UPN syndication, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the new "Star Trek" series "Enterprise." Its mission: to seek out new audiences and boldly go where no "Star Trek" has gone before.
No space shuttle launch in recent memory has received anywhere near the attention being given to the imminent maiden voyage of the starship "Enterprise." There's a lot riding on UPN's blastoff (Wednesday, 9-10 p.m.) of the latest spaceship in the fleet of the "Star Trek" franchise. The future of "Trek" on television screens may well hinge on whether the new series - to borrow a Vulcan saying - is able to "live long and prosper."
Though "Star Trek" generates multimillions of dollars for Paramount Pictures, thanks to licensing of merchandise and TV syndication sales, the last two TV series, "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager," have played mostly to the hard-core faithful.
With brows at Paramount furrowing like a Klingon forehead, the studio desperately needs a hit to attract new viewers and bring back casual fans.
Expect "Enterprise," which stars Scott Bakula ("Quantum Leap") as Capt. Jonathan Archer, to reinvent "Star Trek." The new show is set a full century before Captain Kirk sets out to "explore strange new worlds." But, unlike Kirk's crew, the new cast won't be dressed like they're on their way to a galactic slumber party.
The pajama-catalog fashions of the '60s series will make way for utilitarian baseball caps and jumpsuits with pockets and zippers - a first for a "Trek" uniform.
Gone, too, will be the open spaces and sterile smoothness of previous starship bridges.
The design of this "Enterprise" has been modeled to resemble a rough-and-ready modern-day military submarine, but with a futuristic feel. (Still no sign of any seat belts, so don't be surprised if this crew is violently tossed about the bridge every time the ship comes under fire.)
But the changes on the new show aren't all on the surface. "Star Trek" is having to adapt to the way the world has changed in the 35 years since Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. "Bones" McCoy were first beamed down onto TV sets. That pioneering show arrived at a time when man was going to the moon.
"Star Trek" producer Gene Roddenberry presented a compelling vision of how the future might build on Neil Armstrong's "one small step." Distant worlds orbited by multiple moons would, sooner or later, be scanned for life signs by Spock's "tricorder."
In 2001, the fervor of excitement that initially greeted space exploration is likely to remain largely in stasis until further exploration of Mars. Star trekking isn't in vogue. "Star Trek" featured palm-size gadgets, portable communication devices that were a novel idea in the '60s. But rapid advances in technology are now taken for granted by teens who own cellphones that flip open just like Captain Kirk's. "We've become blasé," laments Bob Justman, associate producer of "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation." "Things don't excite the interest of the public in the way that they used to when everything was unknown."
The last two series, "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager," have also faced a threat more troublesome than a spaceship full of Tribbles - namely a plethora of competing science-fiction series, like "Babylon 5," "The Lost World," "Andromeda," "Earth: Final Conflict," and "Farscape."
Producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the current guardians of the "Trek" franchise, are hoping to make up for lost ground with "Enterprise."
The "Star Trek" franchise has deep roots that may just need a bit of watering. "Trek" is one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic, TV shows ever - and not just in America. Many hugely popular US television shows find that their idioms fail to translate to foreign audiences. Yet "Star Trek" idioms like "Dilithium crystals" and "cloaking devices" face no such cultural barriers: "Star Trek" has been able to create a mind meld between audiences in China, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Brazil, and countries all over Europe. Possibly the world's biggest annual Star Trek convention is held in Germany.
What qualities of the original series and "The Next Generation" resonate with so many people? And will "Enterprise" incorporate them?
Unlike many apocalyptic science-fiction TV shows, "Star Trek" portrays a positive, optimistic view of the future in which mankind becomes more enlightened. "It wasn't just a science-fiction show, it was a morality play," Mr. Justman says. "It was 'do the right thing and do right by your fellow man, and all will be well, hopefully.' "
"Trek" subtly examined an array of ideas. With the Borg, a race who forcibly assimilated others into their collective, the writers were able to explore ideas about individuality, liberty, and notions of collectivism. The half-Borg, half-human character Seven of Nine in "Voyager," and "Data," the android from "The Next Generation," also raised questions about the best and worst qualities of mankind.
