On May 15th 2005 an aimless trek through the stars comes to an end—falling just a year short of the original incarnation's 40th anniversary. I am speaking of Star Trek: Enterprise; the show premiered sans-prefix due to the unhip and uncool connotations of those two words, only to then later be added to attract loyal fangeeks in an effort bolster flagging ratings—that is after premiering with 13 million viewers that eroded to around 2 million within a year. But why?
Enterprise producer Rick Berman claims that there is no longer an audience for television science-fiction. Which is a load of crap since there was clearly a lot of interest in the show that contributed those 13 million people who tuned in for the premiere on the often shunned UPN network. Modern sci-fi, including Enterprise, more resembles soft porn with pyrotechnic displays; Enterprise lead, Jolene Blalock cited similar concerns in an article with the New York Times where she protested that "the audience isn't stupid." And her under-utilized cast mate, John Billingsly shared similar thoughts with Dreamwatch Magazine:
"I always hated having to be in the silly gunfights. I always thought that the gunfights, ship to ship photon torpedo fights, et al, were dreary and dull. Personally, I would have liked to force the writers and producers to write at least 10 episodes in a row that didn't include any gunfire: not just because I'm a pacifistic lefty, but because they are a snooze and a bore most (if not all) of the time."
During most of first season, we saw Captain Archer and Co. haphazardly stumble upon one alien world after another with no real agenda or objective except for the rescue missions that invariable would arise after someone got captured by some alien-of-the-week. I find it interesting how the word franchise is often used to describe Star Trek; it conjures up images of fast food—bland, barely palletable and often consumed due to a lack of options.
Sci-Fi Now and Then
Science fiction film and television typically does not aspire to be intelligent, instead there's an entirely different mentality for sci-fi unlike any other genre. With science fiction there seems to be a campiness that is always present, permission to be goofy and immature. On any given scifi show: one week there can be a war story, the next week a comedy, the next week a boobfest and so on. In one respect this is a strength; in another respect, it's a detriment to serious, adult storytelling. Normal rules and expectations don't apply because they're flying a spaceship, so anything goes.
When Star Trek appeared on NBC way back in 1966, series creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to portray a hopeful vision of the future and he recruited hard sci-fi authors to help him with this task. Star Trek is infamous for it's cheesy set designs, rainbow colours, rubber suit aliens and—shall we say—William Shatner's overly actorly performances. It's also famous for promoting messages of peace and tolerance through allegory and metaphor during a time when such ideas were bold and uncommon on the television landscape.
Four spin-offs and ten movies later, a once enduring franchise has it's longevity in question. But the fate of Star Trek isn't too promising for that very reason, it's a franchise, a cash cow to exploited. Without the stewardship of deceased Star Trek visionary Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek is lost in space, and every reincarnation of the series only exists for the sake of making a buck instead of realizing a dream.
Rodenberry's Vision and his Legacy
But that isn't to say Roddenberry's vision wasn't flawed. In the original series, Kirk, Spock and McCoy would quarrel amongst themselves, which was part of the wonderful dynamic that endured for decades of stories. Characters were passionate, intense, flawed and very human while struggling with the ideals we in the present would some day like to reach. But when Roddenberry tackled 24th century humanity for The Next Generation, he famously instructed his writers to portray humans as being even more evolved and enlightened than Kirk's era, which meant humans don't have conflict amongst themselves, they're self-righteous and they all listen to classical music. Miraculously, this formula worked, for a while. Yet, the conventions of good storytelling would warn that this formula was a really bad idea, though good intentioned, and would limit opportunities for compelling drama and it did.
The bastard child of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, attempted to rectify this dramatic handicap by embracing flawed characters who don't always get along or do the right thing. DS9 was a show filled with lots of shades of gray and those shades became darker as the show progressed. Unlike his televised predecessors, Benjamin Sisko was a captain who would reluctantly lie, cheat, steal and even kill for the greater good. Whereas Picard would rather make some grand self-righteous speech before he'd let go of his dogmatic code of behavior. Deep Space Nine divided fans and rightly so, the show was quite dry for the first few years and only picked up momentum after they stopped trying to emulate their predecessors. But even as the storylines became more and more compelling, some fans cried bloody murder for the complete disregard of Roddenberry's sacred rules. Many argued that Roddenberry would not have approved of DS9. Detractors were also vexed by the notion that the crew doesn't go anywhere, because they are assigned to a space station. "Star Trek is about flying around in a spaceship," they say but I disagree. Being forced to have to universe come to DS9 created all kinds of possibilities for storytelling and once the show got its footing, these possibilities were exploited. And yet fans continued to complain. They didn't like the idea of seeing something they perceived as anti-trek.
Producer, Brannon Braga once said, that he didn't want to make another show about another crew, on some new ship called Intrepid or something. And yet such comments are exactly what prompt such anger from the fan base, because this is exactly what Enterprise turned out to be. Surely one can't be this clueless and content with themself. Surely he must be giving the finger to fans, as they say. Or maybe he just meant that he didn't like the name "Intrepid."
Though, who can blame him? Trekkers want something that's different and edgy, yet the same and unchanged, filled with technobabble, tedious star ship battle sequences, people falling off of chairs that obviously require seat belts, magic shields that require power to be constantly transferred from main power to auxiliary power while falling precariously close to zero percent only to then rise up again.
When will they finally get seat belts for the chairs and batteries that work for the shields, asked an annoyed Roger Ebert after suffering through the tenth film, Star Trek: Nemesis.
I once saw a "Star Trek Movie Treatment" template created by an annoyed fan to illustrate a point:
____ has a doomsday device that he will use to conquer or endanger ____ and it's up to Picard and his crew to stop him. The movie ends with a climatic final fight where the captain kills ____ and then blows up the machine.
Go ahead and try this at home, the results are surprisingly humorous, though saddening.
Critics have discussed at length, ways of "reimagining" Star Trek, but if they were to do that, why bother calling it Star Trek? Just so we can see a Klingon every now and then, this time on a ship called Intrepid?
With nearly four decades worth of fictional history I'm left wondering, what was the point? And why did I care so much in the first place? Even the universe (the real one, not the metaphorical one) will stop expanding one day. Maybe it's time to let this star finally die (I'm speaking metaphorically again) after being kept alive in a vegetative state for so very long. It's just sad now that it's time to pull the plug, I don't even recognize the thing I once loved.