The Franchise's Future

By David E. Sluss
Posted at August 3, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT

Star Trek is in serious trouble, folks. Regular readers of Cynics Corner Interactive won't be surprised to see me write something like that, since I'm prone to accentuate the negative in all things, but I think that even the most ardent of fans can see, in their heart of hearts, that I'm not too far off the mark here.

We all know, for instance, that television ratings are in decline, and have been ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air in 1994, and that Voyager, the only Star Trek series which remains in production, airs on a laughing-stock network that few expect to survive for much longer.

We all know that the film grosses have been on a general slide downhill, with the last film, Star Trek: Insurrection, barely eking out a profit, and disappearing from theatres in the United States more quickly than just about any previous Star Trek film. Take a look at the inflation-adjusted grosses sometime, think about the increase in ticket prices over the last twenty years, and you'll see the trend all the more vividly.

We all know that Star Trek barely registers as a "cultural phenomenon" anymore, and only when a cast member dies or gets feisty in contract talks does the general media pay much attention.

But these aren't the reasons that Star Trek is in decline, only side- effects. The real culprit is the lack of creativity and talent that is all too often evident in the finished product.

Star Trek: Voyager has blundered through season after season, rehashing old episodes, spouting ridiculous technobabble, engaging in the most superficial of characterizations, and generally churning out dreck, embellished by a couple of decent episodes a season. On the bright side, relatively speaking, anyway, the fifth season stabilized around a mediocre-ranging-to-poor center, and featured few out-and- out howlers, but very few standouts, either. Nevertheless, since its inception, the show has for the most part ignored its premise, and after five years, a consistent focus for the show still has not been found, unless you count Seven of Nine's chest.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, was a show that always looked like it was being innovative and taking chances while not actually doing so. The sixth and seventh seasons look to me like the product of people who wanted to do something really different with Star Trek, but just couldn't bring themselves to do so. And so we had the Dominion War, which ostensibly took place over the course of two years, but which in fact seemed to only be taking place when the writers felt like it, with most episodes ignoring it, if not flying in the face of its existence. DS9 was also touted by fans and Paramount flacks for its characters that were "shades of gray," but in the end, the show degenerated into a superficial Good versus Evil plot, best symbolized by "living god" Sisko battling "demon- possessed" Dukat in the pits of Hell in the series finalé.

But here I am, complaining about the past, when this column is supposed to be about the future of the Star Trek Franchise. What does that future look like?

We're getting two more years of Voyager apparently, assuming, of course, that UPN makes it that long. Given the track-record to date, that isn't necessarily a good thing. No serious changes appear to be imminent, especially in the wake of the Ron Moore fiasco, and besides, none of the previous shake-ups had much in the way of positive impact on the show. It's likely that the current level of quality will continue unabated, and that's a shame.

Rick Berman says that a new series is in the early stages of creation, and will replace Voyager when it goes off the air. The president of Paramount Pictures reportedly speaks vaguely of bold new directions for the Franchise. The Internet rumor mill hums with talk about a "Flight Academy" series. This concept, which easily conjures up fears of "Top Gun meets 90210 in Space," is a patently terrible one, but there's a good chance it isn't true; variations on this rumor have been around for nearly ten years, ever since Harve Bennett reportedly pushed the "Starfleet Academy" idea as the plot for the sixth film and got sacked for his trouble. So, for the sake of argument, let's say the new series isn't "Flight Academy." In the end, it won't matter, because with the same faces working the pens and computers, and sitting at the desks, we'll get essentially the same product in different packaging. Exhibit One is Voyager, which, with few exceptions, is simply The Next Generation with the serial numbers filed off.

It sounds likely that Patrick Stewart and/or Brent Spiner will be out of the movie series in the near future. I don't think Jonathan Frakes can carry a film, and I don't know anyone who does. I also can't see the DS9 or Voyager crews headlining a film. So unless something radical is done with the film series, it's hard to see it remaining viable for much longer.

