Far from the Final Frontier Successors boldly go into new 'Trek' territory

January 04, 1993|By Daniel Cerone | Daniel Cerone,Los Angeles Times

The late Gene Roddenberry, known affectionately to his fans as the Great Bird of the Galaxy, had a favorite phrase that he liked to say at "Star Trek" conventions.

"What is 'Star Trek?' " asked the man who created the worldwide phenomenon that has resulted in three TV series, six feature films, 110 novels, 100 fan conventions a year and easily more than $1 billion worth of revenue to Paramount Communications Inc. over the last quarter of a century.

"It's not 'Star Trek' unless I say it's 'Star Trek,' " he used to say. "If there are 99 people in the room, and they vote, it's not a democracy. I decide what's 'Star Trek.' "

This week is the premiere of a fourth TV series, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," spun off from the top-rated syndicated show, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Set in the same period of the 24th century, the Starfleet officers in "Deep Space Nine" have taken command of a seedy, run-down space station -- replete with a wild barroom and holographic brothels -- once belonging to an alien race.

The oppressive environment and questionable characters who pass through Deep Space Nine -- located near the mouth of a wormhole, a phenomenon that opens a shortcut to distant quadrants of the galaxy -- were created as story-telling devices to provide dramatic conflict with the good, noble and honest crew members of the Federation.

"Deep Space Nine" comes a little more than a year after Roddenberry died at age 70 of a heart attack. Although Roddenberry was aware of the new series, which the creators have described as darker than any other "Star Trek" incarnation, he never had a chance to give the show his blessing. He never had a chance to say: "This is 'Star Trek.' "

When Roddenberry was alive, his contract with Paramount was supposed to guarantee him virtual approval over anything connected to "Star Trek," which began as a short-lived TV series in 1966 and was briefly revived as a Saturday-morning cartoon before the 1987 premiere of "Next Generation."

Roddenberry dreamed of a world where technological advances did not out-distance human ones. He created the USS Enterprise as a vehicle of science and exploration, not war and destruction. His vision of the future was one of tranquillity -- a lovely thought, but a difficult one for writers of TV series, movies and books who need conflict for drama.

As a result, Roddenberry's voice was not always heard.

Although the "Star Trek" and "Next Generation" series have been an overwhelming success -- every novel published since July 1986 has been a New York Times best seller -- Roddenberry had repeated content problems with the publisher, Pocket Books, which is owned by Paramount Communications.

When book galleys came across Roddenberry's desk that were too militaristic or violent, or featured squabbles between Starfleet officers, Roddenberry sent them back for rewrites. Sometimes the fixes were made, but in a few instances the books were printed anyway, with a disclaimer in front to note the absence of Roddenberry's approval.

Roddenberry had similar objections at times to material in the blockbuster series of "Star Trek" feature films. In the most recent one, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," Captain Kirk bore hatred for the alien Klingon race because his son was killed by a Klingon.

"The bigotry in that film worried Gene. [Federation officers] were using phrases like the 'alien trash of the galaxy' when referring to the Klingons," said Richard Arnold, research consultant for "Star Trek" before Paramount closed down Roddenberry's office after rTC his death and laid off his small staff of employees.

"But Paramount's attitude was that Gene should mind his own business and let them make their movie," Mr. Arnold said.

Officials at Paramount deny having had any problems with Roddenberry, describing their relationship instead as one of mutual respect. John S. Pike, president of network television and international co-production for Paramount Television, maintains that the studio has closely adhered to the philosophical principles laid down by Roddenberry.

" 'Star Trek' has been and will continue to be one of the most important jewels in Paramount's crown," Mr. Pike said. "We would do nothing to fracture that asset. We are very careful to protect it. You don't do anything with 'Star Trek' that has short-term potential but could result in long-term damage."

No one individual has replaced Roddenberry's self-imposed function at Paramount -- to maintain the integrity of the vast "Star Trek" enterprise and act as the quality controller. Decisions regarding movies, books, marketing and merchandising are now handled more or less on a departmental basis.

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