by Jerod C. Batte
During the 1990s, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a mainstream hit… but not quite the mainstream hit it could have been. The show didn’t truly find its footing until season 3 and “The Best of Both Worlds.” Deep Space Nine and Voyager never went mainstream, and Enterprise was the poor, sad red shirt who was mercilessly slaughtered by a runaway mugato just as the series was finding its stride. However, another science fiction masterwork, The X-Files, was a dark horse hit that consistently broke Nielsen records, and the conspiracy-fueled juggernaut only grew more potent with each new series. This pattern was repeated during the latter years of Voyager and throughout Enterprise’s run when Stargate SG-1 and its spin-offs — instant blockbuster hits that, like Star Trek, were based on a property initially seen as “campy” or “cheesy” by audiences — hit the airwaves. For some reason, the four modern Star Trek series simply weren’t as accessible as other television shows, science fiction or not.
They were too geeky for the rest of the world.
Why, though? Beyond the concept of “people in the future exploring space”, there wasn’t anything about the Star Trek concept that was ever supposed to be too geeky to be inaccessible. Roddenberry hoped the franchise would be a mainstream success when he created it, and while the original series latched onto disenfranchised nerds early on and ultimately found its place as a cultural meme, not even the TOS crew found a place in the mainstream until J.J. Abrams’ reboot films (though part of that recent success is due to the recent rise in popularity of geeky franchises). What was it about Star Trek that made the franchise so inaccessible to those outside the franchise while other properties like Star Wars, The X-Files and Stargate SG-1almost immediately captured audience imaginations?
Referring to the new Abrams films as “action-packed” by comparison is one answer, but not the answer; by comparison to the Abrams films, The X-Files and Stargate SG-1 are about as action-packed as any of the six Star Trek television series (though The Next Generation and Voyager definitely had their “overly talky” moments). There’s something more to this mystery beyond just the action, something much more elemental to the art of storytelling.
One possible answer can be summed up in two words: “audience surrogate.”
It’s tricky for writers to keep this simple fact in mind: “I am not my audience.” A writer already knows exactly what is happening in the world that the writer is creating. The audience, however, has no clue what to expect from a new television show until they see the very first episode. The genre of the show gives the audience some idea — House is a medical drama, CSI is a “whodunit?” mystery police procedural, Glee has lots of musical numbers, et cetera ad infinitum — but that’s just a thumbnail sketch of what any given television series or film is about, a sketch meant to sell both audiences and major studios on the premise. While exposition and on-screen action are two ways to show and tell the audience what they’ll see in every episode, an audience surrogate — someone who stands in for an average television audience hailing from our universe who will be ignorant of the day-to-day happenings in the fictional realm the series places them in — is an essential element that draws the audience in by asking the questions they would ask.
Television series set in modern times often have little need for an audience surrogate because they deal with everyday people thrown into extraordinary situations. The audience has little trouble projecting themselves into the characters because the characters are so much like them already. For example: House stars a team of doctors in modern America; CSI stars a team of Las Vegas Police Department crime scene investigators (translate that as “smart cops” in everyday vernacular); Glee stars high school students. While the stars of House and CSI are brilliant and extraordinary individuals in their own rights, there is nothing that makes them too different from the audiences watching at home.
Science fiction series have a tougher hurdle to overcome, as they regularly place the audience in extreme situations. Without someone who seems like a “regular person” in the cast, someone whose viewpoint the audience can identify with and cling to throughout the story, the audience is going to feel like they’re lost in an entirely new and unfamiliar universe without a map or a guide. The X-Files and Stargate SG-1are both set in modern times and star modern day characters — Federal agents and military officers respectively — thrust into extreme situations far beyond the norm. While the majority of audience members aren’t FBI agents or members of the United States Air Force (especially if those audiences live outside the United States), the characters themselves are everyday people who think, emote and react in ways that modern day human beings would.
