Star Trek. The very words conjure up images of galactic exploration. Though for many they mean other things as well. For some it’s just a TV show from the 1960s (or the ‘80s/’90s). For others it’s a series of movies. Or perhaps it’s William Shatner talking in a dramatic manner, or a guy with pointy ears. But there are emotional connections too: maybe it’s a treasured friend or some show you watched when you were a kid. Or it simply calls to mind a bunch of costumed geeks, crammed into a convention center, buying a bunch of fan-fiction and blueprints for imaginary technology. Whatever Star Trek represents to a person, there’s no denying the franchise is a multi-billion dollar media juggernaut comprised of six television series, eleven movies, countless books and fan merchandise across the span of almost half a century. Since the early ‘90s, no matter what someone thought of it, it seemed undeniable: Star Trek was here to stay.
However, in the early 2000s, something happened – the latest film, Star Trek: Nemesis, was a critical and box office disappointment. The fans felt betrayed and tore into it in reviews. Then, shortly after that, the latest series, Enterprise, was canceled after only four seasons. For the first time in nearly two decades, there was no new Trek to be had anywhere. But what happened? Utilizing production theory, one can see that the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise was not due to ‘franchise fatigue,’ as Executive Producer Rick Berman insists. From its golden age a decade earlier, Star Trek’s producers ruined the show by straying from its roots, caving to network pressures, and ignoring the fans that made it popular in the first place.
But first a bit of background information: Star Trek has always been somewhat of a ‘horse of a different color.’ In 1964, when Gene Roddenberry brought his ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ to Desilu Studios, NBC didn’t initially know what to make of it. Further, though the executives liked the premise, they weren’t fans of the original pilot and had him almost fully recast. After that, production of the first season went well enough. At the end of the second season, though, they felt the ratings were questionable and considered canceling it. However, unexpectedly, the network was inundated with letters from fans wanting to save the show and it was renewed for a third season. To make room for newer programming, NBC also moved the show to the ‘Friday night death slot’ at 10 PM, which caused the ratings to slip further, and this time the letters weren’t enough to save it (Davies).
“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode of the series, aired on June 3, 1969 and for a time it seemed the public would forget about Star Trek. This time, though, an even stranger thing happened: the fans wouldn’t let it die. They held Trek-themed conventions, created their own replicas of props and costumes, and wrote their own literature based on the series. Though what would later be known as a ‘cult audience’ is relatively commonplace today (similarly passionate fans have flocked to various franchises such as Star Wars, The X-Files, Lost, Harry Potter, and the works of Joss Whedon), at the time it was unprecedented. Despite its meager beginnings, the Star Trek fans turned their favorite TV show into a phenomenon (Reeves).
Since the cancellation of the Original Series, Gene Roddenberry had been campaigning for a Star Trek movie to be made, but no studios were interested. With the exception of high-art films like Stanley Kubrick’s2001: A Space Odyssey, they claimed science fiction movies were a thing of the past. However, based on the enduring popularity of the series, Paramount (who had since acquired Desilu) was willing to develop a new TV series with him and began working on a new series called Star Trek: Phase II. Phase II would have been a spin-off series, following the adventures of a new crew in the same setting. But then Star Wars was released in 1977, becoming a massive success. A largely independent film, Star Wars took everyone by surprise, and played to sold-out shows. People were lining up around the block at all hours of the day to see the movie and Paramount wanted a piece of it. Consequently they decided to scrap their plans for Phase II (as well as their plans for the Paramount Television Service – their own network – that Phase II was to have launched the following year) in favor of a Star Trek motion picture, using the new sets from Phase II and the cast from the original series (Meyer).
While it did reasonably well at the box office, Star Trek: the Motion Picture went vastly ($31 million) over budget and consequently wasn’t considered a success. But Paramount wasn’t ready to give up on Star Trek(nor the fans’ money) and put TV producer Harve Bennett in charge of the film franchise. Roddenberry, the first film’s producer, was largely blamed for this excess and his input would be severely restricted (in some cases limited to name-only) in future projects. Plagued by long-running problems with the sequel’s script, Bennett offered the project to sophomore director Nicholas Meyer, who wrote a new draft in two days and made the movie for $11 million, less than one fourth the cost of the previous film. With its release in 1982, Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan was a big success, setting a record for opening-day box office at the time, and would eventually go on to gross $97 million, ensuring the continuation of the feature film franchise (Meyer).
