The flagship series for the multi-faceted Star Trek Franchise sailing into the 1990s from the 1980s and onward into the 2000s was The Next Generation. We loved Patrick Stewart's Jen-Luc Picard, Bret Spiner's Data, Marina Sirtis' Counselor Deanna Troi, Wil Wheaton's Wesley Crusher and his mom, Gates McFadden's Beverly Crusher, Michael Dorn's Worf, LeVar Burton's Geordi La Forge and Jonathan Frakes' Commander William Riker. Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan was the cherry on top.
From that platform, the realization that people genuinely loved adventuring through the "unexplored far reaches of space" led the producers to spin off, not one or two, but three very successful branches for our consumption. The last to finally die off was Star Trek: Enterprise - a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series. ST:E coasted into dry dock at the end of the 2004-2005 season and the airwaves have been absent the Great Adventure ever since - going on 10 years now.
That's a long time for a Trekkie to be without a "warp speed" fix.
And, it all began in 1966 with a series that never really could generate enough viewers to justify its existence. Lucy (yeah, We Love Lucy) and Desi, through their Desilu Productions Group, took a look at Gene Roddenberry's dream and thought it had a chance to succeed.
So they ordered a season.
Set in the 2260s – three hundred years into the future, Captain James T. Kirk and his cast of wanderers and explorers set out in a spanking new Starship. And, they had a Vulcan! And, a Scotsman! And, women! Women who were actually proficient in the performance of their responsibilities and weren’t there to be someone’s moll. They also had an Oriental and, urgh! A Russian! But, what a likeable little Russian he turned out to be…
It was an engaging crew. And, their adventures were like those of comic book heroes. They went places, saw things, visited worlds and had successes to which one could only dream. They did the impossible, but they had the infinite resources of the immense and dedicated Star Fleet.
But, the ratings weren’t there. And, creating and producing a science fiction adventure is not a minor undertaking. It’s expensive. How many times have we seen a new and exciting look into the future only to have the network cancel it after one or two seasons?
And, on top of set costs, when the actors become loved, they get expensive, too.
So, Desilu passed on season two and Roddenberry, et al, pitched their product to Paramount Television. The show would go on.
For two more seasons, anyway.
Still, the viewers just weren’t there. And, after the third season, the desire to continue to sink money into an adventure that wasn’t selling “tickets” waned to the point Gene and his pals were given notice to vacate the premises and take their Klingons with them.
But, the show wouldn't go away.
It continued from, really, nowhere to coax minimal ergs of momentum here and there until it started to "live long and prosper".
With nothing new ever to be added again.
And, it grew.
In January, 1972 – less than three years after the end of the series (and two years after the start of syndication), some fans of the show decided to create a Star Trek Convention in New York City. Organizers figured on a couple of hundred attendees – this is a treasured story after all. What they got was several thousand attendees. Star Trek fans continue to flock to Star Trek conventions worldwide.
They have even been known to invade ComicCons (conventions dedicated to comic book story lines) bringing their adventuresome spirits, swagger, bravado and fun to whatever forum they can find.
The syndicated series began to develop its own dedicated followers. Their numbers grew the likes of which had never, ever been seen before – not even Lucy’s or the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s legions of fans could hold a candle to the vast legions of … Trekkies.
And, they clamored.
More space adventures!
Finally, in 1973, Paramount approved production of an animated series starring all of the original characters (except for Chekov – budget constraints) with the original actors providing the voices. It even won an Emmy. It went on a run that lasted all of… two seasons - almost.
But, it was a cartoon. Adults will watch cartoons (Simpsons, South Park, etc.), but you can’t be a cartoon. You can’t relate to drawn characters. Star Trek: The Animated Series didn’t sate the appetite that was being churned out in the populace – at the conventions – over the syndicated channels –
And, in novels!
Mack Reynolds is credited with authoring the first Star Trek novel in 1968 – while The Original Series was still on the air.
Even before that, James Blish became wildly popular with the embryonic fandom when he began authoring adaptations of the Star Trek episodes in 1967. He published one a year (except 1970 when he didn’t get any out and 1972 when he published four). Health became a factor, apparently, and Blish died while writing the 12th episode which was finally released in 1977.
