What many Star Trek fans considered an unlikely impossibility has finally, it seems, happened: the franchise is well and truly back on TV, and here to stay.
When Star Trek: Discovery launched at the tail end of 2017, after several delays, it ended the franchise’s 12 year exile from television screens following the slow demise of Star Trek: Enterprise, and the Rick Berman\Paramount TV dominance of the late 80’s and 1990’s – if not the most iconic in terms of popular culture, then without question the most successful era of Star Trek in its half a century of history. Discovery was a symbolic return for one of television’s most legendary series and, as every Star Trek sequel series has done over the decades, it divided opinion.
If you put aside Discovery’s quality, and the difficulties behind the scenes in bringing it to bear, one fact is indisputable: it has triggered a revival of Trek which is now heading in some very unexpected directions.
Last summer we had the first announcement as part of CBS All Access’s promise, post-Discovery S1, that they intended audiences to enjoy new Star Trek all year round. Sir Patrick Stewart would return in the role he immortalised over 15 years in The Next Generation: Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in a new Prime universe series set at the end of the 24th century – a sequel series to the TNG-era of shows. This was music to the ears of fans who have lobbied for a ‘post-Nemesis’ series for almost two decades, many of whom have only had continuation novels and fan fiction to satiate them.
Stewart’s return is a nostalgic move to, in part, please Star Trek fans who struggled with how Discovery turned out. This was a show, developed initially by Bryan Fuller, which went against the traditional Star Trek grain; there were no true stand-alone stories, characters dropped the F-bomb, the lead character wasn’t the ship’s Captain, the ship’s Captain turned out to be the villain, heck we don’t even *see* the ship until episode three! Discovery was designed as a serialised, modern television experience (hence why it works better binge watched) which could survive in the radical era of streaming, vast amounts of competition, and fewer distinct boundaries between genres and appropriate content.
Bringing back Picard therefore makes sense – a star character played by a star name, helping continue the Trek story millions have wanted to see continued, it will almost certainly be a different beast to Discovery. It should be. It won’t be The Next Generation Season 8 in any way – decades have passed since Nemesis, Picard will reflect Stewart’s ageing years (indeed Picard is probably well into his 90’s by now), and quite what the shape of that series will be is an unknown this far out. It was radical enough for Stewart to accept the challenge, however, so it is likely to be something new, fresh and different.
Nostalgia mixed with new horizons appears to be the direction Star Trek is now heading. Discovery’s finale ended, of course, with the crew encountering the USS Enterprise, setting up a Season 2 which has been heavily publicised as featuring not just a younger version of the legendary Spock, but Captain Christopher Pike and Number One from the original pilot episode of The Original Series, ‘The Cage’, which remains in continuity. Casual viewers will be more aware of Pike, given he was played by Bruce Greenwood as Captain Kirk’s mentor in the JJ Abrams’ alternate timeline reboot movies, but Number One is a mystery people will be salivating to explore as a character.
In many ways, this approach is nothing new. Nostalgia has always played a part in every Star Trek series. The Next Generation couldn’t help sneaking a cameo in by DeForest Kelley playing an extremely old Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy in its pilot episode, ‘Encounter at Farpoint’; Deep Space Nine built an entire 30-year anniversary episode in ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ around having its characters travel in time and interact with the events of TOS episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’; Voyager found every opportunity to connect up to series past, even with a concept that was designed around exploring new frontiers; while Enterprise was one big nostalgic project about the ‘future history’ of the franchise, which to claw back ratings gave up any pretence otherwise and built its final season around what was, essentially, canonical fan fiction.
You almost can’t have Star Trek *without* nostalgia, given how important the in-universe history of the franchise is to fans. They won’t allow some looking back as everyone else looks forward.
The Abrams films were particularly guilty of this, which makes you wonder why they were not as embraced by hardcore fans as vociferously as you might think. Even in the DNA of creating a new rebooted timeline was a connective tether to the post-Next Generation era and the fate of Leonard Nimoy’s original Spock. The sequel film, Star Trek Into Darkness, was a blatant, intended cover version of The Wrath of Khan, while even Star Trek Beyond—which by and large works as a stand-alone film—paid homage to Nimoy’s passing and the original crew on the 50th anniversary, not to mention containing lots of winks and allusions to The Search for Spock.
Speaking of those films, there is an irony in how as the TV Star Trek world begins to expand, the Kelvin Timeline is reputedly vanishing. The supposed Quentin Tarantino-directed film has gone dark and with director S J. Clarkson bailing to direct Game of Thrones prequel pilot The Long Night, the long-intended Star Trek IV with the Chris Pine-fronted crew may well have been shelved, despite announcing Chris Hemsworth would return as Kirk’s father George in a timey-wimey adventure. Personally, I think the death knell of Star Trek IV is premature. You have a cast of A-list stars who are often extremely busy on other projects, built-in iconic pop culture characters and a franchise with a global brand… no one will sit on that for long.
Whatever happens with the movie side of Star Trek, the truth has always been that the franchise belongs first and foremost on television, and it is exciting that multiple projects are blooming through Alex Kurtzman’s stewardship with CBS.
Aside from Picard, there is the Mike McMahan-led animated comedy series Lower Decks, which will feature the low ranking crewman on a starship and approach the Trek universe from a level of affectionate mockery. A second animated show is also in development, as is a younger-audience skewed Starfleet Academy series from The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz (and people have been trying to do a Starfleet Academy project *forever*), plus what could be the most fascinating project of them all: Michelle Yeoh headlining a series as Mirror Phillipa Georgiou set around the murky intelligence world of Section 31.
Think about those pitches, about how radically different they are from anything we may have seen in the Berman Era. During the last era of Trek’s TV dominance, convention wisdom applied – Star Trek shows had a ship and a crew and the main character was the guy (or woman) in charge. Deep Space Nine was radical because it was set on a space station, but even that show eventually had its cake and ate it when the USS Defiant was brought in. To even consider that a Star Trek series, or indeed film, would not involve these things was tantamount to heresy. It just wasn’t Star Trek.
Now, the world has changed. While, yes, some of these projects are risky and could just as easily fall flat on their face than fly (the Georgiou project in particular raises a Spock-like eyebrow), the fact Kurtzman and CBS are looking to challenge our conventional ideas of how to tell a Star Trek story is really quite thrilling, and it could be the key to preventing another decade-long period of Trek languishing in the TV doldrums.
Star Trek is without doubt boldly going… and who knows where it’ll take us.