04:10:09 on September 08
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: TrekWeb Features
Written by Steve Krutzler
It was 1994; Star Trek hysteria was at a fever pitch; ‘Next Generation’, the first television incarnation of a franchise that a few short years before was relegated only to a feature film series, was coming to the end of a phenomenal seven-year run which saw more fans of Star Trek born and reborn across the U.S. and indeed the world than ever thought possible. ‘TNG’, as it would come to be called, was the stuff of water cooler discussions coast to coast and on-air banter on The Howard Stern Show. The 25th anniversary of the series had recently past, a second spin-off was underway, and everyone knew that Patrick Stewart and his crew were bound for the big screen in a whole new movie series that would take over from franchise stalwarts William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. When the final episode aired, fans gathered in stadiums to watch it together and they clamored when the episode’s writers, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore won a Hugo Award for it.
But ‘Star Trek: Generations’ came out to a less-than-stellar fanfare, ‘Deep Space Nine’ was too different, and the newest addition to the Trek universe would make the franchise truly prolific. Star Trek: Voyager burst onto the scene in 1995 with the highest ratings ever for a Star Trek episode, scored by its pilot, “Caretaker”, premiering on Paramount’s own new network, UPN. The glitter soon faded as what many considered lazy writing and too many names behind-the-scenes steered the third spin-off into a rapid downward spiral in the ratings—and in popularity.
‘Deep Space Nine’ saw a meteoric rise in its popularity as it broke the format and introduced adventure-style space acrobatics to its already rich cast of characters and a particular knack for spinning gritty stories by shedding the ‘Next Generation’ rule of “the perfect crew.” But an ill-received third ‘TNG’ feature paved the way for a decline in Trek’s popularity and ‘DS9’ went out with somewhat of a whimper in 1999.
Meanwhile, shuffling of producers and writers in the Voyager camp led to a show revamp hinged on an episode which many thought would bring the lackluster series into fruition. Capitalizing on the appearance of the Borg in the movie ‘First Contact’, Brannon Braga in early 1997, a writer who slowly crept his way through the ranks of ‘TNG’ and ‘Voyager’, readied himself to become executive producer of the show and ended season three with the Borg thriller “Scorpion”, regarded as one of the best ‘Voyager’ performances. Not only did Braga’s (an partner Joe Menosky’s) episode garner spectacular ratings and usher in a slew of features in mainstream media such as TV Guide, but Braga also crafted one of the riskiest undertakings ever attempted in a Star Trek show; bringing in a brand new regular three seasons in. The relatively unknown Jeri Ryan was brought onto the show as an ex-Borg drone with both beauty and brawn in “Scorpion, II”. The hype surrounding her arrival was replete with fears of the sexploitation of Star Trek, but to the surprise of most, the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast actually revitalized the show and increased ratings… for a short time.
Soon, the fears of the summer of 1997 came to bear as the show tended to stagnate in its usage of the Seven character, who began to dominate the show and seemed more apparently sexploitive. Subsequently, Star Trek fans have grown increasingly factional and as it stands in the year 2000, many think the franchise is in serious trouble.
But did Rick Berman and Paramount bite off more than they could chew, trying to produce too much Star Trek in a less-desolate science fiction television market? Undoubtedly the seed was spread a little too thin, but what about the changes in society in the last six years? Is the current state of Star Trek merely a reflection of more insincere and nasty times?
Six years ago, there were hardly any major Star Trek-related Internet web sites. In fact, Paramount itself didn’t even have an official web site for the franchise and fans weren’t discussing it day in and day out in thousands of forums all over the Internet. But when the movie ‘Generations’ became the first film to be partially-spoiled by Internet gossip about its plot, the face of fandom was revolutionized forever.
