Once capable of doing little wrong, Gene Roddenberry’s wagon train to the cosmos is no longer a sure bet. The latest film in the long-running saga, Star Trek Beyond, was an enjoyable adventure but failed to engage (sorry) audiences at the box office in a major way. In addition, it’s been over 10 years since the last TV series, Enterprise, ended rather unceremoniously. The latest small-screen offering, Star Trek: Discovery, has experienced some creative shakeups, which led to showrunner extraordinaire Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) stepping down and a delay in the show’s premiere – originally scheduled to debut in January of 2017. Issues like this, along with a lukewarm fan response, have sown seeds of uncertainty about the future of the Trek.
At the same time, with a fourth Kelvin Timeline movie slowly shaping up and the CBS All Access streaming series finally in production, the long-lived saga will continue its voyages at long last. Star Trek: Discovery brings with it a lot of expectations, in addition to a return to a classic time period, and a dash of experimentation. So far, changes to format, style, and production have met with almost as much apprehension as excitement. In order to move forward and evolve it’s own sci-fi standards, the soon-to-be streaming Star Trek needs to bring a renewed sense of wonder and push its own boundaries, while embracing (and being embraced by) hardcore fan base.
Beginnings Are Always Rocky
Star Trek devotees are a fickle bunch – much like any band of super-fans. They come with a set of expectations based on a franchise that spans 50 years across multiple mediums, and expect whip-smart scripts, strong characters, poignant interpersonal drama, and exciting exploits. Thus far, Star Trek has been blessed with a talented pool of actors like William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Kate Mulgrew, Brent Spiner, and Avery Brooks, as well as talented screenwriters like D.C. Fontana, Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore, and Jeri Taylor, among others.
In spite of this and the property’s inherent futurism, change is often met with cynicism. Many apostates of classic Trek weren’t fond of the idea of a new man (much less a bald one) sitting in Captain Kirk’s chair, a Klingon joining the crew, and especially a fresh look for the Enterprise. Star Trek: The Next Generation itself wrestled with the concepts of the past, barely getting off the ground after two rocky seasons rife with corny effects, hit-or-miss monster-of-the-week episodes, and a cast of antagonists sometimes more well-rounded than its heroes. After finding its balance, though, The Next Generation laid a foundation which would be become the cornerstone of three more shows – each constructing slightly different scenarios with the existent building materials.
However, the formula – roughly one part The Original Series, two parts Next Generation, a pinch of elongated story arc, and a dash of new aliens for variety – wouldn’t make magic forever. By the time Enterprise took to the stars, it had long since grown stale. Captain Archer and crew inherited the same episodic-serial format used to good effect by its precursors, but also found themselves organized into several longer story arcs, much like Deep Space Nine and its Dominion War. Some worked, some didn’t, but overall the fifth iteration struggled to find its identity in the Trek realm and never made it past four seasons – something which the writers of Discovery need to (and have likely) heavily analyzed.
Discovery Deconstructed Isn’t as Scary
The core elements of Star Trek: Discovery aren’t really that far afield from those of its predecessors: a new ship (with an underwhelmed reception), a female (non-captain) lead, a gay crew member, a new alien character, a pre-Star Trek: The Original Series setting, and (of course) Klingons. Digging deeper, there are more significant changes in the works, such as a long-form story arc covering the entire 13-episode season, an edgier and more adult format, and a move from network TV onto a pay-per-view streaming format.
As far as starship design goes, each new show put their own spin on space-faring. The aforementioned Enterprise-D took a lot of flak when it changed from the tried-and-true Enterprise look. If Trek history is any indication, fans will eventually adjust to any design, so long as it’s backed by a quality crew and epic adventures. Nevertheless, the U.S.S. Discovery met with a lot of derision after its reveal at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Hopefully, as the time goes by, the naysayers will at least begrudgingly accept the comparatively unusual specs.
As far crew changes goes, Voyager already had a female captain, so setting The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Gren as a lieutenant commander shouldn’t be too big of a deal. The real question is, how will the format changes affect the dynamic? Will viewing the events through a “Number One” drastically affect things? Unless the new focus creates a situation similar to the Next Generation episode “Lower Decks”, where lesser-ranking crew members have greater screen time, it shouldn’t alter things too much. Exploring alternative perspectives could open the program up to some intriguing storytelling possibilities. Also, the alternate-timeline film franchise already retconned Hikaru Sulu into a gay character, so Lieutenant Stamets’ (Anthony Rapp) sexuality isn’t too radical an addition.
Star Trek: Discovery also won’t be the first show to dip its toes in pre-Original Series waters, either. Enterprise managed to create a generally exciting world by originating, playing off of, and working though existing lore, although some accused it of taking too many liberties with the timeline (such as including the Borg). Set ten years before Kirk and crew’s own five year mission, the latest saga will need to address the current continuity, while also exploring new facets from the era.
If Fuller’s concepts still apply after his semi-departure, the show already has an intended tone in mind. Earlier, he teased a “touchstone” for the series in the tense, Federation-Romulan tug of war episode, “Balance of Terror” – implying a hearty dose of classic inter-empire intrigue. Earlier speculation about the Federation and Klingon Cold War also suggests a larger connection to the diplomatic and espionage aspects of the era, implying a return to the heady fare (which is Star Trek gold) and some killer space battles.
