Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Little Unfair on Rick Berman

Going all the way back to January I decided to go easy on JJ Abrams and even defended him in light of the ferocious revelation that he would soon be helming Star Wars Episode VII. 

Then I spent some of March blubbering on about whether or not we should recognise the JJ reboot universe visualised in 2009's Star Trek and it's 2013 sequel as official material. Then it dawned on me that we had been in a similar situation some time ago with another individual. His name wasn't JJ Abrams but the anger directed at him from fandom was probably just as vehement (although after seeing some of the comments about Star Trek Into Darkness I'm tempted to retract that). 

My fingers flew over the keyboard and an article took form however, I let it piece fester and wallow around in the backwater of Draft Hell as the reboot sequel came and went; then the DVD and blu-ray came and went...and before you know it, it's Christmas 2013. Indeed, what could be a better time to dust this piece off as, appropriately, it's also Rick Berman's birthday. 

Already some of JJ Abrams' comments have, apparently, placed him in deep water with Trekkies since he wants his Star Trek to be the only one that's remembered etc etc... with fans supposedly crying out for a return to the "old ways"  of Star Trek that was known and loved from 1966 through to 2005; what JJ was doing "just isn't Star Trek".

Flip back a few years and the odd thing is that towards the end of Enterprise we were a grumpy old lot especially when it came to Rick Berman. As the cartoon I was inspired by (top) goes to show, we didn't like what he'd done to the franchise when it came to Enterprise and, dare I even write the name, Star Trek NemesisThe grass had to be greener so to speak. Manny Coto had taken over the reins of the faltering, stumbling Enterprise but alas it was too late and the franchise disappeared into a Bajoran-sized wormhole for the next four years. A real shame given the quality of that last season. Circling the back of beyond is precisely where Abrams found it, kicked it a few times and  rebooted it - and then we all started grumbling again....you get the picture I'm sure.

But was the "Berman Era" really THAT bad? Should Trekkies/Trekkers across the globe be as disgruntled with Rick as history suggests? I would say not but I'll make sure I back this up with some evidence. 

Rick Berman was pretty much at Gene Roddenberry's side from the inception of The Next Generation in 1986 until the Great Bird's death in 1991. During those years he would take on more and more of the day to day production of the series and helm the show to its end in 1994. It's a harsh thing to say, but once Gene was no longer part of that Star Trek equation there was more freedom for the writers and we were presented with some intensive character development and edgier stories. It was interesting to watch Trek Nation which has helped map my thoughts for this piece as Ronald D Moore notes that there was more they could do with the Star Trek universe post-1991 even though Berman appeared to keep hold of the reins fairly tightly.


Yes, he allowed the infamous space pirates two-parter, Gambit, in the shows final season but we got to understand the characters a lot more if we dig deeper than that superficial yet very entertaining story. Look at where the writers went in the second half of the fifth season for instance. The earlier stories are very much science fiction based whereas there is a definite flexing of wings when we hit installments such as The Outcast, New Ground, Hero Worship and Perfect Mate to name but a few. These were stories tackling slavery, sexuality, childhood trauma and more which were never attempted just a couple of years before. 

Now Rick was never The Next Generation's most prolific writer, penning as he did two episodes in the entire run from 1987 to 1994; Brothers and A Matter of Time. All other episodes that Berman was directly involved with in the scripting paired him either with Michael Pillar or latterly Brannon Braga. That said, he had the final say on what would make it to the screen and let the writing staff explore the cultures of their characters in a great deal more depth especially the Klingons through Worf in season five and further more with Birthright and Rightful Heir the following year. Data was expanded with the dream programme, Troi got a uniform, a promotion and dare I say it a significant amount more respect from the viewers. It was the heyday of Star Trek and the characters were not stagnating. I'm not sure we can really complain about his input into The Next Generation but could this be due to the fact that it was built on such a solid base to start with by Roddenberry? It's certainly a thought to ponder over but then how do we account for Deep Space Nine? In my opinion the greatest of any Star Trek generation. Is there more to this?

