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The End of A Space Odyssey
After 39 Years, the 'Star Trek' Franchise Falls Out of Orbit

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

"Star Trek" fans suspected trouble from the first moments of the latest television series, "Enterprise," when it launched in fall 2001.

It was the theme song.

"Trek" fans are accustomed to their 39-year canon of television shows and movies opening with stately, muscular, sweeping theme songs, all the way back to the original "Star Trek" with Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. Each "Trek" debuted with a miniature symphony of adventure. Horns. Strings. Kettle drums.

When "Enterprise" opened, there was none of this. Instead, fans heard a fey-voiced pop-opera crooner emoting:

"It's been a long road, gettin' from there to here . . ."

Great ghost of Sarek!

On Friday, the final two episodes of "Star Trek: Enterprise" will air at 8 p.m. on UPN (Channel 20). If you didn't know that, you could be forgiven. The show premiered with a socko 12.5 million viewers and then went steadily downhill. This season, the show has averaged about 2 million viewers per episode, the lowest of any "Trek" series.

More important than the passing of a little-watched sci-fi series on the sixth-rated network, however, is this fact: When "Enterprise" ends on Friday, it will mark the first time since 1987 that there has not been a fresh "Star Trek" on television.

Some will say: Finally. Our long national nightmare is over.

Others take a decidedly more Klingon attitude toward UPN, which canceled "Enterprise": We should kill you where you stand, for you have no honor.

Either way, the passing of "Enterprise" and quite probably all things "Star Trek" is a landmark television and cultural event. The franchise boosted William Shatner to icon status, created a long-running, highly successful film series, launched one television network and nearly another, inspired the name of the first space shuttle and gave birth to perhaps the oddest, smartest and most intense fans in pop-culture history.

After the original series' 1966-69 run, the franchise continued on television with "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-94), "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (1993-99), "Star Trek: Voyager" (1995-2001), "Star Trek: Enterprise" (2001-05) and in theaters with 10 motion pictures.

When it debuted on NBC in the tempestuous mid-'60s, Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" was a valentine to a future of peace and plenty, set in the 23rd century. Humans had evolved past war and greed and now explored the galaxy, linked amicably with other species in the United Federation of Planets.

Roddenberry was a humanist who believed that mankind (and extraterrestrials as well) could devise technology to eradicate suffering. If not an atheist, he abhorred religion. "For most people," Roddenberry was quoted as saying, with not a little arrogance, "religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain." (In addition to being a grouch, he was a bad speller: His 1964 pitch to NBC said "Trek" characters would shoot "lassers" while on "reconnaisance" missions.)

Of course, history tells us that utopianism is doomed and that new technology is typically used to cause suffering rather than eradicate it. Perhaps the Roddenberrys of the 18th century likewise believed their descendants in the 20th would be too evolved for war and genocide.

Multiplying Like Tribbles

Like all good drama, "Star Trek" rose and fell with its characters.

Specifically, its captains. Shatner's Method-gone-mad James Tiberius Kirk was a Hornblower for the stars, as likely to lose his shirt during a peace negotiation as in hand-to-hand combat with a Gorn. He and Leonard Nimoy's logical Vulcan Mr. Spock were two of television's greatest characters.

It must be remembered that the original "Star Trek" ("TOS" to fans) was a ratings flop. NBC tried to cancel it after its second season but reupped it for a third after an intense letter-writing campaign from fans.

It was during the '70s and '80s, thanks to the growth of cable and additional channels -- and the need for programming -- that repeats of "Star Trek" gained a wider and more sustained exposure and caught fire as a cult phenomenon.

By this time -- thanks in no small part to four "Star Trek" movies that brought in $347 million -- Hollywood understood the franchise was marketable. For years Roddenberry resisted Paramount Pictures' efforts to create a sequel, waiting until he could craft it the way he wanted. The buzz on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" ("TNG" to fans) was so favorable that Barry Diller -- at the time, 1987, about to launch the Fox network -- wanted the show as the anchor for the network. Instead, the producers decided to take "The Next Generation" directly into syndication, enabling it to reap international profits sooner.

