After the release of Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, the state of the Star Trek franchise had once again been called into question. No doubt, the film was a success at the box office and initially received high critical acclaim. But vocal critics of the film and director J.J. Abrams’ handling of the revered franchise soon drowned out any good will. Many of them decried how dumbed down Star Trek had become, how it just pandered to the action crowd at the cost of Star Trek’s loftiness.
Abrams’s films should be lauded for resurrecting Star Trek. Before he came along, the franchise was considered dead; the last film Star Trek: Nemesis was a box office flop and the last show Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled for poor ratings. Star Trek felt tired and used up, which necessitated the reboot. And frankly, the reboot did the job of bringing back Star Trek as a flashy, exciting and invigorating property, but many felt alienated.
These critics saw a ray of hope when J.J. Abrams jumped ship to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which precluded him from directing the next Star Trek film. That hope turned into disbelief and exasperation when screenwriter and producer Roberto Orci was hired by Paramount Pictures to direct the upcoming film. Even though he is a professed Star Trek fan, Orci didn’t have any directing experience and such a decision to entrust the franchise on a novice was troubling. But once again, the director’s chair went empty when Paramount announced this past November that Orci would no longer direct the film.
For a brief moment, hopeful fans opined on who should direct the film. The rumor that Abrams’ production company Bad Robot was trying to woo Edgar Wright was heartening. Some fans even started a campaign to get veteran actor/director Jonathan Frakes to return for a third turn as director. Then Paramount released a short list that precluded Frakes and Wright. Soon after, they announced that Justin Lin, the director of many Fast and Furious films would take the helm.
That announcement was applauded by some, but it confirmed the suspicion that Paramount is only interested in making more shallow, action-packed fare. Many feel that reducing the Star Trek films into pyrotechnics-laden, empty adrenaline fests besmirches the property’s name. Most of the films and TV shows were lauded for offering something more. They had themes, messages, and commentaries of current topics. In Star Trek Into Darkness’ defense, that film did explore issues about terrorism, security and the need for Starfleet to get back into exploring, but those messages got lost in the lens flares, high-octane thrills, and sloppy plotting.
True, many fans have a romanticized view of Star Trek. The old shows and films weren’t strictly intellectual fare, they did have their fair share of action episodes and flashy special effects. It’s part of Star Trek’s legacy. Think of how often fans would hum the pulsing action music from episodes like “Space Seed” while acting out Kirk’s famous drop kicks and fisticuffs. But Star Trek struck a proper balance between action, storytelling and food for thought.
One of the many reasons why Star Trek and its spinoffs have endured in popularity has been due to provocative episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Visitor”, “The Inner Light”, and “The Naked Time”. These shows didn’t rely on action scenes and stunts, though they were welcomed when they did occur. Instead their selling points were character development and morality plays. That is why Star Trek continues to resonate. The action scenes and spaceship battles were just icing on the cake. This reverence also extends to many of the films. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact are universally beloved for exploring many themes and character development. This especially applies to Star Trek II which was an action film, but presented memorable themes about revenge, growing old and renewal. Meanwhile, Abrams’ two Star Trek films were initially well received, but later derided by many for pandering to adrenaline junkies and betraying the spirit of Star Trek.
That is why there has been a call for Star Trek to return to its roots and have stories about exploration and so on, and the best way to achieve this is by returning to television.
Star Trek Should Return To TV
Why a television format? Simple. By being on television, a Star Trek show has time to flesh out ideas, storylines and characters. The property’s past success on TV speaks for itself. Sure, there were stumbles like the third season of Star Trek, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and so on, but when Star Trek told a great story, the franchise truly rose to imaginative heights.
So why was TV more conducive to more intellectual and character-driven stories? Consider the grinding schedule and budget of television, which often forced the writers and producers to put out non-action episodes with minimal effects. Usually, these episodes were quite well done.
Also consider that a TV season produces more product than a two-hour film. By having much more output than an occasional film every few years, demand is met and public awareness is maintained with a more constant presence. Some may argue that Star Trek was burned out as seen with the repetitive nature of the last two shows that recycled plot elements from previous Treks. That is mainly due to creative burnout and can be easily remedied by changing producers and writers. Evidence for this can be seen with the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. At that point, long-time show runners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had ceded the show to Manny Coto, who brought new energy. The show then became a true prequel to the previous Star Trek shows by laying foundations of various aspects of the Star Trek universe. Sadly, it was too late to save the show as the network UPN cancelled it.
Others complained that the Star Trek Prime Universe was completely mined for stories and characters. Again that can be remedied by fresh minds brought to the creative table. It is true, that the complex history of the Prime Universe may be unnerving and too much for the average viewer. This meant that it was harder for someone to just jump in and start watching a Star Trek show. A good solution would be to do what creator Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would be to have a new show take place further into the future so that there wouldn’t have to be constant references to past shows. This would be a more palatable solution for fans who love the Prime Universe and were aghast to see it gone with the reboot that clearly stated it was set in an altered timeline.
A Celebratory Event & A New Landscape
Putting all those points aside, it can’t be denied that with the fiftieth anniversary of the original show coming next year, it feels strange that there isn’t a current show to help celebrate the event.
That isn’t to say that the new film won’t have acknowledge the event with cameos and Easter eggs. Well, it better do that amidst the expected explosions and fight scenes or the recent uproar with Star Trek Into Darkness will pale in comparison. Rumors that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy will appear in the new film are a welcome and respectful sign. Think of how successful were the James Bond film Skyfall and the Doctor Who special The Time of the Doctor. Both celebrated the rich history of those franchises and were well done.
Getting back to television, something to consider is that the TV landscape has changed since Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air. Syndicated television is defunct and network channels are in clear decline, while the most successful shows are on cable/satellite channels with shorter seasons. That’s not all; online streaming services like Netflix are now coming up with original and popular programming. The question is where can Star Trek air? It can do so on CBS, which owns the rights to Star Trek on television. But given that network’s aged demographic and programming, Star Trek would be an odd fit and will be under constant ratings pressure. So can the property do better on cable or elsewhere? If so, it would have much shorter seasons than what the franchise used to have. In a way, it will benefit the show since fewer episodes mean that those dreaded filler episodes can be disposed of and force the showmakers to produce much tighter and focused episodes. That all depends on the talents of the writers and other production staff.
Luckily, there are a lot of talented writers and producers and directors who can put out quality shows. CBS can go with Bad Robot or use other production companies and creators. Other talents in the past have pitched new versions of Star Trek like Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. Or they can pursue Manny Coto, or they can go with other Star Trek veterans who can guide a new generation. There are many possibilities. CBS just has to realize that Star Trek has been off the air for nearly ten years, that is too long. Demand has built up. Fans are hungry for more Star Trek and it’s time for it to return to the small screen.
Lewis T. Grove