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The Trek Nation - The Franchise's Future

The Franchise's Future

By Jim 'Review Boy' Wright
Posted at July 6, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT

When Jeff Koga's article appeared last week, and I was announced as next in line, I received emails from several fans pleading for a more optimistic forecast. I will do my best. I have to say up front that I agreed with many of Jeff's concerns. We do, however, disagree on the prognosis.

It would be useful before we proceed to define exactly what I mean by the franchise, the future, and Star Trek.

I discovered Star Trek in my childhood in the early 1970s, and have been hooked on Star Trek (if not The Franchise) ever since. I've been summarizing and reviewing Star Trek: Voyager since its debut in 1995. I consider myself an "episode" consumer: I focus most of my attention on Franchise television series, films, and to a lesser degree, novels.

I've attended only two conventions. I'm at best a casual lurker in discussion groups. I discuss Star Trek mostly with friends and other fans via email. I am not "connected" to the inner sanctii of Paramount, and don't really care to be; I don't want to judge the product by anything other than what I see on screen or read on the page.

Okay. Let's get started.

 

DIAGNOSIS 1: Bloated

In my opinion, Star Trek is not dying. Neither is the Franchise. But the Franchise is a ravenous Hydra, with far too many heads to count. The Franchise in toto is fat, bloated, and wheezing, and suffers from that not-so-fresh feeling. It's space station grain silo filled with Tribbles starving themselves by gorging on tainted quadrotriticale, yet still reproducing at a staggering rate.

I believe the problem with the state of the Franchise is this: we have too damn much Trek. It's overwhelming us. There isn't time to process it all. The Franchise is groaning under the weight of its own staggering 30-year, 22+ season success.

In 1969 we had 80 episodes. In 1979 we still had 80 episodes--a few more if you counted the animated series--and a few books, most of which were novelized versions of those original and animated series episodes. In 1987 we had those same 80 episodes and novelized episodes, plus four films and a few more novels. There was a consistent desire for more. Nobody had any trouble keeping up with the flow of new Franchise material. We made up the balance with our own efforts.

In the dozen years since September 1987, we've added 484 episodes in three spin-off series (which doubled up for seven of those years), five more movies, around 200 novels, upward of a dozen tell-all biographies pointing out the seedy side of our cherished actors and of Gene Roddenberry himself…and that's just two Franchise heads.

I don't know about you, but I stopped trying to read all the novels sometime in 1994. There weren't enough hours in the day.

This glut of new Trek turned the Franchise into a buyer's market. No longer forced to take what we could get, we had the luxury of choice. You don't like TNG? Stick with TOS, or check out TNG or VOY. Or look at those original Captain Sulu adventures or the Peter David "New Frontiers" Library. Take what you want, leave the rest. There's plenty to go around.

In a short span of years, the Big Tent of Trek has become a Balkan nightmare of quarreling siblings.

 

DIAGNOSIS 2: Victim of its own success

Let's repeat some of those statistics, because they are astounding.

Star Trek now has nearly 600 episodes over 22 seasons, and 200 novels--many of them New York Times bestsellers. Even if these combined series had a "batting" average of .167, that's 100 "classic" or "superb" episodes. I suspect that total is higher. Few shows ever reach 100 episodes total, let alone 100 classic episodes, 100 near-classics and 100 pretty goods, just as a conservative estimate.

Every new episode has to compete with this massive body of work.

Let's consider something else: the playing field.

Next Generation practically invented first-run dramatic syndication, and had the field almost exclusively to itself through most of its run. DS9 competed in a much denser field for a slice of a much smaller pie, but it still managed to stay in the top 3 of first-run series throughout its entire run--and finished at #1 more often than it didn't.

Paramount had wanted for decades to create its own network. "Star Trek Phase II" was intended in the 1970s to launch a Paramount Network. The success of TNG and DS9 and the films contributed to the now-or-never momentum of UPN. Paramount tossed its hat into the network ring in January 1995, with Voyager as its anchor--supported by such audience-igniting fare as Platypus Man and PigSty and Desmond Pfeiffer. Professional wrestling is a step up.

