Reborn 'Star Trek' proves a stellar success as it marks 100th episode


Any moment now, they should be popping intergalactic champagne corks on the deck of the new Starship Enterprise.

It's time to celebrate, time to walk like a Romulan.

After all, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" long ago won over skeptical Trekkies. And now, closing out its fourth season in first-run syndication with a cosmic Klingon cliff-hanger, this glossy, high-quality successor to the original "Star Trek" space odyssey has become a major TV success story.

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and the other new kids on the trans-warp block have already boldly gone where Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock never went. And that's way beyond the 79 episodes of the original, only moderately successful "Star Trek," which aired in 1966 to 1969 on NBC. Picard & Co. passed that fateful mark last fall.

In fact, the season finale marks "The Next Generation's" 100th episode. Get your milestone mojo working.

And talk about being beamed into the ratings-blessed ozone. During the recent Mays sweeps, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" became the first show in four years to tie "Wheel of Fortune" as TV's No. 1 nationally syndicated show.

That's a pretty impressive accomplishment, scoring a Vanna-equaling ratings triumph without a pointy-eared Vulcan assistant in sight.

What's more, "The Next Generation" -- set in the 24th century, 85 years after the journeys of Kirk, Spock and the original Enterprise crew -- is the classiest hour-long drama series in the history of first-run syndication. And it's been a phenomenon of sorts right from the start in 1987.

There were dire predictions back then that the hard-core "Star Trek" faithful and obsessive Trekkie fundamentalists would never embrace this bold new creation from producer-writer Gene Roddenberry.

What, no Captain Kirk? No Spock, no Bones? Heresy!

And who's this bald-headed British mope with the fancy-schmancy name? A guy called Jean-Luc is giving all the orders? Sheesh.

But the fussy speculation proved to be just so much misguided media flapdoodle. Instead of the standard cheap-and-cheesy look of syndicated shows past, Roddenberry and Paramount brought forth a distinctive, network-quality TV series with lavish production values, first-rate writing and a top-notch cast.

Heck, the original "Star Trek" seems positively chintzy by comparison.

Of course, it wasn't the production values that created the "Star Trek" mystique in the first place. It was Roddenberry's visionary storytelling and the show's unique, philosophical sci-fi spirit, a spirit glowing with humanistic values and a heartfelt, optimistic belief in the future.

And let's not forget the compelling magic of richly drawn characters.

It was those Starship Enterprise characters -- Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest -- who helped "Star Trek" escape the fickle curse of network failure in the late 1960s. They also helped an NBC reject find a remarkable new life in the parallel TV universe known as the Planet Rerun. Fandemonium, thy name is Trekkie.

And now there's even this weird "Star Trek" synergy that's been percolating.

You've got the original "Star Trek" reruns, you've got the "Star Trek" movies and you've got the new-wave, Picard-enhanced vibrations of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Beam us up to marketing heaven, says Paramount.

OK, so maybe the world isn't a better place because of "Star Trek" chess sets or "Star Trek V" Jet-Puffed Marshmallows. And yeah, sure, on a certain deranged pop culture level, the Trekian whole may often seem both greater and smaller than the sum of its parts.

But as far as quality "Star Trek" parts go, "The Next Generation" is the ritz.

Face it, William Shatner's Capt. Kirk had a rather cranky, testosterone-warped nature. The guy really could be a planet-hopping macho blowhard. You know, "Mr. Meathead goes to Mars."

But Patrick Stewart, now, he's a class act with that Royal Shakespeare Company cool. Peace and diplomacy are more the thoughtful, caviar-loving Picard's forte than rushing huffily into battle.

And the other members of the large ensemble cast on "The Next Generation" aren't exactly chopped Klingon, either.

Brent Spiner's charmingly quirky and convincing portrayal of humane android Lt. Commander Data supplies a neo-Spockian zing to the proceedings. And in the emotionally torn role of Lt. Worf, Michael Dorn brings a whole lot of soul to his performance as the only Klingon aboard the Enterprise.

Besides those key players, there are consistently nice contributions from Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan, the witty and wise alien humanoid hostess of the Enterprise's on-board saloon, and LeVar Burton as blind Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge, who "sees" with a prosthetic eyesight gizmo resembling an auto air filter.

During the season finale episode, civil war suddenly threatens the Klingon Empire. And Worf, a Klingon warrior born and bred, is filled with serious torment. Should he stay with the Enterprise or go home?

You'll just have to tune in and find out. Because then you'll also get hit with a big final-scene surprise. And you'll have the opportunity to hear Capt. Picard say nifty things like, "That is beyond my purview." Or better yet, you'll witness a Klingon leader proclaim, "Your blood will paint the way to the future!"

Yikes. Those snarky Klingons sure can get testy.

But fortunately, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is here to smooth things out around the complicated cosmos, to boldly go where ... well, you know rest. For you see, in television's grand, Trekkie-smooched universe, familiarity breeds eternal devotion. Jean-Luc Picard for president!

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