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Starfleet, we have a problem

Red alert! The “Star Trek” franchise is under attack, and the damage report is far from promising. By Brian Bellmont.
/ Source: Special to

Red alert! “Star Trek” is under attack, and the damage report is far from promising. Is it time to put the Starship Enterprise into dry-dock for good, or is there still some speed left in those warp engines after all?

Over the years, the TV universe has become a far more crowded place, and “Trek” isn’t the only smart, entertaining sci-fi series on the air anymore. Yes, “Babylon 5,” “Roswell,” “Farscape” and “Stargate SG-1” owe much of their success to the trail that Trek blazed, but, even as they pay homage, they’re eroding the cult of Star Trek with their very existence.

Increased competition for audience share-of-mind notwithstanding, Trek’s latest incarnation, “Enterprise,” is up against an unprecedented number of disgruntled fans.

Much of the venom — including an online petition to have him replaced — has been directed at longtime Trek executive producer Rick Berman, who picked up the mantle from creator Gene Roddenberry and has guided every series and movie from “The Next Generation” forward.

And it’s not just fans who think Trek is in trouble: In July, video game manufacturer Activision filed suit against media giant Viacom, claiming that the company let its Trek franchise “stagnate and decay.” Viacom disputed the claims, but the charges struck a collective chord with fans. Trek, they say, is off track.

From Kirk to Archer
All this fervor from relatively modest beginnings: “Star Trek,” the original series that ran from 1966 to 1969 and eventually spawned a kajillion-dollar industry - and launched TV sequels, movies, and a barrage of merchandise, from books to action figures, toy phasers to lunch boxes - started as a low-budget hour that lasted only 80 episodes.

In the original “Trek,” brash and dashing Captain James T. Kirk, logical Vulcan Mr. Spock, and crotchety Doctor “Bones” McCoy led a crew of intrepid explorers across the galaxy, encountering new species and - in Kirk’s case - making out with them. The show was able to deal with controversial issues such as war, racism and drugs by dressing the turbulent topics up in alien costumes - and confusing network censors.

Post-cancellation, Trek gained momentum, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” followed in 1987, some 18 years after the first series transported off the air.

After a shaky start, “TNG” reinvigorated the franchise, launched four flicks (so far), and firmly entrenched characters like gabby Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Klingon-with-a-heart-of-gold Lt. Worf, android Lt. Commander Data, and empathic Counselor Deanna Troi into the pop culture pantheon.

A spate of movies featuring the original Enterprise crew followed, then another stab at Trek TV. Launched in 1993 and commanded by Trek’s first captain of color, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” was the brooding tale of a Federation space station parked at the edge of a wormhole, an outer space express lane to the far reaches of the universe.

Early episodes of “DS9” may have been fundamentally flawed because the show’s premise forced stories to come to the stark and industrial space station, rather than following the Trek tradition of exploring new worlds. In the third season, though, the show added a high-tech warship called the Defiant to the mix, and the franchise resumed its proactive pursuit of new worlds, characters and plots.

The next series, “Star Trek: Voyager,” about a crew’s journey to find its way home from the deepest recesses of space, introduced Trek’s first female captain. It took seven years, but the U.S.S. Voyager finally asked directions and made it back to Earth, although not before it began to show signs that the franchise was running out of creative gas.

And now, “Enterprise,” a prequel that follows the crew of the Starship Enterprise as they explore papier mache worlds and seek out new, mostly human-looking civilizations - for the very first time.

UPN made a lot of hoopla over the tweaks producers made to the show’s third season: bigger crises, higher stakes, tighter costumes. But will they be enough to enthrall a new generation of Trekkers - and, more importantly, the millions of people who don’t know a Tribble from a transporter?

Survival tips
“We don’t have the luxury of being safe or cautious anymore,” growls Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer in the new season’s opening minutes. That might very well be the series’ clarion call as well.

The rework of “Enterprise” is a giant leap forward toward fending off the most hideous villain the Trek franchise has ever faced: irrelevance. But to succeed, the Enterprise needs an even more intensive tune-up. Life signs are faint, but with a little ingenuity, producers can repair Roddenberry’s baby before it gets sucked into the black hole of audience apathy.