Fifteen full original novels were published between 1970 and 1981. Since that time, literally hundreds of books regaling the various Star Trek sagas have been published.
But, books don’t sate the senses in the way live-action productions sate senses. They do give fans an opportunity to check out what is going on in the various sections of the Star Trek Universe (and its alternates), but there is nothing like the thrill of seeing (and hearing) an adventure as it is brought to you on the screen.
And, they clamored.
They devoured Battlestar Galactica – literally – it was not Star Trek and it suffered by comparison. It lasted one season. A write-in campaign got it a half another season, but it ultimately failed to sate the Trekkie thirst. One of the problems it suffered was that it was, essentially, a post-apocalyptic flight of humanity seeking to save itself from destruction. Such a story line might go over well today in the era of zombies, vampires and werewolves, but, in the ‘70s? Not so much.
Compared to Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek was a voluntary, unfettered adventure without all the heartbreak and loss imposed by an apocalyptic event. Star Trek built on our hopes and dreams – not our fears and nightmares. And, in Star Trek, we could always return home – we were relatively safe in space due to the efforts of the expansive Star Fleet and we had a safe place to which we could return.
A re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica was attempted in 2004 and lasted four seasons, mainly because it had created its own core of followers.
A new offering came about in 1979. Reaching back into the archives, Buck Rogers had been resurrected from the 1920s and 30s and incorporated into Battlestar Galactica as one of the fighter pilots. Now, he was being spun off into his own adventure series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and would last for one… and a half… years.
Granted, Buck was lighter and more fun than its parent, but it still had to deal with the same issues and tensions created by the destruction of earth and the invasion that caused it. We weren’t leaving earth (home) freely to go explore, we left to flee disaster and it was never able to create a fan base anywhere near the level enjoyed by the beloved Star Trek.
The Motion Picture
Finally, in December, 1979, all of our favorite Trekkers (Kirk (now an admiral), Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhuru, Sulu and, even, Chekov – along with additions, Ilia and the Enterprise’s new captain, William Decker) roared back to the screen – only this time, the screen of choice was silver: wholly cinematic... and epic! Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the theaters.
Wait! December? Really?
Still, even during this normally slow period for movie theaters; The Motion Picture set the record for an opening weekend performance grossing almost $12MM. Superman had set the record just the year before; however, it had opened in late December – the holiday period – one of the busiest seasons of the year for movie goers – and was a hit critically and with the viewing public.
Trekkies had announced their presence – swarming to a movie that… really… wasn’t very good. The concept was good, but the execution pretty much failed across the board.
But, it was Star Trek! And, it was awesome!
Then, the Spock Saga trilogy of movies was produced and distributed. The first: The Wrath of Khan, was epic. The second, The Search for Spock, was also well done and ascended into the pantheon of those movies that would be considered epic; although, probably not by much. The third, The Voyage Home, was pretty much a farce and didn’t add to the canon in any meaningful way other than to continue the theory that time travel was possible – and whales could talk to the invading aliens from space.
The fifth: The Final Frontier, continued the farcical trend and set the sights of the Enterprise not on exploring outward – “to infinity and beyond” & “where no man…” (or woman) “…had gone before!” – but, inward – to the center of the galaxy – where “God resided”. I paid my way in... it was Star Trek, after all.
The sixth: The Undiscovered County, was much better, but, by then, the damage to the franchise had already been done.
The Next Generation
But, prior to the disastrous fifth movie, Star Trek had returned to television. The Next Generation, set 100 years after the adventures of James T. Kirk and his crew, had voyaged into the living rooms of the now adult trekkies. It allowed them to finally share the Great Adventure with which they had grown through their puberties into adulthood – with their own children.
Star Trek: The Next Generation sensationally launched in 1987 and featured wonderful, engaging actors playing relatable and adoptable characters. Everyone loved The Next Generation. It was awesome.
From the improbable, even impossible, last second machinations of chief engineer Giordi La Forge (harkening back to the same wholly unimaginable successes achieved weekly by his predecessor, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) to the caring advisement of the good doctor, Beverly Crusher, who was no Bones McCoy, but she didn’t have to be – she was believable and she was lovable in her own way. And, she had a son, Wesley, who was bright and likeable and leveraged his way into adventures along with the rest of the crew.
