Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Star Trek: The Search for Its SoulBy William S. Kowinski

This is my final draft for the article edited and published on p. 1 of the Arts Section in the New York Times on August 31, 2004. This version is longer and lacks some changes made at the Times.

Two of my favorite quotes didn’t make the published version but they're here: the second Mike Malotte quote about the initial appeal of Trek, and Nick Sagan’s quote that ends this version.

The article in the NY Times was published Tuesday morning. By 10a.m. or so in LA, during the ceremony bestowing James Doohan's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Nichelle Nichols was holding up a copy of it to fans and the cameras, and (I'm told, since I wasn't there) thanking me, the Times and the media covering the convention for giving Jimmy Doohan the honor he is due.

Among the material I didn't get into the article were quotes from Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton and Nicholas Meyer, all of whom substantively or ( the latter two) actually said: "I love Jimmy Doohan."

Could Star Trek be dying? It's enough to make Mr. Spock laugh. "This is so funny," said Leonard Nimoy, who in addition to playing Mr. Spock, directed two Star Trek feature films and produced another. "Star Trek has died several times, and come back stronger than ever. It's hilarious."

This past weekend, Mr. Nimoy joined his Star Trek original cast crewmates at Planet Xpo convention in Los Angeles to honor the ailing James Doohan (who played Scotty, the Enterprise engineer) in his last convention appearance. Doohan, who receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today, is showing signs of Alzheimers disease, according to a family spokesperson. So with the exception of the late DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), all of the world famous Enterprise crew gathered one last time on Sunday.

Over the weekend the original cast members recounted Star Trek's bumpy early history--- Created by Gene Roddenberry and first aired in 1966, cancelled after three stormy seasons, resurrected in syndication, reborn as an initially disappointing feature film in 1979, it achieved warp speed momentum with a successful second film and a hit sequel TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Now approaching its fortieth anniversary, with a total of ten movies and hundreds of hours of five TV series that are all still seen across the U.S. and around the world, (not to mention hundreds of novels and electronic games, and tons of merchandise) Star Trek is a unique popular culture phenomenon, and the earth's best known saga of the future.

At the moment Star Trek is undeniably alive. Today Paramount releases Trekkies 2, a new documentary on DVD, about Star Trek's global network of fans, and the long-awaited first season DVD set of the original Star Trek series. Still, there are reasons for questioning its continued viability. Though the feature film series has grossed more than a billion dollars for Paramount, the last two outings have sputtered at the box office. The most recent release, Star Trek Nemesis, could not hold its own against installments of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series in summer 2002. Many reviewers greeted it with condescension or scorn, suggesting that the Star Trek enterprise had run its course.

Since Star Trek: The Next Generation received an Emmy nomination as best dramatic series and left the air a legitimate hit in 1994,subsequent Star Trek TV dramas slowly lost ratings ground. Completing its third season last spring after a generally rough ratings year for TV drama, the current series, Star Trek: Enterprise, faced cancellation by the UPN network.

In an echo of the original series' fate, it was saved after a fan letter-writing campaign, but rescheduled on Friday evenings at 8 oclock for the coming season, beginning in October. Both UPN president Dawn Ostroff and Paramount TV president Garry Hart point to the example of "The X Files," a series aimed at similar viewers, that found its audience on Fridays. (They are also happy that Enterprise will no longer be competing with American Idol.) Though Mr. Hart says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the change, Friday has also been a graveyard for shows meant to appeal to young adult viewers---including the original Star Trek in 1969.

Despite his amusement, Mr. Nimoy is among those who agree there is cause for concern. He likens the current situation to the period after the first Star Trek feature film, when "I felt that Star Trek was like a beached whale. I think something similar is happening now. Star Trek is in this stranded situation. The ideas that were propelling it have run dry. It needs somebody with fresh ideas and fresh energy to come along and put it back in the water."

"I'm not saying it will happen," Mr. Nimoy added, pointing out that he hasn't been creatively involved in Star Trek since 1991. "But I think given the proper elements, it could happen. There's certainly still a core base of fans that wants it to happen."

