In the midst of all the reboots, lazy adaptations, blatant copycat projects, and quickly discarded binge-watching shows, I have found myself turning into a curmudgeon who whines about the lack of creativity in television and film. “Why can’t they come up with something original?” I ask. “Why do we need a third Peter Parker? What’s so hard about making a Fantastic Four movie? Do we really need a prequel to The Walking Dead?”
And then—as if someone is intentionally trying to make me look stupid—CBS announces plans for a new Star Trek program, the seventh of its kind (yes, I count the animated series because it’s awesome). And suddenly I’m young again! And I’m saying, “Where have you been? What took you so long?”
The reaction to this announcement among critics and fans has been fascinating, as a certain Vulcan would put it. Given that we know so little about the project—we’re not even sure which century or timeline in which it will be set—much of the speculation has revolved around how a show so rooted in optimism and campiness will fare in the gritty age of Game of Thrones. Some have predicted that the traditionally episodic nature of Star Trek would struggle to find an audience among viewers expecting story arcs that last for a season or longer. Moreover, the big budget, slam-bang action of the recent JJ Abrams movies may have permanently altered the tone and idealism of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. And then there is the unprecedented distribution format that CBS plans to use, which will make the show a pawn in the competition between online streaming services and the major networks.
All that aside, I detect some old-fashioned jadedness as well, on which I blame the many raging disappointments over the years, from The Phantom Menace to Spider-Man 3. While I can’t fault anyone for being a pessimist, I have to ask: have we grown so accustomed to failure that not even the return of the Enterprise can get us excited?
For what it’s worth, here are a few reasons why I think Star Trek, for all its flaws, is returning at just the right time.
Episodes versus Seasons
I’ll be blunt here: I am highly skeptical whenever I hear someone preaching about how we’re in some “Golden Age of Television.” (It’s almost always a person who doesn’t read books.) The long-story arc model found on many modern shows seems driven not so much by organic storytelling, but by a technology that encourages us to watch entire seasons of a show over the course of a weekend, presumably while still wearing the same pajamas and eating from a tub of ice cream. I concede that Game of Thrones and other shows are based on preexisting material that lends itself to this model. I also admit that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably pioneered this method of storytelling for science fiction in the late 1990s. But I can’t help but think that some of these shows are simply jerking people along to the next commercial break. A friend of mine recently defended his favorite series by insisting that I “give it a chance” because it “really gets good in season four.” Season four! What are we doing to ourselves?
Star Trek’s self-contained episodes may seem quaint in this context, but perhaps we’ve arrived at a point in time when they would be refreshing (assuming, of course, that the new show uses this format). Here’s a novel concept: when you sit down to a typical Star Trek viewing, you actually know what you’re getting. And those recurring storylines become special, rather than an obligation you must endure for hours upon hours before you can truly enjoy what’s going on. Plus, the classic episodes—many of which were written through an open submission process—are simply legendary in science fiction, from “The City on the Edge of Forever” to “The Inner Light”. Their influence goes so far beyond the mere storyline of the show. Here’s something to consider: can you name a great episode from the “peak TV” shows of this decade? Or has it all been mashed into one big blob that you barely remember?
An Expansion of the Trek Universe
Again, I’ll be blunt: I want to go back to the mid-90s, when we had, within a year, three Star Trek shows and a movie. (Full disclosure: I also want a pony for Christmas.) The no-brainer concept—one that I still can’t believe hasn’t happened yet—has been to use Starfleet Academy as the setting for a show. I’m also partial to the idea pitched by Bryan Singer a few years ago, which depicted the Federation on the brink of collapse in the 27th century, 300 years after the era of Jean-Luc Picard.
But forget timelines and centuries and all that. Since this new show will sit alongside the more action-oriented movies, I see it as an opportunity to experiment with both tone as well as setting. A series can do that, while a mega-budget blockbuster cannot. And if the CBS version finds an audience, then why stop at one show? We could have a gritty, Christopher Nolan Star Trek; a show more oriented toward a younger crowd; and a series that continues the Next Generation timeline. And why not another animated series? There are already thousands of Star Trek books—are we really worried about saturating the market?
Star Trek versus the World!
We all acknowledge the brilliant if sometimes heavy-handed allegory of the original series, which commented on the turbulent 1960s. Perhaps the shows of the 1990s lost their way in this regard. After all, in the post-Cold War world, the Klingons became allies, and the neoliberal worldview seemed to represent the inevitable future for humanity.
Well, that didn’t last, and now we find ourselves in an age that begs for the subversive yet hopeful tone of the original show. Economic instability, the culture wars, the decline of the American empire, the regression and polarization of our political system, the degradation of the environment, the return of religious fanaticism, the social consequences of new technologies—all of these demand to have their own episodes, complete with people in strange monochromatic outfits reciting technobabble without cracking a smile.
Also important are the radical changes we are witnessing within the science fiction community. Like Star Trek, the genre is pushing for more inclusion, more points of view. And, as with the original show, some people find this threatening. Well, good. Star Trek should be part of this conversation. If done right, it could be the perfect middle finger to those who suggest that storytelling is merely for entertainment, and that politics and social commentary should not interfere.
It’s Okay If It’s Not Great
Suppose I’m wrong about all of this, and the new show is worse than the Star Wars Holiday Special. Guess what? Star Trek will survive.
I wonder if the reason why we’ve waited so long for a new show is that the creators were afraid that it might not be great. I can’t think of anything more anti-Trek than being afraid of the unknown. This is, after all, the first show to be resurrected by its fans after its demise. A show that inspired astronauts, civil rights activists, world leaders, and artists. Legend has it that Roddenberry came up with the concept following his harrowing experiences as a pilot in World War II, and his vision was meant to depict what the world would be like if we set aside our differences and stopped fearing the dark and worked together. One bad series is not going to end all of that. One bad series is not going to destroy the good memories we have of the other shows.
I hope these positive thoughts can help to get you through the next eighteen months or so. If it makes you feel any better, the announcement for Star Trek: The Next Generation took place in the fall of 1986, a full year before the actual premiere of the show. Can you believe it? People had to speculate without the benefit of the Internet! Poor bastards.
Anyway, I hope you remain optimistic about the future. Isn’t that what Star Trek was all about?
Robert Repino grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He is the author of the novel Mort(e) (Soho Press, 2015) and the novella Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles, 2015). He works as an editor for Oxford University Press and has taught for the Gotham Writers Workshop.