A Wide-Ranging Rumination on "Trek" Past, Present and Future
by Mark T.R. Donohue
A few weeks ago I was browsing the used DVD section at a Boulder video game store. Signage informed me that the place was in the process of phasing out its video stock, so everything I could find was buy two, get one free. Even so, I felt that $120 for three seasons of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was pushing it. As it turned out, the hideously packaged first, second, and third season sets had been marked down from $60 to $40 each. It was also by coincidence the week of my birthday, and therefore one of the few times of the year I legitimately had money to waste. So, what the hey. I bought the "Enterprise" sets. It couldn't be as bad as all that, right?
Like a lot of "Deep Space Nine" fans, I've been off of the "Star Trek" brand since that show's cancellation. Due to a petty feud between Paramount's executive in charge of "Trek," Rick Berman, and showrunner Ira Steven Behr and the "DS9" brain trust, an entire generation's worth of world-class writing talent left the franchise with "What You Leave Behind." Just to list their credits since reveals how costly this breach has been to "Trek" and Paramount. René Echevarria went on to create "The 4400" for USA; Behr later joined him on that show. Robert Hewitt Wolfe also worked on "4400" and just wrapped "The Dresden Files" for Sci-Fi. And of course Ron Moore, once the supreme loremaster of all things Klingon and the writer of the best "Next Gen" movie, First Contact, went on to create the wildly successful updated "Battlestar Galactica." If there was any justice in the world, all of these writers would still be hard at work on the seventh season of a popular (read: not "Enterprise") "Star Trek" series and preparing the screenplay to a follow-up to a profitable film that heaped on the fan service by joining portions of the "DS9" and "TNG" casts (and maybe Robert Picardo) for a compelling new 24th-century adventure.
That's not how it went down, though. "Enterprise" suffered the indignity of being the first "Trek" series since the original to be cancelled before its time, and Star Trek: Nemesis was a brutally poor film that probably shut the door on future movies with the "Next Gen" cast. Not that the "Star Trek" brand hasn't weathered truly awful big-screen productions before: Star Trek V makes Nemesis look like Wrath of Khan. (In terms of quality, I mean. In point of fact one of the biggest problems with Nemesis was how it cheerfully thieved Wrath of Khan's entire plot and many of its major story beats without anyone involved ever seeming to consciously acknowledge it.) The real red flag is the way that Berman continues to insist that Nemesis was a quality product, and it was "brand fatigue" or something of that sort that caused its poor domestic box office showing. No, Rick; it was a bad movie.
Berman's arrogance and denial have increased in inverse proportion to the fortunes of the franchise which he personally stewarded to juggernaught status after the death of Gene Roddenberry. The controversial finale to "Enterprise" is a good example. While his stated intention was to send the series out with a love letter to "Star Trek" fans everywhere, the completed result was a love letter to nobody except Rick Berman. "You idiots don't know what you like, I'll tell you what you like," is his attitude. Nobody burns bridges quite like Berman. His screenplay for "These Are the Voyages..." so offended Connor Trinneer and Jolene Blalock, who played the two best characters on "Enterprise," that they elected to skip the show's wrap party. But I'm sure Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis were really grateful for the work.
Berman's latest brainstorm to save "Star Trek" is a new film to be directed by "Alias" and "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams. That's not a bad idea in and of itself, I suppose. But the more you look into the details, the more you wonder what Paramount can possibly be thinking. (With apologies to Chris Griffin, How does Rick Berman keep getting work?) If "Star Trek" is truly suffering from "brand fatigue," and not just a vacuum of quality creative talent, why do Berman and Abrams plan another movie with Kirk and Spock? The prequel idea having already failed on the small screen with "Enterprise," do they really intend to try it again in theaters? With Matt Damon as Kirk? You know what they say about people who keep trying the same thing over and over expecting different results each time.
I'm not so much concerned with whether or not they'll be able to keep cranking out "Star Trek" movies. "Trek" has never really worked on the big screen. The highlights from the film series would all be atypical had they been television episodes. Wrath of Khan and First Contact were essentially action movies and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a broad comedy. ("They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales.") "Star Trek" is at its best when it emphasizes teamwork and brain power, which aren't really multiplex-filling concepts. This is why I've always preferred television to movies and "Star Trek" to most other TV shows.
So, I guess it's almost inevitable that after trying to avoid to them for so long, I'm now finally watching "Enterprise" and "Voyager." And that will be the subject of Part Two.