Monday, 18 May 2020

End of an Era; May 2005

With a final flourish of starships and the famous narrative, Enterprise left our screens on this day in 2005.

Now, 15 years later we are in a new era, that of Alex Kurtzman, Discovery, Picard, two animated series and so much more but significantly that May day marked the end of Rick Berman's control over the franchise.

When I asked for positives on the final episode from social media they ranged from "The Enterprise-D looked good" through to "nothing" which mind of says a lot about how These Are the Voyages is perceived.

Regularly you hear about it in the same paragraph as Shades of Gray or Spock's Brain because a lot of fans felt it stuck two fingers up at the franchise and also made the Enterprise cast guest stars in their own series finale.

The story itself on the NX-01 is massively overwhelmed by the Riker story which is, in itself, happening in the background of The Next Generation's excellent The Pegasus from halfway through its own final season. In itself that's a bit of a kick since Picard's crew made it to the end of seven years, got a feature length finale and went on to do four motion pictures - Archer's got These are the Voyages.

However, looking at it now there are a few things which mark it out for distinction some 15 years after its first airing. For one, as said, it marked the end of the "Golden Era" started in 1987 by Encounter at Farpoint which saw a Star Trek series in production every year until 2005. It closed the book on the Berman and with it the contributions to the franchise from individuals such as Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga (for example) who would be among the many to go on to other significant projects.

But it also shares some interesting parallels to the previous Star Trek era from 1966 to 1969 - you know, that one with Kirk and Spock. It too suffered the indignity of cancellation after only three years and 79 episodes and although Enterprise managed to stick it out to 98 and make its final season one of its best, there would be no big fanfare at the end as its more popular siblings The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, all of which would receive their double-length finales.

In fact, even if Picard and Discovery were to never see another episode produced (I can hear some people cheering already), they would both have ended on double-length stories albeit in two part format (which would happen to all the series when in syndication/repeat). This means that only The Original Series and Enterprise ended on a standard duration story.

Ok, that's a bit rubbishy but These are the Voyages is a sign of the state of the franchise at the time it was written. What was considered by writers Berman and Braga to be a love letter to the fans was actually taken in a completely different light. It screams of the excesses, perhaps some of the tropes and monotony of the later years of that "Golden Age" where  the expectations of Star Trek were a lot higher than it was producing. There was a familiarity by this time - ship/base plus crew with a strong captain going out and meeting aliens with forehead bumps before the status quo was returned at the end of the hour.

Deep Space Nine certainly toyed with that but in the big scheme of things, the franchise was getting comfy and it needed a shakeup. Trip's death is hardly that but slipping in Riker and Troi, who look decidedly uncomfortable at times in their uniforms and back on reconstructed Enterprise-D sets after 11 years trying to tie in a plot to an episode they filmed years ago.

It doesn't work to a large degree and, credit where credit's due, Michael Chabon's Picard did wonders for their return in Nepenthe. Here though it's feeling tired, the story lacks real pace and effectively tells you everything you needed to know about where Star Trek was at the time. If it was a racehorse, this would have been it's time to pasture.

Anyway, their inclusion does wrap up that '87 to '05 period even more with two characters who appeared in Encounter at Farpoint back to wave off the franchise, close it down and leave the keys under the mat for another person to take on. Riker's time on the recreation of the NX-01 puts him into close contact with Archer, Tucker and T'Pol most prominently but seems to forget that there were a few other members of the ensemble cast - another issue with the 42 minute run time in a story that could probably have been better structured over 84 minutes 

Jumping the narrative forward several years from Terra Prime at least allows for some rounding out of the series and the creation of the Federation that we would have hoped to have seen develop over the series but is ultimately rushed into service here. Again, it's a merit for the episode that it tries to encapsulate so much - returning characters, a major event in Star Trek lore, a character death, action sequences and a final bow for three ships named Enterprise that These are the Voyages mutates into one of those long hugs from an elderly relative that lasts just that little bit too long.

A bloated, saccharine finale it might be with all these nods, references and "fan pleasing" pointers but we know where all that kind of thing can lead - look at where both Star Wars and Doctor Who have ended up in the last 12 months for instance with their attempts at doing the same. Star Trek had made the error of trying to bow to the fanbase here and give them what they thought Trekkies wanted and failed. Overconfidence? Overfamiliarity? Perhaps when you've been doing it for 18 years straight. At least Riker makes his decision after consulting with the crew - not that we already sort of knew that from The Next Generation...

Star Trek did of course recover with the successful Kelvin Timeline movies from 2009 onwards but a TV resurrection would be a lot further off. That would be a divisive turning point again with a distinct tonal shift from the two series currently available to watch. However there's a few differences that seem to have been learnt from the Berman era.

No longer was the captain the central star (Burnham) and no longer was a ship the key  element (Picard's La Sirena didn't appear for the first few episodes) and there was less of a formulaic approach. They did continue to expand on the larger story arcs that were a signature of Enterprise's last season but crucially each show now has a distinct identity to set it apart.

Going back to it's bonds to The Original Series though, Enterprise has grown in appreciation since its cancellation - in fact I think it's a damn fine series that I underappreciated immensely when I was younger and now think is one of the strongest shows the franchise has delivered - maybe with a few episodic exceptions.

While the feelings for These are the Voyages are still mixed 15 years on, it's an episode and a pivotal point in the franchise that attracts discussion. Lessons have, I think, been learned and the new era of Star Trek is trying a lot of different things from the way in which it explores its characters to how the stories evolve over the course of a season. There's no overconfidence but I know one thing that might be levelled at the current Powers That Be is that perception that we might be approaching saturation level and we're only three years in. 

There's a mass of Star Trek on the way and we felt that it was getting too much back in the early 2000's when we only had to deal with one series per year and an occasional movie - now we are well on the way to having new Star Trek content each and every week of the year for at least the next three years.

These are the Voyages is, as I realised after an observation from @CaptainRevo on Twitter, a rare occasion where the parts do not make a greater sum. It's fragmented with good ideas that don't come together and satisfy its audience and hopefully a time in Star Trek history that all future writers and producers will be able to learn from...

What are your thoughts on These are the Voyages 15 years on? What worked? 

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1 comment:

  1. And now for something completely different... Graham Kennedy, lifelong Star Trek fan, and author of DITL site, has died:
    Maybe little epitaph?