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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Denis McGrath has this to say about Star Trek: the Very Long Running Franchise:

Where No Fans Have Gone Before

Before I turned to actually writing TV for a living, I spent a lot of
time around the margins of the genre as a television producer.
Specifically, I cut a lot of short, documentary-like segments, first
for a show about technology and advertising and the internet, back
when that was new and exciting (I think one of the first stories I did
was on this brand-new magazine called WIRED. There, I've just dated
myself.)

Anyway, all this led to a job as a producer at the Canadian version of
the Sci-Fi Channel, a station called SPACE: The Imagination Station.
It launched in 1997.

I went in as a sci-fi fan, thinking that I would find my mental image
of sci-fi fans: people who were forward-thinking, expansive in their
worldview, excited by change and the implications, both good and bad,
of future technology.

I worked in Space for three years. (And that's how I'd describe it to
people. One of my good friends at the time was a Special Makeup
supervisor for the show Earth: Final Conflict, which shot in Toronto.
We used to joke when we met people, "Hi, I work on Earth; He's from
Space." Drove the chicks wild.)

Anyway, what I quickly found in my interactions with Sci-fi tv fans,
besides the clichés which are never quite fair, but always held a
grain of truth to them, was this:

They were conservative. And by that, I meant, they hated change. Just
hated it. They also liked a lot of crap, and didn't really like to be
challenged at all.

And after a while, I started to blame Star Trek.

Not the old, classic, Kirk and Spock and Damnit Jim I'm a classic Star
Trek show. No -- TNG and its increasingly pale photocopies.

Star Trek, for me, always featured cheesy stories and slightly hokey
conclusions, but they gave you something to think about, to chew over.
And the fact that there were only 78 of them, and that most people
discovered the show not in its original NBC run, but in the (then)
unpredictable wilds of syndication, there were a lot of years there
where you got to chew over every piece of gristle that series gave
you.

And the people who watched it were smart, and made that direct link
between the Apollo missions and the heroic astronauts and test pilots
that Tom Wolfe would so memorably chronicle in the Right Stuff.

I was excited as anyone when a new Star Trek series came to TV in
1987. Horrified when it seemed like it would be bad, relieved when it
turned out a fair share of first rate episodes that made that world,
that universe live and breathe again.

But by 2000 or so, when I was getting ready to make the jump from
Space to the truly final frontier -- giving up your cushy job to become
-- gasp, no, you're killing me -- a writer -- I looked back on what was
now at least 400 hours of Star Trek stories, and realized that
everything that was expansive and great about that franchise had
become routine; and worse -- the fans continued to lap it up. And the
Star Trek formula of bumpy headed aliens of the week who really should
have seen one of those two young plastic surgeons from Nip/Tuck --
well, it simultaneously had become a little moribund, and had also
become the standard. If you deviated too far from that Star Trek
method of telling a story, you got hammered by fans -- even if you
weren't doing Star Trek.

Those 'smart' fans that I had always admired started to drift away.
They split, almost into two groups. One chose nostalgia -- and would
write hectoring letters demanding that Space show nothing but old
Irwin Allen shows, The Invaders -- anything made before Star Trek: The
Next Generation, in fact. One stopped watching Sci-Fi tv, deciding
there just wasn't anything there for them.

At one point, shortly before I left the employ of Space, there were
four Star Trek series on the station in reruns at the same time.
That's a lot of Star Trek. Occasionally through the vagaries of
scheduling, you could even see the episode of Star Trek Voyager that
ripped off the story that they'd first told on DS9 that riffed on the
Next Gen episode that was the sequel to the episode of the original
series -- all in a row. When you looked at the ratings, TNG, Voyager,
DS9 -- each of those shows would drop off in ratings precipitously with
every run through. Viewer fatigue, it's called. How many times can you
see the same rerun before you just won't watch it again?

The amazing thing, though, was that episodes of the Original Series
never dropped off. Those ratings stayed solid -- so far as I know, they
still are. Space has been showing those original Star Treks five days
a week for 7 and a half years now. And people continue to tune in.
DS9 got dropped, TNG got dropped, Voyager will be dropped one day
soon. But that original series just kept marching on and on. Maybe not
with the same numbers of people watching the "newer" Treks. But they
never drifted away, either.

In the first months of my post-Space career (see? See how fun that is
to say?) I thought about that a lot. I eventually concluded that my
friend John, who was the biggest Trekker I knew, was right: that first
series and its leading triumvirate was about a family that you just
wanted to spend time with. TNG got to do a pretty decent facsimile --
but it was still a larger group, so it was more like spending time
with the family you like and the busty cousin who doesn't know that
she should really start dressing more age-appropriately, and the MILF
from down the block with her annoying son who you wished would just go
away.

