The survival of the Star Trek franchise will need to come from a dedicated fan. Either that, or someone who knows how to write a great story. First, one must look at how Star Trek had its second coming after the mostly disappointing Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which still holds a fine place in my heart, and even more now that Robert Wise had a chance to "finish" it on DVD).
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had two things going for it. First was producer Harve Bennett, who’s background was TV and who understood what made a great show: writing. While The Six Million Dollar Man is what it is, I believe The Bionic Woman was better show. Behind the silly science fiction and scene chewing 70's TV actors, the show transcended its parent show. A credit goes to Lindsey Wagner, who brought a thee dimension life of Jamie Summers. In doing so, Harve Bennett created a much deeper show and that despite it being sci fi/fantasy, it was grounded in reality. Plus, knowing budgets and time constrains, he was more than a logical producer to help save a profitable franchise in need of a creative direction.
While TMP was pretty to look at, and it took a real chance by telling a hardcore science fiction story (when, after Star Wars, these films became space operas), but its cold and emotionless direction hampered it. Director Robert Wise, in his commentary on the special directors cut of his film blamed most of its failure on a tight shooting schedule -the film had a release date long before production actually began - untried visual effects and a lack of a preview screening (which might’ve help tighten up some the slow parts) admits the story may have been too ambitious. But again, had they been given the time, TMP might’ve had a better box office total and survived the mixed reviews.
Nicholas Meyer -who’s love of literary classics such as the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne - led him to Hollywood where he would co-write the screenplay based on his own Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven Percent Solution. Later, as he became a director, his style of story oriented direction grab the interest of Bennett.
While Meyer’s knowledge of Trek was limited, he saw many similarities of Trek in classic literature -most notably Hartio Hornblower. While Roddenberry’s western motif of a "wagon train" in stars may have been his original pitch to the networks, it did take on a more Shakespearean likeness as it progressed. Meyer exploited this and along with Harve Bennett’s keen sense production and a heavily re-written Jack Sowards script, Trek II saved the franchise. It was here, that modern Star Trek started to borrow from literary classics, quoting a Tale of Two Cities and many others.
Bennett would continue to produce -along with writing The Search for Spock -through the disastrous Final Frontier. And Nicholas Meyer would help write the screenplay for Voyage Home -basically the stuff, he says, from the line "Remember where we parked" to their return to the 23rd Century. While Bennett would not be producing The Undiscovered Country, Meyer returned to direct (and help pen the script) the last Star Trek film to feature all of TOS members.
From Generations on, the producing duties fell to Rick Berman. As a person who blames Berman (and Brannon Braga) for Trek’s schism, over time I’ve begun to think that Paramount has also helped. Still, Berman was part of that corporate utopia that took over American in the 1990's; a time when demographics began to drive movies and TV shows. Demographics on the whole seem great. It is a great tool to predict trends, to gauge what people wanted; but we gave control of our movies and TV shows content to people who painted things in with a broad paint brush, in hope of crossing over every demographic.
So began Berman’s and Paramount’s attempt to find a larger Trek audience. Well, to be honest, it started when Star Trek Voyager launched in January 1995. Now back on a network -minor one at that - this series had different goals than the two previous syndicated spin-offs Star Trek: The Next Generation and the still running Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Ratings, while even important even in syndication, were paramount on network TV. While TNG and DS9 could do stories that tackled the more "human elements, the moral and ethical dilemmas," as the writer late Michael Piller said to his writers when they were scripting an episode, Voyager began to focus on the action stories, or "high concept" episodes Braga would use when defending Voyager’s lack of appeal to many fans; he seemed in many interviews to be really confused as to why fans were hating VOY so much.
Ultimately, Piller who left VOY after its second season, conceded that while he’s proud of the show, he could see some of its faults. Piller told Cinefantastique's Anna L. Kaplan (via TrekWeb) that "...The whole idea of exploring space is a metaphor for exploring ourselves. When Voyager did that, I think it did very well. I think the Seven of Nine stories gave us some insight into humanity and the meaning of humanity that the series sorely wanted. It had its moments. But when it did the exploding spaceships and space-monsters and so forth, the problem is that's what everybody does in science fiction. I think that reduces Star Trek to being no better and worse than other science fiction shows."
