Where no man has gone before

Posted: Oct 03, 2001 12:00 AM
A new Star Trek series, "Enterprise," charts a new twist in the spate of TV series spawned by Gene Roddenberry's first Star Trek series. As with its predecessors, it says something about America today. The first "Star Trek," circa 1966, and its Captain James T. Kirk represented my generation in the heat of youth. Kirk didn't worry about sexually transmitted diseases or leaving behind little half-humanoids across the galaxy -- just so long as his alien love interest had big breasts. He was a man's man in a day when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was considered suave, rather than an old lecher. Then, there was this hokey tension between Kirk and the Vulcan Spock. "Human intuition" -- usually a proxy for testosterone -- trumped logic, and viewers could feel all warm and fuzzy about being part of the human species. Then, yippies became yuppies and corporate Star Treks followed. The 1987 Next Generation series introduced Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who governed best by governing himself first. Instead of goosing Vulcans for being logical, the human crew learned the virtues of self control. The later series represented a more mature viewership. There was Starfleet protocol for inter-species coupling. Some of the women didn't look like Playboy bunnies. "Deep Space Nine" episodes showed rare TV respect for devout religionists. "Voyager" brought a female captain into the male bastion of sci-fi. In the spin-offs, aliens were less likely to be hostile, or if hostile, more likely to put down their arms. Space travel had become as quotidian as catching a Southwest flight to LAX. Ho hum. Another day, another new life form. The emphasis moved from confronting danger to -- as in a business seminar -- managing new situations. There was so much collegiality that when different species got together they resembled, if any thing, a U.N. global warming conference without Americans. There was something comforting about the later series, as they showcased smart people navigating unknown territory, brains first. On the one hand, conformity reigned. No humans revealed an ounce of fat even as the uniforms got tighter. No one minded that they got rid of money. Everyone seemed to have gone through anger-management counseling. On the other hand, captains were not so bureaucratic that they weren't willing to violate the infamous politically correct Prime Directive -- it prohibits Starfleet from interfering with the development of alien cultures -- for a good cause. The new series is a prequel, taking place 100 years Before Kirk. What is commonplace in later episodes is challenging and frustrating to members of the first space Enterprise crew. As computers don't translate unknown tongues, a frustrated linguist ensign stumbles like a tourist when she confronts her first Klingon. This is early intergalactic TV travel. More is unknown than known. Enterprise crewmembers don't have the certainty that later crews -- who had seen it all -- came to brandish. They're scared. There are sinister forces that, at best, want to keep mankind in the dark. Other species seem either indifferent or hostile to humans. And earthlings' best-friend species, the Vulcans, often undercut human progress. (Remind you of any earthbound allies?) When the Enterprise crew visits its first new planet, it's like a steel-plated Third World. It's not friendly. It's not quirky. It's scary. The first Star Trek often introduced viewers to species that considered humans primitive and technologically backward. Later, the series' starships outgunned every space vessel they encountered. This Enterprise's captain, Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), can't rely on the ship's hardware, so he instead must tap his own bluster. "Enterprise" is a fitting name for the new series, as it captures the pathos of humans venturing forth in a dangerous universe, armed with unequal stores of hope and fear. There is knowledge to be gained on the odyssey, but a price that must be paid to gain it. It comes at a time when America revisits the price we must pay for freedom.