On the Return of Star Trek

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Today’s pop culture bombshell was the news that CBS, the network that owns Star Trek’s small screen interests, has stumped up for a new series that will debut in January 2017. The show’s pilot will go out in the wake of a new movie and all the related hype around the franchise’s gold anniversary. Assuming Star Trek Beyond is a critical as well as commercial hit (we’ll come to the hack alienating part shortly) then this new-on-old, sequelising nostalgia strategy should guarantee a huge launch for the, er, next generation. It worked before. In 1986, when Trek was a mere 20 years young and still unable to drink in the US, The Voyage Home generated warmth and goodwill throughout the universe and was quickly followed on TV by Star Trek: The Next Generation, a blockbuster show by late ‘80s standards, that eventually carved out its own iconic status. Its spinoffs kept Trek on the air until 2005.

But history is no guarantee of success this time around. The new Trek will be born into a very different, more competitive and fragmentary TV landscape, while those in creative control of its sister movie franchise, the latest instalment of which will act as a launchpad for the anniversary celebrations it will hope to trade on, are the weakest helmsmen yet, and this in a series once produced by Rick Berman.

First that movie. Star Trek Beyond will the third in the rebooted, alt-timeline movie franchise that’s hitherto been characterised by lavish production values, inventive direction and imbecilic writing. Aimed at a general audience, for whom Star Trek is just the distraction of the week, J.J Abrams’ flicks have reinvented Gene Roddenberry’s odyssey as a broad, action-packed blockbuster series, replete with modern genre movie clichés and illogical plotting. They’ve been made to be popular and disposable and have achieved both. Beyond is directed by the man behind the Fast and the Furious movies and will feature jokes by Simon Pegg. It’s likely to offend real Trekkies (that’s the people who like Star Trek as originally formulated) and that matters, because Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two instalments in crayon, or tried to, is to produce the new TV series. His name, proudly displayed in the press release that announced the new show, stifled cheers and killed erections. It’s a little like finding out your old girlfriend’s newly single and missing you, but she’s pregnant with another man’s child.

So Trekkies absorbed the news with a mixture of joy and trepidation. Fandom, however, is agreed on three things, though it remains to be seen if these thoughts are as obvious to those who’ll now be developing the new TV series as they are to anyone who knows anything about the old.

1) The show should not be set in the same alternative universe as the new movies. This timeline was created purely to give the so-called writers of those flicks the opportunity to use the original series’ characters without the straitjacket of established continuity. That’s fine for the occasional big screen blow out (though not really) but laying a new TV series over existing episodes of the old, would be obnoxious and unnecessary. Fans didn’t invest in those old stories only to see them retrospectively annulled.

2) The new series should be set further into the future – beyond the timeframe of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Please fuck, no more prequels. George Lucas started this terrible trend and it’s produced a slew of ill-conceived movies and television series that have often undermined (or ruined) their parents.

A new Trek TV series should build on the long and illustrious legacy of Trek’s past, while being set further on enough, as The Next Generation was, that it can introduce new technology, political dynamics, antagonists, and characters in tune with modern sensibilities (for each Trek’s always, on some fundamental level, reflective of the period in which it’s made, whatever century’s on the calendar). The Next Generation had a certain wow factor on its debut – a magnificent, advanced new ship – eye bulging technological advancements, new races – yet it successfully (eventually) combined new and familiar elements and ultimately forged its own identity. The 2017 series should adopt the same philosophy, while forging its own path.

3) The new show should take its creative cues from its predecessors – in other words, it should be a show driven by ideas – high concepts, moral quandaries, and not the thin gruel served in expensive packaging, offered at the movies: a show true to Gene Rodenberry’s philosophy. A show that people who hate modern life and the people they’re forced to share it with, may want to escape into.

The talk on social media today has centred on CBS’s decision to offer the show exclusively on its online subscription service; a signal of how much the delivery of TV has changed since The Next Generation debuted 30 years ago. Many bark that they won’t pay for it – that it’s a scam to get people to use a streaming service that’s currently behind successful rivals who’ve already thought to produce original content, like Netflix and Amazon. Well of course it is, but this needn’t be a bad thing.

Making your show the centrepiece of an online offer means two things that might work in the new Star Trek’s favour. When Netflix launched House of Cards, another repackaging of an old property, they realised that no one would pay for it unless it was a blockbuster. In other words, it had to be big: big production values and top talent, both behind and in front of the camera. Nothing less would generate the kind of buzz and must-see anticipation that sells subscriptions. Star Trek has huge brand recognition and a gazillion loyal fans, but the TV marketplace is crowded, sci-fi and fantasy shows are ten a penny. To stand out, to generate the same excitement and blockbuster feel as The Next Generation did, the new show must be just as ambitious as other subscription tentpoles, and you can double down on that ambition if the show’s a linchpin for a whole service. CBS will have to spend money and make the show distinct.

But the benefit doesn’t end there. A series that lives on a subscription service, rather than a network or first-run syndication, has additional protection: creative freedom. The bar for ratings will be far lower, the latitude given to writers, perhaps greater. What will success look like in terms of raw numbers? House of Cards’ audience must be tiny compared to a prime time network series, yet the brain trust responsible have been allowed to make it their way; the moneymen conscious that critical acclaim in the online marketplace is just as important, and ultimately lucrative, as weekly ratings. Insulated from traditional market pressures, the makers of the new Trek have an opportunity to experiment with ideas and narrative structures that mark the show out from its contemporaries. The new Star Trek has a chance to be part of TV’s so-called golden age. If CBS have the sense to pick the right people and give them their head, Trek might wow us again in a seen-it-all-before era. Those assembled to make it should be at least that ambitious. Voyager was a time to play it safe. Now’s the time, following what will be a 12-year gap, to push the boundaries while remembering what fundamentally makes Trek special – oddball characters, an optimistic view of the future, intellectual curiosity, a progressive set of values and of course, technobabb- no, wait.

So boldly go, CBS – do. But don’t make a stupid show for indifferent people. The bar for television is different. TV and the internet is where real Trekkies live. Fire a phaser directly into our brains. Stun us. Then get out of the way. And if there’s an original concept involved? So much the better. I look forward to illegally downloading your efforts in just over a year’s time.

  • Dear Steven Moffat returns at the weekend, with a Zygon double. Sorry. 
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Published in: on November 3, 2015 at 16:47  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great post. If they can achieve your point 3, I would actually sign up to whatever crappy streaming service it is on.


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