The Franchise's FutureBy Steve Perry
Posted at July 30, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT
Is Trek dead? No. Is it dying? No.
Trek has a base fandom that I think can be preserved. Through thick and thin, DS9 remained the top rated drama in syndication. In a crowded syndication market, that's good.
But that doesn't mean Trek's future is by any means guaranteed. The ratings remain good, but the big problem hasn't hit yet. As De Kelley's recent death reminded us, the diehards are getting older, too. Fewer and fewer of us can tell which TOS episodes the actress Diana Muldaur, who would go on to play Dr. Pulaski, was in. I'm not saying that we're all about to die off, just that a lot of the old reliable fans are getting to be older and somewhat less reliable. That's a demographic CBS wants, not one Trek needs.
Heck, some of us don't know who Dr. Pulaski is in he first place. The other half of the fandom seems quite a bit younger - it's full of teenagers judging by the posters on webboards.
On the surface, this a good thing... that young male demographic is the key to financial success if not necessarily artistic achievement, and is the biggest reason why Paramount had no difficulty giving the green light to a fifth series.
But the news isn't all good. I hate to sound cynical, but I'm not confident in the future of America. I see a lot of slack-jawed kids walking around. It was never hip to like Trek, but nowadays, it's not even a matter of being hip. Half of these kids can't find Canada on a map, so I have my concerns about them being unable to work through the "Are the Klingons in the Beta Quadrant?" question.
So Trek will survive. The question becomes, will it be in a form that we want, or is it going to scrape the bottom of the barrel to pander to America, or at least Hollywood's perception of America?
Despite some rather silly flame wars, we're not HORRIBLY picky fans; we just want intriguing shows that uphold a very basic ideal. The danger in Trek's future is that future Trek will be so horribly and laughably basic that we fans won't watch it, even if other people do. Is that arrogant? Do the powers that be owe us? If you want to be mercenary, yes, they at least owe us a "thank you" for making them rich.
But whether we owe them or not, we watch because we like Trek's ideals. They would be foolish to abandon them. We need more than fifteen time travel episodes a season, three of them with a "let's be nice to one another" patina to them. Even Walker: Texas Ranger esteems that! TOS built the fandom it had, not because of the Orion slave chicks, but because it was challenging TV, nominated for the Best Drama Emmy twice. I think that Trek can and should do it again.
If Trek takes that road more travelled, just give it another name. That would certainly remove any "nerd" stigma in the eyes of Paramount. For once, Paramount would be doing us a favor.
The answer usually brought to this question is that Trek needs a break. The best way to guarantee that the future will be good is to give the franchise a rest.
That doesn't wash. As simplistic as it sounds, Trek needs good writers, period. It can have them for a show next year or one ten years from now. Either way it needs a committment from Paramount to groom such a stable of writers.
And, for all the problems Rick Berman has, he has at least a working knowledge of the Trek universe. Chances are that the next person pulled in won't be a Jack Sowards or Nick Meyer, two people in any regard who didn't feel compelled to hang around. Any show that plans on being good needs at least some Berman to run between the show and the suits. Ten years from now he'll be retired somewhere. Is it worth chancing it?
As much as I loathe Berman, he did manage TNG well, and the first show he did on his own, DS9, was a breath of fresh air into the franchise, and a type of show with a sweeping story and engaging themes that TV doesn't often do. Berman, despite his seemingly standoffish nature about DS9, was proud to have it under his belt. Will the next person Paramount brings in even know what DS9 is?
Furthermore, the crowded syndication market that made life so difficult for DS9 at times is not going to get any less crowded. Majel, in a rather obvious attempt at co-opting Gene's legacy (for good or bad, giving Tribune's meddling, probably bad) will be giving us TWO more "Gene Roddenberry" shows besides Earth Final Conflict. Trek showed that syndicated drama was viable, and other companies have run with it. The issue isn't so much science fiction syndicated shows - besides the two Roddenberry shows, there don't appear to be many contenders - it's just that the market in general is crowded. Pensacola: Wings of Gold may be absolutely horrible, but it sucks up one more hour of air space. Throw in cable and it's all the more dangerous.
Sometimes I wonder if there is any viewer loyalty at all... just people who happen to land on certain channels. That would explain that existence of the TV Food Network... The supposed "other" franchise, Babylon 5, just produced a stillborn spinoff, despite its very dedicated base. Despite the litter of science fiction shows that pop up each year, the genre is no more popular than it was back in the Sixties, with Twilight Zone, Trek, and Lost in Space all having more longevity than most sci-fi shows today.
Trek it could be argued could make it another ten years. It opposed to other shows has name recognition. My problem, though, is that in this mess of market, anything can happen in ten years. Trek isn't doing itself a favor by giving itself ten years for its fans to move on and its merchandising revenues to dwindle. Even in just ten years Trek can become just another show. We have the fanbase now. If we wait ten years and let it shrink to the size of Babylon 5's fanbase, then we'll find ourselves with no guarantee of a future.
