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Low ratings, reviews hint 'Star Trek' running low on fuel

Tuesday, November 30, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

"Star Trek" excels at living long. But lately the 33-year-old franchise hasn't been quite so prosperous.


The last movie drew lackluster reviews and disappointing box-office returns.

"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" concluded its seven-year run last spring in syndication, but that didn't deliver a ratings boost to the remaining series, "Star Trek: Voyager," which began its sixth season this fall.

Last month, the online magazine Salon ( delivered a scathing state-of-the-franchise critique, blaming executive producer and keeper-of-the-flame Rick Berman for killing "Star Trek."

  Kate Mulgrew plays the erratic Capt. Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager."

Although undeniably down, "Trek" isn't yet out. Tomorrow, the last night of the November sweeps period, UPN (WNPA, Channel 19 in Pittsburgh) will air two hours of highly promotable "Trek" programming.

"Ultimate Trek: Star Trek's Greatest Moments" premieres at 8 p.m. It's a cheap-looking, hour-long clip show with Jason Alexander playing William Shatner playing Capt. Kirk. Occasionally it's funny, but the hour mostly comes across as a pathetic attempt to woo Trekkers to the tube.

Before and during the special, viewers get a chance to vote for the best "Star Trek" episode of all time at, choosing from a pool of four episodes, one from each "Star Trek" series.

It's a sure thing the "Deep Space Nine" episode won't win. Always the black sheep of the "Trek" universe -- even though it was the most engrossing series -- the opening montage of "Ultimate Trek" features only a few images from the space station-set show.

"Star Trek: Voyager" follows at 9 p.m. and brings back two characters from the far more popular "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The episode, "Pathfinder," is set on Earth at Starfleet headquarters as Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) advises nervous nellie Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) when he obsesses over his attempts to contact the U.S.S. Voyager.

The episode is a treat precisely because the "Voyager" characters take a back seat. With the exception of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), the Doctor (Robert Picardo) and the increasingly erratic Capt. Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), the "Voyager" characters are woefully underdeveloped and lacking in depth.

In a recent phone interview, executive producer Brannon Braga defended Janeway's tendency to shift from mother figure to raging loon.

"I have personally been vigilant about keeping an eye on our captain, that she is heroic and forceful and witty and most of the time right, but she's also a bit of a risk-taker, much more like Kirk used to do," Braga said. "And sometimes she gets bitten in the butt. That's part of the fun of Janeway. She's no Capt. Picard. He didn't make mistakes, and he also didn't take risks. He was conservative, and he was definitely a reflection, intentional or not, on the '80s, the Reagan era."

Throughout the show's run, Voyager has been stranded in the Delta quadrant, light years from known space where the adventures of every other "Star Trek" series took place. Whether Voyager makes it home before the expected end of the show's seven-year run in May 2001 is up in the air.

"We're always talking about taking the ship home," Braga said. "That's something that comes up almost every week. We just keep putting it off because it doesn't feel like the right time."

  Cast of "Star Trek: Voyager," unencumbered by their show's alter egos: Front row, from left, Robert Beltran, Robert Picardo, Kate Mulgrew. Back row, standing: Jeri Ryan, Robert Duncan McNeill, Tim Russ, Ethan Phillips, Garrett Wang and Roxann Dawson

Braga said the big question is whether Voyager and its crew will make it home in the last episode of the series or earlier in the final season so viewers can see what happens when the crew gets back to Earth. "That's the last question that seems yet to be resolved."

The last question regarding "Voyager" perhaps, but there's a whole slew of questions about what the next "Trek" will be. Already there is talk corporate parent Paramount Pictures will order a fifth series, even though a break would combat "Star Trek" fatigue.

" 'Star Trek' needs a rest; a lot of people believe that, and personally I think that," Braga said. "But at the same time, if you have the right concept there can be no doubt that a new series will do well. There will always be an appetite for 'Star Trek,' knock on wood."

So far there's no timetable for when the next series might hit the air, although Braga thinks it will happen in the next couple of years, probably after "Voyager" ends its prime-time journey.

Several concepts have been rumored, including a series set at Starfleet Academy and another on a starship near an outpost in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy. But Braga said none of the scenarios floating around the Internet reflect what he and Berman have in mind.

"We have been discussing a new series for many months, but the concept we have in development is so premature I don't feel comfortable talking about it," Braga said. "It's very different, but it captures the essence of 'Star Trek.' We both feel we have to recapture the excitement of the original series, and at the same time push 'Star Trek' forward a little bit in terms of tone and storytelling so that its not just another 'Star Trek.' "

Not just another "Star Trek." That's the key phrase. Clearly many of the once-faithful fans have drifted away, bored by what they see as same-old, same-old storytelling that too often emphasizes Treknobabble over sensible plots and character development. And don't get me started on all the episodes about the ship almost making it home or stories that end with the flip of a reset switch that rights everything that went wrong during the hour.

Even the addition of Seven -- a sexy Borg babe -- to the "Voyager" cast revived media interest only fleetingly. But Braga remains unconcerned about going to the well one too many times, confident that "Star Trek" lives.

"This show has been on a long time; of course interest has waned," Braga said. "It's only natural. I'm consistently surprised people are watching as much as they do. I think Paramount Pictures' philosophy is they don't want 'Star Trek' to go away completely."

But by squeezing another "Star Trek" series out too soon after the end of "Voyager," Paramount could hasten the collapse of its most durable franchise.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or Post questions or comments about TV to under PG Online Talk.

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