One of the reasons that Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek television series is revered is because of its optimism. It gave humanity a bright future to look towards, and told its tale in a way that made many of our biggest 20th century problems seem conquerable. But while the intent of Roddenberry’s vision was always to expand the potential of humanity, that message has not always been easy to deliver. After all, it costs money to create the vision and effort to bring it home. Star Trek has long struggled with this issue. It’s utopian outlook dampened by the practical limitations of commercialism.
The latest effort to maintain Star Trek in an increasingly competitive pop culture environment is the decision by parent company CBS moving the new series to their online streaming service. A CBS executive recently went so far as to claim that Star Trek doesn’t belong on modern television. Look through Star Trek’s most recent network programs and the evidence is there to back up this point. Shows like Enterprise and Voyager lost momentum and viewers before ultimately being cancelled due to poor ratings. Both of those shows indicated that despite the strong devotion of Trekkies to their beloved franchise, they weren’t enough to keep it afloat.
J.J. Abrams’ reboot films may be suffering a similar fate. Despite the first two films having success at the box office, 2016’s Star Trek Beyond was basically a bomb at the domestic theaters. There could be a number of different reasons for declining interest, but the fact remains that Star Trek can’t continue by losing popularity, and ultimately money. Film and TV are a business, and Star Trek has to play by business rules in order to continue existing in its traditional form.
Perhaps that is why the decision by CBS to move Star Trek: Discovery to an online platform makes sense. It’s not a decision made to milk an already peeved fan base of more money, but a shrewd business decision to maintain the long term integrity of Star Trek. CBS’ actions to crack down on fan films and productions is a move in a similar direction. Star Trek can’t be competing against itself. It especially can’t be fracturing its strong-opinionated fan base. Unfortunately, both of those things have already happened, and despite all of the well-intended (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt) decisions by CBS, they have a mess on their hands.
J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot was a good attempt to make Star Trek relevant to the modern high-production CGI-reliant movie landscape. The decision to make it an alternate reality was both a good and bad idea. It was a good idea because the film would not discount anything that Star Trek had already released. It was a hope that fans of the original, more serious films and shows would be able to enjoy the new version as well as the old version without any conflict. Unfortunately, the decision was a bad idea because many of those fans saw Abrams’ film as a way to take advantage of them. This was sell-out Star Trek, losing the originality and uniqueness that those fans cherished about the originals.
With this decision, Star Trek had effectively made many of its longest fans into harsh critics of its new material. Instead of celebrating the return of their franchise from the brink, it had returned as a compromised parody of what it once was. Two additional films only further divided the fanbase. Those yearning for more of the original style of Star Trek began making their own films and TV shows. As those productions became more lavish, CBS had to put their foot down. The franchise films were competing for attention with those made by the fans themselves.
Another potential point of division between CBS and Star Trek fans has to be how CBS has handled the franchise’s’ 50th anniversary. The decision to not promote Star Trek Beyond at CinemaCon in early 2016 was a very questionable decision. The initial teaser of the film had many fans upset because it seemed to be heavily action-oriented. CinemaCon would have been the perfect place to address these concerns with new information on the film. Instead, CBS elected not to show the first trailer of the film until a month later at a Star Trek fan event. Before even seeing the film, this allowed many fans to make up their mind about it. From this trailer, Star Trek Beyond seemed to embody everything they disliked about the new films and this may have influenced their decision not to later see it in theaters.
CBS also failed to promote the newest Star Trek film in a way that would invite those disgruntled fans back into the fold. First, Star Trek Beyond’s many homages to the history of the franchise were not widely marketed. Even if writer Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin discussed these during their promotions of the film, it was too little too late. Second, there was no sense of unity among CBS and the Star Trek fans during the year. With the announcement of Star Trek: Discovery and the release of Star Trek Beyond, CBS was focused on the future of the franchise while its fans wanted to remember the past. CBS’ announcement on restrictions to fan films couldn’t have come at a more terrible time.
That’s also why I don’t buy into the idea that CBS’ decision on Star Trek: Discovery was for the benefit of the franchise. The idea that Star Trek would not be successful on modern television is a questionable one. First, the eventual failures of Voyager and Enterprise occurred in a different environment of syndicated productions. Today is the widely proclaimed “golden era” of television. The medium of television is being appreciated more today than any time in the past. Second, science fiction is much more mainstream than it was in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. Shows like Westworld, Doctor Who, Orphan Black, and Lost have large, loyal followings. You could even argue shows with sci-fi elements (Mr. Robot, The Walking Dead, or any number of comic book related series) are among the most popular on TV at the moment. CBS sees the problems that have eroded their fanbase and they are making a decision to protect their investment, not Star Trek.
Ten years ago, if you would have asked me which sci-fi franchise had more potential moving forward, I would have said Star Trek for sure. Star Wars had just finished up its lackluster prequel trilogy and it seemed that George Lucas wasn’t all that keen on making more. Star Trek didn’t have that problem. A reboot via J.J.Abrams was a sure-fire way to not only placate existing Star Trek fans who had not seen any new material since the last episode of Enterprise, but a way to cash in on pop-culture’s fascination with reboots and everything retro. Star Trek could be cool and relevant again, whereas Star Wars seemed spent.
Today, the tables have flipped. Star Wars is as hot a commodity as can be. The decision by Disney to expand upon the existing well-loved films rather than go the reboot route not only plays into fans expectations, but placates them. Unlike Star Trek, loyal Star Wars fans can’t really complain about a new direction, because there isn’t one. Star Trek decided to try something different that was inconsistent with the history of the franchise, while Star Wars played it safe by delivering something familiar in The Force Awakens. Furthermore, the frequent release schedule of Star Wars films and merchandise means there is always something for fans to look forward to on the horizon. With no consistent television presence, and an unconvincing devotion by CBS to give Star Trek the attention it deserves, Trekkies should have an understandable reservation about where the future of their beloved franchise is headed.