Failed Enterprise

This coming Friday, *Star Trek: Enterprise*, the sorely misconcieved prequel to the original *Star Trek* series, will air its final first-run episode. What went wrong — with *Enterprise* and *Star Trek* in general — has been a hot topic among the writers I know. Being a closet Trekkie and having co-written an episode of *Next Generation*, it’s something I’ve been thinking about, too.

Finding the flaws in *Enterprise* is a bit like shooting Changelings in a bucket — the casting, the “where everybody has gone before” problem, and so on — but the roots of *Enterprise*’s failure in fact date back to some of Gene Roddenberry’s prescriptions for the *Next Generation* series, specifically his belief in the perfectability of mankind and his insistence that *Star Trek* present a vision of a “hopeful” future.

I met Gene a few times. Beth Slick (then Woods) and I worked directly with him on the *TNG* episode. I admired his faith in humanity’s future — I believe it was absolutely genuine — and his determination to see *his* vision of *Star Trek* realized *his* way.

Unfortunately, I think Gene sometimes missed the point of what he had created. *Trek*’s uniqueness wasn’t the “hopeful future” concept. That was mostly a hook manufactured by reporters trying to explain the devotion of the fans.

The uniqueness of *Star Trek* is that it was a television show — let me repeat that: a television show — that dealt in *ideas*.

Illusion versus reality, logic versus emotion, the sanitizing of war, alternate realities, man’s relationship to technology — *big stuff*, enormous themes that, yes, were sometimes handled clumsily, but which the rest of television never even approached. You forgave the spotty special effects, the cheap sets, and Captain Kirk’s tendency to bloviate, because the scope of the stories was so compelling.

And the characters *reacted* to what was going on around them — with wonder, with compassion, with anger, with lust — you know, like human beings with actual *personalities*?

Beginning with *Next Generation*, the reservoir of wonder and passion sprang a leak. The final frontier and its denizens were becoming commonplace — not to viewers (yet), but, unforgivably, *to the characters themselves*. The stories got smaller. Debating grand ideas was replaced by endless niggling over minutiae, not how whole societies worked but how one subsystem of the ship worked. It was like watching the Lincoln-Douglas debates degenerate into an SDS meeting.

The conceptual shrinkage reached its inevitable conclusion with the *Enterprise* title sequence and its theme song, the alternately unctuous and self-pitying “Faith of the Heart.” Its message? “They’re not gonna hold *me* down no more.” “Goin’ where *my* heart will take me.” “*I* can do anything.” “*I* can reach any star.”

The song is an affirmation, and a lame one at that, set to music. It redefines the final frontier as me, me, me.

Join Starfleet: We’ve Got a Massive Hard-on for Ourselves.

I suppose there’s a place for unconditional self-congratulation, probably in a shrink’s office in Beverly Hills. But, as the Organians once pointed out, it’s somehow inappropriate on a mission to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations. For that job, curiosity might work better. Along with a dash of humility. Oh, and maybe a willingness to reassess one’s own beliefs and values on a regular basis.

Anyway, the audience finally tuned out, and now *Star Trek* is going away for a while. Personally, I think that’s a good idea. Give it a rest. Give people a chance to miss it. And, a couple of years from now, let a new crew of writers and producers, burdened with fewer preconceptions, take whack at making Gene Roddenberry’s universe interesting again.

14 Responses to “Failed Enterprise”

  1. Bryan Headley Says:

    Hmm. This reminds me of superhero comics, dealing with the minutae of their own universes, made in concrete in the 50s and 60s. Need more “crisis” to clean out more continuity…

    Star Trek probably ought to have been retired for awhile when they thought of Voyager.

