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The Trek Nation - Mike Sussman

Mike Sussman

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at May 12, 2005 - 1:25 PM GMT

For the last five years, Mike Sussman has worked a Trekker's dream job as a writer for Star Trek: Voyager and then Star Trek: Enterprise. Enterprise in particular has been a lightening rod for controversy since it premiered in 2001, when fans questioned the premise and the show's reported sexier image. Though the ratings for the show waned, the controversies never did, and the show remained fiercely debated among the franchise's many devotees. Less than a month after the Enterprise sets went dark, Sussman sat down with TrekToday to discuss the creatively energized fourth season, the final days of the show, the divided fandom and the future of Trek.

When the show was renewed for a fourth season in 2004, it was clear change was imminent. Manny Coto stepped up to the helm as the showrunner and executive producer. Even before the show's pick up was official, Coto began to work with Sussman to come up with ideas that would bring the show back to its roots, so to speak. "I had a terrific time working on the show the first three years, but when Manny stepped forward this year and took the reigns and decided to take the show in a direction much closer to the original series, I was thrilled. I grew up on the original show. I was always something of a card-carrying Trek-nerd. So I was very excited that we were going to be moving the show closer to that and we could really start to create stories that would provide some connective tissue between Enterprise and the original show."

Coto and Sussman began to hammer out ideas before the show's renewal was guaranteed, hoping to get a jump start on a season that they hoped would connect Enterprise to the original series, something they knew fans had long hoped to see. "In mid-May last year, it looked as if the show was probably going to get picked up," Sussman reveals. "There wasn't anything official yet, but it looked as if it was going to happen. The problem was if we waited for the actual pick up, we would have been behind in story development. So Manny came in to the office and he asked me to come in early as well, even though we didn't officially have a fourth season. So I came in and on this dry erase board in his office, Manny had written ideas for what eventually became the first half of the season: a Vulcan reformation arc, the Eugenics wars story line – at the time, it involved Colonel Green not Arik Soong – the invention of the transporter, the episode that became "Home." Manny wanted to do a "Family" type episode where the crew would touch base with Earth before going back off into space. So he had a lot of exciting ideas that he wanted to do, and it was exactly the type of thing that I wanted to see, and I think, the fans wanted to see as well. I knew if indeed we did get the fourth season the fans were going to be in for a treat, and what a crying shame it would be if it didn't happen."

Sussman was especially excited to return to the Vulcans after the conflict that was developed in the early seasons was abandoned in favor of the conflict with the Xindi in the show's third season. "There was a point in season two or season three where there was a directive from the studio to avoid the Vulcans, to stay away from the Vulcans," Sussman notes. "I always thought the Vulcans could be to this show what the Klingons were to Next Gen or what the Bajorans and Cardassians were to Deep Space Nine. We could finally explore Vulcans and Vulcan culture in a way that even the original wasn't able to get into. So I was excited that we were taking the show back in that direction."

Enterprise had been critiqued in its first few years for not having the energy of previous series as the ship wandered, almost aimlessly, from planet to planet. Sussman is in agreement with this criticism, noting that the show did at times lack the drive of its predecessors.

"I always thought the show needed to be mission-oriented from the beginning," he confesses. "For me, as much as I loved working on the first two seasons of the show, there was a meandering quality to the stories. We were just kind of running into things and just sort of looking around for planets to explore. It was a little too Lewis & Clark for my taste. I always thought exploring was an important component of Star Trek, but really, the show is much more Horatio Hornblower or Master & Commander than it is Lewis & Clark. I thought the episodes should generally be about a captain and his crew and their mission this week. So I was happy this season that to a large extent we got back to that. Season 3 was one long mission—save the Earth, basically. And then season 4 got back to more mission-oriented approach, not just pure exploration. Exploration will always be a major component of Star Trek, but if you look at Next Gen and the original in particular, the Enterprise will be exploring when they bump into a planet-eating space cloud. The exploring was often an excuse to find the jeopardy, to find the drama and conflict."

Sussman was quite pleased with the decision to add Trek novelists Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to the writing staff this year. Sussman himself had no small hand in it; it was his idea to look to the novelists and published fan writers as possible additions to the writing staff in the show's second year.

"In season two, I had talked to Brannon [Braga] about bringing in some novelists to pitch. Star Trek in the past has had well-known science fiction writers write for the show, but in particular I was interested in getting some of the writers who had written Star Trek fiction," Sussman reveals. "I was familiar with Judy and Gar's work. When I had contracted Margaret Clark at Pocket Books I was actually interested in the non-professional fan writers who had written for their series Strange New Worlds. I figured that these were people who obviously knew Star Trek and many of them were probably young and ambitious and hopefully had a lot of ideas. But Margaret suggested that before we do that, we meet with Judy and Gar.

