Illustration by Aaron KratenStar Trek: Nemesis is bombing spectacularly at the box office. Despite being hyped as the "final journey" of the crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's projected that the 10th Trek film will have a hard time earning back its relatively modest budget and will probably earn less than any Trek picture since 1989's universally panned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (and that's not adjusting for inflation or anything; Nemesis probably won't top the receipts of a failed Star Trek picture from the original Bush era). Immediately before Nemesis premiered, there was serious talk that all of this "final journey" business wasn't necessarily meant to be taken literally; depending on the picture's opening weekend, there was a good chance we'd see Jean-Luc Picard and the gang on the big screen again. But in the wake of such a brutal box-office defeat, Patrick Stewart has let it be known we've seen the last of Picard.
Meanwhile Enterprise, the latest Trek TV series, is also in trouble. Following solid ratings in its debut season, it has steadily lost viewers in its second and is currently doing worse than the last series, Star Trek: Voyager, was doing at the same point in its checkered history.
The failure of Nemesis and the sputtering of Enterprise is particularly dire news for the once seemingly invulnerable Trek franchise. Both properties were conceived as bold, new directions that would re-invigorate all things Roddenberry. Nemesis wasn't written or directed by experienced Trek hands, but was instead handed over to enthusiastic novices. Enterprise was a prequel, designed to throw off the shackles of 35 years of continuity by journeying back to the distant before-time—before the Federation, before the prime directive—to a time when starship crews wear ballcaps, get in fistfights and enjoy semiweekly tumbles with alien babes. If audiences rejected the angst, strenuously multicultural casting and take-charge women that typified much of TV Trek in the '90s, Enterprise would take us back to the uncomplicated fun of the original '60s series, when a bunch of white guys and a handful of sexy, pliant dames blasted off into the inky black and kicked some Klingon ass.
But both Nemesis and Enterprise have failed by being simultaneously too new and too traditionally Trek, alienating long-term fans and boring potential new ones. New Trek feels both strange and tired at the same time. It's like some sad, middle-aged housewife trying to spice up her marriage by greeting hubby at the door wearing a wig, bondage gear and way too much makeup; she can tart herself up until she looks like a drag queen, but under it all, she's still Doris.
Once upon a time, Trek was inescapable. You were a weirdo if you didn't love it. Now the action figures are crowding up the shelves of your local Big Lots, and even Trek conventions are an increasing rarity.
Given this, Nemesis and Enterprise may be the last Trek films or TV series we see for a long time. Some of you are no doubt cheering the prospect, but then some of you are joyless, spoilsport snobs.
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If you had told me just a few years ago that America, rock & roll, and Star Trek would all be in such sorry-ass shape come 2003, I'm not sure I would've believed you. I have been a fan of all of three of these things since I was knee-high to a Ferengi, and I come here not to bury Star Trek, but to praise it. For Trek, like rock & roll and America itself, is a truly great pop product, offering both heady pleasures and mindless escapism. At its very best, Trek is art. At its worst, Trek is fascinatingly awful spectacle. At its middle, which is probably where you find it most of the time, Trek is as consistently pleasing as a Big Mac, with none of the artery-clogging or dead animals.
I'd suggest Trek's creators try taking some real risks again, tackling heavy contemporary issues with the kind of recklessness that made the original series occasionally great. But then again, they tried just that with Deep Space Nine (remember that episode with the headline-making lesbian kiss?), only to see this often-superb series dismissed by fans and critics alike as too dark and depressing. So what the heck do I know?
It isn't that Trek has gotten so much worse the past few years, just that it has stopped thrilling us the way it did when it was a fresh young thing (or when we were fresher, younger things). Trek's creators have never stopped doing their damnedest to bring us solid sci-fi storytelling, but in the age of McG and Vin Diesel, when narrative itself is left behind in favor of bigger booms and boobs, good, old-fashioned Star Trek is starting to looking very old-fashioned indeed. That being so, perhaps the fault lies not in our Star Trek, but in ourselves.
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