Before the spark hits the wall, you might want to take a few steps back so you don’t get flying debris in your eyes.”
That’s the friendly advice a reporter gets as he steps onto Stage 18 of L.A.’s Paramount lot, home to UPN’s new Star Trek prequel, Enterprise. Several cast members — Scott Bakula (gung-ho Capt. Jonathan Archer), Jolene Blalock (icy Vulcan science officer T’Pol), Dominic Keating (uptight tactical officer Malcolm Reed), and John Billingsley (eccentric Dr. Phlox) — are rehearsing a scene in which they’re trapped in a smoky cargo bay, engaged in a futuristic gunfight.
”Okay, so it’s spark, spark, and duck behind here,” explains director LeVar Burton (of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame), mimicking the action. The room quiets, the actors take their marks, and…inaction!
”I thought we decided that ‘stun’ doesn’t spark,” says Bakula. ”But we sparked here. So what does ‘stun’ do?” Given that this is unfamiliar technology to the gang, a discussion about phase-pistol emissions ensues. ”Well,” Keating finally suggests with furrowed brow, ”I think it gets rid of unwanted hair.”
And if the last few weeks are any indication, it can also lift a straggling network out of the intergalactic crapper. The Sept. 26 debut of Enterprise — the fifth Star Trek series in 35 years — was a space ace in the hole, beaming up a stellar 12.5 million viewers. How earth-shattering an event was that for UPN? Let’s just say there were slightly more uncorked champagne bottles lying around than after the premiere of Homeboys in Outer Space. In fact, you’d have to time-warp back to 1995 — for the unveiling of Star Trek: Voyager — to see numbers bubblier than that. ”It’s a reenergizing of the franchise,” proclaims UPN chief Dean Valentine. ”The battery power was still there and it was working fine, but this completely turbocharged it.”
Even juicier than the ratings, though, is the prospect that Enterprise could actually shape-shift the aging Trek franchise into a more mainstream success (currently, Enterprise is the season’s top-rated freshman drama among 18- to 49-year-olds), pulling in the kind of folks who don’t own Federation-issue bedsheets. It’s far from coincidence that the Trek overlords decided to drop two of the most hallowed words in sci-fi from the show’s title. ”I didn’t want this to be Star Trek: The Next Thing,” sums up Enterprise cocreator Rick Berman. ”I wasn’t going to just create another spaceship and put another crew on it. I couldn’t do it. I knew the fans had enough, and I knew that we all had enough. We had to do something dramatically different in as many ways as possible.” Just how different? Let us count those ways:
It takes a quantum leap away from Trek geek-ology. Are you the kind of person who thinks the words Star Trek sound more intimidating than a Limp Bizkit mosh pit? Before you run screaming from the galaxy (or at least this article), there’s a guy sitting in the captain’s chair who has a few words of encouragement for you. ”It’s me! There’s a familiar face here!” says Bakula, 47, who is personally offering to ease you into the series. ”It’s like, ‘Well, Scott will hold our hand. Come on, it’s Noah! Everybody get on the ark and we’re going to be fine.”’ The Trek producers were certainly quick to jump on Bakula’s bandwagon — though they insist the idea of helming the ship with an established TV star (Bakula anchored NBC’s 1989-93 time-tripping drama Quantum Leap) was not the motivating factor. ”I was looking for somebody who had that kind of Sam Shepard, Right Stuff quality and Han Solo fly-boy quality,” Berman explains. ”If you take those two images and marry them together, you get something that’s pretty damn close to Scott Bakula. And he’s got that boyish charm. You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who didn’t find him attractive.”