Optimistic outlook offered by ‘Star Trek’ will be missed

Science fiction has long been associated with a bold look at what the future may bring. It involves stories that focus as much on exploring human nature as on technology. The best stories, be they in the form of the written word, on television, at the movies or even on radio, have always evoked a sense of hope that humanity as a whole will overcome even those problems that may now seem overwhelming.

But last week an era in entertainment that had attempted to do just that came to a close: For the first time in over 18 years, no Star Trek project is being produced at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, CA. Since early production began on what would become the first big-screen adventure in 1978, stages 8 and 9 of the Paramount lot are now empty.

This largely unbroken production run saw the creation of 10 movies and four television shows that totaled over 700 episodes. But with the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise and no replacement on the drawing board, for the first time since 1987 there will be no new episodes of the popular show.

It’s true that entertainment, just like most things in our society, is based on what has money-making potential. But to a large extent good science fiction has had more in common with Greek morality plays or Shakespearean theater than average TV programs. Long-running storylines were often parables of what was happening in “real life” at the time the shows were produced.In the early days of the classic Star Trek television show featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, the psychedelic-colored sets and props were largely stand-ins that allowed the discussion of social problems of the time that otherwise would never have made it past the network’s censors.

The episode “Errand of Mercy,” for example, featured an alien character’s monologue reasoning that neither the fictional Klingon Empire nor the equally fictional United Federations of Planets had the right to meddle in the affairs of the seemingly less advanced culture in which the episode played out.

The episode aired in 1967 and was a critique of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the episode’s message can now be applied to numerous conflicts that have arisen since the episode originally aired, probably the biggest reason for the timeless appeal of such episodes.

More recent examples focused on terrorism and religious conflicts even before the attacks of Sept. 11. By setting the events in a fictional world, the themes could be discussed more coolly than in most other instances. (Not to mention that it was just good TV and entertaining to watch.)

But now the network that has been the home to the last two Star Trek series, UPN, has pulled the plug and is unwilling to finance new episodes. Instead the network is betting on such shows as America’s Next Top Model as well as many other shows that are, shall we say, easier on the minds of television audiences. Episodes of the now-cancelled Enterprise were watched by troops stationed in Iraq onboard the real-life aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, and even onboard the International Space Station. Translated versions were watched in literally every corner of the planet, making captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway synonymous with American democratic values.

I cannot fault UPN for making what they think is the best business decision. But American television shows such as Star Trek are also watched abroad. Now that there are no new episodes of what was probably the best-known model of peaceful co-existence, such shows will no longer be making an impression on audiences worldwide. In terms of improving America’s image, that’s hardly helping.

When fans rallied support for the continuation of the show, three wealthy anonymous benefactors pledged to pitch in $3 million if that could ensure a fifth season of the show. The only explanation they gave for their support was a statement that said they believed “Star Trek and especially its latest incarnation, Enterprise, is the kind of TV that should be aired more often,” as it brought “imagination and hope for a better future to our homes” that was lacking from nearly all other entertainment.

There is no doubt that Star Trek will return in a few years.

Paramount has stated that it thinks of the current show’s end as more of a hiatus than a cancellation. There is just too much money left to be made for Paramount to abandon one of its most lucrative properties.

But in the meantime it’s saddening that thought-provoking television will only be found in reruns or on DVD once the last episode of Enterprise airs on May 13.

Sebastian Meyer is a seniormajoring in geography andthe Oracle Opinion Editor.column@sebimeyer.com