Taking It One Season at a Time?
Heavily serializing Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t come as much of a shock in the Netflix era. Both Enterprise and Deep Space Nine toyed with the idea, interlacing standalone episodes with longer story arcs, such as the Temporal Cold War debacle. Creating a storyline entirely driven by its end results will result in a different perspective and should allow the characters to develop in a naturalistic manner. The long-form plots will also give the screenwriters room to examine Federation dogmas, as well as its relationships with its classic allies and enemies in greater detail, as well as flesh out any new aliens they encounter.
The post-postmodern format should also push Discovery to step outside Starfleet’s archetypal “virtuous” nature – somewhere past series like Deep Space 9 and Enterprise had only begun to prod. Undying optimism should continue to remain a hallmark of Trek, but the night and day morality of the past is too passé to fall back upon (especially if the writers can further open the Section 31 can of worms). As long as the latest show retains a core of intellectual curiosity, adding a grayer component should only enhance its contemporary feel.
While an interconnected storyline lets the writing staff of Discovery dig deeper into their characters, it also constricts them in other ways, forcing the script to adhere to an overall narrative structure. MacGuffins and dangling subplots which don’t serve the plot will come across as extraneous and distracting – much like one-off episodes of serialized shows like The Walking Dead or Supernatural can come off as filler. Creating a truly “novel” (rather than tele-novella) Trek may be exactly the directional shift fans need to keep up with the complexities and ambiguities of 21st and 23rd century.
A Trek for Grown-Ups?
Hosting the latest Star Trek program on a streaming service format also allows Discovery to explore the future in more risque terms. Sure, a few episodes might require parental censorship, but short of course language and nudity, Trek has always explored facets of human sexuality. Edgier content could add new layers of complexity to the franchise, something which hampered previous outings that needed to meet with network standards and practices.
Airing the latest series on CBS All Access does have the potential to alienate some fans, as well as limiting viewership to those who have disposable income for yet another streaming service. At the same time, it’s Star Trek. One way or another, it will find an audienc. Plus, with a shorter, 13-episode season, hosting the show on a paid service lets Discovery shunt its (rumored $4-6 million per episode) budget into vital areas, including creature design, ship and space effects, and (hopefully) practical effects.
Streaming Trek also lets CBS play with the show without forcing a major commitment from the network. If the show does well enough to warrant a larger audience, they can certainly bump Discovery onto broadcast television, a cable affiliate, or use the Next Generation method and put it into syndication. If the show is poorly received or fails to find an audience, they can put it on hold for retooling or balance the costs by running it as a spectacle until they break even.
Going Boldly Once Again
The true irony of Star Trek and its forward-thinking origins – including inspiring technology such as cellphones and touchscreens – is that the franchise now treads water in a future it helped create. Each ship has warped through a fairly tried-and-true set of television and film tropes, many of which it also helped create. While the galaxy is far from tapped out on adventure, the property needs a course correction of its own. Star Trek: Discovery needs to boldly go beyond its own preconceptions to make a serious impact.
Admittedly, the latest venture can learn a lot from the failures and successes of Enterprise, as well as the refreshed Kelvin Timeline features. Returning to the past is a genuine concern, as it constrains the show into an established continuity which, while still somewhat untapped (at least between Enterprise and The Original Series), also dwells in the shadows of its predecessors. However, it also provides plenty of opportunities for amazing fan service and could delve into some truly fascinating historical areas, including the rumored connection to the Federation-Klingon Cold War and other famous incidents alluded to in saga’s storied past.
While post-Star Trek: Nemesis is the true undiscovered country, temporally speaking, the future’s past has plenty of room to maneuver, and numerous adventures to unpack. If the latest offering can escape its own conventions or subvert them, it will bring Star Trek’s storytelling into the 21st century and establish a new future for the long-running franchise. It’s perfectly acceptable for Discovery to reinvent the warp nacelle, as The Force Awakens did for Star Wars, in order to draw in younger audiences and captivate older ones – as long as the new series’ heart remains true to the core elements of the franchise.
Star Trek: Discovery will also need to excel when it comes to venturing into the unexplored realms of the cosmos (period specific, at least) and plumbing the depths of to 23th century ones. It must challenge assumptions about Starfleet, the Klingons, the Romulans, and other classic adversaries – as well as those of longtime devotees – in order to stake its claim as a truly fresh entry in the historic franchise. With a crew of veteran writers and dreamers that understand the pitfalls and benefits of the genre, as well as a group of talented actors, the U.S.S. Discovery has the potential to soar into new frontiers and reinvigorate fans young and old.
Much like the moon that inspired writers to first dream of rockets, Star Trek will wax and wane in popularity, but is unlikely to fully recede from the public eye. At this tenuous phase, though, it’s especially vital for devotees to lend their support to new endeavors, as tempting as it is to dismiss them with cynicism. However, tempered with healthy skepticism, constructive criticism, and a hearty dose of Federation optimism, Starfleet will continue its glorious mission through the cosmos indefinitely.