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‘Trek’ has drifted since ‘Next Generation’

Departing ‘Enterprise’ didn’t capture magic of other "Trek" series. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

Every day after middle school, I'd make popcorn and sprawl out on the living-room carpet. Impatiently, I'd wait for the screen to darken and the following words to escape Patrick Stewart's lips: "Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."

After he spoke, the Enterprise banked and shot into warp drive, and a new world unfolded on-screen for the next hour, minus commercial interruptions. Those words began an hour of escape.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" was appointment TV for me, and I was deeply fascinated by the show: A poster of the ship hung on my wall for many years. I browsed through a book outlining the ship's schematics. I used primitive graphic design software on the public library's computer to try to copy the graphic design of the displays on the ship's bridge. I had a plastic phaser and a communicator pin and two Star Trek Christmas tree ornaments. The very first CD I bought had the "Next Generation" theme on it.

Why, in my early teens, I was drawn into a utopian universe full of possibility and promises of a better, kinder tomorrow isn't a big mystery. Still, in retrospect, these things sound weird and obsessive, and obsessively weird. And when I attended a Star Trek convention with a friend a few years ago, I felt strangely out of place, and not just because there were Klingons everywhere. My interest in the show came and went, and has never returned with as much force as it had when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was being broadcast.

Thus, when the franchise comes to an end Friday — as the final two episodes of "Enterprise" air on UPN — I probably won't even watch. I just don't care, and haven't, really, since "Next Generation" ended.

‘Trek’ has moved away from original themes
Although there's certainly plenty of consternation about the series' conclusion, the end (for now) of Star Trek is long overdue. Television's most prolific science fiction franchise has, over the last 18 years, moved away from the original two series' basic themes: exploration, escapism, and the promise of a better tomorrow. And thus the three most recent series just haven't held up to the standards set by the first two.

On some level, all "Star Trek" series were about exploration. But none of the series that followed "The Next Generation" captured the magic that it managed to produce week after week. Each series — "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Star Trek: Voyager," and "Star Trek: Enterprise" — told its stories with varying degrees of success.

However, those three versions grounded themselves in a more gritty, realistic version of the future. While the writers and production designers deserve credit for offering worlds that were perhaps slightly more believable, they lost the fantastic, wondrous approach to space travel that "The Next Generation" borrowed from the original "Star Trek" and then perfected.

"Voyager" was too obsessed with the idea of returning home, and of course the immobile "Deep Space Nine" never really went anywhere. Both of them felt far too much like our world, not a utopian, even unrealistic future. On "Next Generation," viewers really felt like they were exploring uncharted space alongside the crew.

"Enterprise"'s concept seemed to reconnect with the idea of exploration, but aesthetically, it didn't fit into the Star Trek universe. The ship is too modern, even despite its beams and hard edges. Ironically, because "Enterprise" doesn't look anything like its rapidly aging grandparent, it feels false, an impostor pretending to precede a series it clearly comes long after. A Commodore 128 plugged into a TV set feels more futuristic than the flashing lights of the original NCC-1701, and thus "Enterprise" found itself in an impossible position: appeal to audiences in the 21st century while looking like a 1960s vision of the 22nd century.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" found this balance with a sleek ship and slightly more idealized human inhabitants. Still, the series was far from flawless, almost shifting into full-on camp mode at times. The early episodes now appear almost comical. They have the feel of high school actors navigating sets constructed in 15 minutes with spray-painted refrigerator boxes; Data's caked-on makeup resembled a robotic Tammy Faye Baker.

Yet the cast managed to move beyond the constraints of late 1980s production design, and there's no doubt that much of that is attributable to Patrick Stewart's presence. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard, he brought the full force of his stage acting experience, and helped make many of the stories feel like Shakespearean dramas set in space.

The other actors also added weight to the show, although many took time to find and feel comfortable as their characters.

Troi's stilted dialogue gradually improved, and Worf eventually learned how to be more than a 24th century Ryan Atwood, doing more than brooding and fighting. Even teenage Wesley Crusher and android Data grew up over time.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" became the realization of the Trek universe's ideals, an imperfect but post-apocalyptic world where adventure and exploration were the primary goals. The episodes posed serious questions, starting with the pilot, in which Q forced Captain Picard to defend humanity against its sins. These themes weren't always introduced subtly or gracefully, but they fit into the universe that had been created.

While later Trek series picked up on similar themes, none had the distinct combination of elements that made "The Next Generation" so watchable.

Although no Trek series are currently in development, ideas floated for future series include a focus on Starfleet Academy.

That might be a good idea for a typical drama, but it's not the right way to bring back Trek. The only real way to resuscitate Star Trek is to focus on exploring space in a future after the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D's time. Otherwise, it's better to end the series now, at least until there's a way to recapture what "Star Trek: The Next Generation" used to bring into our living rooms.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV.