Trek: The Next Generation: An oral history
Several key figures who were there at the show's creation give us an insider's view of how the series took flight
”Make it so.”
It’s such a stirring phrase, isn’t it, this favored command of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship U.S.S. Enterprise. Patrick Stewart uttered it with his rich, Shakespearean baritone countless times over the seven glorious seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation — to Riker, Data, Worf, and Dr. Crusher, to Geordi, Troi, Tasha, and young Wesley, and probably even to a petulant Ferengi or two. And yet, the first time Picard said those three rousing words, on Sept. 28, 1987, in the premiere episode, ”Encounter at Farpoint,” it was to order the mundane task of setting his ship into a ”standard parking orbit.”
Of course, actually making that episode so was anything but mundane. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry’s update on his optimistic vision of humanity’s future set Trek on a blistering 20-year mission — including four TNG movies, three more Trek TV series, and an explosion in first-run syndicated TV — that no one could have foreseen. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of TNG, we’re looking back at the genesis of the episode that (re)started it all.
Gene Roddenberry’s first attempt to mount a new Trek live-action series came a decade before The Next Generation.
ROBERT H. JUSTMAN, original series producer, supervising producer on TNG I think [the idea for a new series] came about as a result of the sudden explosion of Star Trek reruns. It just gathered up a whole slew of people who had never seen the show. But the whole thing came to naught because of, I think, tense bargaining terms with respect to money.
DOROTHY (D.C.) FONTANA, original series writer, associate producer on TNG, co-writer of ”Encounter at Farpoint” I think approximately six scripts were developed [for what was then called Star Trek: Phase II]. Then, Star Wars happened. Suddenly Paramount was saying, ”Don’t we have a franchise show that we could do that with?” The idea for a series, to my understanding, was put aside and they started doing the movie.
The idea for a new series sat fallow for several years as Paramount cranked out four Star Trek movies with the original cast before moving ahead with what would become The Next Generation.
JUSTMAN In the mid-1980s, Paramount realized that they were making zillions of dollars on this old television show and if they had a new one, they could milk the cow again. Gene had a peculiar way of getting people onto whatever show he was doing. I knew enough to know that when he called me to go to lunch and screen some films to look at the special effects, a new show was in the offing. This is late September, early October 1986. We saw a film called Aliens, and I said, ”Jesus Christ, Gene, that was a great picture! But have you ever seen Blade Runner?” And [Gene said] ”What’s that?” He didn’t know what Blade Runner was! I said, ”You’d better take a look at that,” and in the meantime, I just went to work.
FONTANA Late 1986, in the fall, Gene Roddenberry called me and said, ”I’m interested in getting a new Star Trek series on the road.” He outlined how he wanted it to be sometime after the original series. New cast, new characters. He invited me, Bob Justman, [original series writer] David Gerrold, and [original series associate producer] Eddie Milkis to put our ideas in. We wrote tons of memos.
Roddenberry also persuaded a young Paramount TV exec named Rick Berman to leave his post overseeing the new Trek and join the production full-time as a supervising producer.
RICK BERMAN, supervising producer There were three reasons not to do it. One, this was a sequel, and sequels on television had never been successful. Two, it was science fiction, and in the 1980s science fiction was not successful. And three, it was going to be syndicated, not a network program. But my desire to get into the ranks of producers was strong enough that I agreed.
The brainstorming sessions continued, out of which emerged some ideas that made it to the show — a more thoughtful, diplomatic captain who remains on the bridge rather than joining the away team; a much larger ‘Enterprise’ that housed over 1,000 people, including families. Other ideas, well, didn’t quite make the cut.
FONTANA I objected to Troi having three breasts. I felt women have enough trouble with two. And how are you going to line them up? Vertically, horizontally, or what? I was like, please, don’t go there. And they didn’t, fortunately.
By Christmas 1986, the essentials for the new Trek were settled. Fontana was hired to write the pilot episode, a mystery about a strange alien outpost called Farpoint Station, while Roddenberry went about finding craftsmen to design the 24th century.
