Come September 8, 1966, it'll be 50 years since the Starship Enterprise first zoomed onto our TV screens. And after all these years, the franchise is still going strong — which is impressive for an adventure that started out as a five-year mission.
The continued success of Star Trek is even more impressive when you consider that the original series didn't even make it through its intended five years. Indeed, the first TV run was cancelled after three seasons due to low ratings. Luckily, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wasn't one to give up easily. After fighting for years to get his show on the air, he morphed it into an oft-overlooked animated series in the '70s before moving onto the big screen in '79 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Since then, the iconic sci-fi franchise has seen a steady stream of new material. The original crew of the Enterprise appeared in six films from 1979–1991, and by the time the last one was released, a new crew was already winning over fans on the small screen with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard and co. were on the air from 1987–1994, with four films following their hugely successful series. Many fans believed that the franchise started to go downhill post-Picard, but the next two series (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager) still garnered a solid fanbase — before it all went a bit sideways with the misguided Star Trek: Enterprise. This final television outing received mixed reviews from critics, and many fans considered it the lowest point in an increasingly unimpressive series of shows.
Thankfully, the Star Trek: Enterprise-shaped low in the franchise history was merely a blip on the radar, and in 2009 the entire Star Trek universe got a big-screen reboot. This latest version of Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew was a resounding success.
A Successful Film Reboot, So How About The Small Screen?
As if a successful film franchise reboot wasn't enough Trekkie goodness, CBS announced an all-new TV series simply titled Star Trek — a seventh shot at the small screen.
News of the new TV series has fans distinctly nervous. On the one hand, this is fantastic news. The franchise is doing incredibly well, TV has moved forward in leaps and bounds in terms of both budget and effects, and Star Trek is a concept that works well with an episodic format. On the other hand? Well, Enterprise left a bad taste in many mouths and there are real fears that this new series will fall short.
Star Trek has an incredible history and it's going to be difficult to live up to the legacy of the early series. There's also some fear that it's impossible to recreate the kind of social environment that created the original success. There simply isn't the same fascination with space travel that there was in the '60s, and this kind of sci-fi series isn't the brilliantly original concept that it once was.
However, we've got faith that this new series has the potential to be absolutely stunning. To win over a new generation who might find the older series a bit too retro, there are a few things that this new Star Trek MUST include.
Innovative Science And Technology
One of the most incredible things about the earlier incarnations of Star Trek was just how ahead of its time the show was. Since the original series, the show has conceived of gadgetry that eventually made the leap from science fiction to science fact: flip phones, tablets, translators, tricorders. Even concepts like transporters, warp drives and 3D printers for food (I mean, replicators) feel close to being reality. The franchise has always been at the cutting edge of technology (unless you include seat belts) and that's one of the things that made it so incredible. A new series needs to continue to create a vision of the future that feels futuristic, not just a throwback to classic sci-fi.
Star Trek wasn't just ahead of the curve when it came to gadgets. It also gave us a vision of a utopian future via human interaction. Watching Star Trek: The Original Series alongside shows of the time proves just how forward-thinking the writing was. The show has issues by modern standards — much has been made of Uhura as a glorified receptionist and the Ferengi now seem blatantly anti-Semitic — but compared to the majority of the shows they were up against, Star Trek: TOS is incredibly progressive.
Any new series needs to raise the diversity bar even further to live up to the legacy of broadcasting the first ever interracial kiss. One of the bigger issues with the later Star Trek series, especially Enterprise, has been that it doesn't push boundaries. Caucasian, heterosexual captains led spaceships and space stations populated by predominately heterosexual caucasians (and white-looking aliens). Only one Captain in all six series is female, and only one is black.
A new Star Trek series is the perfect vehicle to see some real representation for LGBTQ characters (an area where every previous series has fallen short), as well as race, age and gender diversity. Star Trek Beyond has already started to present a more diverse future, and that's something that needs to translate to the small screen as well.
