EDITORIAL: You Just Can’t Bring Star Trek Back To The Small Screen (But How You Would If You Could) September 19, 2013by Jared Whitley , Filed under: Editorial,Trek Franchise,Trek on TV , trackback
In The Icarus Factor, Riker is offered his own ship and we meet his father for the first (and only) time. But the episode is better remembered for the subplot, where Worf is in a particularly grouchy mood. He yells “Enough!” at Wesley and “Be gone!” to Data, who – with his trademark gentleness – describes the Klingon as “out of sorts.” Worf’s friends determine that the only solution to his foul spirits is to hit him repeatedly with pain sticks:
I have been reminded of this episode as I’ve followed the recent furor over Star Trek Into Darkness. Just as Worf wasn’t really mad at his crewmates, I believe that much of the anger toward STID has nothing to do with the film: fans are angry because they have to wait four years to see a new movie when what they really want is new episodes every week.
Since the success of the 2009 reboot, the subject has come up a lot, especially as some interested parties have tried to resurrect Star Trek on the small screen. This hasn’t happened (obviously) because, as some speculate, executives don’t want to kill the golden goose (again). But from a branding perspective, one movie every four years has still kept people buying merchandise, buying Blu-rays, and going to conventions. Plus the Internet is taking care of the Trek legacy by itself, with Patrick Stewart-themed memes and web series like SF Debris – so the suits are probably fine with the status quo.
Also I’m sure these execs have come to the conclusion that you just can’t make another Star Trek series because …
1) It’s all been done already.
As anyone will tell you, the biggest problem with doing anything Star Trek-related is that it’s already been done before. Some people will actually put together videos demonstrating how there is nothing new under any sun in the Alpha Quadrant:
While the Abrams team is certainly well versed in Trek lore, I’m going to bet they didn’t set out to make most of the allusions cited in this Red Letter Media video. But with about 750 hours worth of Star Trek, it’s probably hard to create something that doesn’t feel like man has gone there before, especially when …
2) Its core concept doesn’t work anymore.
Star Trek’s original concept was heavy-handed polemics about social issues behind the guise of science fiction, the only way to you could address these issues at the time because of network censors. (The Twilight Zone had shown the way a few years earlier.) This was creative in the 1960s. It was groundbreaking in the 1960s. It was relevant and interesting and bold to say that (space) racism was bad in the 1960s … but it’s not now. Even some of the more transparent allegories from TNG were eyeroll-inducing in the 80s, like when they taught us that drugs are bad, that space racism is bad, and that drugs are bad.
There aren’t any stories you can’t tell anymore. There aren’t any social issues you have to masquerade in science fiction – unless you want to talk about the collapse of white middle America, and then you have to use zombies. So because of that …
3) It wouldn’t fit into the modern TV landscape.
The best TV shows of the last 10-years are all about a damaged male protagonist who survives in an unfair world by making decisions that are mostly immoral, but entirely understandable: Walter White in Breaking Bad, Don Draper in Mad Men, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, Stringer Bell in The Wire, and Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.
And that paradigm is antithetical to Star Trek’s philosophy: good people from a perfect world doing good. They tried to change the perfect world part with Voyager, by isolating the crew to ostensibly make them desperate, but the effort was always half-assed. Trek demi-god Ronald D. Moore had to show them how to do it with both cheeks on Battlestar Galactica. (As to a lesser extent did Joss Whedon with Firefly.)
The only way they could make a Star Trek series that fit this new model would be to redo Deep Space 9 and make the main characters Quark and Morn. Cooking space meth. For the space mafia. While sexually harassing space secretaries at a space ad agency.
“Space nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.”
So everything’s been done, your core concept is 40 years out of date, and you wouldn’t fit on TV anyway. So what does that leave? Generic action movies in Star Trek drag. Folks can criticize the writers of the Abramsverse, but the dudes just don’t have a lot of options.
You just can’t do another Star Trek series again. You just can’t.
