Dead AgainJanuary 31, 2018
The first time I watched Star Trek, I was seven years old. It was a dreary Sunday evening and I was looking for something on the boob tube. I don’t know the time but it had to have been before dinner – after dinner my parents had control of the living room TV until bedtime. The program interested me enough that I continued watching it to the end but not enough for me to seek it out again. As a result, it would be three more years before I watched another episode. A lot happened during those three years: I stopped believing in Santa Claus; I discovered Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, King Kong, and Godzilla; my family moved and I had to find all-new friends; and Star Wars arrived on the scene, wiping away all previous claims on my prepubescent affections.
I didn’t discover Star Trek again until 1978 and, when I did, it was because an older friend couldn’t come out to play because he was watching it. So, of course, I had to see what he was watching…and I was hooked. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy soon relegated Luke, Han, and Leia to an afterthought. As passionate as I had been about Star Wars, I became more fanatical about Star Trek. This was during an era when Trek was readily available in daily syndication. A local UHF station showed it afternoons at 4:00 (a time that didn’t interfere with school, homework, or dinner). The NY station (Channel 11) that showed it late nights could be tuned in by rotating the roof antenna, although I only did that on Fridays because it was after my bedtime.
With Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the horizon, it was a good time to be a Star Trek fan. The community – not a large one but a passionate one – was welcoming. I never bought a Star Trek toy, although some were available. Most of my Trek purchases were books – the Blish TV adaptations, the Alan Dean Foster logs (which were adaptations and expansions of the animated episodes), a few original novels, and miscellaneous things. The entire Star Trek catalog was cycled through in less than four months. So, although I missed a handful of episodes the first time through, by the summer before the arrival of The Motion Picture, I had seen every episode except one: “The Tholian Web”. Why I repeatedly missed it, I have no idea. But when I saw in the TV Guide that it was going to be on Channel 11, I made sure to stay up late and watch it.
Backing up a few months, I first encountered Doctor Who shortly after Star Trek. Same friend, same reason. Doctor Who was on at 5:30, so my afternoon became: home from school, do homework, watch Star Trek, finish any leftover homework, watch Doctor Who, eat dinner, read a book, go to bed. Sounds a little depressing but that was my life in sixth grade. My “first” Doctor, like just about everyone else in the U.S., was Tom Baker. Time-Life syndicated Baker’s first four seasons and, for quite some time, I didn’t realize that Baker was one of several Doctors. The show was broadcast on PBS and, although I liked it well enough, I didn’t love it the way I loved Star Trek. Only geeks got the British import, though. Everyone else just shook their heads at the long scarf, the time-traveling police call box, and the wobbly special effects.
For Star Trek and Doctor Who fans, the ‘80s were a time of incredible ups and downs. The first half of the decade was mostly ups. Star Trek II was a game changer for Star Trek fans. After The Motion Picture was deemed financially disappointing by Paramount, it was unclear what would happen. Initially, Star Trek II was planned as a made-for-TV movie but that changed along the way. At the time of its release, it was thought this might be the last Trek ever, but we were still pumped. We made sure to tune in when “Space Seed” was broadcast in the lead-up to the movie’s opening. After it was confirmed that the movie made money and there would be another one, we started to feel optimistic. Star Trek was here to stay even if it was only one supersized episode every two-or-so years.
Doctor Who, meanwhile, continued to gain in popularity. The rest of the Tom Baker seasons were released and, as a result of reading Doctor Who Magazine, I became aware of The Doctor’s past and his future – remember that in this era, the U.S. typically got episodes anywhere from 1-2 years after the U.K., so spoilers were available even in a pre-Internet era. Doctor Who’s first U.S. Golden Era happened in 1983. Not only did we get the 20th anniversary special two days before the U.K. but a veritable flood of episodes became available: the first two Peter Davison series as well as all of the color Pertwees. More stations climbed on board and Doctor Who became a reliable fund-raiser during pledge drives. We had two local TV stations showing Doctor Who: one on weekday nights (at 11:30 pm – yes, I stayed up that late during my senior year of high school) with omnibus repeats Saturday afternoons, and one with Saturday evening omnibuses. With relatively little new Star Trek during the mid-‘80s and plenty of new Doctor Who, I found my affections shifting.
