Rick Berman Looks Back at 18 Years of Trek - Part 2
Yesterday, former Star Trek producer Rick Berman recounted how he came on board The Next Generation and his subsequent work on the show. Now, in part two of our exclusive three-part interview, Berman breaks down particular elements of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.
Going into DS9 -- with a space station, stories about war, politics and religion, a fractious crew and a commander of color -- how ready were you for the backlash from the portion of the fan base that felt the show wasn’t their father’s Star Trek?
Berman: At that point, our biggest concern was to do something different. We had a show that was on the air. We had no idea how long it was going to be on the air, but we knew that it was going to continue to be on the air for at least another few years. We didn’t want to send another crew out on a spaceship at the same time the TNG crew was out on the Enterprise. Michael (Piller) and I spent a long time thinking about this. One of the things that Brandon Tartikoff, who was the head of the studio at the time, suggested was The Rifleman, which was a show that he loved when he was a kid. It’s a father and a son out doing good deeds on the prairie. This was an era when television executives loved to say, “Let’s do The Partridge Family meets Father Knows Best.” Roddenberry evidently had talked about “Wagon Train in space” 20 years before and DS9 was “The Rifleman in space.” I think what Michael and I ended up pulling from that was the idea of a father and a son, and we chose to do the story of a man who had recently lost his wife, who was very bitter, and was sent to a very distant space station that was not a Federation facility. As a result, we could have a lot of non-Starfleet people.
One of the big problems that Michael and the writing staff (on TNG) had was Gene that believed that in the 24th century there wouldn’t be any conflict between the major characters. Mankind had reached a point where the kind of human conflict that exists today had subsided, and the writers all believed very strongly, in fact, that drama is based on conflict, and they were very frustrated by that. And they were frustrated very often by notes they got from Gene about how he didn’t want conflict between anyone in Starfleet, primarily the main cast of the show. So, what Michael and I felt was that if we placed the show on a Bajoran space station we would have characters like Odo and Quark and Kira, who were regular characters, who were not only not human, but they were also not Federation, and thus conflict could exist among the series regulars.
The religious elements you mentioned were not really part of our initial thoughts. That was stuff that evolved. But the idea of a wormhole that led to another part of the galaxy gave us new fodder. As far as hiring a black actor to play Sisko, this was something that meant a great deal to Michael Piller. My feeling was it would be great if we could find the right actor, but that if we couldn’t find the right actor, I felt that it wasn’t necessary to go with a black actor. But we very much wanted to find a black actor who could pull it off because it was time for that. When we met Avery (Brooks), when he came in and read for the role, we felt it was a slam dunk.
What comes to mind now when you think about DS9?
Berman: I’ve read a lot about tension between myself and Ira Behr and his writing staff on the show. I’ve read a lot about Ira pulling the wool over my eyes and Ira kind of tricking me into doing things that I didn’t want to do. I find that a little bit hurtful because it’s by and large not true. Ira had a very specific vision of how he wanted to run the show. This is after Michael had left. And there were certain things that I agreed with. In fact, a vast majority of what he and his staff did I agreed with. But there were certain things I didn’t agree with and, having been one of the two creators of the show and being an executive producer of the show, I felt I had the right to air my feelings to Ira. Unfortunately, it’s come out over the years as Ira tricking me into this or getting me to believe he was going to do X and then doing Y. I was never quite that foolish.
There were things I remember – the death of Dax – that I disagreed with him about. I felt that after the years that this character had been involved with the series it was wrong for her to have a quick, meaningless death. I wanted something a little more heroic. When Nog (Aron Eisenberg) was going to have both his legs blown off, I found that a little bit too violent. There was a lot of disagreement in that and we ended up having the bizarre compromise of having him lose one leg and then getting a prosthetic leg as opposed to losing two legs, which, in retrospect is very funny. The whole idea of the Dominion Wars, the idea that Ira wanted an arc that was going to last a season or perhaps longer, he and I had a lot of disagreement about that. And that was all based purely on the fact that Gene had been very specific to me about not wanting Star Trek to be a show about intergalactic wars, interspecies wars. He didn’t want it to be about humans fighting wars against other species.
