Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Weakly slinking where no man has slunk before

At one time I was a Star Trek fan. No, I never put on a pair of ears or a uniform. But I did once go to a Star Trek convention. With some colleagues. As a kind of, you know, anthropological thing.

Anyway, emphasis on the “was.” Star Trek has not been good for almost a decade, and last week it slipped quietly into pop culture history – or at least an overdue hibernation – when the final episode of “Enterprise,” the last, and worst, Star Trek series aired. We had not watched the show for a couple of years but tuned in, and it was like the series as a whole – some intriguing elements, great production design, but a lame, lame plot.

Yes, people running around in pajamas firing ray guns is always going to be cheesy. William Shatner’s shirt came off an awful lot. Dozens of nameless crewmembers died meaningless deaths to set up weak storylines. But Star Trek was often great TV. The interplay between the three main characters in the original series has been endlessly parodied, but it was one of the better portrayals of the tensions of adult friendship – in, uh, interesting situations that looked at political issues, history, the human condition. The Next Generation had lamer characters and a duller edge, but greater reach and sophistication.

One memorable line from Deep Space Nine was actually about the nature of soft power -- Quark, the alien bartender, bemoans the fact that he’ll be serving root beer again in his interplanetary establishment. Root beer, he and a friend agree, is just like the Federation – i.e., the United States – "bubbly, cloying and happy," somehow irresistible to all who encounter it – and they better get used to it, because it’s the only thing left between them and the howling void.

But by the time Enterprise launched, Trek had become an indigestible hash of its own cliches. The latex foreheads and technobabble, never believable, were ridiculous. At one point, Nazi lizards figured heavily in the story. The Paramount suits were sending down diktats that every episode have a dose of gratuitous sex and skin and at least one pointless action sequence. The captain was a constantly agonizing, befuddled drip with a pet beagle. The opening song sucked.

But hey, that Vulcan chick wasn’t bad.

We hoped for more in the last episode, but no. A major character died mainly in order to have something dramatic happen. Except it was pointless and arbitrary. That is, not dramatic. And there wasn’t even any skin, just a chubbed-out Jonathan Frakes.