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The Death of Star Trek

For two years, I've been keeping a file containing the nuggets of ideas I'd like to turn into pieces for TeeVee. While other topics have come and gone (That new Ray Romano show is pretty good!), there's been one item that's sat on the list, mocking me, all this time.

It says this: "The Death of Star Trek."

I grew up watching Star Trek. Captain Kirk was my boyhood hero. I faithfully watched every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation through high school, college, and graduate school. I've seen every feature film, including "Star Trek V: Shatner's Folly."

And yet, with the latter years of Deep Space Nine and almost the entire run of Voyager, I feel that the Star Trek I knew has gone into hibernation, if it hasn't died outright.

I come to bury Star Trek not because George Lucas' next Star Wars movie is right around the corner -- as a six-year-old, I extolled the virtues of Star Trek over "Star Wars" to everyone who would listen, despite the national mania swirling around the first Star Wars movie. And not because the latest film, "Star Trek: Insurrection," was a mediocre effort that proves only even-numbered Treks have that special something.

No, I come to bury Star Trek because it suffers from the same malaise that all aged TV series suffer from. If you consider Voyager to be the continuation of The Next Generation (and you should; its staff made the transfer directly from that show when it boldly went to the big screen), it's a show that's about to wrap up its 12th season.

Now, tell me, how many 12th-season TV series still have life left in them? How many make it even that long?

The Star Trek universe, once filled with mystery and wonder, is now dull and uninteresting. We've been there before, and so have the writers -- you can feel it. Deep Space Nine slowly rolls to its conclusion, having righted itself enough to be watchable. But it's a show that cracked under the pressure of carrying the Trek franchise and never really lived up to its initial promise. (If you go back and look at some of the episodes from that series' second season -- when The Next Generation was still on the air and the pressure was off -- you'll see some masterful work.)

And Voyager, the true extension of the tried-and-true Star Trek formula, has ended up being just that: formulaic. Every other episode, the writers find a way to blow up the ship, kill the crew, or some combination thereof -- a novelty that worked in the last years of The Next Generation, but has now worn really thin.

The fault of my dissatisfaction with Star Trek comes not from Voyager and Deep Space Nine and their characters -- it comes from the writers. Take Voyager. This show's premise is a bit embarrassing -- Lost In Space finally getting its revenge for being the red-headed stepchild to Star Trek so many years ago. But as a let's-pull-together-and-explore-new-worlds experience, it could've been exciting. Instead, the show's writers use every gimmick in the book to lay out stories that don't make sense within Voyager's premise.

Take Voyager's slew of recurring characters. Though the ship's ostensibly headed straight back home at high speed, trying to get across half the galaxy, we manage to keep meeting the same villains, over and over again. Funny-faced masochistic Klingon rip-offs. Intergalactic garbage scows. And odd, inhuman alien races. One or two encounters make sense, but a couple years' worth? Sure, it lets the show's producers re-use their make-up, but it also makes this hundreds-of-light-years-every-day series seem just as unmoving as Deep Space Nine.

The other sign that Trek's writers are out of juice: the constant increase in what's become known as Technobabble. Sure, the original Star Trek had its lingo, and in The Next Generation there were far too many made-up science words. But now things are out of control. Almost every episode works like this: Something terrible happens that appears to have major ramifications for our heroes. But in the last little bit of screen time, one of the cast members invents -- on the fly -- a never-before-thought-of technological way of dealing with the problem. And once they've reversed the polarity of the neutron flow and bombarded the tachyon stream with tetryon emissions, everything's exactly the way we left it!

That, my friends, is what ancient Roman TV critics called a deus ex machina. Or to put it more simply: The writers are so lazy, they can't think of plots that contain logical solutions, so instead they build up false tension that's relieved by a contrived escape hatch.

Unlike some amateur Trek-bashers, I'm not going to continue listing a litany of offenses the series have committed. The fact is, what's most frustrating is that all the pieces that could lead to success are there -- but apparently the shows' producers are asleep at the wheel. Or, worse yet, they're so afraid to screw up the profitable Trek franchise that they're -- you guessed it -- totally screwing it up. The Voyager cast is populated by interesting characters just waiting to be taken advantage of -- but with rare exceptions, they've been written as human blanks.

So I have one simple recommendation for the Star Trek producers, not that they're listening:

Make some changes. And maybe make a clean break.

The change can come in any number of forms. First thing's first: It's time to bring Voyager home and drop it into the old Star Trek premise -- no more of this 170 stranded castaways crap. Plop them back on Earth and send 'em out to do some normal exploring. While you're at it, if you want to ditch the cast members you're not thrilled about and replace them, go wild! (I hear that the Deep Space Nine cast is looking for work.) And if you can maybe scare up some new writers, too, that'd be helpful.

But perhaps I'm being a bit too optimistic. After all, that first recommendation doesn't solve the problem that this Trek train has been running for 12 years.

So maybe it's time for a clean break. Take a couple of years off. Let the series' current producers go on to other projects. Develop "Star Trek X," and since it's an even-numbered one, it had better be a winner.

And then, in 2001 or 2002, come back with a new premise. Invent some new characters. Populate a new Starship Enterprise -- NCC-1701-F, say -- set 100 years ahead of the current Trek universe, just as Next Generation was set 100 years ahead of the original Star Trek. Call it Star Trek: Third Generation. And hire a bunch of new, young, hungry writers, weaned on The Next Generation, to re-reinvent the Trek franchise.

But whatever you do, don't screw it up. Star Trek is simply too much fun to see it disappear entirely. But, to be honest, fond memories and dreams of what might have been would be preferable to the numbing limbo of dull stories that is the Trek of today.

But when one of Star Trek's lifelong fans says they'd prefer the show went away than to continue hanging around and spoiling its legacy, it's time to go. The great athletes do it. Maybe it's time the United Federation of Planets -- and its cruel overlords at Paramount Pictures -- did the same.


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