Ok, several people have asked for my opinion, as a hard core Trekker, about the state of the franchise in general. The more I thought about it the more I realized the past informs the present. To realize where you are (and where you should go) you have to know where you’ve been. So I’m going to share general feelings about the entire franchise. While it’s a topic I could whittle away hours with, I’ll try to keep it from being “War and Peace” but please indulge my occasional digression.
While the original series has not aged well at first glance, those who dismiss it because of gaudy colors, paper and plaster rocks, archaic FX, and over the top acting, are doing a disservice to the series. Yes, it is dated. If you try to hold the storytelling and production values to contemporary standards then sure, the newest will always be the best and the oldest the worst. Next year it will be 40 years old. When you think about that number it somehow seems younger. Second glance tells you that, yes it was a product of its time BUT FOR THAT TIME, it was light years ahead of anything else. Look at its chief rival/competition – “Lost in Space.” Look at what was popular at that time: “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gilligan’s
The first season was stunningly tight in terms of production and storytelling. We had interesting characters. Look at how little Sulu and Uhura had to do on that show, but say the names and even people who are not fans, know who you are talking about. It’s iconic and ingrained as part of the popular culture. Now, I could dovetail into positive future, positive image of minorities, taking on social issues, blah, blah, blah.
It’s been done. To. Death.
And it *is* part of the appeal. BUT for me personally, it was those things plus the rich and diverse characters, and the allegory to contemporary issues. That last one is key. I love it. I love the idea of replacing Black & White with Green & Purple and making a point. Oh, yea, and, of course, the “gee whiz” factor of the stories. We can’t leave that out. The Original Series (or
But I digress (to quote one of my favorite blogs)...
Trek’s first season had characters that were as real as you could find on 60’s television. The stories were tight and had something to say. Look at “City on the Edge of Forever,” even watered down and re-written, this episode, dramatically, after 40 years of televisionary evolution can hold it’s own with darn near anything on the air today. “A Taste of Armageddon” says more about war and violence than most stuff does now. So does “Devil in the Dark,” (as we prepare to drill in Anwar) it’s still relevant today considering how we use up natural resources with little or no regard for the animal kingdom (or the human kingdom for that matter), especially when you consider the fact that we now have to measure mercury levels before eating fish or the fact that the local news stations in some parts of the country issue clean air advisories to let parents know when they need to keep the kids indoors and yet there are *still* those who claim that environmental hazards are overdramatized. Anyhow, as I was saying: Writers like George Clayton Johnson, D.C. Fontana, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Brown, Gene Coon (who is woefully overlooked in favor of Creator Gene), and lots of others were going where only Rod Serling had ever gone before, and television in 1966-1967 was all the better for it. It had timeless themes and had something to say. About God (“Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “Charlie X,” “Squire of Gothos”), Nature (“The Man Trap”), and War (“Balance of Terror,” “Errand of Mercy”). It highlighted mankind’s strengths and weaknesses in numerous ways: (“The Cage,” “The Enemy Within,” “Court-Martial,” “Galileo Seven,” “Conscience of the King,” “Arena”). Even the worst episode of the season, “The Alternative Factor,” had a lot to say about self-sacrifice. That’s something even today we (as in Americans) can learn from. What if the current Americans in the “gimme mine” culture were asked to ration gas and energy or give up their SUVs and gas powered mowers to help with the “War on Terror®?” Can anyone really see people of this generation doing like out parents and great-grandparents during WWII and making ANY type of sacrifice?
Yea, me neither. But again. I digress... (sorry Peter) Point being: Trek. Timeless. Themes still hold up today even if the production values don’t.
Let’s side bar on production values for a second, mainly because I am so friggin’ sick of hearing people gripe about the cheesy sets and fx. Production values are icing on the cake. If the story is good, the characters interesting, then I can handle pie plates on a string. But even the best model and
Let's face it folks, it just ain’t pretty.
The story is ok, not one of the best, but not horrid. Real middle of the bell curve. Would
On to season two which continued the trend but overall the show became a little lighter. Kirk a little more humorous and less of a “hard nosed one,” but in essence it was the same. It danced toward the edge of camp occasionally, but managed to hi-wire-walk the line without going over. Trek would have been better off to drift back toward the tone of season one, but is none the worse for wear with the lighter tone. It still worked, it just became a bit more obvious. We still had great drama (“Journey to Babel”), sci-fi (“Amok Time”), social commentary (“A Private Little War”) and comedy (“Trouble with Tribbles”) but now we had comedy-camp (“A Piece of the Action”) and Satire (“Bread and Circuses,” “Who Mourns for Adonis?”), and even a couple of not so successful whacks at horror (“Catspaw,” “Wolf in the Fold”). But all of it had something to say about family, bigotry, religion, politics, and even the television industry itself.
