It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

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“Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name…Enterprise”

Recurring guest star Whoopi Goldberg, a key component in the success of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1990

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, Denise Crosby, Christopher McDonald, Tricia O’Neil, Whoopi Goldberg

Director:  David Carson / written by:  Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore (from a story by Trent Christopher Ganino & Eric A. Stillwell) / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

The forbearer to the current U.S.S. Enterprise is brought 22 years into the future via a temporal rift and changes the flow of history, creating an alternate timeline where the Federation is close to defeat in a war against the Klingon Empire…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Ask any Star Trek fan about their favourite episodes and it’s likely that many would include “Yesterday’s Enterprise” on their list – there’s no argument that it’s not just an outstanding instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation but a gripping piece of science fiction drama in its own right.  From a story by Tent Christopher Ganino and Eric A. Stillwell, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” sees Captain Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise ‘D’ confronted with the preceding Enterprise ‘C’ which appears in the present, causing devastating changes to the timeline with the United Federation of Planets on the losing side in a war with the Klingon Empire.  With history recording that the Enterprise C disappeared during a battle to save a Klingon outpost from destruction by Romulan warships and Guinan sensing that something is not right, Picard and his crew believe that their only hope is for the previous Enterprise to return to its own time where the selfless sacrifice of the ship and its crew, seen by the Klingons as an honourable act, could avert a terrible conflict.

A thrilling and engaging story, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is also iconic for facilitating a guest return for Denise Crosby as Lt. Tasha Yar, who was killed back in “Skin of Evil” in the first season of The Next Generation.  The teleplay’s writers include Ira Steven Behr, future writer and showrunner of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to co-write feature films Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact (and subsequently develop the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series) and their presence is heavily felt with a strong focus on characterisation and statements of morality, qualities that lift “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (and for that matter, any great Star Trek episode) above its core SF concept.  It’s through the darker and more hopeless scenario of a deadly and costly war that we appreciate the altruistic values of the Federation as we know it and that the brave acts of a few can benefit the many.

Denise Crosby returns as Tasha Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, also featuring Christopher McDonald as Lt. Castillo (image credit: ViacomCBS).

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” boasts a reliably strong performance from Patrick Stewart, at this point in the series he is fully invested and committed to the role of Captain Picard and gets to add a subtle shade of grit to his character who in the altered timeline is a military commander as opposed to an explorer and diplomat.  The regular supporting cast all play smaller but significant parts with Brent Spiner’s Data being a particular standout, but it’s arguably the guest stars who really enhance “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.  Denise Crosby’s return is a welcome one and she is provided with meaningful material, Christopher McDonald delivers a likeable performance as Enterprise C helmsman Lt. Castillo (and sharing great chemistry with Crosby, essential for the romantic bond that develops between their characters) and Tricia O’Neil brings authority to the role of the Enterprise C’s captain, Rachel Garrett.  Yet, it’s Whoopi Goldberg who shines the most – her appearances as the mysterious and noble Guinan always add significantly to any episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation but her portrayal in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is particularly impressive with a passionate and layered performance.  Goldberg’s scene with Stewart’s Picard in which she pleads that the Enterprise is not supposed to be a ship of war, but a ship of peace is especially poignant and really captures the heart and soul of Star Trek.

David Carson’s direction is skilled and attentive, his staging of scenes and positioning of the actors together with the use of various angles and close-ups draw the viewer further into the drama.  Carson is also adept at cranking up the pace as he executes tense and energetic action scenes and it’s no surprise that Carson (whose first credit for Star Trek: The Next Generation was “The Enemy”, from earlier in the third season) would be called on again to helm further Star Trek episodes, including the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and also The Next Generation’s first big screen outing, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations.

As exciting as it is emotionally impactful, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is yet another example of Star Trek at its best and an exemplary piece of storytelling that continues to resonate over thirty years later.

Standout moment

Learning from Guinan that she died a senseless death in the original timeline, Tasha Yar confronts a conflicted Captain Picard with a request to transfer to the Enterprise C and face a potentially more gallant fate…

Geek fact!

Tricia O’Neil would return to Star Trek again with guest roles as a Klingon scientist in sixth season TNG outing “Suspicions” and as a Cardassian military observer in the DS9 episode “Defiant”.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: Voyager – “Timeless” : fifteen years after the loss of the U.S.S. Voyager during a daring attempt to return home, former officer Harry Kim plans to alter history and prevent the disaster from ever occurring.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Encounter at Farpoint”

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An all-new Starship Enterprise for a new ‘Star Trek’ venture…

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, John de Lancie, Michael Bell

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry / Episode directed by:  Corey Allen / 1987

What’s the episode about?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise find themselves placed on trial by a powerful alien entity and must prove that humanity is no longer a savage race as they attempt to solve the mysteries of the enigmatic Farpoint Station…

Retrospective

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek’s second –and highly successful – foray into television is now thirty years old.  Whilst the original voyages of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the U.S.S. Enterprise are arguably Star Trek at its purist and best, for many it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that was their gateway drug to a vast science fiction universe and a worldwide phenomenon that endures today.