HERMAN ZIMMERMAN, PRODUCTION DESIGNER The rumor around the [Paramount] lot was that this was another one of Gene Roddenberry’s attempts to re-create his original television series and as such was probably not going to be anything more than a pilot. When I met Gene, my whole attitude changed dramatically. Gene is — I’m talking about him as if he’s still alive — a humanist with a capital H. Gene had a way of making you feel very important to his project.
MICHAEL OKUDA, SCENIC ARTIST Gene was very open to innovation, to looking at things from original angles. He also very much depended on the people working for him. He knew the feelings he wanted to evoke, but he didn’t necessarily visually know how to evoke it. That’s what we get paid for.
ANDREW PROBERT, CONSULTING SENIOR ILLUSTRATOR I was hired to design the bridge. Gene wanted something that was rather large, very comfortable, had a lot of earth tones in it. He did not want people hunched over computer consoles. He wanted it to look more like a living room than an IBM center.
OKUDA One way that people try to show that things are advanced is you have a lot of blinky, flashing lights. I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I wanted to show that this ship was so advanced that it was simple.
ZIMMERMAN We were criticized by the fans, who said it looked like a Hyatt Regency hotel. I was okay with that. Gene wanted light colors, he wanted space, he wanted it to feel like home. He did not want it to feel like a submarine.
PROBERT While I was doing the bridge, I was also doing sketches, on my own, of the new Enterprise. David Gerrold — he’s the guy who [wrote the original Trek episode] “The Trouble With Tribbles” — saw my sketch, pulled it off the wall, and showed it to Gene and Bob. It got approved on the spot. I’m still flabbergasted Gene seemed to like it so much.
By late January, Fontana’s first draft was in, and Roddenberry assigned Justman and Berman the not-so-simple task of finding the new cast.
DENISE CROSBY, LIEUT. TASHA YAR I thought, “Oh, no, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me. Who’s going to watch this? Why do they just keep regurgitating old ideas?” I just thought it sounded so rinky-dink. But I thought, “Well, who am I to turn down work?” I originally read for Troi. What was a Betazoid? It just sounded so gobbledygook and weird.
FONTANA Originally, Tasha Yar was going to be Latina; they thought of Jenette Goldstein, who played Vasquez in Aliens. I said, “Well, you have to know that Jenette Goldstein is not Latina. She is petite, blue-eyed, freckle-faced.”
CROSBY The original description of Troi was this cool, Icelandic blonde. Almost Spock-like. Marina [Sirtis] was reading for Tasha. Somewhere, about the second or third audition, Gene Roddenberry had this idea: Let’s just switch them and see what happens.
LEVAR BURTON, LIEUT. GEORDI LA FORGE Bob [Justman] and I had done a TV movie in the early ’80s. I was such a fan of Star Trek, we sat around on the set, and I just pumped him for stories about Shatner and Nimoy. So I got a call from Bob saying they were mounting a new Star Trek series and would I be interested. My only question was, Is Gene involved?
Two of the show’s most well-known characters, Lieut. Comdr. Data and Comdr. William “Number One” Riker, were almost played by other actors.
JUSTMAN With Data, there were two possibilities: The one who got it [Brent Spiner], and the one who didn’t, Eric Menyuk. I was the only guy who preferred [Menyuk]. Not that I didn’t like [Spiner]; I just thought that the other one had more stuff. We brought him back to play the Traveler [in “Where No One Has Gone Before” and other episodes].
BERMAN Jonathan Frakes, who’s one of my closest friends, was the second choice for Riker. The first choice — an actor I’m sure you know who I will not mention — went in and read [for the studio first].
JUSTMAN He froze. So they gave him another chance seven days later. Failed again. He just didn’t have it. Jonathan Frakes was next up; I remember that we were up in the Paramount offices, and Frakes was waiting outside. As we left and went down the corridor, I looked at him and went like this. [He gives a thumbs up.] He grinned.
Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, and Wil Wheaton all easily landed their respective roles as Lieut. Worf, Dr. Beverly Crusher, and her son, Wesley. Not surprisingly, the hardest role to cast was the most important: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
FONTANA I was [pushing for] Stephen Macht, who had a booming career at the time and was a very attractive man. He was more of a Kirk-type captain, more of a physical guy. Bob Justman was pumping for Patrick Stewart, who had been on [PBS’ 1977 miniseries] I, Claudius.
JUSTMAN My wife, Jackie, and I were enrolled in a UCLA Extension [class] on Humor in the Arts. One night, an actor and actress were brought in to do cold readings of Shakespeare comedies. I don’t remember her name, but I saw Patrick — he hadn’t gotten more than a sentence or two off when I turned to Jackie and said, “I think we’ve found our new captain.”
I arranged for a meeting between him, Gene, and myself at Gene’s house. Patrick spent about 45 minutes talking with us. We saw him to the door and stood watching him drive away. Gene closed the door, turned to me, and said, quote, “I won’t have him.”
BERMAN Gene thought he was a charming and delightful guy, but said, “I’m not going to have a bald Englishman in his 40s become my new captain.”
JUSTMAN Everybody liked Patrick, except Gene Roddenberry. We were interviewing possibilities three weeks before the shoot, and we didn’t have anyone.
BERMAN It was very, very difficult. There were a lot of actors who weren’t interested in doing a syndicated science-fiction show. So I said, “Let’s bug Gene into reconsidering Patrick.” And Justman, using the wisdom of someone who’d worked with Gene for many years, said, “Once Gene makes up his mind, he’s not going to change his mind — don’t waste your breath.” But me, being in my mid-30s, full of piss and vinegar, started bugging Gene about reconsidering Patrick.
JUSTMAN We were in our office, and the last possible, viable candidate left the room, closed the door behind him, and there was a long silence. Gene heaved a heavy sigh, turned and faced us, and said, “All right, I’ll go with Patrick.”
One problem remained: Can the captain of the ‘Enterprise’ be bald?
JUSTMAN We said we better not take any chances…. The day he was to go up and meet the brass at Paramount, we had him affix his hairpiece. I took him to the mirror, I looked at him, he looked at me, and I said, “Ahhh! Take it off, take it off!” It was just awful.
BERMAN The president of network television at the time, a gentleman named John Pike, was wise enough to say, “He’s your man, but have him lose the wig.”
So they had their captain — just in time for another massive problem to loom large over the production.
FONTANA Paramount wanted to open with an hour-and-a-half story and a half hour of interviews and clips from the old show to tie the two together. I said, “Okay, I will write an hour-and-a-half script.”
JUSTMAN At the last minute, Paramount said, “No, it’s not a 90-minute, it’s a two-hour [episode].” I got Gene to write extra scenes that we inserted into the action.
BERMAN Gene created a second story line about this somewhat omnipotent character named Q, who stops the Enterprise and says: You have to convince me that you’re worthy of venturing further out into the galaxy. Oddly enough, the Q story is the far more remembered of the two.
JOHN DE LANCIE, Q [My agent] said, “You have an audition tomorrow at 4:30, and it’s for — gee, there must be a typo, it’s just the letter Q. And it’s for Star Trek.” And I went, “Star Trek? I thought they did Star Trek.” “Well, they’re doing it again.” I didn’t go because I was rehearsing a play, and I was one of the leads.
A week later my agent called and she said, “You didn’t show up for an audition.” I said, “Well, if you can make the audition around lunchtime, I’ll be able to do that.” I took a look at the material very quickly and auditioned. A big guy walked out, put his hands on my shoulder, and said, “You make my words sound better than they are.” I said, “Well, you must be the writer.” And he said, “I’m Gene Roddenberry.”
I had absolutely no idea who that was.
The cast was set. The sets were built. Engage!
