Trekkin’ through the ’80s

You’ll have to pardon the jankiness of the image below, here. I am still trying to sort out this whole iPad thing, and, I dunno, fingerpainting is a little tougher than I expected. Anyway.

Last night I happened to catch the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and it caught me by surprise. I haven’t seen an episode of TNG in quite a while, and I didn’t realize just how very ’80s the visual design was. Late ’80s, sure, but definitely of its time, in retrospect. It seemed so futuristic back in the day, but now all I can see is feathered hair and terrible pastel color schemes. TNG looks as dated today as the original series looked when TNG debuted. And that is weird and alarming and makes me feel very old.

I mentioned as much on Twitter, which elicited a curious batch of responses: Everyone assumed I was talking about the visual effects and went to bat to defend the model work. The model work is fine, though! A nicely-shot miniature will always look more convincing and more alive than a CG rendering, and that’s certainly the case with TNG. Some of the other visual effects were pretty iffy, like the way the attack on the Borg cube appeared to have been executed entirely with 4th of July sparklers, but the little tiny fake ships, at least, were really quite nice.

No, the ships were fine. The people, though… they were somewhat less than fine. Even disregarding some of the more egregiously terrible wardrobe decisions, like anything ever worn on-set by Marina Sirtis, TNG has a datedly flat and distressingly out-of-date visual aesthetic that places it firmly in the realm of late ’80s/early ’90s TV design, just as Captain Kirk and his ship full of ultra-saturated primary colors and silly triangular sideburns (and, yes, all those analog knobs) place his exploits smack-dab in the ’60s. And no doubt modern Trek will prove to have its own contemporary quirks that’ll make it look perfectly dated 25 years down the line.

That rainbow tunic of Wesley Crusher’s, though? That’ll never go out of style.

18 thoughts on “Trekkin’ through the ’80s

  1. It may look a bit 80’s-ish, but TNG is still my favorite Star Trek. I’m midway through season 4 on my TNG on DVD marathon. If you think season 3/4 looks 80’s, take a look at the skin-tight spandex uniforms from seasons 1 & 2.

  2. It’s natural that TNG now would seem as dated as the original series did when TNG was on the air; at this point, the amount of time that has passed between the debut of TNG and today (just over 22 years) is greater than the amount of time that passed between the debut of the original series and TNG (about 21 years).

  3. Yes, I can subtract! I am simply surprised because the series initially seemed a lot more future-proof. Possibly due in part to the quality of the miniatures. I think the thing that makes TNG look so silly is the fact that the bridge looks like a hotel lobby.

    Star Wars would almost be future-proof, except that there’s no definitive version. Lucas added crummy CGI when he cleaned up the effects. Cleaner versions of the original prints (old effects minus matte lines and compositing artifacts, mainly) woud be amazing,

  4. That’s ok, I’m a huge fan of Quantum Leap, and while that avoids alot of those problems by taking place mostly in the past, any of the few episodes that show the lab in the future look completely laughable now. Even moreso than TNG, by my reckoning.

  5. yah, about that ST:TNG spandex comment, I’m not sure why I remember this, but shortly before Star Trek: Enterprise started airing, jonathan frakes visited the set. The only comments he had to offer were about the crew uniforms grousing about how he had to wear an uncomfortable spandex suit in a stuffy studio…

    But yes, the gratuitous use of spandex: total late 80’s – mid 90’s phase in american culture. Lucky they weren’t wearing Jams.

    also the original original Star Wars trilogy before it was ruined with the Special Ed. (intentional spelling) CGI crap actually does stand up well… That is unless you watch the entire series in sequence, then not only do parts of the 70’s-80’s trilogy look terribly dated, but the entire story is ruined as well.

  6. Bah, we all know that there are only 6 real Star Wars movies, which have never been remade. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. (Hey, if I’m going to deny reality anyway, might as well pretend those actually came about right?)

    Back to Trek though, I don’t really think of it as a question of being dated so much as a question of it being Star Trek. I mean, even when it was first airing it had this weird nostalgic vibe going on, particularly the first season where they were just trying to do modern updates of original series episodes. We’ve got this whole slow paced, let’s talk our problems out approach that really feels out of place next to any other show ever made. It goes pretty well with the hotel lobby full of lycra look, and ensures authenticity to conventions for all time!

    There’s no defending that one episode where they’re doing aerobics in neon spandex though.

  7. I dunno, ZRofel, I seem to remember some hair-styles in the original SW trilogy that are pretty damn late-70s.

  8. What I find disquieting about TNG costume design is the civilian clothes. 24th century fashion is apparently big into the medieval look. Unless you join Starfleet, it’s a life of brown, scratchy-looking tunics for you.

  9. I had that same sweatshirt that Picard is wearing in the pic. It was my first favorite article of clothing I owned. I would wear it as often as I could. Sometimes twice a week if my mom did laundry in the middle.

  10. Granted, there is some charm into putting a piece of our present into our perceptions of the future. I love the original Bubblegum Crisis for being yesterday’s tomorrow. I still keep hoping for a cyberpunk future filled with glam-rock.

  11. hah! Right, granted with how downhill things are sliding for human culture overall, I’m most looking forward to the neo-punks who bare an uncanny resemblance to Sting populating our rotting industrial future dystopia just like some movies and games suggest.

    of course the baddest ass one would be wearing a “kick-me” sign

  12. Yeah, from a design point of view, Star Trek’s most consistent weak spot has been i it’s civilian costume designs. Aside from McCoy’s civilian getup in Star Trek IV and some of the stuff on DS9 (the Ferengi costumes in particular), it seems that the only materials civilians have access to in the 23rd century are a lot of puke-purple spandex and irredescent cloth. Oy.

    Things could have been a hell of a lot worse for the TNG crew, if the show’s costume designer had had his way: I found an “Art of Star Trek” book a few months ago that contains sketches for a variant for TNG’s basic Starfleet uniform with the sides of the uniform’s top inexplicably cut out (leaving the actor’s/actress’s armpits/ribs/side-belly/side-boobs exposed).

  13. Sadly, no Trek civilian look will ever come close to matching the awesomeness of McCoy’s “Disco Space Ahab” look from The Motion Picture.

  14. I’m actually rewatching all of TNG at the moment, and am finally making my way towards the end of the seventh season. The hair and wardrobe gets way better towards 1993. But what they gain in that department, they lose in their CG. Instead of being content with static or blinking lights that made up the computer consoles in the beginning of the show, they start using (by today’s standards) crude computer animation, making their interfaces look like shitty 16-bit video games.

  15. Completely agree with the commentary re: the uniforms and set design, but hot damn do I still get chills when Riker says “Mr. Worf…fire.” Let’s not forget that was a season finale. What a great show.

  16. Wow, I actually watched the same two episodes that night, and I haven’t watched TNG in ages. Must have been the same station. Did you stay up for First Contact? :P (I love how they added a bunch of new crewmembers who were obviously only there to die)

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