A little over a decade ago, “Star Trek” ruled the Paramount lot.
On one stage, the final season of “The Next Generation” was under way. On another, the second season of “Deep Space Nine” was being shot. On yet another, the seventh “Trek” movie, “Star Trek: Generations,” was in production. And behind the scenes, plans were being drawn to create a new “Trek” series, “Star Trek: Voyager,” to fuel the launch of a fifth broadcast network-UPN.
Paramount executives did not call the series and movies “Star Trek.” They were called, simply, “The Franchise.”
Now The Franchise is coming to an end, with the announcement earlier this year that the low-rated “Star Trek: Enterprise” has been canceled. At a time when science fiction is experiencing newfound success on cable (with “Battlestar Galactica” and “Stargate”), television’s pre-eminent sci-fi franchise has ceased production for the first time since 1987.
In recent weeks, “Enterprise” averaged 2.4 million viewers, a sharp drop from its first-season average of 5.9 million and an enormous plunge from the heyday of “The Next Generation,” which for a time was the highest-rated one-hour show in syndication, drawing an average 12.1 GAA rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The drop of the shows mirrored the falling popularity of the “Trek” movies. The most recent film, “Star Trek: Nemesis,” cost $60 million and grossed $43.3 million-the lowest total in the series, despite rising ticket prices.
Almost everybody agrees that after 703 hours of “Trek,” The Franchise deserves a break.
The original “Star Trek” aired on NBC from 1966 to ’69, but the show didn’t become a hit until it went into syndication. “After it went off the air in 1969 it engendered a tremendous following. It was the first cult TV show,” said Rick Berman, the executive producer of every “Trek” title since 1987.
In 1979 Paramount re-signed original cast members, including William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, to star in a revived “Star Trek” show. Paramount wanted to use the series to launch a fourth broadcast network. When the network plan fell apart, the studio elected to shoot the first “Trek” movie instead.
Once the “Trek” movies became a box office staple, Paramount decided to create a new “Trek” television series with an entirely different cast. The result was 1987’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The studio reportedly turned down two network offers for the series and instead sold the show directly to syndication, where the original “Trek” reruns had thrived.
The new series was seen as risky. “Trek” fans were vehemently against the idea of a “Trek” show without Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. And there were no successful one-hour dramas in syndication at the time.
But the gamble paid off. “Next Generation” was an enormous hit-and not just for Paramount and station owners. The show created an entirely new syndication action-hour market that gave birth to “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Baywatch,” “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and others.
“The impact at the time of `Next Generation’ cannot be underplayed,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming of Katz Television Group. “It was a breakthrough-the dominant program for many years in syndication. It was the beginning of what became an important industry.”
In 1993 Paramount created “Deep Space Nine,” a more cerebral drama set in a space station instead of the traditional roaming starship. Paramount returned to the starship format in 1995 with “Voyager” on UPN, which finally utilized the studio’s 1979 plan to launch a network with a “Trek” show.
By this time, concerned rumblings were coming from critics, worried that Paramount might be mining the “Trek” franchise too hard. But “Star Trek’s” famously loyal fans seemed not to care, and Paramount plowed ahead.
Each of the series stayed faithful to the rules set by creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991. Mr. Roddenberry envisioned an optimistic future, where money, race and social status are no longer concerns and humans work together to solve external problems rather than fight among themselves.
The format restrictions made for a comforting future but were tough on “Trek” writers, who were increasingly hard-pressed to come up with unique alien threats while avoiding any deep conflict among series regulars.
The stories began to feel familiar. And with all “Trek” series and movies being produced by the same team of Mr. Berman and fellow executive producer Brannon Braga, many production elements also felt familiar, married to the franchise renovations made by “Next Generation.”
“In terms of lighting, in terms of camera angles, in terms of set design and music, many [later `Trek’ shows] have a distinct early-1990s sensibility,” said Steve Krutzler, founder of trekweb.com, the oldest “Trek” fan site on the Internet. “It’s difficult to maintain a certain level of quality to do the same format over and over. Eventually it can’t sustain itself.”
“Star Trek,” a drama that originally promised to boldly go where no man had gone before, was seemingly going to the same places over and over again.
And when “Voyager” was canceled in 2001, Paramount immediately replaced the series with the most controversial Trek outing, “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
`We May Have Overextended’
“Enterprise” was a prequel that took place years before the original “Star Trek.” The show was seen as literally a step backward by some fans, who denounced it as tampering with the franchise’s documented past rather than moving forward to something new.
