The Franchise's FutureBy Heather Jarman
Posted at July 13, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT
When Alexander the Great surveyed the great city of Alexandria, seeing her glorious harbor and shimmering library, his heart thrilled with the hope that his mark would live forever, standing as a monument to future generations. Eternal life seems to be the quest for every human whether the journey takes the form of art, empire or literature. Before I'm worm food, I'd know I'd like to know I've earned a footnote on a granite wall someplace, just to let future generations know "Heather was here."
Like people, empires grow up and eventually deteriorate. History has no favorites. The mighty and the small topple with equal finality. Once an empire ripens, rotting soon follows. The historical cardiogram records each effort a civilization takes to save itself until it at last flatlines. Our fictions use the same paradigm. In Star Trek: Insurrection, concern is expressed for a quickly "ripening" Federation--a Federation weakened by the Dominion War, a Federation maturing and being corrupted by forces within and without. Even that nasty Risa-Vanessa Williams/Terry Farrell pottery episode played on the premise that the Federation was becoming a futuristic Rome: fat, indulged and decadent. How fascinating that the "Real Life" Trek world is in a similar situation.
Star Trek, the franchise, is a well-ripened fruit, my fellow fans, and whether the fruit can be plucked from the tree and preserved for another season, or whether it will mold and serve as spawning ground for flies has yet to be seen.
Why Star Trek is Important To Me
My path to Trek wound past Hobbits and wandered beside Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, plunged head long into Star Wars and followed the worlds of great writers like Bradbury, Asimov and Huxley before my adult self finally discovered Trek. A thoroughly preppified, solidly stratified Reagan-Bush teenager, I didn't find the geek label assigned to Trek fans particularly appealing.
As an adult, I kept searching for answers to Big Questions. Questions about science, morality, technology, the future, the universe and my place in it--the nature of God, quantum physics, and why breast implants were more important than IQ points in popular culture. My collegiate background is humanities based--consequently, I've never looked for answers in statistics or empirical evidence. Instead, I look at the past to predict the future; I look to understand the human condition through our art, history and literature.
Embracing Trek was only natural. In all its incarnations, Trek wrestles with those Big Questions--not to mention being entertaining in the process. Though it took Voyager's feisty heroines (my husband calls it "Women in Space") to finally convert me, I've since spent countless hours catching up on the other series.
Were it not for Voyager, I don't know that I would have given DS9 a chance. I'd always watched TNG off and on--both during its original run and now in syndicated re-runs, I just didn't love it. Voyager has a perfect blend of accessible characters (Kathryn Janeway is a marvel) and fun to watch plots. Unlike TNG, Voyager has a certain joie de vivre in her step. The Homeric nature of her journey to Earth has a poignancy that touches me.
Now, 140 episodes later, I can say truthfully that while DS9 is the most intellectually challenging and artistically superior of the series and TNG the most innovative and slick, Voyager has warmth that I never found in DS9 or TNG. I deeply care what happens to Captain Janeway and her ragged bunch whereas my passion for DS9 stemmed from being intellectually engrossed in daring storytelling (Vedik Bareil the babe, aside).
For purposes of argument, I'm going to use the same definition of Star Trek and The Franchise that Jim used. To remind you, The Franchise is the licensed, Paramount certified money making, marketing machine that creates episodes, action figures and create-a-Borg costumes. Star Trek is the franchise as well as the fan base, the mythology, the ideas and anything not officially sanctioned by or created by TPTB.
So where do I, the new kid on the block, see the franchise going?
Something is Rotten in the State of Trek (or I've Come to Bury Braga, not to Praise Him)
Let me say, on the record, that I've had confirmation of some of the seedier elements of the Moore/Braga saga from sources I consider trustworthy. For that reason, I'm treating what has been reported at AICN and TrekWeb as somewhat based in fact. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, but I've heard enough similar variations on the same theme that I believe that what's being "gossiped" about on the net has some truth in it. How much has yet to be seen.
My chief worry is that the line protecting Trek the fiction from the interests of Trek the franchise is being violated. That the arrogance, egotism and power-mad machinations of the powers behind the franchise are contaminating the ideas and ideals that drew me to Trek. Brannon Braga and Rick Berman have strengths and weaknesses as producers. Until recently, their track record has been quite sound. I don't care if Brannon spends his lunch hours watching naked Dabo girls dance on his desk as long as it doesn't interfere with the work.
I fear, however, that Brannon's insecurities may threaten Voyager's health: he builds a creative team based on loyalty to him personally, not on talent. In other words, how on earth could he justify hiring a writer like Robert Doughty, author of such bombs as "Vis a Vis" and "Bliss" to replace the man who wrote "Reunion?"
The Ron Moore debacle further supports my contention that the "Franchise" may just be rotting on the vine.