Finally, in 1988 Paramount thought it was time the franchise returned to television and Star Trek: the Next Generation, the latest incarnation, was produced for first-air syndication, once again under the semi-supervision of Gene Roddenberry. TNG quickly became a huge success in its own right, running for seven seasons – more than double that of TOS (the Original Series). Upon the death of Roddenberry in 1991, Paramount turned to TNG co-executive producer Rick Berman to helm the franchise, which would go on to spawn three spin-off series, which Berman would also oversee. The first of these, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, began airing concurrently with TNG’s fifth season. Similarly produced for syndication, DS9 also ran for seven seasons. In 1995, with the completion of TNG, Star Trek: Voyager represented the franchise’s return to network television, this time on paramount’s new network, UPN. Voyager would similarly run for seven seasons, ending in 2001, and would be followed by Star Trek: Enterprise, beginning in September of that same year (after a slight delay due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks). However Enterprise faltered, as mentioned before, as did Star Trek: Nemesis, the latest film in the franchise. As with TOS before it, Enterprise was similarly moved to the ‘death slot’ for its fourth season, and canceled in 2005 – the only series since the original not to make it to seven seasons.
The ‘party line’ for Enterprise’s cancellation, as towed by series creator Rick Berman, is what the producers termed ‘franchise fatigue’: “I think that we found ourselves in competition with ourselves.Enterprise in many markets was running against repeats – whether it be cable or syndication – of the original series, Next Generation, Voyager [or] Deep Space Nine. And I think that after 18 years and 624 hours of Star Trek the audience began to have a little bit of overkill with Star Trek, and I think that had a lot to do with it. And I think that if you take a look at the last feature film we did, Nemesis, which I still believe was a fine movie, it did two-thirds the business that the previous films had done. So I think it’s again, another example of the franchise getting a bit tired” (Berman). Other ideas touted by ‘those in the know’ were that, because of the franchise’s long history, any new show had too steep of an entry level for new viewers to tune in (they were afraid there was too much background information they were missing to enjoy it) and that Trekwas stigmatized as ‘for geeks’ and that, too, scared potential audiences away.
However, one questions if this was in fact the case. Indeed, historically, the lowest rated Trek series were the ones that aired independently of their fellows (Nielson). Further, Deep Space Nine aired concurrently with new episodes of TNG, reruns of TNG, and reruns of TOS and ran for a full seven seasons. Similarly,Voyager had to contend with all of these in addition to DS9. So, are Berman and company suggesting that the addition of Voyager was the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’? As Hark points out in his essayFranchise Fatigue? The Marginalization of the Television Series after The Next Generation, “Berman’s explanation eschews any blame that might fall upon the heads of himself and his creative team. They merely turned out so much of a good thing that it became too much.” And so, in viewing these official statements with skepticism, where must one turn next?
Well, for one, the expectations of the network were changing. TNG and DS9 had both been created for first-run syndication, however Voyager (and later Enterprise) was produced specifically for UPN. This meant the show would air based on the network’s priority, in better slots when times were good and in less desirable slots when viewership was down. Also important to the network was the notion of ‘viewer retention’: much of UPN’s audience up until that point would tune out when Enterprise came on – not necessarily to return with its conclusion – whereas the Enterprise fans would only watch Enterprise and leave when it was over.
Similarly, the landscape of UPN was changing: when the network first debuted in 1995, it was full of shows like Star Trek: sci-fi/dramas such as Nowhere Man, the Sentinel and Deadly Games. However, by the time of Enterprise, it was somewhat of an ‘odd-man out’ in the predominantly sitcom/comedy lineup, alongside shows like Girlfriends, America’s Next Top Model, and Moesha/the Parkers; catering to the network’s new target demographic: women and, often, African Americans. But still, one asks, is this enough for a show to be canceled? Certainly there were other shows on UPN outside this rubric at the time, such as Veronica Mars andWWE Wrestling. So why was there talk of canceling Enterprise when it was one of the highest rated shows on UPN (Nielson)? Surely it wasn’t all about changing demographics and audience retention.
