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Star Trek’s New Frontier : ‘DEEP SPACE NINE’ TAKES RODDENBERRY’S CREATION TO A DARKER LEVEL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The late Gene Roddenberry, known affectionately to his fans as the Great Bird of the Galaxy, had a favorite phrase that he liked to say at “Star Trek” conventions.

“What is ‘Star Trek?’ ” asked the man who created the worldwide phenomenon that has resulted in three TV series, six feature films, 110 novels, 100 fan conventions a year and easily more than $1 billion worth of revenue to Paramount Communications Inc. over the last quarter of a century.

“It’s not ‘Star Trek’ unless I say it’s ‘Star Trek,’ ” he used to say. “If there are 99 people in the room, and they vote, it’s not a democracy. I decide what’s ‘Star Trek.’ ”

This week is the premiere of a fourth TV series, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” spun off from the top-rated syndicated show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Set in the same period of the 24th Century, the Starfleet officers in “Deep Space Nine” have taken command of a seedy, run-down space station--replete with a wild barroom and holographic brothels--once belonging to an alien race.

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The oppressive environment and questionable characters who pass through Deep Space Nine--located near the mouth of a wormhole, a phenomenon that opens a shortcut to distant quadrants of the galaxy--were created as story-telling devices to provide dramatic conflict with the good, noble and honest crew members of the Federation.

“Deep Space Nine” comes a little more than a year after Roddenberry died at 70 of a heart attack. Although Roddenberry was aware of the new series, which the creators have described as darker than any other “Star Trek” incarnation, he never had a chance to give the show his blessing. He never had a chance to say: “This is ‘Star Trek.’ ”

When Roddenberry was alive, his contract with Paramount was supposed to guarantee him virtual approval over anything connected to “Star Trek,” which began as a short-lived TV series in 1966 and was briefly revived as a Saturday-morning cartoon before the 1987 premiere of “Next Generation.”

Roddenberry dreamed of a world where technological advances did not outdistance human ones. He created the USS Enterprise as a vehicle of science and exploration, not war and destruction. His vision of the future was one of tranquillity--a lovely thought, but a difficult one for writers of TV series, movies and books who need conflict for drama.

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As a result, Roddenberry’s voice was not always heard.

Although the “Star Trek” and “Next Generation” book series have been an overwhelming success--every novel published since July, 1986, has been a New York Times bestseller--Roddenberry had repeated content problems with the publisher, Pocket Books, which is owned by Paramount Communications.

When book galleys came across Roddenberry’s desk that were too militaristic or violent, or featured squabbles between Starfleet officers, Roddenberry sent them back for rewrites. Sometimes the fixes were made, but in a few instances the books were printed anyway with a disclaimer in front to note Roddenberry’s absence in the approval process.

“Paramount had a schedule to keep,” said a former employee of Roddenberry’s. “He was interfering with their ability to make money.”

Roddenberry had similar objections at times to material in the blockbuster series of “Star Trek” feature films. In the most recent one, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” Capt. Kirk bore hatred for the alien Klingon race because his son was killed by a Klingon.

“The bigotry in that film worried Gene. (Federation officers) were using phrases like the ‘alien trash of the galaxy’ when referring to the Klingons,” said Richard Arnold, research consultant for “Star Trek” before Paramount closed down Roddenberry’s office on the lot after his death and laid off his small staff of employees.

“But Paramount’s attitude was that Gene should mind his own business and let them make their movie,” Arnold said. “Certainly they wanted his name on the movie, but they did not always want to comply with his wishes.”

Despite Roddenberry’s passive vision, however, he had no hesitation to come out swinging when someone tried to damage his property or do something silly with it. Sources close to Roddenberry say that he once had a heated argument with Sidney Ganis, former head of production for Paramount Pictures, when Ganis wanted to make “Star VI” about the original, aging Enterprise crew as scrub-faced Starfleet recruits.

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“Star Trek VI: The Academy Days” would have replaced William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) with younger versions of the actors. Roddenberry was outraged. Not realizing that the success of “Star Trek” was thanks largely to the original cast members was “the height of ignorance,” he said.

Officials at Paramount deny having had any problems with Roddenberry, describing their relationship instead as one of mutual respect. John S. Pike, president of network television and international co-production for Paramount Television, maintains that the studio has closely adhered to the philosophical principles laid down by Roddenberry.

“ ‘Star Trek’ has been and will continue to be one of the most important jewels in Paramount’s crown,” Pike said. “We would do nothing to fracture that asset. We are very careful to protect it. You don’t do anything with ‘Star Trek’ that has short-term potential but could result in long-term damage.”

In the past year, Paramount has stepped up merchandising for “Star Trek,” which has become one of the hottest licenses in the business. Last month, the cable-shopping channel QVC peddled “Star Trek” plaques, pins and trading cards. “Star Trek” attractions are being developed for the Great America theme-park chain, which Paramount acquired in August.

