Can the New 'Star Trek' Live Up to the Progressive Ideals of the Original?
CBS is going boldly where only five TV shows and a dozen movies have gone before.
Yesterday, CBS announced its long-rumored plans to launch a new Star Trek TV series in January 2017. Helmed by Alex Kurtzman, one of the screenwriters and executive producers behind the franchise's recent film reboots, the new installment, which will premiere three months after the official 50th anniversary of the original series, will feature an all-new cast of characters and will be the first TV series to air exclusively on CBS's proprietary $5.99/month streaming platform, CBS All Access. Those bare details all we know for now, but it's enough to get Trek fans very excited—and hopefully, very, very skeptical.
A new Trek series is great, in theory. It's been ten years since Enterprise, the last (and least successful) series, was put out to pasture. (If there's any Trek fan who cites Enterprise as their favorite series, I have yet to find them.) With the overwhelming success of both new movies (yes, even Into Darkness, that 2013 sorta-hot mess, grossed $229 million domestically and nearly half a billion dollars worldwide) and a third film, Star Trek Beyond, slated for release in July 2016—it's also the ideal time from a business standpoint for CBS to revive the franchise's television component.
But given its current constraints, even if it performs well, this new series will no doubt continue, as its most recent predecessors have, to spit on the progressive spirit that Star Trek once stood for.
Before even getting into the philosophical stuff, let's do Spock proud and talk logic. Straight out of the gate, CBS is already disincentivizing fans and potential new viewers by hiding the show behind its streaming paywall. Cord-cutting TV fans already shell out for some combination of Netflix ($9.99/month), Hulu Plus ($7.99/month), Amazon Prime ($99/year, or $8.25/month), and premium-channel streaming services (HBO Now is $15/month and Showtime's online version is $11/month). Is a new Trek series really enough reason to add CBS All Access to the mix?
Another problem is that the hardcore fans who might throw money at CBS for a new Trek might not be too interested in Kurtzman's version of the Federation. While the last two Trek reboots raked in hundreds of millions of dollars globally, they did so while abandoning the series' moral compass, which has always been a big deal for devotees. The Star Trek of the 1960s was sci-fi escapism, but it was also a platform for Gene Roddenberry's progressive ideology. The creator's original vision included a diverse bridge and a female second-in-command; though CBS and Paramount executivespushed back, Roddenberry was able to keep the African-American Nichelle Nichols and the Asian-American George Takei in major roles—a coup in the 60s, when nearly everything on TV looked likeLeave It to Beaver.
After the second season, however, the network announced plans to cancelStar Trek due to underwhelming ratings. Given that a two-season run at that time meant a show would never be shown in reruns, fans were outraged—so they organized a massive letter-writing campaign that flooded Paramount's offices with thousands of notes. CBS and Paramount caved, giving the show one more season, thus giving it the chance for it to grow into the massive convention-spawning and sequel-generating franchise it has become today. (If you want the long version, I wrote about it here.) Much of Star Trek is explicitly utopian—it imagines a future in which humanity has eliminated war, poverty, and racism and has become so tolerant of differences that it has formed close bonds with alien races.
Meanwhile, Into Darkness featured Alice Eve's Carol Marcus posing almost naked in a shot for no reason—director J.J. Abrams himself admitted the movie was "a bit sexist." And though the reboot retained the diversity of the original, casting Zoe Saldana and John Cho in the same lead roles that Nichols and Takei once filled is hardly a gamble. If Kurtzman, his writing partner Robert Orci, and Abrams were really invested in rebooting Star Trek in its truest essence, there would already be bigger and more roles for people of color, not to mention—and I've written about this before—expressly LGBT characters. A Star Trek reboot should have by now made "The Host"—a fourth-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with a "man" who she discovers is actually a genderless symbiotic being presently inhabiting a male body—look quaint.
Of course, Star Trek is far from the only franchise studios and networks are ruining by playing it safe, though arguably it suffers the most from the treatment, having once been a radical outlier. That's the order of the day in Hollywood: Even when bigwigs take a risk, it's on men who, as Brad Bird (now famously) said when recommending Colin Trevorrow to direct Jurassic World, remind them of themselves. Sometimes it pays off, as in Trevorrow's case. But sometimes—as in this fall's Minority Report TV adaptation, which was handed to Max Borenstein, whose only recognizable credit prior to the show was writing the screenplay for last year's Godzilla—the choice nukes a substantial, important idea that could have been saved by someone who understood the spirit and stakes of the project, even if they didn't look exactly like the people who were doing the hiring. The Minority Report reboot boasts a diverse cast, a relatively diverse writers' room, and flashy production values, but its showrunner seems to lack the strong vision (not to mention any experience with dystopia and sci-fi) that an update like this needed to be a hit. Perhaps a result, the show's ratings have suffered and it's on the verge of cancellation.
On Motherboard: Admit It, You're Probably Going to Pay $6 a Month for Star Trek
On the other hand, there's always the chance that Kurtzman will break the chain he helped start by rebooting the franchise. To his credit, he has overseen risky, socially-conscious/important projects like Sleepy Hollow and Fringe—for which he served as executive producer and consulting producer, respectively—in the past. He'll also have the luxury of a completely blank slate: The show will feature brand new characters CBS claims will be "seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966." And with the show airing on CBS All Access instead of CBS proper, the network will face less advertiser pressure and more incentive to build an audience and give that audience what they want. Considering that audiences have consistently demonstrated a hunger for more diverse television of late, CBS could interpret this as market demand for a revival of the daring, radical spirit of Roddenberry's original creation.
So which will it be? Underestimate the mainstream's appetite for new ideas and play it safe with the ol' blockbuster approach? Or risk losing conservative, basic-bro audiences (who, let's face it, already have Star Wars) in favor of keeping the Trek essence alive? If you're going to make Trek fans pay for it, CBS, for the love of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, try to give us our money's worth.
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