The carpeted bridge of the starship Enterprise was suddenly invaded by several dozen bald and sandaled beings attired in burnt-orange robes. Intrigued by the Lucite-and-halogen spectacle, they wandered about quietly, gently touching the flashing consoles, pointing to the padded chairs on which the famous starship captain and his officers usually sit and whispering among themselves in what seemed to be an alien language.
But they were a good deal less alien than the outworlders who usually beam up to the set of Paramount's "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This was a delegation of Tibetan monks from the Dalai Lama's monastery in India. And they were transfixed by the sight of actor Brent Spiner, who plays the series' popular Pinocchio-like android, Data.
Studying Spiner's skin, swathed in gold makeup, and his eyes, glinting gold from his contact lenses, the monks were curious: Was he man or machine? Their curiosity seemed satisfied, however, when some of them shook hands with the impish actor, whose makeup rubbed off on their palms.
Spiner quips that smudging has prevented him, until a recent on-screen entanglement with guest star Michele Scarabelli, from being kissed as much as he'd like. "I fear when I die, they'll find traces of this makeup in my blood," he says.
In Spiner's four years on the show, he's gotten tired of inquiries into his humanity. (There are some who, in fits of extreme cognitive dissonance, simply will not accept that Spiner is human, causing great distress for both him and them.) But he schmoozed patiently with the monks. And "when the bells rang out for 'quiet on the set,' " recalls Spiner, "these people did professional quiet."
The monks--who appeared to mesh better with the scenery than did the previous day's visitor, Marilyn Quayle--had been invited to the Paramount lot to attend a taping of "Cheers." But they made it known that as much as they liked Cliff, Norm, Frazier and Lilith, they and their spiritual mentor, the Dalai Lama, were big-league "Star Trek" fans. This cheers series creator Gene Roddenberry, a 69-year-old Texas-born former airline pilot, flack for the Los Angeles Police Department and head writer of the famous '50s TV western "Have Gun Will Travel."
For Roddenberry, "Star Trek" in any of its manifestations--the first, or "classic," TV series, which ran from 1966 through 1969 and survives in daily syndication throughout the world; a short-lived animated series that premiered in 1974; a spate of high-grossing feature movies launched in 1979, and the now 4-year-old TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation"--has always been more than mere entertainment.
"It has become a crusade of mine," says Roddenberry, "to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting. I'd often felt that no one was catching on. But if the Dalai Lama likes us, I suppose the message is getting out."
A stocky man with a silver mane and a quick smile, Roddenberry now fancies himself the invisible conscience of a universe of the imagination that has taken on a powerful existence entirely beyond the confines of his mind. "I finally feel I have become a philosopher, junior grade," he says. "There's hardly a subject you could mention I haven't spent time thinking out while writing 'Star Trek' scripts. You spend years dreaming up strange new worlds, and they build up into something quite real."
Roddenberry considers his greatest feat to be that nearly 25 years after the original series inauspiciously debuted on NBC (and after network execs deemed the first pilot too cerebral), "Star Trek" lives on--with a vengeance. Indeed, as "Star Trek: The Next Generation," it has become one of the most widely watched shows on TV, reaching 12.4 million households nationwide--a 13.1 rating--during the February sweeps. ("Cheers," a network show, was seen in 19.9 million households--a 21.8 rating.) Though this is, in fact, a smaller percentage than watched the old series, TV has since become sufficiently fragmented by cable and video to make this a consistently impressive, and eminently profitable, showing.
Winner of seven Emmies and a Peabody Award, "TNG" is even endorsed by the national organization Viewers for Quality TV, which prizes wholesome TV fare. It has become, asserts Paramount, the No. 1 one-hour show for men 18 through 49. Women like it less, though they prefer it to such past and present network powerhouses as "Dallas," "Murder She Wrote" and "Designing Women." In a telephone survey conducted this year for Paramount, 99% of the respondents had heard of "Star Trek," and 53% said they were fans.