But here’s how you do it.
1) Put someone invested in charge.
We are living in a Golden Age of designer TV shows, and each one is connected to one or two key creative individuals – not studio executives, committees, or a revolving door of writers. A new Trek series would also need strong creative leadership.
The best team to lead a new Trek series would be one outsider and one insider. For the outsider, I’d pick Jane Espenson, who’s worked on Buffy, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Game of Thrones, and so on. That’s some serious industry and nerd credibility right there. For the insider, I’d pick Jonathan Frakes, whose work behind the camera has been more important than his work in front of it. And unlike Riker refusing command of his own ship, Jonathan Frakes would be happy to take the conn of a new show.
2) Keep it short.
The Next Generation created a standard that a Star Trek show should last seven years and 170 episodes. This is probably not the case. DS9 dragged out the Dominion War for one year too long and Voyager’s premise got so stale they had to retool it halfway through as Star Trek: Borg. Keep yourself to about 50 episodes over four or five seasons.
3) It’s the characters, stupid.
The problem with Star Trek’s demise in 2005 was not that the stories were all the same: it’s that the characters were the same – a bland array of uniformed individuals who increasingly felt like copies of copies. If the characters are fun and different, you can recycle stories.
Linguistics has never been so bad-ass
Both episodes have the same premise. Both are awesome – and they both very different because Kirk and Picard are such different characters.
You could do another ship-through-the-universe show, but not a ship full of model Starfleet officers. The main characters might not be the senior officers, but rather the “Lower Decks” characters – or misfits who never would have made it onto the Enterprise. The most interesting characters on all of TNG were Barclay and Ro, both of whom were rejects dealing with their infuriatingly perfect senior officers.
All of this could be consistent with the known Trek universe but still fit the modern taste for grittier stories.
4) Please leave Wrath of Khan alone.
Yes, it was the best film. But the last three movies all cribbed heavily from it – that’s one-quarter of the film franchise. (Enterprise also did a Wrath of Khan three-parter in its last year. You probably haven’t seen it. It’s on Netflix.) There are other good episodes/movies you can reference. The real crime of Into Darkness is they cast this great up-and-coming actor and rather than create a new, exciting character, they shoe-horned him into a part that will, forever, be unfavorably compared to the star of Fantasy Island.
5) Listen to your fans – even the ones who hate you.
For years, Trek fans demanded a TV show about Captain Sulu. Rick Berman gave them Enterprise. Here’s a graphic of its ratings:
Here’s an unrelated screen capture from George Takei’s Facebook page:
So to put a fine point on it: more people follow George Takei on a daily basis than watched most of Enterprise. Who knew he was so charming and wonderful? (Answer: Star Trek fans.)
6) Find the right theme.
The original series and movies hit the right chord because they were essentially the Cold War in space. The US was the Federation and the Soviets were the Klingons. And from 1966 to 1991, that basic premise worked really well: it was timely, creative, and meaningful.
So you’d have to come up with something comparable. And no, it’s not “terrorism in space.” Terrorism-themed fiction had already been played out by 2005. A much better contemporary theme is the “The Post-American World” we now live in – so you could make a Trek series about a “post-Federation galaxy” or a “post-Earth Federation,” where alien worlds don’t need as much protection because the Klingons and/or Romulans aren’t as adversarial as they used to be. Or something akin to Asimov’s Foundation series, but with Earth as Trantor. Of course the trouble is they already kind of did this on Andromeda. But they could do it again with more interesting characters and the Trek brand. (And a cameo or two from George Takei for good measure.)
It would definitely be a challenge to get a successful Star Trek series up and running. But with the right people, the right concept, the right format, and the right characters, it could be done. The most important part of a successful TV show, viewership, is already taken care of – the furor over STID proves it. For fans, the best part about loving Star Trek is hating Star Trek. Bring on the pain sticks!
Jared Whitley is a writer and a nerd living in Washington, DC. His own review of Star Trek Into Darkness is here.