When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, there was no mistaking who the lead of the show was. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, portrayed by Patrick Stewart, had a commanding presence that filled the screen. By the end of the first episode, viewers knew who ran the newest version of the Enterprise and who was second in command. But a memo, shared by The Trek Files, that Gene Roddenberry wrote to Eddie Milkis, who would go on to become the post-production producer for the first episode, Encounter at Farpoint, in October 1986 reveals a different idea for the new series.
Roddenberry wrote that he had been playing with the idea of making the first officer (or whoever leads the landing parties) be the lead of the show. He thought it made better sense not to risk both the ship’s captain and the first officer on away missions like they’d done on Star Trek: The Original Series.
But Roddenberry was concerned about audience interest with the first officer unable to make command decisions on his own. The captain would, if present or available, always have to be consulted. Still, he imagined there would be drama behind the audience having to await the captain’s decision along with the “First Lieutenant.”
Though Jonathan Frakes as Commander William T. Riker had no trouble projecting a powerful command presence when leading the away teams, it would have been difficult to have Patrick Stewart, with his domineering personality, relegated to the background of the story. But, perhaps, another, less forceful actor would have been chosen as the captain in that situation.
Would a show about the first officer have worked? There are many series where the person in actual command is not the lead. Many crime-drama shows take that path, but it makes sense for a captain leading a squad room to dole out orders then leave the detectives to carry them out. But someone commanding a spaceship has to be front and center as he or she makes major decisions every day. Sure, the first officer can take command if the captain is incapacitated, but to be the lead of a show in the Star Trek franchise? One has to wonder if it would have worked.