Even a television series set in a strange and vastly different universe can be understood by the average audience member, as long as the story has a character who serves as a guide for the audience. Though the main character in Doctor Who is a nigh-immortal time-traveling alien, the Doctor frequently travels with everyday human beings who often find themselves just as perplexed by the situations the Doctor is often thrust into as any audience member would be, giving the Doctor a chance to explain his universe to his companions just as he’s explaining it to the audience. Without a companion around, who can the Doctor explain the situation to? In such rare episodes, the writers’ task of drawing the audience in becomes much more daunting.
In the Star Trek franchise, the audience is asked to engage with humans from a hypothetical future free of war, poverty, disease, crime or prejudice. While this future is idyllic, it is also as foreign to modern audiences as any alien planet that Kirk or Picard may find themselves on in any episode. A world without poverty? Finding one person on Earth — especially in the troubled economic climate of the 2000s — who truly understands what that’s like would be a challenge, and those who do find the concept of “poverty” inconceivable are so far removed from modern day problems that modern day people cannot relate to them. Think about how difficult it is for those in the “99%” to understand the mindsets of wealthy elites, or vice-versa. How many modern human beings living in a “post-9/11 world” can relate to a future Earth devoid of sectarian violence?
And that’s just the setting! Starfleet officers are, in essence, extremely brilliant astronauts with combat training. In modern times, even doctors — some of society’s most brilliant minds — have trouble relating to modern astronauts. These people walk among the stars. While the rest of Western civilization sits in cubicles or waits tables at work, astronauts float about in microgravity and engage in the kind of scientific experiments that make Stephen Hawking jealous! Is it any wonder that modern audiences have difficulties relating to Starfleet officers?
In the original series, the crew of the Enterprise was still much like the audience watching the program. While some crew members, like Nyota Uhura, were hailed as role models for 1960s culture, they were still very real, very relatable people. Kirk was the charming jock, Spock the brainy outcast geek, McCoy the crotchety country doctor… These were archetypes that resonated strongly with Cold War America, and resonate still, if the success of the Abrams films are any indication.
Keep in mind that the original Star Trek and its contemporary science fiction shows — popular programs like The Twilight Zone, Flash Gordon and Lost in Space, to name a few — were dramatic programs easily accessible to Cold War era audiences, especially families. However, their simplistic special effects, low-budget storytelling, and focus on action over intellect often made them seem too silly for mainstream audiences, and science fiction TV quickly gained a negative reputation for being “kid stuff.” Conversely, some mainstream TV viewers thought the material was too “nerdy” for them, as the genre’s emphasis on rocket ships, robots and space exploration — a manifestation of the public’s fascination with the space race between NASA and the USSR’s space program — made sci fi seem too cerebral for the mainstream. Though the public’s perception of science fiction as children’s programming would change dramatically once sophisticated films like 2001: A Space Odyssey hit the theaters, the genre would never fully escape the “geek only” stigma. Even though modern films like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek may have opened the genre to the mainstream, the genre — Star Trek in particular — is still considered “geek culture.”
What about the cast of The Next Generation, though? The crew is so far removed from the audience watching that they don’t even have money anymore, and everyone on the crew is highly literate; many audience members hadn’t even heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh until Picard mentioned it in “Darmok“ (even though it is required reading in some high school literature and history courses). Moreover, the crew of the Enterprise-D is much more galactically diverse than that if the original Enterprise, boasting a Klingon, an alien empath and an android. This diversity would only grow with subsequent TNG era spin-offs, with Trill, holograms, Ferengi, shapeshifters, Talaxians, Denobulans and Borg drones added to the mix.
This is where the need for an audience surrogate is critical. When the humans of a fictional universe think differently from the audiences watching them (compare the self-righteous speeches made about the “primitive”, “profit-driven“ culture of the modern era by Picard or Riker during the first two seasons of TNG or the series’ embarassing initial depiction of the Ferengi to the lifestyle of superhero Spider-Man, who often struggled with paying for his bills or acquiring his ailing aunt’s medicine without health insurance), a guide character has to stand in the gap for the audience, even if that character’s only purpose is to ask, “What’s going on?” or “Can you translate that into non-techie, please?”
