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from DIVERSION, FEBRUARY 1988
The scene is familiar. On the bridge of the starship Enterprise, control center, the "Star Trek" crew is once again facing an alien life-form that is threatening humanity's very existence. But wait! There is no halfhuman, half-vulcan Mr. Spock in sight. Where's Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy? Beam me up, Scotty-a guy named Picard is commanding the Enterprise, and on board with him are an android named Data and a beautiful half-human woman named Troy. Have aliens taken over the Enterprise at last?
Not exactly. This crew is part of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a syndicated series created by "Star Trek" originator Gene Roddenberry that picks up the action on board the Enterprise 78 years after the adventures of the old crew. And if you've never heard of "Star Trek," new or old, come out of your cave: It is simply the most remarkable success story in television history, a show that has inspired books, record albums, movies, doctoral dissertations, and hundreds of fan clubs throughout the world.
In the Beginning
It all started in 1964, when Roddenberry, a writer of TV westerns, dramas, and crime shows, finally got fed up with the restraints placed on him by network censors. "You really couldn't talk about prejudice, sex, labor management, or war," he noted recently. "I decided 1 was going to leave TV unless 1 could find someway to write what 1 wanted."
Roddenberry let out his frustrations by creating a science fiction series in which he could deal with moral issues disguised as outer space plays. Vietnam, nuclear war, women's rights, racism-they all came under the microscope in "Star Trek," albeit in the manner of action and adventure on other planets. "It apparently went right over the censor's heads," says Roddenberry, "but all the fourteen-year-olds in our audience knew exactly what we were talking about."
The "Star Trek" odyssey began in 1966 on NBC, with an opening narration that explained: "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. " The series detailed the adventures of a huge starship in the 23rd century as it investigated unknown planets in unknown galaxies. The 430 crew members included the young, dynamic Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner); the apparently all-knowing Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, with pointed ears); and the hot-tempered Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley). A typical episode presented Kirk with a seemingly insoluble dilemma: a plague affecting the crew or a menacing alien capable of destroying the ship. His solution, devised with the help of Spock and McCoy, usually reaffirmed what it means to be human.
The issues "Star Trek" confronted ran the gamut from growing up and sexism to penal systems and computerization. In one episode, for instance, a brilliant scientist transplants his mind into a robot's body, but finds that his soul is missing. He can think, but he cannot feel or make mistakes or be emotional. The lesson: He is alive, but he lacks the qualities that are the essence of humanity.
The program is fascinating partly because its effects were done so ingeniously. Unlike such high-tech sci-fi series as "Battlestar Galactica," which had brilliant special effects, "Star Trek" was made quickly and produced on a shoestring budget: Two-dollar saltshakers doubled as medical instru- ' ments; alien landscapes looked like yesterday's studio set. But it didn't matter. "Star Trek" valued characters and drama over effects, and its followers loved it.
"'Star Trek' came along at a time when most television leads were antiheroes," Roddenberry said in a 1976 interview. "On 'Star Trek,' we decided to go for real heroes in an oldfashioned sense, people whose word was their bond, who believed that there were some things more important in life than personal security or comfort."
The Enterprising Kirk
Kirk, naturally, was a captain's captain, a hero's hero. "People are fascinated by Kirk," noted Shatner in 1983. "He's somebody who fights nature in order to have sway over his own fate. For most people, that's impossible." Or as David Bianculli, a television critic, put it: "Kirk's character was app~aling because he was cerebral, so he was always addressing the big, issues, like what humans are here for, how humans should interact, how to succeed through nonviolence. That was different; in 'Gunsmoke,' for exam, pie, you never saw, Matt Dillon agonizing over whether to pull the trigger."
Despite all its qualities, in its initial appearance "Star Trek" was a failure. NBC, unsure of how to promote it, constantly shifted the show from time slot to time slot, and by 1969 it was being bested by "Iron Horse" and "Mr. Terrific." After 79 adventures, the Enterprise went into dry. dock. But, like the phoenix or Count Dracula, "Star Trek" wouldn't stay down. The show was immediately put in syndication on stations around the country and quickly gained a new audience-people who had never seen it in its original time slots. And people didn't just watch it-they virtually lived it. Fan conventions began in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. A cartoon version ran on Saturday mornings in the 1973-74 season. Comic books, novels, and toys inundated the market. "Star Trek" was a cult phenomenon. By the mid-1980 s, the series's owner, Paramount, reported that it was the most successful syndicated show ever, topping such perennial favorites as "Perry Mason" and "Little House on the Prairie. " Over 140 stations carried it, and many ran it every day of the week.