"So Judy and Gar came in and pitched several ideas to Phyllis Strong and me—they came in to me at least three times. None of their pitches were purchased, but I kept singing their praises. I thought we needed more people on the writing staff who knew their Star Trek. A lot of talented writers came in and were hired over the first three seasons, but for many of them it was something of a steep learning curve to get up to speed on the history of the franchise. So I was a big proponent for bringing Judy and Gar on board, or at least giving them a freelance assignment. So I was pleasantly surprised when early on in season four Manny made it clear he wanted to hire them on the strength of their novels and some of the scripts they'd written as well—non-Star Trek. I was very glad when they were brought on board. They're great to have in the room when you're breaking a story; they have a lot of ideas. There were a couple of times when I was stuck on a particular script and needed a way out, and I'd just bring Judy and Gar down and we'd brainstorm and they'd invariably come up with something. So I was very happy when they joined the staff.

"I thought they did a terrific job with their first script, "The Forge," which I think ended up being a classic episode in its own right and then kicked off our Vulcan trilogy in the strongest way possible. They did some great work this year."

Sussman's own contributions have drawn praise from the fans, particularly third season's "Twilight" and this season's Mirror Universe two-parter, "In a Mirror, Darkly." "Twilight" recently won the coveted first place position in UPN's favorite episode poll, an honor Sussman modestly says he finds flattering.

" It was a little surprising," Sussman admits. "It was very nice that people remembered the episode and voted for it. It was a lot of fun to write. It was an episode that was very personal for me on many levels and was something I felt very passionate about when I was writing, so I was glad it seemed to connect with people in some way."

The comparisons to TNG's "The Inner Light" and DS9's "The Visitor" please Sussman, who admires both outings. "Those are some of my favorite episodes from those series, so if someone's comparing something I did favorably with those episodes, that's wonderful. I don't know if it's quite in that category, quite in that league but I don't mind if someone else thinks it is!" he laughs.

More recently, fans were able to take a trip to the ever-popular Mirror Universe courtesy of Sussman, who built the episodes around the Enterprise's crew's alter-egos on the other side of the looking glass. Sussman noted he's been reading TrekBBS and taking note of the fans' reactions, which have been largely positive. [NB—this interview took place before the airing of the second half of "In a Mirror, Darkly."]

I've been reading a lot of the threads [on the BBS]. Generally it seems like people have been enjoying the episode and seemed to like part one," he mentions. "It was a blast to write—both of those episodes. I'm eager to see what people think of part two. It's very hard in that it really is one story—one continuing story—and you only see half of it at the time then everyone is making their mind up about what they think of this half. It's like going in and watching half of a movie. You wish people would hold their comments—as nice as their comments are!—until they see part two. But overall I've been very happy with the response to it."

After a season that drew so much attention and interest from the fans, the cancellation of the show, though not entirely unexpected, was a blow. Sussman himself found out thirty minutes before Paramount and UPN sent out the press release announcing the cancellation of Enterprise after eighteen consecutive years of first-run Star Trek shows. The news wasn't entirely unexpected; when the show was picked up for a fourth year, there was a definite possibility that this would be the final year. Sussman and his colleagues were determined to make the most of it.

"We knew going into this year that there was a very good chance that this was the last season," Sussman notes. "[The attitude of the writers was,] let's not take it for granted—I certainly never did and I don't think any of the writers did, either. I felt we were firing on all cylinders throughout the year. I know I was determined that if we were going to be cancelled at the end of season four, I wanted people to say, this show really went out on a high note. That's how we wanted people to remember it. And I hope we were successful."

As has become the status quo for the series, there's a controversy surrounding Enterprise, this time concerning the series finale, "These Are The Voyages." Early on fans got wind of the fact that the episode would feature two cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) and Marina Sirits (Deanna Troi) and would look at the Enterprise characters from the TNG era. Sussman is able to sympathize with fans' concerns.

"I think the problem that people are having is not the episode itself, which is a terrific idea for a show," Sussman says of the overall concept. "It's been something Brannon has been wanting to do for a long time. The problem people seem to be having is, they're wondering if this was appropriate for the series finale? And I don't know that it is appropriate for the series finale — I mean, I hope it is, but I can understand why some people think it isn't. I can understand why some feelings may have been hurt, but I think it has potential of being a terrific, very emotional episode, more emotional than any of the other series finales."

"I don't necessarily think anyone was aware of how controversial it would be when the decision was made," Sussman adds.

