Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Enterprise finale and the future of Star Trek

I've been an intermittent Star Trek fan since I was 13 or 14, watching the last few seasons of The Next Generation fairly regularly, really getting into Deep Space Nine (my personal favorite), watching one or two seasons of Voyager and seeing all the TNG movies in the theater. I've caught various original series and older TNG repeats from time to time, and seen about half of the original series movies. It's weird how there's this impression about Trek fans that there are only two positions to have about Trek: Either you are an obsessed fan who can quote inane trivia at length, or you have no interest in the franchise. Say "I'm a Star Trek fan," and people immediately assume the former. Nevertheless, I'm a genuine casual fan, which means I like it but I didn't hesitate to stop watching Enterprise after the first season failed to impress me.

Which means it's been a few years since I watched the latest Trek incarnation, although that didn't stop me from tuning in to the show's finale on Friday. I never watched the Voyager finale, but the Enterprise finale is different for two reasons: One is that it's essentially the finale of the whole franchise, at least for now, and the other is that it featured a controversial connection to the TNG cast and characters. Some fans are outraged by the episode, and Jolene Blalock, who played Enterprise's Vulcan T'Pol, went so far as to call it "appalling." Something like that I couldn't pass up watching.

I guess I don't care enough about Trek right now or Enterprise in particular to be actually appalled by the finale, but it's clear that Trek stewards Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (who inspire virulent hatred in a certain set of the franchise's fans) misconstrued what fans want and how to give a proper send-off to the show that some people, at least, have invested four years in. As some have noted, connecting the show with TNG characters would have sent some fans into ecstasy were it in a different episode; much of the supposed strength of this last season has been attributed to tying the show closer to Trek continuity. But a show's finale shouldn't feature that show's characters as secondary, no matter what you think of them. Furthermore, Berman and Braga failed to make the TNG connection feel anything more than cursory; if it had more weight and resonance, it might be easier to justify.

Then there was the death of Trip Tucker, the ship's engineer and by many accounts the show's best character. Killing a character in a finale almost always seems cheap to me, although sometimes it does add more weight and resonance if done properly. But like the TNG connection, Trip's death felt cursory and pointless, an easy way to make the episode seem more important than it really was. Ultimately Berman and Braga did a disservice to Enterprise's loyal viewers, if not to Trek fans as a whole.

I never liked Enterprise that much anyway, so I wasn't too broken up about the way the finale was handled or the fact that it was going off the air. Like many Trek fans, I think giving the franchise a rest is a smart move. Enterprise always suffered from the same problems as the Star Wars prequels, I thought, in that the writers were always constrained by having to leave the universe pretty much where everyone knows it ends up in the shows and movies that take place later. When the Enterprise writers strayed from that and tried to strike out in new directions, it only served to damage what I think is the greatest thing about the larger Trek franchise: Its impeccably crafted sense of history and continuity.

I ruminated a little on the future of Trek in this column, but I didn't really have enough space to get into it deeply. I do think the rest period is important, but I think what's more important is what they come back with. To me, Enterprise was a sign that the producers had run out of ideas, and it was never thought through thoroughly enough to work, as evidenced by the clear continuity issues. I think the stand-alone movie idea that has been mentioned is smart, and I think if they do another show it should also be substantially different in concept from the previous ones. Ideas that have been bandied about forever, like the Starfleet Academy show or the show that focuses on outlaws in the Trek universe, are good, but I think almost more important than the concept is the team behind the scenes. Both in the films and the series, a strong new voice is needed. I think the smartest thing to do with the next Trek film would be to hire an already established director with a clear personal style who has a distinct vision for Trek. There have to be filmmakers out there who grew up Trek fans and would love to have a crack at the franchise. The James Bond producers were stupid not to give Quentin Tarantino a shot when he basically begged to do a Bond movie; Trek producers should find their version of Tarantino.

For the next show, the same thing should apply. Find an established TV writer-producer and let them have creative freedom, with Berman and Braga either not involved or very much in the background. I think Trek as a universe and a concept has almost limitless life left in it; the trick is to find creative talent with just as much life to reinvigorate it.

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