1986 represented the next change. For Star Trek, this was a great year. For Doctor Who, not so much. In November, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released. I remember my excitement leading up to seeing that movie. It was the day before Thanksgiving and I had an engineering exam blocking the way to nirvana. Once the exam was over, it was full speed ahead and the movie didn’t disappoint. Star Trek IV became the only one of the TOS movies to cross the $100M mark. Its success led the greenlighting of Star Trek: The Next Generation and resulted in a decade of healthy Star Trek on TV and in the movies.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the good Doctor was in trouble. The BBC put him on hiatus for 18 months due primarily to poor ratings. The controller at the time, Michael Grade, wanted to cancel the program altogether but he was aware of its overseas popularity (particularly in the United States) and, seeing a positive cash flow from Doctor Who, allowed it to return with “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Doctor Who somehow managed to stumble along for a full four seasons after the hiatus before the BBC finally stuck a fork in it in 1989. By then, its U.K. ratings were truly dismal and its U.S. popularity was in free-fall. So, just as Star Trek was reaching its second peak, Doctor Who had entered its own winter.
As dead as the 1990s were for Doctor Who (with only a failed TV movie to show for it), they were very much alive for Star Trek. Deep Space Nine joined The Next Generation on TV for several seasons. When the latter concluded its run, it shifted to movie theaters. But by the end of the decade, the juggernaut franchise was losing steam. The Next Generation movies had produced one hit and two misses and, after Insurrection, it was unclear whether there would be another. (Inflation-adjusted, the grosses of Insurrection and The Final Frontier – by far the worst performing of the TOS movies – were within 15% of each other). Deep Space Nine had finished its run. Voyager, the fourth Star Trek TV series, was beginning to sputter in the ratings.
The early 2000s represented Star Trek’s second death and Doctor Who’s rebirth. The former came on May 13, 2005 when Star Trek: Enterprise aired its last original episode. For the first time in nearly 18 years, there would be no new Star Trek on TV. The movie series was equally moribund – the final Next Generation film, Nemesis, bombed big-time in 2002, making only an ugly $43M (unadjusted). With three of the four Next Generation movies being financial disappointments, Paramount pulled the plug. Star Trek went dark. Just as Trekkies and Trekkers went into mourning, Whovians rejoiced. The return of Doctor Who was announced in 2004 and the show came back in triumph to BBC1 in late March 2005. (Although, without a U.S. outlet, it took considerably longer for it to reach American shores).
The first few new seasons of Doctor Who were universally acclaimed – fans old and new generally loved Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. After the initial hiccups surrounding a U.S. network, stability came when BBC America stepped in and the show eventually moved to same-day airing as in the U.K. During the late David Tennant/early Matt Smith era, Doctor Who became more popular worldwide than it had ever been. Something changed with Smith, however. Although the actor was popular, especially with new fans, there was something “off” with the scripts. Steven Moffat, the man behind Coupling and the writer of several of the best Eccleston/Tennant stories, lost his Midas Touch when he became showrunner and it really started to show when Peter Capaldi came on board. Capaldi’s 3-year tenure was marked by increasingly poorly-written stories and an erosion of ratings that was both sudden and shocking.
Star Trek, meanwhile, came back again. After a 7-year hiatus, J.J. Abrams rebooted the movie series with his 2009 feature, which mostly re-cast the crew (except Leonard Nimoy, who was given an opportunity to reprise Spock). That first “new Trek” movie was a wonderful tribute to the original series but really should have been a one-off. If Star Trek had any juice left, it should have been with a different crew in a different future. Abrams’ Trek never really felt like Trek and, although it was great to see Nimoy, it was sad not to see Shatner. With the 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, you could feel that something wasn’t right. I have always felt that the movie was unjustifiably vilified but it really wasn’t Star Trek and the Nimoy cameo didn’t change that. Abrams, it seemed, was more interested in remaking Star Trek into what he wanted it to be (Star Wars) than remaining faithful to the principles that had earned it a legion of fans over a span of five decades.