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Trek On Into the 21st Century : In the beginning, there was ‘Star Trek,’ which begat ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ which begat ‘Star Trek: ‘Deep Space Nine,’ which is begetting ‘Star Trek: Voyager,’ whose stars will no doubt get a film series of their own as we . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside Stage 8 at the Paramount Pictures lot this week, cast members from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” caked with makeup to age them 25 years, filmed the finale of their enormously successful syndicated TV series, which ceased production Friday after seven seasons and 177 episodes.

When long-running TV shows wind down, there’s generally a sense of sadness and finality looming over the set during the final week of filming. But that wasn’t the case here. In the futuristic world of “Star Trek,” where old starship captains never die, the trek is truly a continuing mission with no end in sight.

Next door on Stage 7, original “Star Trek” hero William Shatner was decked out once again as the swashbuckling Capt. James T. Kirk for the start of the seventh “Star Trek” motion picture. Over on Stage 4, cast members from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were completing filming on the second season of their syndicated TV spinoff.

And inside Paramount offices, writers and producers were in meetings about “Star Trek: Voyager,” a new TV series that will be the building block for a fifth broadcast network Paramount plans to launch next January.

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“It’s called the franchise here at Paramount,” Marina Sirtis said with a wry smile. She plays Counselor Deanna Troi on “Next Generation.”

Rather than brood over the end of a series, the tight group of “Next Generation” players were on set having fun, as usual. They simply didn’t have time to feel too badly. After a short break next week, they will join “Star Trek” originals Shatner, James Doohan (Scotty) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) in shooting the feature film “Star Trek: Generations.”

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In the script, the 23rd Century’s Capt. Kirk and the 24th Century’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, meet in a time nexus after an artful scientist--in his quest to return to a euphoric plane of space he discovered--sends the universe spinning into chaos.

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“We haven’t had a chance to be nostalgic, because the hours have been very long,” said Gates McFadden, who plays Dr. Beverly Crusher. “It’s been an arduous last episode, and then we have the movie. So the cast members have been shuffling back and forth doing costume fittings and tests.”

Paramount executives hope the Thanksgiving release of “Star Trek: Generations,” budgeted at $25 million, will turn the “Next Generation” cast members from TV stars into bankable movie stars for a new line of feature films. Then they will use “Voyager” to fill the black hole left on TV by “Next Generation,” the highest-rated one-hour program in syndication.

“It’s time to launch the motion picture franchise,” explained Tom Mazza, senior vice president of network programming for Paramount. “The ‘Next Generation’ television series has been a huge success. We can build off the television success.”

The late Gene Roddenberry’s original “Star Trek” lasted only three years on NBC before it was canceled in 1969 due to poor ratings. The cast members were resurrected in 1979 for what became a string of movies that have grossed nearly $500 million domestically at the box office. Now the original cast has aged, and the next generation must take over.

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“One reason this is a bittersweet ending to the ‘Next Generation’ is because nobody’s really going away,” said Rick Berman, executive producer of all three “Star Trek” spinoffs and producer of the new movie. “As far as ‘Next Generation’ is concerned, we are about to begin a motion picture, and hopefully we are going to do more. I don’t think Paramount is looking at this as a sequel. This is not ‘Star Trek VII.’ This is the first movie for the ‘Next Generation.’ ”

This will not be the first time Paramount risks “Next Generation” for corporate gain. When the studio launched the show in 1987, the networks had all but closed shop on expensive, hourlong series and weren’t giving much of an on-air chance to the ones they did order. Paramount turned down two network offers for “Next Generation” and instead sold it to an independent lineup of TV stations, proving that a lavish series with high production values could thrive in first-run syndication.

“ ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ helped put a lot of out-of-work people in the hour-TV business back to work, because it helped spawn an industry,” said Keith Samples, president of Rysher Entertainment. He credits “Next Generation” for the growth of his company, which syndicates “RoboCop,” “Highlander,” “Thunder in Paradise” and the upcoming “Lonesome Dove” series. “ ‘Star Trek’ was the first one-hour show in syndication, and now there are over 20 of them.”

Paramount executives are currently banding together most of the TV stations they have fostered relationships with to form a fifth broadcast network--and the cornerstone of the effort will be “Voyager.”

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“It’s all pretty clever. It’s a clever time to shut down the ‘Next Generation’ and franchise another generation of characters,” said Joel Engel, author of the biography “Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek.” “Because the people never really die. There are no dead ‘Star Trek’ captains. They can change the rules so they can all inhabit the universe at the same time. The more characters they have, the more possibilities they have in the future.”

A series bible and a 40-page treatment for the two-hour premiere have been written for “Voyager,” the latest “Star Trek” incarnation on TV, which will be another 24th-Century series set on a starship. The USS Voyager, a new smaller class of starship, holds only 200 people, as opposed to the Enterprise’s 2,000-plus. While giving chase to a group of well-meaning vigilantes, Voyager and the renegade ship are transported 70 years from home to the fringe of the galaxy. The series will follow their search together for the way home.

In other words, the creators can come up with an entirely new galaxy of races and species and story lines to add to the “Star Trek” menagerie. There are even rumors that the captain this time around will be a woman (Berman isn’t saying).

“This is a testament to Gene Roddenberry’s imagination,” said Brent Spiner, who plays Data. “He created the single best format anybody has ever thought of for a long-running piece. There is no end to the universe, or to the imagination, so there’s always more stories out there.”

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There may never be another entertainment phenomenon to compare to “Star Trek.” The original “Star Trek” series can still be seen in reruns in 94% of the United States and 75 countries worldwide. At least 400,000 people attended 130 “Star Trek” conventions last year, and there are dozens of computer bulletin boards across the country devoted to the subject.

As one of the licensing industry’s most enduring properties, with 200 current licensees, “Star Trek” merchandise has generated retail sales of more than $750 million since 1967. The latest permutations range from CD-ROM multimedia games to traveling virtual-reality amusement parks in shopping malls.

“What’s happening is that the people who watched the first ‘Star Trek’ series in the 1960s now have children watching ‘The Next Generation,’ ” said Andrea Hein, president of the Paramount Licensing Group. “We have a whole line of successful children’s toys. The original ‘Star Trek’ was not real popular with children.”

So how do the “Next Generation” of cast members feel about becoming part of the pantheon of “Star Trek” characters who will be marketed and merchandised for the rest of their lives? They say they don’t mind being associated with the characters, because they believe in the work they did. But there is another aspect.

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“The show is such a machine now. It is really a conglomerate in itself,” said Michael Dorn, who plays Lt. Worf. “There are two more TV shows--one on the air and one coming. Instead of being, like, the original guys, we’re just going to be part of the machine.”

All the cast members are supposed to see a percentage of royalties from merchandising, but they say they have received virtually nothing so far. LeVar Burton, who plays Lt. Geordi La Forge, believes the cast will eventually have to pull together and demand an accounting from Paramount, which he said the original cast had to do to receive their fair share.

“That’s show business,” Burton sighed.

* The series finale of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” will air May 23 on KCOP-TV Channel 13.

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