Years later, after VOY had ended and Star Trek: Enterprise was failing to find an audience, Berman would go on the defense, saying that a lot of what internet fans write about him and Braga is pure fiction. He also seemed to suggest that a lot of the things he had been blamed for over the past years, were actually beyond his control. "When you are perceived as the person in charge, which is not always necessarily the case, you're the person who takes the blame when there are problems."
And after years of silence from writers -who, I realize, need to keep their jobs -have finally spoken up. Both former writers Bryan Fuller and Ronald D. Moore have also gone public, blaming some, but not all of Trek’s later problems on Berman. Moore also blames changing times, saying Enterprise "never quite grabbed people viscerally and hung on, like the other shows did." He believes that audiences no longer felt compelled to "rush out and see in any way, shape or form." new Star Trek material, which contributed to the failure of Star Trek: Nemesis at the box office. (Meanwhile, at the same time, UPN's changing demographics made the show more difficult to sell, for the network was targeting female viewers). Fuller himself said VOY had problems with its magic, candy like reset button; that the shows characters never evolved beyond their initial origins (with the exception of Seven of Nine and the Doctor).
"It’s like there's a certain number of science-fiction fans, and that's it," said Manny Coto, who said that the last season of Enterprise’s writing staff focused on stories that would appeal to longtime fans, believing that those who did not know the Star Trek universe had already abandoned the series. "It's a genre that appeals to a certain type of individual, and there's not a lot of them." Coto added, echoing the sentiments of Jonathan Frakes, who believes that Enterprise was hurt as much by reruns from other Star Trek shows as anything in its premise. Frakes hinted at franchise fatigue, as series creators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have done repeatedly when asked for the reason Enterprise had not caught on with wider audiences. However, one star of Enterprise disagreed. Jolene Blalock was bold enough to speak up during a shows production to say she identifies herself as a lifelong fan, and said that "..the stories lacked intriguing content. They were boring." She felt that the early scripts violated facts already established in other franchise shows and complained that the show substituted revealing costumes for character development. "The audience isn't stupid," she protested.
Meanwhile, while all the arguments go on about why Trek failed -after 18 years, was it really franchise fatigue - was it all really Berman and Braga? Was it Paramount and their desire to broaden Trek’s fan base that it dumbed down the show so much that it only appealed to a "certain type of individual"? - what can Trek do to save itself?
I think if Paramount is serious about it, they have to look at the success of Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore’s re-booting of the 70's series has taken the Sci Fi Channel by storm. With the show in the middle of its second season, and with a third yet to come, Moore has taken a route with the show that no one might’ve thought. But, Law & Order has been doing it for years. BG’s ripped from the headlines episodes has many parallels to our current conflict in Iraq. And in doing so, it found a larger audience that liked TOS plus new ones who liked the hardcore science fiction wrapped in a military construct.
With his wit and creativity, and probably a little creative freedom from Sci Fi, Moore's taken a somewhat maligned 70s science fiction series and made it the show everyone will now have to copy and compare. Paramount and its investors may work off a book of black and white scenarios; endless sheets of demographic nonsense; but it relies too heavily on them when programming their biggest franchise.
Paramount needs to serve the Star Trek fans now and the ones yet to come, and not subdue them with endless retreads. They need to stop dumbing down the franchise, because, ironically, I believe that if you write an intelligent script the fans will come, plus drag new ones who will be curious. It needs a producer along the lines of Harve Bennet who has the understanding of a writer and a director. It needs a fan and not a studio yes man/bean counter. Paramount also has to fully understand what made the whole Star Trek franchise succeed in the first place: engaging, believeable characters and the stories that could entertain, but also have a deep look into the human condition. Stories that, while set in a fantasy world, can have great meaning to today’s world.
Ron D. Moore is doing that with Battlestar. Why can’t this happen with Star Trek?