Why the Starship Enterprise is running on empty. After a nearly 40-year run, ''Star Trek'' gets sucked into the big franchise void

Credit: Star Trek Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Oh, pity the poor ”Star Trek” fan, yearning for the days when space was the only ”final frontier” yawning wide before the Starship Enterprise. Right now, after a string of box office, ratings, and creative stumbles, ”Trek” seems little more than a flagship headed for dry dock.

Are things really this dire for the 37-year-old, multibillion-dollar-generating granddaddy of all entertainment franchises? (Unlike, say, ”James Bond” or ”Star Wars,” ”Trek” has successfully and simultaneously existed in film, television, publishing, games, and merchandise.) It’s dead, Jim. Almost.

For the first time, audiences are steering clear of both ”Trek” movie features and TV series. Last year’s ”Star Trek: Nemesis” should have lured moviegoers, given that it was billed as the sign-off of the popular ”Next Generation” cast. But the $60 million project took in just $43 million domestically, easily the worst of any of the ”Trek” films — which date back to 1979 and the days of $4 tickets. (The film is doing well on DVD.)

Meanwhile, after a warp-speed launch two years ago, UPN’s prequel series ”Enterprise” has struggled mightily, losing nearly a third of its viewership from the first season to the second. ”Enterprise” had to hang on for an eleventh-hour pickup for its upcoming third season. By the end of the season, the show averaged 4 million viewers a week, light years removed from the 20 million ”The Next Generation” attracted at its height in the early ’90s.

The icing on the dilithium cake is a lawsuit recently filed by videogame publisher Activision against Viacom, parent company of ”Trek”’s home studio, Paramount. The games maker alleges that Paramount has let ”the once proud ‘Star Trek’ franchise stagnate and decay” and wants out of the 10-year, $20 million licensing agreement it signed in 1998. (Paramount reps declined to comment for this story, on either the case or ”Trek”’s future direction, but there are rumors of another film in development.)

Now, we’re not saying that it’s easy to keep a franchise flying for three decades. ”Paramount was always behind the show when I was involved in it,” says Naren Shankar, a story editor on ”Next Generation” from 1992 to ’94 who is now a coexecutive producer of ”CSI.” ”But even then, we had done close to 200 episodes of that show, and added to that were 6 movies and 79 episodes of the original series. You’re dealing with a backlog of material unlike any other show in the history of TV. How do you keep it fresh?”

Others are less diplomatic, including Warren Ellis, author of the eerily prescient graphic novel ”Orbiter,” about the near-future death of space exploration. ”’Trek,”’ Ellis argues, ”has turned inward. If it’s going to survive, it needs to reinvent the future. The fan base that sat through the episode where Spock’s brain is stolen [is] not going away until they die. Don’t play to them. Give the rest of us a reason to be interested.”

Others caution that ”Trek” can’t revive itself by merely wooing young viewers. Says writer-producer Michael Piller, who served on various ”Trek” incarnations from 1989 to 2001 and is now guiding ”The Dead Zone”: ”You could make a very good case that Gene Roddenberry’s fundamental decision back in the ’60s that he was not going to write [a show] for kids is why the franchise has lasted.”