CBS’s announcement that it’s working on a new Star Trek TV series, while welcome to many fans, doesn’t ultimately feel very surprising. Since the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, the franchise has rebounded with two blockbuster films directed by J.J. Abrams, but its heart has always been in television. While the idea of another Trek show might have prompted shrugs from network executives 10 years ago, the TV landscape has now shifted so radically that Star Trek is no longer a cult favorite but the kind of big-name franchise that can launch a whole new streaming network. Come January 2017, CBS says, the new show will be the backbone of its subscription-only “All Access” service.
It’s the latest example of how everything old can be made new again. Star Trek: Voyager was the launch show for the fledgling UPN in 1995, debuting to a stunning 21.3 million viewers, but though it ran for seven seasons, it never soared to the critical or commercial heights of its forbears. Neither did UPN, which eventually merged with the WB to become the CW in 2006 after 11 years as TV’s basement network. But the audience Voyager drew, while small for the mid-’90s, was a committed one, and that matters far more than blockbuster status these days. CBS’s All Access, which costs $6 a month, currently gives customers the network’s new shows and its vast archive of past episodes (including the voluminous Star Trek archive). But once the new Star Trek launches, this will be the only way to see it.
As a business decision, it makes perfect sense. Last year I argued that a streaming site like Netflix would be the perfect spot for a Star Trek show, since devoted fans are like gold nuggets to subscription-based services. The classic network-programming model is geared toward casual viewers, who flick through channels or see what’s on after a show they like. But Star Trek always existed on the fringe of that, clinging to life with a devoted fanbase. Of the many shows produced over the years, only The Next Generation was a real ratings hit; the others stayed alive, against worsening odds, until confronted by financial realities and slipping viewership. But the Trek fanbase has never diminished, and CBS has no doubt decided that enough people will be happy to part with $6 a month in exchange for a new show to make the venture worthwhile.
There are other factors to consider: The old network model is focused on U.S. TV, but Star Trek is popular everywhere, and distributing it through an online network might make it easier to battle online piracy. “Every day, an episode of the Star Trek franchise is seen in almost every country in the world,” said Armando Nuñez, the CEO of CBS’s Global Distribution Group. “We can’t wait to introduce Star Trek’s next voyage on television to its vast global fan base.”
What will the new show involve? It’s hard to say. Though no writer is attached, it’ll be produced by Alex Kurtzman, who wrote and produced the two most recent Trek movies. Kurtzman has worked on shows like Alias and helped develop Fringe and Sleepy Hollow, but he has since graduated to producer/mogul status and will likely have little creative influence on the show. The Star Trek universe is fractured enough that a show could go in any creative direction: The J.J. Abrams films positioned the original 1960s series in a new timeline, allowing contemporary actors to play Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. A new show could exist in that same altered timeline, with the same throwback style. Or, it could pick up in the truly far-flung future, beyond the timelines of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, tapping into their complex, developed universe of exploration, diplomacy, and war on a galactic scale.
More than that, the show will be able to take advantage of technology that makes it easier and easier to depict space travel on an epic scale without a huge budget. (It’ll have CGI, as opposed to the recycled sets the old shows used.) The show will also be free of the creative team that shepherded the last four Trek series into existence: Rick Berman, who helped develop The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, became somewhat of a hated figure among Trekkers by the time he crafted his final effort, the prequel series Enterprise. There will be plenty of fan suspicion around Kurtzman’s involvement, too—the rebooted film series is regarded by some as too bombastic for a classically cerebral franchise—but whichever writer he brings on board should have room to find his or her own take on the show.
That’s the most exciting prospect—even with the subscription fee, and Internet-only television replacing cable packages, this new Star Trek might be in the most creatively advantageous position of its 50-year history. There’ll be no week-to-week ratings to worry about, no network interference (if CBS really is serious about making this a flagship show), and no concern about appealing to any viewership beyond the devoted base. That can lead to self-indulgence, but it’s the kind of creative freedom that has sparked a TV renaissance in the years Star Trek has been off the air. It’s about time Trek got a piece of it.