The Next Generation had the perfect opportunity to include an audience surrogate with one character that was horribly written and poorly utilized: Wesley Crusher, child prodigy and son of ship’s medic Beverly Crusher. Wesley, as a character, was too smart for his own good. Depicted in a cloyingly sweet-natured manner, Wesley alternated between being too naïve to hold a position on the Enterprise’s senior staff or more clever than the highly-trained, vastly more experienced adult professionals surrounding him with no reason for the alternation in traits other than narrative convention.
Think about how this character could’ve resonated with audiences had he been written by writers used to handling relatable teenaged characters, especially as a teenager on a starship that was supposed to feature families. We saw quite a few children aboard the Enterprise during TNG’s run, but how many other teenagers did we see? Did Wesley have no peers aboard the Enterprise to have scenes with, even for one episode? Was he so alone on that ship that the only person he could relate to in his age group was a visiting alien royal with shapeshifting powers? (Even that could have been used better in the story; think about how many teenagers feel they must “shapeshift” into a different person to better fit in with their classmates.)
Better still, what about writing Wesley as more of a “regular,” yet still very brilliant, person? Someone who could easily translate the technobabble of the crew into modern vernacular for the audience with common speech metaphors. Rather than write him as someone intimately familiar with the ship’s inner workings prior to his time at the Academy (or before setting foot on the Enterprise at all, for that matter; he knew how to operate the consoles on the Captain’s chair based on ship specifications he had memorized before his mother was assigned to the Enterprise, according to “Encounter at Farpoint”), he could’ve been written as someone more like the audience —unfamiliar with the Enterprise and its unique culture, but willing to learn about it and explore its decks; bright for his age, but more approachable than his typical wunderkind portrayal. Anything could’ve helped this, from giving him a few defining-but-charming character flaws or a sarcastic sense of humor to giving him a modern hobby like basketball. In other words, the character should have been less like the scripted Wesley Crusher and more like the actor who portrayed him, Wil Wheaton.
We saw brief hints of what could have become that sort of characterization in “Encounter at Farpoint” with Wesley’s introduction to both the holodeck and Lieutenant Commander Data, an episode otherwise marred by a pieced-together script (a one-hour pilot penned by the stellar D.C. Fontana lengthened to 90 minutes with filler material by Gene Roddenberry at studio insistence) and zany directing by Corey “He controls the sky!” Allen. Sadly, that was just a preview of the narrative flip-flopping between “helplessly naive” and “astonishingly brilliant” we would see from the character in the future. After that episode, opportunities for the audience to truly see through Wesley’s young, inexperienced eyes were non-existent, as Wesley was written to be an annoying and unrelatable child prodigy who habitually saved the ship from danger while the adults stood around and twiddled their thumbs. Instead of making Wesley look brilliant, this often made the adults around him look incompetent. Season five’s “The Game” — an episode primarily known for giving Ashley Judd her big Hollywood break — is a prime example.
Compare Wesley to another young Starfleet prodigy, Pavel Chekov. How many times did he save a seemingly-bumbling crew of older, more experienced officers from certain doom? While Chekov certainly had his occasional moments of brilliance, he never outshone his co-stars, unlike the young Ensign Crusher. Wesley represents a tremendous lost opportunity to engage mainstream audiences.
Sadly, TNG’s failure to engage the audience with a proper audience surrogate would haunt TNG’s spin-offs. While Deep Space Nine did take the franchise to different places and is now regarded by the fans who once loathed it as a high mark of the franchise, it failed to bring in new viewers at first and never went mainstream, as Paramount hoped it would. The series was too great a change for some fans of classic Trek and The Next Generation, and it required some prior knowledge of TNG lore for non-Trekkies to acclimate to it. What made this most damning was the presence of a character who could have served as a perfect audience surrogate: Jake Sisko, son of station commander Benjamin Sisko.
