A few days ago Blastr.com hosted an interview with John Billingsley, who for years amused us with his character Dr Phlox on the last Star Trek show Enterprise. The show was sadly canceled after 4 seasons. In the interview the actor states that the bean counters killed of the show because they insisted on ever grander plots and action settings. He links this with viewers tuning out. Personally I agree with him on that issue, it was a problem that started with Voyager when it wanted to be hip. However, I do believe that season 3 and 4 of Enterprise was in that regards better.
Now, the clinching argument he makes is that Enterprise was over before it even started. It never had a chance of success because the show couldn’t stand on any artistic merit like the earlier Star Trek shows or the recent example of Battle Star Galactica.
Certainly the point is made when it comes down to Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), both were introduced solely to entice male viewers when the shows themselves began slowing down in the ratings (and strangely becoming cultural icons).
The question that arises is…. What is to be done for another Star Trek show to succeed?
At this moment, CBS owns the right to the Star Trek series and Paramount the rights to any feature film. Rumors persist that a reboot of the Star Trek TV-series is being considered and thus presenting arguments that could avoid the mistakes Enterprise made is an urgent one.
We have to ask ourselves… when was everything alright?
That would be back in the days when The Next Generation started airing. In some respects The Original Series was no more than a prototype for TNG. Gene Roddenberry was finally able to push through ideas that would be considered inappropriate during the 60’s. He also listened to his creative staff when it came to the setting. Many wonderful and modern ideas found their way into TNG. Though Roddenberry’s insistence on reusing old scripts from Star Trek Phase 2 meant that the first two seasons of TNG were recieved poorly until he and writer Maurice Hurley either left or were fired (in the case of Maurice Hurley it might have been the sexual harassment of Gates McFadden).
So now we have identified two aspects in which Star Trek must succeed. It must have an underlying artistic merit and it must have the ability to grow without writers trying to hold it back. The latter aspect is solely up to producers and how well they respond to viewer opinion, but as for its artistic merits we have to analyze what our future will be like. Are their utopian aspects that we strive for that will have an emotional effect on the viewers? For TNG and TOS one important utopian ideal was gender equality, it wasn’t perfect in either show but it was better than Voyager and Enterprise were it simply wasn’t an issue and that was perhaps their greatest flaw. What TNG also tried to discuss was how men and women would dress in the future. Gone were the days that men should were pants and women miniskirt like in TOS. TNG tried under the auspices of costume designer William Ware Theiss to come up with a unisex skirt uniform. Even though fans might have appreciated the idealism behind it they still find it even today a bit creepy. Anyway the skirt uniform was only ever worn by Marina Sirtis and Denise Crosby and both only for the pilot. Yet it was back in the 1980’s a bold statement about the future of gender equality.
Today, even in the western world gender equality still has a long way to go and so can definitely be put on the list of features a show must have. But even TNG had its limits. The utopian ideals went the way of the dodo after the second season when most of the creative staff was changed. Since then the quality of the programs might have improved without Gene Roddenberry but not his bold vision.
Even until the very end of Star Trek Enterprise there remained the issue of gay characters on Star Trek. Despite some attempts to introduce permanent characters that were gay (Geordi LaForge most notably) it was quickly put on the back-burner and the shows only intermittently featured episodes that touched upon the subject. It is said that these episodes were merely intended to keep the fans happy. The rumor was that one person had long withheld the possibility of a gay character as a show regular. I just hope it wasn’t Gene Roddenberry.
I have touched upon two social issues and undoubtedly there are plenty more (Religion, Race and social equality), but what about technology? Ever since TOS Star Trek has tried to introduce advanced technology but mostly as a plot device. Technology for personal use rarely changed though they were very fantastical (holographic projection and tricorder), but as the pace of technology in the real world seemed to change ever faster Star Trek didn’t catch up. By the time Voyager had finished some of the technology featured would have been possible within 30 to 40 years. Thus another tenant that a future Star Trek show has to adhere to is the ever faster pace of technological change (singularity). Few sci-fi shows manage to make this an issue (Eureka being an exception), yet technology has both utopian and dystopian aspects I believe Star Trek should address. Otherwise it’s just a special effects bonanza which will soon tire.I hope I have given an insightful opinion on how Star Trek needs to change with the times and not suffer the same fate as Enterprise, for brevity I have not touched upon every aspect or done so in-depth but if you believe I have missed something important please comment below.