Another interesting philosophical question has been raised by recent "Star Trek" series, says Garfield Reeves-stevens, who has co-authored numerous fiction and non-fiction "Star Trek" books with his wife, Judith. "At what point does moral suasion lead to political interference?" According to "The Prime Directive" issued by "The Federation of Planets" in "Star Trek," the crews of starships are forbidden to influence other cultures they come into contact with.
Mr. Reeves-stevens says the "Trek" view that there are limits to judging other cultures from our own cultural reference points provides an interesting perspective to questions like: "Does the United States have the right to tell China how to govern itself in order to get into the World Trade Organization? What is the responsibility of the Western culture to the breakdown of culture in Central Africa?"
Part of the show's international fan base can be attributed to a vision of a multiracial future in which men and women of various cultures and races (including alien races!) work peacefully alongside one another.
" 'Star Trek' says that, in order to succeed in the future, we need your ideas. We need who you are on the inside, not who you are on the outside," says Kurt Lancaster, who has written about "Star Trek" fandom in his book "Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe" (University of Texas Press).
Even as civil-rights battles raged in the 1960s, the original "Trek" crew featured an African-American woman (Uhura) on the command bridge. Alongside her were a cold war no-no (Russian ensign Chekhov) and a Japanese weapons officer (Sulu).
"In those days, no one had that; it just wasn't done," Justman says. The show even featured TV's first interracial kiss, between Uhura and Kirk.
Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, says her initial career inspiration came from seeing Nichelle Nichols's character of Uhura on TV. Comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, a lifelong "Star Trek" fan and an occasional cast member of "The Next Generation," says Uhura emboldened her, too.
It's not surprising, then, that in the tradition of all the other incarnations of "Star Trek," the crew of "Enterprise" will feature an Englishman, an African-American man, and a Japanese woman. And there's a token pair of pointy ears, too. The ship's sub-commander will be a Vulcan woman, T'Pol, played by Jolene Blalock.
But the crew of the "Enterprise" won't be the tight-knit family units of "The Next Generation" or "Voyager." Internal frictions - akin to that between Dr. McCoy and Spock in the original series - will surface between Bakula's Captain Archer and his Vulcan officer.
"They seem to be more thrown together this time, with less understanding, perhaps, of the cultures from which the various people on this new crew come from," says "Star Trek" author Judith Reeves-stevens. "I think that's certainly going to change the character arcs as they change assumptions about other races."
Conflict, after all, makes for good drama.
The last two series didn't have action-adventure," says Roger Nygard, director of a documentary film about Star Trek fans called "Trekkies." "Audiences enjoy watching battles with aliens. It's part of the fun of a sci-fi show. Every episode, Kirk would get into a fight with somebody. My guess is the new series will come out swinging."
Another key element of the original series was exploring the unknown. Commenting on the space-station exploits of "Deep Space Nine," "Trek" associate producer Justman says: "It wasn't as thrilling a premise. You knew that next week they were going to be in the same place." Similarly, the "lost in space" premise of "Voyager" meant "they were trying to get home. They weren't going out to get adventure."
By contrast, "Enterprise" will once again dare to "boldly go where no man has gone before" - but in a crucially different way from Captain Kirk's personnel. Space exploration was already an established way of life for Kirk, observes Reeves-stevens. ("I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space," was how Kirk put it in the movie "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.")
But Captain Archer's crew will be the first humans to explore the galaxy. It's hoped that the premise of venturing into the unknown will connect with jaded audiences.
"Are we going to lift ourselves off this stone ball in space? This new 'Enterprise' series has that potential to say, 'Yes, this is within that realm of possibility," says sci-fi expert Lancaster.
Furthermore, "Enterprise" hopes to capture brand-new audiences like a powerful tractor beam. The show is set 150 years from now, and, since it predates Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway, first-time viewers needn't have any prior knowledge of "Star Trek" lore.
"Every year, there are new fans born into the 'Star Trek' world. New people find the shows. The fan base only grows," observes "Trekkies" director Nygard.
With considerable excitement surrounding the première of the new show and a 10th "Star Trek" movie, featuring the popular "Next Generation" cast, due in 2002, "Star Trek" may yet resume warp speed.
Make it so.