It's hard to believe, but right now we exist in a world where Star Trek is only a film franchise. For the last half-century, Stark Trek has operated mainly on the small screen, including a recent 18-year run. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and some form of Trek stayed on the air until the finale of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. That's a TV legacy only matched by The Simpsons and Law and Order for a generation of viewers. But since 2005, there have been exactly two pieces of Star Trek entertainment to chew on: the installments of J.J. Abrams's rebooted film series, which he's since dropped to take up work on Star Wars Episode VII.
Paramount is now searching for a director to helm a sequel to Abrams's Star Treks. But here's a better idea: Why not make a new Star Trek television show?
Abrams's 2009 Star Trek was a success—a rollicking adventure that tapped into the rascally side of the Kirk-led U.S.S. Enterprise. The director openly drew influence from the original Star Wars trilogy to breathe new life into a franchise that had petered out with increasingly staid films featuring the Next Generation crew and with the prequel series Enterprise, which never gained more than a devoted cult following. But Abrams's 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness undid everything its predecessor had gotten right. Drawing influence from the film The Wrath of Khan, it relied on a series of bombastic action sequences, many of them set on planet Earth (guys, the Enterprise is supposed to be in space) to paper over a thin plot about a terrorist conspiracy in Starfleet.
Abrams has moved on to a galaxy far far away, and screenwriter Roberto Orci (who co-wrote the last two films) was hired as his replacement, hardly an inspiring choice considering he'd never directed before. Now that he's departed, Paramount is considering a list of perfectly competent replacements, most of whom are likely to do anything but a solid job with this franchise. The bigger problem is that there's no way for this Star Trek series to come off as anything but a retread. The ensemble (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and Simon Pegg among others) do a great job, and the burnished high-budget visuals are unlike anything Trek ever really enjoyed, but still, it's Captain Kirk on the U.S.S. Enterprise. It's been done to death.
A new TV version of Star Trek, though, would be refreshing and well-timed. The public's appetite for science fiction feels stronger than ever, from the swathe of superhero stories flooding the blockbuster market to super-popular cult TV like Doctor Who and Orphan Black. There's a definite marketplace gap for cerebral, non-superhero genre TV, especially since Battlestar Galactica departed. In its heyday, Star Trek was a ratings monster—people sometimes forget what a cultural phenomenon The Next Generation was—but the most recent shows, Voyager and Enterprise, struggled to leave a big ratings footprint. Good news: Wide viewership is not really necessary anymore to get a series order. Brand recognition, and an established fanbase, matter to networks more than ever. Netflix made the wise choice of buying four shows that figure into the Marvel universe. Why wouldn't they, or another streaming service, want a new Star Trek?
Besides, television is a much better sandbox for the broad universe of the show. While Abrams's recent films took advantage of big budgets to give viewers cool action storytelling, that's nothing a thousand other franchises can't do. But Star Trek could always attempt much more than that, exploring ethical dilemmas of diplomacy on a galactic scale. And it did that in a much more conservative era of television. The one time Star Trek really tried long-form serialized storytelling was the Dominion War arc in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine—absolutely the series' highest point. As TV, especially online networks like Netflix, embrace serialization, imagine what more could be accomplished.
There has, in fact, been rumbling about a new Star Trek TV show for years, but it hasn't amounted to much. Director Bryan Singer worked on an idea for a show called Federation set centuries after The Next Generation, in an era of decline for Starfleet, but it never got past the pitch stage when Paramount hired Abrams to make the 2009 film. Other Trek luminaries, like Jonathan Frakes (Riker of The Next Generation) and William Shatner have also apparently made pitches, to more understandable disinterest from studios.
Last summer, there was word that Netflix had reached out to CBS about maybe getting the rights to the Trek franchise for TV, but that amounted to the thinnest of rumors. The property's value is undeniable, but someone has to decide what to do with it first. With the film series ongoing, CBS and Viacom (who jointly own the rights) might be waiting to coordinate their timing. But as Star Trek 3 languishes in development hell, I find myself less and less interested in having things line up with the rebooted Abrams universe.
Writers like Bryan Fuller (who currently helms NBC's brilliant Hannibal) have said they'd love nothing more than taking a crack at a Trek TV show, no matter what the universe they have to operate in. Surely that prospect alone is enough to get any sci-fi fan salivating—and that's before you hear that his dream captain would be Angela Bassett. It's time to elevate this from a matter of idle speculation to a more concerted movement. The original Star Trek show was famously saved from cancellation in 1968 by a letter-writing campaign. What might it take today for the parties concerned to realize what a goldmine they have on their hands?
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