Season Three is when it fell apart. Roddenberry left the series as the show runner and budget was cut and it was abandoned to late night Fridays when most of the interested demographic (College age kids specifically and the young counter-culture of the 60s in general) was out trying to get laid. The new guy, Fred Freiberger, was not nearly the anti-Christ as history has painted him. Yes, the stories became dumbed down, simplistic and clichéd crossing that line into camp and cheesy melodrama and, not to mention, he seemed to scrape lower in the barrel for the writing talent and directorial talent (the latter needed to keep Shatner in line). The characters became parodies of their former selves or worse behaved totally inconsistently with how they had been established in prior seasons. BUT… in spite of the skimpier budget the effects, sets, and costumes were stunning, and creative (even in using NO set or partial sets and making it part of the story as in “The Empath” and “Spectre of the Gun”). Even the worst episode of the season, “Spock’s Brain,” has some nifty set construction particularly the planet set). Aliens were generally *ALIEN* (Notice how many human looking aliens were in the first two seasons versus the Tholans, Excalabans, Vians, Melkotians, Medusans, heck even the Klingons looked a little less like someone’s bearded Uncle Bob this time around). Come on, credit where credit is due. Fred, did more with less in the area where
Yea, it’d still look dated.
Now that I think about it, maybe Freiberger is the devil after all.
After a hiatus of sorts (four years), we received The Animated Series (TAS). Two years. Twenty two episodes. This just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It was more creative than the original (less budgetary constraints) and had some of the great writers from the first two seasons of the original. Sure, occasionally it dipped into the painful banality of 70’s morning cartoon fair (“Practical Joker,” “Loreli Signal,” “Terratin Incident,” “Counter Clock Incident”), but mostly it was as good (or better) than we could have actually gotten from a fourth season of the original (“Yesteryear,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Jihad,” “Pirates of Orion,” “Albatross,” “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”)
Another half decade later, with re-runs getting better ratings than the original broadcasts and after landing on the moon, I think it all became more interesting or believable, not to mention local programmers knew when to air the show – weekdays at 7 p.m. – when people are at home either just getting in from work or eating dinner or just getting ready to go out for the evening. Oh, yea, “Star Wars” cleaning up at the box office, so we get “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (
Next we get “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” (TWOK) which is my favorite film of all time and all the credit goes to Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer. Smaller budget and a smarter more personal story equaled success. “Star Trek
Really, really BIG.
It proved that almost 20 years later Trek could have mainstream appeal beyond the cult. With deft humor, a fun story and a social message about the environment it became the highest grossing Trek film ever (both domestic and international). Money talks and BS walks, as they say and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG) was born at that moment.
I have a love/hate relationship with TNG. I was thrilled that we would get new Trek by the original creator. But a new cast? Well, I got over it. Trek is universal, a way of telling stories and not about a single character. But Roddenberry at the helm was actually the worst part. He still structured Trek like it was the 60’s. Characters were static and non changing (and to be honest not nearly as interesting as the originals). There were no real continuing story lines. Although later on we would get a tiny Worf/Klingon thread that weaved as a minor subplot on and off again throughout the middle of the series. Hardly enough to call it a full blown arc or storyline, but it was more than
It was two seasons of *very* mixed feelings. But, we had some good stuff (“Heart of Glory,” “Conspiracy,” “Measure of A Man,” “A Matter of Honor”) and we had some crap (“Lonely Among Us,” “Justice,” “Shades of Grey,” “Outrageous Okona”). Roddenberry tried to put in some social commentary/allegory at first: Environmental (“When the Bough Breaks”), drugs (“Symbiosis”), death penalty (“Justice”), predatory capitalism (“The Last Outpost”), but it mostly vanished after the first season.
Meanwhile Shatner got his hands of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (TFF). I'm not going to beat that dead horse.
Back to TNG:
Roddenberry turned the reins over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller in the third year. The former would oversee production and the latter ran the writing room. Fresh ideas, were tempered by the eyes of the creator keeping it true to his vision of Trek. It was still static from episode to episode, but fresh and invigorated. TNG may not have had as much to say as the original series, but at that point they started telling good solid, smart, exciting adventure stories (too darn many to list here). Like with TVH. Non-fans noticed. TNG made Trek mainstream. Average people buzzed about the fate of Capt. Picard and Worf during the summer cliffhangers (“The Best of Both Worlds” and “Redemption”) Words like Borg and Betazoid became commonplace and the letter Q took on a whole new pop-culture meaning.
