What killed Star Trek?

All good things must come to an end.

That was my general feeling after the success of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek in 2009. The blockbuster was effectively the final nail in the coffin for the Star Trek that I had known and loved for so many years.

And I enjoyed the movie. It was fun, with more elaborate effects than had ever been seen in any previous big screen Star Trek adventure. They’d captured the spirit of the characters and their relationships to one another. Repeated viewings, however, have left me feeling like the movie was actually a bit shallow. In many ways it simplified Star Trek, turning what was a dense, grounded reality into a Beverly Hills 90210-esque fantasy where kids fresh out of training are granted command of a starship, without a single bit of experience whatsoever.

But regardless, the Gene Roddenberry/Rick Berman age of Star Trek (now affectionately called Star Trek Prime, or Star Trek 1.0) was over.

However, the end of that period really started years before Abrams’ big screen bonanza. In fact, Star Trek started to die before it seemed to know it was dead.

I’ve spent the last few weeks watching Star Trek Enterprise, the final series that was unceremoniously canceled after four seasons. Enterprise served as a prequel, charting the adventures of the first Starfleet vessel to go into deep space.

Seeing it all again after so many years has been fun. The show itself was really much better than it got credit for at the time. But, like with anyone developing an illness, the symptoms were there. They started cropping up in the first season and were full-blown by the second.

At the time of its collapse, the creative minds behind Star Trek insisted the disease killing the franchise was “Star Trek fatigue.” Audiences had simply grown tired of it all. The franchise needed a break after being on television in the form of four different shows (some of which ran concurrently in reruns) for nearly two decades (not including the years before when it was just Star Trek: The Original Series). On top of that were the films and the dozens of books each year.

It was a convenient excuse – convenient because it took the blame off the creators. By pointing fingers at fatigue, they essentially blamed accountants at Paramount and the audience, deflecting away any responsibility for their own limitations. Fans as a whole, however, never really bought into this excuse.

Now, having gone back to revisit Enterprise, I would say that there was perhaps some truth to the claims. There was fatigue, but it was the formula that was growing tired, not Star Trek itself.

Keep in mind that genre television had changed dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s. It had become more serialized, thanks in large part to The X-Files, as well as Stargate SG1 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The shows were more sophisticated, with long story arcs and richer backstories (the phrase “series mythology” was born).

Star Trek, however, was very slow to adapt to this change. The powers that be were sluggish to recognize what audiences wanted in their shows. Instead, Trek stayed the same. Star Trek: Voyager continued to rely solely on the planet/alien/anomaly-of-the-week formula. This was a tried-and-true approach that dated back to the original series and in many ways was good. But at this point it had become overly used, aged and repetitive.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine proved the franchise could adapt, but that series was – especially at the time and often by the very people in charge – viewed as the black sheep of the family. An anomaly. A series that was dark and brooding and serialized, all things syndicators (the people the producers were apparently forced to appeal to) supposedly didn’t like.

Star Trek: Voyager stayed true to this traditional formula. Enterprise would follow suit, most especially in its first two seasons. The fledgling series tried to have a mythology in the form of a Temporal Cold War, but it was handled so poorly and half-heartedly it never really worked (and was eventually dropped altogether at the beginning of the fourth and final season).

Both series relied heavily upon the formula, which didn’t just include the stories. The look, style and feel remained consistent as well. Each show had a set number of characters (with the shows often focusing only on a few, and rarely on the others), and were set on a ship often going randomly through space. As a result, the characters became meaningless and the plots felt familiar. Virtually any episode in the second season of Enterprise could have been used in The Next Generation and would not have been much different.

By 2004, fans had grown tired. The show was criticized, the writers were demonized and the blame game began. “Star Trek fatigue” was killing the franchise, the producers cried. Even the book publishers started pumping out fewer novels. But this was only half true. “Star Trek formula fatigue” was killing it, and the writers who had spent too many years churning out Trek like it was a product and not a creative endeavor were to blame.

Star Trek: Nemesis, the final classic Trek film, debuted in 2002 and was spit out as the last entry in the film series. Like the shows, the movies suffered formulaic fatigue, crunching out one film after another that made little use of its cast and instead repeatedly focused on just two characters (Picard and Data).

Both with Enterprise and Nemesis, fans were promised a new kind of Trek. Something different. Yet despite the best intentions, what they got was more of the same formula.

The year 2005 marked the “end” of Star Trek. The franchise that Gene Roddenberry had created, that Rick Berman had steered, was done.

All good things came to an end.

But we all know that death in Star Trek means little. A new Star Trek movie will hit theaters next year, and a new series is inevitable. But hopefully we’ll actually get a Trek that has learned the lessons of the past and won’t be doomed by repeating them.