Sussman denies rumors that the finale was actually penned a year ago, before the fourth season unfolded. "That's a rumor—I think the idea for the episode came up a year ago. The episode was not written a year ago," he says. "I was around when Brannon was writing it. The idea is something that Brannon had kicked around for some time. There had been other similar ideas pitched— I had always wanted to do a story with the holographic doctor from Voyager that would have told a story from the perspective of the future."

"My idea was pretty different from the direction they went," Sussman says. "Suffice to say, my version wouldn't have worked for a series finale at all! I wanted to find Picardo's Doctor treating an apparently crazy mental patient in a holodeck version of the NX-01. This mental patient, who'd be played by Scott [Bakula], would be convinced that he was, in fact, Jonathan Archer, and he needed the Doctor's help to get back to his own century. The story would touch on that classic theme about a doctor falling for one of his patient's delusions. For every piece of evidence "Archer" would have that he's telling the truth, you'd have a contradictory piece of evidence suggesting this guy was really just nuts. It would've been great to leave the audience wondering in the end — was that really Jonathan Archer trapped in the future, or just some crazy guy who read too many history books?"

When asked about the finale, Sussman offers another option to Enterprise fans: "People were asking me at Grand Slam about it—they'd read the spoilers and seemed upset. I told them, well, think of it this way: "Demons" and "Terra Prime"—those episodes are the Enterprise finale, and "These Are The Voyages..." is the finale for the franchise as a whole, and maybe that will make things easier." Sussman did make one small contribution to Enterprise's swan song: he suggested a final montage sequence, which would unite all three Starship Enterprise-based series. "It seemed like a fitting way to tie Enterprise into the overall Trek mythos," he says.

Sussman denies rumors that Enterprise co-creators Rick Berman and Braga's involvement was greatly diminished this year. While Coto ran the writers' room, both Berman and Braga remained involved with the story ideas and scripts. "Rick and Brannon were there for every story discussion. We got notes on every script from Rick and Brannon," he notes. "Manny certainly stepped forward in running the writing room, which was generally what Brannon had done in years past, but they were still very much a presence and an influence and still doing their job. Rick in particular—Rick was more or less doing the same job he had over the last three years. You get notes on every script, every line of dialogue from Rick, as it should be—his name was on the end credits."

Both Berman and Braga remain involved with Paramount in some form: Berman is working on the proposed eleventh Star Trek movie, while Braga is developing a pilot, "Threshold," for the studio. Several Trek veterans, including Dan Curry and Mike and Denise Okuda have already done some work on the show, but Sussman points out that "it's not as if the entire [group moved over]. With the Star Trek series—most people from Voyager moved on to Enterprise. That is certainly not happening here, with everyone from Enterprise moving on to Threshold. If the pilot gets picked up there may be some Star Trek alumni who find jobs on Threshold, but that's still an ‘if' at this point." Sussman himself is impressed with the script: "I think it's an exceptional pilot and I think it could make a great series."

Like most people involved with the franchise, Sussman is resigned to Trek going away for a while, and though he was awed by the fans' effort to save the show, he acknowledges it was an uphill battle from the beginning. "I want to say how much everyone on the show appreciates what the fans did, and what they tried to do," he says in regards to TrekUnited's work. "It was always a long shot, but they raised more money than any fan group did for any TV show ever before. It shows the resourcefulness and dedication of Star Trek fans. But nothing short of a huge turnaround in the ratings could have saved the show. Once the sets were torn down, that was the end. I was outside the gates when they marched on the lot, and it was great to meet [the people involved], and it touched me personally and had the same effect on a lot of people on our show."

Still, there's no denying the fandom is deeply divided. As someone who makes an effort to pay attention to the fan's opinions, Sussman opines that the fracture likely started back when the decision was made to have Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiere before TNG went off the air.

"Star Trek has such a fractured fanbase right now," he comments. "It's very strange in that you've got people that love DS9 but hate Voyager, or love Voyager and Enterprise but never saw an episode of DS9. There are still fan clubs where people only watch the original series and they tried watching Next Gen and they watched one episode and they turned it off. It will be a real challenge to any showrunner or movie producer who tries to take that next step. I thought we were all Star Trek fans, all on the same page, but apparently not! I think it [began] when they had two shows running concurrently. I understand the business reasons for why they did that but you had people that didn't have time for two Star Trek shows in a week who would watch one and not the other. That was sort of the beginning of the fracturing of the community."

An active reader and even participant in the internet Trek communities, Sussman is deeply aware of the power of the internet, which gives both fans and critics a soapbox to either champion or denigrate a television show. Enterprise has encountered both.