So what are the real problems here, and is there any way to solve them and salvage the Franchise's future, assuming, for the moment anyway, that it is worth saving? Here are the primary problems as I see them:

* Writer inbreeding and writer burnout: Actual inbreeding can have several outcomes. Sometimes, the kids turn out okay, with no noticeable defects. Sometimes, relatively minor problems like, say, hemophilia, turn up. And sometimes the offspring is severely retarded and deformed. I think that Star Trek exhibits the effects of a sort of virtual inbreeding by the writing staff, which has gotten too close, and too closed, to judge their ideas objectively. This is why so many retarded and deformed episodes have turned up recently; the staff is too engaged in groupthink to say: "That is a lousy idea."

In addition, some of the writers seem to be burnt out and drained of ideas. Take the oft-reviled Brannon Braga, Executive Producer of Voyager. He was involved with some pretty decent episodes of The Next Generation, but when was the last time an original idea seeped into one of his scripts?

Preventing inbreeding requires a more diverse gene pool, and something similar can be said for the virtual inbreeding phenomenon that I've documented here. In short, the solution is new writers. Yes, that is a tired old saw amongst critics, particularly on the Internet, but old saws get to be old saws because they generally are true. Some new blood, and some kicking out of the old blood, could do wonders in preventing the results of both inbreeding and burnout But is this likely to happen? Rick Berman and the other highers-up act like they're satisfied with, and even proud of, the product they are churning out. For publicity's sake, of course, they'd act that way regardless, but in this case, I think they really do believe their own press. In any event, no major changes in this respect seem to be on the horizon.

* Cowardice: A related problem is the abject terror displayed by Berman and others at the very idea of seriously changing Star Trek's "vision." How many times has Berman has been quoted as saying something like: "You wouldn't believe how many terrific writers just can't write within the Star Trek format?" Implicit is the assumption that one must write according to some set formula in order to produce a successful Star Trek script, and that anything else is unacceptable. It never occurs him, or the other head honchos apparently, that maybe it's the formula that should be looked at askance, and not these "terrific writers."

The Star Trek format is over three decades old, and television and movies have changed a lot over the years. Today's Star Trek, despite the sci-fi look and feel, appears stodgy and pedestrian, and is about as ground-breaking as Murder, She Wrote. It's true that DS9 fiddled around at the edges of the format, playing around with a darker tone and continuing storylines, but it seemed to be subverted at almost every turn by Suits who were afraid to take any chances with their precious Franchise. I happen to think that the Suits are underestimating the fans, and just as importantly, the non-fans, whom I believe are hungry for a Star Trek that is genuinely different. Is that kind of product on the way? It doesn't sound like it.

* Oversaturation: Intertwined with these problems is the near-flood of Star Trek product that has been pouring out in recent years. New episodes have been airing continuously for twelve years, with two different new series airing simultaneously during half that span, and five movies and countless books, games, and CD's have been released during that same period. Even if it were terrific, people would be understandably sick of it, and the fact that it often is lousy exacerbates the problem. It's a perverse situation in which excess product bores the buying public while also spreading the talent, such as it is, ever thinner as they try to keep churning it out.

The solution here doesn't require rocket science either: less product. In this case, I think the Franchise is moving in the right direction. The next film apparently won't be released until 2001, and the next series, whatever it is, won't begin airing until after Voyager ends its run. That's a step in the right direction, although I think it would be even better if there were no Star Trek in production for a couple of years at least, in order to give the Franchise a rest and some of the current staff a chance to find other jobs (or other careers).

So let's return to the question that I tabled earlier: Is the Star Trek franchise worth saving? I say it's worth a try, because even I, the Internet's fabled Cynic, have gotten some enjoyment from it, and I'd like to again. That said, what I actually see in the Franchise's future is more of what we're getting today, namely poorer and poorer product becoming less and less popular, perhaps to the point where it goes under altogether.

But Star Trek, like Spock in The Undiscovered Country, has been dead before; maybe someday it will come back to life and live up to its potential once again.

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David E. Sluss provides the world with biting commentary about Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Crusade, and Babylon 5 at the world-renowned Cynics Corner.