You didn't have to hit Paramount over the head with the show's nationwide popularity: The studio reassembled the original cast in 1979 for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, an effectsladen, duller-than-dirt epic that missed the point of the show's success. That disaster, however, was followed by three sequels that were right on target: stories about people, about choices to be made and issues to be resolved, all done with drama, humor, and a great deal of panache. But there was a problem. The "Star Trek" following was getting stronger as the cast was growing older. How could the Enterprise continue laying its golden eggs over the next 20 years? "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is the answer. A new syndicated series with a new cast, "The Next Generation" replaces the fiery young Kirk with JeanLuc Picard, an aristocratic, bald French-Englishman in his 50s. Instead of Spock, there is Data, an android who wants to be human. But that's where the similarities cease. For as production associate Susan Sackett put it when the'series began, "Weare not putting clones of the original characters into this. The reason Gene set the new series [long] after the original series was to free it from the old 'Star Trek' pattern. It gives us a chance to take it a step beyond."
The new starship Enterprise contains even more unusual crew members than its predecessor: aliens, the android, many more women in executive positions, and even a 16-year-old boywonder who gets on the captain's nerves. The Enterprise itself is fancier, and the show's budget is vastly bigger (at about $1 million an episode, it is in fact one of the most expensive science fiction series ever).
But the stories have been typical "Star Trek," showcasing issues rather than ray guns and attempting topicality in the guise of sci-fi. In one episode, for example, the crew tries to cope with hostage-takers, yet seeks to understand rather than destroy them. "Terrorists feel that they have been wronged," Roddenberry told the fan press. "They feel very passionate about their beliefs. Today, in the United States, we should be exploring why they feel that way. What could we possibly have done wrong? And how can we fix it? The answer is not the current answer, hating them. And the answer in 'Star Trek' is not going to be hating them."
What the new show lacks, however, is the strong chemistry among the characters that sparked the original series. There is an almost familial bond between Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest that makes the first "Star Trek" watchable even when the story lines are weak. But on "The Next Generation," there are too many personalities that aren't meshing. And the writing! In one episode, the "away team" (or landing party) beams down to a pleasure planet where breaking a law-any law-means death. There is no appeal, no chance to claim mitigating circumstances. Though the point that laws must take events into account is valid, the tale is handled with incredible ineptitude, culminating in a silly deus ex machina. It's boring, too, so full of talk that it might be mistaken for a PBS debate show, and there's very little drama.
Will "Star Trek: The Next Generation" succeed? So far it is a hit in the ratings (Variety, the show business trade paper, offered the headline: "'Star Trek' Earns Hyperspace Ratings"). And its critical reception has been nothing if not warm, although the ~ original cast initially expressed some :g resentment. "I think they're trying to "'- fool the public," James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Scott, told Starlog, a fan magazine. "They are calling it 'Star Trek' when we know what 'Star Trek' is, which is the characters." Added Leonard Nimoy: "We were lucky to catch lightning in a bottle with the characters we had. I don't know if they can do it again." But Nichelle Nichols, alias Lieutenant Uhura, was more encouraging: "It has the genius of Gene Roddenberry behind it. He did it once; there's no reason he can't do it agam.
And though some might argue that the success of the new "Star Trek" depends on whether the drama is better written or the characters develop chemistry, "Star Trek" has really gone beyond that, gone beyond even its creators' grandest dreams. "Star Trek" has become as much a part of America as the Rose Bowl and Cabbage Patch dolls. It's no wonder that a recent poll of critics, science fiction writers and editors, and TV watchers rated the old series the number one science fiction show of all time. D. C. Fontana, the original show's story editor and the new one's script writer, explained it: "The stories appeal to generation after generation. I was talking to a twenty-threeyear-old real estate broker. He was only three or four years old when the show originally ran. When he got to college, everybody gravitated toward watching 'Star Trek' reruns because they found something in them, something that spoke to them. And that's 'Star Trek"s continuing appeal. The characters are still speaking across twenty years to today's generation. "