Monday, 23 January 2017

Prelude to History: Why STAR TREK needs to get back to the Final Frontier

This summer CBS will air the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. This will be the first Star Trek TV show to air in twelve years. As a result, you'd expect fans to be excited and energised by the prospect of new adventures on the final frontier.

This doesn't really to be the case, however. News about Discovery has been greeted with polite interest, a patter of discussion, but not the enthusiasm you'd expect from a return to the Star Trek universe.

On the surface, the powers behind Discovery have made a lot of really good decisions. They hired Bryan Fuller, one of the most respected and critically-acclaimed showrunners around, to develop the concept and serve as showrunner. He later dropped out due to scheduling issues with his previous project for Starz, American Gods, but several episodes will remain with his writing credit on them, he will remain as a producer and the door appears to be open for him to return in a more active role in later seasons. More impressive was the decision to hire Nicholas Meyer as a writer and producer. As the co-writer and director of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he is credited with single-handedly saving the Star Trek franchise from oblivion in 1982. He went to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and co-wrote Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, therefore having a hand in the three most critically-acclaimed Star Trek movies.

Casting has likewise been well-received. Sonequa Martin-Green is a good performer on The Walking Dead but has arguably been under-utilised on that show. Putting her in a different role, as Lt. Commander Rainsford, an officer on the USS Discovery and the focal point of the series, is an interesting move. Doug Jones is a talented performer with many interesting collaborations with Guillermo Del Toro under his belt. Michelle Yeoh, of course, has been a tremendously skilled and respected actress ever since her star-making turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And if you need to recast Sarek, then you could certainly do far worse than the versatile and intense James Frain in the role.

One of the most popular moves has been the decision to set the show in the original or "Prime" timeline. For those unfamiliar with the situation, the Star Trek universe was split into two distinct continuities by the events of the 2009 reboot move directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek: The Original Series, The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the first ten movies take place in the original continuity, whilst the three most recent films - Star Trek, Into Darkness and Beyond - all take place in the rebooted "Abramsverse", or "Kelvin timeline". The prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise, which takes place before the split in the timeline, exists in both. Although Abrams's glossy, Apple-aesthetic-channelling movies have been moderately successful (although falling short of Paramount's expectations), they have had a much more divisive critical reception and long-term Star Trek fans seem to regard them ambivalently, appreciating them for driving a new generation of fans to the franchise but less keen on their much looser commitment to real science and their overwhelming reliance on explosions and violence to solve problems.

The expectation was that any new show would also take place in the Abramsverse, but this was cast into doubt by the fact that Star Trek is no longer owned by one entity, with Paramount controlling the film rights and CBS owning the TV rights. With the new Abramsverse movies post-dating that split, CBS has no automatic legal right to the films and would have to strike up a new deal with Paramount to make one, and that would cost serious money (especially since Paramount and CBS have not been on good terms for a while). Clearly CBS decided it was not worth it and opted to simply set the show in the existing Prime timeline. Although largely irrelevant to a casual audience, this move please long-term Star Trek fans who either hated the Abrams movies or enjoyed them as, at best, a Marvel Ultimates-style alternate-but-limited take on established material, but not something that should supplant the originals.

However, since then many of CBS's announcements have been regarded with a lukewarm reception. One of these is technical and, I suspect, will not last the course, whilst the second is creative and delves much more deeply into the problems Star Trek has had in drumming up excitement since at least 2001, if not before. Let's deal with the bigger problem first.

Another streaming service. Yay.

This is a uniquely American problem, since in the rest of the world CBS has very sensibly sold the rights to the new series to Netflix, which is already showing the entire Star Trek franchise worldwide. This is quite a coup for Netflix and leads to the - somewhat bizarre - situation where British and German Star Trek fans are getting ready to watch the show on their existing service with no further hoops to jump through. But in the USA, where the majority of Star Trek fandom resides, this is not the case. CBS has instead chosen Star Trek: Discovery to lead its new digital streaming service, CBS All Access. The first episode of Discovery will air on CBS itself and subsequent episodes will be exclusive to the new service, in the hope that viewers will be impressed and sign up immediately. To put it mildly, this has gone down like a lead balloon.

