The One Question Levar Burton Had Before Joining Star Trek: The Next Generation

In September of 1987, "Star Trek" returned from a decade-long hiatus on television with a new series meant to give the franchise a somewhat overdue makeover for a more modern age. Nothing could possibly top the adventures of James T. Kirk and Spock from "The Original Series" and its assorted big-screen movies, of course, all of which heralded an idealized vision of our future and created a lasting legacy for several of the most famous characters in all of science fiction. So how could an underdog series like "The Next Generation," starring an entirely new cast and set even further in the future, possibly hope to win over a very loyal and passionate fanbase? Well, the continued involvement of original creator Gene Roddenberry surely couldn't hurt.

Roddenberry's influence on "Trek" as a whole likely only rivals that of George Lucas with "Star Wars," which is saying a lot. Throughout each new television and film adaptation, writers, directors, and even cast members abided by one overarching mandate: Is this faithful to Roddenberry's interpretation of the overall franchise? So, despite having the odds stacked against it, "The Next Generation" immediately made an impact with its colorful new crew of humans and aliens alike, a much more progressive version of Starfleet, and a cast that fully embodied the creative ideals that Roddenberry strove to uphold. But before the series ever made it to the air, convincing the actual stars of the show of its potential proved somewhat difficult.

So it should be little surprise that, at least when it came to LeVar Burton considering whether to play future fan-favorite character Geordi LaForge, the first question on his mind had to do with one thing and one thing only: Whether Roddenberry would be involved or not.

Priorities in the right place

Hindsight being 20/20 and all, it's hard to imagine a world where "The Next Generation" wasn't a guaranteed hit. But when Gene Roddenberry first envisioned a follow-up show to "The Original Series," it would take another ten years for "The Next Generation" to finally grace the airwaves — partly because of plans to give the original cast the big-screen treatment, but also because of then-contemporary concerns about the lack of success surrounding sequels (a foreign concept to us in the 21st Century, of course).

In an 2007 article celebrating what was at the time the 20th anniversary of the series, Entertainment Weekly published an oral history exploring how Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the rest of the Enterprise-D came to be in the first place. Amid a ton of fascinating tidbits from cast and crew, one detail concerned LeVar Burton admitting that his one condition to signing on the dotted line stemmed from his own passion for "Trek." As he put it:

"Bob [Justman, producer on 'The Original Series' and supervising producer on 'The Next Generation'] and I had done a TV movie in the early '80s. I was such a fan of 'Star Trek,' we sat around on the set, and I just pumped him for stories about Shatner and Nimoy. So I got a call from Bob saying they were mounting a new 'Star Trek' series and would I be interested. My only question was, Is Gene involved?"

Naturally, Roddenberry had a hand in the series from the very beginning. As for Trekkies initially struggling to accept replacements for Kirk and Spock, Burton had a message for them, too: "I never bought the idea that genuine 'Star Trek' fans had no room in their hearts for a new incarnation. So there."