"STAR TREK" HAS CERTAINLY EVOLVED light-years beyond the frequent punch-ups and photon torpedo blasts that characterized the original TV series (which, Roddenberry insists, was itself less violent than virtually every other dramatic series on the air at the time). Death and strife have not been entirely banished from the universe some 400 years hence. But the new show, which is set some 85 years after the old series transpired, generally eschews violence and bluster for diplomacy and intellectual guile, explains Roddenberry in the slim "bible" he created to guide the show's writers. "Show a somewhat better kind of human than today's average," he writes on Page 3 of the "Writers'/Directors' Guide" for the 1989 season. "Our continuing characters are the kind of people that the 'Star Trek' audience would like to be themselves. They are not perfect, but their flaws do not include falsehood, petty jealousies and the banal hypocrisies common in the 20th Century."
Phasers are rarely set to kill. The new Enterprise--a plush, high-rent hotel in space--seeks out its new worlds gingerly, fearing, with a politically correct '90s sensibility, that outright human interference may irrevocably muck up physical and cultural ecologies.
Thankfully, individual characters are instead permitted to grapple more decisively with their own internal demons. In one compelling fourth-season episode, for instance, starship Capt. Jean-Luc Picard--a Frenchman played by 50-year-old Briton, Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Patrick Stewart--struggled to overcome the humiliation of being mentally dominated by a race of quasi-omnipotent, hive creatures. His second-in-command, Will Riker (played by actor Jonathan Frakes), has learned to recognize that an apparent lack of personal ambition reflects genuine career satisfaction and competence. Ship counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) has survived the temporary but highly traumatic loss of her empathic powers. And android Data has realized that becoming human is a slow process even for a quick study who may otherwise prove immortal.
Gone, however, is the crusty banter that characterized relations among the original series' Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), his logic-bound and ironically charismatic, pointed-eared Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and his irascible shipboard doctor, Leonard (Bones) McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Internal conflict among the new crew has been relegated to its recurring poker game, reflecting Roddenberry's newfound conviction that tomorrow's space explorers will have forgone petty bickering and jealousies in the workplace.
By limiting the boundaries of what "Star Trek" characters can and cannot do, Roddenberry has set before his writers a unique, and occasionally insurmountable, challenge: how to generate genuine human drama on TV without drawing on the baser motives--greed, lust and power--that appear to drive other TV characters.
Few writers have successfully adapted to this format. In fact, Roddenberry's efforts to enforce his Pollyannaish vision of the future--during the first season, he virtually rewrote the first 15 episodes--caused many writers who might otherwise have had to be dynamited off a successful series to run screaming into the night. It was simply too difficult for them to sustain one man's dogmatic view of the future.
First-season writer Tracy Torme recently described his growing discomfort with these constraints during his brief tenure on "TNG" to Cinefantastique writer Mark Altman. There was an atmosphere, Torme said, of "We can't do this, and we can't do that" instead of "Hey, we have a big success on our hands, we have a loyal audience no matter what, so let's take some chances."
(Indeed, the writers' bible contains an entire list of "thou shalt not's," which includes the admonition that "We are not in the business of toppling cultures that we do not approve of. We are not 'space meddlers.' " Item 10 on the list urges writers to "Beware of spaceship battles: They cost enormous amounts of money and are not really as interesting as people conflicts.")
Torme, who claims to have been groomed for a top position on the in-house staff, recalled once having had to change a blue-skinned Andorean character to another species of alien at the last moment. On the old series, he said, Andoreans had antennae. But in "TNG," insisted one producer, "we don't do antennae." These apparently smacked too much of vintage pulp science fiction, which, stripped of its pretensions, is really what "Star Trek" has always been.
The idea of creating drama without conflict also seemed beyond the reach of most writers, who chafed under Roddenberry's rule that "Regular characters all share a feeling of being part of a band of brothers and sisters. As in the original 'Star Trek,' we invite the audience to share the same feeling of affection for our characters."
"I think the show was unbelievably static," Torme said. "All of these characters like each other all the time, and for me that was a real big disadvantage." It made, many fans have complained, for bland viewing.
What was needed--and what Roddenberry ultimately got despite the Writers Guild strike that nearly crippled the final episodes of the show's first season and the next season's first episodes--were writers who could not only accommodate but become energized by the challenges of his restrictions. If conflict could not arise among the characters, it could be imported from the universe they were made to inhabit.
