Saturday, August 4, 2007

How UPN ruined Star Trek

by Jared B.

"We were working on a network that, in a sense, was completely contradictory to the nature of the show."
-Rick Berman, quoted in 20 December 2006 SciFi Pulse

"I think it [UPN] damaged the show. If you don’t mind booting Brent Spiner later on I could stay up here all day and talk about this one subject. I think it hurt Voyager and much more with Enterprise, to be on a constantly shifting fledgling network that in some parts it was on channel 92 if you could find it and you needed the foil rabbit ears... Tons of problems being on that network. Also we didn’t have a lot of money to promote. So I don’ think it was a great thing for the franchise. I cant blame it all on that. There were other problems of course, but it was truly frustrating."
-Brannon Braga at VegasCon 2007

Star Trek producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have received a lot of grief from Trekkies during the past decade. As fans witnessed the slow and painful decline of Trek's popularity, they pointed angrily at the "Killer Bs," who allegedly and almost single-handedly destroyed the Star Trek franchise. If Paramount had cleansed the Trek offices and brought in new blood, if Berman had seen what was painfully obvious to many fans, and if the writers understood and adored The Original Series... then Star Trek would still live in episodic television.

So it is claimed.

Yet, while Berman and Braga became convenient scapegoats, vilified to an extreme degree in fanzines, chat rooms, and internet message boards, another culprit stood by immune in the shadows of closed-door meetings and safeguarded memos. Unlike "Bermaga," this villain didn't have to answer to fans as it meddled with Star Trek as no network had done before.

Of course we are talking about UPN, the Paramount television network that launched in 1995 with its flagship Voyager lost in space. In the search for viewers and profits, UPN stumbled for a decade, drifting aimlessly from one target demographic to another.

Rarely did shows last more than one season, due to their dismal quality. Rarely did the network compete with other primetime channels, who, in the midst of the reality TV takeover, took viewers from one forgettable sensation to another. Rarely did UPN offer good alternatives beyond poorly written sitcoms and canned applause.

And, as digital cable and satellite television continued expanding, viewers were hard-pressed to choose "Amish in the City" over quality shows on SciFi, the History Channel, the various Discovery spin-offs, or even USA, the network that spawned from late night bikini horror flicks hosted by Gilbert Godfrey. After a decade of switching target audiences based on the most popular show, UPN finally ran out of dilithium, and it soon became trapped in the badlands of corporate damage control.

Throughout its 11 year fiasco, it left its mark on Star Trek. Exactly how and when remains a mystery. Obviously, being on a network that wasn't available in all markets hurt the shows, especially considering that UPN wasn't available to satellite subscribers unless it was already locally accessible. Those households "lucky" enough to have UPN were subjected to constant sports preemptions, unreliable broadcast quality, and random network bugs, such as broadcasting 22 minutes of Enterprise without sound in 2002.

It is also fairly clear that UPN is to blame for many questionable production decisions, such as adding a boob-enhancing catsuit to Voyager, a show that began as a feminist statement of sorts. In several interviews, Rick Berman recalled the horror of network suits at seeing Seven of Nine borgified. "Get her out of that junk!" they screamed while hoping for a quick fix that catered to the lowest denominator. It is also clear that UPN pressured Berman and others to make Voyager and Enterprise "more like TNG," because they would have happily cashed in on a carbon-copy success that was completely unoriginal. Berman has publicly admitted that Enterprise would have been extremely different, focused on the nitty-gritty aspects of exploring our neighboring worlds (no Klingons, no Romulans, no Borg). Instead, he had to make it more "recognizable." At the same time, Berman lobbied to give Trek a year-long hiatus. He feared that "too many trips to the well" in search of profits was diminishing the shelf-life of Trek. Yet, UPN insisted otherwise, arguing that Trek could be reinvented for a younger, hipper audience.

Consequently, we were given nauseating tits and ass decon scenes that seemed to replace any opportunity for meaningful dialogue or interesting character development. UPN suits cringed at the thought of intellectually challenging their Sweet Valley High, Moesha, and WWE Smackdown viewers. A network that thrived on fluff didn't have a high tolerance level for pedantic and provocative drama.

Rick Berman had to relent to the demands of his boss's network. He may have wondered at one point, "Who exactly is paying me here?" After all, this situation was unique for Star Trek under Berman's watch. The Next Generation thrived in syndication, meaning that no individual network had much control over the content, characters, message, or direction of the show. This free reign was one of Gene Roddenberry's original demands for 24th century Trek. He had been burned much too often by meddling network suits and short-sighted executives, or so he claimed.

Yet, with Voyager and Enterprise, the situation was suddenly reversed. Paramount finally launched the great experiment of a new network helmed by a new Star Trek series (see Star Trek: Phase II). It failed miserably. No one at the top asked, "Is it logical to lauch a channel catered to teens and urban audiences with a flagship show catered toward an educated fanbase renowned for its disposable income?"

Now, nearly 2 years after the cancellation of Enterprise and 1 year after the death of UPN, Rick Berman is writing his memoirs. Mr. Berman, come clean for us! Tell us exactly what this network did and how they interfered with Trek. Tell us who is really to blame for the failures, faulty directions, and ratings ploys. Tell us, please, how UPN ruined Star Trek.

Perhaps when fans finally understand the details, your contributions to Trek will be celebrated for what they were in good times, not what we witnessed in bad times.

In the meantime, this writer invites every fan to analyze what went wrong over the years. Ask yourself, "Should we really blame Rick Berman?"