ST:TNG: The Crew (part 1)
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Picard is almost diametrically opposed in personality from Captain Kirk. Where Kirk is an impulsive lover and fighter, Picard is a cultured philosopher.
Picard's responsibilities as captain are also markedly different from Kirk's because the writers decided that it was actually pretty stupid for the captain of the ship to be regularly endangering himself by always leading away teams on potentially hostile planets, so by the time TNG takes place, it's Star Fleet policy for the ship's first officer to lead away teams, while the captain stays behind on the ship. (Now I wonder which came first: The desire to have a more philosophical captain, with the change in Star Fleet policy as justification or the reasonable update in Star Fleet policy, which in turn led the writers to make the captain more philosophical?)
As his name would suggest, Captain Picard is supposed to be of French ancestry. However, the producers ended up casting English actor Patrick Stewart (and veteran of the Royal Shakespearean Company) in the role and the writers didn't really do much to make him seem French. (I think he said "merde," occasionally, and there were references to his family owning a vineyard, and maybe his brother had a French accent?)
Commander William T. Riker
Commander Riker is the first officer of the Enterprise. As such, he has inherited Captain Kirk's job of leading away teams, as well as a lot of Kirk's "girl in every port" personality. (However, having captain Kirk fall in love with you is often a death sentence, whereas Riker's affections seem to be less lethal.)
Anyway, Riker was intended to be the main (male) sex symbol of the show, but it turned out that the female viewership actually preferred Picard. (Let's see, a powerful Star Fleet captain who's also a cultured gentleman vs. an impulsive pretty boy who never seems to live up to his supposedly impressive reputation? No contest.*)
Lieutenant Commander Data
Every incarnation of Star Trek has one regular crew member who's really different from everyone else. The original series included crew members who were black, white, Asian, Russian, American, Scottish and . . . Vulcan. Star Trek: The Next Generation included crew members who were human, Klingon, (half) Beta-Zoid and . . . android.
Data is the creation of the brilliant cyberneticist Noonien Soong. He's not a mass-produced model; on the contrary, he's the only one of his kind (or almost). He is mathematically brilliant, but he lacks emotion and consequently has trouble understanding human nature.
As a character, Data is useful because he can drive the plot of an episode in a number of different ways. On a good day, he can provide comic relief as he tries to grasp social subtleties. On a bad day, his malfunctioning "positronic net" (= android brain) can provide a story conflict. (I wouldn't call Data a loose cannon, by any stretch, but there are a surprising number of plots that are driven by something going wrong with him. Or the holodeck. And then there's that episode where something goes wrong with both Data and the holodeck. Good times.) And on a really bad day, he can single-handedly save everyone with his special android powers.
Stay tuned for our next installment, where we discuss three more members of the crew (probably Troi, Worf, and Crusher).
*This is, incidentally, also the problem with the film First Knight. I don't know any woman who would pick Richard Gere's Lancelot over Sean Connery's Arthur.