Okay, pop quiz, fill in the blanks:
1) When __________ was recently removed from life support and began to die, supporters launched a highly-visible media campaign in an ultimately futile attempt to wrest legal control in a bid for resuscitation.
2) Possessed of iconic status and cherished around the world by millions, __________ recently passed on after several years of increasing frailty caused by degenerative infirmities.
1) Star Trek.
2) Star Trek.
Hey, you bury your sacred cows, and I'll bury mine.
In just a few weeks, the last episode of "Star Trek: Enterprise" will air. If you're not a Star Trek fan, that probably doesn't mean much to you. In fairness, I'm not that keen on Enterprise myself. But it bears weight if only for one reason: the end of this season -- this series -- means that come Autumn 2005, it will be the first time in 19 years that there has not been some iteration of Star Trek cranking out new episodes.
Nineteen years! Longer than "NYPD Blue." Longer than "The Simpsons." It's far from a record, mind you, but that's still a pretty impressive track record for a franchise most often mocked for the unusual social tendencies of its most devoted fans.
The diminishing of Trek comes at a particularly interesting juncture on the sci-fi continuum. Less than a week after Enterprise's finale airs on UPN, the last film in the Star Wars sextet makes its debut in theaters worldwide. Much like Trek, Star Wars (as a franchise) has been suffering from overall degradation for several years. And while The Revenge of the Sith promises a far larger and more lucrative send-off than that of Enterprise, the preceding two films in the Star Wars series don't exactly inspire confidence in George Lucas' ultimate chapter from a critical standpoint.
It is the best of times and the worst of times to be a science fiction fan. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy finally made it to the big screen; a waste of a great book, in my opinion. The Brits finally got a new "Dr. Who" series in production, only to have the Doctor quit after one season. More and more classic sci-fi shows are making the jump to DVD. But that's tempered by Lucas' fidgety re-editing of his own epic's long-overdue digital release. Purists will always know: Han fired first, no matter what the scene may show now.
All the while, biding time in the deep recesses of the Sci-Fi Channel, the "lost franchise," Battlestar Galactica, gathers strength. Where now-dead sci-fi shows like "Babylon 5" and "Farscape" failed, Galactica may yet triumph. No funny foreheads, no muppet actors, no child actors, no metallic-voiced toasters or robot dogs. Galactica may yet do the unthinkable, and jump from a niche cable outlet to broadcast television.
Enterprise's swan song is an ignoble one for several reasons. It's been packaged with another first-run episode on the same night, essentially rushing the finale. (This makes sense; the following Friday night, everyone's going to be out at the theater watching Sith, anyway). Offered up by its production team as a "valentine" to Trek fans, the episode features characters from the most successful Trek series (The Next Generation) interacting with the Enterprise characters as part of a holodeck simulation. In layman's terms: it's a "dream" episode. The inclusion of TNG characters is insult atop injury for the Enterprise cast. In effect, they're being told, "You couldn't carry the finale. So we're stunt casting. Oh, and here's a box, please empty out your dressing room."
The executive production/writing team of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga has borne the most withering criticism from both fans and foes of Enterprise. The scorn heaped upon these two is staggering in its depth and vitriol. Much of it is deserved, and much of it has been served right back. Diehard Trekkers accused the pair of running fast and loose with franchise continuity. Fans already frustrated by a pair of lackluster cinematic releases and Enterprise's tepid predecessor, "Star Trek: Voyager," suggested that too many trips had been made to the well. And critics of all pedigree lambasted the show -- and its cast -- as flat and unadventurous.
But from the first episode, Berman and Braga thumbed their noses at everyone. "Star Trek" was consciously dropped from the title, as the duo tried to sell the series outside the fanbase. The tradition of a sweeping opening score was dropped in favor of two-bit opera hack Russell Watson singing a schmaltz-filled Diane Warren song made famous by Rod Stewart. The Vulcans -- the logic-guided race of pointy-eared pacifists made famous by Mr. Spock -- were turned into a conniving species of arrogant backbiters determined to thwart humanity's exploration of space. It only went downhill from there.
So several weeks ago, following substantial shake-ups at Viacom, the parent company of Paramount (owner of all that is Trek), fresh eyes looked at the bottom line and slashed Enterprise from the budget. If there's any irony, it's that Enterprise still lasted longer than the original Star Trek series, which barely scraped out three seasons on NBC back in the '60s. And yet that scrappy little series managed to spawn nearly 40 years' worth of entertainment across nearly every form of media.
Berman and Braga have mumbled their unapologetic explanations as to why Enterprise couldn't cut it. The funniest to me is that same admission of "too many trips to the well" that so many were screaming four years ago. Wait a few years, they have suggested. Let some hunger develop again. Come back with a new concept and Trek will live again, better than ever.
