It's Christmastime in the 24th century. The crew of Star Trek: Voyager, the newest television offshoot of the enduring Trek phenomenon, is setting up a shot on Paramount's cavernous soundstage 8, when actress Kate Mulgrew suddenly materializes from behind a field of stars on black velvet, her arms filled with shiny parcels. ''Merry Christmas!'' she beams as she doles out presents to the crew. A whirl of yuletide cheer in a red-and-black Starfleet uniform, she glides among the electricians, the carpenters, and the assistant directors, past set walls that still have ''The Next Generation'' stenciled on their backs.
''But Kate, how about you?'' asks a crew member.
Mulgrew smiles and rebalances the packages in her arms. ''That's all right, doll. I already got mine.''
Indeed, for Mulgrew, Christmas had come three months earlier. That was when she was cast as Voyagers Capt. Kathryn Janeway, the linchpin role in what may very well be the most anticipated TV series since, well, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two years ago. But back in early September, the mood on the set wasn't exactly one of glad tidings. Up to that point, Voyager had been beset by production delays, internal squabbling, and casting problems-problems that had climaxed when French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold was given the part of Janeway, only to bail out after two tempestuous days on the set.
Such troubles are commonplace for many new series, but the stakes are seldom this high: Voyager is the third spin-off in-and heir apparent to-the staggeringly profitable Trek empire, a franchise that has generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue for Paramount. In addition to TV, Trek has scored with movies, books, and merchandising products of every variety. That kind of bankability led the studio to choose Voyager as the centerpiece of its new United Paramount Network, which launches Jan. 16 with Voyagers two-hour premiere. No wonder it seems all eyes in the universe are trained on what Paramount hopes will be the next Next Generation.
That places Mulgrew who, as Janeway, becomes a successor to Trek icons James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard not only in the captain's chair but also squarely in the proverbial hot seat. ''Kate has a lot of pressure on her,'' says Robert Beltran, who plays Chakotay, the ship's Native American first officer. ''There's really no precedent for her situation. Except maybe Joan of Arc.'' He smiles. ''And she had the anointing of God.''
''A female captain has a lot of leeway that a male captain wouldn't have,'' says Mulgrew, sitting in her trailer between scenes and methodically working her way through a pack of cigarettes. At 39, Mulgrew, a self-described ''television beast,'' is a veteran of innumerable TV campaigns, including a short stint as the title character in the NBC series Mrs. Columbo. With her clear Irish features and throaty, resonant voice, she bears an eerie resemblance to a young Katharine Hepburn. ''Women have an emotional accessibility that our culture not only accepts but embraces. We have a tactility, a compassion, a maternity-and all these things can be revealed within the character of a very authoritative person.''
But Trek has not treated authoritative women kindly. Thirty years ago, after watching the original Trek pilot, NBC executives ordered creator Gene Roddenberry to eliminate the female first officer because she seemed too threatening. (The actress, Majel Barrett, was eventually recast as Nurse Chapel, and later became Roddenberry's wife.) It was downhill from there for Trek feminists. The final episode of the original series, ''Turnabout Intruder,'' found the character of Dr. Janice Lester railing at the indignities of a chauvinistic Starfleet that didn't allow female starship captains. The situation became a little more equitable in The Next Generationr, which featured women in command in several stories. But most of them, like Capt. Rachel Garrett of the Enterprise-C, contracted Trek's dreaded red-shirt syndrome: an untimely death within the first halfhour.
''It took balls for these guys to hire me in this capacity,'' says Mulgrew, the first woman to lead a Trek series onto TV. ''It's a bold choice, and an appropriate one for 400 years in the future.''
But casting a woman to helm the ship is only one way Voyager ventures into new territory. There's also the show's premise: Janeway, in command of the newly commissioned U.S.S. Voyager, sets out to track down a rebel group known as the Maquis when a strange galactic phenomenon (that hoary Trek staple) flings both the Voyager and the Maquis ship into the distant reaches of the galaxy-so distant that at maximum warp, it would take them 70 years to return home. The two crews put aside their differences and band together to find a way back. On the journey, they will presumably encounter strange new worlds and new civilizations-and freaky new aliens to turn into hot-selling action figures.
The formula is Trek through and through: a warp-speed-paced, ship-centered show with a setup that allows for both weighty philosophical reflection and zesty shoot-'em-ups-a tale equal parts Lost in Space and The Odyssey. ''We are cutting our ties with a part of the universe that our audience is very comfortable with,'' says coexecutive producer Jeri Taylor. ''No more Klingons, or Romulans, or Cardassians. The Federation is 70,000 light-years away. We are taking all of that away and starting from scratch.''
Adds coexecutive producer Michael Piller, ''You go back to the original show in the '60s and the spirit of that was: one ship with a bunch of people, out there alone, exploring the unknown, never sure what they were going to find around any corner. That's what we wanted, so that Voyager wouldn't be just a pale imitation of The Next Generation.''
Implicit in that assessment is the desire not to repeat the mistakes of Deep Space Nine. When it premiered in 1993, DS9 was the designated successor to The Next Generation's throne. But the show stumbled through its first season, hampered by underdeveloped characters and mundane storytelling. Trekkers cited DS9's flawed premise-a stationary stage for characters in perpetual conflict-which they felt betrayed the Trek ideal of cosmic exploration and universal harmony. ''It's just a bunch of guys in a building yelling at each other,'' says one Trek insider.
With DS9's lessons in mind, Voyagers early episodes will quickly try to establish the dynamics of its crew by throwing every tried-and-true Trek trick in the book at them: space anomalies, time warps, funky predatory aliens, etc. Yet the producers remain cautious. ''Voyager will not have the same ratings that The Next Generation had,'' says Piller. ''It just won't. I don't think even the studio expects that.''
What the studio does expect, unequivocally, is a hit. Over the course of its seven syndicated seasons, The Next Generation raked in an estimated $511 million in revenue for Paramount-a major factor in convincing executives of the viability of a new network centered around a new Trek. ''There's a great deal of pressure on us,'' says Taylor. ''Affiliates were drawn into the fold by the prospect of getting Voyager. We know the expectations are inordinately high.''
Fans were quick to answer. ''Why oh why would the producers put a woman in charge of Voyager?'' wrote one distraught America Online subscriber. ''Do they want it to sink? What they need is a Kirk-type: strong, ambitious and full of testosterone.'' Some postings were even more succinct: ''The show will suck because of the woman.''
Paramount didn't turn a deaf ear to such sentiments. According to one source, the studio angrily demanded that the captain's role be changed to a man a report Berman wholeheartedly denies. ''I told them, 'I want to do this with a woman,' and they were very supportive,'' says Berman. ''They just said, 'Let's not close the door to men. Look at men as well.' But being opposed to hiring a woman that's nonsense. They just weren't 100 percent sure we would find the right woman.''
Berman himself must have had doubts hundreds of actresses were auditioned last summer. Among those reportedly under consideration: Kate Jackson, Lindsay Wagner, Tracy Scoggins, Linda Hamilton, even Patty Duke. Not until Sept. 1, the date shooting was supposed to begin, was a decision announced.