According to executive producer Rick Berman--who with executive producer Michael Piller is widely credited for having improved the series' dramatic quality during the past two years by making that universe more detailed, layered and Angst -ridden--Roddenberry was probably correct to have adopted a hard-line approach.
"The show needed a helmsman who would set a strong course," says Berman, a 45-year-old producer/writer who served a two-year stint as development executive at Paramount before "TNG." "By rewriting the first 15 scripts, Gene set the course for the rest of us."
Those who most comfortably settled into Roddenberry's universe learned early on how to flesh out the new characters while balancing them with the fact that they actually amount to little more than individual facets of a single, mythically potent Odyssean protagonist. In "Star Trek"--and Freudians (one of the many schools of academics to have milked the series for doctoral theses) believe this was as true for the original series as it is for "The Next Generation"--the Enterprise, not its crew, is the hero. Despite the haimishness of both series, this, in fact, may be the key to the series' immense durability. As long as there is a universe to explore and a spaceship to explore it, suggests Roddenberry, there will be a "Star Trek."
"TNG" SURVIVED ITS BIRTH PANGS LARGELY because Paramount, spared the whims of an interfering network, had committed to a multiyear run. There were few assurances that lightning could strike again. But Paramount was prepared, recalls John Pike, the studio's president of network TV, to let Roddenberry work out the kinks until the series, like most others, hit its stride a season or two down the line.
It was willing to do so because, over the decades, "Star Trek" has shown itself to be a vigorous golden goose, generating immense profits. What Roddenberry originally pitched as a "Wagon Train to the Stars" has become omnipresent: a corporate gravy train for Paramount so ubiquitous in syndication and crafty in its merchandising as to appear virtually unstoppable. Indeed, the studio refers to it as "the franchise."
The original series has been "stripped"--broadcast daily in most major American markets--since the early '70s and watched more and more by people who never saw its first run. In its fourth season, "TNG" surpassed the original's output of 79 episodes. It, too, is being stripped in syndication even as new episodes continue to be produced. According to Cinefantastique, this is because the show, which allegedly costs more than a million dollars an episode to produce, runs at a sizable deficit. However, Berman denies this is the case and says that "TNG" does better than break even.
At Paramount, only the foolhardy or the legally well-represented engage in debates over what defines profitability. The five "Star Trek" movies alone, however, have grossed more than $400 million in box office receipts. The 1986 film "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," for instance, has earned $110 million in gross receipts and did an equally brisk business in video rentals. Directed by Nimoy and written by writer/producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer, its pro-whale theme, comedic tone and contemporary setting attracted filmgoers who would not otherwise have gone to a "Trek" film.
Even the wildly overbudget ($45 million) "Star Trek--The Motion Picture," the first in the series, which opened in 1979 to a poor critical and box office reception, has managed to turn a profit. At Paramount, such achievements are seldom scoffed at.
There is also a whole range of subsidiary merchandising to consider. The "Star Trek" novels published monthly by Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books (a division of Paramount)--with plots alternating between the "classic" series and the new show--frequently reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list. They alone generate close to a million dollars a year.
And even the Franklin Mint, which to date has only issued collectible Hollywood tie-ins to "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," conducts a brisk trade with high-end "Star Trek" tchotchkies , including 25th-anniversary commemorative coins, pewter models of the various Enterprises and even ornate chess sets costing nearly $1,000. Timex offers a complete line of Trek watches. Associates National Bank, headquartered in Dallas, even offers "Trek" credit cards.
Licensing fees for these and other marketing schemes go back to Paramount, which has come to regard "Star Trek" as a "tent-pole" capable of propping up the studio when times are particularly hard. Although Paramount won't supply actual figures, the vehicle, in its assorted guises, may have already generated as much as a billion dollars in revenues. With the studio now beset by sinking profits and vicious infighting, such performance is deeply appreciated and, according to a piece in Variety, heavily relied upon.
"Star Trek" and "TNG" are seen in some 40 countries including southern Lebanon, where Roddenberry's credo of non-violence has yet to take hold. But despite being as pervasive as Madonna and perhaps as enduring as Mickey Mouse, Roddenberry's format seems to play best in America.
