"Anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"
Picard, Star Trek: Insurrection, 1998The first season of The Next Generation is probably best thought of as the fourth season of original Star Trek, except set decades later and with an entirely different cast. To a certain extent, this was probably inevitable--any spin-off feels the gravitational pull of its original, and the twenty five years that separated Star Trek and The Next Generation, with their movies and tie-in novels and increasingly vocal fandom, would have turned the original series into a black hole. That Gene Roddenberry was at The Next Generation's helm surely only compounded the original show's influence, as he repurposed everything from character designs to costuming to scripts, left over from the original show or from the various abortive attempts to revive it, for use in the new show. But beyond the stylistic and tonal similarities, there is the fact that early Next Generation is, like its predecessor, a show about exploring the unknown. This seems obvious at first--boldly going, seeking out, and exploring are right there in the opening narration that every Star Trek fan knows by heart--but as the first season draws on it become apparent just how different its stories are from what The Next Generation, and eventually all of Star Trek, became, and how little exploration there was in the latter.
Picard is introduced to us as a great explorer--Crusher even refers to him as such in the series pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint"--who has given up the chance of a normal life in order to see things that no other human has seen. The Enterprise's mission is described as an extension of the original ship's, exploring the uncharted portions of the galaxy, and opportunities to do just that abound in the first season. When the Traveler whisks the Enterprise thousands of light years from known space in "Where No One Has Gone Before," Picard and Riker are positively giddy at the thought of exploring this region, and it's only due to their ironclad discipline as Starfleet officers that they forgo the opportunity. Aliens who are encountered in this season are often described in awestruck terms that seem more suited to fantasy--they are creatures of legend said to possess fantastic powers ("When the Bough Breaks") or secretive villains shrouded in mystery (the Romulans in "The Neutral Zone"). "We've only charted nineteen percent of our galaxy. The rest is out there, waiting for us," Wesley says in the early second season episode "The Dauphin," and that is what seems most strange and unfamiliar about early Next Generation--the sense that the galaxy is a vast and largely unexplored place, full of wonders yet to be discovered. This was, of course, original Star Trek's starting position, but it's one that the modern franchise, with its emphasis on the known and the familiar--on political disputes between established alien species and the role of the Federation on the galactic stage--moved away from. The galaxy in later Star Trek, and even in the later seasons of The Next Generation, is a much smaller place, whose rules are more clearly laid out.
You can spot the moment when original Trek-style Next Generation dies and gives way to what we think of today as Star Trek. It comes in the second season, in the episode "Q Who?" In the episode's early scenes, Geordi is trying to keep up with the enthusiasm of Sonya, one of his new ensigns. "Whatever is out here, we're going to be the first humans to see it," she tells him, almost vibrating with excitement. At the same time, Picard is getting into another argument with Q, who offers to act as the Enterprise's guide to the great unknown and, when rejected, petulantly flings the ships into a distant part of space, setting in motion humanity's first encounter with the Borg. By the time the episode ends, Sonya's enthusiasm has given way to horror at the Borg's casual slaughter of 18 Enterprise crewmembers, and Picard is begging Q to save the ship from destruction. The lesson Q is trying to teach Picard is that humanity isn't ready for what it's about to encounter as it ventures into unknown space--"It's not safe out there. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross, but it's not for the timid"--but the lesson that The Next Generation learns is not to venture at all. "Q Who?" sets up the Borg as an antagonist that will overshadow the series for the next season and a half, and by the time they have been dealt with, both the Klingons and the Romulans will have been developed as the major sources of story. The Enterprise encounters less and less unknown species, and spends more time visiting human colonies and scientific outposts, or rendering aid to species with whom it already has diplomatic contact.