For the most part, Jake Sisko was the quintessential “everyman” character: a normal military brat from Earth, he didn’t know much about the alien cultures or attitudes he would encounter growing up on Deep Space Nine. He struggled with his homework, had no real scientific or technical expertise, loved playing baseball on the holodeck with his father and enjoyed ogling girls with his best friend Nog. He worked in his grandfather’s Cajun restaurant in Louisiana on occasion, and he never considered himself Starfleet material, opting instead to become a writer.
However, Jake never saw as much use as other characters in the series. While he grew into his own character over the series’ seven-year run, Jake was initially less a character of his own and more a dramatic element of Captain Sisko’s character: Jake’s well-being was one reason Captain (then-Commander) Sisko almost didn’t accept his assignment to Deep Space Nine in the pilot episode “Emissary”, and their relationship became rather strained as Jake was a living reminder of Commander Sisko’s dead wife, Jennifer. Moreover, like Wil Wheaton, actor Cirroc Lofton was a teenager when Deep Space Nine hit the airwaves. The restrictions placed on child actors, combined with his character’s origin as an aspect of another, more important character, are two possible reasons why the writers never used the character to his fullest potential, and he was never used as an audience surrogate. The DS9 writers struggled to find a niche for Jake Sisko; as a result, the younger Sisko was only featured in 71 of DS9’s 173 episodes (earning him the nickname “Sir Also Not Appearing in This Episode” from Trek humorist Chuck Sonnenberg). Several cameo characters — Garak the spy, Jake’s best friend Nog, and even resident barfly Morn — received more screen time and character development than he did.
By the time Voyager hit the air, the writers were still trapped in a TNG storytelling mindset and it was too late to bring in the mainstream viewers. That mindset was the root of several of the problems that would plague both Voyager and the final spin-off series, Star Trek: Enterprise. These issues grew so severe that the lack of a good audience surrogate was the least of those series’ problems. Where Deep Space Nine’s writing staff was willing to take chances, Voyager adhered more closely to the Roddenberry mold under Rick Berman’s direct supervision, eliminating many of the moral gray areas and ignoring the darker storytelling introduced by Deep Space Nine. Rick Berman’s policy of adhering strictly to Roddenberry’s guidelines for The Next Generation became almost dogmatic, to the point of ordering the actors portraying supporting human characters (Chakotay, Paris, Kim) to underplay their roles to make the non-human supporting characters seem more “real” to viewers by comparison. That short-sighted directive prevented mainstream viewers from connecting with the characters. The writers — almost all of whom had worked on the franchise since The Next Generation, perhaps a bit too long — crafted stories that were too formulaic, sometimes recycling plotlines from The Next Generation or bogging down scenes with overuse of meaningless technobabble. Clashes between the members of the creative staff would lead to Michael Piller (co-creator of Deep Space Nine and Voyager) stepping down as one of Voyager’s executive producers over creative differences with the rest of the writers, and the actors themselves — most notably Garret Wang and, on numerous occasions, Robert Beltran — have voiced some of their gripes about their seven years on Voyager. As a result, Voyager grew stale quickly and steadily lost viewers, limping along in the ratings while other science fiction television dramas prospered.
While including a well-developed author surrogate character may not have made Voyager a better series, a strong audience surrogate could have at least brought more mainstream viewers to the series. Voyager’s cast included two potential audience surrogates: ship’s pilot Tom Paris and the ship’s alien chef/guide, Neelix. Paris was a former Maquis sprung from prison and was brought aboard Voyager at the last minute. He was a “salt of the earth” Starfleet wash-out with daddy issues who enjoyed cars, 1950s science fiction and Twentieth Century culture, and was quicker with wisecracks than with technobabble. He was a brilliant officer; he served as ace pilot, historian, shuttle designer and mechanic in addition to “field medic, quantum engineer and commando,” but nevertheless remained one of the more accessible characters in the series. While Paris developed as a character and was relatable enough to be popular with fans he, like Jake Sisko, was rarely used as the audience surrogate the series needed. That left the duty of being the series’ audience surrogate to Neelix.