Across the board in all areas of online discussion, the impersonal communication of the Internet has bred hostility and nastiness between individuals more than ever. Over the last few years and today without reprieve, producers of the shows can go online and read threatening and denigrating remarks about their personal character on Internet web sites by anonymous fans. During the run of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’, plots of most of the series’ episodes have been completely leaked to the Internet before shooting and both the movies ‘First Contact’ and ‘Insurrection’ faced unrelenting scrutiny from the fan base which could now read the latest plot at the click of a button and voice their faceless contempt for all to see only a few moments later. There grew an increasing sentiment among fans that the current producers of Star Trek have destroyed it; and a larger still number of fans started going online and berating each other over these very opinions.
Sordid tales of internal political feuds between writers and producers have led fans to “pick sides” and viciously attack each other. And last year saw an unprecedented amount of criticism of the franchise from the inside itself; actors demonizing producers in interviews and at conventions, taking shots at the writers’ decisions, and even admitting to barely caring about their own work on the show. Even Jonathan Frakes, the director of the last two Trek films was recently quoted as saying of the next feature, “It better be better than the last one.” All of these events seem to have embittered fans and split the legions of those once-loyal even further.
The fifth Star Trek series, already long-promised by Rick Berman (the exec was talking about the prospect in a more positive manner a year ago than just a few months ago), will be the first Star Trek series to undeniably premiere under this new microscope of online scrutiny. It is almost inevitable that the show’s first and subsequent episodes will be critiqued months before they air or even shoot. The premise, which has ranged in the fan rumor-mill from an ‘Original Star Trek’ prequel to a futuristic ‘Starfleet Covert Operations’ concept, has been debated vehemently for months online despite the likelihood that in all reality no premise has been finalized yet, or that the studio has even committed itself to a project which it seems to be treating as more precarious than it treated the last two spin-offs. Every aspect of a new series in the twenty-first century will face a level of attention and apparent audience burn-out unknown to any of the previous series or movies. In essence, some argue that a new series will most assuredly be faced with an audience looking for justification to watch more Star Trek by the same people considered to have caused its downfall. This could mean a tough uphill battle.
But are the reactions of Internet fans endemic of all fans in general; or are the harbingers of hatred for Brannon Braga and Rick Berman merely anonymous cowards of a vocal minority? There’s no doubt that on this, the 34th anniversary of Star Trek, convention attendance is at a ten-year low and ratings are consistently dismal. Established genre media outlets such as Cinescape and EON have even rung the death toll for Star Trek from time to time recently, but many of these publications have traditionally placed undue emphasis on the opinions of Internet fans, which statistically still only represent a fraction of the viewing audience.
There’s no doubt that the Internet revolution has brought about an array of astonishing benefits for fans and creators alike. For the first time in the franchise’s three-decade history, producers, writers and actors are frequently involved in online events where fans can actually ask questions of them and interact on a level never before possible. Instant feedback on episodes offers a type of product testing unimagined in the hey-day of ‘Next Generation’. And increased publicity online, for better or for worse, is able to promote the product of Star Trek more fervently than even Paramount could’ve hoped for a decade ago.
Perhaps it is this notion of Star Trek as a “product” which has led to this point. Multiple simultaneous projects have taken a toll as even the best of professionals are unable to turn out exemplary work infallibly while working on two, three, or four different venues of the same product. The last decade never saw a year without a season of Star Trek in production – that’s nearly twenty seasons of programming total; and the number of Star Trek movies in the nineties totaled more than most film franchises could ever dream for. Star Trek-related books and computer software increased extensively, especially in 1999 and 2000, and it seems that Star Trek “stuff” permeates the franchise more than the original series’ altruistic allegories and hopeful fantasies.
Whether the same type of fan reactions might have occurred had the Internet been in its current form during the run of ‘Next Generation’, we’ll never know. Has Star Trek divided its fans or have its fans just succumbed to an inevitable trend toward a loss of humanity? Whatever the cause, it’s certain that the future of Star Trek depends on the ability of its consumers and creators to return to the sentiment of the sixties classic. Can the twenty-fourth century take on the twenty-first? Can Star Trek surge forward into the Future? Like all things, it will prevail. But on this anniversary, maybe it’s more important to recognize that our Future may need more help from Star Trek if we are to prevail.
Even if only for one day, September 8th.