After two seasons of riding high, Roddenberry died early in the fifth year. Without his watchful but hands off approach and under the strain of popularity, TNG very slowly started to become stale. You see when something is popular the powers that be are hesitant to make changes for fear of screwing up the formula.
Paramount wanted to ready a successor and thus was born my favorite Trek – “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: (DS9). Piller moved on to DS9, the only Trek not set on a space ship, and it was immediately scored as too dark, and too stationary, despite having the best elements from each of first two series. Piller had shepherded DS9 into two seasons of occasionally brilliant but mostly only slightly above average television. While his successor on TNG, Jeri Taylor, quickened TNG’s decline to acceptable but mostly uninspired sci-fi in its final two years. In other words: perfect for the masses. Between the two shows there were some highlights for that couple of years. (“Duet,” “The Homecoming the Circle and the Seige” three parter, “The Pegasus,” “Parallels,” “Pre-Emptive Strike,” “Cardassians,” “In The Hands of the Prohets,” “Face of the Enemy,” “Tapestry,” “Necessary Evil” and the “Chain of Command” two parter.) But the misses outnumbered the hits on both shows for those final two/first two seasons.
Then things got weird.
TNG jumped to the big screen, with, well, a really big expensive episode (Star Trek: Generations –
You see without the popularity, the writers did stuff. Sneaky stuff. Dramatic stuff. Ballsey stuff. Cool stuff. And the studio really didn’t care. In fact, except to co-opt “
Meanwhile, TNG made two more movies. One great (“Star Trek: First Contact” - FC) and another that was nothing more than a bloated bland episode (“Star Trek: Insurrection” -
Yea, I mentioned it. You knew it was coming, but, I’m not going to trash it. It’s too easy to trash it and not fair to boot. No Trek has ever had such a great set up. Interesting characters were created. Interesting situations were started in TNG and DS9 to set up the new show. The digital revolution was afoot. The decade old first-run syndication market that TNG helped to forge was giving way to new networks and the VOY pilot was to be the premier episode of the premier night of UPN.
Under Taylor and crew (DS9 got TNG’s great writers, VOY got the rest), VOY was good lined up against typical television fare and very good in a face off with *typical* SF TeeVee. But with
It simply maintained.
Never breaking loose and becoming better, sure there was a slight ebb here and there, but no
At this point we come to the beginning of the end. We had 80 episodes of
That’s when the afore mentioned
For two years
Ratings were even falling below that of “Firefly” the critical success but ratings challenged space western by “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” & “Angel” creator Joss Whedon that was axed by Fox after only 15 episodes.
Then there was season three.
Braga, who was a horrid Trek writer, but not a bad writer in general, started *writing* Instead of putting out what he *thought* was good Trek (and usually wasn’t), he started trying to build a story, not his view of a Trek story, just a story. Out of the limp Temporal Cold War Arc came the Xindi Arc and
This is not the show it should have been, but dog-on-it it was finally a darn good show. I never would have guessed that Braga had it in him.
But it was too late, ratings were limp and had declined, "Enterprise" had lost 75% of its viewership over the first two seasons. Only a portion of hardcore fan was still watching. The mainstream had gradually tuned out and even the purists were wavering the year before. UPN wasn’t even promoting the show anymore. And it wasn’t just on tv, the previous year TNG’s fourth (and to date final) film (“Star Trek: Nemesis” -
The writing was on the wall. Trek was dead. Except...
For the first time in years the franchise was getting critical praise. The decade old network had a decision to make. Do they pull the plug on a 17 year institution when getting critical praise and are just a year away from a nifty syndication package?
The answer is no.
If they keep it on and ratings continue to fall then they look magnanimous. A generous attempt to keep the Roddenberry flame alive (if they just happen to get a nice syndication package out of it, oh, it’s just a bonus, right?). Or at least that’s how they played it. If the ratings turned around due to critical response, then great, they have a hit show again (which they claim they believed in all along). It was win-win to keep ENT on one more season. And thus we come to the End of the End.