You know what? I don't think so.
Lucasfilm is hard at work on the concept of a Star Wars television show. I'm not familiar enough with it to know where and when in the continuity of the films it's supposed to take place. But by its very nature it defeats the nature of Star Wars, which is to be huge, epic, cinematic. Trying to bottle that for the small screen is an exercise in futility. The external appearance is of a franchise which has reached its logical conclusion -- the stories of Anakin and Luke Skywalker are ended, neatly, on the big screen -- desperately grasping for some way to hold on to the marketability.
Any attempt to resuscitate Star Trek is going to be guilty of the same thing. Devoted fans and greedy studio execs want the feeding tube reinserted, oblivious to the fact that the franchise has been dead for years. Those early fans of Trek are in their 50s and 60s now. Younger fans have seen the shows and the movies decline precipitously; the very characteristics of the show that enticed us are absent now. Generating that kind fresh enthusiasm four or five -- or more -- years from now? Even Mr. Scott couldn't pull off a miracle like that.
It's a shame that as technological advances propel us at an ever-quickening rate into a present that looks a whole lot like yesterday's awe-inspiring future, the two most-beloved and most-influential science fiction franchises of television and cinema are so hopelessly constrained by the archaic fetters of market share, demographics and the bottom line. Still, many episodes of Star Trek hinted that in time humanity would evolve past the constraints of corporeal form. Perhaps the first step in our cultural evolution is leaving these stagnant franchises behind.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
4.22.05 @ 12:22a
Star Trek peaked with TNG, and that series could have gone on for a lot longer. Instead of gracefully going out on top, though, Berman and his cohorts frantically wrapped up the show with an abrupt and awkward ending that left a bad taste in many a mouth - then tried in vain to recapture the magic with not one, but THREE subsequent series.
One season of Voyager was enough to turn me off the Trek franchise, but I still have every episode of TNG on tape. Much of it still stands head and shoulders above other sf.
4.22.05 @ 1:09a
Russ, I know you haven't been watching it this season, but seriously, it's the best season to date. Which is ironic.
But they've pulled the drawstring around viewers by having constant episode continuations, which screams desperation in 5 different star systems.
Nevertheless, the actors portraying Captain Archer, Tripp and Phlox are first-rate (Bakula alone holds up pretty well as a 50-something in an action series)and it will be a shame to see them go.
Weren't some rabid fans trying to raise the money to produce another season on their own? Think Paramount would allow that?
TNG was a great series. The TNG movie continuum? Oh, very bad.
4.22.05 @ 1:17a
Babylon 5 failed? It went its appointed five years and ended with a premeditated epilogue. My major disappointments were the rushing of the endgame into Season 4 and J. Michael Straczynski's caving to pressure in creating sequels (it was obvious his heart wasn't in it). Over at jmsnews, he's reported that he and Bryce Zabel (creator of "Dark Skies") wrote, of their own accord, a new series bible for a Star Trek series, took it to Paramount, and got a "Thanks, but no thanks" answer: Paramount wants to give Trek a few years off, and they aren't particularly looking for new blood. I fear you're right, Russ: that sense of Star Trek wonder that brought us episodes like "Arena" and "The Corbomite Maneuver" will have to come from somewhere else.
4.22.05 @ 8:55a
Babylon 5 failed in the perspective that it never achieved the same kind of pan-pop culture status as ST, SW, and even to a lesser degree, the original BSG. In spite of some decent writing and acting, B5 never took with me, at least, not because I didn't like it, but because I couldn't find it. It suffered much with trying to find a home, because it was a syndicated show. Similarly Farscape, though it has a substantial core group of dedicated fans, never really broke out because the audience was limited to those who had the SciFi Channel. I was startled when, several months ago, they aired the pilot miniseries of the NEW BSG on NBC, albeit edited for brevity into a TV movie. That's exposure I wouldn't have expected; I'm curious to see if a ratings-weak NBC might consider bringing the whole series in as a summer replacement.
I read the bit about JMS trying to breathe new life into Trek; I believe it happened prior to the debut of Enterprise, but I could be wrong. But I think Paramount (and the execs in charge of Trek's rights) are too insular and self-absorbed to allow outsiders, no matter the pedigree, to make substantive changes to what (at the time) was still the corporate cash cow. It was only after the abysmal ratings of Enterprise's season 3 that they allowed some established, non-studio Trek writers to come aboard in a last-ditch attempt to boost the show. Sure, things got better, but it was far too late at that point.
