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COVER STORY : 'Star Trek' Only a Show? Is This Guy Serious? : Rick Berman was hand-picked by Gene Roddenberry to take over the 'Star Trek' empire. Now, as he guides another starship into theaters, Berman provides a reality check on that ever-expanding universe.

November 13, 1994|Daniel Howard Cerone | Daniel Howard Cerone is a Times staff writer

In a darkened editing room, sequestered behind the eternally guarded walls of Paramount Pictures, a film image flickers on a small screen. Six men gather around an editing table, their faces a whirligig of light and color projected by the moving image.

Their eyes are transfixed on fresh footage of a miniature Capt. James T. Kirk, struggling atop a desert mountain on the uninhabited planet of Varidian Three in the finale of "Star Trek: Generations," which opens Friday. The aging but spry Kirk, reprised by William Shatner, inches along a footbridge that clings with a tenuous grip to the mountainside.

"This is the final bridge he must cross," producer Rick Berman tells the music composer and sound artists around him in the editing room. In moments, they will take Berman's "notes" and begin devising the effects that will turn the action into a bone-jarring sequence in six-channel sound.

Despite assurances that 1991's "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" was the final voyage for the original "Star Trek" gang from the 1960s TV series, Kirk and a couple others have been resurrected to pass the feature-film baton to the crew from the wildly successful TV spinoff, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The new movie features the epic meeting of the 23rd-Century Kirk and his 24th-Century counterpart, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart.

"You're going to have nothing but this metal bridge moaning and creaking and screeching," continues Berman, who executive produced the "Next Generation" series and makes his first foray into feature films with "Generations." "I don't know if you can see it on this, but these bolts and rivets are snapping and popping, and there're rocks falling. So you're going to have some fun with sounds here."

In the scene, Kirk is not only fighting valiantly for the fate of mankind, as has become his custom, he's also fighting for Paramount Communications Inc. Every effort is being made to assure that what's referred to around Paramount as "the franchise" lives on. Several weeks earlier, the studio agreed to spend $3 million to return to the mountaintop location north of Las Vegas to re-shoot a seven-minute end sequence. Test screenings revealed that people rated "Generations" favorably overall but were less than enthusiastic with the finale. And Paramount reportedly wanted more heroism from Kirk.

"You're going to have to sell this to make us really believe that he's slipping off the bridge," Berman says. As the bridge jerks violently several times, causing Kirk to lose his footing, Berman imitates the noises he wants to hear. "Uh! Uh! Uh! Whoa!" Kirk skids down the bridge on his back and reaches out for a chain at the last second to stop his momentum. . . .

*

"The picture is now locked!" Berman proclaims after the session ends. He shakes hands with his film editor, Peter Berger, who worked with Berman from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. the day before. The two heave a symbiotic sigh of relief. It's three days before Halloween, and the remaining pieces of their jigsaw puzzle are finally falling into place--a jigsaw puzzle that required $30 million and nearly two years to complete.

"I feel like I've come up for air," Berman says with a wide smile.

Berman's momentary lightness of being may be well deserved, but it will pass.

The 47-year-old bears the weight of a galaxy on his shoulders. He cannot escape the destiny he inherited three years ago when "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, an optimistic science-fiction visionary with a reverential following, died and handed over the reins of a billion-dollar enterprise--replete with a universe of mythological characters and story lines spanning three decades--to an ex-documentary producer from New York.

"Gene Roddenberry laid a mantle on me, of sorts, and I feel very lucky as a result," says Berman, who took over as the master of a franchise that now includes seven feature films, three hourlong TV series and a fourth one on the way. Berman refers to all of them as "the show."

"What Gene wanted me to do was basically carry the ball for him, and to try to maintain his vision," Berman says. "He saw that I had respect for his vision--not because it's my vision. I don't believe the 24th Century is going to be like Gene Roddenberry believed it to be, that people will be free from poverty and greed. But if you're going to write and produce for 'Star Trek,' you've got to buy into that."

Although "Next Generation" ended in May, Berman still executive produces two TV spinoffs. "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," set on a space station in the 24th Century, returned in September for its third syndicated season. And when the United Paramount Network launches on Jan. 16, it will depend on "Star Trek: Voyager," a new series about a starship lost in an uncharted region of space, to lock in the viewers necessary to establish a fifth network.

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