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<i> Really </i> Lost in Space : ‘VOYAGER’ CREW ISN’T AFRAID OF THE RISKS IN AN UNEXPLORED UNIVERSE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beginning in September, 1993, the executive producers of the most popular dramatic TV series in syndication, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” spent three lunch hours a week in the Paramount commissary trying to figure out how to top themselves.

“Next Generation” was winding down its seventh and final season. Their mission from studio executives was to create yet another spinoff of the original 1960s “Star Trek” series to serve as the foundation for a fifth broadcast TV network. The result of their work, “Star Trek: Voyager,” premieres Monday on the new United Paramount Network, whose affiliates include KCOP.

“We spent hours sitting over our fruit salads and just talking,” says Jeri Taylor, who was joined by fellow executive producers and creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller. “It was a very daunting experience, because between the original series, ‘The Next Generation’ and ‘Deep Space Nine,’ so much territory had been covered with storytelling and characters. Every direction we went, it seemed like we were repeating ourselves.”

So very early on they decided to take some major risks, including the installation of an unfamiliar figure in the captain’s chair. “We now have a woman in that role,” Berman says proudly, referring to actress Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway.

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She was a last-minute replacement for Genevieve Bujold, a practiced film actress who pulled out two days after filming began because of the rigors of doing a TV series. Mulgrew, Berman says, is “not a woman who will play it as a man, but one who will bring the various qualities that are different between women and men into a position of command and strength.”

Several studio executives feared that the disproportionate number of young men who watch “Star Trek” might not sit still with a woman at the helm. The creators disagreed.

“I think our fans are more enlightened than that,” Taylor says. “In the 24th Century, having a woman captain is nothing extraordinary. To all the people around her, there is nothing she has to prove. It’s really the 20th-Century audience (to whom) it must be proven.”

Perhaps the biggest risk for the creators, though, was to turn their backs on virtually everything familiar in the ‘Star Trek’ universe. This time around, a small Federation crew aboard the sleek, powerful starship Voyager finds itself lost in the most distant ends of the galaxy and forced to team up with a band of outlaws, the Maquis, in order to make a 70-year journey back to Federation space.

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“When we created this show, we basically said to ourselves, ‘Based on our current place in history, where does “Star Trek” fit in?’ ” Piller says. “We find ourselves today as a society, here in America, with a lot of problems that cannot be easily and quickly solved. We’re working on solving problems for our children. The Voyager is on the same journey.”

In the spirit of the original 1960s series, this “Star Trek” journey will, indeed, seek out new life and go where no one has gone before. Freed from the shackles of the old “Star Trek” mythology, the producers are creating roughly one new alien species for each of the early episodes.

Without Cardassians to kick around anymore, the new continuing villains appear to be an alien race afflicted with a flesh-eating virus. Unable to find a cure over the millennia, they have taken to harvesting organs from others to survive as a species. (These aliens were called Vaphorans, but producers changed it to Vidiians not long before the premiere to make it easier to pronounce.)

“Space has become very crowded in the ‘Star Trek’ universe over the last 25 years--with Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans and the whole gang in the Alpha Quadrant,” Piller says. “But the original intent of (“Star Trek” creator Gene) Roddenberry was to have a ship alone out there in the unknown. In a sense, we’re going back to basics with a real adventure show again, with none of the familiar aliens to trouble us, and a whole bunch of new ones.”

The structure of “Voyager” provides a perfect vehicle for storytelling, because Voyager needs to explore and forage unexplored planets in order to survive. Like an 18th-Century sailing schooner, the Voyager is on her own, cut off from Federation star bases and planets for its energy, food and supplies. If something goes wrong, the crew must fix it.

Unlike other starships, the much smaller Voyager can take off and land. The Voyager herself has gel packs, grown from neural cells, integrated into her circuitry, so the ship’s computer can handle more complex information and better approximate human brain functions. However, because it has biological components, it’s also subject to viruses.

Despite all this, Taylor vows that the ship will not gain consciousness. “You can tip over the edge of believability into hoke soup very quickly,” she says, laughing.

The cast from “Next Generation,” one of the most successful TV shows in syndicated history, is now off making feature films. Paramount has sunk a gigantic investment into “Voyager” ($1.7 million an episode, sources say) to keep the studio’s billion-dollar franchise healthy. Paramount is banking on “Voyager’s” popularity to help the United Paramount Network flourish and follow in the footsteps of the Fox network.

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“When you’re trying to start a new network, you have to get distribution, and you have to get people to actively make a decision to tune to another channel that they may or may not be used to tuning in on a regular basis,” says Kerry McCluggage, president of Paramount Television. “When you’re asking stations to make that kind of commitment, and you’re asking the viewing public to change their habits, you have to give them a strong reason to do that. ‘Star Trek’ is a powerful motivator.”

“Star Trek: Voyager” premieres Monday at 8 p.m., with a two-hour show, on KCOP, KADY and KUSI. It will air regularly Mondays at 8 p.m.


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