Some observers suggest the problem is audience fatigue. Some believe it is creative exhaustion. But one solution to both, according to a number of actors, writers, producers and directors of past Star Trek incarnations, may be to stop making new Star Trek stories for awhile.

"As soon as one series ends, the next one begins right away," said Denise Crosby, actor in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Executive Producer of Trekkies 2. "How can you sustain that? The bar has been raised so high with sci fi films. I'm not talking just about special effects but interesting, elaborate tales... You need to step back and refocus on what's pertinent to this moment in time."

"Star Trek's just not special enough. Not anymore," said LeVar Burton, who directed some 27 episodes of four Star Trek series, as well as starring in The Next Generation . "They need to shut the whole thing down, wait five years, create an interest, an excitement, a hunger for it again."

When he's not running a technical support team for Gateway computers, Michael W. Malotte is Commander (or president) of Starfleet (or the nonprofit organization, the International Star Trek Fan Association, Inc), with 230 chapters worldwide. It is one of the oldest and largest such umbrella groups, but hardly the only one. "If you asked our approximately 4000 members right now, they'd probably be split right down the middle," he said. "There's a large group that thinks it's time to give Trek a rest...There's another group that says, 'I enjoy Trek, I don't agree with a lot of what they're doing, but I still enjoy watching."

Those who are rooting for more new Star Trek are buzzing this summer about the new executive producer of the current series, Enterprise, which is set in the century before Captain Kirk. He is Manny Coto, a self-declared fan who is addressing a key fan complaint: that the series strays too far from the essence of Trek. "My goal is to deepen and expand its relationship to the Star Trek universe," Mr. Coto said, "to fulfill its promise as a true prequel series."

This relationship will be made visible with the appearance of Brent Spiner, The Next Generation's Mr. Data, in a story told over a three episode "mini-arc," the coming season's preferred format. Negotiations are underway for a similar appearance by William Shatner, perhaps even playing Captain Kirk. Mr. Coto added well-regarded Star Trek novelists Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to the writing staff, to take advantage of their "intimate familiarity" with the Trek universe as well their fluency in imaginative science fiction. All of this, Mr. Coto believes, will attract other viewers besides declared Trek fans.

"What makes Star Trek Star Trek is its unique ability to comment on our present condition by examining it in a future context," said LeVar Burton. "Star Trek is the one aspect of the popular culture that gets us to think about our nature, and our purpose for being here." This is another elements that Star Trek advocates insist is central to the saga's identity, but has been missing lately. Mr. Coto agrees that this is "something that science fiction does best," so a planned Enterprise arc concerns civil war on Vulcan (Mr. Spock's planet) which he says will covertly examine "the war in Iraq and the direction of the country." The Brent Spiner arc deals with genetic manipulation and even suggestions of the stem cell debate, while elaborating on a premise fans will recall from the original Star Trek series. LeVar Burton is directing its third episode.

Mr. Coto doesn't believe Star Trek should shut down after Enterprise. "There can never be too much Star Trek, " he says. But even if a pause could be creatively useful, commercial calculation will likely determine Star Trek's fate, and its recent problems may not be decisive. "Movies cost so much to make that apparently the only thing that strikes the studios as worth doing is franchise-related," said Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. "Whether it's other movies, comic books, video games, it doesn't matter, as long as there is some pre-sale. Which is not to say they can't turn out a good movie. A lot of good things are done for the wrong reasons."

Though he acknowledges that the performance of Star Trek Nemesis was disappointing, Star Trek Executive Producer Rick Berman notes that it was the tenth film in the series, "and I highly doubt it was the last." A Paramount films spokesperson agreed. Still, two years after its release, discussions for the next film are "in a very preliminary stage," and the story being considered "would not involve any of the casts that have existed in previous films and television series," Mr. Berman said.

"We hope and anticipate that Enterprise will run for a few more years," Garry Hart said, adding that while another Star Trek series isn't being planned, he doubts there will be more than a season or two pause after Enterprise before the next incarnation. "Star Trek has been the most successful franchise in the history of television. I have no doubt there will be a demand for more Star Trek on television."