"It's a brave, new brutal world on the internet!" Sussman laughs. "We're not going to un-invent the internet, but I hope that at least a certain amount of civility eventually comes to the forefront and people will be a little kinder, or at least give whoever starts up the next series a chance. Not to say that Enterprise wasn't given a chance—we were given a chance by many people. But there was a large vocal minority who didn't want to give the show a chance, didn't like the idea of it, or didn't like the design of the ship and therefore [condemned it]. A lot of this was before the first episode even aired. What was amusing to me was that many of these people week after week watched the show and posted these long, involved reviews and talked about how much they hated it and then tuned in the next week and did the exact same thing. I think if only we had more viewers who hated the show but watched it religiously every week, we'd still be on the air!"

Though Sussman is more than open to criticism, he found the virtual evisceration of some of the writers, particularly showrunners Berman and Braga, to be extreme. "Honestly, I felt bad for Rick and Brannon and for the way that they were attacked and continue to be attacked online. And it's hard to read that stuff —I know these people and they're former colleagues of mine; it hurts to see them vilified the way they have been. Every now and then I'll read something directed at me that's a little nasty, but I'm lucky that I don't have their high public profile. I can't imagine what it must be like to know that somewhere on the internet someone is saying really unpleasant things about you basically everyday. I think it's regrettable. You may not like the show, but as William Shatner said, it's just a TV show. There's no reason to get ugly, there's no reason to get personal. You don't like it, don't watch it."

But Sussman appreciates the internet for its positive aspects: "For me, it's incredible to get this sort of instant, critical feedback on an episode that hasn't even aired in my time zone yet. And you find out pretty quickly if something worked with the audience, or whether you missed the mark. I've never been all that interested in ratings and shares -- I'm much more curious about what people think of the episode, what they liked or didn't like, and why."

Sussman also adds that he's seen how much of that criticism has turned to praise with this season: "I've been reading a lot of posts this year and over the last couple of weeks, and I've been reading a lot of posts from people who tuned out of the show early on in season one or season two and they're coming back in season 4 and saying, ‘You know what? This show's really getting good. Do they really have to cancel the show now? Doesn't Paramount realize what they're losing?'

Like many, Sussman isn't sure what the future holds for the Star Trek franchise beyond the fact that fans will have to do without it for the foreseeable future. "I don't have a clue what they're planning," he admits when asked about what's next for Trek. "I would have been happy for the show to take a break but after seven years of Enterprise. Obviously that didn't happen. I think it probably does need to rest for a couple of years, if only to give the audience a breather, but I also think to get away from the negativity that really feeds into the media coverage. If you look back on the media coverage of Enterprise—the first year it was really very positive. Then when Nemesis came out and was not the box office hit that it was hoped, all of the sudden we started seeing stories about, ‘Is the franchise waning? Is the franchise dying? What's wrong with Star Trek?' It just kind of became, kick ‘em while they're down, and it never really let up."

While Star Trek ending is inevitable, Sussman can't help but lament that Enterprise has to end just as the show was finally finding its footing as well as an increasingly-enthusiastic audience. "I think it has to go away for a couple of years—at least two or three," he says. "I'm hoping that it won't go away for as long as, say, Dr. Who did. But you never know how long the hiatus will be. That for me is what's particularly sad about this year—I thought we were doing good work and people were really responding. We were doing similar numbers to Veronica Mars and Kevin Hill, even though we didn't have their time slots or advertising dollars. But we were firing on all cylinders and now it all has to go away. And there's no guarantee the next show won't also have its growing pains."

What will that next show be? "I've got a few ideas," Sussman says with a smile. "At the end of the year, Manny and I compared notes on what we'd each do for the next show, if we were given the chance. Turns out we were thinking along some of the same lines. Needless to say, it would be pretty different from what's come before."

If Star Trek does return to network television, Sussman hopes it will receive more support than Enterprise did. While low ratings were harmful, the complete lack of advertising hurt the show greatly and created a vicious cycle, making it difficult to maintain an audience when many viewers weren't aware that the show was still on the air.

"It's very funny in that people say, ‘oh the franchise needs a break, the show needs a break.' But in the minds of many TV viewers, the show wasn't even on!" Sussman notes. "I can't tell you how many parties I went to, where if someone asked me what I did for a living, the response, nine times out of ten, was ‘Is Star Trek still on the air? They're still making new episodes?' How can you fight that? I think the perception was that you didn't really need to promote it—the Trekkies would always tune in so why bother? I think inevitably the franchise started to slip out of the consciousness of the general TV viewing public."

