Reset Buttons Started To Strangle Story
The biggest problem with eschewing serialized storytelling is that stakes are often eschewed right along with it. This isn’t to say Star Trek didn’t create incredibly compelling drama in single episodes – it very much did. But when characters can’t go through important, game-changing experiences, or when plot armor is so obvious, it’s hard to have cliffhangers that resonate to their fullest. As effective as the last scene in “Best of Both Worlds Pt. I” continues to be, there was no way Jean-Luc Picard wasn’t going to be fine come season 4, short of an announcement that Patrick Stewart was leaving. And, sure enough, after one episode that addressed the trauma he’d gone through, the captain was largely back to his old self, aside from when the Enterprise would encounter the Borg once more in episodes like “I, Borg” and “Descent Pts. I and II.”
We could trust – at least in TNG – that whatever the Enterprise D encountered, she’d endure very little lasting damage. While there’s a comfort in knowing fan-favorite characters will show up consistently and won’t be violently ripped out for the sake of dramatic effect, there’s a reason Battlestar Galactica was as groundbreaking a hit as it was. It took a Star Trek-esque premise and threw the reset button out the window – mass genocide is committed in the first episode, and the only ship and character with any real plot armor was the Galactica herself, and even she barely made it to the end of the series. People died, changed values, left jobs, left marriages – in general, reacted truthfully to the environment around them as opposed to what Star Trek: Voyager became under Paramount’s watchful eye – TNG in the Delta quadrant.
One of the many criticisms Voyager received – from former DS9 showrunner and BSG creator himself, Ron Moore – was that it was a ship in the Delta Quadrant with virtually no infrastructure or support, presumably lost forever in unfriendly territory, yet it looked pristine and seemed filled with mostly emotionally well-balanced people. Had Voyager been allowed to suffer more realistic pitfalls of being so far from home and beset upon by enemies - in short, have problems like scarcity, equipment failures, and mental illness that couldn’t be solved in one episode - it’s likely we would’ve gotten a very different and perhaps more compelling series.
But considering Deep Space Nine’s relatively lukewarm reception, despite the incredible narrative heights it achieved, it’s not totally surprising Paramount insisted episodic television be the rule when it came to Voyager. That said, there’s an argument to be made that DS9’s serialized nature is exactly what has brought renewed attention to the series as it ages.
DS9 Broke the Mold, Which is Part of the Reason It Endures
Aside from a few noteworthy exceptions, TNG employed next to no serialized storytelling. Comparatively, Deep Space Nine was defined by it. The primary example cited by most is the Dominion War arc that dominated the back half of the series, but in general, Deep Space Nine had always favored ongoing storylines simply because most of its action takes place in a stationary location. The literal space station sat in the middle of the aftermath of the Cardassian War and its brutal occupation of the planet Bajor. DS9 served as window into galactic politics in a more complete way than TNG or the Original Series had ever attempted. Stories certainly differed significantly episode to episode, but the ever-evolving political backdrop always lingered in the background as we watched Bajor rebuild its infrastructure, with the Cardassians attempting to manage their new, less powerful position, and humans in the middle of it all trying to get everyone to play nice.
Because serialized storytelling was one of its building blocks from the inception, the later seasons had a good foundation on which to rest the Dominion War arc and produce some of Star Trek’s finest episodes. It’s also why the series has aged so well and has enjoyed renewed popularity with the advent of streaming. There was still a reset button on Deep Space Nine, but stories like Nog dealing with the loss of his leg and the PTSD that came along with it, and Worf’s grief at the loss of Jadzia in season 7, showed the series' ability to evolve beyond the episodic tradition that came before it. That evolution was unquestionably for the better, and Star Trek: Discovery just doubled down on it.