In case you missed the news last week, it’s been announced that Star Trek will be receiving a new television series starting sometime in 2017. This marks a remarkable sixth show for the franchise – that’s the most in TV history – and, therefore, may present something of a problem for new viewers or older ones who may be a little bit rusty with their Star Trek history. Depending upon whether one counts Star Trek: The Animated Series (which the writers and producers themselves sometimes do and sometimes don’t), that equates to 727 episodes across 30 seasons and 39 years. All of which, of course, isn’t to mention the 12 feature films, which themselves break down into three different sub-series – and one of which is a reboot of the entire Star Trek mythology.
What is that? CBS’s new show may eschew much of this past baggage and instead just concentrate on director J.J. Abrams’s current round of reimagined movies? Yes, that’s entirely possible, though the success – both creative and commercial – of the even-longer-lived Dr. Who presents an all-inclusive way forward for parent company Paramount to model their new series.
Either way, however, it’ll help to have at least a light understanding of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, and how past events may either be paid off or remade in the upcoming television excursion. Let’s compile a Complete Guide to Star Trek, then, shall we?
Broadcast run: 1966-1969Number of seasons: 3
The very first foray into creator Gene Roddenberry’s world was originally titled just Star Trek and followed the crew of the USS Enterprise on its five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations and, of course, to boldly go where no one has gone before; when it’s the 23rd century and all social ills, from racism to poverty to drug abuse to war, have been vanquished, there is little else to do but engage in a healthy dose of scientific exploration and ethical self-improvement (and in Roddenberry’s worldview, both are intrinsically linked).
The captain of the Enterprise is James T. Kirk, with First Officer/Science Officer Spock and Chief Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy rounding out the rest of the main cast. Their adventures would go on to become the stuff of legend, both within the fictitious timeline of Trek and within our own history.
Despite being one of the first color television shows and one of the first to engage in a little something called continuity – the very idea of backstory, which the United Federation of Planets, with its Prime Directive and Starfleet Command, trailblazed – the show was canceled due to poor ratings… or so NBC thought. Shortly thereafter, Nielsen ratings were applied to specific demographics (such as the lucrative male 18- to 34-year-old category), and the channel realized it had a ratings hit on its hands.
Broadcast run: 1973-1974Number of seasons: 2
The Original Series, it has famously been said, was the first TV show to die but go to heaven; its 81 episodes went into second-run syndication immediately upon its cancellation, attracting millions of extra viewers over the course of the next few years. Its fandom was already the first to engage in the now-standard practice of a letter-writing campaign, granting the original show a third season, and now it was responsible for reviving the franchise with a spinoff series.
The Animated Series (also originally just referred to as Star Trek during its initial run) may have been a cartoon, but it was treated by Roddenberry as an exact continuation of TOS, leading to almost the entire cast and crew reuniting for the further adventures of the Enterprise. Yes, the show’s budget was extremely limited, leading to a level of animation quality that's worse than the original Scooby-Doo, and, yes, due to licensing deals, TAS would be viewed as non-canon for a number of years, but the strength of its concepts and its fidelity to the greater Trek mythos have resulted in its eventual integration by both fans and producers alike.
Broadcast run: N/ANumber of seasons: N/A
During the broadcast run of the first Star Trek, Paramount Pictures ended up acquiring the show. It was considered a dead property for most of the early 1970s – the studio even attempted to sell the rights to Roddenberry for only a few thousand dollars – but then something happened that had never occurred before: a fan movement. Suddenly, conventions were held, actors and writers were treated as divine beings, and cosplaying sprung up. Trek was very much alive, with indie magazines and technical manuals of the Enterprise abound, leading Paramount to eventually reconsider the lucrativeness of the property.
The Animated Series was a small attempt to cash in on this newfound popularity, but the real move was another go at a live-action production. Opinions in Paramount and Roddenberry’s office kept oscillating from another TV series to a feature film, but, eventually, the television side won out. Star Trek: Phase II would have followed the USS Enterprise on its second five-year mission under Captain Kirk, but then a little something called Star Wars arrived on the scene in 1977 and caused all the major studios to scramble for their own version of a space-opera epic. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born, using a great number of the concepts – including much of the script! – from Phase II in its stead.