Voyager peaked with its ratings smash debut, "Caretaker;" it was all downhill from there. The major league competition has simply been too fierce. Melrose Place and Murphy Brown on Mondays, then Drew Carey and Whose Line is it Anyway and Third Rock and Party of Five and Charmed on Wednesdays--these are shows I want to watch, that UPN forces me to abandon in favor of Voyager. (TNG and DS9 were more likely to compete with such local, early-afternoon weekend fare as Puerto Rican Bowling League, garden shows, that Hippie painter on PBS, and M*A*S*H reruns). Voyager got stuck with a black cloud of Bad Mojo because it dared to suit up with the Big Boys. Because it had no choice but to try.

We the fans want fresh and new. We want to be surprised. We want our breath taken away. Of course, we also insist that it be "true to Star Trek"--whatever that means. Every episode has to be internally consistent with every episode that has gone before, or someone will trash it. And if it succeeds, someone else will trash it for "foolish consistency." We have so many good, great, and superb episodes to compare each new episode to, that even outstanding new episodes look merely acceptable, and what would have been welcome ten years ago is now horribly disappointing.

We know what we want--but it's a constantly moving target. Ask a hundred fans the same question twice, and I guarantee you'll get two hundred different answers. Every one of those 600 episodes has fans and detractors, those who feel it embodies the true spirit of Trek and those who are convinced that Roddenberry is spinning in his orbital grave because that episode ever made it to the screen. Even the ones Gene himself wrote and produced.

We wonder why we don't have the same excitement over the new Voyager episode that we do over, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Phantom Menace. Phantom Menace kept Star Wars fans waiting for seventeen years. Buffy has good buzz; it's fresh and new, and it's well executed. For a while, so were Hercules and Xena before they became self-parodies, or X Files before it became hopelessly mired in a murky mythology that Joseph Campbell himself couldn't follow, or in self-parody that often verged on the painful.

Think of the genre series that have come and gone in the last twelve years. Seaquest. Earth 2. Space Above and Beyond. Space Precinct. Highlander. Sliders. Hercules and Xena and Young Hercules. Alien Nation. Babylon 5, and Crusade. Lois and Clark. I'm sure I'm missing a bunch.

None have had the Franchise Juggernaut staying power of Star Trek--even the much-maligned Voyager has outlasted them. At 22 seasons combined, Star Trek's four series have longevity comparable only to The Tonight Show and daytime soap operas.

No wonder it's tired. No other franchise has run so far, while carrying so much historical baggage.

 

DIAGNOSIS 3: Narrowcasting

The global Internet community has exacerbated the fragmentation of the Trek audience.

Star Trek has always benefited from fan creativity. When Trek wasn't being produced, we wrote our own stories and shared them. When production resumed, we continued to write and share our own stories. New crews and new episodes meant new tangents, new codas, etc.

But along the way, the Big Tent of Trek became a maze of narrowly focused special interest groups. There are those who care primarily about Trek technology. Those who thrill to one or more of the myriad Trek species. Those who devoted their web site to championing their favorite series or to trashing the ones they hate or the people they deem responsible. Those who devote all their energies to a single character or relationship. Fan fiction has become an outlet for those frustrated by the way the "canon" is headed; they claimed characters as their own, then "redeemed" them with plots they considered more worthy of them.

Communities were created in cyberspace. Low-impact activism became as easy as writing down a rant and adding a guestbook for feedback. Some expressed their fannish devotion by demanding the heads of Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga, Lolita Fatjo, Al Smutko and other Powers that Be--basically, whoever had their names in the credits that week. Others paid minimal attention to the episodes, judging each only in terms of what it meant to Their Character(s), and sifting it for whatever new grist it provided for their fan fiction mills.

There is no longer a single Star Trek community. It's more like the United Nations these days. Paristan and Janewavia argue with Picardy and the M'Benga Confederation while the Siskosians clamor for attention.

Some feel Trek is Dying, and point to Voyager as the video that killed the radio star. Others claim that Voyager is the first Trek series they could stand to watch, their favorite of the four, which they expect to go EIGHT seasons (thus proving its superiority to DS9 and TNG). Among Voyager fans there is disagreement over the pros and cons of Seven of Nine, whether season 4 was its best or worst season, whether Braga is the Antichrist, and so on.

Whatever you may think, wherever your opinions may land--you've got company. You can find a coalition of one or of hundreds to bolster your narrowcasted opinion, and you can remain blissfully oblivious (or impervious) to dissenting viewpoints if you so choose.

This is not a healthy situation. Even so, I have hope.