CROSBY When did I think this was going to fly? Once I got on the set and I saw the other actors. You had people like LeVar Burton and Wil Wheaton, [who was] probably the most famous because of Stand by Me. Then, of course, Patrick Stewart gets on board and you feel like the whole Shakespearean company has entered the room.
BURTON When you’ve imagined it in your mind so many times, being beamed for the first time, it’s a pretty cool thing. But it really just involves standing there and counting to seven, and they do the rest. Unless of course you can find actors who do their own beaming, but none of us were that good — not in the first season, certainly.
DE LANCIE Gene came up to me after about the third day of shooting. He said, “You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “You’ll find out.”
There was one actor in “Encounter at Farpoint” who did know what Roddenberry meant: the late DeForest Kelley, a.k.a. retired admiral Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who, in a memorable cameo, took a tour of the new ‘Enterprise’ with Data.
FONTANA I wrote it because I thought we should have a connection with the old show. In fact, De was visiting the offices one day [while I was writing]. I said, “Hey, come in, I want you to read this.” He said, “That’s really beautiful, but I don’t think they’d want someone like me around, do you?” As it turned out, that scene connected to a lot of people. [Bones’] crowning line — “Treat her like a lady and she’ll always bring you home” — was very effective. It was an interesting connection between, in essence, [the] Spock-like character [and] the irascible McCoy.
Of course, shooting the first Star Trek TV series in nearly 20 years wasn’t all a day on the holodeck, either.
BURTON We hated our space suits. There were no pockets in them. As much as they call it a stretch fabric, spandex in that configuration doesn’t give all that much. It hid nothing.
CROSBY None of us had ever done anything remotely like this. We’re talking about using pieces of equipment that don’t really exist. I remember we had to make-believe we see these weird creatures floating around, these amoeba-like things. The director had to describe this to us. We couldn’t help but laugh.
BURTON We were all very nervous. There was a lot of erect posture and crispy Yes, captains. It took a while for us to relax. We were all new to that process of episodic TV. We felt that we were stepping into such big shoes that we took it, and perhaps ourselves, too seriously. I think by the end of season 2, the end of season 3, we really began to hit our stride. We never stopped. We never slowed down until [the finale] “All Good Things….”
Perhaps the biggest unknown of all was how legions of Trekkies (or Trekkers) — entirely responsible for making a canceled NBC series into a global phenomenon — would take to a brand-new series in their beloved universe.
BERMAN There were a lot of fans who were airing their feelings: “We don’t want anybody taking the place of Kirk and Spock, and we don’t want an English guy who’s 10 years older than Kirk was to be the head of the ship.”
JUSTMAN At the time we were shooting [the pilot], there was a Star Trek convention in the [San Fernando] Valley. I got permission to address the fans there, and I said, “I want you to know that we haven’t forgotten you. Please don’t shoot us down without knowing what we’re about to do. Don’t prejudge us. Be patient and see what comes out; I think you’re going to like it very, very much.”
And, for the most part, they did. The first episode premiered to nearly 27 million viewers — a massive success for any series debut, let alone a syndicated sci-fi drama — and Paramount picked up The Next Generation soon after for a second full season.
BURTON The fourth estate was very vocal about how fans of the original were not feeling The Next Generation. I always figured that was more hype than real. Because genuine Star Trek fans are open-minded by nature. You can’t embrace the philosophy of infinite diversity and respect for all life without having somewhat of an open mind. Even given that there was an absolute love for and loyalty to the original series, I never bought the idea that genuine Star Trek fans had no room in their hearts for a new incarnation. So there. [Laughs]
CROSBY I had no idea at the time that this was going to be such a meaningful show and resonate like it has to so many people. In truth, had I known, I think I would have reconsidered [leaving the show in the first season].
JUSTMAN Midway through the first season, I told Paramount I was going to retire. I’d accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. Star Trek wasn’t a fluke.
Star Trek: The Next Generation