Theatrical run: 1979-1991Number of films: 6
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979, a full decade after The Original Series went off the air. Although not as strong a commercial success as Paramount was hoping for – thanks to some creative tinkering by Gene Roddenberry, who wanted to pursue a more philosophical narrative than an action-based one – it was still successful enough to warrant an entire series of movies that would last for the next 12 years.
The films initially show how the original crew reconvenes on a newly refitted Enterprise, but just a few installments in, the famed ship is destroyed. Starfleet commissions the USS Enterprise-A, formally continuing the vessel’s lineage while simultaneously instituting it as the flagship of the Federation.
There was some crashing-and-burning behind the scenes, as well. The expensive Roddenberry was fired after the perceived failure of the first film and was replaced by a group of producers, writers, and directors who largely were uninvolved with the original show and, thus, saw fit to rewrite a number of the franchise’s signature elements, from its production design and costumes to dialogue. The resulting effect is to make the Original Series movies look and feel more like a parallel universe rather than a continuation of the real one, but that didn’t stop the fandom of the time – which was happy to revisit the stories of its childhood – embracing the film series with open arms.
Broadcast run: 1987-1994Number of seasons: 7
With a new movie releasing, on average, every two years and with reruns of the original Star Trek constantly on the air, Paramount saw the huge potential there was to further capitalize on its prize property. Executives decided to revisit the concept of a follow-up series from the decade before, requesting that Roddenberry return to the creator’s chair to work his television magic one last time.
The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show which jumps 100 years after TOS and follows the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew aboard the USS Enterprise-D, the fifth ship to carry that proud name. Next Gen would go on to be a hugely popular show – the only Trek to be successful while on the air – and would not only run for all six of its proposed seasons, but also get picked up for a seventh and final year at the last minute.
The show is single-handedly responsible for introducing a number of concepts and tropes that dominate cinematic sci-fi to this day, including the technologically-enhanced, collective-consciousness-sharing Borg and, of course, a whole slew of memes.
Theatrical run: 1994-2002Number of films: 4
Paramount knew right from day one that it would transition its new Trek from the small to the big screen, just like its predecessor had done, but this time it would not waste a full decade in doing so. Only six months after TNG went off the air, its first movie outing, Star Trek: Generations, hit theaters, destroying the Enterprise-D and (in the next installment) introducing the Enterprise-E.
Even more importantly, however, is the fact that the studio had learned from its mistakes. Rather than hiring a cadre of outsiders to oversee the film franchise, a number of long-time Next Gen veterans were hired to helm the movies, and the cast was signed to a three-picture deal right up-front.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon wasn’t to last. By the time the third scheduled installment, Insurrection, had released, fatigue with sci-fi, generally, and with Star Trek, specifically, had set in, causing Paramount to rethink its approach. To ensure the greatest commercial hit possible, the studio ended up recruiting fresh faces for the fourth movie, Nemesis, which ended up being such a creative and commercial disaster (Captain Picard races four-wheelers on alien desert planets!), it prematurely killed the featured film franchise, causing the most venerable Trek series to go down in flames.
Broadcast run: 1993-1999Number of seasons: 7
The Next Generation proved that there was more than enough appetite among fans for both a film series and a television show, and as TNG neared the end of its run, Paramount ordered the Trek head honchos to create a second spinoff. Unwilling to move this new show to a different time period – that would require creating a whole new set of alien civilizations and starship designs, not to mention introducing everything all over again to audiences – they opted instead to keep it set within the 24th century but to take a fundamentally different approach to the mythology.