Turn the action up to 11: Trek fans may stay for the thinly veiled commentary on society, but they come for the sci-fi action. The talky, preachy “Deep Space Nine” worked best when intergalactic war broke out and Lt. Worf, the angry Klingon, was brought in to rejuvenate the fourth season. Kick some alien butt already! The “new” “Enterprise” has already upped the action (with the addition of a new military assault command) and sex (with a steamy, topless Vulcan massage session), but there’s more work to be done.

Give viewers new characters to care about: Every Trek had its standout characters, and they all seem to be variations on the “fish out of water” theme. Besides the classic “I’ll never understand you illogical humans” bemusement of Mr. Spock, the biggest breakouts so far have been Data and Worf on “TNG” (and, to a lesser extent, the holographic Doctor and Borg babe Seven of Nine on “Voyager”). All were trying to get by in a world that’s unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. That’s speaking to the inner nerd in all of us. Keep ‘em coming.

New villains: Not every alien race can possibly look exactly like a human with blue paint and a ridge above their nose. Let loose the computer-generated baddies, guys! The rework of “Enterprise” has indeed added a few CG characters (most notably the insect-like Xindi), but there’s room for a bunch more in the Trek universe.

Laugh it up: The best-received movie of the franchise has been “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” where Kirk and crew cracked wise and in return gained legions of new fans. (Who can forget Chekov looking for his “nuclear wessels”?) Sure, there’s a place for dark, brooding characters and plots in a Trek TV series, but today’s audiences, weaned on genre-crossing fare like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” expect a blend of compelling storylines and heartfelt drama lightened by clever, character-driven humor.

Beam somebody up, Scotty: Speaking of Kirk and company, a visit from time-traveling William Shatner would do wonders to cement the new series as a successor worthy of carrying on the Trek name. Each of the other series saw plenty of crossover action. DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy, now a retired admiral, showed up for “The Next Generation’s” maiden voyage. And Armin Shimerman, “DS9’s” gruff-but-lovable Ferengi Quark, paid a visit to “Voyager.” Through the magic of special effects, the “Deep Space Nine” crew even popped in on an actual episode of the original series. When will one of the old favorites beam onto this Enterprise?

Give up control. Hand over a movie to an established director who can bring new fans to the franchise. Geeks and non-geeks alike would sell their own mothers to see what David Fincher, Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan or Stephen Spielberg would do with the keys to the Enterprise. And how about asking Stephen King or William Gibson to pen a TV script, as both did with “The X-Files”?

Get a catchphrase. “Beam me up, Scotty,” “He’s dead, Jim,” “Resistance is futile,” and “Make it so” have all made their way into non-Trek conversations. Let’s hear some new verbal gems. Of course, some catchphrases are assimilated into the lexicon more quickly than others. So while “I canna change the laws of physics!” made it, others may never catch on. (Just a tip: Potential bon mots like “Boy, am I hungry. Space hungry!” “Whatchyou talkin’ ‘bout, Subcommander T’Pol?” or “Dude, where’s my spaceship?” probably don’t stand a chance.)

Don’t be stingy with the new technology. Let’s see some new inventions people can chat about around the water cooler. Trek has introduced plenty of cool new gadgets and gizmos over the years: Cloaking devices, holodecks, doors that open with a sssshhhhh sound. More, please.

Turn the Trek universe on its pointy ear. Finally, do something — anything — to get back on the general public’s radar screen. Reinvent the franchise. Sign a big star to lead the next TV series. Wake up and smell the dilithium crystals: It’s been years since “Saturday Night Live” and its ilk have bothered to parody “Star Trek” and its once-obsessive fans. The fact that nobody even makes fun of it anymore is a clear indicator that the franchise’s image needs a boost.

Is there hope to save Star Trek? The sooner producers boldly go where successful action shows have gone before, the less likely “Enterprise” will fizzle — ensuring that the Trek franchise will, to quote a beloved Trek character, live long and prosper.

Set a course, Mr. Berman. Warp factor nine.

Brian Bellmont is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.