Balance On Every Level
Balance should be a given for any show, but for an ensemble series in a huge universe like Star Trek it can be one of the most difficult things to get right. The original series is all about the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Spock represents the absence of emotion, McCoy is rather over emotional, and Kirk is caught between the two, resulting in a balanced trio. McCoy, though he may not get the credit he deserves, is a key part of the Kirk/Spock dynamic, and keeps them from falling too hard into Odd Couple tropes. As The Next Generation brought in a much bigger core crew, balance became about screen time and relationships. TNG's Captain wasn't the sole focus, making it easier for viewers to relate to one of the many main characters.
Finding a balance between action/adventure and character drama is key to the long-lasting appeal of the franchise. The best Star Trek episodes (and films) keep the characters and the deeper issues at the forefront, with explosions and fight scenes serving as a framework, not a focus. The new series has big shoes to fill and will need to find a way to balance character-driven plotlines, drama and action.
Fan Service (Without The Camp Factor)
After five decades of TV, movies, books, comics and games, it's impossible to make a new Star Trek without considering all the diehard fans of the old Star Trek. Attempting to make something without referencing the originals just doesn't show an understanding of how much the franchise's history contributes to its current success. One of the most impressive elements of the recent films is that they aren't afraid to get a little bit nostalgic, while knowing where to draw the line between fan service and campiness. Nothing would kill a new series faster than forgetting to cater to old fans while attempting to gain new ones.
The recent series of films reboots recall details that harken back to the original series without overdoing it. Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness still make sense to anyone who's never seen Star Trek but includes iconic elements (uniform colors, catchphrases, the reworking of Spock's death, and even an original actor in Leonard Nimoy). A reboot has to be more than a remake in order to attract a new audience, and the new series will need to capture the spirit of the earlier series without simply reproducing said spirit.
At its heart, Star Trek is a powerfully optimistic franchise which can be a tricky sell to a Hollywood currently wetting its pants over dark and gritty remakes. The franchise has always dealt with serious issues — pushing boundaries and breaking hearts with story arcs — but it does its best when reaching for the stars figuratively as well as literally.
For many, Star Trek is summed up in one of Spock's best-known lines: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one." Star Trek is a franchise constantly searching for the good in others, seeking out the unknown and assuming that more often than not, new discoveries will be beneficial and positive. Even when Star Trek crews encounter hostile beings, there are lessons to be learned. Those lessons aren't always subtle (in fact, several make after-school specials seem delicately crafted), but they are always earnest, and always erring on the side of optimism.
Star Trek also manages to bring its optimism to bleak and frightening scenarios, evoking inspiration, not sentimentality. This intent is one of the most important elements for a new series to get right. Though, ideally, without pandering — or just adding a furry crew member.
So, What Can We Expect?
There is a lot of pressure on a new series to get things right, especially with the latest films doing so well and with the cult fandom surrounding the franchise being as rabid as it is.
Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller are involved in the project, both having been a part of previous Star Trek successes. Kurtzman was a writer for Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness, while Fuller wrote for both Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Nicholas Meyer, the man who directed Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, will also be consulting on the show. Although Roddenberry sadly passed away in '91, there have been hints that recently recovered discs from his home contained ideas that will be incorporated into the new series. If anyone understands the deepest appeal of Star Trek, it's these guys.
As for the premise itself, that's still shrouded in mystery. We do know that it's not going to be a Next Generation remake and it will have entirely new characters. Rumors place the show pre-TNG on the Star Trek timeline, but the structure could also involve the show jumping between time periods and settings from season to season. We might also see some more graphic violence, nudity and profanity than fans are used to since the show is being developed for CBS's video on demand service.
All of which means that there is plenty to look forward to for a whole new generation of viewers. While many of us have enjoyed exploring the Star Trek universe for years, this is the perfect entry point for a huge number of new fans who want to get into the adventure. A great team, a fresh premise, the promise of something different, and a hugely successful film franchise to back it up: Star Trek at 50 years old looks as though it will definitely live long and prosper!