Star Trek: The TV institution that just won’t die

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It has now been ten years since Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled. With its departure, television lost an unlikely institution. It is remarkable to consider how the franchise became what it is today. Even with its presence now reduced to its smallest level since the early 80’s it is still a household name, its major actors famous for their roles and its biggest moments known even by those who have never seen a single episode. Star Trek is more than a franchise; it is more than a brand: It is a firmly-ingrained aspect of our society.

But it started out as a cheesy science fiction show, created by Gene Roddenberry, produced by Desilu and broadcast on NBC. It’s ratings—at least as they were measured in those days—were deplorable, its sets cheap and its acting often embarrassing. What is well known is how it was saved from cancellation by a letter-writing campaign from its ardent fans. But long before that, the show had already proven that it had nine-lives. Though it finally premiered a year after Lost in Space (drawing obvious comparisons), its pilot was actually filmed two years earlier but NBC hated it. That should have been the death of Star Trek. Instead, in a move that rarely ever occurs, the company asked for a second, different pilot to be filmed. It was, and Star Trek was finally approved.

As the first season progressed, the ratings maintained a consistent pattern: downward. There was talk among NBC executives of cancelling the show after the first season, but they saved it—again—because Lost in Space (Star Trek’s CBS competitor) had switched to color in a move to compete with Star Trek and the network didn’t want to look like they had conceded the fight. By the end of the second season however, NBC had made up their minds to kill the show. The last episode (Assignment:Earth), in fact, was a backdoor pilot for what would have been the next Gene Roddenberry project after Star Trek. This wouldn’t be the last time a “final” Star Trek episode spat on the newly dug grave of its own show (more on that later).

Instead of Star Trek disappearing, it was saved. Fans bombarded the NBC offices with pleadings to keep the show going. NBC relented, but slashed the budget and moved the show to the infamous “Friday Night Death Slot.” The move to Friday was telling because it revealed that NBC assumed the show could not expand its viewership. The network figured “the few fans it has will watch it anytime, so we might as well put it on our least-attractive timeslot.”

It turns out nerds have lives on Friday nights too, however, as Star Trek’s Friday night ratings continued to dip throughout the third season. This time when NBC cancelled it, there was no great push to save it. Fans considered it dead. The creators considered it dead. The network considered it dead.

But it just wouldn’t die.

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Paramount purchased the rights to the show and started airing it in syndication (allowing each individual TV station to pay for the rights to air it in their market, as opposed to going through a national broadcaster) across the country. Star Trek was not, contrary to popular belief, the first show to air “reruns” in syndication, but it was the first show to grow in popularity in the rerun market. It’s popularity led to a mini-revival for the show, as it returned in animated form for a season-and-a-half in the mid-70’s. The Animated Series wasn’t a huge hit, but it didn’t flop either. It was enough of a non-failure that Roddenberry started putting pieces together to bring it back in a proper way.

Paramount intended to launch their own broadcast network in the late-70’s, and the success of the Star Trek reruns was going to see the planned-Star Trek: Phase II as its flagship show. And when I say “flagship show” I mean that, because the initial plan for the “Paramount Television Service” was for only one night a week—Saturday night—of original content, while the rest of the time the network would air “movies of the week” owned by the studio. Paramount’s plan wasn’t ambitious enough and advertisers backed out, leaving the potential network dead (at least for a couple decades), and leaving the next phase of Star Trek in limbo. Once again, it should have died and been forgotten.

But it just wouldn’t die.

Star Trek’s next TV show was so far along in development that it was restructured into a feature film. It shouldn’t have been and it wouldn’t have been, normally: There was little reason to throw a huge budget at a cancelled niche show from a decade prior, but the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind pushed it over the finish line.

So much of Star Trek’s story of survival is based around just the right circumstances coming together at just the right time. Desilu took a chance on it simply because they wanted a sci-fi show in their arsenal. Its preposterously-saved third season gave Paramount enough episodes in the vault to justify buying it and selling it to syndicated markets, which expanded its popularity and justified the planned relaunch of the TV series. But does anyone think Star Trek could have endured on TV without Mr. Spock being along for the ride? He was the heart and soul of the show. Leonard Nimoy had insisted that he would not be a part of the new TV show, stating his desire to focus on films. But low and behold, Star Trek became a feature film franchise and Nimoy came on board.