FRAGMENTED BY MODERNITY, AMERICANS appear starved for meaning, community and the promise of a better future that "Trek" attempts to deliver. "Unlike most soap operas," says John De Lancie, who appears as a mischievous but lovable omnipotent alien called Q, " 'Trek' is also about something. It seems to have a higher appeal, and people actually have a sense it might presage a better future."
Roddenberry's wide-eyed, highly idealistic view of the future is remarkably free from war and disease, racism and sexism. This largely utopian vision was certainly the major attraction of the old series, in which the feisty Capt. Kirk, played with hammy exuberance by Montreal expatriate Shatner, policed the galaxy with decidedly un-Canadian gunboat diplomacy. And it remains so today, although an equally bald-headed captain (fans still joke about Shatner's increasingly unwieldy hairpiece) now commands a kinder, gentler Enterprise. Capt. Picard is no interstellar "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf.
This became evident when, at a recent convention in New York attended by 2,000 Trekkers, Shatner and Stewart shared a stage for the first time. Someone asked how Capts. Kirk and Picard would have handled Saddam Hussein. One would have gone to war; the other would have opted for a mixture of vigorous negotiations and diplomacy, backed by sanctions, if necessary. "I'd have told him to drop dead," said the blustery 60-year-old Shatner, who was always ready for a fight in the old series and who regarded his frequent sexual conquests as de rigueur for the protean hero.
"As for Capt. Picard," quipped Stewart, who has not always been comfortable with his alter ego's occasionally long-winded and sometimes inactive-to-the-point-of-somnolent leadership qualities, "he would still be talking."
The new Enterprise ostensibly shares the same mission as its predecessor, though the now-famous preamble is gender-neutral, promising to "boldly go where no one has gone before." However, according to J. Michael Straczynski, a co-host of KPFK's Friday-night science-fiction radio talk show, "Hour 25," the new show is more reserved, "which may make for interesting science fiction but not for very compelling stories."
For some, in fact, "Trek" has always rhymed with "yech." In a recent exchange on the computer information service and network CompuServe, science-fiction writer Mike Resnick instructed a would-be "Star Trek" writer on the inherent drawbacks of plowing someone else's literary field. His comments gave vent to the disdain that many still feel for the series in its various formats. "Novelizing someone else's characters," declared Resnick, "is secondhand writing and requires secondhand thinking. I can think of no quicker way to stunt an embryonic writer's professional and artistic growth than to hand him a secondhand universe and a fully drawn set of characters and tell him to go to work writing yet another thirdhand adventure for readers who find comfort in the continual retelling of what is essentially the same story ."
" 'Star Trek' has the virtue in this world of being illiterate," acknowledges writer/director Meyer, now directing the current feature, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," which is slated for a Christmas release. "America is now an illiterate society, with no particular oral tradition," he observes. "Myths have to be served up in a new way."
Talk remains central to "Trek," says Meyer, who once told a film class that the classic series was at heart a radio play, not a TV show. Meyer demonstrated this by running an episode of "Star Trek" without the picture. The class was able to follow "Trek" merely by listening to it.
What "Trek" offers to those who can get past its "high-Trek" terminology, says Stewart, "is the kind of narrative power that our earliest ancestors knew around their fires in the cave. It's what kept people together. It's what gave meaning to their lives. It's what validated them, or placed them in time and space. It still does."
The old series dealt liberally with any number of noble and socially relevant themes of the '60s, tackling racial prejudice, the alleged irrationality of religious worship and even (in one of the more abysmal third-season episodes) the hippie phenomenon. Although somewhat more restrained, politically, than its predecessor, "TNG" has also tackled complex human issues, including terrorism and drug abuse.
It has even explored the dangers of excessive "Trekishness" in a particularly wry and whimsical episode about one man's addiction to fantasy characters created in the ship's "holodeck," a 24th-Century virtual-reality simulator. The protagonist, a 24th-Century schlemiel , had fabricated imaginary but otherwise tangible replicas of the series' main stars--he was too inept to deal with them directly--during work hours. In his holodeck fantasies, they actually fawned on him.
