Star Trek is making a long awaited return to TV in 2017. In an announcement late last year, CBS, who owns the TV rights to Trek, revealed that Star Trek reboot co-writer and Sleepy Hollow co-creator Alex Kutzman would be developing the new show for CBS’ streaming service All Access, and last week it was revealed that Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller would be the showrunner. Almost immediately, Trekkies everywhere began to speculate what the new show might look like, what it will be about, and maybe which of our favorite aliens will pop up along the way.
The bigger question, though – and the preoccupation of the following piece – is how Fuller and his team might improve or change Star Trek for the year 2017 and beyond. TV has changed a lot since Enterprise signed off for the final time in 2005, ending 18 years of ongoing voyages, and in order to stand out in a world with over 400 ongoing series airing annually, Star Trek will be waging a very tough fight for the attention of the general audience. So what can the new Trek do to get that attention?
Below are eight humble suggestions on how the new Star Trek can separate itself from what’s been done before Trek-wise, and how it can stake its claim as the first great Trek of the 21st century.
It should go without saying that a Star Trek show should be about exploring strange new worlds and seeking new life and new civilizations, but it bears repeating. The main point of Star Trek, as enshrined in the immortal words of its opening narration, is to keep moving forward, keep finding new things, new people, and to expand the frontiers of knowledge and discovery. “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is another key expression of Star Trek’s mandate, in a universe of unlimited possibilities, anything is possible, and the writers should always push themselves to test the limits of understanding whether that’s scientific or philosophical.
Now that’s not to say that Star Trek is purely about physical movement; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes place on a space station, but it is some of the best written Trek in modern times. Conversely, Star Trek: Voyager took place in an area of space where no Federation ship had been to before, but the stories all felt like they were mostly remakes of better stories done on other Trek series. Star Trek Into Darkness, meanwhile, doubled down on going where Trek had gone before; not only was it the third Trek film in a row about saving Earth from a revenge-obsessed villain, but it was retread of an earlier beloved film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
And since we’re leaving things behind, how many times has the Holodeck malfunctioned? How often has the transporter caused some freakish, unintended accident? And how many times has time travel just sorta happened to the crew of an intrepid Starfleet vessel? Yes, these are all beloved Star Trek tropes, but if the new series is going to break out in a crowded and diverse TV landscape, it won’t be able to lean on all the things that Trek has done in the past. To stand out, the writers will have to boldly go deeper into their own imaginations and explore some new ideas.
Pick a Timely Theme
In the 1960s, Star Trek presented a hopeful face of peace and understanding while exploring the stars, as the real life dawn of the space age occurred against the backdrop of civil and geopolitical strife. In the ’80s, Star Trek: The Next Generation reflected corporate culture with the captain as CEO, a ship built for comfort, and a galaxy enjoying détente between two great super-powers. Deep Space Nine, meanwhile, embraced the grayness of the 90s, trusted institutions became suspect, power became corrupting, and new unimaginable threats began to emerge. Even Into Darkness, in its way, dared to hold up a mirror to the world in story that saw a small cadre of cynics giving in to fear and hatred in the name of protecting society. So what the new series needs is a firm grasp on what it’s trying to say about modern society at present. How does one address the threat of religious extremism, or income inequality, or political partisanship in a Star Trek context?
Make it About the Next “Next Generation”
When Gene Roddenberry set The Next Generation 100 years after the original series, it allowed him to play with the ideas and concepts of the franchise without having to worry too much about drawing straight lines from the things he had established 20 years earlier. Uniforms were changed, rules were updated, roles were remade, technology was advanced and the Klingons made peace with the Federation, and that’s just the way it was. Putting a century between past stories and the current ones means unshackling yourself (to a degree) from continuity, and more importantly it stops the creators from borrowing too heavily specific plot points and characters. Freedom, in other words, is the immediate byproduct of setting the show further in the future. Defy expectations by immediately making sure that there are none.
Much like Point #1, “Boldly Go…,” this one has to deal with a simple reality of modern television: TV in the year 2015 looks nothing like TV in the year 1966 or 1987. Heck, it even looks nothing like TV in 2005, the last time a Star Trek series aired new episodes weekly. Enterprise realized too late that the same fans that were enjoying Lost and Battlestar Galactica had developed a TV viewing palate that had become too sophisticated for a more procedural Star Trek. They wanted more intricate stories, more complex characters, and more challenging ideas than the simple morality plays and/or action adventure stories that standard Trek could offer.
To that end, what could a new Star Trek look like in terms of how it tells the stories it wants to tell? Or to put it another way: what does Star Trek look like in the era of streaming and binge watching? Might the show open up the bridge to more characters beyond the typical seven or eight crew members who become the focus of a Trek series? Perhaps the show needn’t focus on the senior officers of the ship, and instead highlight the junior officers always typically working in the background. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a Starfleet crew at all. And what of the story structure? Instead of 13 episodes with 13 different worlds explored, an entire season could focus on the exploration of one planet, or one area of space. Modern TV viewers are expecting to be challenged, so the new series will have to set an immediate tone that this is going to be unlike any Trek fans and viewers have seen before.