I felt that the whole arc of these wars was something that could get done in half-dozen episodes. Ira felt differently and he pushed it, and it went longer than I’d hoped it’d go, but it wasn’t like a situation of, “Wow, Ira is in his ninth episode and Rick thought he was only going to do four.” I mean, I read every story. I read every script. I discussed every story and script with Ira and whoever the writers were. I was aware of it. I was not necessarily happy that it went as long as it did. But these are the kinds of disagreements that people involved with a television show have.
I think the thing I’m most proud of about DS9 is the casting. I think that Rene Auberjonois, (Alexander) Siddig, Armin Shimerman, Nana Visitor, Colm Meaney, Avery Brooks… these were some of the best actors we ever had on Star Trek. It was a superlative cast. They worked. It clicked. The character relationships – like Quark and Odo, O’Brien and Bashir, Sisko and Jake (Cirroc Lofton) – were wonderful and quite unique and stand out as some of the best of any Star Trek series. That was something I thought was terrific. And I thought the whole direction the show went, it ended up being what we set out for it to be. Thanks to Ira and an amazing staff of writers, it was different. It was still Star Trek, but it was dramatically different from what TNG was.
Let’s shift to Voyager and get into arguably the most important development. Jennifer Lien exited and Jeri Ryan came in. Some people thought it was pure genius, while others felt bringing in such a sexy character was too easy. Looking back, right move?
Berman: I think so. The studio felt strongly about losing one or more characters when the ratings started to slip a bit. The actor who, unfortunately, was let go was Jennifer. The idea to bring in a de-Borg-ified human who had been taken by the Borg as a girl gave us a tremendous amount to work with. Jeri came in and she was very sexy and she was also a very good actor. To this day, she’s s a very good actor. Then we decided, “What the hell?” There were complaints that the ratings were falling off. We had a wonderful actress come in, and we went to Bob Blackman, our costume designer, and said, “See what you can do to make her look fabulous.” And she looked fabulous. I don’t think we took a great deal of advantage of her being sexy, other than the fact that she had a knockout outfit. Seven of Nine became a very three-dimensional and textured character played by a wonderful actress.
Overall, how satisfied were you with Voyager?
Berman: It was difficult. We had just ended TNG and DS9 was in its third year, and they immediately wanted another show to take the place of TNG. We asked them to wait a couple of years. They said, “We have all these time slots available. We don’t want to lose them.” They felt very strongly about a new series. The fact that TNG, a ship-based show, was going off the air and that we had a space station-based show on the air, meant that the obvious thing to do was create a new ship, which we did with the Voyager. We came up with a premise that, I think, was fresh or that certainly was different. We didn’t just want to have another ship, give it the name Voyager as opposed to Enterprise, and fill it with a nice balance of humans and aliens. This was a show that I asked Jeri Taylor to join Michael and me in creating. The whole idea of being thrust to a far-off part of the galaxy and being out of touch with Starfleet, out of touch with instructions and rules, in a sense, and having to join together with Maquis that we run into in the pilot episodes, the whole of idea of getting back at any cost – question mark; it shouldn’t be at any cost – I think, allowed us to do some new stuff, which was important. We were all aware that these things could get stale. A lot of the writers were the same writers and a lot of the writers were new writers, but we didn’t want to do TNG again.
At that point, just as we were creating Voyager, we were also writing and producing Generations and then, two years later, First Contact. So we were doing movies with the TNG crew, we had DS9 in its last three or four years, and all of a sudden we were asked to do another show, which was Voyager. There was even talk near the end of Voyager that they wanted us to create another show before Voyager went off the air. And I refused. I said, at the very (earliest), we would start it after Voyager went off the air. I think they wanted a one- or two-year overlap. Also, somewhere in there, there was an IMAX project that we developed that the studio ended up not being able to make a deal with the IMAX people. It was in the early days of IMAX. It was before movies were coming out in IMAX like they were today. But it was a great script and certainly something that would have been exciting to do. And, simultaneously, I was involved with putting together the whole Las Vegas Experience. So it was a very, very busy time and it was imperative for everybody to try to keep things from getting stale and repetitive, but it got more and more difficult.
