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Fandom Sound and Fury
© Paul T. Riddell

Well, the new Star Trek franchise Enterprise has been out for a couple of weeks, and damn near everyone who feels fit to comment upon it has commented. Bitching about too much near-nudity or too little, bitching about continuity holes, bitching about the continuing shoddy makeup designs from Michael Westmore, bitching about that sappy opening theme song… hey, let me tell you about sappy opening songs. A few outside of the UK may remember a BBC series called Starcops that saw syndication through PBS in 1990: now that had a sappy opening song. Compared to the "shiny happy people" opener for Starcops, the Enterprise theme could have been penned by the Butthole Surfers or GWAR.

More important and more pertinent was all of the before-the-fact kvetching about how Paramount and producer Rick Berman had better not screw it up. One of the more obvious examples was Mark Altman's recent "Mark my Words" column in the newly resurrected Cinescape, where he gave his edicts on where Enterprise should go. (Mr. Altman has a problem with assuming that because he once edited a long-dead SF magazine and wrote or co-wrote any number of unauthorized Star Trek guides, he gets some leverage with the crew at Paramount on how any Star Trek franchise turns out. I write a lot about Texas culture, but Governor Rick Perry doesn't come to me to ask my opinion on tourism ventures.) Outside of the humor inherent in Altman's impersonation of Josh Levy from Evan Dorkin's fandom spoof The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club strips, this column had one valuable shining truth: the success of Star Trek lies behind the people.

Considering how much animosity currently exists between Altman and myself, it hurts to admit that he has a point. One of the reasons why Star Trek survived in reruns as long as it did, and why it still continues to enjoy as much popular success as it does, is because of the characters and situations. Star Trek and M*A*S*H were two television shows that survived as long as they did because of the interaction between interesting and unique characters, which is especially rare in science fiction productions. Don't believe me? Just point to any one episode of The Invaders or Time Tunnel (or Battlestar Galactica, War of the Worlds, Lexx, or Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda) where the character development was enough to get anyone not already obsessed with science fiction to sit down and watch. That's the clincher here: the real money doesn't come from fans. It comes from everyone else, and that's why nobody at Paramount gives a fart in a high wind what the fans think.

See, if anyone at Paramount thought that fan commentary was valid, they'd have asked for it. This isn't a slam on the value, real or imagined, of that commentary: it's just a statement. If Berman and associates wanted outside influence, they'd be hiring established science fiction writers to produce scripts, the way Gene Roddenberry encouraged Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, and Robert Bloch to write some of the most memorable episodes of the original series. Instead, the sole opportunity for genre writers is in cobbling together Star Trek novels, where all of the characters and situations are still under the control of Paramount's legal department, and those writers are used solely to attract readers familiar with their other work. (Just as John Waters chuckles about the fans of Crybaby picking up Pink Flamingos for the first time, I chuckle over the Star Trek fans who read a K.W. Jeter-penned Star Trek novel and then reach for a copy of Dr. Adder or Death Arms. You can smell the subject matter burning the flesh off their faces from here.) If Berman and associates wanted new blood in the scripting department from young and eager Star Trek enthusiasts, they would have opened the doors to those enthusiasts. Instead, they took advantage of that enthusiasm with the notorious "scriptwriter's workshops" at science fiction conventions back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, where Paramount paid pittances for contributions, high-graded all of the best ideas ("high-grading" is a term used in paleontological circles for fossil hunters who take the best or rarest fossils and leave the degraded site behind), and left the "winning" writers with little but the satisfaction of saying "That was my idea" when the episode featuring that high-graded idea finally aired. The only time the producers listened to fan commentary was in getting rid of Wesley Crusher from Next Generation, and that was only because Roddenberry was dead and therefore in no condition to do anything about it.

The thing to remember here is that Star Trek is a cash cow for Paramount, both in ratings and in licensing. If it weren't, then Voyager would have been cancelled alongside all of UPN's other offerings during that first season in 1995. Because of this, everyone there knows that fan complaints mean little, because you're going to watch anyway. We all act like the Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons, watching every episode solely to get online to the nearest chat board or Usenet newsgroup to tell everyone "Worst. Episode. Ever." Even those fans who say "Oh, I never watch (fill in the blank)" are liars, because they're sneaking peeks when they figure nobody else is watching them (C'mon: be honest. If you really were skipping out on bad skiffy TV, we wouldn't be facing new seasons of The Lost World or Andromeda.)

And this is why Berman and crew don't care about what we have to say about Enterprise, because after we've finished venting spleen, we'll be right back in front of the idiot box for the next episode. The repeat kvetchers, alongside the hopelessly deluded who figure "Okay, it's bad now, but it'll get better some day," are the people who will carry the series through the ratings. We're the core audience, and we won't leave, so every new viewer who comes on board while channel-surfing is gravy. The only way they'll pay attention to us is if ratings drop all the way across the board, and considering the syndication deals already worked out, the ratings will have to drop into negative numbers before Paramount execs start calling for focus groups to "reimage" Enterprise. If the last couple of seasons of Voyager were any indication, the scripts and acting will have to become really insulting before the suits descend to asking fans what they want. More likely, the UPN affiliates will resort to chopping out random seconds here and there to make way for more advertising space rather than admit that the current Star Trek team needs a forced retirement: fans bitched for years about John Nathan-Turner's disastrous run as producer for Doctor Who, too, and the BBC let the show slide into cancellation rather than fire his worthless carcass and bring on someone who knew what they were doing.

That said, though, don't let me or anyone else stop your viewing. Considering how Deep Space Nine kept following three steps behind Babylon 5 (remember how suddenly Deep Space Nine had a linear storyline about halfway through its run, and how Berman claimed that Paramount had planned at the beginning to shut down the show after seven seasons?), it'll be interesting to see what parts of Farscape get grafted onto Enterprise in the following months. Just don't think that any complaints, appearing in print or online, are going to make the slightest bit of difference. If they did, then we would have seen cameos of Lieutenants Arex and M'Ress from the animated series sometime in the last fourteen years, or even a lone Andorian or Gorn. And those are just my yodels: imagine what would happen if they came from someone with writing ability.

--Paul T. Riddell is sick and bloody tired of "Star Trek" anniversaries falling on his birthday, so he's switching his birthday to February 30. To see the longterm effects, check out "The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness" at http://www.hpoo.com.

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