Requiem for a Franchise

May 13, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

It started in relative anonymity 39 years ago. It will end today in a similar state. How many people know that Star Trek is taking its last bow this evening as the most recent Trek series, "Enterprise," shuts down its warp engines? All things considered, it has been a good run: five series (six, if you count the animated one), ten movies, and a gazillion books and comic tie-ins. Some are hopeful that Star Trek will return at an unspecified point in the future, but I'm doubtful. This has all the earmarks of a franchise that has run its course. After a fruitful run of nearly four decades, it deserves a hallowed spot on television's Boot Hill.

For me, Star Trek hasn't been Star Trek since 1991, when the originators of the 1966-69 series took their final bows. No one, not even the revered Patrick Stewart, could replace William Shatner's hammy James T. Kirk. For me, since Kirk, Spock, and McCoy retired exclusively into reruns, the franchise has been treading water. I liked and watched "The Next Generation" and its successor, "Deep Space Nine," but lost interest in "Voyager" and haven't seen a full episode of "Enterprise." I never viewed Picard & Co. as "imposters" the way some old-guard fans did, but their adventures never enthralled me the way those original 78 (or 79, depending on how you're counting) episodes did. I watched them over and over, on black-and-white and color TVs, during afternoon and late-night time slots. For years, they were the most reliable thing on the tube. (I can remember at the age of 12 sneaking out of bed at 1:00 in the morning to watch "The Tholian Web," the only episode I had not yet seen. I had to rotate the rooftop antenna to pull in the distant signal from New York's Channel 11. The picture was snowy and the audio had a hiss, but it remains one of my strongest memories from early 1980.)

It's one of TV's great ironies that the thing to kill Star Trek is oversaturation. Too much of a "good" thing. Fans who lobbied long and hard during the lean '70s for the return of the U.S.S. Enterprise would be stunned to learn that the eventual end of their beloved franchise would be too much, not too little. Of course, Star Trek in 2005 isn't what it was in 1975. William Shatner wears a toupee and has won an Emmy. Leonard Nimoy no longer claims "I am not Spock." And DeForrest Kelly is dead. Other actors have sat in the captain's chair: Stewart, Brooks, Mugrew, and Bakula.

I came on-board at the end of the "drought," when the hype for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shifting into high gear. I had seen my first episode of "Star Trek" in the early '70s but didn't become a fan until the summer of 1979. (The same summer that I started watching "Dr. Who" and saw the Star Wars re-release three times.) By the time I saw the movie in December 1979, after standing in the longest film line of my life (which would be eclipsed six months later by The Empire Strikes Back), I had seen about half of the TV episodes. Everything was new and exciting at that time. The movie was mediocre, but every fan was so thrilled to have the crew back that it didn't seem to matter. Star Trek fans loved the idea of the movie more than the actual product.

The 1980s represented Star Trek's Golden Years. The movie series became so popular that after the blockbuster success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the only Trek movie to earn more than $100 million - the eventual gross would be close to $200 million in today's admission receipts), a new TV series was commissioned. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was an unqualified success. New fans were born. Star Trek, the cult phenomenon, had gone mainstream.

The first sour note came in 1989 with the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Studio heads decided that the poor box office indicated that the original crew had become "irrelevant." (The more likely reason, that the movie stunk, never occurred to them.) So it was decided that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country would be the last voyage of the 1966 pioneers. (Sort of - Kirk, Chekov, and Scotty had small roles in the first "Next Generation" movie, Generations. In fact, Kirk died in that one, and, unlike Spock, was not subsequently resurrected.)

The long, slow decline began in the early 1990s. 18 months after the final original series movie, "The Next Generation" wrapped. Those characters, as well-liked as they were on the small screen, had only limited success on the big one. Only Star Trek: First Contact came close to equaling the monetary success of the first four Star Trek movies. The other three "Next Generation" films were box office disappointments. (Although First Contact beat installments 1, 2, and 3 in terms of actual dollars, it was signficantly behind when compared using adjusted dollars or tickets sold.) "Deep Space Nine" ratings began a slow decline, and its replacement series, "Voyager," didn't reverse the trend. In the end, the final Star Trek show was canceled because not enough people were watching it. That's the same reason the original "Star Trek" ended in 1969, although "Enterprise" got one extra season.

Yet even though, as I indicated, Star Trek hasn't been Star Trek for me for the last 14 years, this still feels like the end of an era. Whether or not I watch the last episode of "Enterprise," I'll still feel its importance. It's the end of an era - an era that has lasted ten years longer than that of its louder, flashier cousin, Star Wars.

My memories of Star Trek remain intact, and that's all that really matters. That line for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, snaking through a mall past a Woolworth's and almost all the way to a Bamburger's Department Store. Sitting in the fifth row when seeing Star Trek II in a packed 2000-seat theater - never before or since have I experienced such energy at a movie. Lobbying my mother to drive me to Star Trek III (I was three months shy of getting my driver's license) the minute I got home from school, then developing a massive headache when seeing it a second consecutive time. Finishing a final exam on the day before Thanksgiving in 1986, heading home, then waiting for my friends before rushing to a theater to see Star Trek IV. Abject horror at the abomination that was Star Trek V. And a sense of great sadness as the end credits for Star Trek VI rolled.

It's a little odd to acknowledge that Star Wars and Star Trek are both ending within a week of each other. These two have been joined since the 1970s. Many of those who relentlessly promoted Star Wars by word-of-mouth after its 1977 opening were die-hard Trekkies/Trekkers. Star Trek: The Motion Picture never would have gotten off the ground if not for the success of Star Wars. Silly rivalries not withstanding, many sf lovers remain fans of both franchises. In the next week, those people, who have been entertained for decades by Luke and Kirk, Han and Spock, Obi-Wan and Bones, Picard and Padme, and Archer and Anakin, will have one final chance to say "May the Force Be With You," "Live Long and Prosper," and "Goodbye."