What was your mindset, then, heading into Enterprise?
Berman: I was reluctant. I was quoted many times as saying that you could take too many trips to the well, that you could squeeze too many eggs out of the golden goose, but the powers that be – the powers that were – made it very clear to me that if I did not do this they would ask someone else to. And since I had never developed anything with Brannon (Braga), who I’d worked together with very well, I thought it’d be fun to put together a show with him, and that became Enterprise.
The prequel concept sounded so promising, but fans never embraced Enterprise the way they had the other shows. Assuming you agree with that statement, why didn’t Trek fans connect with Enterprise to the same degree they had the previous series?
Berman: I think everything you just said is true. I think Enterprise was embraced, but by certainly a smaller audience. It was not embraced by a lot of people. There are a lot of different guesses one could make about why. I always felt that whoever came up with the term “franchise fatigue” was right, that there was definitely some of that. There was just too much going on at the same time. By then, DS9 had ended, Voyager was still on the air, a third TNG movie was coming out, and there was definitely a feeling that maybe we were pushing it. “Oh, my God, here comes another Star Trek show.” It was the fourth Star Trek series in a decade. The prequel idea I think was a good idea. After Voyager we certainly weren’t going to say, “OK, now it’s time for a new show. Voyager is going to go off the air in May and in September you’re going to get a new crew on a new ship in the same century.” The idea of going back and learning a little something about what went on for the very first people who were stepping out into space… it seemed to us to be a great idea. Scott Bakula had a good relationship with Kerry McCluggage, who was running the studio at that point, and he was the first big name that seemed to be interested in doing a series for us. He was an actor who I’d enjoyed in his previous series. So we thought that we’d put together something that, again, was fresh and unique and with some wonderful new actors (around Bakula). The show certainly had a great start. It got very good reviews and it had a huge audience for the first half a dozen episodes and then it started to slip. I could take the blame for it. I could put the blame into the scripts. I could put the blame into franchise fatigue. I don’t know why it didn’t work.
Not to beat up on Enterprise, but we’ve got to ask about the finale. “These Are the Voyages…” was clearly the most controversial Trek finale. Some fans groused it was only an hour long, but the more strenuous gripe was that it folded four years of Enterprise into a TNG episode. Were you surprised by the hostile reaction?
Berman: Totally. I would have never done it if I had known how people were going to react. We were informed with not a whole lot of time that this was our last season. We knew that this was going to be the last episode of Star Trek for perhaps quite some time – and here we are, almost six years later. So it was the last episode for quite a length of time. It was a very difficult choice, how to end it. The studio wanted it to be a one-hour episode. We wanted it to be special. We wanted it to be something that would be memorable. This idea, which Brannon and I came up with – and I take full responsibility – pissed a lot of people off, and we certainly didn’t mean it to. Our thought was to take this crew and see them through the eyes of a future generation, see them through the eyes of the people who we first got involved in Star Trek with 18 years before, with Picard and Riker and Data, etc., and to see the history of how Archer and his crew went from where we had them to where, eventually, the Federation was formed, in some kind of a magical holographic history lesson.
It seemed like a great idea. A lot of people were furious about it. The actors, most of them, were very unhappy. In retrospect it was a bad idea. When it was conceived it was with our heart completely in the right place. We wanted to pay the greatest homage and honor to the characters of Enterprise that we possibly could, but because Jonathan (Frakes) and Marina (Sirtis) were the two people we brought in, and they were the ones looking back, it was perceived as “You’re ending our series with a TNG episode.” I understand how people felt that way. Too many people felt that way for them to be wrong. Brannon and I felt terrible that we’d let a lot of people down. It backfired, but our hearts were definitely in the right place. It just was not accepted in the way we thought it would be.
Tomorrow, in the third and final part of our interview with Rick Berman, he discusses each of the four TNG films and offers his opinion of Star Trek (2009). He also addresses criticism of the Star Trek shows and films made under his watch.
To read part one of this interview, click here.