Besides - this IS Trek after all... we don't get many chances to put up or shut up with our ideals. Running at the first sign of boredom and denying kids the chance to see another world, free of X Files paranoia or Buffy's quasi-Wiccan supernatural nonsense, seems to me to be a little self-centered. I can't quite understand why people exhausted of Trek think that their own personal tastes should be universal moral imperatives.
But if they're going to do it, let ME be selfish as well. I'd rather watch Trek than most shows out there. Even at its worst its better than the bulk of skiffy. B5 looked good for awhile, but what else is out there? The X Files, with only one season left and the plot going in circles? Buffy? I can't get past the fact that these kids talk too much like they're Hollywood scriptwriters. There's very little "must see" TV in the field right now.
That still leaves the problem of producing good Trek. It seems as if the entire momentum of our times is geared toward the lowest common denominator.
Look at our movies. There's Something About Mary was a perfectly quirky movie that felt it needed to gross us out to really entertain us. Films can get away with this to a degree. They come and go. A couple of years ago the fad was horror schlock, now it's gross out, and a couple of years from now it will be something else.
TV can't. A Trek show based on the fact that teen dramas are the fad now won't work. Why would it? The very audience you are targetting will in a couple of years grow out of such things. Given the fact that this is science fiction we are talking about, the trickiest genre to do well, and settling for fads would be very dangerous, a certain sign that the writers aren't being bold, when good science fiction demands that you be precisely that.
Actually, I think this almost helps us. Whereas Law and Order gets a fresh supply of episodes each year from the headlines, science fiction is on its own. The guarantee is that the vast number of skiffy shows will be terrible, and the record has shown just that. Remember Time Trax?
There's good skiffy writers out there, though. It's just a matter of bringing them to Trek, something Paramount has not done. With so many skiffy shows done in such a schlocky manner, surely, surely, the good ones can be brought together to work for Trek. Trek is the top dog in the field. I don't care how many Hugos it has or hasn't won, it's the only skiffy out there that gets any critical attention. If the name recognition of Trek means anything, it should mean that.
And I think it still has a lot of life left to. It can do what few shows can - combine action and drama, thorw in some humor, all in the process of creating strange new worlds that appeal to both the imagination and the intellect. Despite the fact that we have a universe of known characters, the cast isn't complete. "There are always... possibilities," and after DS9, I feel that Trek has much left to say. DS9 gave the Trek universe a real political dimension, without, somewhat surprisingly, filling in much by way of details. Maybe we can look at that, not just because of plot possibilities, but also because it allows Trek to shift its focus, in the process adjusting the focus of its message and meaning And, when in doubt, discover a super duper transwarp drive that allows you to not only explore strange new worlds, but strange new galaxies as well.
So the question becomes, will Paramount do it? This is where I have my doubts about Trek's future. It's rather pat to simply say, "Yes, Trek will survive, but it needs better writing."
Unfortunately, recent events have led me to fear that this is all a moot issue. Suffice it to say, the rumors of what Braga did to Moore are basically true. And, sadly, Berman let it happen. As I said above, I don't mind Berman, mainly because I know he is a known factor who at least has some sense of good taste, and won't let the franchise descend into complete schlock. Trek needs a businessman, too, and he's just that. Part of that is being greedy, but at least that greed means he wants to keep Trek floating.
But we want it to be more than just floating, and ensuring that would be Brannon Braga's job, his job only thanks to his recent actions. Brannon Braga is a good writer... but how good? He has managed to succeed in a very limited range of stories, on two shows other people created. Now he is being asked to create another series.
A new series needs more than a few stylish episodes. It needs a strong premise and strong characters to develop. Voyager's problem from the start, when compared to DS9, was that the story of Native American rebelling against the Cardassians was nowhere near as compelling as a Bajoran rebelling aganst the Cardassians. What see in the first episode can often make or break how we perceive all seven years.
So color me worried. Remember Braga's solution to the Kes problem? He got rid of her! Here was a character that could have done so many brilliant things, living with the knowledge that within a couple of years she would be dead... and he tosses her out, in favor of Seven of Nine. Seven in many regards has been a success, but she is also more or less a souped up version of an old Trek idea - the outsider who isn't human, but is curious about humanity... except in her case, she's so obviously superior to those around her, it's hard to she why she would care. It's that kind of carelessness combined with cliche that worries me.
Trek should go on, and if it is going to go on, it should do it now. Am I hopeful? Yes, the very fact that the next series WON'T be Starfleet Academy tells me that they want to do something different than the expected and easy. Trek is about a future where we all help each other. Right now, I would be satisfied with Berman and Braga serving themselves by creating the best damned show on TV with the fifth Trek series.
Steve Perry reviews episodes of Star Trek for TrekWeb.com.