Star Trek is enjoying a resurgence on the small screen with CBS All Access, but the franchise was nearly destroyed by hubris and disastrous decision making at the executive level at the turn of the century. The only reason Star Trek: Discovery has been framed as a franchise revival is that, not so long ago, it was dead and buried by its former corporate overlord, Paramount Pictures. It's important to understand the state of the franchise when the wheels began to come off.
In 1994, Star Trek was arguably at the absolute height of its popularity. The cast of Star Trek: The Original Series took a final curtain call in the well-received 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine launched in early 1993, the first show in the series to feature a non-white lead in Avery Brooks' Commander Benjamin Sisko. Above all, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a genuine cultural phenomenon. By its final seasons, the show had viewing numbers that were in the same ballpark as other '90s primetime television heavyweights, like Home Improvement and Seinfeld. Unlike those shows, however, TNG was syndicated, meaning it wasn't produced for one individual network, but sold to individual affiliates across the nation. It was unprecedented, even in that era, for a syndicated show to be so successful, and the nature of that format meant The Next Generation was almost certainly the most profitable scripted drama on television during its lifespan.
Not only was the show a massive hit, the quality was so high that it began to transcend the trappings of genre television, in those days considered lowbrow entertainment by many in the industry. Star Trek: The Next Generation defied those standards with high production values, thoughtful scripting, and an ensemble cast stacked with the kind of talent Star Trek really hadn't seen before. The show earned an Emmy nomination for Best Dramatic Series in 1994, one of the very few sci-fi shows to earn that honor. So how did Star Trek go from a pop culture behemoth to an also-ran in a decade? There's no one decision that crashed the franchise; rather, an almost unthinkable cycle of poor decisions that the series is only now recovering from. Let's take a look at how things became so dire so quickly.
The Premature End of Star Trek: The Next Generation
Again, by 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the most critically and financially successful shows on television, and its popularity was only increasing as time went on. However, the decision was made by Paramount and longtime Star Trek producer Rick Berman that the show would end that year, after seven seasons. Plenty of shows have gone out at the height of their popularity, but generally, that's because the show is finished telling the story it set out to; Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are prime examples. TNG's cancellation had nothing to do with such high minded artistic considerations; the show's abrupt end was largely a decision made out of corporate greed. Around the seventh season is when shows tend to get more expensive to produce, as cast contracts generally run out around then and new, much pricier deals must be struck. However, the nature of The Next Generation's distribution model meant that, while more seasons would have been slightly less profitable, it still would have easily been one of the most profitable shows on television for many more years.
Paramount decided that cancelling The Next Generation in its prime would solve two problems; the TNG cast could replace The Original Series cast in the film series, and the studio could create a new Star Trek series that evoked the flavor of TNG, but without the expensive cast. It was also decided that this new Star Trek series would be the flagship show of Paramount's new television network, UPN. As for the TNG cast, Paramount simply assumed audiences would flock to theaters to see Picard and Data take on bigger and badder threats every two or three years. To put it mildly, Paramount's plans didn't work out how they suspected.
Star Trek: Voyager And The First Signs Of Trouble
Star Trek: Voyager debuted to much fanfare on UPN in 1995. The show featured the franchise's first female lead in Kate Mulgrew's Captain Kathryn Janeway. She commanded the USS Voyager, a Starfleet vessel lost in an unexplored part of the galaxy. Voyager certainly has its fans, and featured a few memorable supporting characters, but it was immediately obvious it was not on the same quality level as The Next Generation. Other than Mulgrew and Robert Picardo - who played Voyager's holographic Doctor - the show's cast was unremarkable, and the writing was flaccid, often feeling like warmed over TNG plots. The fact that it was a network show and not syndicated - like TNG and Deep Space Nine had been - meant Voyager had to deal with things previous Star Trek shows never did, like ratings concerns and network executive meddling.
Voyager limped along for seven seasons before ending on its own terms. It never approached the cultural penetration or storytelling quality of The Next Generation; ironically, Paramount considered the concurrently produced Deep Space Nine to be the lesser of the two series, funneling promotional resources to Voyager over the darker, harder edged DS9. DS9 ended in 1999, considered a modest success at the time. However, time has been much kinder to Deep Space Nine, which ended up presaging many of the ways television would be made in the 21st century. Voyager, unfortunately, has been largely forgotten.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Flops In Theaters
The cast of The Next Generation were facing their own problems on the big screen. From 1994 to 2002, the TNG cast appeared in four films; with the exception of 1996's Star Trek: First Contact, none of them were well received critically. The final TNG film, Star Trek: Nemesis, was ridiculed by critics and audiences alike, and was a financial disaster; it was the first Star Trek film not to debut at number one in America, embarrassingly beaten by the Jennifer Lopez rom-com Maid In Manhattan. It would be the final Star Trek film produced until J.J. Abrams' semi-reboot in 2009.