4.22.05 @ 9:00a
Oh, and Tracey, there were numerous small-ball efforts by fans to breathe new life into Enterprise, culminating in one group's dubious claim that they'd raised over $3 million practically over night in order to woo Paramount into sustaining the series. Dribs and drabs of fact seem to be emerging which cast doubts on the veracity of their claims and the extent of their discussions with Paramount. As it is, fans could never bankroll an entire season; $3 million would get a handful of episodes at best, and would be no guarantee of increased ratings, market share or ad revenue. It was ever only fanwanking. Enterprise has been dead for a year; it took 'til February for someone to tap it on the forehead with a silver hammer.
4.22.05 @ 9:52a
I agree that Trek has been dying as far as TV since the abysmal Voyager. And other than First Contact, the films have been pretty lackluster (a polite word for "they sucked ass" since Star Trek VI. The problem, in my mind, is two fold.
1. Rick Berman (and to a lesser extent Brannon Braga) wanting to prove that they could run this franchise on their own, when quite clearly, they cannot. This season of Enterprise has been the best - why? They turned the reins over to Manny Coto. Why was First Contact so good? Because Ron Moore, the guy behind Battlestar Galactica, wrote most of it. And wrote it so well it *couldn't* be screwed up.
2. Berman and the corporate mind set at Paramount actually believed the "Baboon Theory." A friend of mine and I came up with the theory that if you filmed two baboons crapping in the woods and called it "Star Trek" the fans would watch it. Well, Voyager, and (all but this last season of) Enterprise, and Generations, Nemesis and Insurrection were almost as bad as watching two baboons crapping in the woods. And even many of the hardcore Trek fans quit watching.
But they haven't quit being fans which is why I don't think Trek will ever truly die. The Trek books are an entity unto themselves, and some of the groups putting fan films out (that shockingly Paramount is actually being supportive of) like "New Voyages" are putting out some decent stuff (ask Matt Kelley). They even getting Trek actors to participate!
Star Trek is, has been and will continue to be part of our global culture in one form or another. I doubt something that has been this influential for so long can every truly die. Maybe as far as TV and films go, it needs a break. I personally think it just needs fresh perspective. But that's another argumenent altogether.
Whoever, whenever, they bring Trek back. It's got to be for the right reasons and, more importantly, it's got to be good. It has been before (TOS, TNG, DS-9). It can be again.
4.22.05 @ 10:57a
Like a lost romance in which you tend to remember only the good times, so it goes with Trek. As revolutionary as TOS (The Original Series) was, and as stupendous as the years of spin-offs have been, it’s over, and there were many fizzles in there we’re conveniently forgetting. TNG, DS9 and Voyager all jumped, then photon-torpedoed, the galactic shark. Enterprise’s season-ending cliff-hanger last year involved time-jumping to WWII Nazis. C’mon.
Dave, you mentioned the groups that are pouring HUGE money into shooting new episodes of the old TOS, like those available online at www.newvoyages.com. I’ve watched ‘em, complete with amazingly recreated sets, admirable special effects and an Elvis impersonator (true!) playing Captain Kirk. But they’re grasping for something that just isn’t there anymore, like a 40-something stalker pursuing his high school girlfriend, thinking the spark is still alive. It’s not. Yes, we loved Trek but, like with that old honey, we have to move on.
Battlestar Galactica? Loved the original when I was in junior high and rather dig the dark, new verison. I loved the original Star Wars trilogy too. Hated the last two, along with damned Jar-Jar and money-monger George Lucas, but will still, grudgingly, go see Sith in a few weeks. Resistance is futile.
4.22.05 @ 11:41a
Star Trek can continue, as it has for decades, between the covers of countless cheap paperbacks. Prose is unencumbered by budget, ego and ratings; even a dirt-poor fan can summon up a quarter-billion effects extravaganza with a pencil, some paper and a good imagination.
Matt and Dave, I think the reason I'm so willing to drive the nails in is because the likelihood of catching lightning in a bottle again is so remote. TOS captured an audience because it was a novel concept: "science fiction" that wasn't about scary invaders or the lurking menace of the atom. It also had the advantage of running concurrent with America's own very tangible leap into the final frontier during the Apollo program. TNG had the advantage of a lull in sci-fi programming. The last semi-regular series was the campy original BSG. And the Star Wars franchise appeared over several years prior with the release of Jedi. Only Trek maintained a substantial presence during those lean years. TNG had the added advantage of being a syndicated show; the studio got its money regardless of ratings. That is a two-edged sword, of course; a studio can produce dreck, because it's already paid for, OR they can go TNG's route and produce quality, because they're beholden to no one.
But I think the well is poisoned now. Too many series in too short a time, with no break to recharge, and no impetus to draw fresh minds into the franchise. I see Paramount putting Star Trek on a shelf and gradually forgetting about it.
4.22.05 @ 12:14p
Way to segway back through the recent current issues columns to Joe's nerd column. (TOS! That, my friends, is high nerdspeek.)
