Saturday, June 2, 2007

In Defense of Rick Berman

In Defense of Rick Berman
By Jared B.

When Rick Berman assumed control of Star Trek: The Next Generation about halfway through its first season, he inherited a disaster of a show. The atmosphere behind-the-scenes was chaotic, hurtful, and infuriating for many insiders. Gene Roddenberry, having been heavily intoxicated and overly “medicated,” alienated many of the people who had made the original Star Trek superb. D.C. Fontana recalled:

"As 1987 progressed… No one but Gene could be recognized as a contributor to ideas for the show. No one else could write a final draft. Writer-producers on the show felt the same anger and outrage I did at being excluded from the production process – at being told not to visit the sets or speak to the actors – at watching perfectly good scripts be rewritten by Gene into something far less – at having their files prowled through and sometimes removed. Definitely gone were the days when a staff birthday was an occasion and the crew was rewarded with a party for hard work. In the space of nine months, no fewer than eight writing-staff members left the series. There was no high sense of morale or community; rather the production offices were like an armed camp. Armed against Gene Roddenberry because of his alienating actions." (Fontana quoted in Engel, xii-xiii)

In addition to D.C. Fontana, other great Trek insiders such as David Gerrold left the show, feeling betrayed and belittled by the self-proclaimed humanist.

Word on the streets of Hollywood was “Don’t go near that show!” New writers felt strangled by Roddenberry's "box" of rules that made little sense. Somehow, they had to tell interesting stories about humans aboard a spaceship without depicting conflict between Starfleet officers. They were also asked to write fascinating and dynamic characters who were supposedly "too evolved" to have flaws or interesting personality quirks. Roddenberry’s utopian diatribes about 24th century humanity could be entirely contradictory, such as the notion that humans are too evolved for intolerance, yet under no circumstances would they tolerate “primitive and superstitious beliefs” like religion. Writers were left in an awkward position, bound by rules that were either inherently contradictory or outwardly at odds with the rules of good writing. The show suffered.

After reigning as a insecure visionary, and after alienating many people who had made the original Trek a phenomenon, Gene Roddenberry stopped contributing, although he retained his executive producer title. The person who did the job was Rick Berman.

Berman was not very familiar with the original Star Trek. But, he didn’t need to be, at least not according to Roddenberry himself. Just as Harve Bennett had discovered when making The Wrath of Khan, Roddenberry’s pronouncements about his vision of Trek didn’t match what viewers saw on the original series. If Berman meant to stay true to Roddenberry’s current vision and “box,” watching Kirk and crew would have been simply confusing.

Instead, Berman was determined to make the rules works, bending them slightly if necessary, but always concluding episodes with an optimistic depiction of the future. He was also committed to making the characters more complex, going so far as to hire Michael Piller, who was known for his excellent character writing yet lacking in experience as a science-fiction writer. Unlike Roddenberry, Berman, time and time again, gave new writers a shot to contribute to Trek in lasting ways, instead of jealously protecting Star Trek as his personal vision of the future. Ron D. Moore, Ira Behr, Brannon Braga, and many other young writers owed much to Berman’s willingness to give credit where credit was due. Although he held the reins and made executive decisions regarding the direction of the franchise, he was always open to collaboration, and, in many instances, he took risks. Gone were the days when an associate producer stood on the executive producer’s desk impatiently waiting for him to finish rewriting another author’s script (in between binges and late-night affairs). Instead, Berman’s Trek was a well-oiled machine that initially encouraged collaboration, brainstorming, and differences of opinion, so long as those differences didn’t become personal.

During the next few years, Berman, with the help of these talented writers and others, turned Star Trek: The Next Generation into a hugely popular cultural phenomenon. By all indications, TNG was coming into port, surpassing the original Star Trek in the public imagination and paving the way for new films and new series. Trek reached its peak in terms of profitability and popularity. When the franchise celebrated its 25th anniversary, the future of Star Trek seemed endless. Anyone predicting the demise of Trek would have been shunned and mocked.

Without Berman, Trek may have ended with the retirement of the original Enterprise crew. Instead, we were given a new generation to continue the legacy on the big screen. And, we were given Deep Space Nine, which, by most accounts, was the best Trek series of the entire franchise. Not only was Berman willing to take a huge risk by changing the format, but he also openly defied Gene Roddenberry’s formula and rules in the process. Deep Space Nine depicted religion and faith in more respectful ways. Internal and external conflict drove stories in complex and provocative directions. Characters were far from perfect and boring exemplars of human progress, and the 24th century, in the midst of war, cultural conflict, and dangers of militarism was far from the vague and unworkable utopia of Roddenberry’s Trek. Instead, under the direction of Rick Berman, the Trekverse became more realistic and believable. Certainly, Behr, Moore, Piller, and others deserve much credit for Deep Space Nine, but so too does Rick Berman for allowing the writers to move in this direction while giving them the freedom to write superb television without caring about the ratings.

