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Old May 13th, 2005, 01:00 PM   #1
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Default Spaced out: 'Star Trek' is in dry dock, but it changed our world

Spaced out: 'Star Trek' is in dry dock, but it changed our world
By Rick Kushman -- Sacramento Bee Columnist

There is only one real reason why the "Star Trek" franchise will boldly go nowhere, at least for a while, after "Star Trek: Enterprise's" final voyage tonight: fatigue.

Not among the most faithful fans, but for the borderline Trekkers and the general, not-always-thrilled-with-sci-fi public. "Star Trek" has been in the culture, has been permeating the culture, for nearly 40 years. It's time to move on.
That is no knock on what is arguably the most far-reaching, long-lasting entertainment entity this side of Mickey Mouse. And in truth, the popular survival of "Star Trek" is something of a wonder in this hyper-competitive, attention-challenged world of the 21st century.

Still, it seems Gene Roddenberry's envisioned future has lost its appeal for much of America, so when UPN's "Enterprise" signs off tonight with two separate episodes (at 8 and then the finale at 9 on Channel 31), that's going to be it.

This will be the first time in 18 years, since "Star Trek: The Next Generation" appeared in syndication in 1987, that TV will not have a first-run "Trek." And there are no new series on the drawing boards, no movies in the works, no animation projects bouncing around.

After five series, more than 600 hours of TV, 10 films and Lord knows how many phaser battles, first contacts and universal lessons learned, all the United Federation starships will be docked.

But though the diehards won't admit this, some quiet time is exactly what the franchise needs. Let "Star Trek" rest. Let it build its mythic status back up. Let some new producers with fresh ideas completely re-imagine the subject and come back in a few years when the weariness has worn off.

Put simply, sometimes you have to cancel the things you love.

Despite protests from a few plucky "Enterprise" fans, the series is sailing away largely unnoticed. And what talk there is focuses more on the departure of the franchise than this series.

Even the final episode tonight, titled "These Are the Voyages ..." is as much a nod to the universe of "Star Trek" than a goodbye for Captain Archer (Scott Bakula), Subcommander T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) and the rest of the crew.

It's set six years into the future (from the show's current setting in the 22nd century), with the first Federation charter about to be signed. And although Archer's Enterprise is the focal point of the episode, we watch it unfold from "The Next Generation's" holodeck.

Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis - Commander Riker and Counselor Troi from the 24th century Enterprise - guest-star, and producers whipped up a contrived subplot for them, connected to an episode from "Next Generation's" last season.

As manufactured as the Riker and Troi story may be, it's also a measure of the current series' lack of impact that it isn't particularly bothersome. We're willing to go along so the entire franchise can be brought into play.

And if the final episode of "Enterprise" is less than a monumental sendoff for an historic franchise, the closing moments evoke memories of all the Enterprises and manage to be appropriately touching.

What is still difficult, at least for devoted fans, is explaining what happened to the general enthusiasm for all things Trek.

The "Enterprise" series, which premiered in 2001 with more than 12 million viewers and is down to a little over 2 million this season, has been blamed for everything from being too serialized and too dull to having the wrong opening song.

Some Trekkers complain that the show messed with long-time Trek mythology - a charge producers called crazy talk - and even that "Enterprise" came up with a lame explanation for why the Klingons of the original "Star Trek" did not have the crinkled, bony foreheads of all future Klingons.

(Those smooth-headed Klingons, who were hanging around the galaxy a lot during the days of Capt. James T. Kirk, were actually a sub-race that had been injected with genetically enhanced human DNA. It's a long story.)

But the truth is more complicated, and, let's face it, a series does not live or die because a few timelines are inconsistent.

More to the point, "Enterprise" faced a difficult television universe. Repeats of other "Star Treks" were everywhere on cable, as were new and different science fiction shows. And UPN switched its focus from young male to young female viewers, meaning it could not promote the guy-oriented "Enterprise" on many of its other series.

Then, there was the Friday-night time slot, a notorious killing ground for many TV shows, though UPN execs argued - off the record, by the way - that if anyone was likely to be home watching TV on Fridays, it was "Star Trek" nuts.

But all of that misses the larger point. Everything gets old, and everything loses its distinction, even a gold-plated series like "Star Trek." There are only so many stories to tell in one setting that feel unique and surprising. It is simply the cycle of entertainment life, especially on TV.

That does not mean that what Roddenberry first brought to television in 1966 - that vision of a benign, wide-open galaxy - was anything less than innovative and enduring.

Where so much of science fiction was dark, offering an apocalyptic view of our fate, Roddenberry and "Star Trek" saw the possibilities in humanity and imagined a peaceful, hopeful future.

He filled his galaxy with the wonders of exploration - of new worlds and new civilizations - and always, humanity was something of a beacon of decency and open-mindedness.

Over the years, the morality plays changed. The simple, bright rights and wrongs of the early "Treks" gave way to complex ambiguities and sometimes difficult choices. But there always remained a notion that the better part of being human was trying to do the right thing, even when the right thing is not exactly obvious.

That idea alone would be a fairly hefty legacy for the franchise, even without the TV shows, the movies, the books, the technical manuals, the terminology, the Christmas ornaments and, of course, the conventions.

If "Star Trek" disappears for a few years, or forever, there is no denying the positive, indelible impact it has left on science fiction, on TV and on our culture.
"When Commander Adama sees these, he's gonna go crazy!" - Col. Tigh - "Saga of a Star World"

"If you love long enough, wish hard enough, anything is possible" - From The Boy Who Could Fly
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Old May 13th, 2005, 01:07 PM   #2
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By and large a well thought out and cogent piece. Yes, there are a couple of points I'd disagree with, but his overall conclusion is inescapably right.

Thanks, Bryan.

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