At first glance you’d never guess anything was wrong at this year’s Star Trek Grand Slam IV, a mammoth three-day fan convention held April 19-21 in Pasadena. Legions of Trekkers, geeked out head to toe in full Federation regalia, milled about communing with their fellow obsessive-compulsives. But scratch the the surface at this Tribblefest, and it’s clear that the cult sci-fi franchise, which has lived long, ain’t exactly prospering.
”This convention is not as popular as two years ago,” says Victor Debs of Cruise Trek, a firm that books fans on Trek-themed ocean voyages. ”It was packed then.” Debs says enrollment in the cruises has dropped 50 percent in the last two years. He explains: ”Our attendance depends on how the shows are doing.”
The shows, to put it bluntly, aren’t doing well. Even as the tentatively titled Star Trek: Generations II, the next installment in Paramount’s $1 billion-grossing Trek feature franchise, gears up for its November premiere (filming began April 8), ratings for both the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and UPN’s Star Trek: Voyager seem to have fallen prey to the Vulcan death grip. DS9 has seen its audience shrink from an average of 10.9 million viewers per episode last season to 9.3 million this year. More galling: The show has consistently been beaten by Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as the highest-rated hour-long syndicated series. More dire is the situation at UPN, where Voyager, its flagship show, took a nosedive from 11.1 million to 7.5 million viewers.
Fans point to numerous reasons for the slide. For one thing, a number of heirs apparent to Trek’s cult throne, such as Fox’s The X-Files, have been stealing away the hearts and minds of sci-fi enthusiasts. And there’s even tougher competition. ”Trek is up against not just other sci-fi shows, but other Trek shows,” says Rick Berman, exec producer of both Treks. ”DS9 has to play against repeats of Next Generation, the original Trek, Voyager, and even repeats of DS9.”
Which goes to the heart of the problem: Trek’s greatest rival is its own heritage. Many fans have yet to embrace the new shows because they’re still angry over Paramount’s decision to kill off the phenomenally popular Next Generation series in order to parlay the show into a big-screen franchise. While the short-term math worked — the first flick, Star Trek: Generations, racked up $75.7 million at the box office — Paramount was left with two weaker shows to carry on Trek’s TV line, and a host of disgruntled fans and merchandisers. ”The last two years of Next Generation were the best in the business,” says Joe Bob Williams, who works at Starbase 21, a Tulsa multimedia store. ”But they shot themselves in the foot.”
UPN entertainment president Michael Sullivan dismisses Voyager’s weak showing. ”A minor downtrend may be happening,” he says, ”but our core viewers are still there. And the feature film will definitely punch things up.”
That’s clearly Paramount’s hope as well. Generations II should be a major shot in the arm when it beams into multiplexes in the fall. An early draft of the script shows all the right ingredients: effects-heavy space battles (between the Enterprise and the nefarious Borg), engaging love stories (Alfre Woodard plays Picard’s romantic interest), and a crowd-pleasing time-travel story line (the crew zips back to 21st-century Montana to visit scientist Zefram Cochran, played by Babe’s James Cromwell). ”It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says director Jonathan Frakes, who’ll reprise his role as Will Riker. ”There’s a new Enterprise, the Borg have been redesigned, and the whole cast’s back.”