Star Trek Inc.

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It's easy to think that Star Trek inspires either adoration or loathing — that you love it so much you say your wedding vows in Klingon, or you pity those who do. But most who have read even this far know there's another class of Trekker — the closeted ones. These are people who aren't telling co-workers they plan to see Star Trek: Nemesis, the 10th Trek film, which opens Friday. They won't admit they watch UPN's Enterprise, the sixth — sixth — TV series in the franchise. They tell buddies they are going to Vegas for blackjack and bourbon but instead dwell in the celestial sanctuary of Star Trek: The Experience, an indoor theme park that has drawn 2.3 million visitors since opening in 1998.

We know these closet nerds exist, because — improbable as it sounds to those who wish someone would shove a photon torpedo up the Enterprise exhaust — the enterprise still thrives. Though showing its age after 664 TV shows and a 35th birthday last year, the franchise still generates perhaps $200 million a year in revenues when you add up movie grosses, TV ad sales and what's spent on books (500 have been published), DVDs and tchotchkes (Trek ornaments are always among Hallmark's top holiday sellers). Paramount claims merchandise sales have exceeded $4 billion over Trek's lifetime; 470 people have actually paid $5,000 apiece for a life-size replica of the villain Locutus. The newer series haven't done as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, but last year TNN reportedly paid $364 million for the rights to show reruns of various Trek episodes, even though they have already been aired dozens of times.


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With their built-in audience, the nine previous Trek films grossed an average of $181 million in inflation-adjusted terms and earned a collective profit of $1.2 billion. And Nemesis is better — darker, more surprising — than the average Trek. Of course, it won't make as much as, say, Spider-Man. Yet Star Trek has outlasted other brands over the years. (Suck a phaser, Batman.)

How does Trek survive? The oft-cited answer is that freakish Trekkies — fans who saved the original series with passionate letters and today maintain an eBay market of 25,000 Trek items — still sustain the franchise. Wrong. Trek hasn't been a cult enterprise in years. It is, instead, a humming mainstream business that responds quickly to changes in mass culture. That's why the new film and TV show depart from the softer story lines of the '90s. Since Sept. 11, Star Trek has basically become an action franchise again. It's even trying to be sexier. But Trek's creators must constantly ask themselves how to draw new consumers without alienating old ones. It's the Cher problem: How many times can you reinvent yourself?

For nearly a decade after creator Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, Trek producers — particularly new honcho Rick Berman, a TV veteran who had overseen Cheers and Family Ties — furiously tried to freshen the brand. Though he denies it, Berman seemed to be courting those exotic creatures rarely associated with sci-fi: women. On the small screen, his team launched the spiritual Deep Space Nine in 1993 and the political Voyager (helmed by a female captain) in 1995. The films Generations (1994) and Insurrection (1998) seemed more concerned with the captains' emotional lives than their ability to outsmart Romulans.

Many serious fans were pleased that Trek was striving to be more than a shoot-'em-up western in space, which is how Roddenberry had first sold the idea. "Many fans really want something radically different every few years," says Steve Krutzler, founder of TrekWeb.com. Trouble is, the franchise left more casual viewers stranded in space dock. Many folks had liked the simplicity of the original characters — explorers who were peaceful at heart but willing to make a point with a phaser. By contrast, the Deep Space Nine captain turned out to be a religious emissary for an alien race, and Voyager's Captain Janeway spent most of her trip fretting over human (and other species') rights at the expense of her crew. She was a Democratic Senator, not a captain.

Ratings plummeted, and by 2001, probably the most financially successful Trek product made since Roddenberry's death turned out to be a throwback action film, Star Trek: First Contact (1996). It cleared a profit of $122 million and provided further evidence that Trek needed another makeover. Nemesis and Enterprise are the result, and the lads will love them. Star Trek, it seems, will now hang its future on a reliable formula: explosions and breasts.

Take Nemesis. It's basically a war movie; writer John Logan (Gladiator) has said he was inspired by 1982's bloody hit Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nemesis' villain, Shinzon, is fiercely played by Tom Hardy, whose two previous big films were the war flicks Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down. Nemesis has few female characters, and the major one — Enterprise Counselor Troi — can't seem to stop weeping. Another, Romulan Commander Donatra, comes to the aid of the Enterprise only after Shinzon spurns her sexual advance.

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