A franchise in universal overload

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Enterprise is under attack both on screen and off.

In the past year, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) earned $43 million, the lowest box office returns in film franchise history. Viacom, the conglomerate that ultimately owns Star Trek, was sued by Activision because it feared its Trek-themed computer games wouldn't sell. Meanwhile, the entire franchise has been lambasted by fans and the media alike.

TV writer/producer Brannon Braga's response? Send in the marines. That is, the space marines or MACO (Military Assault Command Operations), a detachment to Captain Archer's (Scott Bakula) crew with orders to combat the mysterious Xindi - and to save the show. (The season three premiere of Enterprise, "The Xindi" airs tonight at 8 on UPN.)

The new season marks a dramatic shift in storytelling from stand-alone episodes to a season-long story arc. The new narrative echoes plotlines from two of the most critically and commercially successful Trek movies: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

"We're playing around with structure," Braga says. "I have always thought that Star Trek works best as stand-alone. The story has a beginning, middle and an end. Am I scared that this will work? Yes, but it's different, challenging and ultimately more creative."

In tonight's episode, Major Hayes (Steven Culp) leads the MACOs in search of the bad guys - all five species.

Three species - the Xindi-Reptilians, Xindi-Primates and Xindi-Arboreals - are portrayed with costumes and makeup. But the Xindi-Aquatics and Xindi-Insectoids require CGI (computer graphic imaging) to realize their forms and subtitles to understand their language.

The Insectoids as "paranoid, volatile and highly agitated creatures. Imagine a hornet if it should evolve into a higher lifeform. They [the other Xindi species] can barely control them," Braga says.

And the Xindi-Aquatics who carry the "deciding vote" in their political structure "fly around in warp-capable ships filled with this liquid that they live in."

This is not to say that old familiar enemies, like the time-traveling Future Guy, won't appear to provide plot twists and turns, the writer/producer says. But the show's "really more about the humans vs. the Xindi."

Upcoming episodes feature a "sci-fi version of Night of the Living Dead with Vulcan zombies and Archer solving the paradox of the Xindi homeworld's destruction.

Meanwhile, Star Trek's earthbound problems have been creating a buzz. Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide magazines last July featured headlines that read: "Can Star Trek Be Saved?" "Forget Trek!" and "Star Trek is so five minutes ago."

Braga, speaking by phone from his Hollywood office, responds by calling the media's criticism of the television series "blistering and unfair."

Admitting that the show has suffered low ratings, he continues: "It's obvious what's happened. Star Trek's been around for nearly 40 years. How do you retain the fever? People who were watching The Next Generation when they were in college, now have families and jobs. I mean they've had enough Star Trek. How do you get them back?"

Braga cites the new story arc, new characters and grittier scenes as steps in the right direction. "We're making very dramatic, and hopefully, effective changes to the show because they are creatively stimulating and because we're trying, of course we're trying, to generate viewer interest. A lot of people are like, 'Are you doing this because of the ratings?' Well yeah! What television show in the history of television doesn't try to get better ratings?"

Scenes in tonight's premiere include a dismembered appendage, a prison escape via a sewage tunnel (a la Shawshank Redemption) and partial nudity of T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) with Trip (Connor Trinneer) during a Vulcan massage sequence.

"We've got to get people talking a little bit," Braga says.

Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr. Spock (in the original series), wrote, starred and directed The Voyage Home, the top money maker at $109 million. When told the producers of Enterprise had referenced his second film directorial effort, specifically a plot thread involving an imperiled Earth, he was "very flattered" but questioned the approach.

"It just doesn't seem to me to start out on a premise that if Earth is in trouble we'll have a success," Nimoy says, speaking by telephone. "I just don't get it. We had an enormous number of wonderful episodes in the original classic series where Earth was not in danger. I thought the episodes worked very well."

For Nimoy, chemistry among the cast and crew, humor and a strong, intelligent story that comes out of a person's passion is the way to go.

To him, the writers of the original series were at their best when they were passionate about the stories. "They were writing stories that had to do with their own lives, their own experiences, dealing with ideas that could not find a home in other television series but, could find a home in a science fiction series like Star Trek."

Nimoy names "The City on the Edge of Forever," "The Menagerie," "Amok Time" and "The Trouble With Tribbles," as examples of great scripts that had nothing to do with Earth being in danger.

"I'm not a pundit on the issue of what's good or bad with Star Trek or why Star Trek is or is not working," he adds. "I don't watch enough shows. I haven't seen enough of their film, frankly. I'm not a watcher. People ask me this question constantly. What do you think about the show. Do you think Star Trek is finished? I don't know. It could be overexposure. It could be getting tired. Could be the show's just not touching imagination. I don't really know."

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