There is more science fiction competition in films and especially television than in Star Trek's best days (and much of the TV sci-fi is being created by Star Trek alumni writers and producers.) Though Mr. Coto believes that Enterprise will continue to excel in television's more affordable special effects, Mr. Berman acknowledges that Star Trek features don't have the budgets of "the Lucases and the Speilbergs" but must compete with them for audience.

But Mr. Nimoy doesn't see this as the chief appeal of Star Trek anyway. "We never relied on that. We depended on story, story, story. Not image, image, image." He points out that effects usually portray violence and destruction, but in the movie he wrote and directed, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (known as "the whales story"), "There was not a single shot fired, nobody died... It was an entirely different sensibility. That was the high point of my experience with Star Trek. That was my Star Trek statement." It also remains the most popular Star Trek feature.

Star Trek as a cultural alternative remains central to fan loyalty. "I think the biggest appeal of Star Trek is that back in the 60s, when Gene did this," Michael Malotte said, "most science fiction was about people who weren't on earth because they were escaping it, it was so overpopulated and polluted that people couldn't live on it, or it was a charred cinder because we'd screwed ourselves over. Gene's Star Trek was really the first science fiction of its time to show a future where we actually learn from our mistakes. We bettered ourselves and we banded together, and we headed out for the stars. "

But even if Star Trek pauses or stops, most observers agree that the fan clubs and conventions will continue. In some ways, fandom has become self-sufficient. For years, fans have created and disseminated their own Star Trek stories, on mimeographed pages, then on fan fiction Internet sites, and now with increasingly accessible digital technology, they are creating their own films. "They are no longer bound by what the TV tells them to do," says Eugene Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry's 30 year old son, who recently agreed to help produce a live action fan film. "They can go do it themselves, which I love."

Eugene Roddenberry is also working on a documentary called Trek Nation that highlights Star Trek's impact on world culture as well as its positive influence on fans in their real lives. Fan organizations typically do charity work and public service, and some require it. "Many fans live their lives by these philosophies like The Prime Directive, and IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations)," said Roger Nygard, director of Trekkies 2.

This weekend the original Star Trek actors emphasized those themes to their convention audiences, as they usually do. To a degree now unusual, their lives before television stardom include experiences that bear on Star Trek's commitment to peace and equality: James Doohan was badly wounded on D-Day in 1944. George Takei (Mr. Sulu) spent part of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp, and as a singer in the early 1960s, Nichelle Nichols was refused lodging because of her race.

"Because the fans are loyal to Gene's dream, " said Ms. Nichols in an interview on Sunday, "we are loyal to the fans." Walter Koenig (Chekov), Ms. Nichols, Mr. Takei, Majel Roddenberry (who played on Star Trek and The Next Generation, and was married to Mr. Roddenberry) and before his recent illness, Mr. Doohan, have appeared most consistently at conventions and are fan favorites. The bond goes both ways. "In a society with so much violence and stupidity," Mr. Koenig said, " the conventions are an oasis, where you can find some genuinely good people who believe in humanity and respect the rights of others."

Star Trek is unique for having created its own elaborate history of the future, which together with its themes, best stories and strongest characters, makes a modern mythology. "You'd be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn't know what a Klingon is, or doesn't know what 'beam me up Scotty' is all about,'" Rick Berman said. "It is a phenomenon that will continue to exist, and whether it will continue to exist after a pause or not, probably in the long run doesn't matter."

Just one indication of its interpenetration with real life came at the convention on Saturday night when the featured speaker at the banquet honoring James Doohan was astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. Ending a talk replete with Star Trek references (including a wish for a Federation starship for his next command), he addressed Mr. Doohan: "From one old engineer to another: thanks, mate."

But how much unoccupied room is there for new adventures in the Star Trek universe? Nick Sagan, who wrote for "The Next Generation" and Star Trek: Voyager, and whose second science fiction novel, Edenborn, was just published, thinks there's a lot. "Whichever side of the debate you're on, it's undeniable that many people feel Star Trek has grown stagnant," he said. "You can take it off the air and out of the theaters for a while to create some breathing room, or someone can step up and break away from the traditional Trek experience by taking a chance on something new. You don't have to tell stories about or even tip the hat to previous Trek characters. All you need is Gene Roddenberry's sense of hope and wonder."