I don't think they'll recapture it, because the original was all about interplanetary tail-chasin', and you can't do that anymore. Think about Picard, that guy was all proper, refined, and educated. Kirk still had to punch people! And Worf, he could have ruled akin to the Kurgan, but he got all soft hanging around humans and empaths.
4.22.05 @ 12:24p
SEGUE, dammit. A Segway is a scooter thing.
4.22.05 @ 12:31p
So what. Mike spelled 'through' as 'threw' on the boards, and those are both English words.
To yank this off grammatical anal-retension and back to topic, though, think about TOS. Am I the only one who sees it as a story about a man with a spectacular excess of testerone trolling for the ultimate strange? To Go Where No MAN has gone before. I'll bet that phrase still sends shivers down the spine of eco-feminists.
4.22.05 @ 12:45p
Hey, a Segway is the spiff.
Why do you think they changed it to the more inclusive (another recent topic here) "no one" for TNG? The late '60s concept of equality wasn't the same as the late '80s concept of equality. But even on Kirk's Enterprise, a Black woman could serve as a bridge officer, rather than as a laundress or galley hand.
Watch "Master and Commander" and tell me that Jim Kirk isn't cut from the same cloth as Jack Aubrey. Good captains should always be impulsive rogues, tempered by experience and a stalwart first officer.
Oh, and you misspelled "testosterone."
4.22.05 @ 12:48p
Hey wait, Gonzo. You just used TOS in a sentence. That makes *you* an ubergeek too.
I guess you missed the latest Enterprise. It featured the infamous green-yet-red-hot slave women from the TOS era, three of them, who were given to Captain Archer. Turns out (SPOILER ALERT), the women are actually the masters and the men are slaves in that race. It left me rather blue.
4.22.05 @ 12:53p
RetenTion. And it wasn't grammar, it was spelling.
4.22.05 @ 12:54p
Hmm. I just noticed that "TOS" is in the middle of "Testosterone." Coincidence?
4.22.05 @ 1:05p
It left me rather blue.
No doubt. And you're right, I'm a total geek, that's why I'm discussing the mighty Trek. As for PCing it up, I'm just saying that they didn't have those concerns so maye that's why the original was only 3 years, but had lasting impact. Because it was real. TNG was great, well done, but just a little softer.
4.22.05 @ 1:08p
RetenTion. And it wasn't grammar, it was spelling.
You're infernal precision with language is bringing out the James T. Kirk in me, woman!
4.22.05 @ 1:17p
Very well. The Galactic Federation has determined that the acuity for langauge possessed by the people on Planet McCarthy is threatening the overall balance of the universe. Therefore, I must go there, bestow a little whoop-ass on their menfolk, and add some normal people traits into the gene pool.
4.22.05 @ 1:22p
You're digging a deep hole even deeper with every post.
4.22.05 @ 1:39p
It is fun to watch him completely lose his grasp of the English language, isn't it?
4.22.05 @ 1:41p
I'd respond to that, but I'm busy packing. Kirk style.
Angled sideburn trimmer - Check! Spandex Space outfit with built-in mens' girdle - Check!
My fists and a distinct lack of prophylactics - Check!
4.22.05 @ 1:48p
What are you going to do, make us laugh ourselves to death?
4.22.05 @ 2:17p
i'm still missing the tribbles from the original.
4.22.05 @ 3:26p
Look in the overhead compartment, Margot. That's where I saw them last.
4.22.05 @ 3:36p
Heh. I remember, pre-Enterprise, there was a rumor that they'd set a series at Starfleet Academy; I always thought that would be an interesting twist. As long as it didn't go all Dawson's Creek. But I guess it's hard to get adults to watch teens? Unless one of them is named Veronica or Buffy?
4.22.05 @ 4:07p
That's certainly a sticking point. The thought seemed to revolve around Kirk and Spock at the academy, which rankled fans no end, since it's been established (in a non-canonical way) that the two were never there at the same time. The thought of casting younger actors as Kirk, Spock, or any of the original crew, is often shouted down as sacrilege. If the show became Star Trek: Felicity, it wouldn't play, even if they did get bohunky boys playing Kirk, Spock, et al, and finding a way -- as Kirk did so often -- to get their shirts off.
4.23.05 @ 5:31p
Okay, so I broke down and watched last night's episode, the ENT take on the "Mirror, Mirror" universe from TOS. Cheesy continuity porn! But it was kinda fun, even if Scott Bakula looks just as lost playing Evil!Archer as he does playing Good!Archer.
Plus Linda Park as HO-shi.
4.23.05 @ 11:50p
LOST IN SPACE?
4.24.05 @ 12:12a
Why yes, Stephen, I believe you are!