American TV fans and viewers will already be subscribing to either (or both) Netflix and Amazon Prime. Many will also be subscribing to Hulu and HBO Go. There's also Sling Orange, PlayStation Vue, Seeso and a number of other options, including traditional cable. Introducing a further streaming service on top of this, a late entry in an already saturated market at a point when American viewers may be feeling economically squeezed, feels like an unwise decision. There are many Star Trek fans saying flatly they will wait for the DVD/Blu-Rays, or even illegally download the show over paying an additional premium on top of the other, far larger and more varied services they are already signed up to. Even if we assume many will change their tune, especially if Discovery's first episode knocks it out of the park (Star Trek doesn't exactly have great pilot form, however), this is certainly something contributing to the lack of excitement over the show.

To boldly go...where we've been before. Many times.

Far more a serious a problem for Discovery is the fact that it's a prequel. Again.

Let's break this down. Star Trek: Enterprise (which aired from 2001 to 2005) was a prequel, set 100 years before the original series. The Ambramsverse movies return to the setting of the original five-year mission. Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) was set after the other series, but for all but the closing moments of its last episode it was set on the other side of the galaxy to the Federation and Earth. Aside from a few brief communications here and there in Voyager, the Star Trek setting and universe has not moved or evolved forward in any substantial way since the final episode of Deep Space Nine aired in 1999. For a franchise that's based on the premise of going out into space and exploring new frontiers, it's instead been spinning around in circles for almost twenty years.

Star Trek fans seem to be keen for a new show set a generation or two after the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager period which features new technology, new ideas and new characters. Such a show could be as divorced from previous continuity or reliant on it as the producers wanted, but it would have absolute and complete freedom to do whatever it wanted. Discovery, like Enterprise before it, will be a show wearing a continuity straitjacket. Every story, worldbuilding and character decision they make has to be carefully scrutinised in case it conflicts with what has been established before.

This isn't to say that you can't have entertaining and interesting stories within those narrow confines, like Enterprise (occasionally) did, but it does make it a lot harder. It also introduces significant amounts of work for the writers to make sure they're not contradicting things established elsewhere.

A prequel or interquel could actually be quite interesting if it was set in a different part of the history. There was a strong rumour during early development that the new show would be set in the seventy-year gap between the start of the movie Star Trek: Generations and the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation. During this time period there were two starship Enterprises (the B and the C), the fate of the first of which is unknown, and there were plenty of interesting things going on in the background with the Klingons and Romulans but without a lot of detailed continuity to get bogged down in. This would have been more fertile and interesting ground to cover, with the bonus that the setting would have even allowed for cameos by surviving original series actors George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols.

A second rumour was that the new series would be a Fargo-style show which changed timeframe and setting for each season, but where everything still happened in the same universe. So Season 1 might have been a prequel set on a starship, the second during the height of the Dominion War, the third on a Klingon starship and so on. With the broad canvas of the Star Trek universe to draw upon, this idea was also quite exciting and fans started speculating about what settings could be used.

The final announcement - that the show will instead be set ten years before The Original Series, in the same narrative space as The Original Series and the Abramsverse movies - couldn't help but be underwhelming in comparison. That's already a well-ploughed field. Also, if as seems possible, the new show expands on the Four Year War and the Axanar Incident, that may also annoy and alienate fans of the Star Trek: Axanar fan project, which was recently cancelled through legal action. Although CBS and Paramount were legally in the right to do this, since they own all the copyrights involved, if the new, official TV series ends up using the same story and idea, that may also result in claims of plagiarism or intellectual dishonesty.

To be clear, Star Trek: Discovery looks like it has a lot of impressive creative power behind and in front of the screen. A Star Trek series with shorter, more focused seasons that cut out the awful filler (although we hope that excellent stand-alone stories still make it in) and have more serialised storytelling sounds very interesting, especially one with such an enormous budget. I suspect it'll be quite a good show. But even if it's the best Star Trek show ever, there's going to be severe constraints over what it could do and where it could go in the future.

The hope for a lot of Star Trek fans is that Discovery will do well enough for more shows to be commissioned, and one will finally get back to what the franchise needs to be: exploring new worlds, new places and new civilisations.


Ghost said...

I think the lack of excitement is due in part to the recent Star Trek movies. The Abramsverse Star Trek movies went for action and lost a lot of die-hard Trekkies in the process. Hopefully Discovery will be the start of winning them back.

Anonymous said...

I'm not excited because I refuse to pay for any more streaming services.

Enough is enough, until they all come together in some kind of consolidated One Ring to bind them all service ... including live NFL.