… And It All Started With a Big Borg!
By Larry Nemecek
All right— I have a theory to propose. See what you think. It’s pretty deep, so hang with me:
... we can thank Next Generation showrunner Michael Piller. And his insecurities.
Yep, I think it was the late, great executive producer of TNG who set in motion events that led to all the fan-love that’s sweeping the country (and a lot of corporate board rooms to boot). After the last round of CBS’s incredible TNG Blu-ray remasters and their Fathom Events theater showcase, well… my mind started to put 2 and 2 together one night while I was yakking away as a guest on a Trek podcast.
And it hit me like a ton of thermoconcrete. Here, just follow along:
It’s obvious that we live amidst a “Geeks Rule the World” vibe these days, right? For a lot of us over a certain age, it’s incredible that Star Trek fans and every other nerd nirvanist of all ages are allowed—nay, encouraged—to wear their con badge of honor openly, their heart on their sleeve, as it were…in full uncloseted view of everyone! The “geek girl” explosion, the cool-kids cosplay club… football Trekkies... the designers of cell phones, iPads, even a Vulcan-loving President —yep, it’s an amazing time, when you think about it.
What lit the fuse on such an explosion? Well, network TV can play a big role in changing the culture, reaching millions easily and putting new memes and ideas into play almost overnight —and there’s the clue. We have more than anecdotal evidence of this, of course: What better old-guard metric to check than your friendly A.C. Nielsens, the same TV audience ratings that ironically once doomed the original Star Trek (using, by the way, only raw numbers, not targeted demographics). Yes, check out the runaway No. 1 comedy on the list for forever, and—duh— you’ll come up with The Big Bang Theory. (For that matter, you could also check out the top syndicated-rerun package in every local TV market, and just about get the same answer. TBBT rules.)
Sheldon and Leonard’s excellent adventures (with constant Trek references and guest stars in the mix) have been a hit ever since their debut, and come from the great comedy bloodline of creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. But there are never guarantees in show biz, and TV series are an expensive gamble for a network —which is why few survive the process to be written, green-lit, filmed as a pilot episode, and then picked up to be risked in a high-pressure prime-time slot to deliver ratings and pay back the investment, with dividends. Now, what might have helped convinced CBS to take such a chance on an offbeat premise back in the spring of 2007?
(Okay, stay with me— it’s about to get thick and fast:)
I remember it well: 2007 was the year that everything melted down at San Diego Comic-Con, the granddaddy of what we now know as the new generation of megacons . This and every other “comic con” are hardly about just comics, writers and artists anymore, right? It’s the stars who have the magnetism, and those tens of thousands of fans who swelled attendance numbers in the Aughts were there because of stars brought in by Hollywood—the Hollywood that had begun to put those blockbusters on the big screens in a big way never seen before. The “day trip” vibe down to San Diego, for one thing, and the fertile audience of hard-core fantasy, sci-fi and comics fans just ripe to test-market: it was too much for studios to resist, and the mutual love affair bloomed big-time. That shockwave of numbers and the pop-culture headlines couldn’t help but put an obvious “new” hot audience on the radar of any network savvy enough to jump on it in a smart way.
But what had happened to Hollywood in the first place, going all-out on summer blockbusters and epic franchise flicks? I mean, comics-borne movies and fantasy epics have always been around, but this many? And with this attitude? And with this much respect—usually!—for the source material? (Oh, and cue the return of even the Star Wars saga by the late 1990s.) And—why the merger of studios and comics lines landing front-page in the Wall Street Journal as well as Variety?
The Big 4 networks, in turn, were just passing along the spillover from the genre explosion they saw on lower-risk cable nets, and even non-network syndication—like Babylon 5, Hercules, Xena, Farscape, Andromeda: Where did they and the wanna-bes suddenly come from? In fact, where the heck did syndication come up with anything but talk shows and game shows, anyway ?
You got it—you can “blame” it all on the riskiest gamble of all, The Next Generation (with Deep Space Nine the original second-wave series). As executive producer Rick Berman has noted, the TV world of 1986 gave TNG little chance to survive its triple knock as sci-fi, as a sequel and as a syndicated show. The first two seasons were rocky—but eventually the show not only settled, but skyrocketed in quality and viewers ... and did, indeed, set off that sci-fi boom of the Nineties. All of which, of course, became competition for the Trek franchise itself.
So where did TNG’s turnaround occur? Remember—the show was budgeted to last seven years, yes, but a full yet mediocre run would never have sparked a revolution in anyone’s entertainment universe. In the long run, we can all pretty much agree it was that amazing, rags-to-riches third season when Piller came aboard —with “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father,” “The Offspring,” “The Defector,” “The Price,” “Hollow Pursuits,” “Captain’s Holiday”… But even with that list, we know what really put TNG on the map with the masses in one fell swoop.
That amazing cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Borgification of Picard… Riker’s one word, “Fire!”… and then a blackout, a slamming music cue, and the simple but excruciating words “To Be Continued.”
That epic moment, borne of head writer Piller’s angst about returning to the series or not, was his way of painting the conclusion writer into a horrible corner—before he knew that writer would be himself, after all.
Of course, you could argue there’d be no TNG at all without the original Star Trek… and no Star Trek without Gene Roddenberry’s inspiration from The Twilight Zone, Have Gun Will Travel and Forbidden Planet, for starters. Yes, you could take this back even further, if you wanted.
But for now, I like this cause and effect. Without Michael, Locutus and “The Best of Both Worlds”… there’d be no Evil Wil Wheaton, snark, and the verbification of “cosplay.” We owe today’s sweeping freedom of geek pride to a Borg wash-out and a last-minute red laser unit.
I mean, isn’t it obvious to you?
Larry Nemecek, author of The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Star Trek Magazine columnist and longtime editor of Star Trek Communicator, is currently producing The Con of Wrath, a documentary about the most “glorious failure” convention ever, and the TREKLAND: ON CD audio series from his interview archives. He will also host the 2014 return of the “Hollywood to Vegas: Trek Film Sites” tour for Geek Nation Tours; click HERE for details. Larry shares his years as Star Trek author, historian, consultant and insider at conventions and on larrynemecek.com. His posts and original video chats with all your favorites are at Treklandblog.com, plus @larrynemecek on Twitter and Larry Nemecek’s Trekland on Facebook.