Star Trek: The Next Generation is a Gene Roddenberry joint, right? Right - at least until the Star Trek creator’s death in 1991. But The Next Generation began without Roddenberry’s involvement. In the late 1980s, Paramount was champing at the bit to further exploit its unexpected cash cow, but Roddenberry was reluctant to return. So, being the studio in charge, Paramount went ahead and started developing its own followup to Star Trek - a followup quite different from the one we ended up getting.
This week, an early pitch for that version of the show was uncovered by the Trek Files podcast, and it’s quite the fascinating read. Written by Greg Strangis (later creator of the War of the Worlds TV series), with input from Jeff Hayes (T.J. Hooker), Rick Berman (virtually all of Star Trek from TNG to ENT), and Paramount president John Pike, the pitch is dated September 1986 - around a month before the show was formally announced - and it's presented in almost threatening terms as what the studio would produce were Roddenberry not to sign on.
This early version of The Next Generation would have dealt with the aftermath of a ten-year war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Specifically, it would have focused on the crew of the USS Odyssey, a former training vessel now on a mission of spreading peace throughout the galaxy. And it'd have a hip new cast for a hip new generation.
The ship's initial captain Rhon (no relation), a Vulcan well-traveled enough to learn the value of emotion, would have been one of the few "senior" members of the cast. Partially paralysed in battle with the Klingons, Rhon would get further paralysed - to death - in the show's pilot episode. But get this: Captain Rhon would live on as a holographic avatar of the computer's historical and tactical database, to be called on “in times of great need.” It's hard not to cringe at that particular conceit; worse still, there’s even indication that the computer would show old Original Series clips to illustrate scenarios to the former cadets now in charge of the ship.
Replacing Rhon as captain: orphan cadet Richard Kincaid, whose primary character attribute is his inability to heed the advice of others. That don't sound like a great quality for a captain, but hey, in Starfleet some people just fail upward. Serving under Kincaid: a logic-obsessed Vulcan unfortunately named Brik; seasoned Jamaican engineer Horatio Gage; an alien cadet of some description; and Dr Karen Hart, on her first voyage after a mid-life change of career. The descriptions of the show's female characters are easily the most cringe-worthy part of the document - especially helm officer Helen Joyce, described variously as “painfully beautiful,” “lovely,” and “damned good looking,” and positioned almost entirely as a love interest for Kincaid. Yeesh.
Odyssey's final key crewmember would have played a key role in the show's political scenario. Lt Commander Mynk, a Klingon, boards the Odyssey for a top-secret mission: he's carrying a peace treaty (for some reason, a physical object) to a top secret meeting between the Empire and the Federation. Though a ceasefire has been called on the front, the mission takes Odyssey into enemy territory, and Rhon dies safeguarding Mynk and the peace summit. The pilot episode would end with an uneasy peace between the former enemies; a key clause of the treaty would mandate the placement of Starfleet and Klingon observers aboard each other's vessels as a show of goodwill. Mynk would have become one of these attaches aboard Odyssey - a potential source of political volatility and drama.
Thus crewed, Odyssey's primary mission would be to greet new species with a practical demonstration of inter-species cooperation. The key villains would be the Romulans, picking at the depleted forces of the two key governments with “Third World tactics,” but the new mandate would be “to go forth and spread the word that ‘Intergalactic Peace Is Possible.’” The whole thing feels like a blunt, cartoon version of Star Trek ideals.
Roddenberry's response to the pitch can be gleaned from the eventual final version of The Next Generation. Gone was any pervasive sense of in-crew flirtatiousness (at least at first). Overt, overarching political allegory? Axed, except for a few recurring storylines. Conflict between crew members? Famously removed. Indeed, according to Rick Berman, Roddenberry’s very involvement in the show may have been spurred by his displeasure at the contents of the document.
Despite the myriad differences to the Next Generation we all know, some key elements appear to have held over. It's easy to see how the “pure logic” Vulcan Brik could have become Data, for example; ditto Mynk and Worf, and divorced Dr Hart and widowed Dr Crusher. And of course, (relative) peace with the Klingons still came as a surprise when TNG premiered in 1987.
It's easy also to see comparisons with other Trek incarnations. A Vulcan second-in-command to a human male captain would have felt samey after The Original Series. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, released in 1991, told a story of peace accords not dissimilar to the ones discussed in this pitch. JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek film played with a similar notion of cadets forced into active service by circumstance, while the Klingon war setting and captain's pilot-episode death are eerily reminiscent of Discovery. Any similarities, however, are almost certainly coincidence.
Would this proto-show have been better or worse than the actual product? It's literally impossible to tell. Development happens, especially in shows operating in fantastic genres, and ideas frequently get dreamed up only to be immediately discarded. Hell, this is just one of many unmade Star Trek shows and films pitched or planned at various junctures. But though Roddenberry cut this one off at the pass, so to speak, it's always fascinating to wonder about the alternate universe that could have been.