  2. Bart Lidofsky Says:

    Well, in general, a series which fences itself in cannot last long (at least a dramatic series; a comedic series can milk the fact that the characters never get anywhere). Star Trek and Star Trek:TNG were both open ended. Deep Space Nine used arcs to keep fresh. This wasn’t realized in Voyager until near the end (getting a bit of a support system, and becoming ambassadors of goodwill rather than trying to “get off the island”). But Enterprise, as a series, was completely fenced in. And it didn’t have to be. They tried to make the Enterprise a forward explorer, but didn’t consider that it couldn’t find anything new. However, it was also established in the earlier series that Earth had set up many colonies on other planets. Enterprise might have been workable if they had dealt with those, rather than “alien of the week” or time travel paradoxes. Can there be a new Star Trek series, going back to be a series about ideas? I think so. In Deep Space Nine, it was established that there are news services in the future; something like that would create the ability to have a solid central cast, and examining the “big ideas.”

  3. Steve Gerber Says:

    I don’t think there’s any question that it’s possible to create a new Star Trek that would be worth watching. But the show needs a rest first. And then it needs a creative team that’s willing to go, well, where no Star Trek has gone before. The next series needs to leap forward a century or two past Next Generation, past what has become the Trek status quo, to a Starfleet, a Federation, and a galactic political situation which, while descended from the ones we know, are also very, very different.

  4. Dillinger Says:

    One only needs to look at the new “Battlestar Galactica” to see where Star Trek has gone wrong.

  5. dj anderson Says:

    I vaguely recall hearing that someone once pitched doing a TREK focused on some of the more fringe characters — raiders or pirates or something — and having the Federation be almost like the “bad guys.” I thought it sounded like a MUCH better pitch than what became ENTERPRISE. Similar in theme to Joss Whedon’s SERENITY, but several years before that ever made the airwaves.

  6. Matt Maxwell Says:

    I’d heard that ANDROMEDA was originally pitched as STAR TREK-universe series, with crew and captain attempting to rebuild the Federation after it had slipped into turmoil. As a lapsed trek fan, I’d have been utterly intrigued by that. As it stands, Enterprise bored the pants off of me.

  7. Bryan Headley Says:

    The question is, whose vision would be in control of any new ventures, once the show has rested for… 5 years?

    Again, I’m not a deep Trekkie, but hasn’t there been dissent with what Berman and the others have been doing? I’m looking at the Whedon versus Straczinski versus ?? camps, none with Gene’s “voice of the creator”, trying to reshape the franchise in the near future.

  8. Michel Fortin Says:

    In my opinion, Star Trek started to fall (in quality) in the middle of *Deep Space Nine*. The start of Voyager wasn’t bad either, until they throwed the Borg at it. I’ve not followed much what happened after that, movies or series, because I don’t care anymore.

  9. Dillinger Says:

    I guess I must be a weirdo. About the only Star Trek I like is the original series. Shatner’s a weirdo, but there is no other actor like him, and to me he’s high art.

  10. Beth Slick Says:

    Where it went wrong: We, the audience, with 30 years of space exploration experience were expected to watch a newbie captain. When an Andorian pops up on the show we think “Look an Andorian” and Archer gawks “Wow, blue skin.” How could we get on board with Archer’s goofy hatred of Vulcans after 30 years of liking them? And, at least once, T’Pol should have quoted the odds.

  11. Bart Lidofsky Says:

    Well, Klingons went from villains to immensely popular, thanks to Michael Dorn, the writers, and the directors.

    As you pointed out, the series should have gone into things that were NOT already known. I pointed out the possibility of trouble-shooting on the then new colonies. Plenty of opportunity for stories, plenty of opportunity for first contacts (as it had been established that the ST humanoid races have a common genetic background, they would be looking for the same types of planets), and an ability for the audience to share the sense of wonder, rather than just being “in” on the joke. And that’s just one possibility; I’m certain that many of the people here could come up with other ways a prequel could have gone into new directions.

