Captain's log, star date 1990. The U.S.S. Enterprise has taken up position directly outside the Forbidden Zone - an uncharted television quadrant where no starship has ever entered. The last man this close to the Zone was the impetuous Capt. James T. Kirk, who recorded 79 "Star Trek" missions in as many episodes.
But in 1969, after three seasons, Kirk and the Enterprise succumbed to a power greater than any laser blast or photon torpedo. The low-rated show was canceled by NBC.Now, 21 years later, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and his crew will boldly go where no starship has gone before when the 80th episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" airs Sunday at 6 p.m. on Ch. 13. In doing so, the syndicated revival series will eclipse the original service record of Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, and open up new worlds for trekkies everywhere.
"After we went on the air, what I began to grow aware of was this vast network of enthusiasts for the show," said Patrick Stewart, the stately British actor and former member of England's Royal Shakespeare Company who plays Picard.
"They quickly made it clear to me that this was not just another television show, but something that very much belonged to the whole cultural fabric of North America," he said.
Indeed, the original "Star Trek" series has never really been out of reruns since its cancellation and currently airs in more than 40 countries. Many of the episodes are available on videocassette.
The five "Star Trek" movies have grossed about $400 million domestically. A 25th anniversary film is now being written for Paramount Pictures for release next year, once again reuniting the aging William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and the crew, most of whom are pushing 60 and beyond.
And last month's season premiere of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," concluding the series' first cliffhanger, beat out the networks to become the highest-rated program in its time slot in Los Angeles. The syndicated series, now in its fourth season, is also top-rated nationally, and there are tentative plans for a motion picture.
Every movement has a leader, and creator Gene Roddenberry answers the call for "Star Trek."
"Many people haven't thought deeply what it is they like about (`Star Trek')," Roddenberry said. "They're not crazy about rocket ships or space travel. It's none of those things."
Roddenberry, 69, spoke with the fervor of a visionary. The 6-foot-3 executive producer received a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying B-17 bomber missions in the South Pacific during World War II and started writing TV scripts while moonlighting as a police sergeant.
Now, he sat on a dressing room couch - lost on the sprawling, techno set of the Enterprise - and leaned forward on his cane.
"What our show does," he continued in a hushed voice, "we take humanity maybe a century into the future. Our people do not lie, cheat or steal. They are the best of the best. When you watch the show, you say to yourself, at least once, `My God, that's the way life should be.' "
Like the original, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" follows the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and stresses intelligent drama over mindless action. Rather than clone the original "Star Trek" principals, Roddenberry created a radically diverse bridge crew that includes an android with heart (Brent Spiner), a fierce Klingon security officer (Michael Dorn) and a starship counselor (Marina Sirtis) who is a telepathic expert in human engineering.
Plotting courses in the 24th century, about 85 years after the journeys of Kirk on a bigger, fifth-generation Enterprise, the crew's continuing mission is "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."
Take note: The old Enterprise used to go where "no man has gone before." The switch to "no one" reflects the kind of forward thinking that has become Roddenberry's trademark. That is why Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the recurring role of Guinan, a sort of ancient, omniscient bartender in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," asked to join the series in 1988.
She was always a fan of "Star Trek's" black communications officer Lt. Uhura, "because it meant that we were in the future - black people," Goldberg said. "It was the only time that I had ever seen that as a kid. You watch `Forbidden Planet' or any of those movies, you don't see us. It was a relief to know that black people had survived."
Roddenberry had more in store for the original "Star Trek," such as casting a woman as Kirk's second-in-command, but he was short-circuited by NBC's programming demands. In 1986 when Paramount began seriously discussing a "Star Trek" series, which Fox Television wanted for its new network, Roddenberry would have no part of it.
"As I told them," he sighed, "you couldn't pay me to go back. I'd get the same network rules to work under, and I could never do the kind of show I wanted. My whole life has been one of, `Let's fix `Star Trek.' "
So Paramount suggested producing the series for syndication, giving Roddenberry complete control - something he never had with NBC.
Roddenberry relented and went back to the drawing board. His changes elevated "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to an even higher intellectual plane than the original, with less physical confrontation.
"I wanted to send a message to the television industry," Roddenberry said, "that excitement is not made of car chases. We stress humanity, and this is done at a considerable cost. We can't have a lot of dramatics that other shows get away with - promiscuity, greed, jealousy. None of those have a place in `Star Trek.'
"From a network perspective, that sounds like a boring show. But we find hard drama in other ways. Most people find drama in the physicality of our century. But there are also deeper levels of drama. We had a whole show based simply on a child's unwillingness to lie."
For the new show, Roddenberry retooled his legendary "bible," a volume of "Star Trek" facts, figures and ideology, which he now updates each season to help keep writers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" on track.
In Roddenberry's brave new world, free of network interference, gone are the militaristic uniforms and attitudes from the original "Star Trek."
The metallic sterility of the old Enterprise has been refined, thanks to a form of technological progress that 24th Century poets call "Technology Unchained." The quest to build human-like machines is over, because their creation would be more of a stunt than something of practical value.
Money no longer exists and Earth is a paradise. An onboard holodeck simulates faraway places for the crew's enjoyment. In the starship's Ten-Forward bar, crew members drink synthehol, a substance that acts much like alcohol when consumed but with effects that can be dismissed from one's consciousness at will.
"This show comes directly from Gene and his vision of the world," said Gates McFadden, who plays chief medical officer Dr. Beverly Crusher. "It's more than just a blending of imagination and technology. He offers a real vision of hope and he believes in the possibility of humanity. The world is actually a better place to live in."
Despite Paramount's belief in Roddenberry, there were doubts in 1987 when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" first went on the air, loaded with special effects and budgeted at an extravagant $1.3 million per episode. But the series was an overnight sensation with critics and viewers, and has blazed new trails for first-run syndicated dramas. A prestigious Peabody Award and five Emmys followed.
The question remained, though, whether the trekkies, those fans who refused to let "Star Trek" die, would disband now that their cult TV show finally went commercial.
"They were probably our worst critics," said Dorn, who plays the Klingon Lt. Worf. "They had in their own minds what they wanted the show to be."
When they saw the show, however, "they embraced us," said Jonathan Fraker, who plays Commander Riker. "I've been to trekkie conventions, and now they come dressed as the new characters."