Writing on the wall. B&B blamed “franchise fatigue.” Oddly B&B didn't stop with “franchise fatigue” I've heard they even went so far as to blame the fans for tuning out. Never once did they blame their own mishandling of the previous two TNG films, VOY and early
Anyhow. Writing. Wall. B&B knew this was it. UPN slashed the budget in half, cut the order to 22 episodes and moved the show to Friday nights. The night that killed
Over the last decade (or more) Fridays had become THE Sci-Fi night. “John Doe,” “X-Files,” “Sliders,” “Harsh Relm,” “Firefly,” “First Wave,” “Lone Gunmen,” “Lexx,” “Dark Angel,” “Jeremiah,” “Dead Like Me,” “Wonderfalls,” and more.
So B&B knew it was over and faster than political propaganda, they cut and run. Their names were on it and they wrote the series finale. But it was over for them. Braga went to work on his next series (“Threshhold” on CBS starring TNG actor Brent Spiner which started recently and it sure isn't looking good in the ratings) and one can assume so did Berman. They handed it off to someone else. A smart move, actually. If the show gets canceled on their watch then they’re the boobs that killed Trek. But if they hand it off, then it looks like the new guy killed it. The only flaw was what if the new guy made it better, created a groundswell of excitement like Piller’s fresh scripts did for the third season of TNG. Then they look like the guys who almost ran Trek into the ground. They look like the two who screamed “franchise fatigue” and “going to the well too many times,” when really it was just their own inability to get the job done right to start with.
This. Could. Not. Happen.
They promoted staff writer Manny Coto, a Trek fan who took a demotion to be a Trek staff writer during season three (and contributed to the greatness of that season), to show runner. Prior to this, he was show runner for two great but short lived sci-fi series “Odyssey 5” and “Jake 2.0.” He was a fan. He stacked the writing staff with novelists.
To (again) digress here - whenever someone laments that the franchise is dead and has nothing fresh or interesting to say I point at the novels. The novelists are FANS first and all the books are a labor of love. Sure some novels are horrid and only get printed because they have the Trek name on them, but far more are *really* good and would win awards if they did NOT have the Trek name on the cover (the bias works both ways). Some of the best Trek literature has emerged since guide lines and restrictions were eased by Paramount and given writers more of a free hand. The post finale DS9 books are as good as the series at it’s best, the post VOY finale books are BETTER than the series, So far the post TNG-
Coto decided to shift the shows focus from Temporal Cold War to what it should have been from the beginning: The Founding of the Federation. He had a vision. A vision that B&B through fatigue or lack of knowledge just didn’t have anymore (if they ever really had it). They just couldn’t take the chance that Coto could pull it off.
So they sabotaged him.
They ended the great season three arc with the single worst cliffhanger ever used on Trek (Alien Nazis). They then directed that the premier had to be a two parter and promptly walked away. Coto stuggled with a lame inherited two part premier, hamstrung by half a budget and produced the worst two hours of the season. The two that would be watched by anyone who walked away during seasons one and two (or during VOY) who were now coming back because of good press. They left in droves.
Ratings dropped even farther (insult to injury Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” was a huge hit, with double the audience on a channel in three quarters of the homes). But by the third episode, it started changing, alternating 2 and 3-part arcs and stand alones (again, another structure change for the franchise) Coto’s new direction and writing staff worked. Not only was the show better than the first two seasons it was something season three was not: A true prequel to Trek. It was as promised, what the show should have been to start with. The emphasis was on story, character, and as a prequel, continuity (a word B&B never bothered to look up), heck, he even worked in a little social commentary in his final two episodes.
Hard core fans were in love again. All five of us. Ok, that’s an overstatement (understatement?)… but not by much. Coto shepherded 21 episodes, 19 of which he was in full control. Of those 19, 16 are considered unqualified successes. The other three met with mixed reviews. B&B came back for the finale. Berman called it a Valentine to fans. This was a Valentine at least as much as rape is to love making.
In the end Trek went out mixed. Critically it was great due to someone who understood the franchise and loved it. But from the outside it looks like “franchise fatigue” and “going to the well too many times.” But your proof is there. When the guys responsible say things like this. They need to go. You need a guy who says: “We need more Trek. UPN should have a Trek night. It should be like “Law and Order” on NBC or “
With a grand total of 726 episodes and 10 movies, someone who loves it can see what works and what doesn’t. They can see what’s been done and what hasn’t. They can go somewhere new but stay true to the series.
The question of the future will depend on who
Trek is only as good as the guy running the show. Who we get for Trek’s next incarnation will decide its ultimate fate and will either cement Trek’s death or, like Spock, be resurrected.
Till then, I’m waiting patiently for pocket to follow the steps of TNG, DS9, and VOY and start an
ENT post series set of novels ‘cause Trek ain’t
dead, it’s just resting.