Can Star Trek Be Saved?
by Michelle Erica Green
Major publications from TV Guide to Entertainment Weekly have been ringing the death knell for Star Trek since Deep Space Nine went off the air . . . well, in some cases since The Next Generation went off the air, or since Gene Roddenberry's death a few years into the run of the first of the new Trek shows. There's no denying certain incontrovertible facts: Voyager's ratings are down, attendance has dropped at big conventions, the last film was a box office disappointment.
Despite all this naysaying, the Trek Pocket Books franchise is going strong, Wildstorm has a new comics license, and dozens of new official products hit the shelves this year. That's not even counting the underground zines, the unlicensed RPGs, the homemade costumes, the fan art sold by clubs to raise money for charity, and the thriving fan fiction exchange both in print and on the Internet. For a franchise that's supposed to be dying, Star Trek still commands a tremendous amount of interest and loyalty.
So is there a glut of Trek? Or isn't there enough really good material? Do we need a new series to revitalize the franchise, or a few years' break? Have we reached a point in history when different Treks directed at different audience segments have become necessary? Perhaps all of the above.
How, then, to revitalize Star Trek?
1) More More Moore
You know, there was a period when I referred to this man as "Moore-Ron," when he was taking the credit (later the responsibility) for the catsuit-ization of Kira. But unlike almost everyone else in the Trek franchise, Ron Moore is an adult who is capable of saying, "We made a mistake. We'll change that." He gave Kira back her "neutronium balls" (his term), he allowed Odo to become a changeling again after the disastrous season where all the aliens on DS9 became human. Apparently lacking the ego problems of certain other Trek executive producers, he worked with Behr and Echevarria and Wolfe and the rest of the DS9 team to provide two solid seasons of excellent television in the final arc. He also co-wrote two Trek films and reinvented the Klingons. Ron Moore is the best thing to happen to Trek since Gene Roddenberry.
It would be fine to see Moore return as executive producer of Star Trek Voyager, which is what he was hired to be before it became apparent that Berman and Braga had no intention of letting him shape the series. But frankly I'd rather write Voyager off as a lost cause and hire Moore to write the next Trek series, or the next Trek movie.
If there is to be a DS9 film or even DS9 characters in the next TNG film, Moore's the expert. Although Rene Echevarria and Robert Hewitt Wolfe apparently did much of the writing for my two favorite characters, Kira and Odo, I doubt Bajor will be a major focus of the next movie. Moore has done a good job with Sisko and with the Klingons, who have played a substantial role in the most successful Trek films. He's capable of writing humor, pathos, and good gritty science fiction - not as funky as Braga's more out-there ideas, but Braga was at his best when he had Jeri Taylor around to rewrite the characters so that their behavior made sense.
I won't watch a Series V produced by Berman and Braga; I've seen no evidence of a good idea between the two of them in five years. Berman seems interested only in the financial solvency of the franchise, while Braga is content to write mediocre science fiction with occasional kinky twists because that's all he needs to maintain the young male demographic valued so highly by UPN. Well, I have news for UPN: I'm not in the young male demographic, and neither are my original Trekkie parents, and neither are the majority of viewers. Where were those young males when Insurrection was wobbling at the box office? The most fickle of demographic audiences does not represent a solid future for Trek.
Moore is the first Trek producer since Roddenberry to realize that fans - all fans - are a valuable resource, rather than annoying people to be milked for all they're worth. Since the early days of his message boards on America Online, Moore has been listening, debating, and apparently learning from a wide range of fans about what makes Star Trek great. Not only has he been sensitive to the interests of women, gay and lesbian viewers, and older fans, but he's also proven that not all young men watch purely for battles and boobs. Some of them watch for - gasp! - good drama.
Nobody seems to have turned off the set because of unabashed nostalgia like the Vic Fontaine episodes. Those were Ira Behr's - I'd take him back too, but rumor is he was offered Voyager before Braga and just plain wasn't interested.
If we can't get any of the DS9 folk back - if there's too much water under the bridge - then maybe we can get some more input from the people who made TNG great. I know there has been a lot of criticism about the committee writing of Trek, with people alleging that all those boring briefing room scenes resemble writers' sessions at Paramount, but the committees have worked really well on occasion. Before Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor respectively got fed up, and Taylor dumped Piller's Kazons without so much as a resolution, then Braga dumped Taylor's "Resolutions" without so much as a resolution, the three occasionally generated great material, like the arc of Voyager's second season when a lot more people were watching the show than now. I doubt we'll get Taylor out of retirement and Piller's got his own production deal now with another studio, but both their names are still on the series and supposedly they're still commenting on the scripts.
2) End The Voyage
Can Voyager be saved? In my opinion, probably not. But maybe the damage it has done to the franchise can be minimized.
Many fans breathed a sigh of relief when Kate Mulgrew signed her hotly negotiated final season contract. It appears that Star Trek Voyager will complete a full seven years like TNG and DS9. I have made no secret of the fact that I am not one of those celebrating, however. Voyager has gone on too long already. If the series had a game plan, or consistency in characterization or plot or even a sense of humor like The Next Generation, it might do all right - not every show can or should have a concluding arc like the one carried off so well by Deep Space Nine (and admirable as many fans found those episodes, there are others who despised them and don't consider DS9 "real Trek").
