The Franchise's FutureBy Jamahl Epsicokhan
Posted at August 10, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT
In a few ways, another recent question this somewhat reminds me of is, "How much impact will the Y2K computer crisis have on us?" It's impossible to know for certain; we can make our own educated guesses, but in most ways it relies upon the actions of others, outside our own control.
But just as I can be reasonably sure we won't see society grind to a halt come January 1, 2000 (as a result of Y2K or otherwise), I can also be reasonably sure that Trek does have a future--both in the long term and the short.
Being the seventh writer in this series, it may be impossible at this point not to say what others have already covered, so I'll do what I always do--I'll be honest and true to my own thoughts and opinions, and if someone has already said so, I guess you can just assume we agree on the point.
Trek: Partly ideology, but more a business
As an ideology, the thing about Star Trek is that its value is open to such broad interpretation. Everyone thinks they know what the franchise "is," but do we? Out here in the online community, we form our own groups and subgroups; we notice trends and opinions and we think we know what represents the majority opinion concerning the franchise. But we sometimes forget, as the producers of the series have mentioned in articles over the years, that there's another, bigger population of Trek watchers that isn't taking its interest in the franchise onto the Internet. It's a group whose opinions we maybe never hear.
My point? Well, it's hard to know how "everyone" else views Trek; we can only guess based on we think, what we have read, and the discussions we have had with others. And we can draw conclusions based on what we see on the screen. Meanwhile, the makers of the show are trying to satisfy a wider audience that holds massively varying opinions concerning what they think Trek is, or should be.
Well, as mundane as this sounds, Trek is just a television show. Okay, it's four TV shows (promised soon to be five), nine movies (almost certain to be more), and many a boatload of purchasable merchandise. Part of the reason Trek has this bizarre longevity is because of the storytelling ideology behind it. Whether you're a hard-core fan that goes to conventions and owns action figures or just someone who watches the shows semi-regularly, you'll probably agree that Trek has a sort of cohesive set of themes and values that gives it an identity.
What's interesting is that these themes--"Roddenberry themes" as many like to call them--are not universally agreed upon by the fans. As DS9 headed into darker waters the past few years, some fans were unhappy, saying Roddenberry's intended vision of Trek had been destroyed. Other fans found the darker themes invigorating. Who's right? Who's wrong?
A better question: Does there need to be consensus? Few works of fiction mean the same thing to everybody, so just take your opinion and feel free to argue it. You won't be the only one.
So, being more pragmatic, perhaps the most inescapable fact about Trek is that when it comes down to it, it is just a TV show. Sure, the franchise includes the novels and action figures and toy models and all that other stuff, but let's face it--Star Trek is first and foremost about TV and movies. Everything else is a secondary ploy to rake in more cash.
Television is a business. Businesses are intent on making money. I don't care what your show is about; if it isn't profitable, it isn't going to be around much longer.
And in terms of being profitable, it looks like Trek is going to have a battle on its hands over the course of the next year.
The immediate future: Voyager
With DS9 now wrapped up and the next TNG film presumably at least two or more years off, what we have left to speak for Trek is Voyager, now going into its sixth season. For the first time ever, Voyager is all alone, and I think that will be a mixed blessing.
To be perfectly blunt, the idea of Voyager "speaking" solely for Trek is not the most hopeful image my mind can conjure. I don't dislike Voyager (from a basic entertainment standpoint I find the show generally enjoyable), but I don't think it's pulling its weight in terms of adding anything to the larger canvas of the Trekkian ideology. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that Berman and the Voyager writing staff are simply too conservative. They've had five seasons to give Voyager its own voice and direction, and they haven't done that. Instead, they seem content to live in the Trek world of yesteryear, retelling reliable stories (some of them good, some of them not) and settling for the safe bet.
While some fans are calling for new writers and producers to invigorate the franchise, I think that's neither necessary nor warranted at this point. Berman & Co. have a long-standing relationship with Trek and, perhaps more important, the necessary relationships with the studio. If you're going to replace them, who are you going to replace them with? How can we have any idea that Trek would be the least bit better off without Berman?
There does, however, need to be some evolving thought at the studio. It seems to me the conservative leadership fears changing Trek will bastardize the revered "Roddenberry concept." What needs to be recognized is that ideas become obsolete if not occasionally challenged. Berman & Co. should be adapting Voyager's outlook to satisfy a more demanding public.
Voyager's upcoming season could be an important stage for the near future of Trek, for a number of reasons. Being the only source of canon Trek, its level of critical success/failure will speak for the current state of the franchise and symbolize the perceived value (or lack thereof) of Star Trek stories.
In terms of impact on the future, what might be more important, however, is the ratings game. From what I gather, Voyager is in bigger ratings trouble than a Trek series has been for the past decade.
There are many who would like to solely blame the writers for the Voyager ratings erosion that has occurred. While the writers and producers have to shoulder their share of the blame, a bigger problem, I think, is that Voyager is in an unfortunate symbiotic relationship with that albatross known as UPN--a "network" that virtually no one (except UPN execs) takes seriously. The chances of Voyager's cancellation used to be slim to none, simply because the fledging UPN depended on Voyager to lure in viewers. But UPN never really took off and has lost plenty of affiliates over the past few years. Unless there's a turn for the better, it seems we're now looking at the possibility of UPN going under within the next year or two, and if that happens Voyager could face an earlier-than-expected termination.
American television is a much different monster than it was 12 years ago when TNG came onto the scene. Competition has skyrocketed--digital satellite systems are available, new cable networks seemingly materialize every week, cable company takeovers and mergers are the norm, and syndicated drama and sci-fi series are everywhere. UPN in retrospect looks like it was a bad venture (the idea of creating a traditional network just seems too implausible these days). And everyone's ratings are down, simply because the choices are so expansive. It's probably absurd to expect Voyager to get decent ratings when it's on a network that doesn't have the power of affiliate numbers.