“With `Enterprise,’ its failure to catch on is not a surprise, when they decided to go backwards and reinvent the past,” said Ed Robertson, co-author of “The Ethics of Star Trek.”
For the first two seasons, the series gradually lost viewers. For the third, which aired in 2004, producers finally took the advice of many fans and shook up the “Trek” universe. “Enterprise” introduced a season-long story arc-a “Trek” first-fueled by a topical terrorism-related story line. Critics took notice and praised the changes, but ratings dropped lower than ever.
Ron Moore, executive producer of Sci Fi’s successful “Battlestar Galactica” reinvention and a former writer for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” said the “Enterprise” third-season effort was a good one, but came too late.
“It’s always difficult to reinvent yourself after a couple years on the air,” Mr. Moore said. “If you change pitch in mid-stride, it’s going to be a problem.”
For series producers, the problem seemed like a Catch-22: Keep “Trek” the same, lose fans. Change “Trek,” lose more.
“It doesn’t fit into `no-win situation’ but it fits into the `you gotta be real careful’ situation,” Mr. Berman said. “Numbers slip on shows. It doesn’t necessarily mean the creative direction needs to be altered, but [at that point] it couldn’t hurt.”
The “Enterprise” cancellation was announced Feb. 2. UPN President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff said the network gave the show more chances to recover because of the “Trek” legacy. “Normally, a show wouldn’t get to four years if the ratings went down every year,” she said. When the end came, even Paramount was unwilling to protest. Numbers were so low, the show was considered to be hurting the franchise.
Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, offered a unique take on the oft-repeated criticism that Paramount mined the franchise too hard. “I see it the opposite,” Mr. Koonin said. “Paramount managed to make billions off a failed TV series.”
Though groups are still mounting campaigns to resurrect the show, many fans also concede it was a necessary move. “Though I would never oppose an effort to keep the show on, creatively I think the time has come to take a break,” said trekweb.com’s Mr. Krutzler, whose site hosted a letter-writing campaign to keep “Enterprise” on the air.
The Next Chapter
Today even Mr. Berman concedes there may have been too many “Trek” series.
“It’s really easy to Monday-morning quarterback these sort of things,” Mr. Berman said. “[But] we may have overextended a bit. It’s a possibility
that Paramount may have taken one too many trips to the well.”
The future of “Trek” is more certain than media postmortems seem to indicate.
Few doubt there will be another “Trek” series. Paramount’s “Trek” empire extends to DVDs, books, toys, video games, theme park attractions and countless other ancillary profits. The only question is how long Paramount needs to wait.
“We view this very much as a hiatus in the history of the show,” said David Stapf, president of Paramount Network Television. “And I’m actually kind of excited to see what the next chapter will bring.”
Another movie is tentatively planned, but has not been given the green light. Mr. Berman is keeping quiet on the details, except to say the film is a prequel that will not involve previous cast members.
On the Sci Fi Channel, “Battlestar Galactica” has managed to successfully fill a “Trek” niche of sorts-a series about the crew of a massive spaceship roaming the galaxy and fighting foes. In every other respect, however, “Galactica” is an entirely different program. Dark, gritty, some say nihilistic, “Galactica” is the “Nip/Tuck” of space operas, a complete post-9/11 reimagining of the campy 1978 original that pointedly ignored protests by fans of the original.
Fans point out “Star Trek” is a fundamentally hopeful series and is therefore unsuited to undergo a similar makeover.
Mr. Berman, while firmly believing “Trek” will return, said the franchise’s sensibility may be out of step with the times.
“We made a great effort to keep Roddenberry’s vision of the future in mind,” Mr. Berman said. “Has that attitude played itself out? It could very well be true.”
Mr. Moore, the “Galactica” producer and former “Trek” writer, had a different take.
“I don’t think optimism is ever going to go out of style,” Mr. Moore said. “I don’t think `Trek’ needs to become `Battlestar,’ but it does need to reflect and change and deal with what’s out there. The first series gave you a hopeful view of the future by dealing with things like racism and the Vietnam War. You want to play to where the audience is today.”
Or tomorrow. Or in three years-the most commonly bandied-about figure for the minimum amount of time Paramount needs to wait to bring back “Trek.”
As a Hollywood problem, it’s one of the best to have-a franchise so popular, so pervasive, that five television series and 10 movies later, fans are counting the days until it returns.
“There’s really no other property that’s faced this kind of problem,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s just this enormous, well, enterprise. There’s no other template to look at. There’s no other thing that’s had this kind of life.”