Live long and prosper. For three decades, Star Trek and its assorted spin-offs have lived up to Mr. Spock’s famed credo. The statistical proof: four prime-time series, eight feature films, and more than $2 billion in revenue for Trek’s studio, Paramount.
Lately, though, you have to wonder if the statute of limitations has begun to run out on that Vulcan chestnut. The franchise’s two current shows, the syndicated Deep Space Nine and UPN’s Voyager, have been getting zapped in the Nielsens: Both programs have lost more than half their audiences since their inaugural seasons. Furthermore, Paramount officially confirmed in August what most observers already knew — that this seventh season of DS9 would be its last, leaving the studio with Voyager as the sole, and shaky, standard-bearer of the franchise. And buzz on the $60 million feature Star Trek: Insurrection — supposedly a kinder, gentler Trek, due Dec. 11 — has been mixed. Sums up Voyager executive producer Brannon Braga: ”We’re in a state of hypochondria. Everybody’s wondering, What will happen? Is the franchise decaying or is it okay? Nobody knows. Either the sky is falling, or we feel great.”
Truth is, there’s reason to support both sentiments. By many standards, the shows are successes: DS9 is the No. 1-rated syndicated first-run drama among 18- to 49-year-olds; the 3 1/2-year-old Voyager is UPN’s highest-rated series, with 5.4 million viewers. Still, the accomplishments pale in comparison with those of Star Trek: The Next Generation. When that show signed off in 1994, it had been the top syndicated drama for seven consecutive years and was averaging more than 15 million viewers a week. ”There’s been some dissatisfaction with” DS9 and Voyager, says Dan Madsen, president of the Official Star Trek Fan Club. ”They just haven’t generated the loyalty that the original series and Next Generation did.”
Voyager’s attempt to goose ratings last season by adding actress Jeri Ryan as Borg beauty Seven of Nine was a semisweet victory. The number of 18- to 34-year-old male viewers grew (by 11 percent), and the season was lauded by critics as Voyager’s best. But overall viewership still fell 13 percent from the previous year (perhaps partly due to a time-slot change by UPN). Meanwhile, there’s little hope that DS9’s final season will generate the excitement Next Generation’s sign-off did (the last episode drew about 30 million viewers). DS9 will lead up to its late-May finale with a multi-episode story arc — something that may not draw many new viewers. ”We have a lot of things to resolve,” explains DS9 exec producer Ira Steven Behr. ”To try to do it all in two hours would feel rushed.”
For their part, Trek’s caretakers are as stoic as Vulcans. ”We were pleased with last season, but we’re seeing a tremendous increase in competition,” says Tom Mazza, exec VP, Creative Affairs, at Paramount TV. ”It’s an interesting time.” Rick Berman, executive producer of both shows, agrees: ”Critically, the quality last year was as good as anything we’ve done. That ratings have fallen is not a reflection of the work. We may just be in a cyclical downswing.” Luckily, Berman adds, there’s no such problem with the movies: ”The one we’re about to release is a good deal more fun.”