Also important was the fact that Enterprise, as an hour-long science fiction show, was no longer uncontested on the air. Now the audience had other programs vying for their attention as well, such asFarscape, The X-Files, and StarGate: SG1. These programs would court the same cult audiences that UPN was after with Star Trek, forcing the producers to seek a more mainstream audience. Further, these networks could produce their shows for less by shooting in places such as Vancouver, while Trek remained tethered to its longstanding studios at the Paramount lots. “The paradox of doing space-based science fiction for the last several decades is that it has bigger budget requirements than the standard cop or lawyer show and yet appeals to a much smaller segment of the audience” (Hark). So, in order to turn a profit, the producers of these other shows had to come up with new ways to balance the books, and they simply opted to save as much money on their shows’ physical production as possible. “Their producers simply accepted that ‘genre’ was usually a niche market and so sought out venues and budget-cutting schemes that would make a small but devoted cult following sufficient to keep their shows profitable” (Hark).
UPN, on the other hand, decided to keep the budget right where it was and try to make up the difference on the other side of the equation by courting a more diverse audience. However, “[i]n looking for the audience to assure a turnaround, Berman and show-runner Brannon Braga needed to court three separate if sometimes overlapping constituencies: [casual viewers, devoted fans, and ‘ubergeeks’] (Hark). Though this sounded good conceptually, in practice it not only failed to attract a new audience but served to disenfranchise the existing fans. “Elements presented in the two-hour pilot, ‘Broken Bow,’ seemed to indicate, however, that the appeal was specifically to [non fans]” (Hark). Even the opening credits had eliminated ‘Star Trek’ from its title and the signature instrumental Trek theme song, over images of space, had been replaced with a more ‘pop’ tune, with lyrics, over historical photographs heralding not the history of Star Trek, but of ships bearing the name Enterprise.
This departure from the show’s ‘core’ wasn’t simply an aesthetic one, either: At its heart, Star Trek had always been a show about exploring ourselves under the pretense of exploring the galaxy. Each series had spun this concept slightly: TOS explored what it meant to be human, TNG explored our place in the larger community, and DS9 asked how our principals stood up in the real world, when everything is shades of grey. However, beginning with Voyager (which, incidentally, was the first Trek show which Gene Roddenberry had no involvement in the creation of), the shows’ message became unclear; “As different as DS9 might have been from TNG, both of them, as well as the original series, had a consistency of approach and vision. A viewer knew what principles the characters operated on and what their missions were” (Hark).
On paper, Voyager was a show about a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy and the tough choices the crew would face in trying to get home. In reality, said Hugo award-winning TNG/DS9 staff writer Ron Moore, this notion quickly went out the window. Consequently, he could only bring himself to work on two episodes ofVoyager: “In the premise this ship was going to have problems. It wasn’t going to have unlimited sources of energy. It wasn’t going to have all the doodads of the Enterprise. It was going to be rougher, fending for themselves more, having to trade to get supplies that they want. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at all, and it’s a lie to the audience. I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. Voyager is not true.” (Di Justo 179) “[He thought Voyager] ultimately became Next Generation by another name” (Kosh).
Many fans felt this ‘bait and switch’ trend continued with Enterprise, which promised a prequel to TOSbut largely ignored the established continuity. “Apparently revisionist history about first human contact with the Klingons, Ferengi, and Borg also disturbed the fanbase. Even one of the cast, Jolene Blalock (T’Pol) ‘a life-long Star Trek fan’ […] said she was dismayed by early Enterprise scripts that seemed to ignore basic tenets of the franchise’s chronology, and that offered reveling costumes instead of character development.” (Hark) Says Sara Gwenllian-Jones, who studies such things in her book Cult Television, one of the most fundamental principles in building and maintaining a cult audience is continuity (an “ongoing story arc or mythology”). However, the producers weren’t hearing any of this, openly mocking such fans and blatantly referring to them as “continuity pornographers” (Hark). And yet, as one quickly learns when pursuing this subject, these fans are the very ones vital to the show’s success, and disenfranchising them did nothing but drive them away in droves.
