Thursday, December 14, 2006

Culture Shock 12.14.06: 'Star Trek's' 40th birthday flies past at warp speed

Somehow, the year is almost gone. And yet hardly a word has been said about 2006 marking the 40th anniversary of an American institution.

It was in 1966, by way of the 23rd century, that the starship Enterprise set forth on its storied five-year mission. But four decades later, “Star Trek” has entered turbulent seas, or their outer-space equivalent.

For the first time since 1985, “Star Trek” is absent from both TV and movie screens, unless you count reruns. The only “new” Trek to be had is the 1973 animated series, which made its long-awaited debut on DVD last month, and the original series, returned to syndication with new, high-tech special effects in place of the ’60s-vintage models and matte paintings.

While it’s sad to see Trek’s anniversary pass quietly in the night, the Franchise, as it’s become known, clearly needs a rest. Its decline in quality, starting with the final two seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and reaching rock bottom with “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise,” made a breather inevitable. Simply put, the creative team in charge of the Franchise at the bitter end had nothing left.

“Star Trek” had gotten away from the original vision of creator Gene Roddenberry and producer Gene L. Coon. And the attempt to recapture some of that frontier spirit during the last season of “Enterprise” couldn’t overcome that show’s dull, backward-looking premise. Prequels, by definition, don’t boldly go where no man has gone before.

The next “Star Trek” film, reportedly planned for 2008, is also rumored to be a prequel. If so, Trek’s keepers haven’t learned their lesson yet.

The original “Star Trek” was inspirational. Literally. You don’t have to look far to find scientists, engineers and astronauts inspired to enter their chosen fields by “Star Trek.”

But who could be inspired by Trek’s recent incarnations? By the time “Enterprise” was canceled, Trek was looking inward, at its own increasingly convoluted past, not outward.

Oddly enough, while “Star Trek” is slowly becoming a parody of itself, many of the people who have long lived in the Franchise’s shadow are finally emerging.

After winning two Emmy Awards for his portrayal of “Boston Legal” attorney Denny Crane, it’s safe to say that William Shatner has found a role to finally rival, if not eclipse, Capt. James T. Kirk. Leonard Nimoy has left behind Mr. Spock and found a new calling as a photographer, mostly photographing nude women, which is nice work if you can get it. Even George Takei, better known as Lt. Sulu, has moved on, recently taking a supporting role on the hit NBC series “Heroes.”

Sure, lots of “Star Trek” fans, too many in fact, will fawn all over anything bearing the Trek logo.

But those of us who really care about Roddenberry’s creation deserve better. And we’re willing to wait for it. No “Star Trek” at all is better than Trek in name only.

Still, the lack of recognition on Trek’s 40th anniversary is almost shameful. You can be sure that George Lucas won’t let 2007 pass without everyone on the planet knowing that it’s the 30th anniversary of “Star Wars.” And, if anything, the “Star Wars” franchise is even more tarnished than the Trek franchise.

What was I just saying about prequels being a bad idea?

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