Marina Sirtis, as the ship's empathic counselor, Troi, and a sensual subject of these fantasies, seemed to be the only one to discern the true carnal significance of this illicit dalliance and was suitably shocked at the invasion of privacy it represented.
The more self-aware Trekkers, whom Shatner once admonished to "get a life" on an episode of "Saturday Night Live," may well have realized that they had become the butt of this gentle parody. The rank-and-file probably were not, for which Paramount may be grateful. The people who have shaped such plots over the years for TV and film have learned that "Star Trek" fans are best left unprovoked.
It was the fans, in fact, who are credited with saving "Star Trek" from cancellation after both its first and second seasons. The network didn't understand the show, remained unimpressed with its numbers and had moved it to a dreadful Friday-night time slot that assured its demise. The Trekkers waged a letter-writing campaign of unprecedented proportions (some insist at Roddenberry's behest) against NBC, which relented by assuring a subsequent season. Although many of the final season's shows, says Straczynski, might have best been dropped off a pier, the added year of production afforded the first series enough episodes to permit its survival in syndication.
The sheer power and durability of the "Trek" phenomenon did not become evident, however, until the early '70s, by which time "Star Trek" conventions were providing Roddenberry and his cast members with a new kind of livelihood. Fans wanted the series back, and Roddenberry tried valiantly to accommodate them, first with an animated series featuring the voices of some of the actors, and later with a revamped TV series with the original cast, to be called "Star Trek II."
Ultimately, plans for TV's "Star Trek II" gave way to an overpriced and generally stolid feature movie produced because of the overwhelming success of George Lucas' "Star Wars" and released in 1979 as "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." That film, directed by Robert Wise, begat a more economical and dramatically successful trilogy of films that concluded with the popular "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."
"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," which Shatner commandeered (Nimoy had directed the previous two), is widely regarded as the weakest of the feature series. Fans who saw it were generally too numb to do anything but wring their hands. Attend they did, however, despite bad advance word of mouth .
Still, when Paramount began contemplating "TNG" in 1986, it was far from certain the heavens would smile on this latest attempt to reincarnate "Star Trek." Studio execs worried that the series might fail in its attempts both to capture the old audience and to attract new fans.
"There was great eagerness to do 'Star Trek' on television," recalls Paramount's Pike. "But it was an anxious time, too. You don't want to be the one to screw up the franchise." For one thing, it was thought that bringing "Trek" back to TV might saturate the market, softening the demand for more movies. "Prior to 'TNG,' " says Bennett, "people who loved 'Trek' could watch reruns, and once every two years they could go to the theater and get a bigger dose of 'Trek,' and you'd have a feeding frenzy." Too much "Trek," executives feared, could prove as bad as no "Trek."
But working in favor of the series' return to TV was the high cost of making the movies: By "Star Trek VI," Paramount was paying Shatner and Nimoy $4 million a film (though not up front, according to a recent report in the New York Times). Increasingly strapped for funds, executives realized "Star Trek" would become more profitable if reincarnated as a TV series with a cast of relative unknowns. Because Paramount could produce and market the series, there was no need to cut a network into the proceedings--a boon both for the front office and the creative staff. "TNG" could boldly go where "Star Trek" had never gone before: directly into syndication heaven.
"TNG" HAS SUCCEEDED nobly in distinguishing itself from the old series and the feature films. There is hardly a Vulcan in sight on the new show. Once-vile Klingons, humankind's formerly implacable warlike interstellar nemesis, are now in a loose alliance with the Federation, and one, the Enterprise's tactical officer, Lt. Worf (played by Michael Dorn), actually serves in Starfleet. Children and families populate the decks of the new starship, leading, one assumes from the little seen of them, normal family lives with sedentary vocations.
Aboard the Enterprise, there has evolved a mutual admiration-and-support society sometimes so impossibly nurturing that some fans have come to concur with the series' renegade writers that, try hard as it does, the new show is simply not as interesting as its predecessor. Missing, they say, is the successful interplay of character. Straczynski says, however, that he has observed a fair amount of what he calls "revisionism" among once-ardent fans of the old show: "Some are now saying the old show wasn't that great--it was a little bombastic, the effects weren't good, the characters were flat."
