/ 13 May 2005

Star Trek goes where it has never gone before

Star Trek: Enterprise is about to go where it has never gone before: off the air, taking the Star Trek franchise with it.

After the two-hour finale airs on Friday, this will be the first time in 18 years that no first-run Trek series is on United States TV.

Enterprise lasted four seasons. It was the first spin-off to last fewer than seven seasons. Plummeting ratings did what no Klingon battlecruiser or Borg collective could accomplish.

And this time, network honchos didn’t bow to Trekker pressure to renew the series, as they did in the face of a write-in campaign that gave the original Star Trek a third year on the tube from 1966 to 1969.

In fact, many long-time Trekkers stopped watching long ago. There were gripes going back at least as far as the fourth incarnation, Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), about lame or retreaded plots, goofy aliens and the weak leadership of Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Enterprise‘s Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula).

Sadly lacking were the rules-be-damned machismo of James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) or the class and thoughtful maturity of Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).

The original Trek was not above a little titillation to jazz-up ratings. (Who can forget Yeoman Rand’s miniskirt or the green-skinned Orion dancers?) But Voyager may have upped the silliness ante with a Borg who wore skin-tight catsuits and high heels, while Enterprise had a curvaceous Vulcan officer stripping every other episode.

No villain like the unstoppable Borg cropped up for a decade, either.

Supporters say Enterprise had vastly improved in its final season and blame other reasons for the ratings drop: weekend re-runs that drew an audience but weren’t counted in the Nielsens; ditto for those who taped or TiVo’d the programme. And shifting Enterprise to a Friday time slot didn’t help.

Producer Rick Berman has cited the problem of ”franchise fatigue” after decades of Star Trek spinoffs.

Perhaps, some Trekkers argue, it was time to take a rest. After all, it was 18 years between the original Trek and The Next Generation, which went on to have a vast following.

In the meantime, there are the reruns, the DVD packages, the video games, the hordes of fans in chat rooms and conventions and the contributions to popular culture that range from Klingon language academies to the phrase ”Beam me up, Scotty!”

Things have changed a lot over the years, both within and without the Trek universe, as scholars drew real-world comparisons to the shows.

The original series had a Cold War between the Federation and the Russians, er, Klingons and a cheerfully naive approach to solving racial and political conflicts.

Next Generation (1987-1994) had a post-Soviet view in which the Klingons were allies, and a politically correct view that the values of other cultures, no matter how weird or repugnant, deserved respect.

Both also shared a sunny idealism that humans had overcome their own conflicts, lived in peace, and were on voyages of discovery and knowledge for the sheer joy of it.

The optimistic view of a united future humanity that the original Trek offered began to crumble in earnest with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). The earnest morality of the first two series gave way to gray areas in which the good guys dirtied their hands with assassinations and other foul deeds in fighting a war for survival.

Moral relativism had crept into the sparkling Trek universe.

Some viewers were dismayed; others enthralled.

By Enterprise, actually a prequel set more than a century before the original series, the plots involved murky machinations and feuds spreading across the galaxy and even through time.

Innocence was replaced by a somewhat gloomy view. Even the vaunted Vulcans were portrayed as pompous and dissembling.

But in the meantime, Trek no longer had the TV universe to itself. Babylon 5 (1994-1998) created a world arguably as rich and complex as the Federation’s. Nowadays, science fiction fans can choose from a host of syndicated and cable shows, including Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (named for Star Trek‘s late creator and produced by his widow) and the new Battlestar Galactica.

Maybe there’s just too much competition these days, and the audience is too fragmented.

Maybe even Captain Kirk couldn’t save the franchise.

Maybe, as with people, so with Trek: the one enemy that always wins is time.

Or perhaps, someday in the distant future, Star Trek will rise again. Fans can have only one response to that hope: Make it so. – Sapa-AP