Meanwhile, a new line of “Next Generation” video games is due out soon. And later this year, shoppers at malls will be able to actually board the USS Enterprise and experience a 24th Century adventure in a virtual-reality, computer-simulated arcade game.

No one individual has replaced Roddenberry’s self-imposed function at Paramount--to maintain the integrity of the vast “Star Trek” enterprise and act as the quality controller. Decisions regarding movies, books, marketing and merchandising are now handled more or less on a departmental basis.

But “Star Trek” springs from television. And in that arena, Roddenberry did leave behind his successors in Rick Berman and Michael Piller, who are the creators and executive producers of “Deep Space Nine.” Berman was with “Next Generation” as a producer from the start, while Piller came on in the third season as a writer and later a producer.

In his final year, Roddenberry increasingly relinquished control of “Next Generation” to Berman and Piller, who basically ran the series the last several years while Roddenberry acted as a consultant.

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“Over and over, people tried to budge Roddenberry, and he wouldn’t budge,” Piller said. “Once Rick and I earned Gene’s trust, once we got to that place, we were able to expand the universe, stretch the limits of what Gene set forth, over what anyone could by fighting him.”

Roddenberry knew that Berman and Piller were developing a new series at the request of Paramount, but he never had the chance to hear what they had in mind.

“He was not well at the time,” Berman said. “He was quite ill, and I never got a chance to tell him what the ideas were, what they were about. But I definitely discussed things with him enough to know that he trusted me and had given me his blessings.”

On “Deep Space Nine,” the Starfleet officers include a black commander whose son lives aboard the space station, a first officer who was once a terrorist, a science officer whose really a small worm controlling a beautiful female body, and a security officer who can transform himself into inanimate objects.

Because of its proximity to the wormhole, Deep Space Nine--represented by an expansive, menacing set that cost Paramount $4 million to build--has become a way station for a bizarre parade of travelers, explorers, merchants and spies.

More importantly, “Deep Space Nine” is an opportunity for Berman and Piller to evolve “Star Trek” and make it their own, while upholding Roddenberry’s prime directive to keep the peace. They want to assure fans that the integrity of “Star Trek” will not be injured by their efforts.

“Rick Berman and I are not out to change ‘Star Trek,’ ” Piller stated firmly. “And ‘Deep Space Nine’ is not a redefinition of ‘Star Trek.’ It’s an extension of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.”

Berman agreed. “In a sense, we have Gene Roddenberry sitting on our shoulder all day long,” he said. “The most important note in writers’ meetings is: ‘Gene would go nuts over this.’ This is his show. In a sense, we’re the caretakers of what he created. And what he created has managed to survive for 27 years quite nicely.”

Berman and Piller do, however, believe they have found a way to inject more conflict and humor into the “Star Trek” universe on “Deep Space Nine.”

“Our Starfleet officers are still Starfleets officers in the true Roddenberry spirit,” Berman said.

“There is no conflict between them. But by twisting the location of the show a little bit to this strange uncomfortable place, by adding a back story where we have alien characters who are not at all that crazy about having our people there, it allows us numerous new vehicles of conflict that make the stories a lot more compelling.”

The year before he died, Roddenberry gave an interview to TV Times. “I’ve trained so many executive producers now, they pretty much think as I think,” he said at the time. His ailing health was evident even then by his slow movement and use of a cane.

“There’s a good chance that when I’m gone, others will come along and do so well that people will say, ‘Oh, that Roddenberry. He was never this good.’ But I would be pleased with that statement.”

“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” premieres Tuesday with a two-hour movie at 8 p.m. on KCOP, where it will regularly air xxx at xx p.m. starting xxx.

In San Diego, the two-hour premiere is Monday at 8 p.m. on XETV, where it will regularly air Saturdays at 7 p.m. starting Jan. 16.

The Layout at Deep Space Nine (Orange County Edition, page 74)

Deep Space Nine was assembled over several years by Cardassian and Bajoran work teams. It began as a Cardassian station in the Bajoran system during the Cardassian occupation.

When the Cardassians abandoned Bajor, they stripped the space station of all advanced technology and defense capabilities.

Thus, the Starfleet team is constantly plagued with operational problems. Some 200 people reside permanently on the station, where they serve as Starfleet officials, run businesses on the Promenade, and cater to the highly unusual and intriguing array of aliens and merchants that make a stop en route to their final destinations. Support Tower & Deflectors Defensive Weapon Sail Towers Outer Shield Wall Upper Core Habitat Lower Docking Pylons Major Cross Members Docking Hardware Runabout Docks Outer Docking Ring Habitat Ring Upper Docking Pylons Promenade Ops Center Communications Cluster SOURCE: PARAMOUNT PICTURES


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