Why I Worry for Star Trek’s Future

It’s a great time to be talking about Star Trek.  As of this month, the series has officially crossed its 50 year threshold.    Doctor Who itself crossed this mark only a few years back, and that only a few franchises can claim this kind of longevity speaks enormously to its value.

Unfortunately, there’s been little fanfare from Paramount itself regarding the anniversary.  Where Doctor Who got a specially-aired extra-long episode with bonus Doctors, paying homage to the show’s legacy, and celebration from BBC, Star Trek has been a bit of a footnote in Paramount’s attention.

To be fair, Star Trek hasn’t really been a reliable franchise – financially or critically – since the 90s.  Its last two tv series (Voyager and Enterprise) were a mixed bag in a franchise hitting diminishing returns.  Prior to the reboot, the last Star Trek film was the final TNG film that was a disappointment, both in quality and financial returns.

The reboot was understandable.  And it even delivered in a lot of proper, solid ways.  A new timeline to separate itself from the old, freeing themselves up from all the interweaving histories and baggage that came with it.  A clean slate, as you will.  And it also delivered a new look at the franchise that made it just about the most accessible to mainstream audiences it’s ever been.

star-trek-2009

But that desire to cater to the average moviegoer is where things have really gotten prickly.   Paramount’s clear desire to make a financially viable blockbuster franchise out of this property has, in many ways, put it at odds not only with its fans, but also with its fundamental premise and history.  Star Trek is, at its core, science fiction in all the best ways.  But the NuTrek films have been steering continually into the realm of pure action .  To which the genre of science fiction has no inherent bearing.

Beyond was in many ways a solid outing.  A needed refresh from Into Darkness – a divisive film that was seen by many fans as a wrong direction for the new timeline.  It pried away from the think-fast-explosiveness of JJ Abrams style and – thanks probably in large part to co-writer Simon Pegg – actually incorporated some proper themes and more science fiction-y elements reminiscent of a Class Trek episode.

But it’s still really not quite there yet.  “There” being the place at which this franchise has earned the right to be called “Star Trek” again.  The science fiction side of things is still a bit too elusive – and there’s still bit too much action in the fray.  Continuing that sense that these are action movies that happen to take place in outer space – rather than thoughtful science fiction stories which contain trace amounts of action setpieces as needed.

star-trek-vi

The one really potential bright light in this future is the new Bryan Fuller television series, currently due for launch in May of next year.    Television offers the proper amount of time and care to be given to more thoughtful, character-driven stories that foster the adventurous spirit and complex morality that is the heart of Star Trek.  And Bryan Fuller will doubtless prove a great pick for the role.  He’s a lifelong fan of the franchise, has lots of experience with genre and serialized television, and even wrote for Voyager (and a bit of DS9) back in the day.

Almost everything that’s been announced thusfar is promising.  The ship?  Sweet.  Time frame?  Sounds great.  First officer protagonist?  Lovely.  Female lead?  Even better.  First LGBT character in the franchise (outside of NuTrek Sulu)?  Fantastic.

Except for the inevitable caveat – the one that could derail everything. That caveat of course being CBS’s decision to launch it via their new subscription streaming service.

It’s likely this decision is due in part to the fact that most of CBS programming skews procedural and four-camera sitcom, with a considerably older demographic boasting the majority of its audience.  The network has rarely sought out much in the way of genre tv as of late (Person of Interest has probably been its most prolific, and it recently ended).  Supergirl was a rare venture into this territory – but it couldn’t find the right audience after that first year, so it’s been shuffled off over to the CW to join its siblings in the Arrow-verse.

I imagine there’s concern about similarly being able to attract an audience – even (or especially) to one of the most iconic genre properties around.  Star Trek could very well be a tough sell to the NCIS crowd.  But CBS still wants to do at least something with it – thus, the All Access streaming solution.

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Unfortunately, that doesn’t really allay my concerns.  The last time a new Star Trek series was used to launch a new service (Voyager for UPN) it didn’t go well.  The network only lasted a handful of years, and Voyager was late enough into the waning zeitgeist of the franchise that it, alone, wasn’t able to sustain things.

What’s more, it belies an expectation that Star Trek fans will come to this streaming service and pay for the series – even if there’s nothing else to be offered.  Because with all else that’s been announced to also appear on All Access, nothing interests me in the slightest.

Basically, CBS is asking me to pay $6 a month (more if I don’t want to watch ads) just to be able to see a new Star Trek series.  It’s a terrible model.  Netflix and Amazon thrive because they already offer so much other content to regular subscribers.  Outside of Star Trek there’s essentially nothing.

(It gets even worse when you consider that this will only affect people in the US – in Canada and Europe, this new show will be coming for free as regular programming, or part of a Netflix subscription.)

And this is what concerns me most of all.  I worry that, no matter what else, the show will ultimately prove a failure because it’s being asked to hold up an entire new streaming service.  One with almost no history, no significant track record going in, and very little other competitive content.  I worry that a large portion of the potential fans will look at that subscription fee and say, “No thanks.”

In the which case, everything will be undone.  All the years of waiting for Star Trek‘s return to television.  All the enthusiasm surrounding Fuller as a pick for showrunner.  All the positive and progressive things being planned.  All the exciting possibilities about seeing this franchise properly updated and adapted to new 21st format of television.

It could all be for nothing.

star-trek-discovery-2

So yeah, I’m worried.  We still have until May (unless the series gets pushed back again) and I hope in the meantime CBS makes some changes.  I’m torn between excited at the possibility of this show, and worried that its failure (not an unlikely possibility given the circumstances) could set the entire franchise back again.  If it’s not the success CBS wants it to be, it could well be another 10-15 again years before anyone even tries.

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