Unfortunately for Voyager, last season's ratings were disastrous even when one takes all the other factors into account. It's hard to say with certainty why the numbers were down so far, but part of it has to come back to the level of interest. Is interest waning for Trek?
Well, it's a definite possibility, and I think it can be partially attributed to what a lot of people have mentioned already: oversaturation. Trek oversaturation in combination with the simple fact that levels of interest go in cycles. In 1993 when TNG and DS9 were running concurrently, interest was high. Right now, interest is quite a bit lower, and the fact there have been 50-plus hours of new Trek almost every year for the past six years might indicate why some people are tired of Trek and are tuning out. (Looking at other TV cycles, what seems to be in high demand now is "reality TV," which is why we have a slew of prime-time newsmagazines, crime and courtroom drama shows, and cheap real-video exhibitions.)
With DS9 finished and Voyager the only hour of new Trek per week, perhaps more people will be tuning in to Voyager. Perhaps not. Time will tell. But as Garak said to Bashir, "We live in uncertain times," and the Voyager staff might be well advised to use the time they have to take some bigger risks with their series.
The more distant future: The next series
So, even if this next season of Voyager is a failure and UPN folds for good, does that spell the end for Trek? I think the answer is an unqualified "no." The thing about the Trek franchise is that it's so ingrained in our pop culture that it could in theory go on forever if the people in charge are steering the ship in the right direction. Roddenberry died in 1991 but Trek went on. And I'd guess that Trek could continue in some form even after Berman hangs it up--assuming the studio still maintains interest and feels the series can be profitable. There are a lot of "ifs" here and a lot of unknowns. But I'd say it's definitely possible that Trek could go on for yet another generation. It seems everything gets remade in Hollywood, and Trek is no exception. Even if the franchise dies in five or 10 years, it could be successfully resurrected after another 10 or 15. (Like I said, levels of interest go in cycles. Hey, maybe that explains the odd-numbered film curse!)
The talk is already starting up about the next Trek series. Of course, out here on the Internet the rumors are flying like madness, including the Rumor That Won't Die, which alleges the "strong possibility" of a "Starfleet Academy" series. Personally, I think the "Starfleet Academy" rumors are complete bogus; it was a rumor back when Voyager was in the planning stages and it strikes me as something the studio would never green-light as a Trek project (and a bad concept, to boot).
In any case, barring a major event at the studio in the next year or two (and even the collapse of UPN may not be "major" enough), there will be another Trek series. And that series will have no choice but to be the next turning point in the franchise. TNG, DS9, and Voyager have taken the second generation of the franchise about as far as it can go. The next series will have to essentially be a third generation that takes the franchise somewhere new, and the question is: Will it?
That, my friends, is the million-dollar question, and about all we can do is wait and see what the answer is. With Berman running the show and the studio having its usual financial stake in the matter, anything is possible, including failure. What would be bad for the franchise is another business debacle like the Voyager/UPN symbiosis. Trek should stay in syndication (though that's probably just my knee-jerk opinion).
For Trek to be valuable, and thus maintain a reasonable following in the TV market, it needs to be an evolving, adapting thing.The reason DS9 made its mark as a series (in my opinion anyway) is because the writers allowed it to do some things in the Trek universe that were a little bit riskier and edgier by Trek standards. DS9 challenged some of the "Roddenberry ideals" instead of taking them as given. At the same time, it maintained the moral direction that has always been valued by the subsets of the franchise. Even when DS9 had its problems, I got the sense we were going somewhere new and exploring issues in the Federation that weren't rehashes. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Voyager, which is why its value to the franchise is less in my eyes--even if the studio values it more than DS9 because of the business interests.
The next series needs to be at least as envelope-pushing as DS9, and probably much more so in both concept and in practice. It cannot follow in Voyager's footsteps by putting a slightly different spin on old TOS and TNG concepts. The franchise must be allowed to grow.
Some predictions -- but don't hold me to 'em
In my view, it's harder to predict the future of the film franchise than the TV franchise, because the film franchise requires a preexisting successful TV series, and TNG's success will probably never be duplicated given today's competition and the continued competition likely in the future. And it seems unlikely that Paramount would risk a non-TNG film considering its most popular second-generation series only did so-so with the most recent feature, Insurrection. I'd say we can expect probably one more TNG feature (and certainly no more than two) before the TNG cast finds itself facing permanent self-disintegration. Look for that film in 2002.
I'd personally like to see a DS9 feature (although the series probably works best in TV form), but I also don't think it's the least bit likely. DS9 is not the blockbuster type, and the studio has never fully supported it in promotion, probably because it has been more preoccupied with launching and promoting UPN. And based on ratings, Voyager's likelihood for a feature seems equally unlikely. So I'm not quite sure where that leaves us in terms of future features.
The next TV series seems to be a little more certain in terms of likelihood, probably because the studio knows that Trek is generally most successful in TV form, and because casting issues won't be difficult like they will be in assembling the entire TNG cast. Expect the fifth Trek series in either fall 2001 or January 2002. The producers acknowledge that running two series at once is spreading the franchise a bit thin these days, so that series will probably start up immediately after Voyager finishes its run, which I'm inclined to say will be the full seven seasons.
After that, who knows? Trek isn't as popular as it was five or 10 years ago, but that could change. The next couple years could be a pivotal time for the franchise. But even if Trek falls apart in the short term, I can't foresee it going away forever. The franchise has a future, even if that future is uncertain.
Jamahl Epsicokhan reviews Original Series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager episodes at Star Trek: Hypertext.