If I told you we were “synchronizing the transporter’s annular confinement beam to the warp core frequency,” would you have any idea what the hell I was talking about? Exactly. Even in the context in which it was spoken, it sounds like gibberish, like a made up series of words all meant to resemble something scientific. Star Trek sometimes drowns in techno-babble, which is one of the many reasons why Battlestar Galactica was such a breath of fresh air, it didn’t rely on making you know the mechanics of the engine room, you just knew the ship could go faster than light.
Star Trek has always enjoyed putting the science in science fiction, and a certain amount of fun can be had in embracing the wonders and curiosities of the universe in a scientifically literate way (just ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson), but the problem is when characters start sound like they’re reading from the Star Trek Technical Manual rather than talking like people do. Look at this way: the scientific jargon spoken on The Big Bang Theory is actually fairly accurate, but does that get in the way of the show being funny? Hardly. In both cases, we’re talking about characters that are scientifically literate, but in Star Trek’s case, there’s got to be a better way to show that literacy that than just shoving the trimetric fracture through the eighteenth dimensional gradient.
This has honestly never been a problem on Star Trek, as the Original Series – with its inclusion of an African-American woman and an Asian-American man in the main crew stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the lily-white TV casts of the 1960s – can attest. The new Trek should bear that legacy in mind by boldly diversifying the cast. Trek has yet to have a main character of Indian or Southeast Asian origin before, nor have they had an Arab or Muslim character in the main cast either. One of the biggest oversights in Trek history though has to be that fact that they haven’t had an LGBT member of the crew yet. Aside from the less-than-stellar episode of Next Generation “The Outcast” and some “lipstick lesbianism” on DS9, Star Trek hasn’t done much in the way of offering positive representation for LGBT identifying people; considering how forward thinking the show has been in the past, that seems like a huge gap in Trek’s inclusiveness bonafides.
Humans Can be Interesting Too
It’s a well known fact of Trek lore that Roddenberry had to fight to make sure that Mr. Spock stayed on the bridge of the Enterprise; NBC didn’t “get” the character, and they thought the show could get by without him. Au contraire. Roddenberry realized that an alien character, with his foreign look and foreign customs, was an ideal way to comment on human eccentricities and test the audience’s assumptions about our own race. As fate would have it, Spock, as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, became arguably the most beloved aspect of the show. Including a character who could comment so explicitly on the human condition became a hallmark of every Trek cast, from Next Generation’s Mr. Data to DS9’s Odo to Voyager’s Holographic Doctor; but in the process, though, Star Trek writers seemed to lose another thread – that human characters can remark on the human condition, too.
Part of this was owed to Roddenberry’s epiphany during the development of Next Generation that future humans get along to an absurdly timid degree, but another part of it is that the procedural nature of Trek didn’t allow for much personal growth. Times on TV have changed (as stated above), and even the most procedural of shows serialize some elements, but that only partially fixes Trek’s human problem. Look at the Original Series: Kirk has brash, hands-on, and defensive; McCoy was cranky, world-weary, and quick tempered; and Chekov was always ticking everyone off by relating everything back to Russia’s contributions to world (and galactic) history.
More than that, the crew of the first Enterprise didn’t always agree, even without alien influence. They all had different backgrounds, experiences and ideas, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t all get along, solve problems and explore space peaceably. Yes, we all want to believe in a future where we’ve put war, famine, pestilence, greed, and pettiness behind us, but that doesn’t mean that the humans of the future are going to become Melba-toast cardboard cutouts that can all sermonize about the Prime Directive. Homer Simpson once told Flanders he was afraid to be human because “humans are obnoxious, sometimes. Humans hate things.” But that’s what the future of Star Trek looks like sometimes: a ship full of Ned Flanderses.
Throw out Roddenberry’s Rules
Wait, wait, you may be saying, how can we throw out the rulebook governing Star Trek by the guy that created Star Trek? Simple, the Star Trek writers that came afterward all struggled with a simple idea: how do you create conflict in a world where none exists? Hence the rationale for splitting DS9 by Starfleet and Bajoran crews, or Voyager’s combined Starfleet and Maquis crew. Heck, Enterprise was a conceit by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga that the future arranged by Roddenberry in the 24th century shackled them in terms of storytelling.
That’s not to say that Roddenberry wasn’t a genius; he created a show with a concept so durable that it’s been utilized now in six series, 13 movies, hundreds of novels, and dozens of games (not to mention all those fan films and webseries). But much in the same way that George Lucas massaged Episodes IV, V, and VI of Star Wars with non-stop tinkering that watered down the original tone of the film, Roddenberry added layers of oddity to the Star Trek mechanics for no apparent reason. For example, all starships had to have two – and only two – nacelles. There was also to be no space pirates in the Star Trek universe, and no matter what, Starfleet uniforms could not have pockets. Granted, some of those rules, like the pirate one, were meant to keep the writers creative, but there was really no possibility ever that someone in the future might have a need to put something in their pocket?
It would behoove any future Star Trek writer to keep it simple. In 1966, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a world where human beings left behind ignorance, prejudice and want in order to head out into the galaxy together as one people, and not as a loose coalition of nation states united in only self-interest. We went to the stars to learn and explore, not to exploit and enforce. It was about being the best we can be, but that doesn’t mean being perfect.