In all fairness, the immediate effect of this shift on the show is that it tells the same kind of stories in a more effective way. If an alien species hasn't been heard from before--if, in all likelihood, they were invented for this very story--does it matter that the episode tells us that they're already known to the Federation and have diplomatic relations with it? The audience gets the same hit of newness they did before, even if the characters don't. There's certainly an argument to be made for dispensing with what, by the end of the first season, had already become a boilerplate in which Picard introduces the Federation to the aliens of the week, and getting to the more interesting meat of the story, in which an alien social custom causes consternation among the Enterprise crew, as in "The Outcast" and "Half a Life," or Picard's adherence to the Prime Directive forces him into a moral quandary, as in "Evolution" or "Homeward." It's also very difficult to come up with an interesting new alien culture, while also telling a story and introducing guest characters, in the space of 45 minutes--and a rather thankless task if that species is never to be heard from again. Even within the confines of its episodic storytelling, The Next Generation was more resonant, and more interesting, when it returned to the settings of the Klingon or Romulan empires, societies which it developed over the course of several episodes and seasons. The Klingons are, in fact, an interesting case. In the show's first and early second seasons, even after Denise Crosby's departure from the show moves Worf into a position of greater prominence, his race remains shrouded in secrecy. "I think perhaps it is best to be ignorant of certain elements of the Klingon psyche," Picard tells Troi at the beginning of "Where Silence Has Lease," fretting over Riker joining Worf in his training exercise (his fears are well-founded; overcome by bloodlust, Worf nearly attacks Riker), and in "Heart of Glory" he and the rest of the crew are befuddled by Klingon rituals. But in "A Matter of Honor," Riker joins of the crew of a Klingon ship and we see them from the inside, and Star Trek begins its decade-long love affair with this culture (some of the credit for this falls to Michael Dorn, whose ability to convey intelligence and humor from beneath his makeup and Worf's stolidness brought life to the character and no doubt encouraged the writers to explore his history and his race).
The Next Generation never becomes as inward-looking as its follow-up series, but as it deepens the Cold War analogy it draws using the Romulans, the show becomes more concerned with the Federation, its values and attributes, and its relations with a very small set of species. As the Star Trek franchise grows, it moves even further away from exploration. Deep Space Nine explicitly rejected the mobile setting of Star Trek and The Next Generation, and though its early seasons briefly flirted with the notion of exploring the gamma quadrant, such stories quickly gave way to ones about its specific region of space and the war that erupts over it. Voyager was a story about boldly going home. Enterprise paid lip service to the importance of exploration while resetting the franchise's time period to a point where the rough timeline of events was already known to the viewers, and much of what was strange to the characters was familiar to us (a reversal of post-"Q Who?" Next Generation's approach). The Next Generation movies, which span the three series, reflect these changes in the franchise. Generations is nearly an episode of the series, as much a cap to Picard's story as "All Good Things…" Insurrection, which begins with Picard telling his officers that in the wake of the war with the Dominion, the Federation is licking its wounds, consolidating itself, and turning away from exploration, and ends with his discovery that in their pursuit of greater security, the Federation's higher ups have betrayed its cherished values, is clearly of the Deep Space Nine era. Nemesis, which dispenses with any pretense of moral focus (Picard ignores the Prime Directive and gets into a shooting match with members a pre-warp society, and we discover that the Federation has happily tolerated the existence of a Romulan slave race) and revels in our heroes shooting at over the top antagonists, is an Enterprise film. (First Contact is not a Star Trek film in any meaningful way, more an action movie that happens to feature Star Trek characters.)
If you go by numbers, I'm not sure that the shift from exploration to Federation-centric stories was particularly good for Star Trek--against latter-day Next Generation and Deep Space Nine you have Voyager and Enterprise, not to mention the later movies. But it's clear that The Next Generation became a better show once it stepped back the emphasis on boldly going where no one has gone before. There's a part of me, however, that like Picard in Insurrection feels rueful for those days. Those words in opening credits, that for most of the show's run turn out to have been hollow, express a grand and worthy sentiment, a spirit of adventure that's worth celebrating, and that science fiction fans in particular should feel an affinity for. There's a joyfulness to Picard when he sees something new and different that reaches through the screen and grabs at your soul. A big part of that joy is lost when his stories come to revolve on keeping the peace between the Federation and the Romulans, or steering the Klingon empire towards an optimal resolution of its succession crises. One of the reactions I kept having during my rewatch of The Next Generation was that Gene Roddenberry had some lovely ideas that just didn't lend themselves to good drama. That's still my conclusion, but I also think those good intentions should be lauded. It may be unrealistic, but I'm nursing the hope that exploration-based Next Generation failed not because it was inherently undramatic but because of the limitations of the show's writers, and of the medium in the 80s. Perhaps an enterprising television writer might still make good TV out of the notion that though it might be scary and dangerous, it is bold, and exciting, and worthwhile, to see things that no other human has seen.