And, shockingly, they had… a… Klingon! In the crew!
Worf, essentially, took over the role of the bewildered-and-out-of-the-loop-but-genuinely-loved hero that had previously been played by Spock. Spock’s analytical genius was now portrayed by the android, Data, who occupied Ensign Chekov’s seat as navigator and provided the same youthful exuberance. Data, in the early years, also provided Spock's failure to understand human humor – or humor of any kind!
The role of the first officer was taken by Commander William Riker, aptly referred to by his captain as Number One.
The first three seasons developed and saw the show gain enormous popularity. Captain Picard, the new head officer and captain of the Enterprise, was eminently and elegantly competent and truly cared for the well-being of his crew. His “presence” was even greater and more impressive than that of his Original Series predecessor, James T. Kirk.
After the fourth season, Commander Riker began to take on more of the focus of the story. He was not as polished or as effective a leader as his Captain, but he was engaging, witty and had some sophistication.
But, as the seasons progressed, the show became more and more about appeasing the ego of Commander Riker and less about the mission and the purpose of the adventure… and the show began to shift focus and to lose steam (at least for me) and was cancelled after its seventh season.
Spinoffs! Deep Space Nine
Still, the enormous popularity and brilliant success enjoyed early on by The Next Generation led to the launching of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In it, the United Federation of Planets had taken over a space station near the Bajoran worlds. Nearby, they discover a uniquely stable wormhole leading to the far distant Gamma Quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy. Captain Benjamin Sisko ably led the crew of the space station in dealing with the Klingon-level aggressiveness of the Cardassians (Kardashians? Seriously? It’s really a good thing this show came out years before O.J. got into trouble or there would be some name infringement suits with which to be dealt. The family strikes me as they're more akin to the Ferengi, though).
Beginning the same year, Babylon 5 gave its take on the future of the earthan species. It was far more politically based than Star Trek and featured darker and more destructive story lines based on tensions between the various factions than in the love of exploration exuded by Star Trek.
Still, Babylon 5 managed to hang around for five seasons and its successor, Crusade… well… a half season.
1997 witnessed the launch of a new Star Trek franchise: Voyager. A new twist on the Star Trek story line was presented as the crew of Voyager, chasing down a dastardly rebel ship, accidentally hit ludicrous speed and the two ships ended up seventy thousand light years from home. Yeah, they went plaid.
The seven year run of the show featured Star Trek’s first female ship’s captain, Kathryn Janeway, and a mixed crew of straight-laced Star Fleet patriots and rag-a-muffin rebel soldiers having to work together to toil their way back home. The show eventually lost its way and began throwing in elements already established in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (including several appearances by TOS, TNG and DS9 crew members). It was, apparently, a very short 75 years.
But, the collective Star Trek Cinematic Universe set the stage for the ones Marvel and DC are now beginning to build out. Crossovers are great - but, not at the expense of the show's own crew.
After seven seasons, the Star Trek: Voyager... folded.
A year after the launch of Deep Space Nine and a year before Voyager, the movie Stargate created a buzz in theaters. It had a good story, great, relatable actors, good direction and three years later, spun off its own series.
The various Stargate serae have managed to create their own followings. And, like Star Trek, they provide the viewer with the opportunity to see how the world would have grown successfully from the here-and-now and grants the viewer the freedom to explore unknown worlds and universes while still having mom and dad (earth) to which we could return.
Unlike Star Trek, most of those worlds are unrealistic and, without a “magical device” such as a Stargate, would be unreachable. Also, unlike Star Trek, the freedom to leave everything behind, cutting all ties to all of the political and social turmoil of the present day, Stargate characters returned to earth after each adventure in essence, providing scouting services for the populace. Also, unlike Star Trek, a very limited number of “adventurers” were allowed access to the Stargate meaning it would be completely inaccessible to almost one hundred percent of the general population. We couldn’t go there.
