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Sunday, May 01, 2005

The New York Times > Arts > Television > Its Long Trek Over, the Enterprise Pulls Into Dry Dock

The New York Times > Arts > Television > Its Long Trek Over, the Enterprise Pulls Into Dry Dock: May 1, 2005
Its Long Trek Over, the Enterprise Pulls Into Dry Dock

IN the sector of planet Earth known as Hollywood, it was business as usual on the Paramount back lot. On a sunny day in early March, green-skinned aliens with zippers embedded in their faces were eating catered lunches, stagehands were disassembling lighting rigs labeled "Thorium Isotope Hazard," and all were doing their best to ignore the fact that the warp engines on the starship Enterprise would soon be shut down, perhaps never to start up again. "Welcome," a security guard said with heavy irony, "to the last days of Pompeii."

On May 13, UPN will broadcast the final two episodes of "Star Trek: Enterprise," the most recent spinoff of the genre-defining science-fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry nearly 40 years ago. The scenes filmed in March will bring closure to the story of a futuristic space vessel and its intrepid crew, but the end of "Enterprise" also casts into doubt the future of a venerable entertainment property that is entering a realm where no franchise has gone before.

Almost from the moment it was canceled by NBC in 1969, the original "Star Trek" set about defying television conventions: a three-season dud in prime time, it became a success in syndication, spawning a series of motion pictures, a merchandising empire, and three television sequels (the syndicated hits "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager," which helped start the UPN network in 1995).

"Enterprise," a prequel devised by the veteran "Trek" producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, was supposed to be the series that would take the franchise into the future by venturing into its past. "We knew that in the 23rd century, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were out exploring the universe, and they were comfortable in space," said Mr. Berman, who was put in charge of the film and television properties after Mr. Roddenberry's death in 1991. "But who were the first people to have to try a transporter? The first people to come into contact with hostile alien species; who were hesitant about taking these first steps into the galaxy?"

Set 100 years before the first "Star Trek" series, aboard an embryonic version of the ship that would later carry Kirk, Spock and company across the cosmos, "Enterprise" made its debut on UPN on Sept. 26, 2001, to over 12.5 million viewers. By the end of its first season, its audience was just half as big, and by the end of its second season, barely a third of those original viewers were still watching. "People never really warmed up to 'Enterprise,' " said Ronald D. Moore, a former staff writer of the syndicated "Trek" television sequels who is now executive producer of the Sci Fi Channel's new "Battlestar Galactica" series. "It never quite grabbed people viscerally and hung on, like the other shows did."

As Jolene Blalock, who played the Vulcan officer T'Pol on "Enterprise," explained: "The stories lacked intriguing content. They were boring." A lifelong "Star Trek" fan, Ms. Blalock said she was dismayed by early "Enterprise" scripts that seemed to ignore basic tenets of the franchise's chronology, and that offered revealing costumes instead of character development. "The audience isn't stupid," she said.

Aware of viewers' disappointment, the producers made significant changes for its third season: a single, yearlong storyline was established, pitting the ship's crew against a malevolent alien race called the Xindi, and Manny Coto, creator of the Showtime series "Odyssey 5," was brought in as a co-executive producer. But while Mr. Coto was widely hailed by colleagues and fans alike for delivering episodes that equaled the quality of previous "Star Trek" series, the show's ratings continued to erode.

When it was time to commit to a new season of "Enterprise," UPN ordered fewer episodes than in the past and shuffled them to yet another time slot. Still, some people clung to hope. "Being the optimists that actors are," said Scott Bakula, who played "Enterprise's" heroic Captain Archer, "you think, 'Maybe if we do a really good job. ...' But basically we were kidding ourselves."

The network says the problem was that most of "Enterprise's" viewers were male, unlike those of its bigger shows, like "America's Next Top Model" and "Veronica Mars." "It didn't really fit into the overall brand, and it was harder to attract the audience for that show, because they weren't sitting here all week," said the UPN president, Dawn Ostroff.

As "Enterprise" prepares for its final voyage, its producers admit that the found it hard to write for both dedicated "Trek" fans and uninitiated viewers. "When it was time to start the writing for Season 4," Mr. Coto said, "we were mostly gearing episodes towards people who knew the 'Star Trek' universe. We were not worried so much about people who didn't. They were gone anyway."

Yet "Enterprise" was also hobbled by competition from the four previous "Star Trek" TV series, which continue on cable and in syndication. "If anything, Paramount has gone to the well too often, because the franchise has been such a huge cash cow for the studio, for decades," said the longtime "Trek" actor and director Jonathan Frakes, who reprises his "Next Generation" character, Commander Riker, in the "Enterprise" finale. "You can go right through the dial and there's always 'Star Trek' on somewhere."

At the same time that "Enterprise" began to sputter, the "Star Trek" film franchise went into a tailspin: the 2002 theatrical release "Star Trek: Nemesis" was the series' first bona fide bomb, grossing just over $40 million. "There became a certain perception that the franchise wasn't something people had to rush out and see in any way, shape or form," said Mr. Moore, who wrote the screenplays for the "Star Trek" films "Generations" and "First Contact." "That perception becomes self-sustaining, and then people drift away from it."

They may have drifted toward Sci Fi's "Battlestar Galactica" (which brought in about 2 million viewers in its first season this winter) and USA's "Dead Zone" (which averaged almost 3.5 million viewers last summer). "It's like there's a certain number of science-fiction fans, and that's it," Mr. Coto said. "It's a genre that appeals to a certain type of individual, and there's not a lot of them."

THIS fall, for the first time in 18 years, there will be no original "Star Trek" series on television; a new film installment is unlikely to materialize before 2007 or 2008. Paramount Network Television confirmed that there was no timetable for the development of a new show, and no creative team in place to develop it. And despite the near-universal praise he earned for keeping "Enterprise" aloft, Mr. Coto said no one had approached him about further involvement with the "Star Trek" franchise. "It is kind of disappointing, frankly," he said. "I don't think a lot of people who are in charge right now are that interested in talking about the next thing."

From his office in the Gary Cooper Building at Paramount Pictures, behind a door with a plaque that reads "Please speak softly, massage in progress," Mr. Berman remained remarkably sanguine for a man so frequently threatened with bodily harm on Internet message boards. He had begun preliminary work on a potential new "Star Trek" film, but, he said, "I'm not certain that I will be involved in creating the next 'Star Trek' series. I have no idea when that's going to happen, and it very well may be someone new who's going to be doing it."

And as he spoke of the optimistic vision that Mr. Roddenberry presented in the original "Star Trek," one in which the most demanding of humanity's earthbound problems have been solved and the infinite wonder of the universe awaits mankind, Mr. Berman expressed a similar hopefulness for the future of "Star Trek" itself. "You can go anywhere in the world and people know what 'Beam me up, Scotty' means or what a Klingon is," Mr Berman said. "They're not going to go away."

But some who are departing the Star Trek universe, like Ms. Blalock, seemed relieved to be free of early-morning makeup calls and prosthetic pointy ears: "The girls on set, we would always joke: 'We're gonna be cute after this all over. After we shake off the haggard.' "

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