That's why, after years of ho-humming Star Trek in most of its
flavors, I found myself intrigued when they announced Enterprise. A
show set in a world that was way more like our own than the
polyannaverse of the Next Gen on series. A world before a Federation,
when exploration was new and dangerous, when every species that would
be met was new, when people were scared of the transporter, and didn't
know how to interact with aliens. It would be a chance to have a show
focused more on character, and on the essential values that made that
first show so much more compelling.

Predictably, the "I hate change" fans immediately carped. About "it's
not Canon…" They hated the song! That song! "But ... it's not an
orchestral opening… and why is it called "Enterprise" and not "Star
Trek: Enterprise." I stopped reading the internet, rolled my eyes and
watched the premiere.

And from that opening montage that tied this to all the eras of human
exploration, I thought, "this is it. They're really going to
re-connect to a mythos that makes sense, and not go back into the lazy
Star-trek mode of storytelling." I was blown away by that pilot,
"Broken Bow." And thirteen million people agreed. That was a pretty
great number for UPN.

And then it all went to hell. A few early episodes showed promise, but
it quickly started devolving to the flabby, Star Trek lazy forehead of
the week stories. The family aspect of the show went out the window.

Rick Berman & Brannon Braga, the custodians of the franchise since
Roddenberry, uh, beamed up…were already deeply under fire from the
fans. But this was the first time that I gave my head a shake and
really didn't understand what had happened: because they had the good
sense to frame the show in a way that was strong, and could have been
reinvigorating for a franchise that had been running continuously for
almost fifteen years. And then they just…blew it. They retreated to
the same old retreads, then tried to inject a bizarre and flopsweaty
post 9/11 line, and I found myself, when I surfed across the show on
my tv, feeling sorry for that nice Scott Bakula fellow. I stopped
watching, along with about 11 million other people.

Then, this year, that same Star Trek superfan friend of mine demanded
that I watch Enterprise again. Manny Coto was running it now, and the
show had got back some pop, and some of the promise of the original
concept. I'm glad I did. The stories were taut and reflected and
refracted themes of the original series in a way that actually was
original. And some episodes were just rip roarin action, and that was
fine too. Sure, the African American guy still had no discernible
character and the communications officer was still basically Ensign
Cutie, but at least it held my attention.

By this time, of course, it was too late. With the first bonafide Star
Trek movie flop (Nemesis) under their belt, Berman and Braga were not
the most popular kids at the Paramount commissary. And so the axe
fell.

The fans, who never liked Berman & Braga, (who certainly didn't help
themselves by going on the record bragging that they didn't like or
had never seen the original show) now started acting like the
villagers in Frankenstein. There were torches, hordes marching up to
the door demanding that a head be brought out for their blood
sacrifice.

Part of me-- watching this with the perspective I now have, having
worked on a series in production as a story editor (with apologies to
Alex and his sure-to-be-fabulous new book, it boils down to this:
it's hard.) wanted to cut Berman and Braga some slack. I mean, maybe
if the fans hadn't watched Star Trek long after it got so crappy,
spooning up the pablum that the franchise -- yes…the FRANCHISE had
become -- and yes, Voyager, I'm talking to you…maybe if they'd actually
voted with their feet a little earlier, Berman and Braga might have
been forced to hand over the reins earlier. Or maybe desperation would
have caused them to follow through on their vision. Or maybe nothing
could have saved it…since I have a feeling that there were so many
people at Paramount putting their finger in Star Trek over the last
while that maybe it was unsalvageable. It's not like Paramount has
been firing on all cylinders in any other arena lately.

In the weeks leading up to last night's finale, the leaks that came
out were not good. Not promising. First came word that it would
include Johnathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis. And the holodeck. The
groan could be heard coming from every basement in North America. Then
the refreshingly loopy outspoken Jolene Blalock was quoted calling it,
"Appalling." And worst, it was going to be written by: Berman and
Braga.

I just knew that this could be the greatest forty minutes plus credits
and commercials in the history of television and those villagers with
those torches weren't going to give it a chance.

So last night, they run it. And lo and behold, you know what? It wasn't bad.

Not that the fans would say that. Of course not. For a taste of what
they're saying, just look at the thread on the SPACE board; (this is a
Canadian blog, so we'll do the cancon thing)

http://community.spacecast.com//ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=010511

Ouch, right?

Now maybe you think I'm nuts. How could you like that episode? Doesn't
it shortchange the characters out of their own finale? Well. First,
I can see why Jolene Blalock would complain. Actors always complain,
and that's kind of their job, to see everything from their
perspective.

But the larger, big tent perspective is this: Berman and Braga wrote
an episode that wasn't a finale to Enterprise; they wrote a finale to
their era, their flavor of Star Trek. And measured by that yardstick,
what they did was quite effective.

