It is hard to overstate how much of a departure the “Star Trek” franchise’s eighties-and-nineties-straddling incarnation, “The Next Generation,” was from the original series. It retained much of the nomenclature and established codes (the inscrutable techno-scientific babble, the ship’s name, the naval ranks, the canonical alien species) but swung almost entirely toward the second, more cerebral form of science fiction. It had no anchor in the present, nor did it genuflect before America’s frontier myths. “The Next Generation” was wholesale utopia, a thought experiment on how humans would behave under terminally improved material circumstances. Civilization, and the future, had won.
And what a future! At the end of the show’s first season, the new captain, Jean-Luc Picard, laid bare his world’s parameters. In “The Neutral Zone,” a reverse-time-travel episode, cryogenically preserved twentieth-century humans awake on the Enterprise. One of them, a take-charge Wall Street tycoon, is particularly eager to reclaim his stock portfolio and his status as master of the universe. “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things,” Picard tells him—and us, the audience—sternly. “We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”