What Fans Deserve
What do we, the fans, deserve from the next Star Trek series?
I'm serious. It doesn't make a lot of sense even to ask the question, because the chances we'll get anything like what we want are minuscule, but come on - step across the reality threshold for a second and think about what you'd like to see the Star Trek name applied to.
I'm guessing you want a series that displays all the endearing qualities, and none of the stupid ones, of all four Trek series to date. The verve, imagination and fun of Classic Trek; the sense of wonder of Next Gen; the politics, war and religion of Deep Space Nine; and the endearing characters of Voyager.
No, I'm not insane. Most of Voyager's characters are genuinely endearing, or were in their first few outings. See, it's crystal clear that these characters were created by one person (Jeri Taylor, in all probability) but are now in the hands of someone very different and markedly inferior in creating likeable characters (Brannon Braga). The one Braga-created character, Seven of Nine, could actually be rather endearing herself, and occasionally is, if only through the operation of the laws of chance.
And we don't want Captain Kirk's smirking, mugging and skirt-chasing. We don't want Captain Picard staring into a damn fish tank for 40 minutes at a stretch, or ANY problem solved by technobabble, or the holodeck forming an important plot point, or any mention of sex. (Okay, that last is just me. Or is it? I submit that Star Trek has almost never done male-female attraction very well, that is, in a manner that would hold the interest of anyone not actually 16 years old at the precise moment the show airs. Kira's love for Odo is a notable exception, not least because it ends tragically).
Is that so damn hard to do? It's not as if there aren't 30 or so episodes of Classic Trek, a dozen outstanding Next Gens, one smashingly good DS9 arc and a few single shows, and, well, probably an ep or two of Voyager in there somewhere that can act as signposts on how it CAN be done and SHOULD be done.
Here are two series concepts just off the top of my head:
It never ceases to amaze me that people watch Star Trek for such radically different reasons. You'd think I'd get a clue from my hate mail, in which old-time Deep Space Nine fans have warned me that I should condemn the militaristic themes of the final seasons, while Seven of Nine fans regularly berate me for failing to see that the big-mouthed, brilliant Borg babe is the key to Voyager's success. My colleague Steve thinks we watch Next Gen for its sense of wonder, and DS9 for the war -- well, he's wrong, at least as far as I'm concerned. But I know all too well that if I try to generalize about what we Trekkers like about Trek, I'll be wrong too, for at least several million people.
Unfortunately, the Trek writers are in the same position, and they have to write an episode every week. I'd feel sorry for them if I thought they were even trying. UPN has made no secret of the fact that young male viewers are the only ones it cares about, and Voyager reflects that sensibility; it's likely Series V will, too. Meanwhile Deep Space Nine, which I've long considered the most sophisticated and dramatic of the Trek series, is treated almost like a failure by the execs. Why? Because of the arc stories, it's hard to syndicate, and because of the serious nature of the episodes, it's hard to make casual watchers give them repeat viewings. Unlike any of the other sequels, including the animated series, Deep Space Nine never underestimated the fans' intelligence.
I get into series when I love the characters, regardless of genre or setting, unless either is so overly hackneyed that it starts to affect what the characters can do. I'll take the violent underground of La Femme Nikita or the dorky basement of That 70s Show, as long as I'm enjoying the interactions of the people who inhabit these worlds. The characters are why I loved Voyager its first two seasons, and why I'm enjoying Andromeda now. Take a survey of fans and tell me how many people prefer the Fluke-Men to Mulder and Scully, how many watch Farscape for the brilliant puppetry.
I don't think most fans care whether the next Trek show is set at Starfleet Academy, during the early days of the Federation, or on the wild frontier of the Beta Quadrant, as long as we're watching interesting stories about characters we care about. They don't even have to be particularly strong science fiction stories; for every thematic masterpiece like "City on the Edge of Forever," we have sat through several "That Which Survives." The West Wing is a brilliant analogy, because in reality it resembles the current White House about as much as Deep Space Nine resembles Skylab. But it's a great forum for exploring political and social issues, which Classic Trek often did very well even when its sci-fi gimmicks got silly.
The Trek series we deserve? How about New Frontier? I doubt it's possible, since I'm under the impression that Shelby, Lefler, and other characters were allowed to cross over into Peter David's series of novels because the actors didn't want to do any more Star Trek, but I wouldn't mind recasting if the new actors fit the roles. I have no idea whether a vision like David's would work in the creation of a weekly series, which has become a process of collaboration and compromise. All I know is that New Frontier offers both the chance for exciting stand-alone episodes on the Federation frontier, and also the long-term character and plot development of a fine arc series. If that's impossible, how about:
What Fans Expect
Last time, we talked about what we, the fans, deserve from the next Star Trek series. Maybe we ask too much. Even if we greatly lower our expectations, what can we expect from Series V, the brainchild of executive producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga?