Similarly, much of the talent (of which Ron Moore was the most visible), who were themselves fans, found themselves in a daily struggle to stay true to their beloved show while constantly at odds with the producers and the network: “As Voyager ended its run and plans for the fifth series were being developed, the creative team was at a crisis point” (Hark). DS9/Voyager co-creator Michael Piller was responsible for the hiring and development of many talented writers while running the TNG writing staff, and many of these individuals would go on to work on DS9 and later Voyager. However, by the end of Voyager, only Brannon Braga remained. Said Ron Moore of the Voyager writers’ room, “The politics of the show were such that the egos of the people in charge of the series were threatened by the people who worked for them […] and the only reason it was done was to keep the guys on the top of the pyramid feeling good about themselves” (Kosh).
When Enterprise’s ratings first slipped, the producers initially tried to change the show’s formula even further. While the first two seasons were traditional Trek fare, the third season presented a more serialized, season-long story arc. Unfortunately, it did nothing to stem the tide and the producers were shortly informed the show’s fourth season would be it’s last. Ironically it was then, when they had nothing to lose, that that finally returned to the franchises continuity, cramming the remaining twenty-two episode season with seven two and three-part episodes, designed to fill in the blanks between Enterprise and TOS. But it was too late. The fans even staged another letter-writing campaign, raising millions of dollars in an attempt to fund a further season, but it didn’t make a difference. And so it was, on May 5, 2005, the final episode of Enterprise aired. Titled “These are the Voyages,” the show presented a retrospective-style look at the events that happened to the show’s characters after the final season. However, all this was presented from the viewpoint of TNGcharacters in the context of a seventh-season TNG episode and, for many fans, this was but the final insult – the Enterprise finale was relegated merely to the whimsies of another series’ characters. Efforts were made to shop the series to another network, such as SciFi, but no one was even willing to buy it.
The network, through their changing desires/demands, and the producers, by straying from the franchise’s roots and by ignoring the fans in favor of catering to non-fans, took down one of television’s most valuable properties. The one glimmer of hope for the franchise’s future came five years later, in the form of a new series of films without the involvement of Rick Berman or any of the high level executives. This new movie, made by J.J. Abrams of Lost fame, represented a return to the characters of the Original Series – and hopefully its principles as well, as remains to be seen in sequels. This movie was widely successful, earning over $400 million – making it the highest-grossing Trek film yet. Proving that the world wasn’t tired of Star Trek, just the Star Trek they were getting.
“Berman: Trek Needs a Rest.” Weblog post. Global Episode Opinion Survey. SciFi Wire, 1 May 05. Web. 09 May 2011. <http://www.geos.tv/index.php/news?nid=1378>.
Davies, Máire Messenger, and Roberta Pearson. “The Little Program That Could: The Relationship between NBC and Star Trek.” NBC: America’s Network. Berkeley: University of California, 2007. Print.
DiJusto, Patrick, and Kevin Robert Grazier. The Science of Battlestar Galactica. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.
Everett, Justin. “Fan Culture and the Recentering of Star Trek” In The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture, by Lincoln Geraghty, 186-197. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2008.
Hark, Ina Rae. “Franchise Fatigue?” In The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture, by Lincoln Geraghty, 41-62. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2008.
Gwenllian-Jones, Sara, and Roberta E. Pearson. Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004. Print.
Kosh, Hypatia. “The Ron Moore Interview – Why Moore Left Voyager.” Hypatia.slashcity.org — Star Trek FanFic, Opinions and Maybe Some Cool Code. Web. 09 May 2011. <http://hypatia.slashcity.org/trekshack/moore.html>.
Meyer, Nicholas. The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.
Reeves, Jimmie L., Mark C. Rodgers, and Michael Epstein. “Rewriting Popularity: The Cult Files.” “Deny All Knowledge”: Reading the X-Files. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.