However, the (relatively) low cost of the show allowed it to stay around for a staggering ten years – even without the eye-popping viewership that would have been required to keep a sophisticated and elegant science fiction production running. Its simplicity and the set locale provided immensely favorable conditions for survival of the show. It even managed to spin off two other series that lasted five and two years, respectively.
The Trekkie fan base continued to stagger producers. So much so, in fact, they spun yet another series story line – this time, though, as a prequel to The Original Series. Set over a hundred years before Captain James T. Kirk, it gave us the story of how the Enterprise became the iconic vessel that claimed the imaginations of all the denizens that made up what would eventually become the United Federation of Planets.
Led by intrepid and inventive Captain Jonathan Archer superbly supported by his Vulcan Sub-Commander, T’Pol, the Enterprise established the purpose and the ideals that would permeate Star Fleet for many generations to come.
The series also undertook the mission, for some reason, to reconcile some of the continuity issues between the disparate Star Trek serae and movies and after the fourth season, began to lose its way as it began catering to the whims of Jonathan Frakes and other members of The Next Generation cast who either imposed themselves or were imposed upon the story line ultimately killing the show.
And, now, here was are again – eagerly awaiting the next iteration of the reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise while having no weekly fix to assuage our cravings.
Filling the void... a little
We did get Joss Whedon’s amazing Firefly series… for a single season. And, it spawned a really great movie, Serenity. It managed, in its one year of existence, to generate almost as rabid a fan-base as Star Trek did in three!
If you had ever watched the old western television series, Alias Smith and Jones, you were probably having flashbacks while watching Whedon’s superb offering. He says he based it more off Wagon Train, but, either way, the crew of the Serenity (a firefly-class transport ship) are tooling around the backwaters of space after the failure of the rebel revolt in much the same way as Southerners roamed the Great West after the collapse of the Confederacy – trying desperately to stay out of the clutches of the evil Central (Federal) Government.
Freedom & Liberty vs. Continuity & Security
What makes all these shows so relevant to us – even though they are set in times to which we can’t really relate or locales we can’t understand – is the yearning we, as a species, have to seek Liberty and Freedom away from the Oppressive Order imposed upon us by Those in Power. It is the reason Europeans and Asians flocked to the Americas. It is why Americans trekked westward to California and Oregon – and, later, to Alaska. It is why people are still moving to Alaska today.
Order is important
Order provides for security of the body and stability of the social structure. It assures you will know where you put your keys. It also, pretty much, if over-applied, eliminates spontaneity and serendipitous events as anything not scripted and planned beforehand is chaotic and challenges the order established. Absolute Order crushes the spirit and shrivels the soul.
Chaos frees the spirit. It invigorates the soul and mind and creates things like ingenious invention and spontaneous celebration… but, for all the enlivening of the spirit, it puts the physical body at risk. Extreme Chaos destroys the physical.
So, there has to be a Balance
Moving to a new, uninhabited place, those old westerns; the new space adventures… those are all reaches by us for that little piece of Chaos that will reinvigorate our souls and spirits – and the Great Adventures are those that propose a little bit of Order to provide protection against the Chaos and allows us a chance to live to the Next Adventure.
What is the first thing we do when we settle a new place? We begin to establish some semblance of Order. We attempt to restore the Balance.
But, our need for Star Trek? Maybe we’re sated. Maybe our appetite for the ever-reaching Great Adventure has been appeased. Maybe it’s just time to let the entire arc carry biennially through the rebooted movie franchise until the time our then older children want to explore with their own children the glories and dreams that were Star Trek.
Update: Sad News. Sad news, indeed: Leonard Nimoy has passed. The link is to the NY Times article including some great interviews and slide shows you might want to see. (2/28/2015)
Update: Great News. Terrible News. Well, the Great News, first: CBS has announced a new Star Trek series to premier in January, 2017 - on CBS!
The Terrible News? After the premier, the rest of the season will be posted on the CBS All Access (Netflix wannabe) streaming service meaning you'll have to subscribe to their service (along with HuluPlus, Netflix and a host of others if you want more...) if you want to see the other episodes.
There is conjecture, though, that the series will be auctioned regionally to other network stations who might want to bid on broadcasting the episodes. Hopefully, we won't have to go to CBS-AA to get our fix. (11/3/2015)