The Star Trek fan community was mildly astir recently, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the airing of “All Good Things…” the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But Trekkers can unfortunately mark a much more somber milestone today: the 15th anniversary of the death of Star Trek.
June 2, 1999, saw the airing of “What You Leave Behind,” the final episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—marking the true end of Gene Roddenberry’s brilliant vision and the beginning of a tragic franchise decline that is still managing to plumb new depths fifteen years later.
Obviously, Deep Space Nine is my favorite Trek series after the original, and a recent rewatch on Netflix has made me fall in love with it all over again. And what with its darker slant and willingness to question some of the central tenets of Roddenberry’s future utopia, it’s easy to understand why it so polarized the Trek community.
DS9 bucked the classic Trek formula. Instead of astronaut philosophers nobly exploring the stars, you had humans as the minority on an alien space station surrounded by species that looked upon the Federation with everything from bemused derision to outright contempt.
That’s what made it so compelling. It had Trek’s signature optimism, idealism and exploration at its heart, but was tempered with the harsher realities of a galaxy that maybe doesn’t care so much about vaunted human ideals. Watching Captain Sisko navigate through situations that constantly tested those ideals—and sometimes failing with very real consequences—brought Trek to a new level.
In that way Deep Space Nine was ahead of its time, helping usher in the grittier, more serialized type of genre programming that fans now expect. Which is why I can’t understand why it remains something of a black sheep—especially since it was the Trek spin-off that showed the most reverence for the original series. Replete with references to TOS era characters and events, it did more than any other Trek series to broaden and solidify the Trek universe with a sense of scope and history—and that includes Enterprise.
Further augmenting that connection: DS9’s TV run ended almost 30 years to the day after the final episode of Star Trek—“Turnabout Intruder”—aired on network television, June 3, 1969.
But useless trivia aside, no matter what you may think of it, Deep Space Nine was the last Star Trek iteration driven by a true vision. After it ended, Voyager was the only game in town, a nonstop crap-fest of bad writing and lousy characters, run by people who openly disdained the original series.
After my DS9 rewatch, I scoured the web looking for details of the behind the scenes tensions that arose over the course of DS9’s controversial run. And I found a terrific interview with writer Ronald D. Moore, one of the principal creative forces behind DS9. When the show ended, he went over to Voyager. What he found isn’t surprising to anyone who’s seen the show.
Here’s what Moore said in an online interview:
“(Voyager) talks about how it’s about deep social problems, and how it’s about sociological issues. It’s about exploration, and it’s about the unknown, and all these cute catch phrases, but scratch the surface and there is really not much underneath it all. Voyager doesn’t really believe in anything. The show doesn’t have a point of view that I can discern.
“The continuity of the show is completely haphazard. They don’t care, and they’ll tell you flat out that they don’t care.
“That’s what pisses me off. You can do so much with Star Trek. It is such a broad, flexible canvas. If Deep Space Nine proved nothing else, it proves just how far you can take this series, and how far you can take the franchise. It can look totally different. It can be serialized, and it can be a war show, and it can do stuff about religion and politics, and it can be interesting and engrossing, and gray and ambiguous. You just have to have the courage to do it.”
Unfortunately, they never found that courage, and in the absence of any kind of driving ideal the franchise shambled aimlessly, like a zombie that no one seemed willing to confront, until the slow decay of years stopped it for good.
After Voyager came the equally generic Enterprise, which dropped the Star Trek moniker all together and floundered until a valiant fourth season attempt to turn it into a true prequel series. But even though many of those final episodes began to finally realize the brilliant potential that lay dormant in Enterprise, the franchise rot had become too far advanced. It was too little, too late for burnt and angry fans.
Things weren’t much better on the feature film front. On the heels of DS9’s demise came the aggressively lackluster Next Generation film Insurrection, followed by the outright ridiculous Nemesis. These fiascos put the kybosh on any further big screen outings.
Until J.J. Abrams went for the fal-tor-pan.
Please. Don’t get me started on the alternate Abramsverse. Granted, I was initially happy to see my moribund franchise brought back to life in a big way, even though I found many of Abrams’ choices questionable in the initial reboot. But the debacle that is Star Trek Into Darkness mercilessly squashed any tentative good will I may have had. And just when it didn’t seem like it could get any worse, it now looks certain that Roberto Orci—one of the chief hacks behind the reboots—is all but a lock to direct the third new film. Just in time to shit all over Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.
I’d say the future of the franchise looks bleak, but that would imply that I think it has any future at all. Good, new Star Trek might certainly be possible, but seems highly unlikely.
But maybe that’s for the best. If the long decline of Star Trek has taught me anything, it’s how to let go. I once readily wore the hurt and indignity of the scorned fan on my sleeve, lashing out in anger at the jerks who were destroying my beloved life-long obsession—often right here on my radio show.
But there’s no reason to let the current sorry state of Trek sour the legacy of the groundbreaking and genuinely terrific work that came before. My recent reacquaintance with Deep Space Nine drove that truth home. Hell, I just feel lucky that the last Trek show I truly cared about had a spectacular endgame and went out on such a high note.
So on this, the dark day of its demise—and, by extension, the demise of Star Trek in general—I won’t be donning sackcloth and ashes and bemoaning the fate of my much maligned franchise, fannishly pawing at its remains in a futile attempt to revive its lost glory.
I will instead mark the death of Star Trek with the dignity it deserves, remembering the good times and accepting that they will probably never come again.