With the popularity of the original Star Trek cast’s big screen adventures (which hit fever pitch with the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986) a new series made for an easy sell – albeit a risky one when the concept meant introducing a whole new set of characters and an all-new Enterprise and their adventures in the 24th Century, almost 80 years after the times of Kirk and his crew.

Paramount television felt it was worth a shot and enlisted Gene Roddenberry to create this new iteration – Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Assembling some familiar faces in his production and writing staff including Star Trek producer Robert Justman and writers Dorothy ‘D.C.’ Fontana (who also served as head writer on the vastly underrated animated series) and David Gerrold (mastermind of fan favourite episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”), Roddenberry set out to perfect his vision of the future.

Originally intended as a single hour story, written by Fontana, “Encounter at Farpoint” was expanded into a two-hour premiere at the insistence of Paramount and the reticence of Gene Roddenberry who would add a framing plot to the overall story – coupling Fontana’s Farpoint Station mystery – where every visitor’s needs and requirements are miraculously and inexplicably catered for – with the Enterprise’s encounter with an all-powerful alien entity known as the ‘Q’.  With impressive special effects (that hold up well today in the series’ fully remastered Blu-ray release) and production design the result is, though not a fair reflection of how good The Next Generation would ultimately become, remains entertaining and enjoyable despite some of its hokey execution.

Trek TNG - Farpoint 1

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) faces the charges of ‘Q’ (John de Lancie).

In its premiere, the characters fans would eventually come to know and love are not fully formed and the actors not immediately in the ‘groove’.  Despite this and the odd piece of cheesy or clunky dialogue, the cast of The Next Generation turn in respectable performances.  Patrick Stewart is a strong lead albeit the Captain Picard here is a little different from the Picard we see later on, being a more distant and irascible version of the character who happens to have no patience with children (the Enterprise ‘D’ compliment including crewmembers’ families).  Stewart receives solid support from Jonathan Frakes as First Officer – aka ‘Number One’ – Commander William T. Riker as well as the rest of the Enterprise crew, most notably Brent Spiner’s Lt. Commander Data, a Starfleet android who yearns to be human – the Pinocchio analogy aptly drawn on by Riker during their first meeting.

The crew is rounded out by Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (played by Denise Crosby, granddaughter of Bing and who would depart the series before the end of the first season), blind crewman Lt. Geordi La Forge (Roots’ LeVar Burton), Chief Medical Officer Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) together with her son Wesley (Wil Wheaton, of Stand By Me fame), Ship’s Counsellor and old flame of Riker, the empathic ‘Betazoid’ Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and significantly – Klingon officer Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), his race now at peace with the Federation.

As for the main antagonist, John de Lancie is quite simply superb as ‘Q’ and so well received that he would go on to reprise the role in several more episodes of The Next Generation in addition to appearances in future Trek spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  Much like Picard, the Q of “Encounter at Farpoint” is quite different from the lighter, more comical version of the character we would see in later seasons and this earlier take on Q is much darker, more malevolent and a credible threat to the Enterprise and her crew which drives the high stakes drama, his ‘trial’ of humanity and their handling of the great mysteries of Farpoint facilitating the morality play aspect of the narrative which Star Trek fans had become accustomed to.

Not forgetting its roots, a highlight of “Encounter at Farpoint” is a cameo from DeForest Kelley as the elderly (human life expectancy greatly increased by the 24th Century), even more cantankerous Admiral McCoy in a wonderful little sequence between McCoy and Data that hands over the baton from one generation to the other and is a real treat for fans.

Beyond “Encounter at Farpoint”, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a little shaky and uncertain but things began to improve in its sophomore year (which saw the introduction of iconic villains the Borg) and further refined with changes to the writing staff in the third season which saw the series become more character focused, Star Trek’s return to television would prove to be a huge success and The Next Generation would run for seven seasons (a total of 178 episodes) and spawn four feature films.  Along the way it would gain Whoopi Goldberg as a recurring guest star, pick up numerous Emmy Awards (as well as being nominated for several more – including Outstanding Drama Series in 1994) and launch a golden age of small screen science fiction.  Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated that the appeal and durability of the franchise was strong and is a series that continues to be loved all these years later.

Geek fact!  Riker and Troi were based on officers Decker and Ilia, characters who were to be part of the aborted 1970s Star Trek: Phase II series.  They would eventually be portrayed by Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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The cast of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ as they were in 1987.