The "Star Trek" enterprise has hit some mild turbulence.
The second season of "Star Trek: Voyager" premiered five weeks ago on the UPN network, and the ratings are slightly down from last season. Its syndicated counterpart, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," has been losing roughly one ratings point a season since its premiere in 1993.
There's no need for a red alert--not yet. But the producers of Paramount's "crown jewel" are taking creative steps to stabilize their billion-dollar enterprise so it doesn't slip into a wormhole and disappear.
That can mean only one thing: Klingons. As part of an effort to punch up "Deep Space Nine," the producers are adding Michael Dorn, who played Lt. Cmdr. Worf on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," as a regular cast member this season.
Worf joins the space station as a diplomatic liaison when the Klingons--those warrior-like aliens whom fans love to hate--break their peace treaty with the Federation in this Wednesday's two-hour season premiere.
The addition of Dorn is the most dramatic in a series of changes sweeping through both "Star Trek" spinoffs as they boldly go back to their roots, seeking out new life and new civilizations. That also means locking horns with nasty aliens from time to time, both new and old.
"The Klingons are some of the best screen heavies ever created," said Kerry McCluggage, chairman of the Paramount Pictures Television Group.
The goal is to build interest in the core franchise after one of the most tumultuous periods in its storied, 30-year history.
"Last year was a very big year for 'Star Trek,' " said Rick Berman, who was executive producer of the popular "Next Generation" and now guides the entire TV and film franchise.
"We ended 'Next Generation' after seven years, we began 'Voyager,' we released the first 'Next Generation' movie and we had the third season of 'Deep Space Nine.' People are always saying, 'Can you take too many trips to the well?' You certainly can, and we may have even come close last year."
When "Next Generation" premiered in 1987, there was no real science-fiction competition in the marketplace. "Next Generation" blazed the trail for first-run syndicated shows, which are sold to TV stations on a market-by-market basis throughout the country.
The subsequent "Star Trek" spinoffs have fallen victim to "Next Generation's" success. "Deep Space Nine" remains the highest-rated dramatic series in syndication, but last season the cheesy "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" nipped at its heels. And this season's hunt finds a host of syndicated science-fiction and fantasy fare, including "Babylon Five," "Highlander," "Forever Knight" and the new "The Outer Limits" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."
"We are somewhat responsible for building a new habit among viewers to look outside of their main channels--the ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates in their markets--and check out the independents to see what they have to offer in prime time," McCluggage said.
The networks have taken note too. Their lineups this season include "Space: Above and Beyond," "The X-Files," "Strange Luck," "seaQuest 2032," "American Gothic" and "Nowhere Man."
"Success breeds imitation," said McCluggage, who pointed out that "Next Generation" and the original 1960s "Star Trek" series still air in repeats in hundreds of markets. "If you on some level buy the concept that there's a finite number of 'Star Trek' viewers, who have only so much time to watch their favorite program, it's going to split the pie a little bit."
In its first year, "Voyager" averaged a 7.9 Nielsen rating during the official season. In the first month this season, it averaged a 6.3 rating (each ratings point represents 959,000 homes).
The producers learned from audience research that viewers want to see the crew encounter more aliens and further explore the faraway Delta Quadrant where the star-ship Voyager is marooned.
"It's a matter of emphasis and balance," McCluggage added. "This year we're trying to emphasize encounters with aliens. We did many episodes last season that were internal character studies. This season, you'll see a greater emphasis on exploration, aliens and antagonists in the mix."
The same goes for "Deep Space Nine," perhaps the most untraditional "Star Trek" of all because it is set on a stationary space station. The show's leaner, meaner approach this season is reflected in the newly shaved head of Capt. Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks.
"Deep Space Nine" will trade its political infighting between the Bajorans and Cardassians for more traditional conflicts. The Defiant, the new Starfleet ship introduced last season to get the crew off the space station, has become a stronger ship. And the armament and defenses for the station have been beefed up in anticipation of a new enemy force coming through the wormhole: the shape-shifting aliens of the Dominion.
Berman insists that bringing Dorn back is not stunt casting to increase the ratings, but a creative decision made after the producers decided to shake things up by reviving the Klingons.
"We decided that the Klingon peace treaty with the Federation would begin to unravel," Berman said. "It wasn't until we got to that point we realized: Wait a minute, Sisko would want someone who is an expert on Klingons. We don't have any Klingons on board."
Dorn, who has done a couple low-budget features and a CD-ROM game since being cut loose from "Next Generation," was hesitant about getting up early and enduring two hours of makeup every day again.
"I was absolutely shocked when they asked me last April," Dorn said. "I had put 'Star Trek' behind me. It was over."
Now he's signed to a new three-year contract for "Deep Space Nine."
"The makeup was the worst part," he said. "That was the one thing that would have kept me from doing the show. They're doing their best to keep it to a minimum and take care of my face. It's like hell on my skin."
Yet another high point in the ongoing life of "Star Trek" will occur next September when the original series marks its 30th anniversary, followed by the opening of an elaborate motion-control ride at the Las Vegas Hilton. Shortly after, the second "Next Generation" feature film will be released.
Berman would like to use the breathing room between now and then to ween viewers back on "Star Trek" through its two existing series.
"This year is a year for both shows to mature and settle down a little bit," he said. "We made strides in both shows. We have a lot more competition. But considering the fact that it's going to be another year before the next movie comes out, and a long while before any new series begins or an existing one ends, it's a good time to settle in and get these shows as strong as we can make them."
* "Star Trek: Voyager" airs Mondays at 8 p.m. and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., both on KCOP-TV Channel 13.