Of all the writers in the Trek universe, Ron Moore inspired fans and critics alike. His particular strength in character writing has overshadowed Braga's since their TNG days. While Braga's sharp intelligence forged fascinating, technically interesting episodes (his penchant for time paradoxes has carried into both TNG film and Voyager), Moore's writing had heart. Braga has publicly admitted a weakness for interpersonal and relationship stories, while Moore wrote most of the Jadzia/Worf romance arc on DS9, not to mention his rich Klingon episodes (a guilty RDM favorite: TNG's "Disaster"). I'm on record as stating that Moore's "Tacking Into the Wind" from the DS9 finale arc is my nominee for best Trek episode of the '98-'99 season.
To give Braga credit where credit is due, Voyager produced more solid episodes during the fifth season--taken individually--than in years past. "Drone," "Timeless," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "Equinox," "Extreme Risk," "11:59" and "Thirty Days" were among my favorites (if not widely praised in fandom). In previous seasons, the quality fluctuated between extremes--from week to week, you never knew whether you'd get "Message in a Bottle" or "Demon." Examining each episode on a case by case basis, I'm hard pressed to come up with more than a few truly unbearably awful episodes ("Think Tank" and "The Fight" would be my choices). Upon evaluating the season as a whole, however, I contend Voyager weakened.
Any internally rich character development went by the wayside. Braga's team seemed capable of only writing a few characters well. Tom Paris fans benefited, B'Elanna Torres fans mourned. Ironically, the Paris/Torres romance has been one of Voyager's few extended, multi-season character arcs. Janeway's character fluctuated between extremes with fans never knowing whether or not they'd see Betsy-toting Action Kate or snarling, menopausal, Let-Them-Eat-Cake Kate.
On another page, even the big spectacle episode, "Dark Frontier" had an adrenaline junkie fix without being emotionally or intellectually engaging. Brannon specializes in boobs and booms but he lacks the subtle, lightly humorous touch that Voyager needs to become more than just another cool action-adventure show (a touch beautifully felt in Season Three). Braga can create a solid product. He's proved that. He's a good executive producer. What concerns me is his inability to address his own weaknesses and look for ways to compensate for them. This is why Moore seemed to be an ideal fit. Moore could inject the human element into Braga's techno-wonder scripts.
For Braga to have reached such a paranoid state that he felt threatened by a former fellow staffer and a writing partner tells me, the casual observer, that he's more concerned with securing his power base than making Voyager a better show. Instead, he'll surround himself with sycophants who will massage his ego, even if it means Voyager never reaches her full potential.
Berman's refusal to support Moore shows that his interest in preserving the integrity of Trek has been supplanted by his own personal agenda. While reports of Berman's behavior during the Moore/Braga struggle make Rick's behavior appear parental, Berman's close relationship and favoritism of Braga isn't a secret. When push came to shove, Rick stuck by his protégé and friend, even if it meant losing an amazing and important talent in the process. Why Berman feels Braga is more capable of assuming the helm of a new Trek series than Moore puzzles me.
Ron Moore has too much class to ever air dirty linens publicly, but I'm guessing that in the increasingly intimate Internet community, the whole story will eventually come out. How it will paint Braga and Berman has yet to be seen. What this ugly mess shows us now, though, is that power is taking precedent over loyalty and creativity--a definite symptom of "rotting from within."
Why Star Trek Needs "Fat Camp"
Star Trek has become a cultural behemoth. It is an all-night-all-you-can-eat buffet of merchandise, episodes, and fandom for anyone who might be hungry. Being a bountiful feast is not necessary a positive: the old saying that "too much of a good thing" being bad for you comes to mind.
Consider dessert. I love rich chocolate desserts served with Haagen Daz ice cream. Eating such a delectable creation from time to time can be rapturous. Eating one for every meal can be nauseous. I think Trek is quickly approaching the level of three desserts per day. Case in point: this fall, I will have no fewer than four hours of Trek between the hours of 7PM and 2AM Monday through Friday. On Wednesdays, I will have five. Had I cable, TOS reruns would make it six. Conceivably, I could spend half of my waking hours just watching Trek. That doesn't count writing/reading/discussing it. Yowza. It's the pop culture equivalent of an all-you-can-eat contest. At some point, quality vs. quantity has to become an issue.
Mass production is notoriously bad for sound quality control. Utilizing a staff recycled from previous series means they can't help but begin to a) wear out or b) repeat themselves. Either is inevitable. Eventually, they will start making mistakes or do sloppy work.