The lack of advertising wasn't the only thing that hurt Enterprise; the lack of savvy marketing and promotion that has served shows like 24, Family Guy and Firefly so well was largely absent for Enterprise after the show's launch in 2001. Sussman notes that the traditional Christmas drop-off in viewers might have been avoided by running the show without reruns, as several other shows were this season. "It would have been so nice to do what NYPD Blue did these last couple of seasons or to do what 24 did, which is to air all their new episodes all at once. They start in January and air all 22 or 24 episodes with no reruns in between. Your audience gets hooked, they get used to seeing the show every week. I think had they done that with Enterprise, particularly this year, we would have seen much stronger, much more consistent numbers.

"It was the Christmas break that killed us, literally got the show cancelled, because we came back in January, nobody knew the show was on, nobody knew we were airing new episodes. It always took a couple of new episodes in January before people started tuning in again."

Sussman also laments that the show's DVDs weren't released at a more opportunistic time. "I think that if they'd released season one of Enterprise on DVD over Christmas, the advertising that that would have generated for the show could have boosted our ratings in January, and our ratings hopefully would have held. Again, look at a show like 24, which really struggled in its first year. In an effort to promote the show, [the studio] released the entire first season on DVD that summer. And people rented those DVDs and watched the entire season from beginning to end, and then when season two premiered a few months later, the numbers went up, as a direct result of the DVD sales."

Sussman notes that the ratings didn't necessarily reflect Enterprise's audience given all the ways people can now access entertainment media. "It's like the 1960s all over again when the original was cancelled," he points out. "The apocryphal story is that demographics came into being in the late 60s and when NBC cancelled the original Star Trek, the demographics people told them, you just killed the golden goose. This show had the best demos of any program on television. In some ways we're in the middle of a revolution right now. Not a demographic revolution, but a revolution in terms of the internet, DVDs, cable television—first run cable programming like Battlestar Galactica. If you look at lists of the most downloaded programs—illegal downloads on the internet—Enterprise is almost always in the top ten. If you look at the most TIVOed shows, I think Enterprise was in the top 25 in TIVO's last list of the most season passes. The show is popular in ways that are difficult to measure right now with current systems and current technology. I think when and if they decide to bring Star Trek back, maybe it will be a show that you pay $9.95 and you download the latest episode to your hard drive. Maybe that's the model that will make it profitable for Paramount. Star Trek still is profitable for Paramount, but they're not making as much as they were before. But it's too bad that in this world with all of these different opportunities and different ways of making money off of this franchise, it would have been nice if they'd tried a little harder to keep it around."

Sussman admits that despite the fact that filming has ended it still doesn't feel like the show is really over. He describes the last days on set as difficult, particularly for those who had been with the franchise for a long time.

"It was very sad that this family was breaking up," he says of the end of Enterprise. "It was hard for me, but I'd only been there for one year of Voyager and four of Enterprise. There were people who'd been there for almost twenty years. I wouldn't want to even pretend that I had the investment in it that some of these other people did. I was sort of the newcomer to the whole thing. It was very sad, but at the same time people are optimistic that the show will come back in one form or another. Star Trek isn't dead; it's just in hibernation. These people working on the show are some of the most talented artists and craftsmen in Hollywood and they will find work. But still, it's scary to walk away from something that was a given for so long. Suddenly you're going on interviews again. It is a bit of a shock.

"It's funny, because it still doesn't seem like it's over. We're still airing new episodes. Even though the sets have been torn down and everyone's cleaned out their offices, it still doesn't quite seem to be over. I have a feeling even after the last episode is aired it won't seem like it's over. They're just starting to release the DVDs, the show begins syndication in the fall. It will always be out there. That's actually a very comforting thought—it's not really going away. Many shows do thirteen episodes that are never rerun and they're never seen again. Twenty years from now, Enterprise will be rerunning somewhere—on cable, on a UHF station, being downloaded on the internet. Somebody somewhere will be watching it. And that's comforting to know."

Another certainty for Sussman is that his experience working on two Star Trek shows was a positive one. "I was thrilled when I was asked to move on to Enterprise. I would have stayed with Enterprise until the very end [of a seven year run] if they would have let me! I have a great deal of love and affection for all the shows, the franchise as a whole. So I couldn't have been happier to have been there for as long as I was." As for his own future? Sussman has recently completed a pilot for a dramatic series, which he describes as a quirky but "occasionally frightening" show about a sleepy American town that becomes the focus of world attention after the arrival of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. "It's got some sci-fi elements, but it's really about how ordinary people might react to such a momentous event. It's got a spiritual and mystical quality, while being a little humorous. It's something of a cross between Close Encounters and Picket Fences."

And when Star Trek does come back Sussman says in no uncertain terms he would be open to being involved with the new incarnation. "I'd write for Star Trek again in a heartbeat."

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.