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Preview: 'Star Trek: First Contact'

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Captain’s log. Stardate: November 1996.

Deep into the fourth decade of Star Trek‘s ”five-year mission,” we’re picking up a distress call. Not from deep space exactly. This one’s closer to home and revolves around a picky British actor, slipping ratings, and an aging fan base, which, at long last, appears to be growing tired of dilithium crystals, cheesy twill costumes, and weird-eared people.

And now, with the eighth Trek movie — Star Trek: First Contact — about to beam into theaters, the most famous star hoppers outside of NASA are facing a dilemma that could faze even Mr. Spock: How much longer can the 30-year-old Star Trek franchise live and prosper?

The movie itself, opening nationally Nov. 22, actually looks promising. The budget was bigger (”considerably bigger,” stresses producer Rick Berman) than previous Trek films. Which means the action and F/X quotient is presumably higher. ”It’s not quite Rambo, but it’s got major action,” Berman says. It also has a new Enterprise, which production designer Herman Zimmerman promises is ”leaner, sleeker, and mean enough to answer any Borg threat you can imagine.” This is also the first film in the series in which none of the original Trek characters appear, but the biggest difference may be with the man in charge. Quite frankly, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard seems to have ingested some interplanetary uppers: ”He’s not the same angst-ridden Picard we’ve seen before,” Berman says. ”We wanted him to be more of an action hero.” Says Patrick Stewart: ”I get to be much more physical in this one. There’s a lot of running, jumping, climbing, leaping — and also some ballroom dancing, I might add.”

But the Trek franchise might need more than just a little fancy footwork to compete in the brave new world of science fiction. The heart of sci-fi no longer lies in going boldly to places no man has gone before. The real action is here on planet Earth. The success of The X-Files and Independence Day — to say nothing of the most popular Trek movie of them all, 1986’s $100 million-plus-grossing Voyage Home — proves that we like our aliens to freak us out not in some distant Delta Quadrant, but rather in our own backyards.

Star Trek has nothing to do with the real world,” says sci-fi author William Gibson (Neuromancer), ”and in a bizarre way, that’s what’s kept it viable — and, at certain times, not viable — for so many years.” Novelist Caleb Carr (The Alienist), who’s creating a sci-fi CBS pilot called Osiris Chronicles, theorizes that the franchise seems somewhat dated because of its ”overarching patriarchal hierarchy, which promised that the state would take care of all our needs. [It] was a ’60s concept that no longer resonates with viewers.”

Even Trek TV isn’t prospering the way it once did. This fall’s premiere episode of the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was down 34 percent in the ratings compared with last year’s season opener; and that, in turn, follows a shrinkage in DS9‘s audience by an average of roughly a million viewers per episode last spring compared with the previous season. UPN’s Star Trek: Voyager, now in its third season, seems to have gotten sucked down a ratings black hole, with viewership slipping from 11.1 million per episode last season to 7.5 million this year. And both shows get beaten up regularly by the fantasy muscle-fests Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: The Warrior Princess.

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