The captain of the redesigned, digitally enhanced Enterprise was Jean-Luc Picard, played by an English Shakespearean actor named Patrick Stewart. Where Kirk went it alone, Picard held staff meetings. Even though Picard was Kirk's moral superior, some fans thought he was a bald weenie. They made sport of his excessive formality and lack of sexuality. But the show was better designed, better acted and more intellectual than the original series, and it became a legitimate hit over its seven-year run, winning ratings and Emmys.

Much like the M-113 salt creature, which sucked the life out of men on the original series, Paramount had created a beast that required succor.

"Brandon Tartikoff was taking over at Paramount and he called me in and said, 'I want you to create another series that we'll air simultaneously with . . . 'Next Generation,' " recalled Paramount executive producer Rick Berman, who took over the franchise after Roddenberry's 1991 death. "He said, 'I want "The Rifleman" in space. Let's see if the climate can withstand two shows simultaneously.' "

"The Rifleman," a late-'50s/early-'60s western, featured a father-son team. " 'The Rifleman' in space" became "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" ("DS9"), the first non-trekking Trek. It was set on a space station rather than a starship, and the station was commanded by Benjamin Sisko (played by Avery Brooks), a widower with a young son, Jake.

"Deep Space Nine" was a grittier, darker place, with a flawed Federation. It is noteworthy that "Deep Space Nine," the first series after Roddenberry's death, is the most spiritual of the canon. Berman deserves credit for this; Roddenberry, by comparison, used God as a foil, defrocking Him as false, or manipulating Him to expose what he saw as the superior nature of the human spirit.

"Deep Space Nine's" tolerance-to-all ethos wasn't selling. By the second season, ratings began to sag. After "The Next Generation" ended its run in 1994, Paramount imported that show's popular Klingon, Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), to "Deep Space Nine."

The ratings slide did not dissuade Paramount, whose parent company, Viacom, launched its own network -- UPN -- in 1995 with "Star Trek: Voyager" ("VOY"), featuring the first female starship captain, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, so like Katharine Hepburn that in 2003 she would play Hepburn off-Broadway). "I was very verbal in saying we were taking too many trips to the well," Berman said.

The 10 movies, beginning with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" in 1979, performed consistently well, averaging nearly $80 million each in domestic revenue through the first nine, until the most recent -- and perhaps last -- effort, 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis," fell off the table at $43 million, after costing nearly $100 million to make and market.

And yet Paramount went back to the well one more time, believing the canon (and cash flow) could not be interrupted.

"Enterprise" ("ENT") was a prequel to everything, set 150 years in our future and about 100 years before Capt. Kirk. Berman said he tried to create a "Right Stuff" of space, where exploration was risky and uncertain, where all the technological kinks had not yet been ironed out and moxie took one as far as expertise.

Fans clung to "Enterprise" the way a drunk who can't find his fix will chug cough syrup. The role of the captain, Jonathan Archer, was written for reliable sci-fi veteran Scott Bakula as a space cowboy but, as the series wore on, he seemed to lose any joy he may have had in the character. He was a bummer. Archer was frequently outshined by his drawling chief engineer, Trip (Connor Trineer), whose laid-back charisma was actually closer to what Berman was shooting for.

The series, however, created an appealingly slapdash future, as coltish humans headed into the cosmos on wobbly legs, a nice contrast to the cocksure Federation of later series. John Billingsley, as the ship's alien doctor, Phlox, was a delight and an occasional revelation. And the series helpfully answered the 28-year Klingon forehead problem. To wit: Why, in every "Trek" but the original, are Klingons huge, armor-clad creatures, so animalian and exoskeletal they appear to have a horseshoe crab stuck to their foreheads, while in Capt. Kirk's time, they look like swarthy guys with glue-on eyebrows?

The answer, of course, was budget: Roddenberry didn't have any.

But this season, "Enterprise" crafted a multi-episode story arc in which some Klingons are injected with genetically enhanced human DNA, creating a sub-race of Klingons who look more like humans and who apparently thrive through Kirk's time, 100 years later.

Which brings us to . . .

Timeline Tampering And Other Complaints

Nothing makes the hardest of hard-core "Trek" fans more upset than discovering what they consider breaches of canon orthodoxy -- characters speaking of events they could not have known about, events happening before they should, inconsistencies of starship design.

"The photonic torpedoes were even shown in the existing torpedo room set!" exclaimed fan site Ex Astris Scientia, complaining about an episode of "Enterprise."

