Ups and downs as Star Trek turns 50

Star Trek fans have been on a roller coaster of emotions for the better part of a year now. It all started when news leaked that JJ Abrams’ replacement as director of the new movie—Star Trek Beyond—would be Fast and Furious guru Justin Lin. Fans that wanted to see the franchise move away from the thoughtless action of the first two Abrams movies were certainly disappointed. But things looked better for the project when Simon Pegg—longtime Star Trek fan apart from the actor who plays Scotty—was announced as the writer of the film.

Then came the trailer…

From its Beastie Boys soundtrack to its motorcycle races the movie promised nothing like what fans wanted, and indeed seemed to be everything longtime Star Trek fans were dreading. 2016 is the franchise’s 50th annversary, and although the new movie series is pretty popular again, it’s popularity is mostly confined to the popcorn action movie-loving crowd. It seemed like the longtime fans were getting left out of the mix.

Enter CBS.

star-trek-50

FIRST THE UPS:

CBS announced that they were (finally) developing a new Star Trek series. Speculation went rampant across the internet, as fans saw this as the chance for Star Trek to finally get back to its roots. The series began as a TV show after all, and if the movie’s weren’t going to “boldly go” in the theaters, then at least the crew would “boldly go” on the small screen.

THEN THE DOWNS:

CBS announced that Alex Kurtzman (one-half of the Kurtzman/Orci duo that worked with Abrams to spearhead the first two nu-Trek movies) would be the executive producer. In movies an executive producer is the guy who oversees the money on behalf of the studio. They sometimes have a lot of creative input, but mostly they let the director do his or her thing. On TV, however, the executive producer IS the creative force behind the show. The show may have a showrunner (more on that later) but the showrunner answers to the Exec. Producer (who is usually very hands on). Putting Kurtzman at the helm of the show seemed to signal that this would just be an extension of the Abrams-verse movies.

THEN THE UPS AGAIN:

CBS announced that Bryan Fuller would be the showrunner. A showrunner is the head of the writers room. He sets the tone and creative direction of the show, makes sure that each episode fits into the show’s universe as needed and gives the show it’s distinctive voice and identity. Adding such a strong creative voice in Fuller to the show was probably the turning point in fans’ opinion of the new series. While Kurtzman is still around, this seemed to be a signal that Star Trek would be Fuller’s baby, not Kurtzman’s. While most were still reeling from the Star Trek Beyond trailer, the news that Fuller was returning to Star Trek was like music to fans’ ears. If you don’t know who Fuller is, first of all he’s the brains behind some of the most original and creative (yet unfortunately cancelled too soon) shows of the last decade. He helmed Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. He even created a pilot for a new Munsters TV show that unfortunately never made it to broadcast. If you don’t know any of those shows you owe it to yourself to check them out. His creative talents seemed to grow with each new endeavor (unlike some showrunners and show creators who seem to run out of ideas after a few projects go under) and his Hannibal show in particular was a critical favorite.

For Star Trek fans, Fuller is one of the writers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. He’s part of the old guard that butted heads with Rick Berman (who was the top guy overseeing all Star Trek on TV in those days) in the writers room and tried to push Star Trek beyond the stale formula it had found itself in during its final years on TV. He’s “one of the good ones” that fans remember fondly, along with Ron Moore, Joe Menosky, Michael Taylor and others. The prospect of a reunion of writers on Star Trek, this time with someone truly creative at the helm, is enough to make fans forget all about Alex Kurtzman and the worries about the third nu-Trek movie.

THEN THE DOWNS:

CBS announced that the show would only air it’s first episode on the CBS network. The rest of the show would be exclusively aired on CBS’s online streaming service: CBS All Access. One of the frustrations fans had with Star Trek in its final years was how it was stuck on a network (UPN) that was at the bottom of TV ratings. The original series was a primetime NBC show (though of course it was cancelled). The Next Generation was a first-run syndication program, which meant Paramount (who owned the show in those days) sold the series to individual broadcast stations around the United States, instead of selling it to a network. That meant that Paramount had final say on the show’s fate, not a network. That also meant that, depending on where you lived in the US, you might watch Star Trek on Tuesdays at 4pm on your local NBC affiliate, or you may watch it at 7pm on Saturdays on your local CBS affiliate. As ratings went up and down, Paramount would have the final say in whether or not to keep the show on the air (and Paramount, to its credit, kept Star Trek TNG and Star Trek Deep Space Nine on the air despite some sluggish opening seasons), but the individual stations would decide when to show the show. As ratings for DS9 dipped in its later years, the show ended up being stuck on some bad timeslots. I remember watching TNG episodes on my local CBS channel at 4pm on Tuesdays, but the last few seasons of DS9 (arguably a creative highpoint for the franchise) was aired in my hometown on Saturdays at 11pm.