It seems charitable to say, "Not much."
Three leading lights of The Next Generation created Star Trek: Voyager. Not everyone enjoyed the early episodes -- some long-time Trekkers had tuned out before Barbie of Borg showed up. Still, most fans agree that Voyager maintained consistency and continuity, plus an effort at character development. Then Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor retired. During seasons four through six -- the Braga administration -- those values dropped away. With the exception of Seven of Nine and the Doctor, plus some halfhearted attempts to give Paris and Torres a romance, the characters' actions and interests changed wildly. Not only were their original backstories modified, but events from earlier episodes that had become series canon were altered via flashbacks.
In place of ensemble shows and issue-oriented episodes that built on one another, we were treated to spectacular special effects, increased objectification of the female characters, and occasional stunt casting. Braga can't be blamed entirely: UPN and Paramount Television both reportedly pressured the producers to take steps to attract a younger male audience, and pushed marketing research that suggested these tactics would work. When Seven of Nine first appeared, the network did far more to promote her than the scripts; she might have remained a background character had doctored ratings and misleading press releases not suggested that her presence had "saved" the show. Along with Seven, Voyager gained first-rate effects-laden specials like "Year of Hell" and "The Killing Game," and guest villains like Jason Alexander and The Rock.
It's not clear whether Series V will end up on UPN, Viacom-owned CBS, or another network, but it is clear that Berman and Braga believe the young male demographic should be their target audience regardless. There's little question that the new series will feature lots of action and at least one female character in a catsuit. Because of concerns that the arc on Deep Space Nine made it difficult to syndicate, Trek has veered away from serial storylines -- Braga has derided them as soap opera devices. He has made similar comments about relationships and romance, which should be distinguished from titillating Alien of the Week sex episodes. I doubt we'll see much efforts at inter-series continuity, and although Braga will probably stroke his ego with tie-ins to Voyager if he can work them in, I wouldn't count on him knowing anything about Deep Space Nine.
Based on rumors, future Treks might include:
My esteemed colleague above is treating the forthcoming fifth series as a joke, and I can't blame her a bit. I often cope with my frustration and sense of abandonment by the Star Trek front office through humor, too. But there isn't anything funny about it any more.
It's like a refugee from Hitler's Germany once said: everyone makes mistakes. In a democracy, sooner or later someone raises a fuss about the mistake, and it gets fixed. But in a dictatorship, no one dares to criticize the leadership, so the mistake never gets corrected and just gets worse with time.
More generally, when there is no penalty for failure, failure not only becomes more commonplace, but can assume truly staggering dimensions. My liberal friends may not agree with this principle when it comes to schools or the economy, but it's just as obvious in creative fiction. If what Brannon Braga is doing is working, or at least isn't causing him to lose his job, he will keep on doing it, and if anything, he will keep doing it harder than before.
But think about it: there are hundreds of attractive, tightly dressed women on TV. Star Trek doesn't have any kind of monopoly. I don't think it can possibly be just dumb young men (there are plenty of young men who are not dumb, I hasten to add) keeping Voyager from flopping as it deserves. I think it's YOU, the Trek fans who still watch it even when it grabs your sensibilities and stuffs them in a meatgrinder, tenderest parts first, week after week after week.
I know you miss the good old days, whichever days bulk uppermost in your minds. So do I. But if you didn't watch Voyager, would it fare any better among the horny-teenager market than any other alleged SF show? I hear Cleopatra 2525 isn't doing well, and that has even more babeage per minute than the current pretender to the Star Trek name.
The Star Trek name on a movie no longer guarantees a box office home run -- used to, but that was before they let Shatner direct. The same is obviously true on television, although UPN has strong incentive to inflate Voyager's appeal, as it's one of the only things keeping them alive. When UPN finally dies, as I here and now predict is more likely than not, then perhaps the battered old horse that is Star Trek will be allowed to rest, for a while at least, before being trotted out again in a new get-up.
Although the more I think about it, the less I think that'll happen. Star Trek is getting by today because of us, the fans who were snared in our youth and stuck with it ever since, through thick and increasingly painful thin. Think the youth of today are forming similar attachments to Voyager? Maybe Deep Space Nine hooked a few new eyeballs, but I suspect Voyager lost 'em again. No, I think that when our generation of Trek fans finally turns away, that's it.
Ahem! That said, among the possible Series V concepts I've heard, which seems most likely? In order:
These columns were originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.