`Star Trek' Beams Out

WELL, we've set our phasers here on ``stunned.''

How could Paramount Studios cancel ``Star Trek: The Next Generation,'' this year's No. 1-rated syndicated TV show?

The opinion in this quadrant is that there was still plenty of oomph left in this imaginative show's warp coils. The Klingons were still a proud warrior race. The Ferengi were still deliciously duplicitous business-beings. And the series' main characters, the seven samurai of outer space, still had personal story lines intertwined with consummate soap-opera skill.

The answer is that the studio that underwrites this noble crew's exploration of the galaxy decided there was more money to be made in movies and in further spinoff series, undoubtedly with lower-cost actors. In the end, after all, this a commercial enterprise.

So after seven years and 178 episodes the TV series goes into science fiction dry dock after a special finale this week. Let's hope the intriguing plots and lofty ideals it presented don't get mothballed with it.

The original ``Star Trek'' series in the 1960s reflected its times as the crew and guest aliens played out plots involving thinly disguised human issues like race relations and superpower confrontations.

With a bigger budget, ``The Next Generation'' brought the special effects gadgetry up to state of the art. But, more important, it updated the story themes. While Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of the original Starship Enterprise was likely to settle a problem with a stagey fistfight or a photon torpedo, ``Next Generation's'' Capt. Jean-Luc Picard used his skills as an arbitrator to seek solutions by building trust and mutual understanding.

As ``Next Generation'' encountered new races or beings, even those that seemed purely evil at first (the Borg, the Cardassians) later began to show touches of humanity. No small lesson there. Racial (and species!) tolerance aboard ship was a given, a nonissue. Even the mission changed course to become gender-correct: ``To boldly go where no one has gone before.''

``Trek'' originator Gene Roddenberry sought to produce a ``Wagon Train'' to the stars: good stories told along the trail to ``out there.'' But the series has become something more. His hopeful vision of the future has attracted deeply loyal fans of all races, old and young, male and female.

If ``Next Generation'' can keep its values intact, it deserves to live long and prosper on the big screen.

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