  12. haven o'terrorism Says:

    The thing most compelling about the original Star Trek series, in my opinion, is that it was dramatically interesting. Such a simple thing to say, even an obvious thing to say, but TNG and the rest of the sequels barely rose to that (ultimately) theatrical standard, and they suffered from not doing so. Admittedly, in DS9 there was at least a suggestion of danger and meaning in existence from time to time; but even DS9 fails in this regard, because even in the presence of its danger one still gets the impression that it was made from a colour-by-numbers kit (or even a modern-day Lego set), where all the thrills and shocks and forms and permutations are predetermined. Not that all drama isn’t in some sense taken out of the same pre-set mould, of course; but the later Star Treks all seemed to rely on the trappings of drama and character, even as they overlooked the necessary substance that should underlie these. And that substance is, as Steve says, all about the ideas. Specifically, it is about how to express them effectively in the televisual form. And that’s what Gene Roddenberry did so brilliantly, because he was gifted with fine teledramatic sensibilities and a flair for story…but it’s also exactly what his would-be continuators can’t seem to get a grip on, no matter how talented they are or how hard they try. They are just always missing – somehow! – the common everyday point about how to make drama dramatic. Ultimately, everyone ought to realize that Star Trek isn’t special because it’s Star Trek, but because it’s good. And the latter-day Trek efforts lack this “good” quality. It’s hard to care about the characters and their choices. It’s hard to care about their fates or destinies. Did anyone ever really give a damn about Harry Kim’s happiness, or even Miles O’Brien’s? I would venture to say “no”, though many would disagree with me; as far as I can make out, Harry and Miles were never really any more than devices, attitudes and attributes sculpted into human shape but without any real human breath to be animated by. And the actors were fine, mind you. More than fine. It was the roles that were poor. Because there was nothing happening in them.

    Maybe comics are partly to blame for all this: I’ve often noticed that the mise-en-scene of TNG owes more to comic-book layouts than it does to the film or the stage, and there is (it seems to me) something naive about the way certain juxtapositions of faces and bodies and sets and words are used as that show’s emotional building blocks, just as if they were sufficient by themselves to communicate urgency or conflict or import. Every shot is an establishing shot, and because the establishing never ends, the ensuing never begins. And is this because the scripters learned everything they know from old X-Men comics, and never learned a thing from Aristophanes or Eugene O’Neill? Or even Will Eisner: the relationship of each character to their world is made into very thin gruel in later Star Treks, and the essentially allegorical nature of sci-fi is lost entirely, because the characters are never permitted to embody anything other than plot conveniences. Perfectability…that is the current Star Trek ideal’s buzzword, but it’s all wrong. It isn’t accurate. Kirk’s world was never about perfectability, but about imperfectability. In fact the paradox of human imperfectability in Star Trek was that it was made into the treasure of life, and realized as something that needed to be held onto even in an otherwise perfect future. That’s because Kirk’s struggle with his world was also our struggle with ours, naturally…but what did any of the rest of the Captains ever go through that translated so simply and effectively to the concerns of their audience? Nothing, I submit. They were all too comfortable in their worlds and roles, not like us at all, and the only things they ever had to figure out were the practical applications of things they had already known and been right about the whole time, so they were boring. Even though they didn’t have to be. Making new Star Trek would be easy, if it were made by someone who knew what they were about, and knew what they wanted to do. Otherwise it’s impossible.

    My little essay on Star Trek, I guess. Thanks for sitting through it.

  13. Steve Gerber Says:

    The single worst moment in *Star Trek* history was Picard quoting Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is man” speech — and declaring that what Shakespeare meant ironically, he, Picard, stated with conviction. (Not a direct quote, but that’s the gist.) I believe this was a first- or second-season episode. Gene Roddenberry was still very much involved with the day-to-day running of the show at that point.

    By the time he started work on TNG, Gene himself believed in the eventual perfectability of humankind. He abhorred the idea of conflict among the Enterprise crew. So TNG became The Get-Along Gang in space.

    I hate to say this, because I really do think Gene was a brilliant man, but he may have swallowed his own press about the “hopeful future” concept being at the core of *Star Trek*. In TNG, he chose to illustrate that future as a *fait accompli*, rather than dramatize the *striving* toward it, which is what made the original series so powerful. Subsequent series turned Gene’s basic prescription into inflexible dogma and progressed from drama-without-conflict to drama-without-character-or-conflict.

    A certain segment of the audience may have been willing to put up with that in the days when *Star Trek* was the only sci-fi show on the air, but not after the advent of an entire channel devoted to sci-fi — not, in other words, after choices became available.

  14. Forrest Says:

    Or has Star Trek gone away at all?