According to UPN, Voyager was saved when Jeri Ryan signed her contract and spray-painted herself into Seven of Nine's catsuit. For myself and many other fans, however, that was the beginning of the end - the end of a series about a crew exploring the Delta Quadrant, the beginning of a show about a beautiful Borg's struggle to become human. I suppose that's fine if the Borg interest you, and if you enjoy Seven's one-dimensional characterization and uncanny talent for saving the ship.
According to the network, young men like all of the above, and they're the only demographic which matters. In addition, a number of women have been seduced by Seven as well. I confess I am secretly pleased at the sizable lesbian following and the body of Janeway/Seven fan fiction out there. It's nice to think that, even unintentionally, UPN has created a lesbian role model . . . though given my dislike of Seven, I'd rather see Janeway date a Horta, if not a hologram.
Of course, Janeway's love life isn't a real problem with the show. Or is it? While I'm all for captains with flaws to which the audience can relate, Voyager's captain often seems characterized by nothing but her weaknesses, and her personal side isn't enjoyable to watch. She's supposed to be a scientist, but we see her shy away from experiments more often than we hear her get enthused about them. She's constantly upstaged by her Borg protégée. She rarely makes a risky decision that results in a big payoff, like Kirk did all the time. Picard was nearly as uptight as Janeway, but Picard started out that way. Janeway didn't. Now she's bitter and sulky in her private time, brittle on the bridge.
Kathryn Janeway used to be a warm, involved, touchy-feely person, who appeared to be developing a friendship with her chief engineer and possibly falling in love with her first officer. For all the fraternization problems entailed therein, I'd much rather have seen Trek's first female captain trying to balance a full-time career with her life as a human being, rather than her current insistence on humorless, rigid protocol that has distanced her from every potential relationship. She doesn't banter as Kirk did with McCoy, she doesn't snuggle as Sisko did with Kasidy. She sometimes has dinner with Chakotay, but it's all business. It's no fun to watch Janeway these days. Even when Kirk was at his most bombastic, even when Sisko went into trances, they remained entertaining.
As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing Voyager can do is to strengthen its captain, though I'm not sure whether that can happen: Mulgrew has announced that her new contract guarantees her more days off, so I imagine we'll be seeing less and less of Janeway. OK, then, let's at least make sure her first officer looks competent. Chakotay has been sleepwalking through the past several seasons - not that I blame Robert Beltran, given the silliness of the boxing and alien romance episodes tossed his way. We need to see him leading away teams and commanding the junior officers. Plus we need to see Tuvok handling some of the situations now routinely saved by Seven.
In general, all of the characters should return to the interests and values which defined them in the first two seasons. Much of the US is now getting those early episodes in syndication, and it's painfully clear from watching them how much this series has lost. Back in the early days, the complaint about Voyager was that it didn't seem to have direction. Not only has it not gained direction in its wobbly course toward the Alpha Quadrant, but it has lost consistent characters.
A year ago, I would have written, "Bring Voyager home!" That's what Entertainment Weekly suggested in its fall "How To Save Star Trek" article. But I'm not sure that will solve the problem. A homecoming would require an arc reintegrating the crew into the Federation, tying up loose ends with the Maquis, finding an excuse for a new mission, and I've seen no evidence that the current writers are capable of producing such a storyline. They can't even remain consistent within their own series history, let alone with TNG's and DS9's. I'd rather Voyager not come back to muck with the universe created by Roddenberry and embellished so well by Michael Piller, Ron Moore, Rene Echevarria, and a number of other lost luminaries.
I'd like for Voyager to return at the very end of the seventh season, with Kirk-like timing that enables them to save Starfleet in a manner that exonerates the Maquis and makes Janeway (yes, and even Seven) a heroine. Then I'd like them to go away while the dust settles in the Alpha Quadrant. And if I get a personal wish, I'd like it if Janeway and Chakotay went off hand in hand. For that matter, it would be fine if Janeway and Torres went off hand in hand. But I am going to throw up if Janeway decides to devote the rest of her life to mothering Seven, which I bet is what she'll be doing in our very last look at her before the final fadeout shot of the ship.
3) Focus On The Generation After . . . Or Before
One way or another, Voyager will be gone in a year and a half. So since they don't have time to develop a Trek-altering arc like Deep Space Nine, it almost doesn't matter what happens in the remaining episodes . . . unless ratings drop so low that none of the new Viacom-CBS leaders want to chance another Trek series so soon. As many long-time Trekkers from Robert Altman to Richard Arnold have opined, that might not be such a bad thing. Star Trek thrived in the hiatus between the original series and the first movie, though the people who wanted to make money off the franchise might disagree. It's when fan fiction and conventions were first created, when Bantam's original book series sold thousands of copies, when hundreds of thousands of viewers discovered the show in syndication and tuned in nightly.