Neelix was originally intended to be the series’ breakout character — a popular character the audience immediately connects with who, especially in regard to the Star Trek franchise, had a unique outlook on humanity. On prior Star Trek series, the breakout characters were Spock, Data, Odo, Garak and Quark. Unfortunately, while Neelix’s antics were humorous to some viewers, his unique brand of comedy annoyed many others, and he never became as popular as the other breakout characters of prior Trek series.
Having failed as the breakout character (he was surpassed in that by the vastly superior holographic Doctor), Neelix could have been repurposed as the audience surrogate. He had all the right qualities; hailing from an uncharted area of the galaxy, Neelix was a regular working stiff who had never heard of the United Federation of Planets at all. Starfleet culture and technology were as alien to him as they would be to any casual viewer. On occasion, Neelix’s opinions were consistent with the thoughts of most viewers, an important quality for a potential audience surrogate. For example, in season one’s “The Cloud,” Neelix expresses the thoughts of many of Voyager’s viewers perfectly in a brief exchange with Kes:
Neelix: “These people are natural born idiots, if you ask me. They don’t appreciate what they have here. This ship is the match of any vessel within a hundred light years, and what do they do with it? Well, uh, let’s see if we can’t find some space anomaly that might rip it apart!”
Kes: “I don’t think the Captain is an idiot. She cares a great deal about her crew.”
Neelix: “You don’t ‘care a great deal’ about your crew and introduce them to the specter of death at every opportunity!”
Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, some viewers found Neelix’s comedy and commentary annoying, and he seemed to fail at almost everything he attempted or claimed to be an expert at, including basic wilderness survival skills. For example, he eschewed eating insects — something numerous cultures, modern day survivalists and even Captain Janeway highly recommend — and his “survival skills” are the possible cause of at least one crewmember fatality in “Basics, Part 2”). His oft-touted culinary abilities actually endangered the ship on at least two occasions: season one’s “Learning Curve,” where Neelix accidentally infects the ship with cheese he was cultivating, and season six’s “The Voyager Conspiracy,” where an ingredient Neelix brings aboard infects the ship with photonic fleas. His services as a guide were only useful until midway through season three (culminating in “Fair Trade,” one of Neelix’s more memorable character moments), and his jealous behavior toward his girlfriend Kes was depicted in an uncomfortable, over-the-top manner that some viewers found off-putting. Such character flaws held the character back from fully connecting with mainstream audiences and undid any potential use Neelix might have had as a potential audience surrogate.
Without some kind of audience surrogate character to reel in mainstream viewers, Voyager limped along in the Nielsen ratings, though it experienced a brief period of renewed popularity after the introduction of Seven of Nine. Even with all its flaws, though, Voyager held onto decent enough ratings that UPN green-lit a prequel series, Enterprise. Unfortunately, Enterprise was helmed by the same people who oversaw Star Trek: Voyager — Rick Berman and Brannon Braga — and the series’ early seasons were riddled with the same writing problems that slowly drained Voyager of life. A host of new problems also came with the show, from flat, stock characters to the baffling decision to drop the Star Trek title prefix and simply call the series Enterprise for the first two seasons. The producers hoped to attract new viewers to the franchise by breaking free from prior franchise convention. This poor marketing choice confused many viewers, and the show was retitled Star Trek: Enterprise by season three. Though a popular new story arc was introduced by the time Enterprise’s third season began, too many viewers had fled the franchise and mainstream audiences were ignoring Star Trek altogether. The lackluster box office performance of Star Trek: Nemesis only made matters worse. The damage to the franchise had been done. Not even bringing on a new showrunner, Manny Coto, would save the series, and Enterprise was canceled by season four.
While I hold that the Star Trek franchise was doomed by the time Enterprise and Star Trek: Nemesis were produced, I firmly believe that including a strong audience surrogate character in every Star Trek film and television series from The Next Generation onward might have helped to keep the Star Trek writers grounded, as well as introduce mainstream audiences to the franchise and help them acclimate to its stories and settings. Though the franchise had several other problems to overcome by the time Voyager made it to air, the inclusion of an audience surrogate character might have even saved the franchise from the stagnation it saw in its later years and could possibly have prevented the need for the franchise’s eventual reboot.