Perhaps most revealing is the interview Berman conducted with startrek.com back in 2012. He truly believed in Gene's vision of the 24th Century and fought to uphold those elements that the shows creator held dear even after his death. However Berman knew, just as Abrams did in 2009, that Star Trek had to change and develop if it were to survive. Maybe his choices weren't as extreme as those that have enshrouded the latest two big screen adaptations but by taking Deep Space Nine and Voyager into the uncharted depths of the Gamma and Delta Quadrants respectively there was chance to do something different under the security of the franchise umbrella. Now significantly with both these shows Berman held overall control but the day to day decisions were in the hands of others. Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr ran the show at one time or other on Deep Space Nine while Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga did likewise on Voyager

Now I think this shows a great contrast between Abrams and Berman - while JJ's attitude appears more hands on, Rick allowed those who understood the material and "lived" the experience of each show to develop it and nurture the creativity. He seems to have placed people in particular spaces to ensure the quality of the franchise continued. It would only be when Enterprise became the sole focus of the production team that Berman would be more directly involved and certainly more influential in the direction of the show. Notably Enterprise would be the series where Rick received more credits for stories than any of the other Star Trek series he had worked on.


This change in focus might reveal where Berman wasn't as strong. Enterprise would be more in the hands of Braga than anyone else during its four year run but it would be the first series Berman had not created or run in the Star Trek universe with Michael Piller. 

Piller himself is highly regarded for his work on Star Trek especially when it comes to a certain Borg-based two-parter from 1990. Maybe his influence was more than we can appreciate in just a few blog paragraphs but without Rick Berman managing the overall shape of the franchise these pieces would not have been in place and the show would not have lasted in some form on TV until 2005. Since Berman took over the franchise in 1991 there have only been 8 years where there has not been an episode of Star Trek in production and during two of those the Abrams movies were released. If it had been "killed" by Gene Roddenberry's heir-apparent would we have seen so much Star Trek over three decades? Would we have even had the films in 2009 and 2013? Potentially not. If Berman's involvement in the franchise was indeed so toxic towards the end, why are they releasing Enterprise on blu-ray and why do Voyager and Deep Space Nine continue to sell DVDs, magazines and a million tons of other material? If the effect had been that bad then the franchise would not have survived nor evolved.


What really gets me is that fandom complained so bitterly about how Enterprise was ruined by Berman especially in its second year. I would challenge fans to look back at any of the previous three series and say that the early years of those shows produced consistently brilliant material. All three took time to evolve and only really hit their stride in the third and fourth years. Enterprise's problem was the whole prequel premise and the Xindi attack which you just knew had to work out fine in the end because of the effect it would have on all other series thereafter in the timeline. 

While the Xindi were a bit like a knockoff Dominion, Berman directed the show to do something that no other generation had attempted. Not only was he showing how it all began and in some way reinventing the wheel (or warp drive) but he upheld the beliefs and standards of Roddenberry and created a season long arc which did work in my opinion. Bringing Manny Coto in for year four was another good move (whether his choice or not) but it left Rick in charge of Star Trek with some great three-part concept stories only tragically let down by THAT horrific finale that did nobody any justice.


JJ Abrams had the chance to reboot from the beginning; to do what he wanted with the franchise and make it his own; a new version of someone else's creation. A re-imagining as we're fond of calling it. Berman had to remain true to the fold and the finale is an attempt to pull everything together when it was apparent that the series was being cancelled and there would be no more new Star Trek on TV. But it failed. While you can see the attempt to make it cuddly, warm and in some respects have a similar feel to something like All Good Things... it nosedives. Producing something new for the show week in week out for such a long time can't be easy. After all there are notoriously only seven types of story and after a while things can get a bit "samey". I still stand in the belief that everything Rick did was in the name of the fans because he knew what Star Trek meant direct from its creator. 

