This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of science fiction’s most stalwart franchises, Star Trek. Before it hit its stride, though, Gene Roddenberry’s plucky little “wagon train to the stars” struggled to make it onto the air. Once there, the show battled low ratings and NBC's axe above its neck, before the network finally sent the Enterprise's crew packing just two years shy of completing its five year mission.
Since its initial outing, the show crept into the public consciousness, inspiring scientific development, a devoted fan base, and even creating a recognized public language (Klingon). After an amazing run, however, interest in the films dwindled and low ratings/convoluted storylines on prequel show Enterprise led Paramount to shelve the franchise.
Star Trek remained in mothballs until 2009, when J.J. Abrams reimagined the film franchise, altering the timeline to recast the original crew. His efforts were a double-edged sword for long-time fans, though. While Star Trek and its sequels, including the upcoming Star Trek Beyond, brought big bucks and new fans to the franchise, the style-over-substance storytelling alienated some devotees to the intellectually-inclined franchise.
However, the success of the alternate timeline films rekindled interest at Paramount and CBS in bringing Star Trek back to the small screen. Under the guidance of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek Into Darkness), Rod Roddenberry, and Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) a new live-action series was born after scores of false starts. Now is the right time for Star Trek to reclaim its science fiction glory on the big, small, and computer screens. So how can the franchise bring those fifty years of history to the screen while remaining relevant?
Avoid Dumbing Trek Down
For all the attention the Star Trek reboots garnered, they set a few precedents which turned off a lot of Trekkies. The frenetic pace and elaborate storylines, including a time-displaced Spock (Leonard Nimoy), didn’t allow for a whole lot of careful consideration or the exploration of strange new worlds and the human condition. Of course, when faced with capturing a general audience’s attention for two or so hours, it’s understandable that Abrams and company shied away from the franchise's more cerebral elements.
When Star Trek returns to the small screen, though, via the CBS streaming service All-Access, there’s no need to trend away from Gene Roddenberry’s precepts. The hour long, multi-episode format is the perfect way to bring the show back to their roots. The “fast and furious” version may be fine for the big screen (since Trek films are often more action-oriented), but the new streaming show should return to the time-honored tradition of exploring our quirks, mores, and norms. After all, seeking out new life and new civilizations is the true thrust of the show.
Classic episodes from the original series like “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or entries in The Next Generation like “Tapestry”, explored the basic tenets of humankind, yet engaged and excited audiences as well. Show-runner Bryan Fuller will be in good company with Nicholas Meyer, since the author and screenwriter brought classic Trek fare like The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to the screen. Both films blended action with intriguing themes to good effect. The next iteration will need to maintain the franchise's spirit of adventure, while captivating audiences with engaging conflicts and scenarios.
Strange New Worlds
The original Star Trek laid out its edicts during the iconic intro to its first five year mission: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations...” and you know the rest. Of course, all Trek-based shows and most films manage to bring the crew of the various vessels (often named Enterprise) in contact with a plethora of unique (read generally humanoid) species across the quadrants of our galaxy.
In order to boldly go beyond expectations, the new show can’t rely on the same old same old precepts of Klingon entanglements and Romulan head games. Star Trek: Voyager, in specific, was particularly good at escaping the confines of the near-Trek universe – seeing as the show took place far from the realm Andorians, Ferengi, or Cardassians. In addition, as the advances in technology aided Trek shows in creating more unique antagonists like CG baddies Species 8472 on Voyager, the Changeling species on DS9, and the redux Tholians from Enterprise.
The next Star Trek incarnation needs to expand upon the unique lifeforms throughout the rest of the galaxy or beyond. Naturally, budgetary constraints may require practical makeup variations on the wrinkled, horned, and spoon-headed lifeforms found in the series and films. But if the new show truly wants to explore the multifaceted possibilities of life in the universe, the producers should avail themselves of modern technologies to create realistic, unique alien species.
Of course, when shows like Voyager and Enterprise attempted to escape past alien tropes, they were met with diminishing returns. Even the most adventurous aficionado still hankers for a couple of Klingon curses or a Borg threat from time to time. Certainly, this fact won’t be lost on the long-serving writers and producers. No matter what the new paradigm brings to the show, it wouldn't be surprising if a few familiar faces pop up from time to time.
Ditch the Prime Directive?
For those unfamiliar, the Prime Directive was invented during the original series as philosophical embodiment Starfleet and the Federation's moral code. It emphasizes peaceful coexistence and non-interference in the affairs of developing alien worlds and inner-planetary conflicts. Whenever an episode required an exploration of our better (or worse) nature, the writers would whip out something challenging the show’s ordering mandate.
The best Starfleet captains knew when to stick by the code, and when to play fast and loose with the rules (usually when benign alien lives and/or their crew members were at risk). In all honesty, some of the most intriguing Star Trek episodes often pushed the boundaries or straight up broke the Prime Directive. Yet no Trek shows, with the exception of Star Trek: Enterprise, existed without the precepts. Even Enterprise, which existed before the directive, skewed towards the developing mandate. Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) even commented that Starfleet should enact “some sort of a doctrine” during the First Season episode "Dear Doctor."