Now Star Trek is once again being broadcast in an unorthodox fashion. CBS is trying to get in on Netflix’ game by starting their own streaming service. Despite the fact that Star Trek’s entire TV library is available on Netflix and that Netflix would be a perfect home for a new series (CBS’ executives have said that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime all desired the rights to air the new show), but CBS got greedy and decided to hold Star Trek hostage on a little-used, small-library online network. Obviously CBS hopes that by hitching Star Trek’s wagon to the All Access network that they can drive subscriptions up. They certainly will see an uptick in subscriptions as a result, but will it be enough to justify what will probably be an expensive, special effects-driven show? That’s the worry. It’s the same worry that was had when Paramount decided to create their own TV network back in the mid-1990’s (UPN) and decided to make Star Trek Voyager the flagship show of the network (the other major show was, of all things, WWF Smackdown). Putting Star Trek on a new, or little-seen network hurt Voyager because the kind of budget it needed was not justifiable compared to the size of UPN. Voyager and later Star Trek: Enterprise saw its special effects budget slashed as the show went on because UPN simply couldn’t afford it. Putting Star Trek on CBS All Access makes fans nervous that the higher ups will not renew the show for a second season if the first one doesn’t produce huge subscriber numbers (which is an unreasonable and unrealistic goal).

THEN THE UPS AGAIN:

CBS announce that Nicholas Meyer would be added to Fuller’s writing team, and presumably to the director’s chair as well. Just as fans were ready to wail in despair about what could possibly happen to the new series (Star Trek fans are a pessimistic lot by the way, despite the show being so perpetually optimistic), the latest bombshell was dropped. Nicholas Meyer, the man who—along with Leonard Nemoy—spearheaded the three beloved “even” Star Trek movies (Star Trek II, Star Trek IV, and Star Trek VI), would be joining the show. Meyer co-wrote and directed Star Trek II, which essentially saved the film franchise after the disappointment of the original movie. He also co-wrote Star Trek IV, which was, for a long time the highest grossing movie in the franchise. He then returned to the director’s chair to direct (and again co-write) Star Trek VI, the wonderful sendoff for the original crew (and the film that washed the bad taste of Star Trek V out of everyone’s mouth).

Meyer’s addition is huge, because he understands how to adapt Star Trek in a way that retains the thoughtful spirit but also adds enough spice and action to keep fans of all kinds interested. But it’s also huge because of his experience as a director. It reminds me of the addition of Michael Rymer to Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica team. Rymer was a small time film director but he was able to bring some gravitas to the BSG miniseries. He then returned to the show to direct it’s first regular episode, its first season cliffhanger finale, and every other major episode in the show’s four-year run. His addition was invaluable to giving the “big episodes” a singular voice as only a director can. Bringing in Meyer will hopefully have the same effect. I would be shocked if he’s not the director of at least the first episode (which, in Star Trek tradition will likely be a two-hour made for TV movie) and the season finale as well. His creative voice in the writer’s room will also be a great addition, to give a different perspective to whatever wonderful ideas Fuller is planning on bringing as well.

~~~

Due to the different rights of Star Trek being tied up between CBS and Paramount (CBS owns the TV rights, Paramount owns the film rights), the new Star Trek show has to wait a minimum of six months after the new film releases before airing (to avoid cross-branding confusion). That’s why it will miss debuting in the show’s fiftieth year. Nevertheless, hopes are still somewhat high that the new film’s trailer will not be indicative of the film’s final result (Simon Pegg has said just that, in fact) and hopes are very high, despite a few worries, that the new show will return Star Trek to its roots of boldly going where no TV series has gone before.

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  • Scott J. Smith

    In Central Florida, TNG and DS9 were aired, coincidentally, on the local CBS affiliate. There was such a strong following, that one year, they pre-empted the State of the Union address to air “Star Trek” in its regular time slot.

    • matthew martin

      that’s awesome

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