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Published:April 3rd, 2006 10:58 EST
Once Upon A Time: Trek Is Dead (?)

Once Upon A Time: Trek Is Dead (?)

By Sean Stubblefield

The year was 1966. September 8. Thursday, to be exact. It was on the night of this particular day when a strange new science fiction series called Star Trek boldly, but casually, strolled onto our television screens for the first time. Which means that 2006 is the 40th anniversary of its premiere. This darkhorse of a TV show was unique, the first of its kind, and ahead of its time " literally and metaphorically.

Most people didn`t know what to do with this " Star Trek " thing " including many of those who produced it. Which is why it was prematurely cancelled three years later. And why, now, it is again retired, after 40 years of service.

It seems odd that, on the 40th Anniversary of what has become a remarkable pop-cult phenomenon, for the first year in almost 30 years there is no new Star Trek TV shows or movies being produced, or even actively planned. Although, since I discount Voyager and Enterprise as genuine Trek, technically, there have already been 6 years without new on-screen Trek. Such a state of affairs might appear somewhat dismal, demeaning and debilitating for Star Trek " seeming to put the future of the franchise in serious doubt and jeopardy " and, therefore, be rather saddening and disturbing for the fans.

But I propose that, despite appearances, an absence of new Trek on TV and movie screens is actually (probably, or at least potentially and hopefully) a good thing for Trek " and it is most appropriate that this would coincide with the 40th Anniversary.

As Spock once said, and as Star Trek is saying now, I`ve been dead before ".

Suggesting that this isn`t necessarily, and need not be, the end of the Trek.

Referring to history, when The Original Series was cancelled, everyone thought that was the end of it. However, it turns out that, counter-intuitively, canceling Trek ultimately saved it. Not until it was cancelled did it find an audience; or, rather, the audience found it " in syndication, in re-runs. Absence made the heart grow fonder. Appreciation and demand for Trek increased. Ten years later, Star Trek returned, with The Motion Picture.

And it`s ironically beneficial that The Original Series was cancelled when it was, because " since Trek was a peculiar new kind of animal, its producers generally had trouble properly handling and figuring out what they should do with it, and the series was gradually declining in quality. Had the show managed to get a fourth year, at the rate things were going, it would have been so bad that audience disgust may have ruined it for them, tainting the whole thing and preventing interest in an eventual revival, and denying any further development of the Star Trek franchise and mythos.

In order for Star Trek to come back, it had to be taken away, so that it could be discovered, rediscovered, missed and wanted back. Its ending was really only its beginning. It wasn`t the stop " button that was pushed, it was pause ".

So perhaps it is appropriate that Trek now seem to end just as it began.

Massive fan interest began to build only a few years after The Original Series ended, so maybe that implies that now Trek`s much needed break will only last a few years, before a rejuvenating revival or rebirth would occur. Regardless, Trek should not return until/ unless it has something to say again, that resonates with its audience`s hopes for the future " inspiring us to aspire for and desire to be the change we wish to see in the world.

 

Sci-fi is a genre difficult to do well in any case, and the Star Trek staff in any generation and incarnation thus far has always struggled with idiosyncratic quirks of the unusual concept. Now that Star Trek`s quality has been steadily declining in recent years " as fan consensus affirms, another break from production has become necessary. Better to have no Trek than Trek done wrong or poorly. But Paramount Studios was reluctant and hesitant to end it, much to the detriment of The Franchise ", prolonging Trek to milk this admitted cash-cow of theirs for all it was worth before it died, simultaneously and paradoxically hastening its death. Concerned more with lining their pockets than with sustaining the integrity of The Franchise ", they betrayed their responsibility to maintain Roddenberry`s legacy, and betrayed the fans.

Paramount refused to admit defeat, to admit their mistakes, to admit their ineptitude and inability to manage it satisfactorily. And worse, not only failed to even seriously attempt to correct the problem, but exacerbated it. In a practical sense, if Trek is Dead, then Paramount killed it. With their feeble attempts at the Voyager series. With their wasted opportunity of the Enterprise series. And with their obscene debacle called the Nemesis movie. This is the consensus among the fandom.

Star Trek " or, more accurately, the production staff`s overall (mis)management of The Franchise " " has stagnated, creatively and practically. Growth has been stunted.

They have arrived at an apocalypse of their own creation.

Maybe better late than never?

Yet ideas cannot be killed. Even if Star Trek television and film production is truly ended, the profound and powerful ideas behind and within it would certainly live on. Clearly, Star Trek is more than just " a TV show, as its long time status as a phenomenon and prominence in the cultural lexicon will attest. Indeed, it has lived long, and prospered. And even though there are no new series or movies currently in production, despite this being Trek`s 40th Anniversary, that enduring adoration and its fundamental ideology are reason enough to celebrate. We are, as always, but most especially now as Trek fans, at a crossroads, and a most significant one.

William Shatner aptly and cleverly notes of himself on his album irreverently titled Has Been ", in the title track, as being: has been " might again. The same may be said about the Star Trek narrative.

In narratives, every beginning has an ending, true, as they are wont to do. But every ending is also a chance for beginning. The Original Series was not an end, but the beginning of The Next Generation, which inspired Deep Space Nine, which begat Voyager. With the expansive proliferation of Trek, Franchise Fatigue has been offered as a partial cause/ excuse for why Trek is commonly perceived as being not as good as it used to be, and as good as it could/ should be, anymore. It is said by some critics and observers that the market is oversaturated with Trek stuff, that there is too much of it and that a lot of people are getting tired of it, bored with it. But this is insufficient reasoning, because Trek`s philosophy is still relevant, and as long as Trek is good, it only makes sense that people will continue to want more of it.

Some claim that Trek is getting stale because of an over-abundance of and over-reliance on its formula, that its own characteristic narrative structure or format inhibits too much what it can and can`t do (or presumably should and shouldn`t do). This formula, it is said, forces Trek to maintain a specific but cookie-cutter framework, plus redundantly and repetitively recycle material and mechanisms, in a misguided attempt to preserve a misguided idea of a definitive Star Trek " composition or construct. In essence, there is a presumption that it can`t be Star Trek unless it complies with and conforms to some nebulous precept of Star Trek-ness ", and that Star Trek is limited by its own concept, its innate form. Which is true enough, if you accept and condone that belief; it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I strongly dispute that policy. A common mistake is assuming that the Formula " has anything to do with defining what Trek is, when that formula is actually nothing but a narrative structure or pattern underlying a story which determines the pacing and layout of events " but which has been increasingly superimposed over Star Trek, apparently dictating its terms. No longer does Trek boldly go where no one has gone before ", and actually keeps going where it has already been, trying to hold on to and perpetuate some vague and unnecessary impression of a certain type of consistency.

Star Trek, like many of its actors, has become typecast by its own shadow. A shadow it "or, more precisely, its creators " is now afraid of, and yet reveres as much as the fans do.

Voyager and Enterprise failed because they lack vision, purpose and leadership. They`re just wandering aimlessly in a futile effort to duplicate or imitate the glory of previous series, so to manufacture and recapture the success of those other shows " basically riding on the coat tails of their predecessors instead of letting new series find their own way, their own identity. According to Paramount, these two series were both deliberate attempts to return to the roots " of Star Trek. It`s begun going in circles rather than going forward, looking to the past instead of the future. It is trapped between the past and the future, and ends up going nowhere.

 

The Original Series, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were each innovative for their time, in their own ways " but that time has passed, and the methods and mannerisms of those shows don`t and won`t work today; they are not appropriately representative or applicable to today`s cultural landscape, gestalt or zeitgeist. Appealing to a contemporary audience requires that the story relate to and be representative of the time and culture in which it is created. What worked in the past may not necessarily work so well now, or tomorrow. We can`t party like it`s 1999--- or 1969-- anymore.

Because it simply isn`t.

Plus, just as the story telling devices that work best for a novel don`t necessarily translate well for movies, and what suits movies may not be appropriate for TV, Star Trek`s portrayal must adapt and change to fit the customs of each incarnation, and be unique to itself. This is a substantial part of the problem, in that it prohibits and retards the degree and manner Star Trek can be expressed, realized and utilized. The essence of Trek`s greatness is to be progressive, to be socially relevant, to be visionary. It must say something meaningful to us-- about us, in its own words; and, unfortunately, it just doesn`t do that anymore. Because the producers have lost sight of what Trek really is. Maybe they are too close, and can`t see the forest for the trees, maybe they`re stuck in a rut of old too-comfortable habits hard to break, maybe they simply don`t know what else to do with it. Whatever the case, I`d start a revolution.

 

However, Trek definitely has not, contrary to some thoughtless critiques on its current condition, run out of ideas. It is only the show`s creators who have run out of ideas, or lack the adeptness or latitude or resources to manifest them. Within a concept as thematically vast and flexible as Star Trek, the possibilities "the stories " are as unlimited as the imaginations and means engaged to create them. Such viability, such adaptability is intrinsic in its design. Its playground, its canvas, is the universe, is reality, is life. What limits?

Star Trek-- like life-- goes on, and there are still duties to perform " still plenty of more stories to tell. It`s not that the fandom doesn`t like Star Trek anymore, it`s that they want "not simply good Trek, but great Trek. It`s because we fans do still love Star Trek that we are so disappointed and frustrated with it now. We`ve come to expect more from it, we see it isn`t fulfilling its potential " as it advises us to realize ours. A great many fans have blamed the diminishing of Trek on Paramount, specifically on Trek Executive Producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, and their unsatisfactory leadership and insufficient grasp of the material, the concept. The fact that Trek production has been allowed to continue through 7 years of a mundane Voyager and 4 years of a mediocre Enterpise is a testament to Berman`s excellence as a producer, but he is not suited to provide creative guidance. And Braga may be a decent writer, but he is not qualified, as he has proven, to lead the writing staff. Someone who has a strong vision and can bring something new, fresh and different to, not just Star Trek but to the science fiction genre, is needed. Surely, they are an aspect of the problem, but " to be fair-- only an aspect, not the whole of it. The production process, with its strain and limitations of time and budget and personnel, as well as political or personal biases, ignorance and incompetence, also contribute to getting in the way of a good story. Maybe Trek`s treatment and consideration by the Powers That Be at Paramount as a franchise " didn`t help matters, greedily putting the motive of profit before-- and at the expense of-- artistic concerns.