Of course, the overriding principles of the Prime Directive are what make Star Trek, well, Star Trek. Abandoning the concept entirely might make the new show feel like any old science fiction show. Setting the next iteration a century or two after the events of Voyager, or even in an era between Enterprise or and the original series, could give the show more leeway to escape the established rules as they're being created or remake them to fit a post-Dominion War universe.
Early rumors, suggest the new Star Trek could take place between The Undiscovered Country and The Next Generation. If true, the show would take place squarely under the aegis of the Prime Directive, unless of course there's a change in dimensions.
Trek Across the Multiverse
Speaking of changing dimensions: Early indications point to the first long-form Star Trek in over ten years returning to the so-called 'prime timeline' – the story line which exists outside the Abrams-produced films. If true, the rumors will please many fans that simply weren’t fond of seeing the original crew reimagined, despite the solid portrayals. Whether you like or loathe the rebooted films, J.J. Abrams were born from one of the franchise's classic themes, that of alternate universes.
Since Spock first appeared with that oft-spoofed Van Dyke, Star Trek crews have hopped in and out of parallel universes of varying natures. Classic episodes of TNG like "Yesterday's Enterprise," DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations," as well as Enterprise's Temporal Cold War storyline (for all its flaws) all explored the entanglements of playing around with the fabric of reality. In fact, Voyager delved into a very intriguing world which Enterprise further explored – that of a future Federation which policed the timeline.
One possible new direction for the show to head in is time or multiverse travel. By giving the crew the ability to leap around between different realities, the latest Star Trek could explore one of the most complicated frontiers: the fourth dimension and beyond. The presence of a Temporal Integrity Commission, if properly fleshed out into a full series, has a lot of potential.
Admittedly, the challenges of dimension jumping would test the mettle of even the most skilled show-runner and script supervisor. As a contributing writer for both DS9 and Voyager, though, Bryan Fuller certainly has the sci-fi chops. Basing a show off temporal or parallel universes can also backfire somewhat due to continuity errors (see Legends of Tomorrow) or convoluted plots (see Lost).
Even though the producers probably won't take this tack, trekking through time has a lot of interesting possibilities and would be something the franchise has only explored to a limited degree thus far.
Keep It Moving at Warp Speed
Due to complexity issues, the new Star Trek may not delve deeply into time and multiverses - at least no more than the average film or series did. The J.J. Abrams reboots may have fallen short in a few areas, but they certainly displayed the breakneck pacing and visual pizzazz many modern viewers have come to expect.
Of course, the upcoming show isn't trying to hold an audience for two hours. It's trying to capture a paying audience for an entire season and beyond. As a show, it's allowed to spend more time exploring its characters and realms. That being said, the most accomplished episodes often contained a perfect blend of brains and brawn. Fan favorites like TNG’s Borg classic “Best of Both Worlds” and Voyager parallel universe story arc “Year of Hell” were able to combine character development and rapidly paced action set pieces to great effect.
Recent rumors suggest the new Trek will be a seasonal anthology, meaning the show would reboot after each season like American Horror Story. If so, the shows would be radically different from previous approaches. If the rumors are true, characters may phase in and out of the show, or disappear completely at season's end, making it difficult to develop a real attachment to them. On the other hand, the shorter format could make for some interesting overarching plots, non-linear storytelling. and new Trek tropes. In all honesty, while this format could be interesting, it would probably turn off a lot of fans looking forward to a new ship and new crew to ride with.
Admittedly, selling a subscription-based Star Trek is a tricky prospect. It will requires a finding new ways to tell stories which have been explored in other aspects of the franchise. It will also require walking a fine line to please the older fan base and younger viewers looking for a visual challenge. The resulting mélange will require finesse, clever pacing, and a probably a ship. Because, as beloved as Deep Space Nine is within the franchise, the fluidity and forward progress of a ship is more likely to appeal a broad range of viewers.
Of course, bets are off until the producers reveal the new format. But we're hoping they don't stray too far from the episodic format which made Star Trek great.
Where No One Has Gone Before
Following the principles Gene Roddenberry put into place isn’t an easy thing. He himself changed his creative vision several times over the course of his life. After Roddenberry’s influence waned, due to ill health, producers Michael Piller and Rick Berman were forced to reinterpret his concepts in order to keep fans excited about Star Trek, and maintain its continued success. Fuller and his creative team, whether they change the format or simply revise it to meet post-modern needs will have to address the complaints of the old (formulaic stories, overly familiar aliens) with the problems of the new (anti-intellectualism, action-starved audiences).
Fifty years later, Star Trek is ready for the next generation. The show's next spin 'round the cosmos will be a true test of the franchise and its fans. In order to meld the expectations of long-term fans and retain its iconic status, Fuller and his team have a major undertaking ahead of them. If they can successfully recreate the magic of the past, while moving the franchise on to new frontiers (hopefully not The Final Frontier), Star Trek can once again find relevance in our cynical modern world.
If the new series fails, however, Trek could face yet another dismantling and another retooling – something it may not survive, at least in its classical format. Like the franchise itself, Star Trek fans are an optimistic if skeptical group. As with Roddenberry’s original vision, we can't help but hold out hope for the future.
What do you want from the new Star Trek series? Sound off in the comments.