Is ‘Star Trek’ Reaching the Final Frontier?
There may not be any clearly marked signposts in the vast expanse of space, but the “Star Trek” saga nevertheless appears to have reached a crossroads.
The fourth incarnation of the series, “Star Trek: Voyager,” will end its run on the UPN network in 2001, with no fixed arrival date yet for a successor. That means there could actually be a spell without a “Star Trek” series in production for television for the first time since “Star Trek: The Next Generation” took off in 1987, followed six years later by “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” in 1995.
The future of “Star Trek” is sure to be a hot topic at the eighth annual “Star Trek” and Sci-Fi Grand Slam Convention, being held today through Sunday at the Pasadena Civic Center. Some fans have indicated a hiatus is in order, while others contend “the franchise"--as its known around Paramount Pictures, which produces the show--simply requires direction back to its roots.
In fact, one Internet group will hold a press conference positing its own solution to charting “Trek’s” course: a series starring George Takei--who played Sulu in the original 1960s series--as captain of his own star ship, the Excelsior, which he was first shown commanding in the big-screen film “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”
“A majority of the fans around the world think this is the way to go,” stated Russ Haslage, a 42-year-old medical records technician in Lorain, Ohio, who is spearheading the Internet campaign. “Why would [Paramount] ignore the customers?”
Takei said he is flattered by the effort, calling the premise “a logical next step,” even if no one from Paramount has contacted him.
“The fans are the activists,” he noted. “When we were canceled in ’69, it was the fans that started the ‘ “Star Trek” lives’ campaign that resulted in the movies. . . . Every time there’s been a change in the history of ‘Star Trek,’ it’s the fans who have been steering it.”
One thing is clear: questions regarding “Star Trek’s” viability are not taken lightly around Paramount, which views the franchise as the crown jewel of its TV operations and an ever-giving cash cow. The studio values “Star Trek” in the billions of dollars, with the nine films having generated more than $1 billion in international box-office receipts.
Paramount is quick to provide other gee-whiz statistics, such as the $3.5 billion in retail sales beamed up by “Star Trek” licensing--nearly half of that in just the last five years--the 50 million videocassettes sold or the 70 million books in print.
Still, there are signs of trouble. The books aren’t selling as they once did. Attendance has reportedly tailed off at Star Trek: The Experience, a Las Vegas attraction opened in 1998, fueling speculation the venue will eventually be closed or relocated.
Ratings for “Voyager” have been unspectacular compared to the previous series, and the last feature, “Star Trek: Insurrection,” grossed $70 million in the U.S.--the lowest box-office total for one of the films in nearly a decade, dating back to “The Final Frontier” in 1989.
Some former cast members have wondered aloud whether “Star Trek” is dead--among them Leonard Nimoy, a.k.a. Mr. Spock, in an interview with the online magazine Salon. Even self-described fans are discussing the need at the very least for a breather.
“ ‘Star Trek’ is in a sort of tenuous place,” said Mark A. Altman, a Trekker who has written several books about the show--the latest being “Trek Navigator"--in addition to co-writing and producing the movie “Free Enterprise,” a “Trek” tribute featuring William Shatner playing himself.
“It can wither away or be rejuvenated. The interest has eroded to the point where it really is just the die-hards. . . . The James Bond franchise benefited by going away for a few years and coming back with a redirected focus and a lot of new blood. That’s what needs to happen with ‘Star Trek.’ ”
David McDonnell, editor of Starlog magazine, a leading science fiction fan publication, agreed.
“It would greatly benefit by giving us some time to build up an appetite for it,” he said, adding that he has witnessed ardent support in the fan community for the campaign surrounding Takei as Sulu.
Producer Rick Berman, the overseer of all things “Trek” since series creator Gene Roddenberry’s death in 1991, has grown accustomed to complaints from the core of the show’s fan base.
According to Berman, the new series will probably launch in fall 2001, a few months after “Voyager” completes its seven-year odyssey and shortly before Paramount intends to release the next feature film. He declined to discuss the concept but cited the imperative of exploring new creative frontiers.
“I believe very strongly, after three series that have produced 500 episodes over the last 13 years, a new series now needs to be dramatically different, not only for the audience, but for us,” Berman said, referring to the writers.
“I see nothing right now to suggest the franchise needs to just go away for a period of time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the need to be cautious about overextending or overexposing it. . . . It’s time either to take a break or do something completely different, and in keeping with Monty Python’s philosophy, we’re going for something completely different.”
Several ideas were floated by focus groups and soon found their way into Internet chat rooms (including a reported prequel and a series about youths in Starfleet Academy, which some fans dismissed as “Star Trek, 90210"), but Berman insisted only one premise, which remains secret, was truly considered and that testing was designed solely to refine it.
While “Voyager” served as the cornerstone to launch UPN five years ago, sources say Paramount could sell the new “Trek” directly to TV stations--the same strategy used with “Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” Under that scenario, the series would air in most major cities on CBS-owned stations once the network merges with Viacom, Paramount’s corporate owner.
Paramount Television Group Chairman Kerry McCluggage said such distribution plans have yet to be firmed, delayed in part by recent uncertainty regarding UPN’s ownership. As for the notion the franchise is tiring, McCluggage pointed out its international popularity continues to grow, luring in new generations of viewers around the world.
Despite seeking to be fresh and different, McCluggage and Berman stress the new series will adhere to “traditional values” of “Star Trek.” They also admit it’s unlikely anything will completely mollify the most obsessive fans, though McCluggage sees a bright side even in their criticism.
“The take-away value I get from all the feedback is this means something to them,” he said. “They really care about what you do with the show, and it’s hard to see that as a bad thing, even when they hate what you do.”
Berman himself has fretted about dipping into the “Trek” well too often. In 1994, he told The Times, “I don’t know at what point America is going to cry ‘Enough!’ I just know that we’ve got to keep pushing along . . . and not worry too much about what’s going to happen in five years.”
For “Star Trek,” that future is now.