The result is, hands down, the best Star Trek that has ever been produced. Set aboard an alien-made space station instead of a human-designed starship, and featuring, for the first (and, sadly, the only) time, an ongoing narrative, Deep Space Nine is, essentially, the anti-Star Trek Star Trek. But it’s precisely this deeper, darker perspective on Roddenberryism, exploring such messy concepts as war, genocide, and non-linear spiritual encounters, that makes it so compelling.
It’s also the only Trek to hold up in the current, golden age of television serialization, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
Broadcast run: 1995-2001Number of seasons: 7
Deep Space Nine may have originally been intended to hit the airwaves after The Next Generation had signed off, but increased competition (namely, in the form of the excellent Babylon 5) caused DS9 to air simultaneously with its progenitor for nearly two full seasons. It was a happy accident, and one that Paramount was determined to repeat once again – there would be two Treks on the air for most of Voyager’s seven-year run.
Star Trek: Voyager was intended, like DS9 before it, to be a wholly different take on the Trek formula: a small research vessel is scooped up by an alien entity and plopped literally on the other side of the galaxy. Stranded and alone, the USS Voyager must make the 75,000-year journey home with no backup or resupplies. Unfortunately, due to increased interference from the studio and an ever-revolving door of showrunners, the series never lived up to its continuity-heavy premise. Even worse, as ratings started to decline, a number of old TNG elements, headlined by the now-ubiquitous Borg, were forced into its narrative, making it feel more like a tired retread than a boldly-going-forward experiment.
Broadcast run: 2001-2005Number of seasons: 4
By the time Voyager finished its run, it was obvious that Star Trek was declining in quality. But with Paramount still demanding a new series to be on the air for yet another seven years, Trek’s head honchos decided that a new twist would be needed in order to inject some new life into the flagging franchise.
The result was Enterprise, a prequel series, set some 100 years before TOS and 200 years before TNG, DS9, and VOY. The United Federation of Planets hasn’t yet been formed, and space is once again a dark, mysterious, and oftentimes dangerous place.
The new time period would also allow the writer-producers to make an Enterprise the main vessel of the series without it being a retread of the first two shows; rather than picking up with the sixth iteration of the flagship, audiences would now get to see the inaugural (but-never-before-mentioned) prototype.
The only problem here is that, in deciding to go back to the beginning, Enterprise’s overseers chucked out most of the centuries’ worth of backstory developed over the course of the previous four series; rather than looking like a predecessor to ‘60s Trek, it looks like a sequel to the three 24th-century productions. Even worse, the same play-it-by-the-numbers mentality that so dogged Voyager crept up in spades with Enterprise, making the writers break the rules of space and time to introduce a number of the alien civilizations and plot points from the earlier shows appear in theirs, despite the huge gap in the timeline.
Things were so bad that not even a forced overhaul of the TV series halfway through its run could help. By the time the fourth season came around, Paramount slashed the episode order and then canceled it, giving fans a most ignominious ending to an 18-year streak.
Theatrical run: 2009-2016Number of films: 3
Star Trek television may have (finally) been dead, but Paramount knew that there was still some life – or, at least, some money – in the feature film side of the franchise.
Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise weren’t popular enough to warrant a theatrical follow-up, and going the route of a brand-new concept – something which Paramount seriously flirted with during its several years of development – was ultimately deemed too financially risky. That just left something which was becoming increasingly profitable for the rest of Hollywood: a reboot.
Not only would Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get recast and restarted, and not only would the new film utilize the Starfleet Academy concept that had been kicked around by Roddenberry and others for decades, but it would also represent a fundamental shift in the way that Trek was conceived, executed, and delivered to fans. It was deemed by the studio and the new creative team that a whole new approach, one much closer to the big-budgeted, action-set-piece extravaganzas of summer tentpole films, would need to be employed. Star Trek would now be much more like Star Wars.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2009 Star Trek ended up being a success, allowing Paramount to fulfill its vision of doing a new series of movies, which continues with next summer’s Star Trek: Beyond.
Have any further questions about what makes Star Trek tick? Have your own anecdotes to help fill in the 49-year gap? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.
Star Trek: Beyond will be released in theaters on July 6, 20168