 

PROGNOSIS: Guardedly Optimistic

This may be controversial.

The Franchise, as I said, is a many-headed monster. There are "heads" of licensed merchandise that are withering on the vine--and some of them deserve to. Even a veteran IRS auditor can squeeze only so much blood from a stone. There is enough merchandise available to impoverish even your average Microsoft Millionaire if they tried to keep up with it all with their Bank of Ferenginar MasterCard.

Spock said early in Star Trek VI, "The Klingons are dying." Kirk responded bitterly, "let them die." I feel the same way about much of what I see in The Franchise. 95% of what I see for sale, I wish wasn't.

If it's not a viable market, let it die. The entire Franchise, in fact, from Voyager and the films and the next series on the drawing board to the smallest licensed trinket could Ride the Comet in matching Nike sneakers, as it were, and if that was what Darwin demanded, so be it.

This is Trek, after all. Death is irrelevant.

If Voyager is dying--and despite its execrable ratings and rumors of back-room intrigues, I'm not entirely convinced of that--let nature take its course. If it fails to make seven seasons--so what?

This may sound cruel, but I have my reasons. The original series was killed before its time, and guess what? It came back, with a vengeance. The last of the original crew was seen in 1994, 25 years after first hanging up their phasers, with Generations--and they still live on in original novels. If Voyager leaves its fans wanting more, I expect the time will come when they get that chance to give us more. Whether it's five years from now, or ten, or twenty--they're all young. Harry will still be an Ensign.

The opinion is making the rounds in many circles--let Star Trek lie fallow for a while. Rotate the crops. Give the ground time to heal after year upon year of nonstop farming and strip-mining. Those clamoring for a new series a mere year from now are in too much of a hurry--I'd rather the rest be longer than that. Let a whole generation arise that has to survive on reruns and their own imaginations for a few years.

It'll take me that long just to catch up with all those Trek books I haven't had the time to read.

 

Conclusion

Trek cannot die. It is too ingrained in the global culture. Eye Candy and other merchandise we are already tired of, other countries are still waiting eagerly to see for the first time. We're spoiled in this country; we get it first, and we're so used to it that we take it for granted. If I had one wish, it would be that the next series be produced and premiered outside the US, so we would be the ones cooling our heels for a change. You want new and different? How about Star Trek with an all Icelandic cast (Captain Bjork?), or the exploits of a thoroughly Brazilian crew. I know I'd be all over the annual Holodeck Carnival episode.

Shakespeare died over 400 years ago after plagiarizing the snot out of Francis Bacon, and his plays are still being produced for stage and screen today. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen--still hot properties after all these years. Plautus and Sophocles and Aristophanes get ripped off constantly. We still thrill to Verne and H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. Have we so little faith in Star Trek that we expect it to be dead and buried forever if Voyager doesn't make it to a seventh season or the next movie doesn't crack $100 million domestic and win multiple Oscars? Please.

Gene Roddenberry has passed into the history books, but I predict that his literary children, and their offspring, will survive in one form or another for centuries. If Voyager were canceled today, it would live on in novels and in syndication, and would continue to be sold in videocassette and DVD and whatever other media replace those, for decades to come, just like the other series. Licensed merchandise will come and go, disappear and resurface, in cycles and waves, for time immemorial. Original content will continue to be produced, whether through official or fannish channels. The day that goes by without any Trek on it is the day the airwaves themselves fall silent forever.

I'm not a day trader. I invest for the long term. If Voyager is canceled, the biggest impact for me is I get my weekends back. Would I miss it? Yes. I think it's better than many people give it credit for, though it is certainly far from perfect and the Ron Moore rumors are disconcerting. But I don't place in Voyager's hands the fate of the Franchise, and I won't lose sleep if it goes away early.

Trek will survive. It may lie dormant for a time; it could use the rest. After a time, it will peek out from its lair and not see its shadow, and the winter of our discontent will give way to the spring of a new generation of excited, eager Trek fans. Those who have seen the Franchise at its best and worst, have assimilated and debated each hour to the nth degree, and who are eager to press forward with a confidence that the best of Trek is yet to come.

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Jim 'Review Boy' Wright has been writing the net's most extensive Voyager reviews since the beginning. Together with his ongoing fanfic story, these can be found at Delta Blues. He is also a regular contributor to the Starfleet Journal.