Before Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in the fall of 1987, episodic TV shows had a beginning, middle and end; story-arcs over several episodes didn’t exist (beyond the daytime and primetime soaps), and “character development” was a periodic thing.
For the most part, there was only episodic TV shows, and there really was no such thing as a “procedural.”
What happened in that one-hour dramatic episode of yore (or even that half-hour episode comedic episode) stayed there, and did not continue on into any future episode, segment or storyline.
Oh, sure, there may have been a periodic mention here and a trifle mention in some future episode that contained a fly-by-night reference to a previous episode…but not on a regular basis.
Did it up the game? Eh – it changed the game.
In my view, it made things less interesting, and it all happened in a very strange and gradual way.
Here’s how it all went down:
The entire world was anticipating Gene Roddenberry’s Next Generation. Many original “Trekkers” (of which I am proud to call myself a member) were flipping our “Tribbles” upon first hearing the news of a new Star in the making. For decades (at least two), we read books about the old show, be they in nonfiction or novel form; attended conventions, etc.
So when Next Gen was announced, the fans, the artistic community, the sci-fi/fantasy community, and Hollywood (all of which intermingled at certain points) were each and all in a tizzy.
And then the show debuted…and it looked great, if maybe a little odd to have such a senior, hairless character as the new captain of the Enterprise in the form of the soon-to-be-endearing-and-fully-appreciated-for-his-genius Patrick Stewart.
But something seemed not right. Apparently, Next Gen was too much like The Original Series, as the 1966-1969 show has come to be known. It also seemed like Next Gen was reworking Original episodes.
Still, the show became a massive hit….and it wasn’t even on a major prime-time network. It came in through the backdoor via Paramount and a new syndicated network of TV stations across the country (Roddenberry didn’t want to go through the heck a major network like NBC had put him through the first time around).
So, for its second season, things started to change a little bit, even the cast (Gates McFadden left for one year, only to return the following third season). And for some Trekkers, the show became less “campy,” and more “serious,” with the commencement of the “story-arc.” That’s right…the “one-hour self-containment” episodes of the first season was no more. Episodes would now end, but at the same time, linger. Many times, the viewer was left hanging, or at least wondering as to what just happened.
Indeed…that happened on The Original Series, but mostly to other characters beyond the actual Enterprise crew.
On Next Gen, the viewers didn’t really have a pin-pointed take on what the regular crew members were feeling about what or who they just experienced. Instead, everything became murky.
And as to a satisfying ending? Very far and few between…with a heck of a lot less action and adventure to boot.
Instead, this new Trek became L.A. Law – in Space. Everyone started talking and talking and talking – but no one really went anywhere. And most of the episodes were “bottle shows,” taking place on the Enterprise…and not exploring any “strange new world” at all.
Whereas The Original Series lacked a regular dose of character development, Next Gen had too much of it.
The “A-Story” was the main story on The Original Series, while “The B Story” became the main story on Next Gen.
And it all kinda’sorta’ transpired because of producer Rick Berman. Gene Roddenberry’s health was failing, and Berman took over the helm.
And Berman was, well, simply not as exciting or as inventive as Gene. Yes, he brought a great deal to the Trek” world; but Roddenberry, he wasn’t.
The sense of true fantasy and imagination was gone.
And then….something VERY odd started to transpire all around the tube, beyond Next Gen, as if all of Hollywood was caught up in some kind of space vortex of its own:
The rest of the industry started doing the same thing, when it came to weekly series.
Even a family show like Life Goes On started to change. For its first two seasons, the show (which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1989) was an episodic hour; for the last two years, its episodes commenced the “story-arc” way of doing things, continuing from one week to the next with the same storyline (until its cancellation in the spring of 1993).
In the meantime, other shows all over the map followed suit, seemingly through the back door, and maybe even on a subconscious level.
But either way, on every level, it happened. The days were over for one-shot-story-episodes in dramatic television.
Was it a good thing?
For some, it was; for others, not so much.
Like everything else, it all depends on your P.O.V.
Whether you’re a writer, or a watcher.