Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Future Scenario #4 The Age of (Rick) Berman is Over

This is less a stand-alone scenario than a likely prelude to whatever Paramount decides to do.

There have been only two chief executives in Star Trek's history: Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman. Rick Berman ran Star Trek during its most profitable times and its slow decline. He presided over more TV episodes and movies than Roddenberry did, and even wrote more Star Trek stories.

Many people who worked with and for Rick Berman praise him for his patience, his loyalty, generosity and judgment. But Berman was not an originator. He said consistently that his job was to enact Gene Roddenberry's vision. Though each of the series he oversaw after GR (DS9, Voyager, Enterprise) diverged more and more from GR's universe, and one can argue that Enterprise was his main assertion of independence (he wrote more scripts and stories for it, made certain changes in the template and didn't have Star Trek in its title at first), he still maintained he was continuing GR's concept, within the continuous Star Trek universe.

It's fascinating to contrast the two chiefs of Trek. GR was and remains a controversial figure, the subject of several book-length '>biographies, including one by a careful scholar who nevertheless was a personal friend and authorized biographer, and another by someone who sought out and included every nasty comment made by people with an ax to grind he could find.

There are no biographies of Rick Berman, and not even a major magazine profile. There have been many books written about Star Trek during Roddenberry's rule by other participants, including the entire original cast (except for DeForest Kelley), and few if any by participants during Berman's rule.

In short, we have a lot of information about GR (a lot of it contradictory) and his role in developing and running Star Trek, as well as about his ideas, friends, lovers, family, favorite recreations, childhood etc. In contrast we have almost no information on any of this about Rick Berman.

Maybe it's none of our business, but it does suggest a crucial difference that may in fact be obvious. GR orchestrated the creation of Star Trek, out of his own head and from the contributions of others he got involved and consulted. Rick Berman orchestrated the continuation of Star Trek.

This was not an uncreative enterprise. New takes on the Trek universe, new stories within it, and adapting to new business relationships and to changes in technology and so on, all required creativity. But it may well be that Trek was not creatively renewed at the level of ideas that were important to its creation.

For example, GR and his initial team consulted regularly with scientists and technicians at NASA, JPL and elsewhere. GR sought advice and ideas from major science fiction writers he befriended---Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in particular. Ted Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison and other science fiction writers contributed key stories and scripts. (Even in the Berman regime, during TNG and later, new ideas came over the transom thanks to an open submissions policy that was lacking during Enterprise.)

However it worked, there seemed to be more contact with cutting edge ideas---in psychology and metaphysics as well as physics---in the Roddenberry era, plus the last 3 years of TNG. Maybe there just weren't that many new ideas around from the 90s to now, but I don't think so. I'd venture to suggest that there was even gradual retrenchment, with more interest in recapitulating the past but throwing it forward into the future.

The argument can be made that the science fiction basis withered under Berman, as well as the strong point of view on political and social matters that motivated GR and others early on. GR was invited to speak to assemblies of humanists, religious organizations, space technologists, futurists, Jungians and other groups at the frontier of various areas of knowledge and speculation. (And of course, he spoke often at Star Trek and science fiction conventions.) If Berman ever did this, the record is hard to find. We don't know the extent of his interest in current ideas in these fields, but it's likely that being involved in current knowledge, speculation and ideas is necessary to ongoing renewal of Star Trek.

Maybe it's a generational thing as well. GR's strong views on conflict and peace were tested in real war; he had actually flown aircraft, and been a cop on the street. Other producers and writers for the original series had real world backgrounds. Members of the original cast had experienced real prejudice (although members of subsequent casts likely did as well), and several were political activists who put their beliefs into practice. The producers and writers of the later series seem to have been in television their whole careers.

As Enterprise ended, Rick Berman made on the record statements, and applying a journalist's nose to certain newspaper articles, perhaps spoke off the record, about how limited his control over Star Trek really was. He spoke about "audience fatigue" as a major factor, but it's possible that fatigue was a more general problem.

At the moment, Rick Berman is under contract to Paramount but his only known assignment is his role in developing the story and script for the projected next Trek feature. He has refused to say what his future with Trek might be, suggesting that he will revisit that topic in six months or so. The various alternative futures of Trek will of course be influenced by whether Rick Berman continues as the chief of Trek. But with a new Paramount creative head from outside the company, Gail Berman (no relation), and the recent downswing in Trek's fortunes, it seems more likely than not that the Age of Rick Berman at Star Trek is over.

If this is so, it could pave the way for a new chief of the same Star Trek universe. Since the decision to maintain the Trek universe-the so-called canon---would indicate that Paramount wants to hold onto the fan base, it could be someone the fans trust, such as the aforementioned Jonathan Frakes and/or Levar Burton. Other figures popular in Trekdom include Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Some Trek fans would favor producer Manny Coto, but the last of Enterprise has made him a more controversial choice. Other popular former insiders, like producer Ronald Moore, are occupied elsewhere with ongoing science fiction shows and franchises.

But of course the end of the Age of Berman, if that happens, would also pave the way to something completely different.


Anonymous said...

You forgot Harve Bennet

Captain Future said...

Harv Bennett was the producer on four Star Trek features (II through V)and he wrote III and about half of IV. So his contribution was substantial, and there was a period of time when nobody else was in charge of Trek, so you could say he belongs there with Roddenberry and Berman. I guess I don't think so, for a number of reasons I won't go into here. But yes, he deserves to be mentioned.