Near the end of the first season of Star Trek: Voyager, the fledgling United Paramount Network decided to postpone a few episodes of its flagship series until the start of season two. Concern centered on "Twisted," an episode considered so bad by the show's producers that it was almost shelved forever. For the first time in 25 years, an episode of Star Trek was deemed unwatchable by its creators.
"Twisted" eventually aired, living up to its unsavory reputation: the crew of the Voyager were lost on their own ship and spent an hour of screen time wandering around and talking about it. Riveting drama. Meanwhile, a combination of corporate greed and evaporating standards was dragging a cultural icon into the sewer. So, the question must be asked: can Trek be saved? Is it even worth saving?
Maybe. The writing staff must be fired . . . immediately. A once brilliant coterie of writers has grown impotent in slavish devotion to an incestuously narrow vision of what constitutes drama. Creative inbreeding (most of the writers are also producers) has led to a scriptwriting process that becomes more restrictive with every passing year. The somnambulistic pace that afflicted The Next Generation in its final seasons has become the norm on Deep Space Nine and Voyager, as characters talk and talk and talk until only an insomniac could avoid deep coma. Who wants to snore through Waiting for Godot in space?
Episodic continuity is virtually nonexistent; characters never, ever suffer lasting consequences. Conflicts are often resolved with barrages of technobabble, as a science adviser's deus ex machina pulls a writer's nuts out of the fire. It's certainly a bad sign when a subatomic-particle-of-the-week is the only relief for a stalled plot, and even more disturbing when the finished product endorses the most unbelievable contradictions of established science. TNG's "Force of Nature" throws several thousand years of the scientific method out the window in order to draw a misguided environmental allegory. "Genesis" and Voyager's "Threshold" both put forward the ridiculous notion that evolution affects individual organisms. Even high-school biology students know better. Science fiction by its very nature requires the suspension of disbelief, but to base scientific extrapolations on quackery is foolish and irresponsible.
A more fundamental problem rests in the legacy of the late Gene Roddenberry. While the "Great Bird" certainly had the ideas that spawned Star Trek, he also had a tendency to take credit for others' creativity. This glory-grabbing came back to haunt him at the creation of TNG, when Roddenberry's vision of a society devoid of social unrest and interpersonal conflict was unquestioningly accepted as canon and incorporated into the new series. It was an inspiring, utopian vision, but it was never part of the original series -- Kirk and crew had always been complex people with flawed emotions -- and it kept TNG in dramatic shackles for seven seasons.
DS9 attempted to get around these restrictions by introducing the wonderfully textured Bajoran society, with its social problems, postwar tensions, and competing religious factions. This led to compelling and exciting drama . . . so, of course, it didn't last. Craven pursuit of better demographics forced TNG's Worf into what was (and is) one of the finest ensemble casts on television, and two separate armed conflicts have reduced the series to shoot-'em-ups and tedious preparation for more of the same.
Executive producer Rick Berman once fretted, "What absolutely frightens me more than anything else is the possibility of . . . the over-exploitation of this franchise." Voyager is, unfortunately, the embodiment of his fear. There is no element of the series unique to the setting, no discernible adherence to the can't-get-home series concept, and open disdain for the consequences of being stranded half a galaxy away from everything. It's a show that never should have made it to television.
The success of the syndicated Babylon 5 has shown that televised science fiction is not the birthright of Roddenberry and his successors. Writer/creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski's carefully conceived five-year story, vibrant characters, and often brilliant writing have made Babylon 5 a success -- both as an example of the genre and as a dramatic work. And the success of its decidedly non-Trek approach has not been lost on the elder series; DS9, in particular, has shamelessly borrowed from B5 in an effort to shore up flagging ratings. These forays into creative piracy have led to genuine improvements, but it is sad to see a franchise that once set creative benchmarks resort to such measures.
As a bloated relic living off past glories, Trek is failing to meet its potential -- and more important, failing to entertain. It is no longer a vision that will live long and prosper, it's a wounded animal in its death throes. One way or another, it should be put out of its misery.