Even if there were no new Trek series following Voyager's conclusion, it's likely that people could see Trek in one form or another at least twice a day, as they can now, with the original episodes running on Sci-Fi and the other series showing in syndication. One of Voyager's biggest hurdles has been reruns of other series in the franchise; given a choice between new Voyager and old TNG, many fans will choose the earlier show. There's a lot of expectation that there will be another movie, possibly incorporating the DS9 cast. No one is in a panic about losing new Trek forever, as people were when the original series left production.
I'm afraid to try to recap all the new series rumors. The most pervasive one, which is also the one most thoroughly debunked by Paramount, has posited a Starfleet Academy series - a youthful show with daredevil pilots and rousing adventures, something like Wing Commander only (hopefully) better. There have also been suggestions that the series would focus on an elite group of cadets being trained for special missions, which would allow them to get away from the Academy and into deep space. The Deep Space Nine episode "Valiant" seemed to be an audition of sorts for this idea, with a starship manned entirely by students.
It's not a bad idea for a series, Dawson's Creek meets Babylon 5, but the appeal would be largely to a very young audience, the newest generation of Trekkers - kids who can't remember TNG, let alone the original series. UPN's decision to market Voyager aggressively towards a young audience has backfired. They've gotten a reasonable-sized young male viewership, but they've lost a lot of the original Trekkers, and despite the network hype, the ratings aren't even close to what they were two seasons ago. Youth may be the wave of the future and the audience in whom advertisers are most interested, but the rejection of original Trek fans is at the core of the franchise's problems.
Even Rick Berman seems to realize this: supposedly he nixed an Academy series even before Paramount started rejecting ideas for the next Trek. There have been more recent rumors of a Starfleet Year One series which would focus on the Federation's early struggles, a Next Frontier series which would follow starships through the tumult at the very edges of the galaxy, a post-Dominion War series about the rebuilding of empires, a Klingon homeworld series which would look at the universe from the perspective of Starfleet's most popular adversaries, or another good old spaceship exploring strange new worlds series, possibly from the perspective of the junior officers instead of the bridge crew this time out.
4) Make a Spectacular Series Five
There are good points and bad points to each of the rumored ideas. I personally can't warm up to Starfleet Year One; I can't see how they're going to get around the sexism and xenophobia of the original series, which are likely to be a lot more disturbing to contemporary audiences than they were in the 1960s when the show was progressive for network television. It might be interesting to watch the struggle, but I'm not sure it will feel like Trek, to see an era when lots of women must have had frustrations similar to Janice Lester's. In general, going retro would seem to be fraught with hazards.
So would going to the edges of the known universe, which is what Voyager set out to do. Either they're going to keep moving past familiar aliens, or they're going to have to have a central outpost like Deep Space Nine, in which case the show may suffer from the same accusations of going nowhere which plagued the third series before the Defiant and the Dominion War.
Do I want to watch the post-war rebuilding? Heck yeah. I'd love to see most of the Deep Space Nine cast brought back. I could imagine a series set on Cardassia, which will have to be rebuilt from the ruins, where I imagine a lot of despots and democrats will struggle for power, and a lot of foreign interests will try to meddle.
But Klingons are more popular and always have been. They're not my favorites, but I think there's consensus that they're Trek's most engaging aliens, even more so than the Vulcans - I don't see too many people giving up emotions, but I see hundreds who dress up in rubber masks and study the Klingon language. Mark Okrand, the godfather of modern Klingon, said he thinks the culture gives people license to do things they couldn't otherwise do in polite society. Hey, a Klingon show could be part space adventure, part WWF Smackdown, part fraternity series! The network has got to love that idea.
But would it be Star Trek? Would it espouse the nebulous ideals and social values which people have cited for nearly 35 years as the reason for the show's appeal? Tough question. In Denise Crosby's Trekkies, there's a lively discussion about the differences between Trekkies and Trekkers which sounds almost like an explanation of the differences between Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.
The truth may be that Trek has gotten too large for its own marketability. Its audience is vast and diverse, and those fans want to see a wide variety of different themes explored, all within an entertaining context. Plus Trek now has to compete with younger franchises like Babylon 5 and The X-Files.
There are a plethora of video games, dozens of books published each year, four series in reruns. May I be so bold as to suggest not one but two new Trek series? If Berman and the network want Braga, let them keep him making action-oriented Trek for young males watching UPN. And get Ron Moore to write a Trek series for the rest of us, a series about characters and ideas. There ought to be enough Trekkers in the world to sustain two Treks, as there have been since DS9 came on the air. My bet is that Braga's series will tank in the ratings as Voyager is doing, but that's going to happen whether there's competition from within the franchise or not.
Otherwise, perhaps it is time for a break. Maybe the people who have turned Trek into current commercial schlock will move on to other things, paving the way for a true "next generation." I don't want to watch Dawson's Creek in space, but I'd trust Spielberg enthusiast Dawson Leary to make Trek episodes as much as I'd trust anyone left in the Hart Building at Paramount. If Berman insists that Trek is for the very young, maybe it's time he turned it over to the very young, just to see if they can breathe some new life into the franchise.