I question the need for a new series under these circumstances. Enough is enough. Haunted by the ghosts of Trek past, the present fan base needs a chance to digest what's out there before we start on something new, especially if "something new" is merely an amalgam of Treks past and market research. You can only reinvent yourself so many times before the public stops buying it. Just look at Michael Jackson and Madonna if you want proof (Jim claims that Madonna's new "Beautiful Stranger" video counters this claim, but I say it isn't making nearly the splash as "Like a Prayer" did all those years ago!).
I know that Paramount doesn't care about doing "things the way Gene wanted them done." They have no interest in the integrity of the product. The bottom line is everything. TPTB can't be trusted to do right by the Franchise, regardless of how many passionate pleas we may send them. Originality, fresh, intelligent science fiction doesn't matter to them. Paramount will look at demographics, marketing and do what ever it takes to capture the sacred 18-35 year old demographic. If Sarah Michelle Gellar in a Starfleet issue tank sweating in a Jefferies Tube will get ratings, than by jingo, they're going to try it. Granted, Gene himself was the master of beautiful babes in cellophane dresses, but Gene knew how to inject T&A episodes with major I.Q. I doubt Braga could conjugate a verb, let alone write a script, should Seven of Nine make an appearance in a saran wrap bikini.
Trek, the franchise, needs more than a new series, it needs major plastic surgery and as I've previously alleged, Brannon and Rick aren't the two I'd trust to do it. Braga and Berman appear to be more interested in preserving their fifteen minutes of fame, making money and gaining power than making Good Trek.
And frankly, I think the creative team at Trek needs a hiatus. Their fatigue is starting to show. What once was fresh is now cliché.
What's tragic is that Paramount has a wonderful Trek series--Voyager--a series that deserves better than to be treated like the bastard sister of the family. Berman ought to put all his best efforts into making Voyager's last two seasons stellar, allowing her to have her time in the spotlight. Instead, it seems like UPN and Berman's team has written off Voyager. From all the gossip, TPTB seem content to "just get by" and get it over with.
If all the speculation has substance, I would rather see Voyager finish brilliantly at the end of season six than limp through a seventh season, handicapped by apathy. Heck, I'm crossing my fingers they make it to midseason without a pink slip.
I can see Trek's future every morning over my breakfast table in the eyes of my four daughters. Each one of them a passionate, intelligent, creative individual and a Trek fan.
In Trek, they've found fictional role models and challenging ideas. Two of the four have tried their hand at fanfic. One's Girl Scout camp nickname is "Kira." Trek makes them think. It gives them a "safe" place to explore thoughts and feelings that are messy and complex in "Real Life."
The seeds of Trek's future are safely gestating in a whole new generation of fans. Given the rapidly developing world of CGI and digital technology, who knows what incredible innovations will be accessible to the next generation of filmmakers? The overflowing cornucopias of ideas available to fans can more than stimulate creativity. Ten years sans Trek could yield abundant, unique, daring takes on future Federation life. TNG spent close to seventeen years in development. Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Oil Embargo, the collapse of the USSR all happened during that time frame. A whole generation was born and grew to adulthood.
I'd like to see what my daughter's generation could come up with. Their bravado astounds me, even now. I can only guess at the marvelous Trek they could create.
Trek's future lies with the daydreamers and idealists who are still being sculpted by life experiences. They have so much hope!
Trek has reached the point where it's crossing the bridge between popular culture and contemporary mythology. The sum of her parts exceeds the action figures and computer games. The philosophies, vocabulary, and characters have found their way into Real Life. When the young violinists at Suzuki camp were asked to increase their speed to "Warp Five" recently, I had to chuckle. Particularly when the teacher warned them about getting "particles" in their "warp cores." What was miraculous was that every kid in that room knew what she was talking about. We've come to a place where Trek is so imprinted on our psyches that we take it for granted.
I most fear losing that magic that makes Trek unique. I worry that a film industry consumed with profits and marketing will fail to respect the talent and intelligence it takes to craft Trek. I see TPTB becoming complacent and concerned with protecting their own petty fiefdoms.
Trek will never die. It can't. It may mutate into a disease-carrying organism, but it will survive. As a fan, I don't want it to survive at any cost.
Sometimes it is better to die honorably, hoping for a rebirth, than to desperately cling to immortality. Whenever the values and ideals that bring us honor are pushed aside for fear or greed, change needs to be made. Sometimes "It is a good day to die." Talk about a Trek lesson. Go check out your Insurrection tape if you don't believe me. How ironic that the TNG film serves as a mirror for the Real Life "State of the Franchise!"
But then, Trek has always had an uncanny way of exposing truth. I only hope that TPTB running the franchise have the self-perception--and wisdom--to know when to turn off the lights and say, "Good Night" before the cynicism in fandom becomes positively lugubrious.
After all, "All Good Things...."
Heather Jarman is a regular contributor to the Starfleet Journal, where she has her own monthly column, Confessions of a Voyager Virgin.