Yet, Berman, as executive producer, had to care about the ratings. Despite its triumphs and break-throughs, DS9 bled viewers year after year. Perhaps the show demanded too much. After all, it would have been impossible to casually tune into the Dominion War and immediately understand the complex relationships between the Founders, Vorta, Cardassians, Klingons, and wormhole aliens. Can we really blame Rick Berman for turning back from this great experiment and creating a new show, Voyager, that more clearly corresponded to the format of TNG? At the heights of its popularity, Trek followed this format. It was a tried and true success. Should we also blame him for abandoning the Alpha Quadrant, which had become much too complex for stand-alone episodes that could be viewed out-of-order? It would have pleased the hardcore fans to watch two series simultaneously engulfed in a complex war that required viewers to watch every episode with soap-operaesque obsession. What about the mainstream, casual viewer? What about new viewers, who might stumble onto Trek having never seen Deep Space Nine? If Star Trek was to continue in TNG’s formidable footsteps, the next series had to be familiar to TNG viewers, and DS9 was not.

As the ratings for Voyager fell during its first three seasons, many fans blamed Berman. Some of his decisions deserved criticism, especially the quick resolution of the Starfleet/Marquis conflict and the use of uninteresting villains like the Kazon. Other criticisms were sometimes petty. Despite its flaws, Voyager had many gems in those first few seasons. Unquestionably, the show suffered from the departures of Moore, Piller, and others. But other factors, especially the growing influence of UPN, contributed to the demise. TNG broke new grounds as a syndicated show not subject to the interventions of network micro-managers. But, with Voyager, Paramount finally launched the great experiment of a studio network headed by a new Trek show (see Star Trek: Phase II). As a network, not only was it constantly redefining its target demographic, but also the quality of most programs was dismal. There are many television markets to this day that do not carry UPN.

Other factors were in play. Rick Berman was justifiably concerned that “too many trips to the well” had occurred. He was also justifiably concerned that, due to the political correctness of the early 90s, Trek had now become much too conservative. Why not make it sexy again? Certainly TOS “tinfoil bikinis” were out-of-the-question, but why not throw in some sex appeal and visual titillation? Many fans criticized the decision to add Seven of Nine as a “ratings gimmick” that “catered to the lowest denominator.” If fans believe this, then they should remind themselves the original Star Trek must have catered to the lowest denominator. Also, the writing for Seven was superb for the most part, adding in a well-needed source of conflict and drama.

Despite these and other attempts to liven up Voyager, ratings continued to slip after an initial season 4 boost. Rick Berman had to try something bold and different. What could have been riskier than a prequel that took place before the time of Kirk and Spock? Although, in this author’s opinion, the execution of Enterprise was deeply, deeply flawed, the premise held much potential. Berman can be faulted for the execution, but, perhaps his biggest mistake was circling the wagons around Brannon Braga and himself, while attempting spearhead a prequel to a show that he never really watched or enjoyed. If the process had been more openly collaborative with people like Fontana, Black, Justman, and younger TOS aficionados like Coto from the beginning, then it’s possible that Enterprise could have been superb.

But, even if the first three seasons had been as good as the last, then it may have still bled viewers just as Deep Space Nine bled viewers. Other factors were beyond the control of Rick Berman.

He was our scapegoat, and, while witnessing the demise of Trek the last several years, we have used Mr. Berman as a convenient target, just as workers blame CEOs for everyday grievances. Many times, the criticisms have been justified. Yet, at other times, we were attacking the CEO for market fluctuations and unpredictable consumer habits.

Regardless of who or what is to blame for the franchise’s demise, we still owe Rick Berman praise for bringing Trek to the height of its popularity. We should thank him for taking risks, some of which worked and some of which flopped. We should commend him for shaking up the formulas and blindfolding his bust of Gene Roddenberry. And, yes, we should also criticize when deserved.

Is it time for new blood? Most definitely. Just as Trek needed a Harve Bennett and then a Rick Berman, it now needs a J.J. Abrams to take the franchise in new and bold directions. It is time to pass the torch, and Berman has so far done that graciously. But he is also writing his memoirs. Most likely, he will defend himself from the onslaught of fan criticism of the past decade. He deserves to do so, and fans should read his book with an open mind.

24th century Trek was Berman’s legacy, and it deserves respect for what it was in good times, rather than condemning it wholesale for what it was in bad times.