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Lust in Space

Can Jeri Ryan's sexy Borg save the series?

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a randy band of space travelers partied through the cosmos in a warp-propelled love boat known as the Enterprise. A devilish lot — one even had pointy ears — they cha-cha'd with green-skinned Orion slave girls and taught exotic Romulan bedroom techniques to busty alien chicks in tinfoil bikinis. They had a prime directive all right — but it sure wasn't noninterference.

Flash-forward a few decades. The Enterprise still zipped through the galaxy, but the party was clearly over. No more miniskirted yeomen. No more all-night tranya keggers. No more horny fem-bots from Planet Foreplay. Suddenly, life aboard a starship appeared about as sexy as a semester at Antioch College. The Next Generation, it seemed, was also a prudish one.

Now transport to a cool August morning on the Hollywood set of Star Trek: Voyager. A spanking-new character — Seven of Nine — is crawling around a tubular shaft, working furiously to neutralize a chronoton torpedo warhead and deliver the Starfleet crew from destruction. Actress Jeri Ryan, the babe behind this half-Borg, half-human creature, deftly spews technobabble and crunches stats in her skin-hugging catsuit, while Tim Russ (Vulcan lieutenant Tuvok) tries to shepherd her from danger. And with mere nanoseconds to spare before the thunderous climax...she busts the code!

''Excellent work,'' drones Russ. ''But if you disobey my orders again, I will be forced to...''

''I will be forced...to mount you!'' squeals Ryan unexpectedly, before keeling over in giggles.

Despite the juicy, unscripted action, Voyager is in no danger of morphing into Melrose Space. But the 24th-century UPN drama is, er, mounting an aggressive campaign to woo more viewers. Having seen nearly half its audience vaporized since its flashy 1995 debut, the show is now trying to reach beyond its highly specific fan base with bigger adventures, broader humor, deeper personal stories — and, yes, a few close encounters. ''We wanted to shake things up,'' explains coexec producer Brannon Braga. ''Star Trek has been somewhat of a sterile show. Could it use an infusion of sexuality? Absolutely.''

It doesn't take a warp-drive engineer, however, to realize the dangers in tinkering with a 30-year-old institution that borders on a religion. (''If we mention we might change Captain Janeway's hairdo,'' notes Voyager exec producer Jeri Taylor of the series' central character, ''we get factions who want to crucify us.'') Die-hard fans of the swingin'-'60s prototype — a far sexier show than any of its sequels, thanks to the various love connections of Capt. James T. Kirk (remember Rayna, the android who got so torn between two lovers she blew out her circuits?) — might appreciate a little extraterrestrial hanky-panky. But stuffier, more politically correct Next Generation acolytes (it's hard to be salacious when you speak the Queen's English, a la Captain Picard) could view Seven as a desperate attempt to steer a sagging ship toward healthier ratings.

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