The Deeper Side of Trek: Crossroads of a Franchise
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
November 7, 2000
Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
The way I see it, Star Trek currently resides in a strange place it hasn't been for well over a decade — since The Next Generation was facing a launch marked with optimism but also uncertainty. When TNG premiered in 1987, it had been nearly 20 years since new productions of Star Trek had been put on television, and there was wonder over whether a new direction for Star Trek could be successful.
As we head into 2001, a new situation of uncertainty seems to be emerging. It's a very different situation, but it might be the closest thing to a crossroads that Star Trek has seen since the "second generation" of the franchise (which includes The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager) was set in motion in '87.
Over its seven-year run, The Next Generation became an unprecedented success that staked out new territory in the hour-long first-run syndication market. And based on that success, Deep Space Nine was a logical (though ultimately not nearly as highly-rated) outgrowth for further tapping into that market. Unlike the traditional networks, where a series can be pulled after just a few unsuccessful air dates, TNG and DS9 had the advantage of full, guaranteed first seasons (and all-but-guaranteed beyond that), a chance to establish an audience — and in the case of TNG, one that would continue to grow throughout its run.
But such groundbreaking trends — like the stock market up until early this year — do not continue forever. This is particularly true in television, where the continued increase in channels and viewer options leads to the continued fragmenting of the audience.
Voyager, now in its final season, will be the last of the Trek series to have emerged from those glory days of TNG. From the looks of things, interest in the Star Trek franchise has diminished substantially over the past five years. I get frequent e-mail from readers voicing their displeasure over the recent direction of the franchise; some say they've bailed on Voyager (and perhaps all of Trek) never to return. Just how widespread are such feelings?
It's hard to say, because gauging an audience based on Internet opinion is not getting the whole story, and probably not even most of it. Again we go back to the ratings game, where we see a general downward slide in the numbers in the past five years. But isn't that to be expected? After all, everyone's ratings are down, simply because there are more choices.
So, with all this information and probably more, current Trek masterminds Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have promised us a fifth Trek series — commonly referred to as "Series V" — planned to debut in fall 2001. This essentially means Voyager (which ends next spring) will go off the air and be immediately replaced by another show. We will not get a "breather" from Trek, which many, myself included, have argued might be a good thing for the franchise. Anticipation is easier to build over a longer period of time; even one year could be helpful.
No matter, because that doesn't seem likely. Berman and Braga have for months distanced themselves from their daily involvement with Voyager to work on development of Series V, which has seemingly become the most ominously secret Trek project of all time, much to the frustration of some fans.
And here's where we get to the "crossroads" issue.
Is Star Trek (and the people bringing it to us) currently at a stage of burnout? If it is and the studio isn't going to have a cool-off period before jumping into a new series, then the question becomes just what can make Trek seem new again? Because I'll tell you right off: Voyager is feeling kinda old right now. And since Voyager currently speaks for the franchise, that's how the franchise more or less seems — old.
It's a little perplexing, in this age of rampant information, that so little information is available about a series that has been announced and supposedly under development for nearly a year now. Compare this to the recent launch of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, a series discussed on the Internet for what seemed an eternity before its premiere last month. True, maybe it's still too early to talk about concrete Series V facts at the moment — after all, we're talking nearly a year before the proposed premiere date. But it's also somewhat strange that Berman and Braga have gone on record so many times for so long with the same sound bite, which roughly goes like this:
"We're currently working on the storyline for the pilot. This is a series we want to be dramatically different from the last three Star Trek series, but at the same time be true to the ideals and spirit of Star Trek."
I can't tell you how many times I've read that same quote, repeated in different interviews. It's already become the cliché for Series V.
Rumors have said Series V will take place in a time frame earlier than the previous Trek series; some have dubbed it the "Birth of the Federation" series. Is this true? I don't know. Paramount sources have been incredibly tight-lipped, promising to release information about the show "soon." Each subsequent interview, however, reads just like the last. Has Paramount even approved a pilot premise? Everyone seems to be tap-dancing around specifics in favor of vague promises that seem to read, "We don't know what it is yet, but it's gonna be great!"
So what's the deal? Are we being hooked for a huge surprise? Are there conceptual problems that have led to ideas being thrown out over and over again? Is there a working premise or not?
Ultimately, at this moment in time, it's irrelevant. But it seems that the trust between the fan base and the people running the franchise has eroded. Personally — and I doubt I'm alone — my feelings on the matter of Series V are "I'll believe it when I see it" — and I'm talking merely about the existence of such a series, not even the matter of whether it will be fresh enough to justify the fact that it's being planned for premiere immediately after Voyager goes away.
So assuming we do get it, the question is where it will air and whether people will be receptive. Trek's shakier popularity of late brings up the question of whether a new series will be met with a good reception or a mediocre one. I tend to doubt Paramount is going to want a series that only performs up to the level of Voyager's current ratings. They're going to want killer ratings with a brand-new show.
Then there's this whole conglomerate mess with Viacom, Paramount, UPN, and CBS. Viacom owns all those other mentioned parties. So will Paramount try to put Series V on CBS, a real network? Or will it go to UPN? The notion of Trek on CBS is interesting — and perilous. Cancellation is a much more likely possibility on a real network, compared to UPN, where Voyager serves as an anchor show and has never faced such a threat. Putting Series V on CBS might reveal just how interested the masses are (or aren't) in Trek today, and the results could even mean Trek being canceled and finally forced into its long-deferred retirement — something that has been unthinkable for at least a decade.
Then there's always the status quo: new Star Trek in similar markets — either UPN (or whatever it will be called a year from now, assuming it's still around) or in syndication. Both options are perfectly viable, but they also don't imply new or larger audiences. Logic suggests, however, that a new series in such environments wouldn't have a very hard time surviving, and could conceivably run for what has become the standard seven-year Star Trek term.
But creatively, there must be something very different about Series V that sends Trek in a new direction, or it'll be a waste of our time. If all the vague quotes and stalling for the press mean that Berman, Braga, and the studio are thinking very carefully about their next move, then that's probably a good sign. (Of course, if it's just spin for the media, that's a bad sign.) I don't know if jumping into a new series so soon is a good idea, because playing off viewer anticipation can be a useful thing for building interest in your product. On the other hand, a fresh idea doesn't necessarily have to lie dormant in the recesses of one's brain before finally being born.
In any case, for the franchise, the next 12 months should be very interesting indeed.
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