It was also the finale, sadly, not to the show that Enterprise became,
or even to the show that Manny Coto admirably wrestled out of the
detritus of what Berman & Braga turned it into -- it was the finale to
the vision of the show that could have been if they'd followed the
promise of that first episode, "Broken Bow."

It was a show about family. It was about loyalty to those around you
being the most important thing. It was about sacrifice. It tied this
series into the whole Berman era Star Trek canon in the way it should
be: as an inspiration.

Characters each got a grace note interacting with Frakes. Conor
Trineer, in particular, was great in the episode. His choice, his
desire to protect the Captain, was really the presage to the whole
essence of how Frakes played Riker in TNG. Fans reactions on that
Space board to me show how little things are thought through in a real
emotional way: how Star Trek taught you down the line not to do that,
but just to wait for the phaser blast and the bumpy headed alien to
show up. One of the persistent points that comes out in fan
commentary I've read is how it's set six years in the future from the
episode that precedes it, and how much it sucks that the relationship
they had been building between T'Pol and Trip played as "a fling"
since apparently it ended shortly after the penultimate episode.

Except, of course, in the penultimate episode, they went through the
loss of a child. Sadly, in life, that's exactly the thing that ends a
lot of relationships. So that note in the episode didn't activate my
inner fanboy -- it made me go, "oh, that's sad. But that happens.
That's real. That's what happens to families sometimes -- you can't
bridge the distance." And sometimes in families, someone else pays for
your mistakes.

The series ends on a stirring high: tying the three ships called
Enterprise together in that famous montage and voiceover: in the voice
of Picard, Kirk, and Archer.

It's a goodbye from two guys to the fanbase that would recognize it as
the elegy it was, if only they weren't blinded by the torches they've
been shaking.

So now, as Ronald Moore said in his Battlestar Galactica blog says,
"Star Trek goes back to the fans."

I don't know what that means. The last time that happened, before the
first movie, was a long time ago. Communing meant the occasional
convention, or maybe meeting at the library or something. Now there's
an age of instant connectivity and not a lot of thinking about
anything one way or another. Just a desire to be fed the bumpy heads
and easily homilies that Star Trek became.

Maybe, in a sense, the best thing that Star Trek did by going off the
air is simply getting out of the way. Maybe now another type of Sci-Fi
storytelling can become dominant, and not worry about Star Trek
sucking all the air out of the room. Maybe if the Star Wars series
gets off the ground, maybe it'll be that. Maybe it won't be Space
Opera at all.

But the one thing I'm sure of is that the next time Star Trek returns
to the small screen, maybe it will be a well-thought out show that
comes with a little less storytelling baggage, and maybe it will even
fulfill its initial promise. Absence, after all, is supposed to make
the heart grow fonder.

I just hope in the meantime that the fans take the time to explore new
worlds on their own. With the bumpy-headed aliens and the two minute
conclusions out of the way -- maybe they'll have a shot. We'll see.

4 Comments:

The new Battlestar Galactica saved my life.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM  

Great Post. I also thought the last episode wasn’t bad. Although I do not share your distain for the entire franchise, some selected episode in each of the series was some of the best sci-fi I have seen. You gave me allot to think about. The new Battlestar Galactica also saved my life.

By Blogger DJ, at 6:29 PM  

Haven't seen the last episode of Enterprise, haven't really watched Star Trek regularly since TNG went off the air. Just want to comment that I must disagree with the poster: of TOS and TNG, TNG was the better series. Sure it got a little long in the tooth and repetitive in some of the episodes in the last two seasons, and the first season was (to put it kindly) bumpy, but viewing the entire body of the show, it had the strongest writing and acting of any Star Trek series.

And the finale of TNG still ranks as one of the best series finales of any show in any genre.

After reading this post, I will certainly look for the re-run of the Enterprise finale.

Lastly, I truly hope they put Star Trek out to pasture for a while. Maybe in ten years they can think about restarting it with new blood.

By Anonymous Trev, at 10:47 PM  

I agree with Trev. TNG is superior to TOS.

Bottomline: Star Trek became progressively worse with each later incarnation after TNG. Creating a television show is a balancing act of multiple elements and getting everything just right is extremely difficult. TNG was as close to perfection as it could have been and gave the viewers what they wanted. DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise were shows that would have never seen the light of day, if not for the franchise juggernaut that is Star Trek. People who were devoted to Star Trek watched, not because they liked "bad stories" (which some critics claim), but because they loved Star Trek.

Enterprise was just a continuation of the broken formula that began with DS9. Fortunately, fans have many other options for sci-fi entertainment now than they did when DS9 first aired.

By Anonymous Jason, at 1:31 PM  

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