There are several angles from which to approach Star Trek: The Next Generation in terms of Doctor Who. Most of them entangle themselves in a sort of anxiety of influence, either picking over the ways in which Star Trek and Doctor Who’s histories are intertwined or stomping their feet adamantly over the ways in which they are fundamentally different. I think the more interesting relationship, staring from a post-2009 vantage point, is one based far more on material conditions of broadcast and production. But let’s deal with what everyone else is interested in first.
As I noted when last we talked about Star Trek, at the time they were both being made in the 1960s the extent of influence the two shows had on each other was “none whatsoever.” Short of elaborate theories, it’s just not possible to posit that anyone involved in one show had even heard of the other, little yet seen enough to be influenced.
Come the 1970s, though, when Star Trek was off the air, it began having considerable influence on Doctor Who. The obvious one is the roundel in the Season Fourteen control room, but the larger influences come in the Pertwee era. Under Letts and Dicks the show never became a Star Trek clone, but it nevertheless existed in what was clearly a post-Trek era of science fiction. Colony in Space, The Mutants, Frontier in Space, and the two Peladon stories all clearly existed in a world that presupposed a human-dominated Galactic government with at least some degree of colonial leanings. Being written in a country that had experience in colonialism instead of longing for it, Pertwee-era flirtations with Star Trek’s themes were always short on the military pageantry and longer on a political messiness, particularly when Malcolm Hulke was involved. Star Trek, in all of its incarnations, is terribly fond of being Master and Commander or Horatio Hornblower in space, whereas Doctor Who, when it’s intersected those tropes, has tended to take a less reverential approach (c.f. The Pirate Planet and The Space Pirates, or Beryl Reid in Earthshock), and, more to the point, has never been prone to collapsing space imperialism and the Hornblower aesthetic into being one thing.
On the other hand, there is something to say about the UNIT crew having some Star Trek influences. Certainly there’s something to the fact that Doctor Who introduced a regular set of military characters in the immediate wake of Star Trek airing in its timeslot during the off season. But again, what stands out is the sardonic quality of the influence. Star Trek unfailingly saw Captain Kirk as the pinnacle of American masculinity. The Brigadier, on the other hand, even though he represents a cultural ideal of masculinity just as much as Captain Kirk does, is less straightforwardly viewed as the best the world has to offer, not least because he’s continually shown up by a glam rock space messiah.
So while Star Trek was unquestionably an influence on Doctor Who, the influence was fairly diffuse. It’s more accurate to say that Star Trek embodies a particular vision of science fiction, and that Doctor Who, a show based on pilfering other genres, played with that vision periodically. But in 1987, with the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was finally an opportunity for the influence to run the other direction.
While it is easy to make too much of this, but equally, there’s fairly explicit evidence of influence. The first season episode “The Neutral Zone” features an easter egg in which a character’s family consists of a list of the first six Doctors, for instance. So clearly people involved in Star Trek: The Next Generation had seen Doctor Who. This inevitably raises the question of the Borg, who Doctor Who fans delight in suggesting were nicked from the Cybermen.
The evidence here is mixed. It certainly is a striking coincidence that a race of humans turned into emotionless drones via cybernetic enhancement debuted in a story called “Q Who.” But equally, watching “Q Who,” there’s more ambiguity involved than Doctor Who fans like to admit. The Borg are initially presented not as corrupted humans, a la the Cybermen, but as a metaphor for unchecked capitalism. The humanoid roots of them are downplayed save for the deeply creepy scene of the Borg nursery, but even that serves to marginalize the “humans with their emotions stripped away” aspect of the Cybermen. That doesn’t really come in until their second appearance in the consensus best-ever Star Trek story “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard undergoes assimilation, a somewhat clearer lift of cyber-conversion. On the other hand, that does happen, as does an Enterprise two-parter featuring Borg at the North Pole that’s called “Regeneration.” So even if the Borg weren’t inspired at all by the Cybermen, certainly there are enough details that beg for comparison.
But let’s be honest, the concept isn’t exactly what you’d call the single most original thing ever designed. Stressing that the Borg draw some obvious influences from the Cybermen is just asking to have Jack Finney rise from the grave to demand royalties. No, the more interesting angle to take with regards to Doctor Who influencing Star Trek: The Next Generation is down to its basic premise, in which a rugged ideal of American masculinity is removed from the lead role and replaced with a British Shakespearean actor, a move done at the height of Doctor Who’s US popularity in the 1980s.
There are, of course, still some problems with this interpretation. For one thing, even if Patrick Stewart is British, Jean-Luc Picard is French. That said, he’s played straightforwardly in an English accent, and the constant sense is that Gene Roddenberry may have had a somewhat hazy sense of the fact that there was a material difference. The larger problem is that Picard is very much unlike the Doctor in temperament and attitude. But in a show that doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between Britain and France or Horatio Hornblower and the British Empire, we should perhaps not credit anyone with thinking too hard about the details here. Crass as it is, the fact remains that the key signifier of Picard really is “he’s British.” That’s it – the extent of the character trait, much as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov were Black, Asian, and Russian respectively.
It does not seem overly far-fetched, in other words, to think that the decision to move to a British captain was in part a response to Doctor Who, especially given that Doctor Who, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, had a diffuse distribution network in which episodes did not air at a fixed date or time nationwide. Given that the show Star Trek: The Next Generation most immediately resembled was British, and traded in part on the respectability implied by airing on PBS (then, as now, a more “sophisticated” network), the idea of casting a British lead to emphasize the show’s own respectability makes an intuitive sense. Even if it was almost certain to gain a much bigger profile than Doctor Who, Doctor Who and Max Headroom were about the only two major pieces of science fiction on television in 1987, and both were British imports. So yes, of course they hired a Brit for Picard. It was what you did at the time.