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  • ceewulf

    There's a difference between the public and fans, and while I think there was oversaturation at the time, fans never tired of Star Trek itself. They were just frustrated that the franchise wasn't evolving. It wasn't until fans turned against ST:ENT that Paramount decided to shut things down. And fans weren't tired of Star Trek, they were just tired of getting the same old stories and characters. Trek needed new blood. If they'd done that in the early 2000s, things would have been very different.

  • Rob Haines

    I think you're right about the episodic nature eventually dragging everything down. Voyager seemed particularly torn between episodic/serialised, as if aware of the problem yet still powerless to be anything but endless standalone episodes with no sense of forward momentum (which was doubly impressive since it was the only series where the ship was actually supposed to be _going somewhere_).

    They even flirted with the idea, repeatedly wrecking the ship and killing off crewmembers only to return everything to the status quo by the end of the episode through uninspired use of time distortions and so on. But if I know that the writers are too scared to flip the table, where's the tension? Where's the reason for me to feel anything for the cardboard cutout characters, going through the same set of emotions they did last year, and the year before?

    Unlike many, I have a real soft spot for Voyager, but its flaws were pretty hard to ignore even at the time.

  • http://twitter.com/MannyDuran @MannyDuran

    I'm crossing my fingers for Netflix to get their hands on a Star Trek series. Imagine the possibilities when it comes to multiple story arc webs occurring simultaneously in the same universe (South Park played with this convention in their 'Meteor Shower Trilogy'). Facilitated by having full seasons released at once, instead of having an episode a week, we can have story arcs break off into different episodes that we can choose to follow depending on our interest in a certain character or plot.

    Best of all: no more 'commercial-break cliff hangers'

  • Eric Brasure

    This is a bit of a shallow read on Star Trek and especially the development of serialized drama in the 1990s and 2000s. While it's true that serialized drama became the fad (and especially de rigueur for genre television) Star Trek didn't fail because it wasn't serialized, or at least that wasn't a primary reason. Mostly it failed because Voyager was a completely lazy piece of television, and Enterprise, while a little better, wasn't much better. The people in charge of the franchise were not well-suited to it and ultimately ran it into the ground because they were coasting on the success of The Next Generation.

    It's interesting to note that Deep Space Nine, long considered the black sheep of the franchise, has in my opinion aged the best of any of the series and has become more relevant over time, rewarding repeated viewings and revealing shades of character, plot, and themes that are not apparent on a first viewing. DS9 also averaged higher ratings than either Voyager or Enterprise. It was less of a black sheep than it was just slipping under the Paramount radar–they were too busy finishing up TNG and launching Voyager and UPN to care that much about it, and it allowed the writers on DS9 to experiment with serialization and themes that they wouldn't otherwise have gotten away with. It's also interesting to note that DS9 was a strong example of a writer's room show, at a time when the prevailing wisdom is that serialized dramas need to have a strong showrunner at the helm.

    As for serialized television–The X-Files and Buffy are both early precursors, of course (Stargate SG:1 is decidedly not–it was about as serialized as TNG, which is to say, it wasn't), but you're missing Twin Peaks and Babylon 5, arguably both more important (if less popular) influences on all the serialized genre shows that came after. At the end of the the day though, the rise of serialized television can't be pinned down to one show or even a few, and there are a lot of causes for it.

  • Guest

    I agree with all of your points. But I think you don't go far enough. The fans have to accept some blame here, too.

    Star Trek Enterprise was a better series than Star Trek Voyager. The characters were tighter. The stories were tighter though the overriding plot of time travel was kind of weak. It was a step in the right direction.

    But, in the age of the internet, it has become far too easy to complain. The fans were relentless in their complaints about this series. This drove the creators to battle and change their own show in an effort to please a community that was simply nitpicking.

    These changes gave us the Xindi War, a blatant way to try to capitalize on current events. Then we got a group of marines on the Enterprise. Another blatant capitalization that was needless. The marines didn't do anything to drive the stories that ship's security couldn't have done.

    Finally, whenever a show is in trouble. The networks always turn to sex to solve the problem. When Star Trek Voyager was ailing, we got Seven of Nine. She became a great character but the only reason she was introduced was sex appeal. When Star Trek Enterprise was on the ropes, we got T'Pol in heat and Trip in the bedroom.

    All in blatant, weak attempts to please the fans. So, in the end, we all have to share the blame for Star Trek's eventual demise. RIP Star Trek 1.0. Hopefully, the new Star Trek will focus on telling good stories instead of gimmicks or sub-space anomalies. Or am I asking too much?