But Straczynski has also noted that "TNG"--unlike the old show--has yet to foster quite as pervasive a cult. "People don't watch it with as much attention, or rewatch it as much as the old show. The old 'Trek' shows still hold up after 1,000 times. The new show, I hear the fans say, is interesting enough. But there isn't enough meat there."
Marina Sirtis lauds Roddenberry's universe for its unusual (in television) racial egalitarianism. The original series is often touted for having facilitated TV's first interracial kiss, between Shatner and Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Three of the new show's principal players are black: among them, recent Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, who signed up for regular appearances as Guinan, the ship's bartender, because "Trek" had inspired her at a low point in her career.
Roddenberry's original bible also evinced a fascination with 24th-Century sex that has not, perhaps thankfully, been explored fully in the show. Nearly an entire page of the booklet was devoted to the sexual obsessiveness of the Ferengi, a race of silly-looking Mickey Mouse-eared alien bad guys who occasionally provide comic relief. An early episode of the series--one of the few permitted to reflect his prurient interests--depicted members of the crew caught in the throes of overpowering amorousness. For some cast members, who feel the show took chances in its first year no longer easily taken, that episode remains a favorite.
Indeed, the human universe of "TNG" remains dominated by monogamous relationships or by on-board abstinence. "One of the things we are always wrestling with," Berman says, "is that because this show has existed within the confines of the AIDs era, promiscuity is not a good thing to promote. Kirk seemed to sleep with someone in every episode, but that's more '60s than '90s."
Relations among the cast members can be characterized as familial, protective and even intimate. This, too, is in stark contrast to the original TV series. Though they have grown more cordial toward one another as their career interests have appeared to merge--they have contracts that indicate what one gets, the other gets--Shatner and Nimoy were never the best of friends. And Shatner has only once--while directing "Star Trek V"--tried to hide his disdain for his supporting players, whom he has reportedly characterized to associates as the "Seven Dwarfs."
In part, relations among the new cast may be better because Roddenberry, and now Berman, have deliberately--and perhaps fruitlessly, given the popularity of the vehicle--tried to prevent the characters from emerging as stars.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation" ended its fourth season of production at roughly the same time that the "Star Trek VI" movie began shooting. The original cast appears to have accepted the notion that the movie will probably end its now-25-year mission. Indeed, Meyer's script--described as a perestroika -esque story that details the breakup of the Klingon empire under a Gorbachev-like leader--appears to suggest as much. Their television counterparts, meanwhile, have two years left in their contracts, leaving some to ponder what comes next.
Although the show's still-burgeoning ratings don't yet suggest the possibility, "The Little Starship That Could" may eventually run out of steam, and the actors themselves may grow weary of their roles, especially if they perceive a danger of being as terminally typecast as their predecessors. They realize that the 150-or-so episodes they do will probably follow them throughout their lives. Having seen what that did to the careers of the former cast--most could not get decent film work after the series--not all relish the prospect.
There is talk at Paramount of reviving the feature-film franchise by adopting the casting and format of "The Next Generation," and the last installment of the classic movies reportedly links the casts of the old and the new Treks. The search for a new tent-pole is clearly on. It remains to be seen, though, whether "TNG" has the mettle to keep "Trek"--and Paramount--chugging along.
"One of the ways any culture will be judged by history," says Stewart, "will be by the quality of its entertainment. In this business, one can never attempt to see into the future--although it's what we're attempting to do on a daily basis. I don't know what people will say of this show 100 years hence. But 'Star Trek' has maintained its grasp for 25 years. Where are we going?--if there are still any of us left to inquire--will continue to be asked then."
Whatever happens, Dorn, who is virtually unrecognizable without his Klingon makeup, appears eager for any "Trek"-related work that comes his way (he plays his character's own great-grandfather in the upcoming feature film).
"If what happened to the first cast is called being typecast," Dorn says, "then I want to be typecast. Of course, they didn't get the jobs after 'Trek.' But they are making their sixth movie. Name me someone else in television who has made six movies!"