In their haste to maximize their profits at all costs, Paramount and Berman overlooked a key factor that doomed them on several fronts - Star Trek: The Next Generation simply did not translate well to the feature-film format. TNG was a much more cerebral, introspective show than The Original Series, and the show's thoughtful, emphatic worldview was largely sidestepped in favor of action and broad comedy for the films, neither of which were ever TNG's strong suit. The TNG crew never got the sort of love letter sendoff that The Original Series did with The Undiscovered Country; Nemesis is generally considered the worst of the four TNG films, an ignominious end for what was once one of the most beloved ensembles in television history.
Star Trek: Enterprise And The End
By 2001, Star Trek was flailing. Voyager ended with a whimper, and Nemesis would close up shop on the film franchise in a matter of months. Rick Berman's last gasp was Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel series that took place about a century before the days of Kirk and Spock. Headlined by Quantum Leap veteran Scott Bakula, Enterprise never quite knew what it wanted to be, vacillating between telling stories of Starfleet's earliest days in earnest, ruminating on the real world ramifications of the war on terror, and indulging in blatant, arguably pandering fan service. The show featured easily the most forgettable ensemble cast in Star Trek history, and leaned into some of the skeevy sexism that the '90s Star Trek series had largely eschewed.
Enterprise was never popular, and in 2005, it was cancelled outright by UPN - the first Star Trek series to suffer that fate since the original in 1969. Berman was interested in making a Starfleet Academy film for Paramount featuring younger version of Kirk and Spock, but the studio declined, and Star Trek, for all intents and purposes, remained in hibernation until the Abrams films, and wouldn't return to television until Star Trek: Discovery launched in 2017. During that hiatus, the rights to Star Trek were split due to corporate wrangling - Paramount retained the rights to make Star Trek films, while CBS gained control of the franchise on the small screen. This essentially meant it was unlikely there could be any sort of synergy between future Trek films and TV shows, a further fracturing of an already mortally wounded property.
Discovery, Picard, And Hope For The Future
The J.J. Abrams Star Trek films - which tell the story of alternative universe version of the original Enterprise crew - have seemingly run their course, mothballed after Star Trek: Beyond underperformed at the box office. In an era dominated by gigantic, four quadrant tentpoles, Star Trek always felt a little out of place. The Abrams films are charming, funny, exciting movies, but they almost completely abandon the headier themes that make Star Trek unique. Without that meditative, introspective angle, the Abrams films felt decidedly lightweight, yet another nostalgia-fueled franchise trying and failing to take on the likes of Marvel and Star Wars.
It's easy to say the sort of cerebral, deliberate storytelling style of vintage Star Trek simply can't appeal to wide audiences in the way that lightsaber battles can, but Star Trek itself disproved that theory 25 years ago. Star Trek lost its way when it started trying to be everything to everyone, needlessly diluting its appeal in the process. Rick Berman tried to steer the franchise in good faith, but he never really understood what made Star Trek special - he infamously hated the fan favorite Deep Space Nine - and it became a more pedestrian property with every passing year under his leadership.
CBS, to their credit, seem to be taking the exact opposite path as Paramount did in the '90s. Both Star Trek: Discovery and the upcoming Star Trek: Picard are deeply rooted in the franchise's past and require at least a passing knowledge of The Original Series and The Next Generation, respectively. Rather than aiming for the cheap seats, CBS is embracing Star Trek's niche appeal, and in the process are building the nascent CBS All Access app into a surprisingly potent player in the streaming world.
Star Trek is unquestionably on the rise right now. While polarizing in its first year, Discovery's second season was warmly greeted by new and old fans alike. Star Trek: Picard's potential is even greater - Patrick Stewart's return as the titular captain has evoked excitement from the sort of casual viewers who may not be inclined to pay a monthly fee just to watch a Star Trek prequel about Spock's sister. That's also a testament to The Next Generation's enduring popularity; remarkably, the show still airs regularly on cable in primetime slots to this day, one of the oldest series still in regular rotation on traditional television.
Producer Alex Kurtzman has promised that Picard will be a more psychological, meditative show than the fast paced, action heavy Discovery. That couldn't be more appropriate, as that sort of storytelling, with that very character, is what turned Star Trek into an American institution. There's no guarantee Star Trek: Picard will be a success, and some of CBS's other Star Trek projects in development sound more promising than others. But the current regime at CBS seem to understand the fundamental appeal of Star Trek; even if they stumble along the way, all they have to do is look back a couple decades to see how they can avoid smothering one of the crown jewels of science fiction.