Abrams might have regressed the show back to a fist-fight-of-the-year concept with low impact on themes and characterisation but even at its worst points under Rick Berman these were key factors that were always maintained and time invested in to make sure they retained the mythos. You have to consider that when one or two series were in production there would also be one or two movies hovering in the background. Berman must have, for a fair few years between 1994 and 2000, been spread quite thinly in his control of the franchise which might well have contributed to some of the stories surrounding Ira Steven Behr tricking Berman into allowing certain actions to take place on Deep Space Nine.

Berman allowed the Dominion War which was something Gene might never have allowed. He also brought in conflict among the main cast (but not Starfleet characters) which added not only dimensions for the actors to explore but expanded the potential of the Star Trek universe. While this added another level of action and adventure to the story it didn't stray from ensuring there was always a theme or a motive underlying each story - something JJ might want to reconsider for his third big screen Star Trek outing. Playing on the unexplored was key to the vision of the universe while, in some respects, Abrams has stayed on safe ground, close to Earth - oh, that and blowing up Vulcan. 


Let's be honest here, Rick Berman wasn't afraid of trying new concepts which is easily highlighted by the very existence of Enterprise. His role lay in ensuring that the series remained true to its origins and that it really was "Based upon Star Trek" as created by Gene Roddenberry. Maybe things went the way they did because he felt constrained by that Big Picture and the need to stay true to the Great Bird. Abrams has no such concerns and even Roddenberry himself, as part of an interview I saw on Trek Nation, was keen for someone else to put their spin on the Star Trek universe. Abrams did and so did Berman - so much so his bust of Gene now, legendarily, wears a blindfold. 

He could take risks and allow more exploration and still be the preserver of the Roddenberry vision. Perhaps look at it another way - if Gene had remained in the seat for another 10, 15 or 20 years, would we have seen Deep Space Nine develop from the "adventure of the week" format that had pervaded The Next Generation and The Original Series? I suspect not - which might have seen it dwindle and die after three years because I think we can be certain that the arrival of a certain squat warship in The Search, Part I would not have been the first or last thing Gene would have done - nor perhaps would we have had the Klingons withdrawing from the Khitomer Accords in The Way of the Warrior.


OK, OK, so clearly I like to defend Mr Berman. Why? Because he put the right people in the right places to make a difference and make the shows what they were. Piller, Berman, Moore, Braga, Echevarria, Taylor...all were brought in during Rick's tenure and made Deep Space Nine and Voyager especially into their own. They made us care and he helped and directed that evolution. It can't have been easy juggling three series at various points in their lives plus a motion picture series and maybe that's the problem.

There was, eventually, too much. For me there was a Star Trek peak around the mid to late 1990's, probably reaching a climax with What You Leave Behind. Once that had closed the quality seemed to take a dip. We, as fans expected a lot and didn't get it. There were a lot of good things that did come out of the Star Trek stable by this stage but it needed something fresh and the people that had made it successful in the Golden Age of the 1990's had moved on. Braga was a good writer but as a producer his inexperience, I think, showed through which led to the arrival of Manny Coto which was too little too late. I think his work on the final year of Enterprise is superb and produced some moments of true brilliance. A fifth season and the Romulan War would have really set the show apart but we never got the chance to see how it could have evolved. 


Is it Berman's fault he stayed so long? Maybe not. He was doing something he was passionate about and was doing it for the audience and more significantly he believed he was doing what the fans wanted. His over familiarity with the material by 2004/5 may well have assisted the toll of the bell for Enterprise and after such a long run the franchise was more than a little out of puff. A break was due, it needed a holiday and a change of management. Berman had done his best and given his all to uphold the standards but, as someone once said, All Good Things...must come to an end.

So let's thank Rick Berman for giving us some damn fine shows and classic stories over the years and you know what, it wasn't that bad after all - and for the record he had nothing to do with the movies that are rated at the bottom of the pile. So let's start lighting the torches for JJ and Shatner shall we or are we all waiting to see who will be taking the reins for the third reboot movie? We'll be keeping track in 2014 you can be assured of that.