 

Others comment, and accurately, that the writers may not be up to the task of doing justice to Trek, or its stories " either due to inadequate talent, passion or exhaustion (since many of the people working on Trek have been doing so fairly consistently for nearly 20 years), or any combination of the above. Most fans believe that Trek needs an infusion of new blood, to remove those currently in place " wholesale or piecemeal "and replace them with new people; from command level down. 

But that notion, too, is only part of the problem, and a partial solution.

All these provide good reason for Trek to take a break, to go away for a while " to rest, rejuvenate and revitalize. Come back later, refreshed, with new ideas, and/ or new people.

Give it time to be missed and for people to desire Trek again.

Still, some suggest that they aren`t so much tired of Trek, as they are tired of Trek done wrong. The fan interest is still present, still very much alive " simply wanting and waiting, in frustration and disappointment, for Trek done right.

If Trek is to go on (as surely the show must in show business), what we need, what Trek needs, are people with the will, ability and liberty to tell its stories, and to tell them well. Don`t try to satisfy the fans, and futilely seek to be all things to all people, because fan preference and interpretations are much too many and varied to accommodate or placate them all.

 

To revive Trek, the producers, and maybe the fans, must revise their conceptualization about what Trek is or is supposed " to be, and just let it be, as the story dictates and requires. The story is paramount (no pun intended), the story ought to come first and foremost " while being consistent with its own continuity and the principal/ principled spirit of Trek, or else you`re wasting your time, and our time. You`re wasting Star Trek, and the opportunities if offers for excellent and meaningful storytelling, of relevant social commentary. THAT is for what and why Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. And it is primarily and ultimately towards that goal we must be faithful to.

Don`t try to enforce or conform to some ubiquitous formula " stereotype, because that only succeeds in making it formulaic.

Don`t be burdened with inane and trifling studio policy and politics infringing on your capacity to tell a story. Just tell the story and be true to the integrity of the story " not the fans, not the formula, and not the studio. These three factors are a huge part of where Trek has gone wrong. Without these vital issues resolved, Trek will continue " to suffer, as will the fans. Produce and provide good Trek, Trek done properly, and the rest will take care of itself. As I said, the audience IS there.

The studio that produces new Star Trek shows and/ or movies must be willing to permit and enable a necessary and important freedom of creation; it must respect Trek and the fans enough to want to do it right and do right by the fans, while not insulting the intelligence of either; it must support, believe in, and care about the project " the product; and that studio must understand Star Trek " or it is pointless to bother.  Because what will result is the same tragedy we have now: sub-standard Trek, imitation Trek, and crap masquerading as Trek... either not knowing the difference, not caring or hoping no one else notices the difference or cares.

But even in the unlikely scenario that Star Trek isn`t revived, in my lifetime or ever, it will not have died. Even if no other Trek series or movie is ever produced again, we will still have what has been produced which we can appreciate and enjoy and remember. No one can take that away from us. And, besides that, there are also several excellent novels in recent years and yet to come that continue to tell Trek`s amazing stories, worthy of being canonized. The fans, also, are possibly a determining factor in the future of Trek, and not just through their money, input or preferences. Already, there is indication of a potential trend of fans beginning to become more actively involved like never before, beyond protest and boycott, in manifesting, influencing and encouraging Trek`s future " such as producing the New Voyages fan film series. Like the Trek phenomenon itself, this is unprecedented, in that a fan made film series has attracted the support and participation of various Trek veterans, like Walter Koenig, George Takei, Grace Lee Whitney, and D.C. Fontana, as well as Rod Roddenberry. And it seems to be doing well, for an internet TV " series. While its production values and crew dedication are exceptional as well as professional " fan production or not, I don`t accept it as canon because-- as good as it is, as good as it looks, the series tries to continue and recreate the Original series with new actors as the same characters, making the familiar bizarrely unfamiliar. I applaud the attempt and effort, but no one can do Kirk quite like Shatner.   

The point to note here is that, although much of the general public`s appreciation and acceptance of Trek has waned or died-- at least for the moment, the passion of true fans-- of which there is still a relatively significant multitude, has not ceased to be and shows no substantial sign of stopping any time soon. The Trek is not over. These are the continuing voyages. Perhaps this break away from Trek is just an interlude, an intermission, an intake of break while it collects itself, and gathers its thoughts before it speaks again. Let us fervently hope this break from production is merely a cliffhanger:

To be continued "

It is this, if nothing else, that we may commemorate on Star Trek`s 40th Anniversary.



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