And of course the first movie was loathed by critics and ticket-buyers. Of course it was. If it had been an instant hit, it wouldn’t have been Star Trek. The brand has made its living off of doing things the hard way. The failure of the first movie should have been the end of it, but Paramount gave it one more chance. They slashed the budget, ordered a more action-packed tone, and released Star Trek II, one of the best movies of the decade. Its success led to Star Trek becoming a true film “franchise” with its ups (Voyage Home) and downs (Final Frontier), but always with a presence in pop culture.

Thankfully, in a rare moment of desired corporate excess, the big-shots at Paramount had the idea to relaunch Star Trek for TV, and have the show run concurrently with the feature films. Pitches to NBC and CBS were warmly received but the networks only wanted to commit to a pilot and to see scripts for the next few episodes, whereas Paramount wanted a guaranteed full-season commitment (to justify the expenses incurred in the effects-heavy show). The soon-to-launch Fox network was willing to commit to a half-season order but wanted the show to debut alongside the network in May of 1987. Paramount wasn’t equipped to do that (it had only just announced the new cast in May of 1987). It looked like the project might collapse, but this is Star Trek:

Star Trek refuses to die.

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Paramount decided to piggyback off the Original Series’ syndicated success and sell The Next Generation to individual TV stations the way the original Star Trek reruns were handled. By the mid-80’s the original reruns were the biggest revenue-makers in syndication and Paramount refused to allow any stations to re-up their contract to air the original series if they didn’t agree to air The Next Generation. Other shows have aired new episodes in syndication (game shows do it all the time in the USA), but TNG was the biggest and most expensive attempt at it.

While the show’s ratings were strong, each episode of the first season cost over a million dollars to produce (among the highest for hour-long dramas in those days). It’s a good thing Paramount went with a syndicated release, as the early TNG episodes were so horrible it’s likely that neither NBC nor CBS would have gone ahead with a pickup and Fox likely would have cancelled it after the initial 13-episode run. But Paramount controlled the show, not a network, so they were able to swallow the early struggles and simply make internal changes where needed. By the time the third season began, The Next Generation had found its groove and became one of TV’s biggest hits.

TNG began a run in the fall of 1987 that would see some form of Star Trek airing new episodes every year for the better part of two decades. Forget Star Trek dying; during this time period the idea was unheard of. Star Trek had become as much a part of American “television” as The Tonight Show or The CBS Evening News. It wasn’t going away; it couldn’t go away. It would never die. Right?

When TNG left the air, its first successor, Deep Space Nine, was already into its second season in syndication. Plans for a second successor were underway, and in January of 1995 Paramount launched Star Trek Voyager as the flagship show of their own network: UPN. Seven years each were given to DS9 and Voyager (as was the case with TNG) and then the next show Enterprise launched immediately after Voyager ended in 2001. There was little life left in the franchise, however, and Enterprise could only limp along for a few years before finally being cancelled. It’s ratings were abysmal and the show barely made it out of the second season. It was almost cancelled in its third year, but Paramount decided to make internal changes which drastically increased the quality of the writing…but not the ratings. It didn’t help that the show was moved in its final season to the infamous “Friday Night Death Slot.” The move to Friday was telling because it revealed that UPN assumed the show could not expand its viewership so they decided to just let it die.

Whoa. Déjà vu.

After almost 20 uninterrupted years of having Star Trek on TV (over 500 hours worth of episodes), plus ten feature films, reruns happening on some station, somewhere, practically every hour on the hour…the franchise had been so sucked dry that it couldn’t expand its viewership beyond the Friday Night Death Slot. With its fate sealed the final episode of Enterprise aired. It was a woefully offensive final outing that turned the events of the show into a mere computer simulation for another character on a different show to enjoy. At least Assignment:Earth let the stars of the show star in the show. It was said to have been a poorly executed love letter to the franchise, but it came off as a perfectly executed urinating on the franchise. When it ended, there were no fan writing campaigns. No one wanted to see that saved. Enterprise had seemingly killed the franchise.

But Star Trek can’t die.

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JJ Abrams and co. resurrected it as a rebooted film series, and in a year’s time we’ll be seeing the final installment of the new trilogy of films. Then what? I don’t know what the executives in charge of Star Trek’s future are planning, but may I make a humble suggestion in the form of an observation:

It’s been a long time since TV-viewers have gone on any voyages…

Maybe it’s time to bring it back from the dead.

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