Sometimes, it takes a TV series a while to find its sea legs. (Or its space legs.) Star Trek: The Next Generation was a hit in the ratings right out of the gate. But for its first two seasons, the show was often a creative mess behind the scenes. But in its third season, which aired from 1989 to 1990, TNG found its way, and emerged from under the original series’ long shadow. And in hindsight, it was not only the season that the show came into its own, but it’s probably the show’s strongest season overall. But before we explain why, a bit of backstory to the show’s tumultuous first two years on the air.
Season One: The Shakedown Cruise
The first two seasons of TNG were a well-documented creative nightmare. Despite Gene Roddenberry finding an excellent cast, headed by Sir Patrick Stewart, the show went up against many obstacles. Just for starters, many fans considered it a poor substitute for the iconic original series. Writers on season one kept banging up against Roddenberry’s re-writing of their scripts, and some thirty writers and staffers quit. Actress Denise Crosby, annoyed at the poor writing for her character of Tasha Yar, left at the end of season one. After personality conflicts with producer Maurice Hurley, they subsequently fired Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher. And all that’s just the behind-the-scenes drama in season one.
Season Two: Growing Pains
Season two of TNG was greatly delayed because of the 1988 Writer’s Guild Strike, which further hampered the production. Despite great ratings, the delay was so bad that Paramount considered just canning the show. For all of its problems, season two made adjustments that were big improvements. They added the bar Ten-Forward to the ship, and Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast as its bartender, Guinan. Geordi La Forge was promoted to a more prominent role as Chief Engineer. Riker even got a sexy beard. More controversial was the replacement of Gates McFadden’s Dr. Crusher with Diana Muldaur as the acerbic Doctor Kate Pulaski. Even with these changes (and great episodes like “The Measure of a Man” and “Q Who”) There were some terrible stinkers in the bunch. TNG was getting there…. but they were not quite there yet.
Season Three: Firing on All Thrusters At Last
With season three, producer Rick Berman knew the series needed a major overhaul if it was to survive. When Maurice Hurley quit as a senior writer at the end of year two, they brought in a TV writer named Michael Piller. He made two very important changes. First, he opened up the policy that allowed writers to submit spec scripts. They ignored many, which landed on a pile. But a few served as the basis for some classic episodes. Secondly, and most importantly, Piller decided every episode had to be character-focused first. In the book The Continuing Mission, he said “every episode is going to be about a character’s growth. And every episode has to be about something.”
A New Look
TNG received an aesthetic makeover in season three as well. The series got more cosmic opening credits montage, taking us out of Earth’s solar system. This new visual effects sequence showcased “strange new worlds” instead of planets that were our neighbors. And the Enterprise crew received new uniforms as well, replacing the awkward, skin-tight spandex onesies they forced the cast to wear in the first two seasons. Both of these visual changes would stick to the end of the series. And Patrick Stewart always tugging on his new tunic was jokingly called “the Picard Maneuver,” creating the show’s first memorable trope.
The New and Improved Dr. Crusher
With Maurice Hurley gone, Gates McFadden returned as Dr. Beverly Crusher. But this was a changed Chief Medical Officer. In her first season, her scenes often centered on her being a mother, or her flirtatious relationship with the Captain. With Dr. Pulaski gone, they applied a lot of that character’s personality traits to Crusher. She was far more willing to argue with Picard about humanitarian principles over Starfleet rules than she was before. All while still being a mother to Wesley, and a pseudo-romantic friend to Jean-Luc.
Introducing the Galaxy to Ron Moore
From a creative standpoint, the biggest shot in the arm came when a young writer named Ronald D. Moore came on board that year. A lifelong Star Trek fan, he submitted a Worf-centric script called “The Bonding,” which Berman produced. Moore so impressed everyone with that script, they brought him on as a story editor. He wrote four standout episodes that season. In his scripts, he further developed the Klingon and Romulan cultures, expanding them beyond a one-note alien species. Moore would help steer the franchise through four more seasons of TNG, four of DS9, and two feature films.
Planting Seeds for Future Treks
Almost all of the 26 episodes of TNG’s third season are very good or great. Many of them introduced elements that would continue to inform storylines for years to come. “Hollow Pursuits,” about an awkward crew member who had trouble adjusting, introduced Reginald Barclay, who would reoccur throughout the series. “Sins of the Father” introduced Worf’s brother Kurn, and a long story arc of Klingon political intrigue which spilled over onto Deep Space Nine. And “The Offspring,” a heartbreaking story about Data’s desire to create a child of his own, informed much of Star Trek: Picard 30 years later.
Acknowledging Star Trek History
Season three also was the first time TNG referenced Star Trek history. Gene Roddenberry had an edict at the beginning of the series that the show would not reference the original series almost at all. Those edicts finally loosened on season three. Notably with the all-time great episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” which explained the history of the Enterprise-C, which was between Kirk’s time and Picard’s. But the true end of this rule came later in “Sarek,” an episode that saw the return of Mark Lenard as Spock’s father. This was the first time anyone uttered the word “Spock” on the series, and it would lead directly into Leonard Nimoy’s two-part appearance in season five.
“I Am Locutus of Borg”
After a run of 25 game-changing episodes, year three ended with another first for the franchise: a season-ending cliffhanger. Michael Piller wrote the season finale, “The Best of Both Worlds,” which saw the return of the Borg, one of the few memorable antagonists introduced in the previous seasons. The cybernetic hive returned and turned Captain Picard into one of them in the final moments of the episode. Would Patrick Stewart return as Captain Picard? Would they force Riker to kill his mentor, Locutus of Borg? These questions plagued Trekkers all summer long in 1990. But one thing people weren’t talking about anymore was “is TNG worthy of the original series?” By the time the season finale aired, the comparisons mostly stopped, and TNG was its own legit pop culture phenomenon.
The Legacy of TNG’s Third Season
Without the changes brought to season three, it’s hard to say what would have become of the franchise. TNG continued for four more seasons, four more than the original series. It spun off two series set in the 24th century, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, each of which also ran seven seasons. While the TNG era movies are not as beloved as the original films, the film First Contact remains a favorite among fans. Notably, it directly references the finale of season three.
The Star Trek franchise was saved before after crippling disappointments. The lackluster response to Star Trek: The Motion Picture led directly to the fan-favorite Wrath of Khan, which truly kickstarted the movie franchise. Season three of The Next Generation was to TV Trek what Khan was to the movie series. It showcased all the potential for what this property could be, and catapulted it into a decade-long golden era of TV and merchandise. And it’s still the standard for great Star Trek storytelling on television, which may never be duplicated.