If all of this seems a little thin, frankly, I agree. The truth is that Star Trek’s influence on Doctor Who is, on the whole, occasional, and that Doctor Who’s influence on Star Trek is superficial. And there’s a reason for that, which is that in the end, the shows have diametrically opposed systems of ethics. And it’s really clear in the period when Star Trek: The Next Generation is being made alongside the Sylvester McCoy era. Especially in its final season, the McCoy era is routinely ripping apart the notion of some sort of set endpoint to history, and is constantly embroiling itself in the politics of the here and now.
Compare that, then, to Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly its first episode. There’s something deeply unsettling about the view of history presented in “Encounter at Farpoint.” On the one hand, it opens the door to a considerably less utopian take on things than is normally associated with Star Trek. It’s openly acknowledged that in the early 21st century humanity nearly destroys itself in a nuclear war, a shockingly pessimistic view of our then-present fortunes. But this is presented as just a stepping stone on the way to the utopian, classless future of Starfleet. And Starfleet is unambiguously presented as the end point of human development – the great future awaiting us. But if this future is both inevitable and following a nuclear catastrophe near the time of transmission the implications for contemporary politics are almost completely nihilistic. Just lie back and think of Starfleet.
Some of this is down to Roddenberry’s influence on the series – he was the major force opposing openly political stories, for instance. But even outside of his influence (and I largely find it difficult to give him much credit beyond creating a vague frame of things – he is very much the American Terry Nation, only with more stories of appalling behavior) the fact remains that Star Trek, in all of its configurations, embraces the idea of an endpoint of history in which Western values fan out across the galaxy in a frontierless manifest destiny.
Yes, “Encounter at Farpoint” actively holds the show’s utopianism up for critique, but it’s a show trial at best. Utopianism wins, hands down, and, having vindicated itself, goes on to scatter its enemies and confound their politics. It’s imperialism with the serial number filed off, presenting an absolutely fixed and eternal vision of the future. The Doctor would blow it up without a second thought. And this, in the end, is why the shows are never going to be “friends” so to speak.
Still, there’s something in Star Trek: The Next Generation that, as of the end of 1989, is of immediate and massive interest to any Doctor Who fan and an obvious thing to rip off. It’s a cancelled science fiction show that came back from the dead to enormous popularity. And that’s a road map that Doctor Who could use right about now.
It is easy, especially after three subsequent series that were unambiguously “cult” television, to miss the fact that while it was on Star Trek: The Next Generation was a broadly popular show in much the same way that Doctor Who has been at any period in its history where it’s had a healthy status as a successful BBC show. This, in turn, stems from the status that its predecessor had in the 1970s and 80s, which was as a tremendously popular show in reruns. People – not just devoted fans – really liked watching old episodes of Star Trek.
In an age where reruns are increasingly the province of DVDs and Netflix, it may be necessary to explain briefly how American broadcast television works. Television stations are local affairs, serving a given region of the country. Many stations are affiliates – that is, they’re signed on to carry programming from one of the major networks, but aren’t owned by that network. And so most of the country is serviced by a set of local stations, one of which shows the programming for each of the major networks, as well as, normally, a PBS member station, which is a different financial model. But for a long time, in a lot of markets, there were also independent stations that weren’t affiliated with a network.
Even the network affiliates, however, get certain chunks of time where nothing is provided by the network to air. Some of this is used for local programming, but others are there for the affiliate to fill with whatever they want. And independent stations have reams of this sort of time to fill. Hence the idea of syndication – shows that are sold directly to stations to be run during the hours where there isn’t network programming, or all hours for independent stations. No two stations have the same set of syndicated series, and they don’t run at the same time of day from station to station. So Star Trek was, in the 70s and 80s, something that might run at 4pm on a random station, or, equally often, at 4am.
It was, in other words, something made almost entirely for the casual viewer. It was television to be enjoyed as background noise – as something that would come on and happen to be enjoyed. Often it aired during working hours, and so had a heavily female audience (something still regularly borne out in Star Trek fandom, which female skews like no other piece of straight sci-fi). It was, in other words, not a cult sci-fi audience. And Star Trek: The Next Generation was, from day one, designed to appeal to that broad audience. (This is increasingly leaving us in the odd position of talking a lot about “cult” television without having any examples. They’ll come – we’re just waiting for 1993. Well, 1994, actually, since that’s when the obvious book to connect The X-Files to comes up.)
Crucially, Star Trek: The Next Generation was also distributed by syndication. This involved some creativity from Paramount. They frequently used a technique called “barter syndication,” in which they actually gave the program away for free with seven minutes of ads pre-programmed, allowing local stations five minutes of their own advertising. They also, when push came to shove, refused to sell the enormously popular original series reruns to any station that didn’t also carry the new one. The result was that they managed to build a syndication network that covered 90% of the country, allowing Star Trek: The Next Generation to air exactly like the original series did – in syndication, wherever it fit on a given station’s schedule.
The gist of this is that the series was overtly focused on casual viewers, and it existed in the context of Star Trek not as a phenomenon that got people lining up at sci-fi conventions but as a phenomenon that aired at 2am and was watched by insomniacs and people unwinding after the evening shift, or in the early afternoon and was watched by mothers waiting for their kids to get off the school bus. Never mind all the lessons about how to do “reboots” that were learned from this show. That’s the real one: the proper way to bring back a “cult” show is to not actually have it be a cult show.