Plenty of the vitriol on the Web is directed at Berman and his co-producer for years, Brannon Braga, who some fans claim took "Trek" too far from Roddenberry's ideal and essentially killed it.

"There is an oversaturation of 'Star Trek,' " wrote Michael Hinman, news coordinator for SyFyPortal.com, under the headline "Rick Berman Gives Star Trek Fans the Finger." "But there also is an oversaturation of Braga and Berman. The Killer B's. They couldn't sit back and say, 'You know . . . we just can't keep this fresh.' . . . No, it was more about their stupid egos, and their nonsensical 'Even if it's broke, don't fix it' attitude."

Much has been written about Trekkers (please, not Trekkies). Now technology has allowed fans to take their devotion way beyond annual conventions and Klingon language school.

On two Web sites -- http://www.newvoyages.com/ and http://homepage.mac.com/starshipexeter -- fans with some money and a lot of time have created hour-long episodes of "Star Trek." "New Voyages," the better of the two, has produced two episodes. It's a novel idea: What if the original "Star Trek" had a fourth season? And what if the roles of Kirk, Spock and others were played by, well, your buddies?

"New Voyages," which flaunts meticulously re-created sets from the original "Star Trek" and digital special effects, posits that Kirk and the other crew members are timeless characters, like Hamlet, who can be played by any number of actors. In this case, Kirk is James Cawley, a lifelong fan sporting an Elvis haircut. His full-time job is as an Elvis impersonator.

"During the first two episodes, I was performing at Six Flags. If I'd have cut my hair and stopped impersonating Elvis, there wouldn't have been any income coming in to finance the film," said Cawley, 38.

In their third episode, set to begin shooting in September and starring Walter Koenig, who reprises the role of Pavel Chekov from the original series, Cawley promises: "I'll have a more Shatneresque hairdo."

"New Voyages" posted its first episode to the Web in January 2004. It racked up 6 million downloads. The second episode hit the Web last October and has so far recorded 22 million downloads.

The Web could and should be the next logical home for "Star Trek." The most recent movie and television series have shown that there no longer is a sufficient audience to support a $100 million movie or a television series that, even stripped down, costs about $2 million per episode to make. Fans can complain about "Enterprise's" producers and writers or its Friday night time slot on the lowest-rated network or find a dozen other excuses for its relative failure. The fact is, the show never found an audience. There is no honor in whining.

However, with the rise of high-speed Internet connections and Internet video comparable to television quality, the franchise could flourish on the Web.

The millions of downloads of the "New Voyages" episodes suggests there remains a reliable audience. Currently, Paramount allows "New Voyages" to exist as long as it makes no money. Smart Paramount executives might envision a partnership between the studio and "New Voyages" (or fan groups like it) in which Paramount provides some cash to improve the project's special effects and hire some more writers and actors, and "New Voyages" provides distribution on an up-and-running Web site. Cawley's group hopes for a licensing deal with Paramount.

"It blows my mind that if we charged even a dollar a download, that would be $22 million," Cawley said. "I'd be happy to give Paramount three-quarters of that."

As for future television and movie versions, that's less likely. Berman said that a producer, Jordan Kerner, brought a project to Paramount for a "Star Trek" movie that would be set in the same time period as "Enterprise" but with new characters. Berman said the film is in "the normal development process." However, the project was accepted by former Paramount Pictures executives Jonathan Dolgen and Sherry Lansing, both of whom have been replaced by Brad Grey. In Hollywood, orphan projects typically don't have a long life span.

Also working against "Trek" may be our different attitude toward space. The Cold War, which moved us to the moon, is long over. The Columbia and Challenger shuttle explosions still resonate. President Bush has said the United States should send people to Mars, but why?

The "Trek" franchise appealed to the exploratory curiosity of mankind. Once upright, we set out across the next mountain range; later, we set sail on the oceans. Space is the logical extension. Except it's not. Space is not a good place for humans. The more we know about it, and the more lives we lose to it, the better Earth seems.

All living things have an arc, and "Star Trek" had a hell of one. It lived long but, at the end, it did not prosper.

Maybe it's time to paraphrase the sage words of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, who always had to deliver the bad news to Capt. Kirk in the original series, as we say fond farewell to our happy compulsion of nearly 40 years:

"It's dead, Jim."

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